Patrick Sisson - Writer, Journalist, Cultural Documentarian, Music Lover

Interview: Diplo

July 26, 2010


“If you rated someone’s popularity by how much hate they get from journalists, I’m fucking super-popular.”

Wesley Pentz– better known as DJ, producer, and Mad Decent label boss Diplo– dropped that quote near the conclusion of this interview, which might suggest he’s got a problem with the media. But considering the breadth of his activities, from recruiting artists like Po Po and Bosco Delrey to making new Major Lazer tracks, Diplo seems more interested in his own creative projects and being part of the media instead of wasting time worrying about it.

“I’d love to take a year off to do strictly film work,” he says. “That seems to reach a lot more people. When I do music, it’s got a huge voice and gets to people immediately. Film reaches so many more people, especially when you do a film about music. You can actually get out there and understand the fundamentals of what’s going on in these different scenes.”

Speaking over Skype from Taiwan, Diplo appeared to be multi-tasking as usual. He said he was performing at a club called Luxy the following night, but spent the day at the studios of Apple Daily, the company that made the bizarre and popular animated Tiger Woods news report video, to get his own video made for a collaboration with Lil Jon. We spoke to him about building a label, the evolution of baile funk, and why he doesn’t care about M.I.A.’s politics.

Pitchfork: One of the founders of VICE said there’s now a universality of youth culture, that the internet and media can bring together kids from the middle of Kansas and Italy who have similar interests. But is there also a flip side to this kind of globalization, the homogenization of these different scenes?
Diplo: I can give you two examples. I just did a compilation of dubstep for Mad Decent. Not the best or the truest, but the stuff I like. It’s so diverse: stuff like Rusko that’s straightforward or the stuff like that’s more hardcore, like this Canadian kid Datsik. I wrote in the liner notes about the dubstep scene and how it had grown simultaneously across the world, because kids were doing the same forms and sharing the same techniques at the same time.
But you can see, even in London, there are like six different kinds of dubstep. There’s the emo vibe, the hardcore vibe, and the more techno-y vibe. It’s one of the first scenes that grew globally and came up around the world at the same time. You have kids from Israel, New Zealand, there are big scenes everywhere. Sometimes you can’t even tell how it’s connected, sometimes you can’t tell it’s dubstep. Guys like DJ Mujava from South Africa say they make house music. To me it doesn’t even sound like that. To me, you can’t take away…

Pitchfork: Geography?
Diplo: The connection to people. When someone does it just to make it and it sounds like a carbon copy, I can hear that right away. When it’s really weird and mixed up, that’s exciting to me. I’ve done more shows in Indonesia in the last two years than I’ve done in Philly. And the kids there are crazy, the DJs are great and up to date with the newest music. The producers there are giving me the best demos I’ve gotten all year. It takes one or two people.
Another good example is Proxy from Russia. It’s just him and a couple friends from the suburbs making heavy sounds like an amplified car engine. There are pluses and minuses. The minus is a lot of kids do it because they want to do it. I get so many demos and usually the stuff I give to the Mad Decent kids is the good stuff at the end. If I had to listen to everything it would be too much, but the good stuff does rise to the top.

Pitchfork: For someone who is known as a tastemaker, how do you begin to keep track of things or have any sense of how things are developing in all these different places at once?
Diplo: It becomes harder to actually DJ, produce records, and be aware of what’s around you. Lately I’ve been playing what people give me out on the road. It’s super, hyper current, CD-Rs that I get. When I get home I have a break when I’m supposed to be in the studio and I can catch up and read about what’s going on. I’m a DJ first because I love new music. I consider myself a producer second even though I do more production these days.

Pitchfork: Your movie Favela on Blast really lingered on the idea of place and how that influences the music. Was that a huge part of what you were trying to say with the film?
Diplo: We first started the film almost four, five years ago. At the moment, when people talked about hip-hop outside of America, they were like man, people are doing hip-hop in Cuba and they’re rapping in Spanish and it was really cutting edge. Something like baile funk is so complex. It’s just Miami bass, a subset of hip-hop. It’s like evolution.
Australia has crazy-ass marsupials because it’s an island and they bred themselves into something weird. That’s kind of what happened with baile funk. Miami bass got trapped there and became this strange, hybrid Brazilian thing. But the thing about funk was there wasn’t an industry. For a while they were selling singles, but it was only in Rio. It was done on bootleg CDs. There was no giant hand helping to move it one way or another. It’s just how kids wanted it, as raw as possible. And that’s what’s so interesting about that scene. I’ve never seen it develop like that anywhere else while I’ve been traveling.

