Diplo, Jillionaire and Walshy Fire of Major Lazer
Magazine Feature

How Major Lazer Bet on Diversity (and Data) to Make Global Hits: 'The Audience Controls Music Now'

On a hot May afternoon in Miami, Major Lazer is gathered at a dockside seafood spot called Garcia’s for a lunch of conch fritters, grilled mahi-mahi, rice and plantains. The vibe is very Jimmy Buffett, with a deeply tanned middle-aged posse pulling up in a speedboat and hopping out for a meal, and an actual pod of dolphins cruising by, much to our table’s delight. Diplo, whose real name is Wesley Pentz (everyone calls him Wes), is especially pleased by a mural with a cartoonish manatee, which he poses in front of for a potential Instagram or Snapchat hit. “I love manatees!” he says. “I have a tattoo of a manatee. They’re the best.”

If Major Lazer has a spiritual home, it has to be Miami. At the crossroads of the United States, Latin America and the Caribbean, the city pulses to a Major Lazer-ish mix of dancehall, hip-hop, EDM and reggaetón, all of which you hear constantly booming from passing cars. Diplo, the crew’s founder, went to high school just up the coast in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where he fell in love with reggae, metal and Miami bass. Walshy Fire, the second of Major Lazer’s three DJs and its main MC, was born in Jamaica but spent a big chunk of his childhood in Miami, where he lives today. Jillionaire, the team’s third spinner, hails from Trinidad and lives in New York but is prepping to move to Miami. “I love it here,” says Diplo, 38. “I already moved to L.A. eight years ago, but I would’ve come to Miami if I knew it was going to be productive like it is now.”

These days, Diplo’s hair is bleached a ghostly shade of white and long enough to pull back into a bun. It’s the subject of consternation among his many female fans online, who have collectively decided it makes him look a little creepy. But he’s enjoying the backlash. “I go to Vegas, and every dude is the exact same guy,” he explains. “Every DJ looks exactly like The Chainsmokers! So freeing up my image is really important to me. That’s what Bowie did. Every fucking four months the guy was like a new human being.”

Austin Hargrave
Diplo wears a COS shirt and David Hart suit.

Walshy (his real name is Leighton Paul Walsh), 34, has a warm, chatty vibe, in contrast to Jillionaire (Christopher Leacock), 39, who is all laid-back reserve. The three DJ on their own around the world and maintain a wide variety of hustles. Jillionaire runs his own label, Feel Up Records, throws a touring festival-style party called Chicken & Beer and owns a Caribbean restaurant in Brooklyn, Pearl’s Bake and Shark. Walshy throws a weekly blowout in Miami, Rum and Bass (which he’s planning to take on the road), invests in real estate and is working on an album inspired by a recent tour of Africa.

Diplo and his management team run Mad Decent, the indie label that releases Major Lazer’s music, along with hits by acts like Jack U and Dillon Francis. He also puts on an annual summer traveling festival, the Mad Decent Block Party, produces for A-listers like Beyoncé and Madonna, and is a savvy investor in major tech companies like Snapchat and Tesla. He has two TV series in the works: the Entourage-ish What Would Diplo Do? on Vice, starring James Van Der Beek as the DJ-producer, and a competition show, which NBC has greenlighted, where he and his team will try to help revitalize veteran artists’ careers. And that’s not all: “I’ve also been talking to American Idol on the side to try to help them with the [ABC reboot] with Katy” -- Perry, that is, his buddy and rumored former girlfriend. “I just like the idea of working with them. They’re cool.”

The whole squad is a little bleary today. The previous night, Major Lazer played a private show on a remote state-park beach for Bacardi, with which it has teamed on both a rum and the promotion of its new dancehall single “Front of the Line,” with the soca star Machel Montano and Jamaican hitmaker Konshens. It’s from the act’s new, summery six-song EP, Know No Better, which features everyone from Travis Scott and Quavo to Camila Cabello and Sean Paul, and world-spanning styles from tropical house to reggaetón to main-stage EDM to Afrobeat. “Doing a rum is easy,” says Jillionaire of the opportunity, “but it fits in with the lifestyle. You see people doing, like, a fucking ad for a Cadillac, and it has nothing to do with their vibe.”

