Diplo on Why 'Heartless' Is 'Threatening' to Country Radio & The 'Bummer' of Saying No to Shakira

Sami Drasin

Diplo photographed on Feb. 12, 2020 in Los Angeles.

Plus: His Thomas Rhett & Young Thug collab, dropping everything for Madonna, reuniting with Dua Lipa and where his underwear ad ranks with Calvin Harris & Shawn Mendes, on the Pop Shop Podcast.

Diplo wears many hats, and lately, he’s been sporting an array of cowboy hats. The genre-hopping superstar producer and DJ is prepping for the release of his “country-fusion” album Thomas Wesley, which includes the top 20 Hot Country Songs hit “Heartless,” featuring Morgan Wallen, along with a collaboration with Thomas Rhett and Young Thug titled “Dance With Me.”

While Diplo has found success with pop, dance, hip-hop and dancehall tunes, breaking down the doors to the country world wasn’t without its challenges. Though the country-pop tune “Heartless” -- which sports an electronic 808 drum machine beat -- reached No. 15 on Hot Country Songs (thanks to streaming activity and sales), country radio stations have mostly ignored the cut since its release in August. It’s so far yet to break onto the 60-position Country Airplay chart.

“We don’t get any country radio play” with “Heartless,” Diplo tells the Billboard Pop Shop Podcast (listen to the interview, below). Even though other pop-leaning country tunes have run up the Country Airplay chart (such as Rhett’s No. 1 hit “Look What God Gave Her”), “Heartless” just didn’t click with radio, aside from a handful of adventurous stations.

“I mean, the 808s are threatening to [country radio programmers],” Diplo says.

“You know what? The song's getting listened to,” he says. “It's the most streamed record for Morgan, one of the most streamed country records right now, and it's on [SiriusXM's] The Highway, who gives us a lot of support, so that matters a lot.” Through March 12, “Heartless” racked up more than 75 million on-demand streams in the U.S., according to Nielsen Music/MRC Data. Meanwhile, The Highway has played the track more than 800 times.

“I don't need to go through the gatekeepers,” Diplo says, “I never did in my career. I never waited for someone [to say] 'That's OK to do dancehall?' Or whatever it is. I just did it. And I find the fans. And I think that's what's great about music these days, because you don't need to unlock the gate to get into the scene anymore. You kind of work outside of it.”

Below are some highlights of our interview with Diplo, which took place back on Feb. 12, at his cover photo shoot for Billboard magazine (read his full cover story here). In our chat, we get updates on the next Major Lazer and Silk City projects, how he’s up for collaborating with both Enya and Barbra Streisand, if he has any unreleased collaborations with Madonna in the vault, he clears up Internet rumblings of him working on the next Lady Gaga album, and why fans should tweet him photos from Shawn Mendes’ Calvin Klein underwear campaign.

You've got a lot going on right now. There's at least two album projects that you have cooking…

There's always more on the back burners, but on the front burners … coming up really soon, not a concrete release date on the Major Lazer album but in the next two months, it'll be done, finished and released. ... [Next is] Thomas Wesley, my side project, which is sort of this country-fusion record. … It's cool to work in country because I'm so used to working with hip-hop artists and dance music, which is quick. Quick up and down [the charts]. But country records, if they're really well-written, they go for like a year. They climb charts for a year, which is awesome to be part of that. And you don't get sick of the songs. A lot of times in dance music, we jump on trends, and we have to kind of be quick. And sometimes the songs aren't as great, you know? So it's hard to find classics in dance. But with country, in songwriting, folk music in general, I think it's great to have a good song record. … The next single [from the Thomas Wesley project] is with Thomas Rhett and Young Thug… it's called "Dance With Me."

You sort of dabble in every genre of music under the sun. We're waiting for the Enya collaboration.

I would love that. I'm really into, like, Irish baroque songwriting too, so I feel like she's the one. I actually love her albums. I search her albums a lot for samples. She had that huge Fugees sample [the group's "Ready or Not" sampled Enya's 1987 song "Boadicea"], but she also had the other record, "Caribbean Blue," which was sampled a lot in other records. It's another awesome one. But I mean, she just has melodies that are amazing.

You've collaborated with Madonna on her last two albums: You had a track on Madame X, called "Future," with Quavo, and you had a number of tracks on her previous album, Rebel Heart. What is collaborating with her like? Is it you bringing in music and cool sounds, and she comes in with the lyrics, and it's inspired by [the music]? Or is it more like, "Let's get in the studio together and sort of hash out something"?

