It’s 7:30 a.m. on a November morning and Diplo, the DJ alias of Wesley Pentz, is en route to an L.A. recording studio. There, he’ll finish producing new songs for Beyoncé and Britney Spears. Three weeks later, he’ll remove himself from the high-powered side of the music industry and travel back to his hometown of Edgewater, Fla., to perform the first of two shows at Edgewater Ranch. The second of the shows sees him headlining the inaugural Close to the Edge Music and Art Festival – a large leap in status from the days when Pentz would throw Hollertronix parties he once described as “like Girls Gone Wild with dudes dressed up as Osama [bin Laden]” in a small Ukrainian working men’s club in Philadelphia.
Diplo’s headlining status at a festival that bills itself as showcasing “local to global” sounds is appropriate. Today, he is a worldwide tastemaker with a staunch passion for spotlighting the local. When he or his record label, Mad Decent, profile an individual or a municipal music scene, the world’s media takes notice. Artists like M.I.A. (with whom he was nominated for the Record of the Year Grammy in 2008 for producing the singer’s smash single, “Paper Planes”) and Spank Rock, and sub-genres like Brazilian baile funk and Angolan Kuduro, have all benefited from Diplo’s nod of approval. His record label biography anoints him “a working model for the truly 21st century artist.” But if Diplo’s ascent has left behind a trail of vivid and colorful sounds, it also begs questions about the ethics of regional music fetishism and the role of a DJ in an Internet era defined by quick and freely accessible downloads.
The aura surrounding Diplo has been boosted by a personal mythology cloaked in playful obfuscation. He was born in Tupelo, Miss., but grew up in Florida. His debut solo album from 2004 is titled Florida; an early 12-inch single states it was recorded at “Indian Mound Fish Camp, New Smyrna, Florida.” It’s a bait shop and campsite where, he says, his father works and his family “make our money.” During an early e-mail interview that took place when he released the 2003 single, “Newsflash,” I asked him about his musical background. He wrote back, “My granddad was a famous harmonica player in Florida. He was blind after the Korean War ... but he killed it with the harmonica.” Asked about the anecdote today, he laughs as if he’s never heard anything so absurd. “No, I don’t know who told you that,” he says. “My grandfather was psychopathic.”
Likewise, local rumors suggest he was caught stealing records from Rollins College radio station WPRK, then trying to sell them to Park Ave CDs at that time. He denies it, but adds that his friend, Dewey, did get wrapped up in that. “He got caught shoplifting from Downtown Disney and went to jail; he got fired from his job at the House of Blues.” Then, Diplo mischievously adds, “I used to shoplift from Best Buy on Park Avenue. I stole everything, the PlayStation, mad CDs. If you had a razor blade, you could cut off the little scanner tags on the back and put it in your jacket or bag. So I would go to Winn-Dixie, steal a razor blade and then go to Best Buy and just steal everything.”
Orlando didn’t just offer Diplo illicit kicks – it gave him a bountiful arena in which to pay his dues in the dusty world of vinyl record collecting. While living somewhere “off Dean Road,” he’d hit up flea markets at 7 a.m. on the weekend, then venture out to a record store in Crescent City. “The small towns all around Florida have crazy records,” Diplo says.
“I used to sell a lot of good psychedelic rock that came from Florida,” he says. “There’s a record from out of Daytona Beach, a 45, called The Little Black Egg. It’s like garage punk by the Nightcrawlers.” He sold a copy of it for $400. Another niche came from selling disco records to Puerto Rican DJs who had moved from New York to Orlando to retire. “I used to make my living buying and selling records,” he says.
Immersing himself in “old, used, weird shit,” helped Diplo cultivate a DJ’s ravenous ear for new sounds. It’s a skill he’s since flipped into a career that has surpassed the notion of a DJ as someone who simply plays songs, while still adhering to the role’s inherent vow to pitch new sounds to the world. If you track popular culture’s fleeting musical trends over the last five years, you’re in large part following a Diplo playlist. Back in the early 2000s, his Hollertronix parties and mixtapes, run in conjunction with Philadelphia DJ Low Budget, gleefully smashed together tracks by a rag-tag bunch: footnote Atlanta rapper Miracle, indie rock darlings TV on the Radio, Timbaland-produced Missy Elliot instrumentals, assertive ’80s femmes Klymaxx. Along with future Gnarls Barkley producer Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album, which meshed together a cappella tracks from Jay-Z’s The Black Album with music sampled from the Beatles’ The White Album, Diplo’s work helped popularize the concept of the mash-up in the mainstream.
