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Interview

Diplo strikes gold—and red and green—with his new Major Lazer album

By Jason Black
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There’s no denying it that Diplo (aka Wesley Pentz), the Grammy-nominated producer, remixer, and and head honcho of Mad Decent Records, is one of the hardest-working men in the music business. Through unending curiosity and exploration of the world’s vast musical heritages in Jamaica, Africa, the US, and beyond, Diplo has a knack for seamlessly connecting the dots between the global underground and the commercial music mainstream. And in connecting those dots, he’s racked up production credits for MIA, Santigold, Drake, Usher, Snoop Dogg, Beyonce, and Bruno Mars, among many others.

Beatport News connected with the jet-setting DJ/producer to dive headlong into his Major Lazer side-project’s sophomore album, Free the Universe, this time without his former studio co-pilot, Switch, at his side. Here’s what Diplo had to say about his unabashed love of reggae and dancehall, remixing classic Bob Marley tunes, and texting with Grimes about future collaborations.

You almost always record Major Lazer’s records in Jamaica. What attracts you to Jamaica, and what about reggae inspires you so much?

I’ve always been fascinated by reggae and dancehall. It’s something very common in South Florida, but to see the style of music recontextualized by M.I.A. and Santigold, and their experiments was the genesis for Major Lazer.

What’s the concept behind the new album, Free the Universe?

I think you have to look at the whole project as conceptual. It’s a statement I’m making about technology and music in general. Major Lazer is a sort of hipper version of GI Joe in a leftover earth, in the same vein as Wall-e, where he is constantly fighting against the lame vampires and Babylon that just takes and takes and destroys the Earth—and also conformity, in life and music. It’s an age-old Jamaican story about anti-heroes. Eighties dancehall was obsessed with westerns and science fiction…and I’m in turn obsessed with ’80s dancehall. Let it be duly noted that I’m a white guy and the rest of the crew are expats from the Caribbean, and the whole project is a bit more like scholars on dancehall. None of us live in Jamaica; we just love the music. Our first album was the intro; on the second album, we jumped into space… I don’t know why but the story should come along soon.

You have tons of artist collaborations on the record. What made you decide to work with so many others?

The collaborations pretty much turned out from who I crossed paths with in the past few years. I never said, “This is my journey to finish the album.” It’s been a sort of collection of the things I’ve run into over the past two years. I’m just happy that I somehow found a way to fit it all together.

Recently, you signed to Secretly Canadian in North America and Because Music in Europe. What was the main reason for moving beyond Mad Decent? Distribution?

Mad Decent has never been capable of moving a full album the way I wanted it to. We have been very comfortable as a singles label and have been exploring ways to grow in the way kids get into music, but we’re still learning. I went with these labels because they have been successful at moving albums and that’s what I want to do. As an artist I do everything from write the music to write the video treatments, make the merchandise, craft the shows, and book the tours. So what I need from a label is the bare minimum and these guys are incredible at the stuff I can’t do. You know, a major label is like hamburger with MSG, Sriracha, onions, eight different cheeses, eight sauces, bacon, and rotten tomatoes. I don’t need any of that stuff. Just give me the meat—Major Lazer is on the Atkins diet.

In a recent interview in the Huffington Post, Mad Decent was referred to as creating a new culture. Do you believe that you and the label are a cultural movement? What can we expect from Mad Decent that’s so different?

Honestly, I’m not sure what that question was about, but only time will tell if we do anything meaningful or create a culture that will last. I just know that everyone involved in the label is great. I’m the luckiest man alive in music to have these guys. They all know we are doing something special, something different, we are learning everyday. For a long time, people just dismissed us as weirdos that released the shit that no one else understood. Not anymore.


How do you feel about being an inspiration for an entire new generation of DJs, producers, and electronic musicians? What advice would you give them?

I’m not sure if that’s true either. I’m just pleased to be a part of the US underground scene right now where there’s a death-to-genres movement. I love all the young producers, the ones that are moving things forward and are able to appreciate everything—not only what’s trendy or what’s a draw, but undeniably good music. That’s coming back and I’m just glad to be a small part of it. Just sitting here in the UK and to see Daft Punk having the fastest-growing single in a decade…they opened up this new world of EDM from the Coachella performance—opened the door. There have been many DJs and producers come and go and they’re having the last laugh. It’s amazing.

What will the live show be like for this upcoming tour? Live performance, or strictly DJ set?

Major Lazer has been in full effect since January. We launched in Jamaica—what a show—and we’re moving forward into the Mad Decent Block Parties in the summer. I feel like we’re a traveling circus. I swear, every tour we’re picking up more people. All of a sudden, I’m on a bus with 15 people in the English countryside and I don’t even know them all [laughs]—but just expect the unexpected. I don’t even know what we’re gonna be doing for the next show.

What is your favorite experience, anecdote, or memory over the years?

I think that mid-2011 to 2012 was just wild as all hell. Starting in the studios in Jamaica and recording in the bathroom. Then, making an album on drugs in New Orleans that got dropped and then became a #1 ["Express Yourself"]. To New York with Beyonce and then going to jail, to having a baby, to rethinking the label to be successful, to writing that book with Shane McCauley [Blow Your Head] and ending with making “Climax” with Usher. So much has happened. I kept saying, as soon as it slows down I’m gonna write about all this crazy shit. But it never did and I feel like I can’t find the breaks.

What do you think has been your greatest achievement to date?

If you’re looking for one particular moment, it’s probably having my son and realizing that he’s the only perfect production I’ve ever made.

What would your dream musical collaboration be?

I was just texting Grimes and I wish she would write me back! Other than that, every day is something new. It’s just who you run into and what happens after. I’m never a person to chase someone. I don’t really have time for it. There’s always someone else that might be living behind your house with a good voice or a good rapper. You just never know. I was in Amsterdam with a few hours off and I lined up a Danish girl named MØ. She had an apartment for the day and we made some music. That’s kinda how things happen…all by chance.

What is the one track that you’ve always wanted to remix?

Something by Bob Marley… then I got all the parts and I realized I could never do it. Actually, that happened to me today. Some things should just be left well enough alone.

What does the future hold for you, your music, and the label as a whole?

Who knows, man? It’s a Pandora’s box. You just never know, ya know? Nowadays, things just change so fast. If you told me my label was gonna have a Billboard #1 with an instrumental record, I would have thought you were smoking crack. But hey, who knows. You should read Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near. I think that what he says about humans and medicine is happening even faster with kids and music technology. It’s becoming more advanced, complex, cheaper, and easier to do. I saw it just in my time in Brazil with the kids in the favelas to the kids in Angola. It’s just homemade PCs on cinderblocks, bootleg programs, no musical training, but these records are influencing our pop sound—to what Madeon did, from YouTube in his bedroom to headlining in Vegas in, what, only six months [laughs]. We’re gonna close the gap on all this… it’s gonna get even more hyper and it’s gonna belong to the poor kids as much as the rich kids sitting in their dad’s studio in Hollywood. It’s gonna be everyone’s and you’re gonna have to be even better to stay ahead.

Extra research by Silvana Aiquipa


**Check out five essentials from Diplo here.