Diplo on Why DJ Culture is a 'Sinking Ship' and Wishing He Was Beyoncé
The superstar producer behind 'Lean On' and 'Where Are U Now’ is building a hitmaking empire ranging from Beyoncé tracks to branded festivals.
Diplo's body might be in New York on this sunny spring afternoon, but he's not exactly operating on the local time zone. Just two nights ago, he was DJ'ing an impromptu afterparty in Shanghai. Yesterday he was in Los Angeles, where he sets down for a few days a month to spend time with his sons -- Lockett, 5, and Lazer, 1 -- and get some work done. "I lost my passport, did a charity event for some kids with cancer at my home studio, had a meeting with [his label] Mad Decent about merch," he says with an understandably sleepy drawl. "Then I took the red-eye here. I really need to do some yoga."
He's not complaining. For Thomas Wesley Pentz -- the 37-year-old DJ, producer and impresario better known as Diplo -- his entire life is set up so he never stops moving. As he sees it, this is his moment, and if he slows down for even a minute, he'll begin to kiss it goodbye. In 2015, two of his songs dominated radio and streaming-service playlists while sounding like nothing that had ever come before. Both were super-futuristic, vaguely tropical and built around top 40 hooks that would make Max Martin blush. Their common denominator? Diplo's musical superpowers: a DJ-honed sense of what makes people move and a vast mental catalog of beats and rhythms from all over the world -- from the Brazilian baile funk and Bollywood exoticism he mined for his early hits with M.I.A. to the Jamaican dancehall he absorbed as a teenager in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to the apocalyptic Atlanta trap that powers many of Mad Decent's recent tracks.
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With partner Skrillex, Jack U's "Where Are U Now," featuring Justin Bieber, helped Bieber shed his tween-idol baggage thanks to a song so unimpeachably stylish that even Kanye West couldn't help but adore it. (It has been streamed more than 358 million times and has sold more than 1.7 million copies, according to Nielsen Music.) And his band Major Lazer and DJ Snake's "Lean On" (with vocals by MØ) was even more surprising -- an independent release with an unknown Danish vocalist that became an even bigger hit, racking up more than 400 million streams, with 1.7 million copies sold. Yet another tune from the Major Lazer album, "Light It Up" (featuring Nyla), is rolling into its third straight month on the Billboard Hot 100. "Beyoncé is the only artist I've produced for the last year, because it's more lucrative for us to make our own music now," says Diplo, the words tumbling out of his mouth in a high-velocity mumble, as if his thoughts are moving just a little faster than his lips. "When we put out a song with Beyoncé, cool, we'll get a fee, we'll get some [publishing] splits, but Beyoncé is going to make a billion dollars touring it. If I make a song and it's my song, like 'Lean On,' we're going to make money off the synchs, the Spotify and we get to headline festivals on it. That's the model I want to explore."
"Diplo has a businessman's mind with a creative soul," says Scooter Braun, Bieber's manager and a buddy since the two met a decade ago at a music festival in Norway. "He always has said to me, 'You never really know when your moment is going to end, so you've got to seize the moment.' His moment just continues -- and it's because of that mind-set."
This summer, Diplo is bringing Bieber and MØ together on "Cold Water," the lead single of the fourth LP by Major Lazer, his reggae-meets-EDM-meets-pop-meets-whatever crew. The day before he arrived in New York, Diplo was more than a little surprised when Bieber tweeted about the track, asking when it would be coming out. "That was not planned at all," says Diplo. "I was like, 'F--, I have to tweet back now.' The song isn't really done, but he's excited. It's actually very real. Twitter is the only reason I know he's excited about the song. I don't have his number, so he Twitters at me."
The tune kicks off a campaign, which will build to the album's January 2017 release, that Diplo hopes will help fans view Major Lazer -- which also includes Jamaican vocalist Walshy Fire and Trinidadian DJ-producer Jillionaire -- as a real band as opposed to a generic maker of Caribbean-tinged Ultra Fest beats. "It's complicated because we just want to do it indie," says Diplo of "Cold Water." "And convincing Team Bieber to do that is hard. We don't need to have some guy tell us, We don't need to have some guy tell us, 'Oh, this is what the market research says.' I'm on the ground. I see it."
