Skrillex, Diplo & A-Trak: The Billboard Cover Story
The three guys stand shoulder to shoulder, backs to the wall, attempting to balance their varying heights with staggered stances.
Diplo is the tallest and most camera-trained, tilting his head and adjusting his hot-professor glasses. He has, after all, modeled for a GQ magazine spread, making multicolor turtlenecks look somehow hip. "EDM!" he shouts, in place of "cheese."
A-Trak sports his trademark short-brim hat with a waist-tied gingham button-down, and looks into the camera with purpose and patience. His pose belies the practical joke of his Grammy Award-nominated hit, "Barbra Streisand"-and the fact that he just returned from a shoot with the ladies of Sports Illustrated for its storied swimsuit issue.
And then there's Skrillex. Short but not slight, Sonny Moore is a study in monochrome, pale skin playing off the pitch black of his hair, slouchy clothes and skinny satin tie. ("I'm going to steal this fancy tie!" he'd tweet later.) He dutifully keeps his chin up, craning to get his full face into the same stripe of light cast over that of his photo mates and friends.
There aren't any hustling assistants trying to fulfill extreme riders. No one retreats to a side room in a huff, or crowds the photographer to critique shots. The trio seems more concerned with finding the espresso machine and discussing MegaUpload's demise."I just bought a premium to that thing," Skrillex says. But despite the lack of pomp, inside the room stand three of the most powerful -- and arguably, revolutionary -- figures to hit pop culture in years, let alone the music business. They've come to liberate fans and artists from hierarchy, conformity and general boringness.
"I know one thing -- the major labels, the A&Rs, are very frightened now," says Diplo, born Wesley Pentz. "They see that things are in our hands in a lot of ways."
"It's a time where all of us are able to rewrite the rules," says A-Trak, aka Montreal-born Alain Macklovitch. "Not to sound too cocky, but it's like there are no more rules. There is a captive audience, and it's hungry. It's our time to be creative in how we feed it."
Last year at this time, these three were doing what DJ/producers always did: Putting out off-the-dial music for small audiences, trying to get gigs, and graciously taking occasional calls from the mainstream's parallel universe. Now, they form a powerful consortium: Together, they boast more than 1.2 million Twitter followers and 3.9 million Facebook fans, seven 2012 Grammy nominations, their own trendsetting record labels with rosters that major-label A&R reps relentlessly scout, the love and support of powerful brands, and influential friends and collaborators who look to them for what's next.
There's Diplo, the gentleman scholar-meets-rude boy, and charismatic head of the Mad Decent imprint, known for producing unexpected collaborations, like "C'mon" with Tiësto and Busta Rhymes, and flights of experimentalism like M.I.A.'s Grammy-nominated "Paper Planes." He's also a BlackBerry spokesman, Vanity Fair columnist, Usher and Chris Brown collaborator -- he's nominated for best rap song for Brown's 2011 track "Look at Me Now." And -- in news first revealed here -- executive producer of the next Snoop Dogg album, set for release this summer.
A-Trak is a former teenage DMC World DJ Championship turntablist, half of team Duck Sauce (with New York-based producer Armand Van Helden), Fool's Gold label proprietor, DJ and electronic adviser to Kanye West and kick-starter of the electro-rap movement. "Barbra Streisand" (Fool's Gold/Downtown) hit No. 1 in 13 countries, has 67 million YouTube views and placements in shows like HBO's "How to Make It in America" and Fox's "Glee," and has sold 417,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Duck Sauce's current hit, "Big Bad Wolf," sits at 4.8 million YouTube views.
And Skrillex, the 24-year-old wunderkind of the dubstep revolution, who at 16 was touring and recording with emo hardcore band From First to Last, before turning his attention to "music I could make alone on my laptop." His first year in the spotlight yielded sold-out international tours, collaborations with Korn and the Doors, and five 2012 Grammy nominations, including best new artist and best electronic album for an EP -- "Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites" (Mau5trap/Big Beat/Atlantic) -- which has sold 239,000 copies and 600,000 of its title track, according to SoundScan.
