<p>Diplo photographed on Feb. 12, 2020 in Los Angeles. Styling by Samantha Burkhart. On Diplo: Vintage suit, Stetson hat, Gucci turtleneck, Crown collection Rolex and rings, Child of Wild vintage rings.</p>

Diplo photographed on Feb. 12, 2020 in Los Angeles. Styling by Samantha Burkhart. On Diplo: Vintage suit, Stetson hat, Gucci turtleneck, Crown collection Rolex and rings, Child of Wild vintage rings.
Photographed by Sami Drasin

How Being the Busiest Man in Music Made Diplo a Pop Star

With a tireless team at his side, the insatiably curious multihyphenate seems to have the key to success in the post-EDM era: diversify or die.

Given the 8,700 miles and 20-hour flight between Los Angeles and Mumbai, India, it stands to reason that most folks making the trek might stay for at least a week. Diplo stayed for 24 hours. During that time he toured the city, headlined a festival and posed for plenty of photos with locals (which, along with sundry other shirtless-in-India snaps, amassed over 430,000 Instagram likes). Then he flew back across the globe to Diplo HQ — his house in Los Angeles’ Beachwood Canyon neighborhood — where, on this warm Thursday afternoon, various members of his team stare at their MacBooks with the focus of NASA engineers as Diplo himself strolls into the kitchen, sits down and declares himself ready to be interviewed.

“I actually drove myself today to an art fair. Can you believe that?” he says, noting that his Tesla recently had a software update and thus parked itself — which he liked. “I couldn’t answer any text messages. That’s why I couldn’t tell you I was late, actually.”

While he is technically a bit behind schedule, you could argue that when you are Diplo — the DJ, producer and all-around bon vivant born Thomas Wesley Pentz, known as Wes to his friends — it’s less that you are ever really running late, and more that time kind of reorganizes itself around you, leaving you perpetually well-situated on the strange and singular timeline of your strange and singular life.

Given an Instagram feed that makes that life look like an endless conga line of festivals, parties, private jets and foreign landscapes, it may seem counterintuitive that Diplo even has a house in the first place. But indeed he does, and it is big, bright and smells like an expensive candle. He bought the place three years ago, when it became untenable to run his growing operation out of a studio in Burbank, Calif., where Daniela Socorro, his executive assistant, had to sit on a folding chair in the hallway and the interns kept stealing his clothes. With views of the city, a patio hot tub and chickens in the yard, the vibe in the new house veers between regular and surreal. Photos of his sons Lockett, 9, and Lazer, 5, hang on the fridge (normal). The bathroom is decorated with gold and platinum records (less normal). In the living room there’s a hamper stacked with cowboy hats, including one by Gucci (normal for Diplo).

With a tour schedule that keeps Diplo on the road for, by his estimation, 250 days a year, he’s not actually here a lot. He can, and has, played almost everywhere, including many places — Cuba, Nigeria, Pakistan, Bangladesh — most artists aren’t able or willing to go. He’s one of the most successful producers of the dance music era, a careerlong tastemaker and party-starting DJ with a hand in an arsenal of hits — “Lean On,” “Where Are Ü Now,” “Electricity” — that are as recognizable in Lagos as in Las Vegas.

Over the past few years, however, Diplo has also achieved something no one else in the dance world has with the same success or potency: He has become a pop star, transcending the genre in which he started, while staying firmly rooted in the evolving dance landscape. In the process, he has become a sort of pop culture mascot, attending the 2015 Met Gala with Madonna; making national headlines for livestreaming Joe Jonas and Sophie Turner’s 2019 wedding; performing with Lil Nas X at the 2020 Grammys. Like the title of his 2014 album, Random White Dude Be Everywhere, put it, Diplo’s brand is ubiquity. Thus, random white dude be tired.

“I want to go back to bed, like, right now,” he says, noting that the five hours of sleep he typically gets per night are “not enough,” that he’s fighting a cold and that, for reasons he does not elaborate on, he had a rough night. In person, he has an affable, if not quite overtly friendly, let’s-get-the-job-done attitude, making progressively more eye contact over the course of our conversation, during which he receives a hundred text messages. “But maybe I’ll sleep in tomorrow. Although I do like to go to the gym in the morning. It’s the only time I can. After 11 a.m., the day is taken away from me.”