In March, Major Lazer became the first American act to play a concert in Cuba since Havana and Washington, D.C., reinstated diplomatic relations in 2014. It was a free show at a vast open-air amphitheater across the street from the American Embassy. A sea of people estimated at 400,000 showed up, and were as amped a crowd as Diplo has ever seen.
Munching on take-out spinach and handfuls of M&M's and pretzels back in New York, he watches as an editor plays footage from an in-progress documentary on a large screen in a downtown Manhattan production company's editing bay. The goal is to get the movie to the Toronto International Film Festival -- but more than that, it's to make a serious documentary; not just a concert film, but a movie about the culture around the Cuba show. (One character is the main guy behind the distribution of paquetes -- hard drives packed with music and movies and even things like the Grammy and Oscar ceremonies -- to Cubans without access to the Internet.) For Diplo, playing locales like Cuba, or Pakistan, or even Kingston, Jamaica -- places that big American acts just never go and where it actually costs him money to do the show -- is key. "In Pakistan, people were in tears. I'm not like the Red Cross, but the kids in Pakistan and Cuba want this. It feels like I'm doing something that's important -- I'm helping them create something that wasn't there before."
A little more than 10 years ago, Diplo began gaining attention as a Philadelphia-based, Florida-born DJ-producer -- mostly through his work with his then-girlfriend Maya Arulpragasam, aka M.I.A., and the underground parties he threw with a friend under the name Hollertronix. He had moved to Philly for college, where he began DJ'ing and running a side gig selling rare vinyl to East Coast producers like DJ Premier and a young Kanye West. But his roots are in South Florida, where his dad ran a bait shop and his mom worked in a supermarket. "The three things I'd hear were Miami bass, reggae and heavy metal," he told Billboard in 2014. "I still wonder why anyone would listen to any other music."
Walking from the film company to the offices of his management company, TMWRK, Diplo's dressed in eye-catching head-to-toe white, from his Major Lazer cap to his Master P hoodie to the Yeezys on his feet. When he gets to TMWRK, which also reps acts including Dillon Francis and Flosstradamus, he holes up for a quick meeting with his co-manager, Andrew McInnes, who runs the company with his Los Angeles-based partner Kevin Kusatsu and New York-based executive vice president Renee Brodeur. "The dance music stuff can get vapid -- we kind of predate the term 'EDM,' and we're going to postdate it, too," says McInnes, a smart, affable dude who totally comes across as the Brooklyn dad he's about to become. "But we're seeing [Diplo] become the Jay Z or the Diddy of the scene. Or even Dave Grohl -- this one guy who has his fingers in so many things and is pushing the genre forward."
Diplo's own take on the EDM scene is even harsher. "The DJ world is the corniest f--ing group of people," he says, shaking his head. "We're not celebrities, we're not famous for any good reason. We're just ... really lame. Besides people like Dillon Francis, who makes fun of the whole thing, or Calvin Harris, it's a sinking ship. It's a really lame culture. I'm sad that I'm part of it, but I play the game."
As McInnes breaks it down, Diplo Inc. has an impressively vast reach: there's his packed DJ schedule, recording and performing with Major Lazer and Jack U, radio shows on BBC Radio 1 and Apple Music, songwriting and beatmaking for everyone from Beyoncé to Usher, a publishing company and record label (both called Mad Decent), and the Mad Decent Block Parties, an annual traveling festival that will sell 180,000 tickets this summer. He's also building a studio on 50 acres he owns in Port Antonio, Jamaica, on the island's sleepy, stunning Northeastern coast. "I did Snoop's album there," says Diplo. Newer moves include a TV and film operation -- which is producing the Cuba doc and shopping a Voice-style reality show to major networks -- and a savvy investment portfolio built around early bets on Tesla and Snapchat. Forbes estimates his 2015 income at $15 million. "Because of who he is, he has a lot of proprietary deal-flow coming to him," says McInnes. "And he's smart -- he'll find stuff that we've never heard of." (If you're looking for tips, Diplo is particularly hot on legal weed: "There's a couple of companies that are working with weed and music -- their business models are awesome.")