"I never would've thought that would ever happen in my whole entire life, ever, because of the music I make," Skrillex says about the Grammy nods. "I still don't understand. I play in Las Vegas and there are guys spending $50,000 on tables to see me. What I do is just weird music."
Despite their disparate interests and styles, the three are close. "These are two of my best friends," Diplo says. "It's cool we're doing this together." Diplo and A-Trak met at a DJ gig almost a decade ago. The two hunted down Skrillex online after his music caught their ears.
They also share a philosophy -- a self-driven spirit that's part individualistic artist, part entrepreneur. Their rallying cries are as antithetical to the purist underground that birthed them as they are to the traditional industry: Mainstream acceptance is gratifying, not demeaning. Sales don't matter; give it away. If it's dope, put it out. Pop music can be cool. The best marketing is free. And most important: Do it yourself. Every last bit of it.
"What's happening with music now reminds me of when people talk about the Afrika Bambaataa days, the early days of DJ'ing when it wasn't about what style a record was," A-Trak says. "It was just, 'Is it funky? Does it have a beat? Will people dance?'"
No one will deny it: 2011 was the year of the DJ. Once an insular scene with a fixed number of established stars, events and media outlets to its name, electronic dance music, or EDM, burst the dam last year, flowing into every corner of culture, regardless of its subgenre. "On blogs, you find everything," A-Trak says. "This new generation of kids doesn't really label stuff as much anymore."
"EDM is sort of a silly word, but we take a little bit of everything," Diplo says. "We love music in every form."
The high points of the scene have been well-documented: Dutch trance DJ Tiësto selling out Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. Three-man crew Swedish House Mafia selling out New York's Madison Square Garden -- in nine minutes flat. Dance-focused festivals like Las Vegas' Electric Daisy Carnival and Miami's Ultra Music Festival drawing hundreds of thousands of attendees and selling out 2012 dates before even announcing the rosters.
Perhaps the most definitive news came in January, when Simon Cowell announced that his Syco Entertainment would bring DJ culture to prime-time TV, in the form of an "X Factor"-style talent competition. "DJs are the new rock stars," he said in a statement about the program. "It feels like the right time to make this show."
But for Diplo, Skrillex and A-Trak, being "rock stars" is only the beginning. They're all significant live acts: Skrillex's Mothership tour is sold out at every stop. Diplo plays hard-ticket venues all over the world (Beirut, Abu Dhabi, Greece and Spain in January alone), and A-Trak opened for Swedish House Mafia at its Garden gig. Tom Windish (@secretagent21), head of the Windish Agency, which books both Diplo and A-Trak, says that this isn't a particularly new situation for EDM artists. "I booked Daft Punk at a rave 15 years ago and there were 10,000 people there," he says. "Cultures of dance music have been huge for a long time."
But to Craig Kallman, chairman/CEO of Atlantic Records Group, which acquired his influential dance imprint Big Beat in 1991, the real story isn't about sellouts or even sales.
"These individuals aren't just terrific DJs, producers and hitmakers," he says, "they're curators. Cultural trendsetters and musical pacesetters who have an ability to spot talent, as well as build brands that are meaningful to consumers, and speak to a really special and unique point of view. When you buy into them as a DJ or label head, you're peeling away layers of an onion, revealing other facets of their strengths and talents, because their tastes are akin to why you like them in the first place. Their ability to be breeding grounds for new talent is a fascinating side to this new space."
The history of the DJ as influencer is a long one: In the late '70s and early '80s, R&B WBLS New York PD Frankie Crocker often added tracks he'd hear on DJ Larry Levan's dancefloor at the legendary Paradise Garage nightclub, among them Taana Gardner's 1981 "Heartbeat" (which eventually hit No. 10 on Billboard's R&B chart). Madonna often enlists DJs-of-the-moment to produce her albums: William Orbit for 1998's "Ray of Light," Mirwais for 2000's "Music" and 2003's "American Life," Stuart Price for 2005's "Confessions on a Dance Floor" and, early on, Jellybean Benitez and Junior Vasquez for seminal remixes. "Over the years, there are artists who have known the secret, that you've got to go to the DJs," A-Trak says.
But apart from charting tracks or adding production credits to their résumés, DJs rarely had the platforms on which to capitalize sixth senses for what's next. Until now.
