Diplo Is Reaching Out to Grab You

Mikael Wood
Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Diplo is having a serious pop moment, with two song-of-the-summer candidates near the top of Spotify’s Global Top 50 chart.

When Diplo travels to Las Vegas for his regular gig at the nightclub XS, he doesn’t take a private jet as many of his peers in Vegas’ cash-choked club scene do. Instead, the Los Angeles-based DJ and producer usually trudges through TSA with the plebes at Burbank’s Bob Hope Airport, not far from the recording studio where he does much of his work.

“My family growing up was so cheap that I feel dumb blowing money on something like that,” he said recently. Nevertheless, Diplo splurged a few weeks ago, bringing his personal trainer with him on a chartered jet that departed from Van Nuys. “That was an extra 30 minutes to get to the airport, and then we sat on the tarmac for an hour,” he recalled. “I was, like, ‘$10,000 for this? I should’ve flown Southwest.’”

The problem, one gathers, wasn’t that he couldn’t afford it. As much a translator as a creator, Diplo has emerged over the past decade as an important (if polarizing) presence in both hip-hop and electronic dance music, guiding popular taste with his ahead-of-the-curve sound and enterprises including a record label, Mad Decent, and an endorsement deal with BlackBerry.

Now, at 36, he’s having a serious pop moment, with two song-of-the-summer candidates near the top of Spotify’s Global Top 50 chart: “Lean On,” a slinky synth tune from Major Lazer, Diplo’s reggae-inspired group with producers Jillionaire and Walshy Fire; and “Where Are Ü Now,” a futuristic ballad by Jack Ü, his duo with the EDM star Skrillex, featuring Justin Bieber.

“He’s, like, the guy right now,” said Gary Richards of Hard Events, which this weekend will put Diplo and Skrillex in front of an estimated 65,000 fans at the Hard Summer festival in Pomona, Calif. “I booked him before I even heard the Jack Ü album.”

Diplo can feel the heat around him, but he knows it’s fleeting. “You only have a certain amount of time as a person making relevant music,” he said. “There’s a window, and I’m in the middle of it.” In other words, it wasn’t money he was wasting on that private jet — it was time.

You could get a sense of how much Diplo is packing in one morning last month at his studio, a surprisingly low-key space he shares with Ariel Rechtshaid, a fellow producer known for his work with Vampire Weekend and Charli XCX. Dressed in sweat pants and a designer T-shirt, Diplo had returned the night before from Vegas and was scheduled to record in a few hours with MO, the Danish singer featured on “Lean On.” For now, though, the sisters of Haim were busy in one room, while the DJ A-Trak hovered over a laptop in another. Stepping outside, where a shiny black Tesla was parked, Diplo pointed down the quiet suburban street to a karate studio and a gun store.

“That’s why I like Burbank,” he said with a laugh. “It’s just like Florida.”

Born Thomas Wesley Pentz, Diplo grew up north of Miami, where his father ran a bait shop. (The stage name, short for “diplodocus,” came from his childhood love of dinosaurs.) A neighbor who built computers charged Diplo $400 for a machine equipped with music-editing software, and soon he was making beats and honing DJ skills he’d later use as a college kid in Philadelphia. After finishing school he started traveling the world, exploring underground music scenes in Brazil and Japan and showing off his discoveries on a series of mixtapes.

One of them, a collection of frenetic funk tracks from the slums of Rio de Janeiro, caught the ear of M.I.A., with whom Diplo began collaborating. In 2008 they crashed the mainstream with “Paper Planes,” a woozy Clash-sampling jam that reached No. 4 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and earned a Grammy nomination for record of the year.

Diplo’s habit of polishing styles from far-flung locales led some to accuse him of taking credit for the work of less privileged musicians. But his flair for addictive beats and unusual hooks attracted stars like Usher, for whom he produced “Climax,” and Beyonce, who more or less remade Major Lazer’s “Pon de Floor” as “Run the World (Girls).”

The Australian singer Sia remembers receiving Diplo’s demo for what became “Elastic Heart,” their hit from the “Hunger Games: Catching Fire” soundtrack. “I’ve never, ever, ever called someone up after they’ve sent me a track and said, ‘Do not give this to anyone else, please!’” she said. “But that day it happened.”