Pitchfork: Since that movie was filmed, how has that scene changed? I remember reading an interview where you said you thought it was going to get diluted. Do you feel that’s happened?
Diplo: The first time I went to Brazil, you couldn’t hear that music anywhere but Rio. Maybe in São Paulo. What helped make it grow were people were playing it outside of Brazil. People in Brazil were like, we can play this now, it’s not just ghetto music or black music, it’s our music. It’s cool– white kids in Europe are dancing to it now. That helped it spread.
The same thing happened with samba. It was really ghetto stuff, then the records came out on Verve and they started fusing it with jazz and big band and stuff. Same thing happened with baile funk, except that it became ultra Backstreet Boys-style, easy-to-digest pop music after the first wave came back to Brazil. It’s become really cheesy. I haven’t liked it for the last four years. If you do go to Rio and you go back to the ghetto and you hear the parties promoted by the gangsters you can still hear it where it’s pretty raw. Like any underground scene, when it gets too glossy, the whole thing collapses and then goes back underground. Like dubstep, as soon as it gets really clean, the kids get really aggressive.

Pitchfork: How big is Mad Decent now? How many people are working on it? Where do you see the label going?
Diplo: Two big things happened this year. The first was we put Rusko’s record out. We had the single “Hold On” go to the [BBC] Radio 1 Playlist. It’s the first time we’ve had a radio record. Now we actually have a game plan of how to keep the label alive. Everybody moved to L.A., there are about eight of us there now between people doing the website, me, assistants. Jasper [Goggins] is the label manager. We’re doing parties in L.A. and Philly and tours. We have the block party that we do in Philly every year. This is our third one. We’re actually doing five cities this time. At SXSW you saw our Mad Decent/SXSW carnival. It came from Hollertronix parties; that’s the essence. We’re doing commercial work. We did a Turkish cell phone commercial. We’re actually doing a Major Lazer show for Adult Swim. I think we’re trying to do as much as we can. We’re working hard. It doesn’t seem like other labels are going in every direction. We’re following the crazy ideas we can think of.
The second thing that happened is a funny thing to say, but Derek [Miller] from Sleigh Bells came to us last June when I was on tour with Major Lazer. He came and brought his demos and dropped them off and stayed at the Mausoleum for a day because he wanted to put the record out on Mad Decent. For me, that was a huge thing. They became one of the coolest bands, had a huge debut, and we toured with them later. But when a band is actually awesome and amazing and comes with a demo to the label… I’ve been working so hard to sign artists I like, to earn the respect and trust of those who didn’t even know what Mad Decent was. To go from working for three years to sign bands to getting bands that are really exciting to want to come to the label was a huge step for me.

Pitchfork: What was the response to the Major Lazer record in Jamaica? How did the artists you worked with respond to your production style?
Diplo: When we first started doing the record, our only way in was to name drop M.I.A. as much as possible. The first time I was there, “Galang” was big, and the second time “Paper Planes” was big. I had gotten my foot in the door as a producer and people wanted to work with me, but the first Major Lazer record wasn’t easy. Half the hooks on there we did ourselves or cut-up some records. We had to really have our hand in the making of that record. “Hold the Line” had some success there due to the video. At the time, there was a ban on any video that had sex or anything like that, so “Hold the Line” had moderate success. At the beginning of the year, “Pon the Floor” became a humongous record in Jamaica. This house hybrid sound, like Black Eyed Peas and David Guetta were also big. Last time we went down to work there we heard Major Lazer used to promote parties. It was on commercials for supermarkets and the Jamaican Tourism board even used one song in a TV commercial.
The last time we DJed there it was just mad. Elephant Man, Beenie Man, everyone was there to see what was going on. Elephant Man was like, “I want you to do my whole record.” The sound was so interesting to them because it was working in clubs and going straight by DJs and not radio. The politics had changed. Beenie Man asked us to do four or five songs on his album because he wanted to do something that would play in America, Europe, and Jamaica.
Dancehall is such an exclusive club. It’s so serious and it’s been like that for a couple of years. For so many artists, Major Lazer is so silly. It’s stupid and kids love it. The Jamaican kids love it. All the adults are talking about Gaza and Gully and shooting people and the kids are watching videos on YouTube, so we made a video that parodies that. It’s more exciting to them. In Jamaica they don’t want to have outsiders in there, but we’re all a team doing something that’s outside dancehall. We don’t go by the rules.

