Q&A: Diplo On The Joys Of Dancehall, Kanye West, Social Work, Owning A Label, And Twitter
"For me, Twitter is like my diary. I hope someone saves it so I don't have to write it all again when I'm 75."
Where do we even start with someone like Diplo? Wes Pentz is a DJ at his core, but he's also a producer (having worked with Lil Jon, Kanye West, and most notoriously M.I.A.), the founder of left-field record label Mad Decent, and one half of dancehall production pair Major Lazer. Back in the mid-aughts, he and fellow Hollertronix cohort/Philly local Low Budget adopted an attitude of doing whatever the heck they wanted, just as long as it sounded interesting and made people dance. From their first mixtape Never Scared to their sweat-box dance parties in a small Ukranian club, the pair threw together '80s hits, rap, Baltimore club, reggae, rock, and everything from snap to baile funk side by side. It was something that wasn't necessarily done back then, but has been embraced by party DJs ever since, introducing crowds to different kinds of music they might not initially have wanted to hear. And that's what Diplo's still best at today.
He gets a lot of heat for it, too. While people once went to him for his unusual tastes in international and urban dance scenes -- something you can see from the Vybz Cartel or P.E.A.C.E. collaborations on his first solo album, Florida -- both the spotlight and the criticisms have grown much harsher with his budding fame. And, to be frank, we're not so sure he deserves it. At the end of the day, BlackBerry commercials and Alexander Wang ads aside, Diplo's Mad Decent label is still something we'll turn to to hear music from the middle of nowhere (or our own backyards) that would probably go unheard otherwise. We chatted with the DJ about life in L.A., Major Lazer's upcoming sophomore album (catch the group at Terminal 5 Saturday night as part of Downtown Records' anniversary party), his involvement in Heaps Decent (a music initiative for underprivileged kids), and "faking it until you make it."
How does having a background in anthropology help you as far as finding artists to work with on Mad Decent? Is it just a joke to you when people question your motives or call you a culture-mongerer at this point?
Yes it is, to me. I'm working on production for a TV show with the Travel Channel about my experiences, and for at least a day the working title was Culture Vulture, just to show how far gone I am past people's prejudices against my work. But it's not like Mad Decent is some kind of grant-based label that takes trips to the volcanoes of New Guinea. Most of the "world" artists I connect with, I meet through SoundCloud or YouTube, and they just hit me up because I'm sort of a catalyst to find context for them in a lot of ways.
Major Lazer seems like one of the projects where it's easier to avoid those criticisms, if only because Jamaica has such a large output of music every year. Were you planning to make more than a track or two from your studio time down there? How did the album come together?
I think, also, Jamaica is probably as absorbent of a culture that there is in the world. Everything there is a sort of refined lens. It's been like that for 100 years. Jamaica is already a more volatile, beautiful mess of culture mixing. It takes everything it comes in contact with and puts it through the machine . . . from doo-wop and jazz all the way to rock and hip-hop. You can trace Millie Small and the first stuff Chris Blackwell released to Prince Buster, Marley, Sean Paul, or Grace Jones, and see the roots. I find it confusing to explain Jamaican music unless you know the history of such a tiny island.
The Major Lazer project came just from dancehall always being a vehicle that existed past labels . . . from the Casio keyboard stuff to the synth-pop today. I took trips to India, and we even used country music. Dancehall is like the hybrid language they used on the signs in Blade Runner: It's completely allowed to do whatever it wants, unlike everything else that is constrained to labels. So we had a varied number of records, and the only thing that held the whole project together was "dancehall" artists and attitude . . . by just a string nonetheless. Over busy time, recording and producing and touring, I made trips to Jamaica and finished the record while trying to sell it to people.
The process is completely different this time, as we gained a lot of notoriety in Jamaica. We are lucky. Everything came together just by getting really drunk and thinking of concepts that should never work -- from using Tim & Eric to do the artwork and titles to the dancers. Yeah, I still don't know whats goin' on.
How have the artists involved reacted to their tracks becoming so big? Do they even care about the "scene" over here?
With regards to reggae artists, for them, the world is a "scene." While keeping profile in Jamaica is important, most of the currency is made in Germany, Europe in general, Japan, and anywhere there is a Caribbean diaspora. New York, Toronto, Miami, London. So they do care, and they pay a lot of attention to everything!
For me, I think that I don't care about anything but the way a record sounds. It has to sound like nothing else. I think all the people we work with really appreciate that. We had the best team ever on the two records -- future legends from NYC like Ricky Blaze to Kingston legends like Mr Vegas. We were super lucky to find a way to fit it all in.
What does Heaps Decent have in the works?
It's always working. Check out updates at www.heapsdecent.com. I'd love to find a lawyer or admin in the U.S.A. that could help us start one here, but social work is a full-time beast that I once was part of and I can't seem to figure out in the U.S.A. In Australia it was quite easy, and the team there is most important and amazing.
