Diplo and Friends: Meet the Team Behind the Producer's Success
The emergence of Thomas Wesley Pentz – who records under the name Diplo – as a pop juggernaut was one of 2015's biggest stories. His trio, Major Lazer, released "Lean On," which amiably smashed Spotify records and reached No. 4 on the Hot 100. At the same time, Diplo initiated a collaboration with Skrillex that resulted in "Where Are Ü Now," a top ten hit. To celebrate, Major Lazer played an historic concert in Cuba to a crowd numbering in the hundreds of thousands.
When Diplo's group returned recently with a new single, "Cold Water," his status as a commercial force was confirmed: the track debuted at No. 2 on the Hot 100. More remarkably, Diplo has achieved this as an independent act – he owns and operates his own label, Mad Decent, which celebrated its 10th birthday last year.
Of course, this sort of explosive success rarely happens overnight, or without help. After putting Diplo on the magazine cover in June, Billboard Dance spoke with multiple members of his team – handling his management, booking, radio promotion, legal affairs, and more – about the many, many steps that enabled him to reach his current level of ubiquity.
Learn more about the 10 team members below (listed alphabetically).
Andrew McInnes & Kevin Kusatsu, TMWRK
Andrew McInnes co-founded TMWRK, a management company, with Kevin Kusatsu in 2011. Kusatsu had been managing Diplo since 2006, so the producer and the extended Mad Decent family became early TMWRK clients. "TMWRK is taking lessons from indie rock and punk rock and applying them to dance music," McInnes tells Billboard Dance. "It's heavy on branding, touring, and strategy."
The two founders focus on different sides of the company. "Kevin is very good at dreaming up ideas, he's a creative," McInnes explains. "I'm good at strategy and execution. There's a lot of partnerships in music where there's two different personality types. Together we form a very good team. We're good at manifesting things into reality."
When it comes to Diplo, McInnes says "the goal is always like Mad Decent is the Def Jam of electronic music – the cool, big pop label in electronic music. It's a strategy that a lot of people have attempted, but not a lot have succeeded at: you should own your own label. You should own your own publishing company. Everything should tie back to the Mad Decent brand."
McInnes struggles to figure out a challenging part of his job. After some consideration, he decides the main problem "is our constant need to outdo ourselves." Earlier this year, Major Lazer became the first American group to perform in Cuba since the two countries' historically frosty relationship thawed. "I remember coming back from Cuba, we were like, 'what are we gonna do next?'" McInnes says. "We have good problems," he acknowledges.
Future plan for Diplo: "There's a list of places we want to go and things we want to do – the weirder the better."
Kusatsu preferred not to be interviewed for this story.
Diplo photographed on May 18, 2016 in Brooklyn.Eric Ryan Anderson
Belinda Law, Echo Location
Law started working with Diplo by chance. "I'm from Australia originally," she explains on the phone. "I moved to London in 2003. I worked as an agent's assistant at a really small agency that was bought out. When we all went over to the bigger agency, the guy that I assisted at the time said, 'can you look after Diplo?' I was like, 'sure, I'll do that.' I was very green."
"I've been with him for a very long time," she continues. "What started out as something very, very small grew – and grew, and grew."
Law is responsible for booking Diplo in Europe and Australia. "He likes to be busy," she says. "While you have Major Lazer and Diplo doing huge festivals, even if he's played two festival shows in a day, he will be totally fine and up for playing a really cool club show that night."
She sees this approach as a key to his success. "That has always kept him very connected with a cool club audience along with commercial radio fans and people who are going to mainstage festivals," she explains. "His popularity doesn't have any limits – he's so reachable to so many people." Law benefits from Diplo's interest in intimate club shows as well. "That is very rare for someone of his huge popularity," she notes, before adding, "that's what keeps it really fun. It's very busy, but you're still able to keep creative and keep someone accessible."
She's not especially surprised by his mainstream success. "I always knew that he was somebody special," she notes. "He always had plenty of ideas, and his work ethic is unbelievable. My boss was saying the other day: it's not very often that some doing our kind of job gets to work with someone like this who's at that level."
Carla Sacks, who handles Diplo's PR, is the president and founder of publicity firm Sacks & Co. Founded in 1995, her diverse firm's client list includes the likes of Björk, Florence & The Machine, Bob Weir, Philip Glass, The Black Keys, Damien Rice, Joan Baez, Pet Shop Boys, Flume, Passion Pit, and Cashmere Cat.
Sacks preferred not to be interviewed for this story.
