April 20, 2011


The Diplo Touch

C Flanigan
C Flanigan

Amid the frenzy last week over the fabulous outfits Beyoncé will be wearing in her new video, someone also dropped a 15-second mix of her upcoming single, “Run the World (Girls).” (The track has since leaked in full.) Although the clip wasn’t a lot of song, it did provide one key piece of information. This version, which samples Major Lazer’s “Pon de Floor,” pretty much confirmed the rumor that Diplo—one-half of Major Lazer—was working with Beyoncé to give her June 2011 follow-up to I Am… Sasha Fierce some edge.

In case you’re not familiar with him, Diplo (real name: Wesley Pentz), 32, is a Philly-based producer known for his use of dancehall, dubstep, and baile funk. Starting out as a mixtape-dropping DJ, he made his name by collaborating with ex-girlfriend M.I.A. on her albums, most notably on the Kala cut “Paper Planes,” for which he was Grammy-nominated. But since his beginnings helping M.I.A. develop her haphazard sound, the indefatigable Diplo has become omnipresent. He’s put his stamp on everyone from Snoop Dogg to Sleigh Bells, Chris Brown to Bruno Mars—not to mention, the Holy Grail himself, Kanye West.

By day, Diplo is the major domo behind Mad Decent, an imprint distributed by Downtown Records, a well-curated label which boasts Gnarls Barkely, Scissor Sisters, and Mos Def. But Mad Decent is less a record company than a movement featuring a coterie of artists that boast the provocative sounds Diplo has stumbled upon in his travels. Each year, he puts many of them on display at Mad Decent-branded music festivals.

The prevailing sentiment among big companies is that everything Diplo touches turns cool.

Adult Swim has added a Major Lazer-themed cartoon to its lineup. Diplo is working on a show for the Travel Channel about his global-music endeavors. He has modeled clothes for hipster designer Alexander Wang (sparking even mainstream publications like GQ to treat him like a burgeoning style icon). And most lucratively, he’s shilled for Blackberry Torch in an American Express-esque docu-commercial. Not bad for a musician who spends his time behind a soundboard.

How does someone who taps so under the radar stay above it? For one, Diplo is good-looking, which would make anyone more marketable. But mostly, he’s charismatic, dynamic, and always thinking virally. To tout his Blow Your Head Vol. 1: Diplo Presents Dubstep compilation, he recruited the goofy Taiwanese animators NMA (famous for their CGI re-enactments of news items) to create a Street Fighter-esque video for “U Don’t Like Me,” his track with Lil Jon. He’s likewise enlisted bizarre-provocative director Eric Wareheim (himself a cult attraction from the show Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!) to direct Major Lazer videos. Meanwhile, Diplo has made an unlikely blogstar out of those videos’ breakout characters, his extreme back-up dancer Skerrit Bwoy.

Despite all his testaments to being a party-boy stoner, he’s no slacker. The chilled-out Diplo is constantly—almost stubbornly—on tour, DJing events, concerts, festivals. While he travels, he tweets like a mofo, so you know just what you're missing out on. (Of recently playing Wellesley, which he confuses for Wesleyan, he tells his 150,000-plus followers: “This party looks nuts im already trying to go to an afterparty and overdose in these woods with some french lit majors.”) His blog, meanwhile, has become a one-stop destination for cool-hunting. A lo-fi version of Kanye's blog, it’s an exercise in both self-promotion and selfless, unsolicited endorsements.

Here’s what makes Diplo unique: He’s turned his sound into an evolving scene. Where Dr. Luke and RedOne operate on a tried-and-true formula, Diplo thrives on his short attention span—and as such, the rare ability to cross-pollinate sounds in hip-hop, indie rock, and pop. That he is his most valuable talent scout is key: Because unlike other cultural tastemakers such as Madonna, Kanye, and even M.I.A., Diplo doesn’t corral talent, he unearths it.