The never-ending workday that is Diplo’s life is, at the most fundamental level, fueled by his pursuit of anything and everything that interests him. His father, Thomas Pentz, a retired hospital CEO who calls his son Wesley, says that as a kid Diplo read the encyclopedia for fun, although “it would take him a year to finish housework or anything else he didn’t want to do.” Jasper Goggins, the head of Diplo’s label, Mad Decent, calls him “the ultimate maximalist. He has lots of ideas and just wants to do everything all the time.”

Diplo’s knack for making art out of all these ideas leads to his ubiquity, which in turn drives him to explore more, like an ouroboros in a Stetson. It’s what led to his work as part of the dancehall-inspired trio Major Lazer; to his Grammy-winning turn with Skrillex as Jack Ü; to his other Grammy-winning turn with Mark Ronson as Silk City; to collaborations with the pop elite, including Madonna, Usher, Beyoncé and the Jonas Brothers; to his work with Sia and Labrinth as the group LSD; to the deep-house output of his newish Higher Ground label; and to the latest character in his repertoire, Thomas Wesley, a country music alias. Add to that projects in film and TV; staying connected with Mad Decent; overseeing his SiriusXM radio channel, Diplo’s Revolution; the aforesaid workout routine, travel schedule and dad duties; and, well — you’d be exhausted too.

“Literally every year I’m like, ‘He can’t do more,’ ” marvels Goggins. “I’ve been saying since the early 2000s that it’s impossible to do more. He just never stops working.”

But while Diplo sets the relentless pace of his existence, it takes a sprawling constellation of agents, managers, assistants, trainers, photographers, publicists and other personnel to keep Planet Diplo spinning with the speed and intensity of a Gravitron. When Diplo texts Goggins about starting a house music imprint, that imprint materializes. When he wants an omelet, Socorro goes on YouTube and learns how to make one. When he wants to play five shows in a day, his tour manager, Luke McNees, charters a private plane. “I’ll literally do everything I get offered, but maybe [my team] is more strategic about my presence in places,” admits Diplo.

It’s this fusion of masterful scheduling, creative verve and savvy risk-taking that has made it possible for him to not only outlive the EDM heyday of the mid-2010s, but thrive beyond it. With a new decade dawning and dance music at a crossroads as industry revenue shrinks and once-devoted fans move on to dance subgenres and other styles of music entirely, Diplo’s diversification may be a lesson in longevity: to stay relevant, do a bit of everything, do it well, and make sure both long-term fans and newcomers understand what you’re doing. Given the volume of Diplo and Diplo-adjacent output, this last part can be tricky.“My main goal is to try and keep [all my projects] independent, because I don’t want them to all blend together,” says Diplo. “But it’s hard because you can’t control the way fans process the stream of information you give them about who and what you are. I can take off the cowboy hat, but that’s about it.”

 


 

Diplo has always been a bit of a savant in terms of branding, something he learned in part through his early-career collaborations with British-Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A. “She was the game-changer,” he says. “She understood the idea of brand like I had never seen. Even her label once told me that she was 10% music and 90% attitude. That was what sold.”

Extending that idea, creative director Sara Nataf has helped Diplo delineate projects by creating a persona for each. In LSD, he’s a member of the infamous 1970s Source Family cult (one, says Nataf, who “ate way too much LSD”). In Silk City, he and Ronson are the resident DJs of an underground club. As Thomas Wesley, he’s a psychedelic cowboy guru. “Those guys are all an aspect of him,” says Nataf, who is French, used to work in fashion and became BFFs with Diplo after meeting him years ago at a show he was playing in Turkey.

The creative output from Diplo, Nataf and their go-to coterie of freelance directors, videographers, dancers and designers in turn fuels Diplo’s omnipresence in the live space. In 2019 he played over 200 shows, including a festival-closing set at Stagecoach, where he celebrated being the first DJ ever to play the country event by bringing out Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus for a hyphy rendition of “Old Town Road.” Diplo says it was “probably” his favorite set of the year; his team all dressed as cowboys and cowgirls for the occasion.