To Diplo, the main advantage of the partnership is promotional. As he points out, dancehall is a niche sound outside of Jamaica, and by leveraging Bacardi’s marketing budget, the track might get a chance to compete on streaming services and, once that happens, radio. It’s a characteristically smart deal for the crew, which has operated independently while scoring seven Billboard Hot 100 hits, including “Lean On” (featuring DJ Snake and vocals by the previously unknown Danish singer , which cracked the top five, topped charts around the world and has accrued 2 billion YouTube spins); and the smash Justin Bieber-MØ team-up “Cold Water,” a Hot 100 No. 2 hit that resulted from a favor its co-writer Ed Sheeran owed Diplo. “We did a show with him at Cannes,” explains Diplo. “So when we were like, ‘Oh, Ed, can we do a song later?,’ we got one. We don’t go through 16 channels to get to people.”

Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for iHeartRadio/Turner
Diplo (right) with Bieber in April 2016, a few months before the release of “Cold Water,” a Billboard Hot 100 No. 2 hit.

“It’s an organic combination of spotting new sounds and knowing what’s cool right now,” says MØ, breaking down the Major Lazer formula. “When you put them together, you’re able to push things to the next level.”

An hour after the sun sets on Miami’s Virginia Key, the trio hits the stage at the Bacardi gig in matching white baseball jerseys and busts straight into “Front of the Line.” Walshy gets the crowd hyped: “You know this is a new Major Lazer song, right? Everybody Snapchat this!” The group uses the show to test new material -- the trio’s own tracks and remixes of both underground jams and radio hits -- that might make it into its festival act. Major Lazer is constantly optimizing its sound and promotional strategy by incorporating data from Spotify and Apple Music. It’s also inspired by Drake, whose More Life “playlist” topped charts, and Kanye West, who kept tinkering with The Life of Pablo long after it had been released.

A year ago, Major Lazer was planning to release an album in early 2017. But now, the group intends to let material trickle out throughout the year -- and, in fact, might never create an album again. “I shifted my goal to just make singles, because no one really buys our albums,” says Diplo. “What’s our platform that works? It’s streaming. The audience controls music now. That’s in our favor.” The trio’s last full album, 2015’s Peace Is the Mission, has earned 793,000 equivalent album units, according to Nielsen Music, powered in large part by streams and downloads of “Lean On.” But Peace has sold only 94,000 traditional albums.

Since the beginning, Major Lazer has operated on one key insight: that pop music is now a truly global phenomenon, with fans and hot new sounds as likely to be found in Lagos, Nigeria, as they are in Los Angeles. Diplo’s own production career took off in 2007 with M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes,” a top five Hot 100 smash by the Sri Lankan singer-rapper born in London, and built around a Clash riff, which defined the sound of the mid-2000s. Music is, in a way, only now catching up. Near the peak of its set in Miami, Major Lazer drops the clearest evidence yet of pop’s borderlessness in the form of “Despacito,” Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s sun-splashed reggaetón hit, sung entirely in Spanish. The remix featuring Justin Bieber is now in its sixth week at No. 1 on the Hot 100; Major Lazer played its own propulsive remix of the original. Or take another recent Hot 100 No. 1, Ed Sheeran’s “The Shape of You,” with its West African lilt -- proof of the Major Lazer guys’ prediction that Afropop sounds are the next big thing.

Austin Hargrave
“We’re all street A&R,” says Walshy, who wears a Ralph Lauren sweater and pants, RRL jacket, Gola sneakers and Herschel hat.

Camila Cabello, whose childhood was split among Cuba, Mexico and the United States, has a unique perspective on Major Lazer’s global vibe. “I was just thinking about how they have all these collaborations on the EP,” says the singer, with whom, Diplo estimates, he has recorded “something like 20 records.” “They have [Brazilian singer] Anitta and [Colombian singer] J Balvin. And they’re not just on the internet pulling from that stuff while chilling in L.A. They’re literally going around the world and seeing how music affects people -- seeing what reggaetón does in Colombia, what dancehall and reggae do in Kingston, what Miami bass does. They’ve studied it.” 

After the Bacardi show, Diplo “hung out with some girls” before joining his bandmates at an after-hours dancehall party, where he found himself pulled onto the stage and goaded into busting some dance moves. “I’m pretty sure I was the only white guy left by the end,” he says. “And Walsh was drunk.” His bandmate laughs, explaining that it was a hometown show: “There were just a lot of people I wanted to reconnect with!”

A few weeks earlier, Major Lazer had been scheduled to headline the Fyre Festival in the Bahamas. A month before the fest, which would later fall apart, Jillionaire had been in Exuma on vacation and ran into Ja Rule and Billy McFarland, the festival’s founders. The two invited him to come check out the site. “I was thinking, ‘I don’t really want to go, but I’m here,’ ” he says. “So we go with them. It’s a beautiful thing. It’s all on a rise, and it’s big and whatever. But I’m thinking, ‘Yo, it’s a month before this festival, and there’s no infrastructure. Is this really feasible?’ But the guys were super nice.”

