Pull Up the Sound

The Story Behind M.I.A.'s Innovative Producer

by Stefan Nickum

18 July 2010


Diplo Presents... Baile Funk

Diplo is by no means the first westerner to bring the sounds of Baile funk north; Berlin DJ Daniel Haaksmen was making similarly visible transferences of Baile funk to Germany with his Man Recordings label around the same time. Man Recordings continues to release Baile funk music and its working artists while Diplo and Mad Decent have, for whatever reason, chosen to move on. That being said, next week the world will be reminded of Diplo’s thought-provoking and exciting work in Rio de Janeiro when a documentary film he helped produce comes out on DVD. Entitled Favela on Blast, Diplo narrates the story of Baile funk from its inception to its current iterations, paying particular attention to the socio-economic context of Rio and the favelas where Baile funk is made. The film captures all of the explosive energy of the music while detailing an equally explosive social milieu of violence, sexual exploitation and class.

It must be noted that Diplo’s unique success in bringing Baile funk music to such popular acclaim is a testimony to Diplo’s brilliance as a tastemaker and narrator to the latest underground sounds, at home or abroad.  Diplo once said in an interview with a Thai newspaper called The Nation that, “I see myself as an innovator. I see lots of people take our underground things and make them into cheesy stuff for pop radio, but we still push it forward in the US. I can go between a home studio in a shack and work with a 16-year-old to a recording plant where it costs $5,000 a day. It doesn’t matter to me. I like that I have that kind of freedom.” This freedom is no doubt a privilege, but it’s been hard-won through an expert tightrope walking of the lines between pop and punk. Such a line is a precarious one, and it begs a question about what it means to want to prop up what’s left of the commercial music framework while also wanting to tear it down.

To embrace such a spectrum of musical output, Diplo has created his own distribution network, the record-label and brand-worthy collective called Mad Decent. The label is truly an extension of what Diplo has built his career on, and is regarded by many as being synonymous with what is hip and now. Formed in Philadelphia where Diplo lived for much of his formative DJ years, Mad Decent has not only reflected what’s going on in the global underground, but what is going on locally as well. Since its inception, Diplo and his Mad Decent crew have made a name for themselves by drawing on the sounds of Baltimore club and ghetto house in the States or French-electro in France, sounds that often take from hip-hop and pop, and re-create them with a 4/4 beat ready for seamless mixing and an eclectic night out for club-goers.

As Diplo and his cohorts became touchstones for exciting dance music in the U.S., Diplo started getting tapped for danceable remixes of indie bands and hiring friends like Baltimore club producer Blaqstarr for bigger budget projects. Between production from Blaqstarr and London’s Electro producer Switch, M.I.A.’s second album Kala hardly involved Diplo, even while his production for “Paper Planes” is arguably the one song that truly launched M.I.A.’s career.

Released in 2007, Kala is the sonic condensation of everything Mad Decent and Diplo had been cooking up in clubs and cities around the world. Weaving in the domestic sounds of Baltimore club from Blaqstarr, the album’s primary producer Switch traveled alongside M.I.A. to record the rest of the album in places like Trinidad and Tobago, even visiting the Indian city of Chennai to work with award-winning Indian Tamil producer A.R. Rahman, whose score for the improbable Oscar winning film Slumdog Millionaire brought him an Academy Award for best film score. As a result Kala, like Arular, managed to sound like no one region of the globe, all while M.I.A.’s lyrics articulated the current political debate on what a globalized world should look like. In addition to challenging western tenants of globalization in her lyrics, M.I.A.’s sound has challenged the contrived and nebulous genre-descriptor of “world music”, a term that does nothing to describe the origins of sounds except organize them in a category easily marketable to lazy consumers.



Intent on pushing the boundaries for the dissemination the global underground and since the release of Kala, Mad Decent has released music spanning everything from Kuduro to Cumbia, including artists like Lisbon’s Buraka Som Sistema and Mexico City’s Toy Selectah respectively. Mostly released in the form of digital-only singles and EPs, both Diplo and Mad Decent have recently seen greater commercial access, much of it likely due to Diplo’s success with songs like “Paper Planes”. Shortly after the success of Kala, Diplo and his Mad Decent Label was granted imprint rights with the label Downtown Music, whose distribution relationship with Universal Music Group would put Mad Decent projects onto more shelves and into more ears.