In the nine years since his first major hit, M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes," Diplo has gone on to produce for an entire MTV Video Music Awards' worth of artists -- from Usher and Chris Brown to Madonna and, especially, Beyoncé. Working with her remains a big deal to Diplo, who is credited on two Lemonade tracks: "Hold Up" and "All Night." "She's one of the only artists who can culminate a body of work so concisely," says Diplo. "Nobody does that anymore." Like everyone else, Diplo heard his tracks in context for the first time on the HBO special. "I was like, 'Oh f--, this all makes sense.' " (There's one other surprising artist he's dying to work with: "I've been stalking [country singer] Sam Hunt. I think he can go multiformat in the Taylor Swift way.")
With the Bieber collaboration, Diplo demonstrated just how valuable his endorsement can be. "Justin came to Vegas one night when I played 'Where Are U Now,' " he says. "He had just turned 21, and he was like, 'Yo, man, I want to thank you, because this is the first time I've ever had adults clap for me. This is like a big deal.' You think about that, and yeah, he was kind of like a clown on a pedestal. People just like picked on him."
"The value goes both ways," says Braun. "Justin brought a massive amplification of what Diplo does. And Diplo brought Justin a level of credibility that we needed at the time."
"I think it's hard because Justin wants to be cool," adds Diplo. "And he's a music fan. He loves pop music just like he loves rap music. We did like five rap songs you'll never hear. And if you were 18 or 19, can have any girl you want, have all the money you want? F--, I would be a lot f--ing crazier than him. I mean, I'm 37, and I'm just finally maturing now."
Of course, you would know a lot of this if you followed Diplo on Twitter or Instagram or Snapchat, where he was an early adopter and a master of the form. His relationship to Snapchat, especially, is a perfect illustration of the holistic, swirling, everything-feeds-everything-else nature of the ever-expanding Diplo Inc. Two years ago, Diplo and his team invested in a round of Snapchat funding -- and Diplo's and Snapchat's stars have risen together ever since. "Snapchat's the place where people are hearing and learning about culture," he says. "This hat I'm wearing?" -- he points to his head -- "It's not even real, it's just a demo. But I put a picture with this hat on Snapchat, and kids are asking, 'Where can I get that?' And if, like, Kendall Jenner puts our music on there? Sales go up immediately. It's crazy."
It's hard to think of many people in the world of music with a better intuitive sense of how to harness the Internet than Diplo. His team has deep relationships with both Spotify and Apple Music -- and he always has been pro-streaming, because selling records was never a major part of their business. "I think Spotify has been killing it with playlists," says Diplo. "With Mad Decent we're putting out like 400 songs this year. And we're just doing it because we can find out which are playlist-friendly." His team gets reams of data from the services, which -- along with Diplo's ability to road test in-progress work during his DJ sets -- gives Mad Decent an unusually large degree of certainty about how far a song like "Lean On" can go. "Radio looks to Spotify for the analytics," says McInnes, "and a company like Spotify is just as happy to work with us as with anyone else."
Still, there's one Internet-driven phenomenon that Diplo might like even more than Snapchat, and his name is Bernie Sanders. The DJ has been a fan since the Vermont senator announced his presidential campaign -- and he relates to the 74-year-old candidate as cultural force in surprising ways. "If Hillary [Clinton] was the only candidate, I don't think anyone would care about politics at all," he says. "[Donald] Trump is actually exciting in a lot of ways, too. But Bernie Sanders is amazing to me because so many young kids learned about politics [through him]. And it was all because of the Internet. The traditional media never gave Bernie Sanders the time of day. But he went viral the same way hip-hop and new dances go viral. And I'm part of that culture."
Like Sanders, Diplo has little interest in backing away from controversy. Partly because of his kids, whom he's raising with his ex-girlfriend Kathryn Lockhart, Diplo insists that he's growing up. But that doesn't mean he's done stirring things up on Twitter, like when he accused David Guetta of ripping off DJ Snake on a recent single. "Guetta's always been so f--ing nice to me, to be honest," says Diplo. "But I'm just into the anarchy of it all."
This article originally appeared in the June 18 issue of Billboard.