The Friends of Diplo: A Report Card

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It's a bit hard to remember now that the entire world seems to be either on Diplo's dick or vehemently dismissing everything the guy has ever touched as opportunistic trash, but there was something truly exciting about Hollertronix's Never Scared mix when it first emerged. It should've been a total no-brainer: of course I want to hear Southern rap and 80s synthpop and dancehall and Baltimore club all smashed up and thrown together and turned into ADD dance-party insanity. But the idea seemed almost transgressive way, way back in 2003, when indie-rock was trying to decide between snoozy cardigan-music and coked-up dancepunk and only a few nobly-intentioned but clumsy instigators (Gold Chains immediately springs to mind) were attempting to invite black pop music to the party. Britpop dance-parties were dominating the indie-kid social network, and I was pretty deliriously happy to find out that anyone who would DJ at the Ottobar or wherever even knew who Trick Daddy was. And Never Scared was a pretty great DJ mix, fast and loose and well-mapped, its transitions and blends all close to impeccable. It was messy and slapdash, but it somehow came to represent an amorphous, omnivorous sort of musical worldview: there's a ton of fun shit out there to dance to, so let's find as much of it as possible. Enough people noticed it that Diplo, the better-looking and more production-minded of the two DJs, somehow ended up on Ninja Tune and released a pretty good album of downtempo DJ Shadow stuff, and then he crashed and burned in clubs across the country, trying to play Lil Jon beats when he was opening for RJD2. But then, slowly enough, the spazzed-up Hollertronix aesthetic won, at least in New York, and now we've got a million club nights dedicated to Southern rap and baile funk and whatever, and companies looking to tap into hip young demographics started sponsoring the fuck out of it, and a whole lot of people got extremely turned off by all the dilletantism, and now rap bloggers call me a hipster fag every time I talk about liking Juvenile more than Common. It's a brave new world.

For more than a year now, Diplo has been making noises about quitting DJing and devoting himself full-time to production. It's hard to take all that seriously; he's still making ridiculous money on the DJ circuit, and he's booked for a ton of dates. But it's an interesting progression; instead of just playing records, he wants to apply the same ideas to making his own. And so he's got the beginnings of a media empire going, and there's a stable of new artists working whatever connections they have with the man to go as far as possible. Considering the amount of time it takes an album to go from planning stages to release date, that means that last year's zeitgeist is going to mean a flood of releases right around now, and so now seems as good a time as any to take stock of everyone who's attached themselves to Mr. Wesley Pentz. (We'll leave out established genre legends like Bun B and DJ Marlboro and DJ Technics, all of whom have benefitted from the Hollertronix aesthetic but who haven't ever been influenced by it.)

M.I.A. I don't know if she's still his girlfriend or what, but M.I.A. remains the yardstick by which all other Friends of Diplo are judged. It helps that her aesthetic was probably close to being fully-formed by the time she and Diplo met, and it also helps that Arular, which is a totally great album, doesn't have a whole lot of input from Diplo. In a way, M.I.A. represents a more organic, cohesive version of the Hollertronix aesthetic: the Miami bass and dancehall and new wave are all there, but they're all parts of a whole, not disparate genres to be smashed into each other for maximum attention-grabbing impact. She's on some Neneh Cherry shit, and she makes it all sound easy. But it should be noted that Piracy Funds Terrorism, Vol. 1, her mixtape collaboration with Diplo, remains the best thing that either one of them has ever done; I'd like to know when the fuck Vol. 2 is coming out. Right now, she's being denied entry to the U.S. on some bullshit, but it was probably time for her to take a break, anyway; oversaturation is never a good thing. A

Voice review: Simon Reynolds on M.I.A.'s Arular
Voice review: Douglas Wolk on M.I.A. and Diplo's Piracy Funds Terrorism, Vol. 1

Kano. Kano's connection to Diplo is tenuous at best: Diplo produced one of the better tracks on Home Sweet Home and opened Kano's big New York show last year. But I think there's more of a connection there. Kano is an artist who belongs to a scene but somehow transcends it, and Home Sweet Home, despite being the only grime album I still play with any regularity, never settles for being straight grime; it brings the metal guitars and Latin piano and house synth-squiggles along too. Kano has his own organic polyglot thing going, and Diplo should maybe wake up and realize that he has a record label and that Kano still has no U.S. contract. Let's make this happen. A-

Plastic Little. Plastic Little is a mixed-race Philly joke-rap group, so they should be terrible, but they manage to vault past every other chump in the gallery-rap world because (1) they can (sort of) rap and (2) they're funny; I especially like "Drizhollering" where the dude is trying to impress a girl and so he starts singing "A Whole New World." Their beats are mostly Casio bounce like Grand Buffet, and I can always listen to that. Their first full-length is finally coming out in a month or so, and I have the promo, but the cusses are edited out, which makes it pretty much unlistenable. Diplo produces one track, and he flips the same sample from PJ Harvey's "Down By the Water" that he used on his "Still Tippin'" remix. It's still awesome. B

Spank Rock. Spank Rock is a dancey rap group from Philly, but the two main kids are both from Baltimore originally, so they always get described as "Baltimore club music," which they are not at all. The rapper in the group sounds and looks exactly like Busy Bee in Wild Style. He holds the mic the same, dresses the same, wears glasses, everything. It's really weird. Their album, YoYoYoYoYo, is decent-enough self-conscious party-rap, but something about these guys feels really calculated and off to me, like they recognized a market for ironic booty-rap and exploited it. You could probalby say the same thing for everyone else on this list, and I haven't yet fully articulated this feeling, but I'm pretty suspicious of this group, both their marketing and their motives. C

Bondo de Role. This is the first group on Diplo's Mad Decent label, three wealthy Brazilian art-kids who do fake baile funk over really recognizable samples like "Man in a Box" or the Grease soundtrack. I don't like baile funk all that much in the first place; the shrill and clumsy rapping and never-changing drum patters put it firmly in "interesting curio" territory for me. So I can really do without joke-baile funk, even though I'll always love the riff to "Man in a Box." D

Low Budget. This is the other guy in Hollertronix. I wonder if he's really annoyed that everyone pays attention to Diplo and not him. Still, he's partly responsible for that Bmore Gutter Music bullshit. I should probably go ahead and listen to the CD before I pass judgement, but fuck that; he gets an F on general principles. Stop swagger jacking!

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