Through their self-founded and -run labels, dance artists are able to not only control their own careers -- collaborating at will, putting out music the way they want it and controlling its eventual destiny -- but also bring new acts into the fold, giving them instant platforms and audiences. "The entire Internet is our focus group," Diplo says. "We just go for it."
And it's not limited to just today's three: Tiësto, Swedish House Mafia, Calvin Harris, Steve Aoki, Deadmau5 and countless others are all following the self-owned-label model, forever changing what it means to get "discovered," and shifting the balance of power to the creative class' side.
Mad Decent, the label/culture lab that Diplo founded in 2005, is home to artists like Blaqstarr, Rusko and Major Lazer, Diplo's own reggae/punk project with London-based producer Switch. A follow-up to its 2009 debut, "Guns Don't Kill People . . . Lazers Do," is due this year, featuring singles with Amber Coffin from the Dirty Projectors and Wyclef Jean, and additional tracks with Sean Paul, Vampire Weekend and Santigold.
The label is "a place where you can find the weirdest things on the outskirts of the Internet," Diplo says. "I just put a record up . . . called 'Ima Read' by Zebra Katz. It's like the weirdest gay-vogue-house meets 'The-Shining'-Jack-Nicholson track. But that's my job, to put stuff like that out. People look at me to be the guy who's exposing those new sounds. That's my passion."
A former anthropology major, Diplo takes the study of scenes seriously. His 2008 documentary, "Favela on Blast," got inside the Brazilian baile funk underground. And "128 Beats Per Minute," an upcoming coffee-table book published by Rizzoli New York, collects photos from his international travels, with a forward by designer Alexander Wang. Diplo also has a monthly photo feature on VanityFair.com, each installment focusing on a different subculture or micro-movement. "I'm fascinated with documenting what's happening," he says, "because I don't think a lot of people are doing it. That's why I got into music in the first place."
Seduced by Diplo's obsession with the bleeding edge-not to mention his fashion-friendly profile and inherent reliance on technology -- RIM featured the artist in a national TV campaign for BlackBerry, after being approached by his (and A-Trak's) manager, Kevin Kusatsu. "At the time, we thought to look for something in mobile, but didn't know if it was a carrier or a device," he says. "I pursued BlackBerry, and [creative agency] Leo Burnett and RIM took that information and added Diplo to a short list of influencers."
| Diplo vs. Tiesto feat. Busta Rhymes, 'C'mon' |
Fool's Gold, the label A-Trak founded in 2007 with partner Nick Catchdubs (@catchdini), is styled after the great imprints of hip-hop's past-and like Mad Decent, it's a joint venture with Downtown Music (which is distributed by Universal Music Group's Fontana, and sometimes by Alternative Distribution Alliance). "We've really tried to maintain the lineage of classic labels, from Mo' Wax to Stones Throw to Rawkus. Labels where you know anything they sign, it's going to be up to a certain standard," A-Trak says.
The label has also served as something of a crystal ball. Impressed by his DMC champ skills, in 2004, Kanye West appointed A-Trak as his official touring DJ. A-Trak used the opportunity to champion the dance cause to his headliner, slowly turning him on to the sounds that eventually found their way into his own work. "I played him Daft Punk. The next thing you know, he made 'Stronger' [which samples Daft's "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger"]," A-Trak says. "Because he's such a great producer, he was able to incorporate it into his music, and a lot of people followed suit."
In 2007, West appeared on Fool's Gold's "Pro Nails," a sassy bit of party rap by Chicago's Kid Sister. A few years later, Dr. Luke introduced the world to Ke$ha, a similarly pottymouthed speak-singer. A-Trak also points to the Crookers mix of Kid Cudi's "Day 'N' Nite" as seminal to the electro-rap trend.
Even a few years ago, that was still the way: With the exception of David Guetta, who bypassed the label structure by befriending the artists themselves, a dance artist would make something cool and a mainstream producer would happily borrow it. Diplo uses the example of "Pon De Floor," the spastic and undeniable Major Lazer track that formed the base of Beyoncé's "Run the World (Girls)."