Diplo said his newfound cachet hasn’t cleared every obstacle from his path. Before “Lean On” became a Major Lazer song, he shopped it to “so many people,” including a superstar he declined to name; all passed on recording it, saying the track was too weird. And getting Bieber to sing the relatively edgy “Where Are Ü Now” required softening of the ground around the troubled teen idol.

The last time he worked with Bieber, on the singer’s 2012 album, “Believe,” they made “a couple of songs I wasn’t that excited about, to be honest. We had some other ideas that were cool, but at the time nobody was ready to push Bieber in that direction.” Three years later, with the singer having “hit rock bottom” after a stretch of bad publicity, his camp was open to shaking things up, Diplo said.

“Justin had been away for a while and was in a different place,” said Bieber’s manager, Scooter Braun, who noted that Diplo is playing a “pivotal role” on the singer’s next album. Collaborating with Diplo, he went on, gives Bieber a bit of “credibility in a world he’s never been in before.”

And then there was Madonna, who recruited Diplo for several tracks on her 2015 album, “Rebel Heart.”

“We went head to head on music all the time,” he said. Those disagreements didn’t bother him; he was impressed by how “invested” she is in her work. Yet he felt the rollout of “Rebel Heart” — in which Madonna seemed to be actively trolling critics who said she’d gotten too old for racy theatrics — clashed with the album’s “classy” vibe. “But I’m not about to step in and talk to her about marketing. She’s Madonna! And you have to the play the game. You can’t sit back and complain about the way the media portrays you.”

Diplo’s own persona is fixed somewhere between cool-hunting hipster and catcalling bro. (When Este Haim emerged from a room at the studio to find the producer shirtless, she seemed less than surprised.) On Twitter, the father of two young children has invited disgusted eye-rolls with unseemly comments about female stars such as Lorde and Taylor Swift, whose supposed nemesis, Katy Perry, he’s said to have dated.

And he’s still answering charges of cultural appropriation from people who say he’s “not black enough,” in his words, to do reggae with Major Lazer or “not white enough” to do country music with the Band Perry. Recalling a recent trip to Jamaica, where he said he heard countless remixes of “Lean On,” he insisted, “I’m not just excavating stuff and taking it home to my library. It’s a back-and-forth conversation.

“But I do talk a lot of” trash, he allowed, using a stronger word. “I’ve got to watch that.”

That’s what he seemed to be doing when he began talking about how, after “Paper Planes,” artists only wanted more songs like that from him. “I did a session with Missy Elliott and played her ‘Pon de Floor,’” he said, cutting himself off with a wary chuckle. “Never mind — I’m not gonna tell that story.”

The show-business politics are an indication that Diplo is pondering a future in which his continued ascent depends on his increasing visibility. Certainly that renown is part of what draws artists to Mad Decent, which scored a No. 1 single in 2013 with Baauer’s “Harlem Shake.” (Last week, the label launched an annual tour featuring many of its acts.)

And the high profile can’t hurt his ongoing attempt to make a record with Rihanna, one of pop’s savviest collaborators and a Diplo holdout. Alluding to the worldwide success of “Lean On,” he said: “Maybe we’re getting to the point where she can’t ignore us anymore.”

John Ivey, program director at L.A.’s powerful Top 40 radio station KIIS-FM, said that “to get to that next level, Diplo needs to brand himself a little bit better” — meaning stepping out from behind the high-concept veil of Major Lazer, with its cast of animated characters. Yet that move could affect his reputation in the dance scene, a risk given that his lucrative Las Vegas shows pay for his experimentation in the studio, he said.

For now, at least, Diplo is holding the line, according to Hard’s Richards, who admitted he was suspicious of the Bieber song before he heard it. “But when he’s working with these pop people, he’s bringing them into our world,” he said. “It’s not like he’s changing his style and trying to be something he’s not.”

Whatever the setting, Diplo said, that style is his currency. “I saw Usher at the gym this morning, and he put me in his car to listen to some music — like, ‘Wes, what do you think of this?’” he said. “People respect my opinion now to the point where I have a little leverage. I have to take advantage of that.”

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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