The most valuable backpack in Los Angeles is a capacious, sturdy-looking black number loaded with a pair of sticker-emblazoned MacBook Pro laptops, a set of headphones and a mobile Internet hotspot. It belongs to the 35-year-old DJ-producer Wesley Pentz, better-known as Diplo: The Billboard Cover Shoot
Coming over a crest, a potentially Instagram-worthy vista appears below. Diplo pulls out his phone, aims it out the window and hits record on an app that makes instant GIFs. He’s constantly documenting his life, which he shares with many followers on Twitter (1.26 million), Facebook (1.27 million), Instagram (744,000) and SoundCloud (4.2 million). He’s a master at the form — it’s hard to think of anyone better at breaking viral hits (like Baauer’s “Harlem Shake,” a track Mad Decent released that went on to top the Billboard Hot 100) or introducing subculture slang to the widest possible audience (he had white kids saying “twerk” a year before Miley Cyrus did). “I’ve probably got the most eclectic social media there is because it literally goes from hanging out with my son at a park to like Madonna’s house to a rave in Africa,” he says. “I don’t think I’ll even realize how crazy it is until five years from now when I’m not doing anything fun anymore. Or maybe 20 years from now, and I’m looking back at how the fun just never ended.”
Rides like this are one of his favorite things about Los Angeles, where he sets down for about a week a month, mostly to spend time with his 3-year-old son, Lockett. (Diplo and Lockett’s mom, Kathryn Lockhart, split a couple of years ago and he currently lives, as much as he lives anywhere, in Las Vegas — or, as he puts it, “That’s where I keep my stuff.”) He pulls out the production laptop, which contains hundreds of versions of tracks, some for specific artists; others for Major Lazer, the lineup-switching, reggae-inspired group that he leads; and other sketches that don’t have a specific home. He points to a project he has been working on for more than a year. It began as a doodle built around a sample of dance act Caribou (“I love that band”), which morphed into a rap track, and then evolved into an entirely different song with Pusha T on vocals. Just recently, Diplo gave the song to a major artist he won’t name, who pushed it in an entirely new direction. “The BPM changed and the song went from major to minor,” he says. “Two songs came out of one idea.”
Or consider “Take You There,” the first song from Jack U, Diplo’s new collaboration with Skrillex. It started with a beat that was intended for Usher that Diplo made with his frequent collaborator Ariel Rechtshaid, himself a high-end producer-songwriter, who contributed to recent records by Haim, Sky Ferreira and Vampire Weekend. (Earlier this year, Diplo says he and Usher knocked out “four or five” tunes for the R&B star’s next record in a week.) Usher passed on “Take You There,” but Diplo liked it enough to play it in his DJ sets, where it got a good response. A few months later, he was in Ibiza, Spain, with Skrillex, where they set up a makeshift hotel room studio. Diplo and vocalist Kiesza, who he met on the island, wrote a new song to the track one night while Skrillex was out. Skrillex chopped and warped the 140 BPM tune into an 80 BPM bass monster the next day. The two DJs worked on the song some more on a private jet when they left the island. “I mixed it over the next five months,” says Diplo, “and then Kiesza performed it with me in New York for the very first time in front of 17,000 people.” He grins, clearly pleased by the way it turned out.
This is how a modern hit gets made, Diplo-style: not in big-money studios, but on the move, in hotel suites, private jets, SUVs — bits and pieces pasted together with collaborators all over the world. “He didn’t grow up playing the piano; he came up as a DJ,” says Rechtshaid. “He has this naturally different approach.” But radio-redefining hits (from M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes,” which kicked off the current era of dance-music-powered pop, to Usher’s “Climax,” which spent 20 weeks on the Hot 100) are just one piece of Diplo’s empire, which, Billboard estimates, will earn him $12 million in 2014. In 2013 he played 221 live dates; this year he thinks he’ll easily eclipse that number — including 23 stops on his own Mad Decent Block Party traveling festival, which he has been headlining with help from acts including Outkast and Dillon Francis. He has a Saturday-night radio show, Diplo and Friends, on BBC’s Radio 1 that, like his music, he records on the fly. And in partnership with Dr. Luke’s Prescription Records, Mad Decent has its own song-publishing arm, which brings in massive cash from viral smashes like “Harlem Shake.” “Wes is one of the most important people in music,” says Skrillex. “He brings a really f–it-let’s-try-it attitude.”
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Diplo’s first album, the DJ Shadow-ish Florida, will be reissued this fall on Ninja Tune to mark its 10th anniversary. Which is also how long it has been since Diplo last had a day job, when he was living in Philadelphia, tutoring kids in an after-school program. But even then he had multiple hustles, including digging for rare records, which he would peddle to elite vinyl heads like Questlove, sample-hungry producers including a young Kanye West and record stores on St. Marks Place in New York. “I’d drive to flea markets outside Philly in New Jersey,” he says. “And I’d find things like Rufus Harley, this bagpipe-player record, and sell it in New York for $400.”
At night, he and a DJ buddy named Low Budget began throwing a series of increasingly influential parties as Hollertronix, playing party-rocking sets that crashed Dirty South hip-hop into The Clash into dancehall reggae into Brazilian funk. Not long after, he met and began dating M.I.A. Together they put out the very-Hollertronix 2004 mixtape, Piracy Funds Terrorism, and worked on her acclaimed 2005 debut album, Arular. With his then-production partner Switch, Diplo also crafted her follow-up, Kala, including the era-defining single “Paper Planes,” which got heavy play on virtually every radio format except for country. The track was built around impossibly catchy rap-sung vocals, gunshot samples and a guitar part lifted from The Clash. “Going to the Grammys that year felt like the turning point,” says Diplo. “We lost [record of the year] to Robert Plant and … what’s her name? Alison Krauss. But everybody knew we should have won.”