David Rappaport, Manatt, Phelps and Phillips
Like Diplo, David Rappaport hails from Philadelphia. When he befriended Kusatsu and found out one of his clients was a fellow native of the City of Brotherly Love, he asked to work with him. "Kevin gave me one deal to do," Rappaport remembers. "It was the deal for 'Paper Planes' with M.I.A."
That's an auspicious beginning – "Paper Planes" was the first mainstream hit Diplo produced – and Rappaport has worked with Diplo ever since, serving as his "head of legal affairs," a job that he likens to being a consiglieri in The Godfather. "Wes is like six or seven clients in one because of all the businesses he has," Rappaport says. "You constantly have a new kind of deal that you've never heard of before."
But he's blithe about the difficulties of his position. "It's not rocket surgery," he quips. "The hardest thing to do is when you're trying to marry the interests of four to five different parties in order to make a track. It's like Diplo invited a lot of really cool people to a party. Sometimes it's hard to get everyone onto the same page."
Most Enthusiastic Diplo Compliment: "When I was a kid, and I first listened to My Bloody Valentine's Loveless, and you're kind of like, 'this sounds like a record that came from outer-space three hundred years in the future' – that's kind of what it's like when you spoke with Wes and Kevin about how they saw this thing going forward."
Mike Lieberman, In2une
Almost every member of Diplo's team emphasizes that the producer senses the sound of the future before it happens. This doesn't always make life easy for Lieberman, who came on board to help with radio promotion in 2010: gatekeepers of the airwaves are more invested in what's hot today then what might blow up tomorrow. "At the beginning, the radio guys that knew about him would always say to me, 'you'll have that record we're going to play, but your guy is 6 – 9 months ahead of the game,'" Lieberman ruefully explains to Billboard Dance.
To help expose Diplo to program directors, Lieberman leaned on an old-fashioned strategy. "Kevin called me up and was like, 'I have an idea. I want to break Diplo at radio, but obviously we don't have the records right away that fit in perfectly. But what if you go out there with him and go meet people?'"
"Instead of just sending records out and saying, 'check out our hot new record,' Lieberman continues, "they made a point of saying, 'let's go sit with these radio programmers and DJs and let's build a relationship – talk about the vision, go to some shows."
At the same time, Diplo was finding a better balance between his left-field tendencies and the demands of the airwaves. "It was always one step closer to finding that record that could go at radio," Lieberman remembers, identifying "Express Yourself," the producer's 2012 collaboration with Nicky Da B, as "the first record that got some love at radio." Diplo's success producing hits for other artists during this period – Chris Brown's "Look At Me Now," Usher's "Climax" – helped his profile as well.
When Major Lazer's "Lean On" started to bubble in 2015, there was some internal debate within Diplo's team about whether Lieberman should push the track independently or get assistance from a major label. "I said as long as we have a hit song, we have resources, and we have the artist available to be a good partner, we can do it on our own." The track went on to reach No. 1 on the mainstream top 40.
When he first heard "Lean On:" Lieberman was in a meeting with a program director in San Francisco. "Literally as I sat with the guy, an email came through from management saying, 'hey, check out the new Major Lazer record,'" Lieberman recalls. "I played it, and he was like, 'holy shit Mike, that's your fucking record. That’s a record.'"
JT Myers, mtheory
While working under legendary record executive Lyor Cohen at Warner Music Group, Myers started to notice that the duties of managers were changing. "If you go back to 1999 – what people would look at as the heyday of the music industry -- the business was primarily CDs," he points out. "Now an artist's career is comprised of a lot of different revenue streams. The person sitting next to the artist, whose job is to coordinate all the parts of a career? That became a more complicated job."
Myers co-founded mtheory, a marketing strategy and operations team, to assist agents in the rapidly shifting modern musical landscape, and one of his earliest clients was Kusatsu. (The two knew each other from their days at Warner.) "He was working a day job as an A&R and managing Wes at night and feeling completely overwhelmed," Myers remembers. "He reached out, and it was perfect," Myers says. "We had started a company to help guys working exactly in that boat."
To aid Diplo, mtheory worked closely with TMWRK on implementation of a strategy Myers describes as "get the music everywhere, and increase the profile of Major Lazer as large as we could internationally." The end game? "Get better festival offers, and sell more tickets."
While Myers acknowledges "there's a lot of infrastructure and capability in major labels," he suggests that "it would have been very challenging to have a major buy into this strategy." "If we had set out to maximize recorded music, we might have been more restrictive or not prioritized services that might be paying small per-stream rates," Myers explains. "We look at those as a huge promotional opportunity for an artist."