“There’s no limit to the number of shows he can perform,” says Paradigm’s Sam Hunt, Diplo’s longtime agent who oversees his live performances in North and South America and Asia. “If you’re a normal DJ, like a bass DJ, you exist in a specific genre, so there’s only so many festivals and venues you can play. You’ll run out of things during the course of the year. But if you’re Diplo, you can play a deep-house party or a country festival or a pop festival or a tiny underground basement for 35 people or the biggest Vegas club.”

And while most DJs arrive in town for a show, hang in their hotel room before the set and then fly off the next morning, Diplo is a committed sightseer, surfing with the locals in Ghana, cruising on a seaplane in the Philippines, getting dropped at the base of a mountain in China. These adventures not only satiate his wanderlust, but serve as fodder for both his music and another key engine behind his omnipresence: social media.

“You follow people like Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion or Drake because they’re kind of internet characters with their own view,” says Jahan Karimaghayi, Diplo’s head of social strategy. “That’s where Wes, in the last two or so years, has really taken off, specifically with Instagram.” The 5.8 million followers of @diplo find an amalgamation of his absurdist, self-deprecating humor, shots of various VIP situations and shirtless pics taken in exotic locations. Karimaghayi says he and Diplo measure social success not only by likes, but by how far each post travels. If a red-carpet photo ends up on Vogue.com, that’s a win.

Actually getting Diplo to all those places documented on Insta requires McNees to perform a kind of travel-planning jiujitsu — a mix of monitoring weather patterns, tracking commercial flights, booking private jets, arranging police escorts and sifting through “about a million emails.” It’s not unusual for Diplo to play multiple (sometimes up to five) sets in a day. When the windshield on his plane cracked mid-flight on a two-set day last August, it was McNees who told the pilot where to land. They ended up making both shows. “I think we all love what we do,” says McNees. “If we didn’t, it would probably kill us.”

Therein lies the central Diplo paradox: As close as he is with his team, no one on it seems to fully understand how he pulls all of this off. Words like “superhuman” are floated. The crew conjectures that it’s because he takes such great care of himself — green juices, exercise, meditation, the dozen fortifying tinctures on his kitchen counter, consultations with a shaman — or that he just doesn’t require a lot of sleep, that his interest in the world simply gives him the energy to see as much of it as he can.

Whatever it is, everyone agrees that it’s highly unusual. “He’s not human. I’ll tell you that much,” says his longtime friend and sometime collaborator Benny Blanco. “The other day I was with him and he microdosed LSD and then we went to do a workout that I couldn’t do at all. Then he went to play a show and then he went to fly to another country, all in the same day. I was dead after the workout. That is Diplo.”

 


 

Downstairs in Diplo’s studio — a dimly lit, sparsely furnished space — he and engineer Max Jaeger are combing YouTube for Dolly Parton videos. Diplo loves Dolly.

The two are working on his forthcoming country project, Thomas Wesley, and Diplo is searching for the sound of an instrument Parton used to play. Unable to locate it, Jaeger opens the “Nashville” suite on some production software, which puts a variety of twangs at their disposal. They sort through files, reviewing unfinished Thomas Wesley songs that include one about taking your sweetie to your hometown so they can see who you once were and where you can pump gas before paying for it. It is sturdy, catchy music that, like so many other Diplo projects, blurs the lines between dance, pop and the genre of origin. Diplo bobs his head as it plays.

Thomas Pentz says that when young Wesley and his two sisters were growing up in Edgewater and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the family listened mostly to Christian and country music. A 2019 Instagram post proves it: Teenage Diplo stands before a wall of Alan Jackson posters, and the caption reads, “for anyone who doesnt know this about me, growing up, @officialalanjackson was like santa claus.”

