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Diplo's VIBE Cover Story: The Middle Man


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.”

Diplo didn’t consider producing until hearing the whimsical Los Angeles–based rap group the Pharcyde. From there, he discovered DJ Premier, DJ Shadow and Hank Shocklee, and spent hours attempting to duplicate the drums from Digable Planets’ “9th Wonder (Blackitolism).” Around his 20th birthday, he moved to Philadelphia, where he enrolled in film school, taught in an after-school program and became a DJ, starting a party called Hollertronix in 2003. The music reflected Diplo’s diverse taste—Southern rap, house, world music and new wave. “Back then, no one was thinking of having David Banner over Eurythmics,” he says. “It was a really cutting-edge idea.” Hollertronix quickly became the hottest underground party in Philadelphia, but Diplo left for the favelas in Brazil to study the local music, a rowdy genre called baile funk; he was writing about the scene for Fader magazine at the time. He soon released Favela on Blast, a baile funk documentary, and unwittingly became the (white) face of the new sound. Critics had a field day. “There was a lot of controversy, but by this point it doesn’t bother me,” he says. “The forefathers of what I do are people like the Clash or even like Bob Marley. People that did shit, took something and took it a step further. And they took it and twisted it with other sounds, Fela Kuti. Can you imagine people telling Fela, ‘You can’t put saxophones in your songs. That’s not traditional African music.’ This kind of shit is the most fucking backward idea in music to me.”

Soon afterward, he met M.I.A. Eventually they started dating, and in 2007, he sampled the opening riff of the Clash’s “Straight to Hell” for her hit “Paper Planes.” He initially struggled duplicating “Paper Planes”’ success, so he toured and delved into his label Mad Decent. His big breakthrough came in early 2011, with Chris Brown’s “Look at Me Now,” which reached No. 6 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Beyoncé then summoned him for her album 4. Over two days in the studio, Diplo laid the groundwork for “End of Time” and the first single “Run the World (Girls),” which noticeably sampled Major Lazer’s “Pon de Floor.” But it wasn’t a satisfying collaboration. “I wish I had more time with Beyoncé,” he says. “It was just like, ‘Let’s get him in here and fuck up our songs or whatever.’”
Working with Usher was more gratifying. They met for large chunks of days and knocked out a few songs, including the fi rst single “Climax.” It was a validation of sorts for Diplo. “They were working with Swedish House Mafi a before me, Max Martin,,” he says. “I defi nitely don’t think they were thinking that Diplo was going to have the fi rst single.”

LATER TONIGHT, DIPLO HAS a session with Marsha Ambrosius and is meeting with Q-Tip. It’s been a busy few months: He’s already completed tracks for Azealia Banks and Big Sean; he’s executive producing Snoop Dogg’s next album, a reggae-inspired project; and is trying to convince Justin Bieber to collaborate on a rap mixtape. He’s also interested in more eccentric, albeit divisive, artists. “When I tell people that I’m working with Riff Raff, people are like, ‘That’s fucking terrible. That’s like the worst thing ever.’ Even Kitty Pryde. People are like, ‘How do you listen to this kind of shit.’ My words to them is, when Schoolly D did ‘P.S.K.’ people were probably like, ‘What the fuck is this?’ Hip-hop always changes. And you know what, we’re old. [Kids] get it. Maybe you don’t get it. I can see where the appeal is. But if you can’t, that’s your fault. You’re kind of old, I guess: If you don’t like Lil B. Maybe he sucks at rapping or whatever, but if you don’t see his appeal, you’re kind of backwards.”

He’s moved upstairs to the rooftop of the studio, and the talk turns to his first cover story, a 2005 feature in Philadelphia Weekly. “I feel like Philly Weekly hated me,” he says. “But then, with the M.I.A. thing, it was like, shit, we have to pay attention to this guy since it’s happening here.” An old friend, Tony Larson, is quoted in the article saying: “[Diplo is] doing as much as he possibly can, just trying to live life to the fullest.” Diplo’s asked if it’s an accurate assessment. “Do you want me to end this article with ‘YOLO?’ Is that what you’re trying to get me to say?” he asks. “It’s the motto, bro. It’s the motto.” The words drip with sarcasm, but he then turns serious and reflective—momentarily. “I definitely think that I’m out there trying to do as much as I can, for sure. You only…” He starts laughing. “You only live once, but I can’t wait to sit back and fucking think about what’s going on.”

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