Before becoming the go-to pop music Midas for the likes of M.I.A., Usher, and Madonna, Diplo tried damn hard to be DJ Shadow, and surprisingly, wasn't half-bad at it.
Diplo is and always will be one of the most divisive producers in all of pop music. After all, when he's not introducing Madonna to the joys of trap beats, he worms his way into multiple bands on your radio dial, creating timeless pop music on singles like M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes" and Usher's "Climax" while also fattening his faded blacklight novelty wallet by cranking out aural abominations for the likes of Chris Brown ("Look at Me Now") and his good buddy Skrillex. All of this -- along with his Major Lazer side-project -- has proven that in his decade of prominent activity, Mr. Thomas Wesley Pentz has basically been performing Top 40 kabuki with his audience, capable of putting on any genre mask you throw his way and playing the part like it was the role of a lifetime, even if some roles have proven more gratifying than others.
However, before gaining notoriety through M.I.A.'s Piracy Funds Terrorism mixtape in 2004, a young Diplo showed promise with his 2002 promo set Sound and Fury, which played like a slightly more accessible take on DJ Shadow/Cut Chemist-styled crate digging, taking a plethora of samples and reconstructing them into something new, although he still lacked the finesse that would get him signed to the Mo' Wax artist roster. With his 2004 set Florida, his "official" debut, he took the scrappy promise of Sound and Fury and turned it into something much more accessible and personality-driven, keeping the sense of artiness that he discovered with his never-ending search for samples and injecting it with a bracing shot of clarity while simultaneously avoiding easy radio promo trappings (but never fully being able to escape the broad-stroke influences which so readily defined his early output).
Now, a decade after the fact, Diplo followed in the footsteps of Thom Yorke and released a 10th anniversary edition of that fabled set -- appropriately retitled F10rida -- as a $5 BitTorrent download, replete with bonus tracks and extensive liner notes. As of press time, the set had garnered some 2.1 million downloads, showing that even with his notoriety as a boundary-pushing pop music producer who never learned to say "no" regardless of the collaborator asking for his assistance, Diplo has managed to cultivate one hell of a cult audience who will never cease to be interested in his boundary-pushing/Billboard Midas double-life.
Thus, the more DJ-oriented, dusty nuance of F10rida will come as a bit of a shock for those who were expecting the dancehall-styled beats he showed off on, say, Robyn's "Dancehall Queen". "Big Lost", the disc's first real song, mixes sawing string sections and '60s keyboard noodles over his dry, stuttering drum beats, ending up with a track that sounds suspiciously like early Def Jux-era RJD2 -- which, it should be noted, is very much a good thing. Throughout, he becomes obsessed with all the things he can reconfigure and repeat a good sound loop, the swinging jazz woodwinds and cacophonous xylophones of "Way More" serving as the backdrop for his squatting synth workouts, while obvious album centerpiece "Summer's Gonna Hurt You" -- with attentive drum strikes accenting the stoner-ready bass groove as sampled cooing vocals haunt the track like a departed spirit -- immediately conjures up ghosts of DJ Shadow's The Private Press, which, at this stage in his production game, is not a bad comparison to land at all.
What the young Diplo failed to realize in all his giddy enthusiasm for creating these new sounds was how to really land a groove, which, when you get right down to it, basically translate into knowing how to end it. His artsy-craftsy sample epic "Works" clocks in at nearly nine minutes, which even with its extended ganja-advocating vocal clip played over a looped jazz figure at the end, more than overstays its welcome, the point he was going trying to make having come and gone at around the seven-minute mark easy. Even his early reverse-filtered pop collaboration with Martina Topley-Bird proves a daunting slog at six minutes, a lot of the time filled by various rolls and trills that simply point to him showing off as a producer instead of aiming to nail the mood. Even on F10rida's bonus material, his "Epistemology Suite 3: You're Enron" proves to be nothing more than an idea in search of a song to ground it in (although the '60s rock band breakdown at the end is a nice touch, if not completely disjointed from what preceded it).
Indeed, of all the additional ephemera included in this set, Diplo's three-part "Epistemlogy Suite" is assuredly no "What Does Your Soul Look Like?", feeling more like a grab-bag of experiments and scraps in lieu of fully-formed ideas, even if some of the small little details he peppers his grooves with make for listening that's more interesting than entertaining (dig the Suite's "Don't Fall" chapter, which features a killer upright-bass breakdown that doesn't do much of anything aside from just sounding damn cool in the moment, its end game totes vestigial). None of the new material here is worth getting a Mad Decent tattoo over, even though "Making It Hard" definitely points towards more of his club-oriented work in the future and the Derek Allen remix of "Summer's Gonna Hurt You" ads a skittery digital shade over the already-great original's foundation, surprisingly sounding more like modern-day Diplo now than it does Diplo of yore.
Ultimately, F10rida is a fascinating document of Diplo's early development, some songs ("Summer's Gonna Hurt You" especially) showcasing a savvy, more overtly artistic side of him that we don't get to see much of nowadays. Even if it was closely patterned after some of those early sample-based universes that his scratch-loving heroes managed to create so readily, Diplo still showed enough dark attitude and character of his own that had he continued down this direct path, it seems few people would have minded. However, just as Diplo's attempts at crafting DJ Shadow-quality music proves to be an interesting diversion more than it does a lasting statement, DJ Shadow's own recent attempts at crafting out-and-out pop numbers shows that try as he might, he is no Diplo by any stretch of the imagination. Remember kids: cite your idols as inspiration, but never follow their footsteps in exactly the same way. That path has already been tread, and you ain't gonna get anywhere new by walkin' it.