That might be true, but the question remains: Why is Diplo making country music? And why now? While he has helped usher lesser-known genres into the mainstream — baile funk with his 2008 film Favela on Blast, dancehall through Major Lazer, New Orleans bounce on 2014’s “Express Yourself” — country-pop crossovers are no oddity these days, thanks in part to the template Avicii set in 2013 with his smash “Wake Me Up.” Thomas Wesley seems like the first time Diplo is jumping on a trend rather than forging one. And while he has thrown himself into it with the dedication of a Method actor (see: all those cowboy hats), the project has yet to yield a major radio hit, the gold standard for success in Nashville — a town with, as Diplo puts it, “real rules.”

But at a time when Nashville outsiders like Lil Nas X and Orville Peck (both of whom Diplo is friendly with) are the ones making waves, Diplo says he’s not worried. “We’re reaching people without Nashville giving us the approval,” he says. “We don’t really need it. With streaming services, you don’t need to be on the radio. Country records go for, like, a year to reach the charts. I’m into that. I’m learning from that.” Indeed, “Heartless,” a collaboration with Morgan Wallen, spent 28 weeks and hit No. 4 on Billboard’s Country Streaming Songs chart last fall. It has become a peak-time singalong anthem at XS in Las Vegas, where Diplo maintains a long-standing residency.

“He’s a mainstream guy that doesn’t conform to the mainstream,” says TMWRK executive vp Renee Brodeur, who co-manages Diplo alongside CEO Andrew McInnes. “So it gives these artists he works with an opportunity to potentially get in front of a new audience, while not necessarily compromising who they are creatively.”

Meanwhile, with his house-oriented Higher Ground label, Diplo is digging deeper into the dance scene at a moment when this “underground” style of dance music is reaching new levels of mainstream popularity in the United States. He started Higher Ground two years ago, just as house and techno were supplanting maximalist EDM as America’s dance genres of choice. “I’m always looking for a way to make that [underground] sound commercial,” he says. “For that to make sense in America is kind of a riddle.”

He’s trying to solve it by creating both an infrastructure for a sound he likes and a platform for artists who might not get headliner status without his co-sign — Born Dirty, Andhim and Sidepiece among them. “It’s really difficult to become a new EDM artist,” says Diplo. “The doors kind of got closed behind Martin Garrix or Marshmello. The old guys aren’t going away. I’m not going away. And it’s really easy to copy someone’s sound. If I’m producer A, and I hear an underground producer doing something that’s coming up, I’ll just do what he does. EDM doesn’t have rules that you can’t copy people’s sounds because EDM fans don’t care. They’re not there for the prestige of it. So with all these EDM guys, they don’t let the young person that’s doing the cool thing up.”

Higher Ground has yet to deliver a massive hit, but for now Diplo seems happy enough that it provides him with a ready supply of music to play at warehouse parties, Burning Man and the tiny nightclubs near his house where he sometimes shows up unannounced, pulls a USB drive out of his wallet and gets behind the decks. “The fact is that he loves DJ’ing,” says Goggins. “It doesn’t matter what size the room is. If he goes to some afterparty at 4 a.m. and there’s even the jankiest CDJs, he’ll get on it and start playing.”

It’s a lot to keep up with. Many on Team Diplo describe their job as a lifestyle, one that causes them to miss a lot of holidays but which also affords them myriad singular experiences. Nataf is still kind of astounded that Madonna knows who she is. When Diplo went surfing in Ghana, photographer-videographer Joe Larkin got to go too. When McNees gets Diplo to the show on time, he hears 10,000 people cheer. And when Diplo turned 41 last November, he brought everyone to his house in Jamaica for the party.

There’s still no rest in sight. A new Major Lazer album is coming soon (reports that it would be the group’s last are incorrect), and Diplo’s various projects will set him and the team on a spring and summer tour that already includes nearly three dozen dates, including his Vegas residency and Electric Daisy Carnival (he’ll return to the recently rescheduled Stagecoach in October). For now, back in the basement, the work continues. Diplo and Jaeger lay a steel guitar over an R&B-inflected chorus they play on repeat. Soon, Diplo will head to yoga, then pick up his kids from school. Maybe he’ll sleep in tomorrow.

This article originally appeared in the March 14, 2020 issue of Billboard.

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