We start everything from scratch for her. So with Rebel Heart, it was like studio sessions [for] two weeks. Which for me, is not very common, because I usually have like one day here for a session, one day there, I write a record, and maybe I come back to them. But I don't sit for whole projects, which is what a producer does… But for me, time doesn't allow that. And I've always been working in a format that's been singles-based, whether it's hip-hop or dance music. But with her, I had to do it. She didn't take any bullsh--. Like, we were gonna do full 16-hour days, and like work, work, work, work. And I was like, "Uhhh..." But that's how you make records. And you do 'em quick. And you make 'em and you have a vibe…

I was sort of like the DJ in that album and gave her the modern sound. Before me it was like Jellybean Benitez or Paul Oakenfold … She always knew … what was happening with dance music. Or when she did Ray of Light, it was like drum n bass, [one of the album's producers] William Orbit. She always had her pulse on it. So for her to pick me to work with her, it was like a huge amount of respect to me. I was like, "Wow, she's put me with these other great producers of the time."

Are there tracks that you did together that are lingering in a Madonna vault?

There's some from Rebel Heart. There's like some random ones. But they weren't even close to being finished. They might have been like scratches [early, preliminary recordings] to start off with. You know, she's very, very dominant in the studio, and she knows what she wants, and she has a strong opinion, and she also knows her brand. And her brand's always changed. And it's crazy that she not only knows it, but she knows what the future is going to be like… She's one of the most, I think, strongest artists, male or female, I've ever worked with, that just has a definition to what she does.

You and Mark Ronson teamed up [as Silk City] with Dua Lipa for "Electricity," the Grammy-winning project. Did you happen to work at all on her new album Future Nostalgia? Or have you gotten with her for any of your upcoming things?

We actually did some writing demos for that album. But we have something new that might be another Silk City record. We're playing with that. It's really about her project, so I think that's going to come out first, and then see what hits. But I love collaborating with her. The first record I did with her was with Major Lazer. It was called "My Love," with WizKid, which was way ahead of his time. It was a like a Dua Lipa Afrobeat pop record that honestly was like before she even had her big hit ["New Rules"]. It was right around [Drake's] "One Dance," so it made sense for England and London, but it was actually a huge record for us for a little while. We played it at Glastonbury with her, but …it was, like, way too early for that record. It's still a really awesome sounding record and sounds new to me.

Speaking of Silk City, Mark has worked a lot with Lady Gaga. Is that somebody that you have ever teamed up with? Per the Internet, you're allegedly working with Gaga and Ronson.

We've… I think I've sent… like, I've worked on stuff with Mark that might have gone there [to Gaga]. … She's really cool, and I met her a long time ago back in the day… I never really went to a studio with her, but I've seen her around. She's awesome. But I've never had a, nah, never had a chance.

Without naming names, or you can name them, you have worked with so many people -- do you say no to things?

Uh, yeah. I've actually not really said no to many people. It's all about time. Like, I said no once -- it was a time issue -- to Shakira, because I couldn't work on the [She Wolf] album… I gave the job to John Hill, because we were working together. I was hoping that I'd come back in the studio with them and finish stuff, but he just like… went to Colombia for like two months and they recorded in Lebanon, and I was like, "Hey, guys, I'm still here!" … I couldn't make her sessions, so… That was like the one, probably, bummer.

I'm looking forward to the Barbra Streisand collabo.

I'm ready. She's not following me on Instagram, so, that's a big… I check.

You follow her though?

Of course, yeah.

Among your many endeavors and side projects, you also did a Calvin Klein underwear ad last year. We wanted to know: Who had the best underwear campaign? Calvin Harris, yours, or Shawn Mendes'?

I thought you were gonna say Calvin Harris or Calvin Klein, which one's the better Calvin? I didn't see Shawn Mendes' ad...

How did you miss it? It set Twitter on fire.

But Calvin Harris did Armani. So, I've known Calvin for a long time, and his body transformation was very strong for that Armani [campaign].

You saw it before your very eyes!

I know him, I saw it. We go to the same gym. So I'm not even lying. And I didn't see Shawn Mendes' [campaign], and I love mine. So I'm going to go ahead and say mine.

Obviously. I mean, that's the right answer.

[Laughs] But I didn't see Shawn Mendes'. But I love me, and I'm just gonna have to still go ahead and vote for myself.

Now we're gonna make it so people are just tweeting you pictures of Shawn Mendes in his underwear, so sorry about that.

I would love that, 'cause I know him. I can actually text him and be like, "Hey, I missed your ad, can you send me some snippets?"

Also on the Pop Shop Podcast, in addition to the interview with Diplo, the Pop Shop team discusses big charts news from Lil Uzi Vert, Dua Lipa and Drake, along with an update on how the coronavirus continues to disrupt the music business.

The Billboard Pop Shop Podcast is your one-stop shop for all things pop on Billboard's weekly charts. You can always count on a lively discussion about the latest pop news, fun chart stats and stories, new music, and guest interviews with music stars and folks from the world of pop. Casual pop fans and chart junkies can hear Billboard's senior director of charts Keith Caulfield and deputy editor, digital Katie Atkinson every week on the podcast, which can be streamed on Billboard.com or downloaded in Apple Podcasts or your favorite podcast provider. (Click here to listen to the previous edition of the show on Billboard.com.)