With Usher, DJ Mars brought Atlanta culture to Las Vegas

Longtime Atlanta DJ talks about working with Usher ahead of Super Bowl.
Clark Atlanta alumnus Marshall Thomas, known as DJ Mars, poses for a photograph showing the plaque he obtained for the last residency show he performed with Usher in Las Vegas. DJ Mars has been Usher’s collaborator for over three decades.
Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Clark Atlanta alumnus Marshall Thomas, known as DJ Mars, poses for a photograph showing the plaque he obtained for the last residency show he performed with Usher in Las Vegas. DJ Mars has been Usher’s collaborator for over three decades. Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

DJ Mars is a Clark Atlanta University alumnus through and through. On a sunny Wednesday afternoon in the Summerhill neighborhood, the school’s flag marks the front of his black home. Inside, he’s wearing the school’s hat, along with a Falcons jersey, red and black just like the colors of his alma mater.

For the 50-year-old DJ, Clark Atlanta is where his hip-hop dreams came true. As a junior in 1994, he booked his first gig with a major artist: becoming the touring DJ for Usher’s self-titled debut album. Usher was only 15 at the time, but DJ Mars knew he’d be a star. He likened the then-teenage singer to Michael Jackson during his Jackson 5 era.

“The kid could dance, he was a good-looking kid, he could dress,” said DJ Mars, whose real name is Marshall Thomas. “He was the package. It was like if you saw a basketball player in high school and then you saw him in college, you knew that he was going to be a star.”

Fast forward roughly 30 years later: Mars wrapped his stint as the house DJ for Usher’s Las Vegas residency at Dolby Live, and Usher is slated to perform during halftime at Sunday’s Super Bowl in Las Vegas. Although DJ Mars won’t be performing with Usher this time, he’ll be happily watching from the stands and reflecting on the growth of the artist.

“It’s dope to see,” he said. “I’m seeing my homeboy win. He came here in the same way I did and look what he turned into. It’s ridiculously inspirational because I can say we were in class together on some level.”

Legendary Atlanta DJ Marshall Thomas, aka DJ Mars, was Usher's house DJ throughout the second leg of the singer's Las Vegas Residency. Photo courtesy of DJ Mars

Credit: Courtesy of DJ Mars

icon to expand image

Credit: Courtesy of DJ Mars

Hip-hop dreams

Usher and DJ Mars are both Atlanta transplants: Usher from Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Mars from Springfield, Massachusetts. The latter arrived to Atlanta because of his love for Clark Atlanta. After seeing the films of Morehouse graduate Spike Lee (who took courses at Clark Atlanta), Mars wanted to make his own. He attended Clark Atlanta as a communications major with hopes of creating content for television and film.

But he didn’t know that his childhood passion for being a disc jockey would start a life of its own.

He was born in 1973, the same year as hip-hop. At 9, he bought his first record: 1982′s “Planet Rock” by Afrika Bambaataa and Soul Sonic Force.

“The soundtrack to my life has been hip-hop — everything from the Cold Crush Brothers to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five to the Treacherous Three. That was my soundtrack to my youth,” Mars said. “Hip-hop back then was a neighborhood thing. I just gravitated toward the older guys who were DJs and the graffiti artists. They were the coolest ones to me. I just followed that path.”

At Clark Atlanta, Mars and his friend and collaborator DJ Trauma had their first gig playing the hottest songs in the school’s cafeteria. Every Thursday during dinner, the pair would play the clean version of songs from the likes of Uncle Luke, Naughty by Nature, Geto Boys and TLC. They were later booked for parties around campus.

Mars became so popular that he caught the attention of Shanti Das, who served as the national promotions director for LaFace Records.

Usher performs during one of his early promo tours for his self-titled debut LP in 1994.
(Courtesy of Shanti Das)

Credit: Handout

icon to expand image

Credit: Handout

“Mars had been doing his thing around Atlanta and doing a lot on campus, and I just saw something in Mars. He was just a nice young man, well-mannered but good at his craft,” Das said. “I wanted to be able to give him a shot because I thought that Usher needed somebody who was also young and on the come up. They could both complement one another.”

DJ Mars admits that the tour wasn’t sexy. They’d perform in malls, album release parties and smaller venues. However, he quickly noted how well Usher was received, although he was a new artist.

Mars recalls seeing him interviewed by national magazines like Vibe, the Source, Ebony and Essence, and noted how he was suddenly hanging out with big stars like Faith Evans, Jodeci, Biggie Smalls and Sean “Diddy” Combs. “It was almost like he was a well-respected rookie coming into the league and he was around Jordan, Kobe, Shaq and Lebron,” Mars said, “and they welcomed him with open arms.”

Atlanta to Vegas

That promotional tour led to work as an in-demand DJ for huge R&B acts. Since then, he’s worked with Ciara, Keri Hilson, Kelis, Ne-Yo, Monica and more.

“By the time I started to tour with all of them, I was a household name in the club scene (in Atlanta), and people knew what I was doing. [Sometimes], I got hired because someone from the team saw me on stage,” he recalls. “Kelis’ manager saw me on stage with Monica and said what you do for Monica, I want you to do for Kelis. I was on tour in Vienna, Austria, with Kelis when Ciara’s manager emailed me and said I want you to go on tour with her.”

He eventually reconnected with Usher during Mary J. Blige’s Strength of a Woman Festival in 2022. Backstage, the old friends caught up. A week later, Mars got the call about performing for second run of his My Way residency in Las Vegas.

Clark Atlanta alumni Marshall Thomas, known as DJ Mars, poses for a photograph showing the plaque he obtained for the last residency show he performed with Usher in Las Vegas. DJ Mars has been Usher’s collaborator for over three decades.
Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

icon to expand image

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Usher started the first round of shows in 2021 at Caesar’s Palace. The second run began in 2022 at Park MGM’s Dolby Live, which ended last December. Mars also performed during Usher’s Paris shows last year. For him, Usher’s iconic residency helped increase the demand for Black artists in Las Vegas. Following the end of Usher’s residency, acts like Jodeci, Toni Braxton, Mariah Carey and Wu-Tang Clan have announced Las Vegas residencies, the latter being the first hip-hop act to have a theater residency there.

At Usher’s final show of the residency — his 100th, sold-out concert in the city ― Mars became more than just the house DJ. He was the opening act, with an energy so vivacious that it felt like he was actually performing on stage instead of at his booth. Mars’ resounding voice throughout his set creates a party even before the main act appears on stage.

Today, Mars is as busy as ever. Days after he wrapped the Las Vegas residency, Mars toured with Monica in Europe. Days after that, he was in Australia and New Zealand with Keri Hilson. After he heads to Las Vegas for Super Bowl festivities, he’ll leave again to tour overseas with Keri Hilson.

Mars loves his schedule because he loves what he does and how his sets makes audiences feel.

He’s most excited to be a viewer at Sunday’s Super Bowl halftime show and see how the songs will be programmed. After all, it’s the job he did for a teenage Usher and, years later, the music veteran Usher.

“I’m a part of this historic part of his career. When it’s all said and done, and he looks back and they itemized the important parts of his career, that was a piece of it.”


ON TELEVISION

Super Bowl LVIII

6:30 p.m. Feb. 11 on CBS (a kid-friendly telecast will air on Nickelodeon). The game also will be available to stream on Paramount+.

About the Author