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."