With his profile boosted, Diplo jubilantly hopped around and helped shine light on scenes yet to rise to national interest. In 2005, he penned a column for an overseas music magazine about the rising Southern rap scene. Of Slim Thug, who was just about to sign a deal with the Neptunes’ record label, he wrote: “The music sounds like a big band where the drummer is ten feet tall backing a Japanese monster comedy from the ’50s, where monster Slim steps on Nissans and then Thugga repeats the chorus 16 times after each verse in a Houston fashion so you don’t forget [it] no matter how thowed you might be ... ” It’s prose propelled by the unfettered enthusiasm of a fan. Quickly, Diplo’s journey took a sojourn in Brazil and its salacious baile funk rap scene, Baltimore’s club music movement, London’s grime kids, Jamaica’s dancehall culture via Diplo’s Major Lazer project with DJ Switch, and New Orleans bounce artists like Sissy Nobby and Big Freedia. His label’s latest release is Blow Your Head, a dubstep compilation focusing on the dark, cavernous electronic sounds radiating from London’s inner cities. Next stop, he predicts, will be mumbaton: “It’s like reggaeton but is more house music, almost.” After that, he says he’ll concentrate on finishing up a book of haiku poems. (He couldn’t be coaxed into reciting any of them.)
Diplo’s discography – whether recorded or curated – suggests the instincts of a musical magpie, constantly flitting around in search of fresh stimulation. Each stage of his migration, he says, is inspired by the ideal of “breaking new records – which I’ve been doing since the beginning with Hollertronix.” His mission has been assisted by the ease of accessing music via the Internet: You don’t need to risk a trip to a Rio de Janeiro slum to experience the high-strung, frenzied sounds of baile funk. You can simply download Diplo’s Favela On Blast mixtape and revel in the vicarious kicks.
“The audience today is so [much] more open-minded than it [once] was,” Diplo says. “Kids love the underground. If you told me a kid like Rusko would be playing dubstep to 3,000 people every night across the U.S., I’d have said you’re crazy. But that’s what happened.”
Rusko, a 25-year-old producer from the North of England, is one of many artists who have benefited from Diplo’s patronage. But the merits of the quick blast of media interest and accompanying flurry of hipster fans that follow a recommendation by a tastemaker can put a long-term strain on an organically sprouted music scene. A generation of Bay Area rappers are still struggling with the shackles of the hyphy tag after that local scene found itself the focus of the world’s attention thanks to songs like E-40’s “Tell Me When To Go” and the subculture’s vivid paraphernalia of sideshows and ghost-ridden cars. Erk tha Jerk, an upcoming rapper from Richmond, Calif., says that after witnessing established artists attempt to hitch a ride on the hyphy bandwagon, “I think I cried.” With national interest quickly moving on, Erk says it’s made it harder for young artists to establish careers based on their own virtues. The hyphy shackle still smarts. A brief spell in the spotlight can resemble a smash-and-grab at the expense of a small scene’s welfare.
For his part, Diplo insists that his motives are musically philanthropic and creatively inquisitive, not financial and self-serving. Of his penchant for airing out fresh sounds and styles, he says, “I think it’s my job, as a DJ. I always try and play new music for people, definitely.” There’s no ulterior intention behind highlighting a song or artist – “stumbles” is the word he invokes to describe how he comes across new music. Gorky, from the Brazilian band Bonde do Role, says his band released a record on Mad Decent after a DJ friend of theirs happened to pass a demo CD Diplo’s way – although by that point a curious Diplo was already asking around for the name of a group he’d heard “mixing baile funk with grunge music.” Bonde do Role’s new album will be released on the record label Domino, but Gorky says they’ll continue to work with Mad Decent.
Other artists back up this model of collaboration without collusion. In an interview before the release of her debut album, M.I.A. recalled her first meeting with Diplo: “I was at a club in London called Fabric and he was DJing there. He was playing my song, “Galang,” when I walked in. It was like we were destined to hook up.” (Maluca, a current Mad Decent signing, tells a similarly serendipitous story in her biography, except this time it’s a Manhattan karaoke bar where she and Diplo met.)
Today’s agenda of producing for Britney and Beyoncé is a financial and creative chasm away from the niche music that defines the Mad Decent roster.
“It’s hard to market this stuff,” says Diplo, sounding genuinely disappointed. “You can’t just go out there and take the music.” He talks proudly about helping Baltimore’s DJ Blaqstarr and Rye Rye clock more than one million YouTube views for the video for “Shake It to the Ground,” which cost $2,000 to make, and facilitating New Orleans bounce artist Big Freedia’s show in New York City. “We try to do our best,” he says of Mad Decent’s mentality. In many ways, Diplo is still trading in “weird shit” – he’s just no longer selling to a strictly local audience.
As Diplo prepares to park and enter the recording studio, he asks for a final question. Serial platinum-selling producers have exacting schedules, after all. The question is a simple one: “What’s the biggest misconception people have about you?” His answer elicits some sort of a Diplo truism – whether you take it as being deliberately contrary, self-deprecating, candidly honest or showing an innate understanding of the power, potential and limits of a DJ’s skilled ear.
“That, um, I’m talented,” he says. “I’m really not. I’m faking it.”
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