Diplo on How ‘Major Lazer’ Took Over Late-Night Animation
The superstar DJ on bringing his dancehall creation to FXX: “I want to make as many episodes as ‘Power Rangers'”
Major Lazer is a bona fide pop star — his third album, Peace Is the Mission, scheduled to appear in early June, has already spawned the single “Lean On,” a massive hit across Europe. And now he’s got his own animated TV series: brief, hallucinogenic 11-minute episodes, aired weekly as part of FXX’s Animation Domination Hi-Def block. Never mind the fact that the laser-armed Jamaican action hero does not really exist. His world domination of the airwaves, small screens and late-night college-dorm common rooms has been a long time coming.
In 2009, a pair of DJ/producers, Diplo and Switch, came up with the concept: a Jamaican-dancehall-inspired recording project, featuring a rotating cast of vocalists. They commissioned artist Ferry Gouw to design a character by the name of Major Lazer — inspired, Diplo notes, by the LP covers drawn by the late Jamaican artist Wilfred Limonious.
Gouw also directed the first Lazer video, “Hold the Line,” which put the character he designed in an Eighties-style animated scenario. The 36-year-old Diplo grew up on the era’s TV animation — along with obvious stylistic templates like G.I. Joe, he namechecks Transformers and The Mask as inspiration for the retro look of the toon. But the DJ also notes that the illustrator, who grew up in Indonesia and London, brought in some other influences. “Stuff like The Centurions, SilverHawks, and then [anime] I didn’t know like Doraemon and Saint Seiya,” he says. “We made the video to feel like it was an animated show, and then added the little action figure commercial in the middle to play up the G.I. Joe kinda feel. Ferry still has those figures somewhere; I think he modified actual G.I. Joes from eBay.”
After “Hold the Line” took off, the Major character appeared in a few more videos, and by 2011, there was a full-on animated show in the works, originally intended for Adult Swim. (2011 was also when Switch left the group; Diplo has continued to record and perform with other collaborators as Major Lazer.) That version went into limbo a while later — “it didn’t really work the right way,” Diplo notes — but producer Nick Weidenfeld, who’d come up with the original idea for series, revived it for what would become FXX’s after-hours ADHD. And Diplo himself has gotten involved with a lot of the process of creating Major Lazer’s stories and music.
It’s an utterly bizarre show — deliberately wooden and straight-faced in the manner of old after-school animation, but packed with drug jokes, double-entendres and sly references to contemporary music. An episode called “Vampire Weekend” involves a weekend when Jamaica is overrun by vampires; a handsome young bloodsucker who seduces Major Lazer’s protégée Penny is, naturally, voiced by Vampire Weekend singer Ezra Koenig.
The voice of the title character is provided by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, the British actor best known for playing Mr. Eko in Lost. “Major Lazer’s like the uncle of the younger generation,” he says. “He’s hip, but he’s also badass [and] has all those superheroic elements. But what makes him so endearing as a Jamaican superhero is the fact that he is” — he shifts into the character’s growling patois — “the guardian of the yout’.”
Akinnuoye-Agbaje got involved with the new incarnation of the show about a year ago. “For quite a long time, I’d been really wanting to play a Jamaican character,” the actor says. “I grew up immersed in that culture — I’m Nigerian, but we mixed a lot.” The series’ other voice actors include Andy Samberg, superstar DJ Tiësto and Law & Order‘s J.K. Simmons. “We actually recorded separately, because everybody’s schedules were so varied,” Akinnuoye-Agbaje admits. “Sometimes I would record from London, sometimes I’d do it in L.A. I think at one point we tried to do it while I was shooting in Morocco. To get myself into the zone, I would play some hardcore dancehall for like an hour before going into the booth.”
There’s also a lot of new music in the series, enough that there’s talk of releasing a soundtrack record. “You’ll hear early versions of songs from our album,” Diplo notes, “ideas that we started for ourselves and then worked into the show. DJA [Derek Allen] did a lot of the score, and is part of my Mad Decent crew — he did the ‘Double Cup’ song with [Houston rapper] Riff Raff. And Jr Blender, who works a lot on Major Lazer as a writer and producer, did some score stuff.”
The cartoon has already been renewed for a second season, and Diplo has big plans for the project’s future, maybe even expanding into toys and comics like G.I. Joe and Transformers did. “I want to keep making the best music possible for Major Lazer,” the DJ declares. “So as long as that happens then there will always be more characters, cartoons, movies, tours — all that stuff. I want to make as many episodes as Power Rangers. And if someone like Robert Kirkman [The Walking Dead] or Brian K. Vaughan [Saga] wants to make it into a comic, I’m down.”