Super-groups come in many shapes and sizes, but Major Lazer -- the all-star duo comprised of Grammy-nominated producers Diplo and Switch -- has taken it to a new dimension. More precisely, the second dimension.
The face of Major Lazer is a cartoon character that sports a lazer for an arm and, according to press materials, “fights the spoils of vampires, zombies, pimps, mummies, and other unsavory forces of evil.” The animated alter ego made its debut in the music video for first single "Hold the Line." But Major Lazer's album, “Guns Don't Kill People...Lazers Do," is captivating listeners on its own merit. Since its June 16 release, the dancehall-tinged mash-up debuted at No. 169 on the Billboard 200 chart and No. 7 on Top Electronic Albums.
Having already collaborated on M.I.A.'s unlikely mainstream hit "Paper Planes" and Santigold's debut album, Diplo and Switch could have taken their joint project in a multitude of directions. The two, however, remained committed to the Jamaican genre known as dancehall, even recording at Bob Marley's Tuff Gong Studios to get the authentic feel.
“Dancehall gets overlooked by some of the bigger labels," says Switch, "so we wanted to try to expose it a little bit in America. Plus, if we had gone into the studio and tried to make an album without some sort of theme to work around, it never would have been finished. Diplo and I would have just kept trying to out-weird each other!”
The end product is an album rife with collaborations, with the guests ranging from Jamaican dancehall stars such as Vybz Kartel to stateside artists like Santigold and Nina Sky. With thumping bass lines, reggae riffs, Nirvana sampling and futuristic electronic effects, “Guns Don't Kill People...” is, if anything, an album with ingenious variety.
The album's second single featuring Nina Sky, “Keep It Goin' Louder,” is more fitting for an American dance club than a Jamaican one. “I think 'Keep It Goin' Louder' is a straight-up smash,” says Josh Deutsch, founder of Downtown Records (the label that released Major Lazer's album in collaboration with Diplo's Mad Decent imprint). “The response from every corner -- from Pitchfork to pop radio -- is incredible.”
According to Switch, however, gaining mainstream popularity was never the main goal behind Major Lazer, unlike some of the other projects he's worked on. "Right after we finished [M.I.A.'s] album, we all kept wondering, 'Is it going to be okay? Is it going to be big?' But with this project, we didn't expect it to be on the charts. We were just doing what we wanted."
Though the cartoon character may seem like a silly gimmick, Switch and the band's label believe it encourages people to do more than just listen. “We thought the Major Lazer character gave the project a mythology,” says Deutsch. “It creates a world that people can participate in for longer than just a one-off collaboration record, and it gives us a broad range of tools from which we can market the album and create additional exposure for the character.” According to Deutsch, this exposure includes long-form video projects and elaborate merchandising opportunities, which Switch calls “more collectible" than the album.
Major Lazer is currently touring to promote the new album, and as individual producers, Diplo and Switch continue to make provocative songs with the potential to become smash hit records. They've entered the studio to work on new albums by M.I.A., Santigold, and Christina Aguilera.
“Because we have a different sort of sound, if more mainstream artists ask us to work on things, it's usually a pretty cool project," he says. "They've asked us because they want something a little bit different than what they've done before.”