Discovering that they worked well together on “Paper Planes”, Diplo and Switch capitalized on that notoriety with the first Downtown Music project called Major Lazer, an effort at translating their love for the dancehall and reggae sounds of Jamaica to an audience that now comprises pop fans and hipsters alike. Despite being a potentially disastrous interplay, it resulted in an unlikely success. A quick look at Diplo’s early mixtapes silences any concern for a thin love for dancehall and reggae, and with this background he enlisted such well-established deejays as Vybz Kartel, Mr. Vegas and Turbulence to provide vocals on Diplo and Switch’s club-ready tracks. Many of these collaborations are perfect snapshots of past and present, decades of dancehall and reggae’s unprecedented influence on the origins of hip-hop and UK dance music converging for something that could sound timeless as well as of-the-moment.

The second and latest album to be released through Mad Decent’s new distribution deal is from London’s early dubstep influence Rusko. Known for his abrasive, chaotic formulations of high-octane bass and drums, Rusko along with other UK producers like Benga and Skream broke the first ground on dubstep’s familiar sonic palette of 2/4 beats and wobbly high-treble basslines. Dubstep’s aesthetic has recently garnered the un-flattering sub-genre “bro-step” for its associations with a highly masculine audience and testosterone-filled sonic energy. Rusko’s first-ever album, entitled O.M.G., is also the first dubstep full-length of this strain to see such a bright light of day in the U.S.; Mad Decent’s distribution privileges in tow.

If Rusko’s solo record doesn’t eclipse the stateside mainstream, his work will be on full-display for the latest M.I.A. album. Rusko produced over half of the record and is slated to be involved in an upcoming Britney Spears project to boot. Rusko’s journey to the pop sphere may seem mercurial at first glance, though with a few dots connected, it isn’t hard to see how such an introduction may have been mediated. Diplo tapped Rusko to join the Mad Decent artist line-up nearly a year before the release of M.I.A.’s album, at a time when dubstep was at its ripest and the sound’s crossover potential was looming. That paired with Diplo’s consistent albeit uncertain relationship with M.I.A. projects, her choice of Rusko as sound designer is in keeping with her talent for taking something from the margins and re-casting for a wide audience. Hoping to capitalize early on what Britney’s A&R is surely betting on as well, dubstep will breach the pop ear first with M.I.A.’s record, and it’s reasonable to think Diplo had a significant hand in moving those sounds, directly or indirectly, from Rusko’s bedroom to one at Interscope.

As M.I.A.’s new album was wrapping up and Rusko was preparing to release his first full-length, Diplo had a dizzying array of projects on their way or in his wake. In 2010 you’ll find Wesley Pentz in the liner notes for Snoop Dogg, the Roots, Lil’ Jon, the next Major Lazer release, a collaboration between he and Trance DJ Tiesto, and even the Sheffield hardcore band Rolo Tomassi. Diplo’s yearly tour schedule as a DJ is no less head spinning, proof that Diplo is in as much demand as he ever was, yet as he continues to play familiar roles with more and more familiar artists, his talent for feeling the pulse of the underground appears to be increasingly undermined by a preoccupation with commercial viability.

Diplo’s introduction to Rolo Tomassi came this spring as Diplo and his Mad Decent collective descended on Austin, Texas for the three-day music industry event South By Southwest. Among Mad Decent’s list of activities was a Mad Decent-sponsored outdoor mini-festival called Carniville, presented in collaboration with Electro-blog/label IHEARTCOMIX and the creative, marketing, and events company responsible for New York’s Pool Parties JellyNYC. Over the course of the three days the Carniville incorporated carnival rides, the requisite carnival food, and a line-up that was as varied and filled as any large-scale festival. Headlining was Major Lazer and the Walkmen, along with other artists like the Very Best, GZA, Sleigh Bells, and Yacht. Each night Mad Decent held an exclusive VIP after-party in an event space near the Carniville, where Diplo and his Mad Decent crew would rotate through short sets of DJ’s and artists, while a mostly DJ and promoter-filled audience would drink for free and mingle. The last after-party was supposedly going to involve more special performances from Diplo, and artists like Baltimore’s Rye Rye and blog-rap phenomenon and former member of The Pack Lil’B.

Beginning with the lesser-known Mad Decent affiliates, the stage seemed sparse, DJ’s tag-teaming turntables and the occasional drunk getting on the microphone to shout out friends and purported affiliates. As the alcohol flowed, more Mad Decent artists could be spotted on stage, crowding the turntables and clamouring for newly connected microphones. By the time Diplo got to the stage, you could hardly spot him behind what appeared to be anyone and everyone ever associated with him or the Mad Decent name. Despite set changes and new artists coming to the stage, no one wanted to leave the elevated levels of their stage presence. Visibly intoxicated and barely capable of playing his role as DJ, Diplo seemed to shrink behind all that was crowding him; a garbled spectrum of Mad Decent artists hoping Diplo might reconcile their transition from the periphery to center stage, even though they could hardly see him.

Topics: diplo | m.i.a.
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