Pull Up the Sound: The Story Behind M.I.A.’s Innovative Producer


Last week, M.I.A. released her third studio album entitled ///Y/, which when deciphered reads “Maya”, the singer’s first name. Furthering the album title’s ode to digital culture, the album’s cover finds M.I.A.’s face buried behind layers of red YouTube streaming bars and propped up by what could be the red bricks found in Nintendo’s classic Super Mario Brothers video game. Either crudely executed or executed to be crude, both the album’s cover and title are befitting of a time when any adept youth can crack open Photoshop to cut, paste and assemble, or when an impotent Google search of ///Y/ is an underscore to the elusive return on music industry investment. Though coherent in the familiar colours of red and silver, the YouTube streaming bars are with out the YouTube brand, juxtaposing implicit corporate ubiquity and DIY usability, leaving only M.I.A.’s hollow eyes behind a torrent of red lines.

Two singles have been released from the album, and the songs are as sonically unrelated as her album’s title is deceiving. The first of the two singles “Born Free” heavily samples the early synth-punk band Suicide’s 1977 hit “Ghost Rider”. The song’s production values are reflective of M.I.A.’s chart-topping hit from her second album Kala entitled “Paper Planes”. That song sampled liberally from the Clash’s “Straight to Hell”, and was planted firmly in the pop eye when a very pregnant M.I.A. performed alongside T.I., Jay-Z, Lil’ Wayne and Kanye West for a song called “Swagga Like Us” which sampled one of her lyrics from “Paper Planes”.

M.I.A.’s second single “XXXO” takes the novelty of Suicide’s best-known song and exchanges it for unabashed club-pop a la Lady Gaga (notwithstanding M.I.A.’s fierce dislike of Gaga). Altered to an icy-thin wisp of her natural voice, Maya squeaks out the chorus saying “You want me to be somebody who I’m really not,” a preoccupation that seems to contradict her insistence on being “born free” on the first single.

Distraction and confusion have so far haunted M.I.A.’s third musical outing, accented in part by a controversial exposé from writer Lynn Hirschberg in the New York Times Magazine back in May. Misquoted and made to look two-faced and politically naïve, M.I.A. first responded rather childishly by posting Hirschberg’s cell phone number on Twitter, then later that week gave a more engaging and convincing response by posting an audio excerpt from the interview on her website, clearing up the subtext and guilt implicated by Hirschberg when M.I.A. ordered truffle fries at the Chateau Marmont during the interview. Whether these accusations among others could become an afterthought, only time will tell, but M.I.A.’s latest album plays like a soundtrack Hirschberg’s profile of her; mapping sounds and lyrics over all the contradiction, incoherence and pretension of Hirschberg’s portrayal.

If the first two singles sounded like a departure from the music of M.I.A.’s first two albums, familiar architects built the songs. With no more than three productions on any all three of M.I.A. albums, no one has been as present for M.I.A.’s evolution then Wesley Pentz a.k.a. Diplo. Responsible for “Born Free” as well as two others on M.I.A.’s latest, Diplo is best known for his work on “Paper Planes” (he and Switch were nominated for a Best Producer Grammy, Diplo for his work as producer and Switch as mixer), and despite misconceptions about his involvement on M.I.A.’s debut album Arular, only produced the song “Bucky Dun Gun”.

Diplo has strived, like M.I.A., to color the grey netherworld between pop and the underground, producer and DJ, author and co-author. To chart Diplo’s contributions to M.I.A. and her sound through production credits with his name on them is to overlook his more dynamic influence as a mediator for underground sounds and their makers, lifting them from corners of the globe and re-contextualizing them for broader appeal. Paralleling M.I.A.’s own journey through sound, Diplo’s ascendance from niche to international-notoriety offers a lens into M.I.A.’s latest record, an album that on the surface is in keeping with her frequent use of underground sounds and fiery political lyrics, but manages to sound muddy and incoherent. Like many pop-artists through the years, M.I.A.’s career has been built alongside forward-thinking producers and musicians, but few have had such a complex relationship as M.I.A. and Diplo.

Playing such roles as producer, DJ, A&R, or even boyfriend Diplo, as well as M.I.A., is a personification of an era when the Internet fuels cheap high-speed access to information, art and communication from all over the world. Collapsed to horizontal structures of exchange, social networking, blogs and pirating allow people from all socio-economic backgrounds to play a multitude of artistic and economic roles from anywhere there is an Internet connection and a computer. However, all this ease of access and use is at considerable odds with existing structures of profit and an entertainment industry paralyzed by fear and uncertainty. ///Y/ and her tenuous relationship to ex-boyfriend Diplo couldn’t be better characters in such a tale.

Born in Mississippi and spending a significant chunk of his young life below the Bible-belt before coming north to Philadelphia and Baltimore, Diplo made an early name for himself as a DJ who could transcend genre and place. Looking back to the early part of this decade, Diplo emerges as a DJ who would lead a generation that grew up listening to Public Enemy, Pearl Jam and P. Diddy all at once. Among the DJ’s/producers who popularized the “mash-up”, Diplo was known for mixes and sets that traversed every thinkable genre of music, commercial and underground alike. One of Diplo’s earliest mixtapes “Never Scared”, with fellow-Philadelphia DJ Low Budget, was a tour de force of nascent Southern rap artists alongside essentials like the Cure, Björk and Missy Elliot. Then New York Times music critic Kelefa Sanneh named the mix as one of his top 10 favorite albums of the year, an early prediction of the album format’s untenable future and the egalitarian taste of a generation that would help expedite the process.

Even as Diplo was helping to usher in an era of musical pluralism, Diplo was ever forward looking in his desire for new sounds, just as adventurous about how or where they were coming from as he was about putting them together. The most notable of these new sounds, and ones that bubbled up to Diplo’s production for “Bucky Dun Gun” and the sound palette for M.I.A.’s debut album Arular, were from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Called “Funk Carioca” in Portuguese, and known to the world as Baile funk, this form of dance music derives most obviously from Miami bass. Popular in the late ’80s and ’90s with controversial groups like 2 Live Crew, Miami bass took the sexual explicitness of hip-hop and fused it with the electro-funk sounds of Afrika Bambaata. Baile funk and its associative parties come most prominently from the outlying favelas (slums in Portuguese) of Rio, outer-urban dwellings that are notorious for their deadly albeit sophisticated gangs, forms of governance more effective than many state governments. Baile funk is the most popular form of music amongst the favela communities, and many high-ranking gang members sponsor parties filled with free drugs and alcohol.

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.