Interview with Diplo



by RJ Cubarrubia

Five minutes into hanging out on Diplo‘s tour bus, a minor crisis emerges: Major Lazer, his latest dancehall reggae project with fellow DJ/producer Switch featuring a fictional dreadlocked cartoon commando, is about to take the stage in an hour and the vest for his three-piece suit is missing. After some confusion, it turns out Major Lazer’s kind and hard working tour manager, Will, accidentally misplaced the vest in Vancouver, and unless a beautiful vest appears in the next 60 minutes, the signature matching suits of Major Lazer will be noticeably less sexy. But the news hardly phases Diplo; he calmly tells his manager they’ll just have to try to get a vest as best they can tonight, and if not tonight, they’ll just have to try to get a vest in San Francisco. After all, that’s just what he does: if things aren’t the way you like them, do work, make it happen yourself, and try to have a good time doing it. After covering so many styles, DJing countless shows across the world, and breaking plenty of fresh artists, you realize that this dude has probably seen it all. But no matter how much he’s seen and heard, his insatiable appetite for the freshest funks and his desire and urgency to share his findings and passions with the youth of today and tomorrow continues to expand. This commitment to the growth and evolution of dance and electronic styles is truly what sets him apart. 2004’s Florida, Hollertronix, and helping to break a little artist named M.I.A. were only the start; between his label, Mad Decent, his Australia based charity, DJ workshop, and studio, Heaps Decent, film work with his baile funk documentary, Favela On Blast, and upcoming television show on Current TV, Diplo is focused on finding the best and most fun sounds, samples, and beats from around the world, spreading the word, passing it onto the next gang of youngsters, and forever expanding the electronic encyclopedia of the next generation. After the vest issue was squared away, Diplo and I went to the back room to relax and talk about Favela On Blast, Major Lazer, our common Florida roots, what’s next for record labels, and expanding our foundations for the future of dance and electronic music. Basically, he does it for the kids. What more could you want?

First thing is, I’m sorry, I have to geek for a second; I grew up in Central Florida for 18 years…

Oh, yeah?! Where at?

Winter Park.


Oh, yeah. There’re a lot of people back home that are big fans and have been following your stuff for a while, but we can never figure out where in Florida you’re from.

Well, my mom and dad, they live in New Smyrna Beach, in Edgewater. I used to have a radio show at Rollins College [WPRK] and I went to UCF [University of Central Florida] for two years.

Damn, so then you moved up to Philly?

Yeah, there’s only so much you can do in Orlando.

Yeah, for sure. Hell, I’m here right now. So, we just had SIFF [Seattle International Film Festival] and they premiered your film, Favela On Blast


Yeah, and people liked it.

Really? That’s awesome.

Was that your first time doing film? Was that your first foray into directing and stuff like that?

Yeah, the first time I’d done anything with film was this movie, but it’s just the beginning because while that was all myself and I invested in myself, I didn’t have anybody to help me and I learned everything through doing that film. I think it came out pretty well, it was just really expensive in the end to kind of have it as a hobby. But we’re doing a television show with Current TV that’s similar to the film, where we go to mad places with different music scenes.

I know that you’ve been into baile funk for a while, but how long did this project take and how’d you get into baile funk in the first place?

It took three years to finish the film, but I was into baile funk for about four or five years. The first time I was down in Brazil was in 2004, and that was over five years ago, and it was the first time I had ever really heard of anybody going down there and doing stuff with baile funk. There was another guy from Germany named Daniel Haaksman and he was doing compilations at the time, Favela Booty Beats. And I think going down there, me and him were the only two dudes who came back with a lot of music because none of the people I knew had any of that music; it was really hard to find, that music. And then I made the connections down there and just kept working on it. I got into it just, I guess, through word of mouth and I learned about the music in the scene. I went down there to check it out, really just on a whim, you know? I had no job; I got fired.

What was it like going down to South America exploring a cultural movement you’re only reading about and stepping into a foreign country and a foreign experience? What was it like to just be thrust into all of that when you started working on this film?

For me, I don’t know. I guess, at the time, I wasn’t really taking it that seriously. Now, I have a crew when I’m working on film stuff; I have a team of kids and it’s a little more professional. Back then, I was doing it like Indiana Jones style. There was a lot of trial and error.

Are you thinking of doing more film in the future? I know you’re friends with Buraka Som Sistema and when I talked to DJ Riot and Conductor, they compared the baile funk movement to kuduro.

Actually, for the television show, we’re going to Angola in September, hopefully, to do an episode. We went Jamaica to do a launch for Major Lazer and we’re supposed to do an episode there. But the show will be more when I cool down after the summer because I have all these gigs to do between here and Europe, and then when I cool down after that, the show will be the priority for Mad Decent and stuff and we’ll be able to travel and pick out the best places and invest a lot of time in it. So that’s the first big deal. The second big deal is with Major Lazer, we’re going to have a proper cartoon, so that will be cool too.

With Major Lazer, how did that come about? It’s a crazy thing, with that fictional character.

I mean we just wanted to make it funner. It’s kind of like a solo record for me and Dave. It’s the first time we’ve done some properly in, like, 5 years. It’s more like just to kind of give the record a context, you know? We wanted to do this reggae album and these songs and give them a context so they make sense since reggae is so disjointed and it’s not really album based, there’s not really a format for records like that. But we hope this kind of works out and people get into it and get into the art and stuff like that because we want to bring back the fun style, the fun stuff of Jamaican culture instead of that badman homophobia shit.