"For two years, so many A&Rs were going to [other producers] and playing that record for them. I know this for a fact," Diplo says. "Flo Rida's A&R would always play that record like, 'We need this record for Flo Rida.' Why wouldn't you just come to us?"
Eventually, that's exactly what started to happen. Even the A&R reps admit it. "I beat people over the head with Swedish House Mafia and [SHM member] Steve Angello for two years straight," says Dave Rene, an A&R representative at Interscope and Jimmy Iovine's right-hand man. Rene gave Skrillex his first remix work and the two remain friends. "It wasn't until Steve started producing records for us that people were like, 'Oh, wow, there's a real difference from a studio producer trying to make dance music to Steve actually doing it.'"
| Duck Sauce, 'Barbra Streisand' |
Angello eventually produced tracks for Interscope acts iSquare, Rye Rye and Nicole Scherzinger, and just completed an upcoming collaboration with Will.i.am and Alicia Keys. Last year, Skrillex helped Korn (@korn) develop the sound for its dubstep-focused "The Path of Totality" (Roadrunner), and cut "Breakin' a Sweat" with the surviving members of the Doors, which appears on his new EP, "Bangarang." U.K. dubstep star Rusko (@ruskoofficial) is currently working with '90s hip-hop group Cypress Hill. And Diplo is in the studio with Usher, and in writing sessions with Snoop Dogg, who enlisted Major Lazer to executive-produce his next album, which Diplo says will be focused on reggae.
"When I talk about barriers breaking down, that includes who can be heard by whom," A-Trak says. "Before, if you were just an up-and-coming DJ or producer, or even an established DJ or producer, it was still this unknown world, like, 'How can I get these big-name artists to hear my stuff?' But now it's all connected. Now every artist is turning to DJs for new sounds."
For Diplo, who points to Timbaland and the Neptunes as his models, it's been a gratifying ride. "I was in the studio with Usher and he was playing me the Monsters of Folk album -- I don't even know what that was -- and Bon Iver," he says with admiration. "I'm working with these people and they're trusting me, they're fans of my music, and they're also amazing in the studio. I'm just super-happy."
The joy and pride of all three artists is palpable throughout the day that Billboard spent with them. There's a sense that this story, this moment together, is representative of even greater things to come.
| Skrillex, 'Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites' |
But none would deny that Skrillex is the star. Despite his goth-kid appearance, his disposition is positively sweet: He's even a hugger. But he practically pulsates with the energy of his cause, with the utter conviction that what he's doing and making -- nothing less than the first truly new music, perhaps since Kraftwerk -- is valuable and right. "People paint this picture of a hyperactive screamo kid jumping on the dubstep bandwagon," he says, more disappointed than angry. "Like there's no talent, like it's just noise chopped together. But they're not actually investigating and making their own opinions."
The backlash is undeniable, and almost inevitable given his meteoric rise and the extreme qualities of his music. But Skrillex's peers see something completely different. "I've never met Skrillex, but he has music in his soul. I hear it in everything he does," says Stuart Price, who produced Scissor Sisters, the Killers and Seal after his stint with Madonna. "What will see him through everything is his music, because he lets it do the talking."
"He added the elements of mixing, mastering and song structure, which didn't exist in dubstep and house records," Diplo says. "He helped everyone step their game up."
Skrillex enjoys a positive relationship with Big Beat/Atlantic, which his team says is changing with him. "Other labels would have reacted completely differently to Skrillex telling us two days before Christmas that he was putting ["Bangarang"] out," says Kathryn Frazier, founder of PR firm Biz 3, which represents Skrillex and is a partner in his Owsla label. "Were they psyched? No. But they went with it. They were like, 'The world does work differently now, and we support you. Let's do it.'" "Bangarang," which came out on Owsla/Big Beat, has sold 68,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
For his part, Skrillex's focus is absolute. "Artists sometimes will change because of the response. I would never do that. But I'm always trying to do things better, make things sound better, and then outdo myself in my own eyes. I want to build upon what I already have and do it naturally, and try not to think about it," he says. "This music is for everyone. If you don't like it, then go find something else you like. And if you like it, enjoy it, and just let it do what it does."
Kerri Mason (@hotwaterinc) is a New York-based freelance writer.