Diplo’s VIBE Cover Story: The Middle Man

Music

/ August 14, 2012

THE MIDDLE MAN
SHOT ON LOCATION AT DOCKWEILER BEACH, CA. DIPLO WON’T PICK A SIDE. THE DJ/PRODUCER HAS HOLLOWED OUT A COMFORTABLE CRANNY SOMEWHERE BETWEEN HIP-HOP, EDM, DANCEHALL AND R&B. AND THAT’S EXACTLY WHERE HE WANTS TO BE. SO STOP PUSHING HIS BUTTONS BY PUTTING HIM IN A DANCE BOX –WRITTEN BY THOMAS GOLIANOPOULOS / PHOTOS BY SMALLZ AND RASKIND

DIPLO SITS IN a studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, tinkering a beat he’s worked on for months. He takes it from 134 beats per minute down to 128. It still doesn’t sound right. “My ears are so fucked to this. Let’s see what it sounds like at 130,” he says to a young producer from Europe assisting him today. The Dutch rapper who introduced them loafs on a couch nearby. “Polska, whatever his name is,” Diplo later tells me, “is like the A$AP Rocky of Holland.”

The track initially resembled a “house record” but turned into a “trap record” after Diplo slowed it down and added some bass. Complicating matters is that the song features Pharrell. “I’m trying to negotiate what Pharrell wants for the record,” he says. “Pharrell loved the demo, but the demo is so monotone for me. It’s just a mixtape cut [now,] but it can be bigger than that because the hook is so good.”

Diplo wears a maroon T-shirt, mustard-colored skinny jeans and sleek gray high-top Puma sneakers, looking every bit like the cool-kid DJ he’s been for nearly a decade. But since producing singles for Usher, Chris Brown, Wale, and Beyoncé, he’s evolved into a new role—rap and R&B’s latest hitmaker for hire. It’s a welcome transition for Diplo. Spinning records has brought him the residency in Vegas, the BlackBerry sponsorship and the big-money corporate gigs—“Sometimes I make more money in a weekend than my grandpa made in a year”—but he doesn’t think DJing is a special talent or challenging or… “Being a DJ is pretty bullshit,” he says. “I’m lucky I can produce records, too, because DJs don’t do shit. They just fucking play records. Usher is trained to dance. Justin Bieber had to train 24 hours a day to be a performer. What I do is pretty simple. It’s a good time to be a DJ and make good money, but you definitely can’t have an ego doing this shit because it’s not that cool.”

Diplo is right about one thing: It is a good time to be a DJ. Electronic dance music festivals are the summer’s hottest tickets, corporate promoters such as Live Nation and AEG Live are buying in, and top DJs like Skrillex, Afrojack and Deadmau5 are the new rock stars. It’s a feeding frenzy that, according to Diplo, will not last. “It’s definitely a bubble,” he says. “But some people are good at what they do. Skrillex is a bonafide superstar.”

It’s all happening at the right time for Diplo. Genres have become blurred, R&B sounds like house music, rappers are experimenting with different sounds and it’s all pop music. And Diplo’s versatility and curiosity are his greatest strengths as a producer. “The way he approaches his production reminds me of the way he used to make his mixes,” says DJ A-Trak. “He just pieces together unexpected sounds and doesn’t do the obvious things.”

Back in Brooklyn, Diplo ponders his next move for the Pharrell record. It was initially slated for the upcoming album by Major Lazer—Diplo’s dancehall group with the British DJ Switch—but he’s ready to scrap the song. Besides, he has a full slate. “It used to be hard to convince [artists] that working with me is a good idea or something to even consider,” he says. “Now, a lot of guys are reaching out like, ‘Hey, I want to be a part of your movement, or whatever.”

DIPLO’S MOVEMENT (OR WHATEVER) is rooted in the deep South. He grew up in a big “rednecky” family that bumped around Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia before settling in Fort Lauderdale. Time moved slowly there, and Diplo, born Thomas Wesley Pentz, let his imagination run wild, often daydreaming of adventures in the Everglades. For kicks, he fished in Alligator Alley with his father.

By the time he reached high school, Diplo was the weirdo with the graffiti-covered Volkswagen. He attended four high schools, and didn’t have many friends but loved music, everything from rap and bass to metal and hard core. “Tons of new sounds were being kicked around in Florida at that time,” says his friend, fellow Florida native Derek Miller of the band Sleigh Bells. “And it definitely rubbed off on him.”