The live performance video for Major Lazer's "Jah No Partial," the second single from new album "Free the Universe" (Mad Decent/Downtown, March 12), is Diplo's reggae-dance project in a nutshell.
There are booty-shorted B-girls Mela and Lafayette, with their eye-popping drop-down moves; giant revolutionary flags bearing the visage of the Major, a cartoon, zombie-fighting Jamaican commando designed by crew creative director Ferry Gouw. There's hype man Walshy Fire on the mic, and DJ/producer Jillionaire at the decks, a bottle of rum beside him. There's dancehall legend Johnny Osbourne, whose 1980 song "Mr. Marshall" provides the vocal line for "Partial." There's Diplo, alternately crowd-surfing or scaling the lighting truss, a fearless master of ceremonies. And there's a crowd in a permanent state of jump-up, waving T-shirts and whipping hair and basically losing its collective marbles.
"Half the album speaks to our live show,'" Diplo says. "Our show really melded together to make this album."
More merry band than vanity project, Major Lazer is still led by Diplo, aka Wesley Pentz, the DJ/producer who first made an impact with M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes" and has since made similarly unlikely hits for everyone from Beyonce to Justin Bieber. He snagged a Grammy Award nomination this year for producer of the year, non-classical for a body of work that includes Usher's "Climax." He's also the leader/founder of taste-making label Mad Decent and all of its imprints.
Lazer used to be a duo -- just Diplo and British producer Switch. Their first album, 2009's "Guns Don't Kill People… Lazers Do," featured "Pon De Floor," the drum-heavy ditty that later formed the basis of Beyonce's "Run the World (Girls)" and spent 47 weeks on Billboard's Reggae Digital Songs chart, reaching No. 3. But Diplo and Switch parted ways last year, and now the act's live show is a family affair. "I'd like an audience to see Major Lazer as a band or crew," says Kevin Kusatsu, manager of Diplo and Major Lazer with partner Andrew McInnes. "Something that's a special experience live."
The 34-date "Free the Universe" tour begins Feb. 28 in Toronto, crossing the continent before hopping the pond for 16 dates in Europe. It wraps in May, just in time for the Mad Decent Block Party, the annual traveling series of free outdoor concerts that showcase the label's roster. "The best way to see Major Lazer this summer is at a Mad Decent Block Party," the Windish Agency's Sam Hunt says. "This is what they've been working toward for a really long time, to build the brand up to the way they're doing them this year."
According to Hunt, the events will grow from five cities to as many as 12, may charge a cover for the first time and may "have much bigger artists, potentially not from Mad Decent."
But apart from a bombastic live show, the album is its own experience; an undeniable party, with something more at its core. The set showcases Diplo's ability to get inside a genre or localized sound and make something that's new but still faithful to its source. "Partial," for example, is a collaboration with U.K. dubstep king Flux Pavilion, but its cement-heavy bass drops don't smother Osbourne's distinctive delivery, and other tracks feature Jamaican acts Elephant Man, Opal, Busy Signal and Shaggy, as well as Wyclef Jean, with elements of dubstep, Dutch house, hip-hop and even '80s synth pop thrown in.
"Dancehall and reggae is the backbone," Diplo says of the album. "It's our own version of that."
A video for "Bumaye (Watch Out for This)," featuring Flexican and Busy Signal, will be released soon, but lead single "Get Free"-a reggae-infused lament featuring Dirty Projectors vocalist Amber Coffman that was released quietly last year-continues to catch on. Frank Ocean tweeted its lead line ("We could never get free") in December, it went gold in three countries, and German radio is just starting to play it.
"When a song impacts people like that, you get a larger understanding of the audience," Kusatsu says. "[With] an album rollout, it's a constant reminder that you have the ability to deeply affect people and how they experience music in their lives. That stays with the decision-making, gives it a sense of community, and also reminds us that all this stuff is still really fun."