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.