Diplo’s VIBE Cover Story: The Middle Man

Music

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, will.i.am,” 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.”