Diplo: Lazer Cuts
Super producer Diplo will be in India this month with his dancehall project Major Lazer, which has featured everyone from Ariana Grande to Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig
The world’s biggest go-to pop producer has an imagination the size of a dinosaur. And a Diplodocus is tattooed on his right forearm for good measure. “I loved dinosaurs and history so much.” says Thomas Wesley Pentz, in an email interview from California. “All my artefacts in my backyard in South Carolina ended up being rocks and dirt but the idea of the imagination ruling over reality to a young kid was fascinating.” So he created Diplo. “I just liked it and kept it. Now it’s just a strong name and easy to invest in,” he adds. So much so that from Justin Bieber to Madonna, Snoop Lion to Usher, the biggest artists want a taste of his weirdly constructed sonic palate.
But before baile funk [watch Favelas on Blast, his documentary that puts a face to the gang-controlled, underground bass scene in Rio de Janeiro], moombahton [check out Dillon Francis who pioneered the genre through Pentz’s label Mad Decent] and Major Lazer scrambled the airwaves with his futuristic dancehall, Diplo was already the original mash-up don. In South Philadelphia, his Hollertronix events in 2003 laid down the template for what is considered de rigueur today: mixing up hip-hop, punk and electro to fashion an entirely alternative party template. A year later, his debut album Florida on Big Dada records was hailed by critics as an underground downtempo classic. And most notably led to his collaboration and subsequent pairing with British-Sri Lankan artist M.I.A, with whom he worked on the Grammy-nominated “Paper Planes” single. It seems barely plausible, but today, Pentz is an even bigger star. And as he prepares to tour the country with the talents of Jillionaire and Walshy Fire, who fire up Major Lazer alongside him, the maverick producer, DJ, author and film-maker talks records, being homeless, his love for hip-hop and taking his dad to the Grammys.
Your label Mad Decent has some history in India with Paul Devro performing two shows in Dharavi and at club Zenzi in Mumbai, back in 2008. Do you recall his tour? Did you get to hear the music he produced after?
Paul is like the Indiana Jones of DJs. You’re not gonna get much material out of him but you are going to get some great stories! I wanted to make it to both shows, as a friend of mine from a long time ago worked in Dharavi in urban planning and those communities are fascinating to me. Also, it’s impossible to document all of the crazy talent India has ”” from the slums to the films. There’s so much going on. We didn’t sign anyone from Paul’s trips as far as I know. There are a lot of Indian-related artists on Mad Decent though, like Jus Now and DJ Imanos.
What’s the one thing you would love to do in India that you know you’re not going to be able to?
I stayed in India for a long period when I was younger, in Gujarat. It’s not the sexiest part of India, but I loved it. I would like to spend more time traveling and hanging out with the beautiful women of India. I have
a few days off and we want to shoot a music video there for sure, a Bollywood-style thing maybe. We are looking for treatments!
You used to hop freight trains in your late teens and wanted to see how far you could go with $60 in your pocket. How far did you end up?
I got to Memphis and then had to borrow money from my sister in Nashville! I do miss something about that complete freedom, but it’s like one thing you can always go back to. It’s just important to know what it feels like to really be hopeless. It makes you appreciate everything so intensely and that is basically what I experienced when I was on the other side of homelessness. When I was younger, I was into literature ”” authors like William Faulkner. Then I was really into the Beat Generation poets and writers, finding them to be the true punks, literally having no one before them; post-war America was the beginning of the modern era. But to be so effortless and just heading towards a crash-and-burn ending? I was there once, just rebelling against what everything in our society says was right – the correct path – and back then I had nothing. I had no goals. There definitely wasn’t a path to being successful in music and it wasn’t even an option. I thought I’d sell 30 CDs. I literally had to figure out how to survive. [It’s a] good thing the Internet was around or I’d still be homeless selling CDs in downtown Orlando.
Would it be fair to say that hip-hop was your gateway genre? There’s this really good quote from you, “I was never good at scratching, but I was good at collecting old records. Florida was a great place for that, because it’s where people go to die.” What’s an old record that fetched you a lot of money?
Yes, hip-hop is all genres! That’s why I loved it. I bought a bunch of psych albums for god knows how much. I was fascinated with that kind of music. Also, krautrock and soul jazz”¦ anything with fantastic, epic stories. Mostly I traded up for the records instead of buying them flat out. The expensive ones being R.A.M.P’s [soul/ jazz record] Come Into Knowledge, the self-titled Gandalf [psychedelic rock] album, Phil Ranelin’s [jazz funk] Vibes From The Tribe, some big reggae 45s, so many, man. I was obsessed. I made a lot of money selling Ananda Shankar records I bought in India! That helped me pay for my flights when I was 20 years old.
Major Lazer’s music is so fantastically bizarre. Where would you place it in the canon of dancehall music? What is the allure of dancehall for you?
Dancehall is just so absolute and immediate. There’s never been a filter on the music. It’s just fast and obnoxious. And some beautiful music came out as well. With Major Lazer, I found ways to make music like ”˜Get Free’ that reached so many more people than club records and will last longer. But it’s important to hit people in the face with the loud stuff first then share the beautiful stuff.
Tell us about the inspiration for the Major Lazer character and how his backstory came about?
You can backstory Major Lazer very easily. It started as a hobby, then the art helped to identify and place the music. [The] influences being everything from ”˜80s cartoons [He-Man, GI Joe], reggae and punk artists like Wilfred Limonious and Pushead as well as reggae and digital music from the ”˜80s and ”˜90s. We just put that all in a bucket, mixed with some modern influences.
You’ve got crazy fans on Twitter ”” what do you like about the medium?
Well, I’m too popular on Twitter now. I can’t have a lot of fun there. Too many people get mad at me and take me seriously when it was always just a comedy show for me. I have real life friends now in the music industry, and a family. I’ve got to try and have a little more filter on this stuff now.
What is it about New Orleans that you often speak about settling down there eventually?
Its true, raw American culture and it’s still a place with little investment so you don’t have giant condos and Walmart everywhere yet. It’s still a place with spontaneity and random violence and drinking 24 hours a day. So it’s perfect for creating!
What do you recall of your time with M.I.A?
That was my first relationship as an adult and at the same time, introducing me to all these things like touring, wealthy people, hipsters, money. She is a great person ”” self-made and very exciting. I respect her immensely. I think that she just had a small sense of insecurity, as many creative people do. But with some people, that can become a source of something super creative and [with] others, it just can turn into something bad and take over. She had lots of issues within herself and her family and being in the place she was growing up. Honestly, I wasn’t any good to help her at some point either, but we definitely defined our own path in music and I learned a lot from that ”˜take-no-prisoners’ attitude. [I have] lots of good memories, lots of bad ones too. It was young love!
What do your sisters and family think of your music? What was your dad’s reaction when you took him to the Grammy awards?
Dad just wanted to see real life country stars. Now he asks me for tickets to meet Usher because he loves to watch The Voice [American singing reality TV show]. My sisters think I’m a drug dealer.
Diplo will be touring through India as part of his group Major Lazer for VH1 Supersonic Arcade in partnership with OJI. Dec 12th – Mumbai | Dec 13th – Delhi | Dec 14th – Bengaluru. Tickets are available at www.bookmyshow.com.
Watch Major Lazor’s video for “Get Free:”