Pitchfork: You’ve said that one of the reasons this Major Lazer character came into being was that you didn’t want two white guys on the cover of this dancehall record. Sounds like you are able to loosen some of those boundaries.
Diplo: The most important aspect of the cartoon is marketing. We don’t just want to do a couple of cool singles and do a tour. We want to do something bigger than that. When we started, Switch and I were Major Lazer. Since then, a year later, I’d say there are 20 people in Major Lazer. I think Ricky Blaze, Skerrit Bwoy, Mimi, the dancehall queen who does all the shows with us, Crookers– they did the production on “Jump Up”– Lex, everyone is part of this crew now. It’s not just me. Maybe I’m the ringleader but I think everyone is involved.
The cartoon and the silliness of it, Eric Wareheim’s take on the record, they’re all part of the weirdness. It’s sort of this crazy party. The next record is really diverse. The first song we finished was a beat Lykke Li made, she sang on it and Vybz Kartel was on it and it doesn’t sound anything like reggae, but it became reggae in a way. We did a straight-up ska record. It’s not going to be straight-up dancehall. It’s going to be something like “Pon De Floor” where it was so weird it sort of integrated itself into reggae backwards.

Pitchfork: Is that you doing the Jamaican patois on Twitter?
Diplo: No, that’s not me. It’s this guy called Trini Chris who does our shows in Trinidad for us. He’s the weirdest dude in Trinidad. He’s helped break new music in Trinidad and he works in L.A. with Mad Decent. A lot of Jamaicans hit us up, like, this doesn’t sound like a Jamaican because he has a real Trinidad accent. Jamaicans are like, this is so stupid. We have a lot of fake characters we’re making Twitters of for the cartoon on Adult Swim that are even stupider.

Pitchfork: What was the moment when you thought, “We need a crazy cartoon character with a laser hand”?
Diplo: I had a list of names that I wanted to use. The whole concept was based on 1980s dancehall with the artwork; 80s dancehall was fun. I remember taking a bunch of words, like laser and general, just cheesy words that you would find in a dancehall name generator. And the two words that were first were “major” and “lazer.” And I went down the list of 10 other words and was like, “Let’s do Major Lazer.” And the album title, Guns Don’t Kill People– Lasers Do, the play on the NRA slogan, we made up the rest of it in a day. It made sense because it wouldn’t just be a cheesy Diplo/Switch record with a guy on it. There must have been something in the drinks that night.

Pitchfork: Do you think the New York Times article about M.I.A. was a fair portrayal of her?
Diplo: When I did the interview, I spoke to [Lynn Hirschberg] for two hours, probably as much as M.I.A. did. I talked to her about everything there was to talk about and the quotes were things I said and it was pretty accurate. The article was meant to be shockingly crazy, but at the same time, there’s nothing on there that’s phony.
The one quote from me that makes the most sense is that Maya is past… the politics and stuff, when she was beginning to make this last record, I told her you have to stay away from the politics. I knew something like that was going to happen. Your music is going to be better than your politics because shocking things get hype going. It’s not a mystery what she does. The quote I had in the article was something like she’s really good at putting ideas together– and she is. When it comes to her record, it sounds like she’s the one artist who’s fucking totally taking chances and being crazy. I’ve never met anybody I’ve ever been able to work with who’s been able to do that. Even if we don’t do it that well, we really fake it, like we know what we’re doing. When I finished helping her mix down Kala, I was listening to it and felt like the whole album was incomplete. But it worked. And three years later, I feel like the record makes perfect sense.
But it’s dangerous when you keep putting out the politics, because she doesn’t really stand for anything at the end of the day. More importantly, she stands for getting people to talk. If kids can have some sort of social responsibility, that’s cool. But if they’re not actually having social responsibility and they’re kind of hiding behind it, that’s kind of useless, or even worse.

Pitchfork: It’s provoking the conversation instead of laying down ideas.
Diplo: There’s a really cool article on Wikipedia I read in Wired. The guy who wrote the Encyclopedia Britannica was talking about the guy who did Wikipedia. When you look up the word “truth” in Wikipedia, there are two paragraphs, and if you look up “truthiness” from “The Colbert Report“, there are 10 pages. It’s dangerous– to not put weight on stuff that we need to discuss and dissect and actually get to the bottom of. When you just throw things out there that don’t really work, you can’t really hide behind the naivety.
I always told her to make the record and make a statement. Do what you’re good at, the politics are going to backfire on you. She was walking a fine line for years on it anyway. But this shouldn’t even matter. At the end of the day, the New York Times, all this other shit is just making people talk about her record, which they should, because her record is interesting to talk about.
I don’t give a fuck about her politics. I know everything about her politics, I know everything about her family. I know everything about it. No one else knows this kind of stuff. And that’s not what’s interesting to me. What’s interesting is what she does on her records and how fucking weird she is. She can reach people with this weird shit and that’s way more fucking interesting to me. If you want politics read Howard Zinn books or go to That’s a way better fucking place to get your information from then M.I.A.’s album. If you want awesome music, buy her record.
I think you guys had a really good article on your site when you talked about Public Enemy; if you were going to base your revolution on their records it would be pretty haphazard as well. Public Enemy begged the question of kids, do something, be crazy. And when I listened to Public Enemy or the X-Clan when I was younger, I felt like you’re fucking nuts, fuck this white people shit. That was like as punk to me as listening to Morbid Angel or some crazy-ass metal shit. But the thing is Maya, her first real buzz started on the politics stuff. New York Times was her first audience, really, that broke people into her music. They were reviewing the mixtape we did. Before DJs were playing her record, people were talking about what she meant. It’s funny that they backfire on her now.