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Diplo sees a clear line between those early days and the music he makes now. During his teen years in Florida, where his dad fished for shrimp and ran a bait shop and his mom worked in a supermarket, Diplo was exposed to the wild musical diversity of towns like Fort Lauderdale, where he went to high school. “The three things I’d hear were Miami bass, reggae and heavy metal,” he says. “I still wonder why anyone would listen to any other music.” Which is maybe why, despite spending a lot of this year DJ’ing monster EDM events like Electric Daisy Carnival and Ultra Fest, he doesn’t really see himself as a part of rave culture, which he dismisses as overly reliant on drugs and formulaic sounds. “They don’t even care about the music anymore,” he says. “It’s about the experience and hearing things that are really familiar and comfortable over and over again.”
He’s equally baffled by many of his DJ peers’ lack of familiarity with records that don’t fall squarely into the serotonin-surge formula of contemporary dance music. “All the DJs were at my Vegas night one night — I’m not going to name names, but all the big EDM guys — and I played a Juicy J record,” he says, shaking his head. “They’re like, ‘Where do you get these records?’ I’m like, ‘They’re on the radio! You can buy them off iTunes!’ They really have no idea. They live in these bubbles. I’m like, ‘Damn, dudes, use your imagination a little bit.’ “
The SUV pulls up in front of Mad Decent’s HQ, an anonymous corner building that started as Rechtshaid’s space. During the past couple of years it has grown into a hive of activity: three studios, live rooms, a vocal booth, a squash court-sized space used for video shoots. Aside from a mural involving Muppet-ish monsters and lyrics from songs including David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” the decor is basically nonexistent. “We rent this place for super cheap,” Diplo says cheerfully. Studio B is currently occupied by the Picard Brothers, two young-looking French kids who specialize in sleek R&B. Diplo’s phone rings. He answers it, joke-barking, “What do you want?” and then, before the person on the other end can speak, says, “Stop being a little bitch.” The next moment he turns serious. “Are you going to be in the studio? I need to get some stuff from you. Text me when I can meet you tonight.” It’s Rechtshaid, and Diplo has been trying to reach him to discuss four or five songs they’re working on for Madonna’s next album.
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Diplo and Rechtshaid have been in the studio with Madonna for three sessions in New York so far, and are clearly psyched about how the tracks are coming along. “I think three are just like amazing, smashes,” says Diplo. “One is super weird. Late one night in the studio we got a little bit drunk and she improvised a little hook and we made a song out of it. I think it’s going to be a breakthrough if she can manage to get everything together and get it out properly.” (So what does Madonna drink in the studio? “Rosé. It was nice. I don’t think she really drinks, either.”)
The pair linked up earlier this year, when Madonna invited Diplo to her Oscar party. He couldn’t go, but they began texting, and Diplo eventually sent her some music to check out, not really expecting her to take it seriously. “She wrote me back like a 20-page text, notes about all these songs,” says Diplo, still sounding surprised. She gravitated to the hook of a track that Diplo crafted with MNEK, a London songwriter who worked on the Disclosure album. When it became a Madonna song, Rechtshaid and MNEK went back into the studio to work out the verses. “That’s what I was talking to Ariel about,” says Diplo. “I need those verses. I want to wrap that up. That song is on like version 20. It went from a piano ballad to a ‘Turn Down for What’-style song, which I didn’t like. Now it’s somewhere in the middle, which is a more pop record.”
For a superstar DJ and hitmaking producer, Diplo lives a surprisingly stripped-down life. He claims to take a smaller-than-you’d-think salary, socking the rest away or investing it back into Mad Decent. He’s about to get a Tesla, but it’s the first car he has had in years. “I don’t even have a house,” he says. “A lot of DJs don’t realize they’re here today and gone tomorrow. They’re literally taking jets to every show. It’s crazy how much money they’re spending.”
One reason to believe he doesn’t need a lot of cash is his masterful ability to score free stuff. During a photo shoot earlier in the day he had admired a luxe topcoat. By the time he was in the SUV, the no-nonsense woman who handles his day-to-day management had already contacted the designer. To seal the deal, Diplo tweeted a picture from the shoot with the designer’s handle. Or take the Escalade itself, which Diplo is riding in for free. He gets a monthly $400 Uber credit for mentioning the company in his tweets.
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Diplo describes his life as a “perpetual motion machine,” and it’s hard to believe he has time for anything that a normal person would consider a relationship. Still, he has been photographed with Katy Perry a few times this year and reportedly was in Jamaica with her recently. She has denied that they’re a couple (but admitted to having people she “sexts”), and doesn’t come up on a list of folks Diplo describes as being part of his life — basically collaborators, business partners and his son. But they definitely hang out — at one point, he lets slip that “Katy uses Uber when she’s out in L.A., but sometimes a driver tries to take a picture of her.”
For now, Diplo is focused on building his empire. He’s working on new music with everyone from Ty Dolla Sign to Lorde and has 30 tracks in progress for the third Major Lazer album, which will launch in 2015 with a Major Lazer cartoon on Fox about a Rasta superhero. Its soundtrack will include new collaborations with Cat Power and Riff Raff. And, this fall, Diplo is on the road with the Mad Decent Block Party, which runs through Sept. 21 (it has sold 63,000 tickets so far) — and wraps with a Caribbean cruise that sets sail Nov. 6.
But even a perpetual motion machine needs to wind down once in a while, and when Diplo does, he goes to strip clubs. “All the strippers in Vegas know me and the club is cool,” he says with a laugh. “They give me a table and it’s quiet enough that I can talk. The strip club is the chillest place I know.”