Your work with communities like that -- Heaps Decent, the block parties, and Favela on Blast -- all have a human element, a community focus, that always exists alongside music. Is that always an important part of your creative process? Are you working on anything else in that vein?
I don't really know anything else but music, I guess. Music is the thing that always drives what I'm interested in, like culture, fashion, art. I hope that I can do music in way that is still exciting for people in a few years, but I think I'm just trying to raise more money to make the craziest Enter The Void-esque film about culture and human experience. That's a bit off, but I've already started to assemble a team to work with me. Travel Channel is also trying to work with me to make something along those lines. I hope we can make it work.
Heaps Decent does the actual street work. I'm like an ambassador for that, but I'm better at preserving things through media. At least, I'm trying to. Just giving awareness is the main goal. People just know sounds a lot of the time, and don't even recognize the culture or the history. I take that for granted a lot and think en-masse audiences are smarter. They are definitely up for more styles and varied things now. I can attribute any of my success to that, but I try and keep a balance between being palatable and as progressive as possible.
How important is it to you to maintain a relationship with the urban youth locally? When you were in Philadelphia, you worked heavily with club locals like DJ Sega and Brick Bandits. Have you developed any similar relationships in L.A.?
In L.A. there are soooo many crazy things happening. The hip-hop scene in Cali is getting a lot of attention, from jerk to OFWGTKA to Berkley and Lil B. And then the Mexican and gay underground is just insane. You can pretty much be tuned into all of it by following the Mad Decent blog. I have been mostly busy getting everything running smooth for the label and the people that count on me, but you can definitely see the connection to the scene from our monthly parties, or by following Paul Devro. He's the label's heart and soul.
Is it ever strange for you to see yourself in BlackBerry commercials? Or to think about how far you've gone since those tiny, grimy Philly venues of the Hollertronix era? I mean, the Grammys . . .
I think every day can't get much weirder. From the Grammys, to being with some of the most important artists in Jamaica, to going to Cuba and hanging with Calle 13 in front of 200,0000 people, and then on to WMC. I almost feel like I can never catch up.
There are always weird things happening, like when I was in the studio with Kanye just trying to help the crew with some drums. Man, that team is great, and Kanye is a true king. I Twittered that I was in the studio with T-Pain and Mary Kate Olson drinking whiskey -- no one even gave that a RT, but it was true! Half the shit I say on Twitter is drunk hyperbole, half is real, half is me sitting on my phone, and the fourth half I can't even write or my battery died. But for me, it's like my diary. I hope someone saves it so I don't have to write it all again when I'm 75.
Do you struggle working with big corporate sponsors at all? For example, knowing that [Major Lazer dancer] Skerrit Bwoy isn't allowed at certain gigs because of his daggering.
No. No one really cares anymore, and at this point I'd just take what they give me 'til they can't. Not really tailoring anything else. A lot of time we used to get where we wanted to be, but we didn't really know where we were going. And now, I'm not sure where I am. All of our sponsors have been really great to us, though.
In a recent interview you mention that being picked up by a major label only really covers overhead for Mad Decent. And the Times did an interview with [Mad Decent artist] Maluca where she basically says she's in a BlackBerry commercial but can't afford to keep the free phone they gave her turned on. Do you imagine long-running success for most of the artists who come through your label when you sign them on?
Well, I definitely learned one thing over the last six years -- fake it 'til you make it. I think everyone thinks our scene is much more inflated then it might actually be. That's a blessing and curse. For Maluca, people might think that she can afford this beat or that thing, but really she's just in front of the camera. But yeah, we only make any of our capital from our live performances.
Any artists that want to sign with me, the first thing I say is that they don't need our label. We can't do anything from them that SoundCloud or Hypem or Pitchfork can't just by giving their shit away for free. If they really want to get down with us, it's because they want to really be part of this family that we have here. That and they want to learn from me or collaborate with our team or something. I can try and get them shows and give them a head start, but we aren't out here turning in Billboard-chart records. We are only trying to have as much fun and be as weird as possible. That being said, people still sign with me. God only knows why.
We are doing things to try and preserve our label and learn new things and still be relevant. For someone like Maluca, I see she's 1000 percent attitude and sex and a genuinely nice person and genuinely weird. She's winning. Rusko is someone I saw that was beyond the hype for dubstep. He's going to be growing and producing well past kids who move onto something new. Po Po . . . well, they are good at basketball and from Philly, so they win. I just love everyone on the label. Not one artist is competing for Beatport charts. I think that they are all different colonies of Kobalt from Battlestar Galactica.
I imagine the Mad Decent studio to be half dance party, half circus. What's
it like to work with friends?
Man, I can't get anything done over here.
We skimmed through your Twitter feed to try and get you to explain one of your stranger tweets. Let's do this recent one: "killer african bees r coming to get me."
There was a bee at my window, and I just kept thinking of that segment in Bowling for Columbine where the talk about the U.S. use of fear in the news. Then I thought about Wu-Tang. Then I went back to sleep.