Pitchfork: You can’t buy into that responsibility of politics when someone isn’t a politician.
Diplo: I wish that I could help her. She should have a manager right now, that’s the mess that she’s in. Someone should get her to not talk about that stuff, because it doesn’t go anywhere good. But I think her record is weird and bizarre. It’s going to be really polarizing for people, but that’s cool.

Pitchfork: It seems like companies like Diesel and Adult Swim are so much more a part of getting your music out and marketing.
Diplo: You have to play the game to reach people these days. You’re selling your cool to them so they can sell your music to people. It’s a hard game to play and there are some sponsors we never work with for certain reasons. Then there are some people who we just happen to work with, like Red Bull, who have done fucking amazing things for us. They’re helping us with the carnival party and workshops for kids. Even Diesel, they’re helping us with our block party this year. I can’t believe how much freedom they give us to do shit, and they barely get anything out of us, it seems.
But it is hard because those are the people who have the real media outlets. We just have the material. It’s kind of weird. You have to be careful. I have a friend who runs a clothing line, and he’s like, I could make tons of money if I just sold to Ross Dress for Less, but then you can’t do it again. It’s like stepping stones; you step on the wrong stone, you fall into the water.

Pitchfork: Do you have to have a lot internal debate, balancing the music you promote versus the marketers you’re working with?
Diplo: I had this realization when I was on tour in Asia with Steve Aoki. He’s a cool guy and a friend. People in Europe don’t like his music and think he’s cheesy. And I realize he doesn’t give a fuck about who doesn’t like him. He plays for 18-year-olds who don’t give a fuck who their older brother likes. He has the people in front of him who love what he does. And I realize I don’t give a fuck what people think is cool or not cool.
That’s why I started Hollertronix in the first place. People didn’t want to hear rap, they didn’t want to hear underground, and we could just mix it together. It doesn’t matter. Whoever made the rules about what you can or can’t do is stupid. When I went to the UK, nobody liked my stuff at the beginning. How are you going to play a pop record and a fucking techno record? It sounded cool, but you’re not allowed to do that.
So this year I realized, if I don’t do the stuff I feel like, if I make rules about what I can’t do, someone is going to take my rules and fuck it and do it better than me. Someone like will do a record that sounds like something I did and sell a million copies. What are we fighting for? You just have to do, you can’t live by the rules of what you’re supposed to do. I think every person is good at something and you just have to push that forward. If I can go from doing a record like Snoop Dogg, and then Rolo Tomassi, a punk record, and then work with Robyn and then Tiësto, I just think that’s funny. And getting sponsored by Goya drinks at some bodega and then getting sponsored by Diesel. It’s more like a game to me, it’s kind of funny. There’s no level of authenticity. When I started working in Jamaica, being some white guy going to Jamaica to tour, someone requested some cheesy house music and Chumbawamba. Who cares about authenticity now? It doesn’t matter. All that matters is people are enjoying themselves. Authenticity–that word doesn’t exist in my vocabulary anymore.

Pitchfork: I guess you could say to people questioning your authenticity that you are actually on the ground in these countries.
Diplo: If you rated someone’s popularity by how much hate they get from journalists, I’m fucking super-popular. A lot of people are bothered by me being white and doing stuff like this. I keep doing this stuff. I think I’m good at it. I think I started Heaps Decent in a way just to piss people off so they couldn’t make fun of me so bad anymore. Then it became such a cool project. I’m really lucky. You know the kids that are making the ghetto stuff I can’t even reach are the ones that are inspiring me to play music for the other kids in the city they don’t even know about. If I don’t get those kids making music, there won’t be an original kid DJing like me in five-to-10 years. I love seeing this shit mixed together, I love seeing it go in weird directions. That’s why I started DJing. I’ll keep doing that until I get bored with it, then I’ll open a root beer factory.

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