By the time Fyre Fest rolled around, no one in the Major Lazer camp really believed it was happening. But because the act had already been paid, it needed to plan as if it was. Diplo was in Las Vegas the previous night and booked a private jet that would have gotten him to the Bahamas just in time. “We canceled the jet right before we had to pay for it -- it’s really expensive,” he says. “But then I was stuck in Vegas with no jet and had to get to New York to rehearse for the Met Ball, and I had to sleep at the airport. So it kind of sucked for me anyway.” The whole crew laughs.

If anyone has experience putting on shows in places that don’t usually get top acts, it’s Major Lazer. The group played for an estimated half-million people in Havana in 2016; it chronicled the experience in a well-received documentary, Give Me Future, which premiered at Sundance this year. Basically alone among headline-level touring acts, it has returned again and again to play shows throughout the Caribbean, Latin America and South Asia, seeing the crowds grow each time. Diplo and Walshy recently spent 10 days in Africa, doing shows as Major Lazer in Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia, South Africa and Rwanda. “They were really good shows,” says Walshy, adding that the crowds were in the thousands and knew every song. “It’s kind of weird to think that [touring there has] been so off the radar for so many bands.”

Austin Hargrave
Jillionaire wears a Death to Tennis jacket.

This kind of planet-hopping is typical for Diplo, who still has a weekly gig in Las Vegas, and his bandmates. Between Major Lazer shows and solo dates, Diplo plays something like 300 gigs a year. “Walsh actually does maybe five or 10 more shows a year than me,” he says. “I have to go home on Mondays sometime.” When he touches down in Los Angeles, he shifts into dad mode to his two sons, Lockett, 6, and Lazer, 2. In 2016, Lockett started taking chess class and competing in tournaments, inspiring Diplo to take up the game, which he plays on his phone with strangers around the world. He’s also building a villa and resort in Jamaica’s bucolic Portland parish, where he would like to spend a few months a year with his kids: “I’m trying to have it done for my 40th birthday.”

Major Lazer got its start nearly a decade ago, when Diplo and his early production partner Switch, a U.K. beatmaker, had a bunch of tracks left over from producing M.I.A.’s breakthrough, Arular, and follow-up, Kala. They corralled dancehall stars to jump on the beats; the standout, the Vybz Kartel-voiced “Pon de Floor,” eventually fueled Beyoncé’s “Run the World (Girls).” Jillionaire was involved from nearly the beginning, when he brought the duo to Trinidad to play some parties. Several MCs cycled through before Walshy joined in 2012 from the dancehall crew Black Chiney, whose apocalyptically party-starting beats and squad of seriously athletic female dancers inspired the Major Lazer live show.

Sergi Alexander/Getty Images
From left: Walshy, Diplo and Jillionaire in May at the Bacardi party in Miami.

After lunch, Major Lazer hops into a black SUV and heads to the brand-new Pérez Museum of Art to check out an exhibit by a 20th-century Jamaican painter named John Dunkley. Jillionaire, who has connections in the art world, texts a friend who works at the museum to arrange the group’s entry. Diplo, a big fan of the museum, leads the way to the second-floor gallery, where the band and its crew fan out. Walshy is amused by a painting of an old white guy playing tennis. “Looks like Trump,” he says, laughing. One painting that features a large iguana triggers a memory for Diplo. “In Puerto Rico they have big old iguanas -- they’re like sheep. You can go right up to them, and they don’t run away.”

The guys are on a tight schedule -- they have a gig in Tampa, Fla., later that evening and are playing Boston the following day. But before they hop back in the SUV, Diplo wants to swing by the gift shop. “I never get to go shopping at places that have good stuff,” he says. He picks up some gifts for his kids, including a teddy bear they can customize with an included kit, and a big stack of art books for the library in his house in Jamaica. He cheerfully takes a couple of photos with some teenagers, but even with his two bandmates around, he’s mostly able to blend into the crowd, an important skill for someone on the move as much as he is. “Most people who like us are cool about it,” says Diplo with a laugh. “We’re 10 years too old to be a boy band.” After fueling up with a takeout coffee and paying for his books, he gathers his squad and hits the road, headed for the next dot on the globe. 

This story originally appeared in the July 1 issue of Billboard.