When Ethnic Goes Pop: Balkan Beat Box on Providing Horn Hooks for Diplo, Jason Derulo

Balkan Beat Box
Orit Pnini

Balkan Beat Box

Ori Kaplan, frontman for Tel Aviv-based melting-pot collective Balkan Beat Box, recognizes that Jason Derulo -- whose massive 2014 hit “Talk Dirty” was driven by a sampled horn groove from the band’s “Hermetico” -- made their music accessible to mainstream audiences, but he wants to make sure to give credit where credit is due.

“Actually, the first [mainstream] guy who discovered us and tried to communicate with us and put our sound in the pop world was Diplo," he tells Billboard from Tel Aviv ahead of Balkan Beat Box's U.S. tour, which hits Los Angeles' Troubadour on Tuesday night (Sept. 20). "And the first thing was [when] our song 'Bulgarian Chicks' was featured in Mac Miller['s 'Goosebumpz']."

That said, Kaplan appreciates how much Derulo’s hit was a total game-changer for the band. “Basically, it gave us the power to take things in our own hands," he says. "We started our own label and we put money back into the band and so we could make videos and support singles when they come out. It gave us artistic freedom to keep being this artsy workshop that we are.”

Billboard Cover: Jason Derulo on the Success of 'Talk Dirty' (Despite His Mom's Disapproval)

It’s pretty amazing that in this day and age one sample on one song could make such a big impact on a band’s career -- but then again, Balkan Beat Box isn't a traditional band, nor are the band members exactly newcomers. The band got started in New York City over a decade ago, with a goal of bringing traditional ethnic music to the masses. Their vaguely Middle Eastern sound is influenced by everything from African percussion to Klezmer, and their forthcoming album Shout It Out (out Nov. 11) continues the trend -- it would be equally at home in a hooka and a hookup bar.

Kaplan knows how to walk that line. “We’re doing funk and we like African and Latin [music],” he says. “We’re involved passionately with so many different kinds of music. And when we sit with producers in L.A., it’s not necessarily always pop language [we bring]; it’s thinking about how to shape music, how to use different roots or get [hooks] embedded in the back of our ears and just bring that to the session.”

Of course, with such a unique and multi-ethnic voice comes political talk -- and though Kaplan doesn’t directly finish his thoughts, it’s clear from his tone where he stands on the U.S. presidential election. “It’s very stormy right now and things are on the verge of absurd, basically. I mean, if Trump wins…” he trails off, then continues. “I’m surprised there aren’t more artists to talk about it before shows and not about what’s going on, how crazy it is.

“I feel like music can change people’s mindset up,” he says. “It’s more like a slow permeating kind of thing, but it’s so important. Where would we be without listening to Bob Marley or John Lennon?”