Renee Brodeur, TMWRK
"At the end of the day, all roads lead to Diplo," Brodeur tells Billboard Dance. As the executive vice president of TMWRK, her duties include pretty much everything: "from Wes getting my opinion on how music sounds or a feature he should put on a song, to commissioning music videos, to getting remixes made, to being the point of contact for all our international partners – we've got seven or eight label partners worldwide."
Brodeur knew TMWRK's founders from her days working at Sony; she later found out that she had a class with McInnes when she was a sophomore at Fordham University. She joined TMWRK when the organization was in its infancy: "more or less Kevin, Andrew, myself, and Kevin's assistant."
"Coming on board and being able to listen to clients that I would listen to in my spare time was an awesome opportunity," she remembers. "EDM – I hate that term – was taking off, and our guys stand out from the bunch. They're not just showing up at festivals, throwing their hands in the air, and making a ton of money. They're entrepreneurs in and of their own right: record labels, publishing companies."
She draws a stark contrast between working with Diplo and other big-name artists. "Most stars have cycles," she notes. "They go in and they make an album, they work the album, they tour the album, it comes to an end, they take time off, then they start again."
"That doesn't exist in our world," she continues. "There's no down time. You never know when a Diplo single is gonna come out, or a Major Lazer single." (She was aware that Major Lazer was dropping "Cold Water" on July 22nd.) "He just makes so much music. We probably have dozens of dozens of song that are sitting in an archive somewhere."
Future plan for Diplo: "There's no reason that he can't conquer the world one day."
Ron Perry, SONGS Publishing
When Diplo met Perry, President of SONGS Publishing, the producer put him to the test. "He played me a song that ended up becoming 'Bubble Butt' by Major Lazer," Perry remembers. "Wes was like, 'if you can get a couple rappers on here, I'll sign with you.'"
Perry helps Diplo with A&R. "I'm his music guy," Perry explains. "Me and Juba Lee – Diplo's in-house A&R person – are responsible for the music. We help him with features, collab ideas, production ideas." "You can't stay ahead of Diplo," Perry continues. "He's ahead of everyone. He knows the next thing, the thing after that – he was doing reggae with Major Lazer before reggae was popular, five years ago. What we do is just try to get the best quality projects and run them by him."
Perry struggles to pick a favorite collaboration he helped broker, though when he pressed, he mentions Sia's "Elastic Heart" – which Diplo helped write and produce – along with the new Major Lazer single. He also teases some tantalizing collaborations that have not yet been released, including tracks with country star Sam Hunt and G.O.O.D. Music's Desiigner.
Sam Hunt, Windish Agency
Diplo came on many pop listeners' radar when he produced M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes" in 2007, but Sam Hunt – no relation to the country music star – has been a fan since the producer released Florida in 2004. "One of my favorite artists at that time was Prefuse 73," Hunt tells Billboard Dance. "Florida was in the same vein. Back when IDM [intelligent dance music] was a thing, it was sort of progressive sounding IDM."
When Hunt started working at the fledgling Windish agency, it was booking most of the Warp Records and Ninja Tune rosters, and Diplo was signed to Ninja Tune's Big Dada. Hunt's appreciation for Florida caused him to "unilaterally started spending more time on Diplo." At the time, Hunt remembers Diplo was on a triple bill with RJD2 as "first of the three, getting $150 a night."
Needless to say, payment and billing order have changed since then, but Hunt suggests that Diplo's core values remain unchanged despite his mainstream pop success. "The spirit of it is the same," Hunt notes. "He's excited about music and doing worthwhile, interesting things – as much now as he ever was, maybe even more."
Like many of Diplo's associates, Hunt points out that the producer's work ethic is relentless. "If there's an open night, there's a pretty reasonable chance that he'll hit me up and say, 'why is that night open?'" Hunt explains. "Or if there's a show that ends at 9 p.m., and there's not an after party, he'll ask me where there's an after party. He likes DJing. In fact, he loves DJing."
In their efforts to do "worthwhile, interesting things," Hunt and Diplo hatched an exciting plan: Diplo would play four shows on the eastern seaboard in just one night, traveling between them in a helicopter. "Not every DJ would want to do that," Hunt says. "That involves playing Baltimore at the Ottobar at 6 p.m., then getting in helicopter. A lot of people would be like, 'what's the point?'"
Favorite Diplo production: A mash-up of Mike Jones' "Still Tippin" and PJ Harvey's "Down By The Water." "It's fucking awesome," Hunt says. "Every three years or so I'll lose it and ask [Diplo] to re-send it to me. He always has it."