Definitely, I think that’s something a lot of people feel strongly about, in terms of Jamaican culture. Do you feel that there’s a way out of that anytime soon in Jamaican culture, when it comes to that attitude of homophobia?

Homophobia, we don’t cover that on the record. I mean, it’s one of those pillars in dancehall: you either talk about weed, homophobia, pussy, guns. There’re only a couple subjects to fuck with. For us, I appreciate the artists for what they do and they have their own opinions, but we aren’t interested in doing anything like that. I have loads of fans from the homosexual community, too. Those kids are the ones who really hold it down; even from the beginning with M.I.A. and Santigold, they’re the first ones who get on the beat and take chances and bring it to the maddest parties. They’re like the kids who are really the trendsetters.

I know you do some good stuff with Heaps Decent. How’d that get going and how’d that come to life?

Well, as long as I’m a white dude doing dancehall or baile funk movies, or whatever the fuck, I think it’s something important to do and it also gives people less ammunition to hate us. Also, I started this shit out when I was a schoolteacher before I was a DJ, so now it’s just important to keep developing and planting the seeds for kids so that when I do finish this shit, somebody else will have material to work with, you know? Like there will be more fascinating stuff that kids are doing and it’s always good to enrich what those kids have and do and stuff.

Twitter has been something that’s pretty big for you. A friend told me something about when you were at the Grammys, your Twitter was kind of geeking out at seeing some of those people. What’s it like being like in some circles they know you but you go there and you just blend in?

I guess I always live like two lives. I don’t even know how I’m in the Hollywood circles because I’m just like a dickhead who’s lucky to be around. I don’t even know how I got to the Grammys; it’s just ridiculous. Everybody there, they spend their whole lives to do something like that and we just kind of stumbled onto it. But for real, it’s more of a matter of being honest and more straightforward with it. You have to see through the smoke and mirrors, you know? I just do this stuff for all the kids who come out and see me and grassroots attitude is what keeps me going. Mad Decent runs on fumes; we just try to do what we do and push things forward. But we’re really lucky to keep doing things that are interesting while making money to get by, you know? I always wish I had more time to finish the things that I do, though, but we’re doing the best we can. I think that the new age, it is a matter of being savvy with multimedia and reaching the kids in any aspect possible because we don’t feel like, “Oh, I got to get my video on MTV,” because we can put a video like Blaqstarr and Rye Rye on Youtube and get a million hits and that Lil Wayne single that came out the same month only got like a hundred thousand; we just did it word of mouth. So even if we’re not selling records like them, we at least have the media and we know how to touch the kids, you know? And major labels catch up pretty fast but at least we’re able to do it and we always like trendsetting. We’re going to make some headroom and get to a point where we don’t have to be defensive to the major labels and stuff, because all those dudes do is bite our style anyway or take our artists or take what we do cool and make it commercial. That’s cool too, but we just want to keep it going, keep it fresh.

Yeah, word of mouth can spread so fast these days that you don’t even need a record label behind you.

Exactly. When kids come out to sign to Mad Decent for instance, I tell them right away, “What are you going to get out of it, really?” because you don’t need a label and if you want to fuck with us, we really only want to sign kids who really want to be part of the team and people who are really forward thinking. If they’re not, you know, we sign singles of stuff we want to push out there, and they’ll maybe make a little money on the publishing side, but kids don’t really need labels. All I can offer people, as Diplo, is that I can offer direction and help a bit with like working a record that way. Sometimes people need the help; Blaqstarr, for instance, he needs direction, he needs kind of like someone to be quality control. Otherwise, he’s out of his mind and crazy. But some people don’t; like, Rusko doesn’t need much direction, but I feel I want to break a dubstep sound in America in a way that it’s not like a gimmick. I want people to think like, this is music that is from 2009 and 2010, this isn’t just some shit that is regurgitated, you know? And it can fit in with popular culture, because some of the tracks we’re working on are really big with good vocals on them and things, so it’s not like crossing over, so to say, but it is like a way to inject tracks to have a widespread appeal in a new fashion. You don’t have to cheese out dubstep or you don’t have to put baile funk and put Madonna on top of the beat to break it, but you do have to give it a context to which kids can get it. Like, I’m not going to break Mr. Catra or some of the guys featured in our film. Some of those guys, they’re not commercial by any means; they talk about sex and food and shit but they’re still touring and promoting the records and doing things a baile funk artist wouldn’t give a fuck about. Like, I couldn’t really explain to the kids down in Brazil that this is how we’re going to do it to make this shit blow up because I can’t teach them about baile funk. They’re born in baile funk. Some of these younger kids, it’s something new, they’re same as me, they’re my generation. Baile funk was something they picked up when it was already formed and they just try to do something different with it. That’s what I’m talking about. I’m not talking about taking trends and co-opting them to give pop people credibility.

You’ve already mentioned the TV show, but what’s next for Mad Decent as a whole? You’re branching out into all sorts of multimedia and you just got a distribution deal with Downtown, so it seems like Mad Decent is growing, if not blowing up.

We don’t really have any money so it’s kind of like using somebody else’s money, like Downtown’s, to do as much as possible. We have to use someone else’s resources just to kind of put ourselves out there because there’s not like a backroom for Mad Decent. It’s pretty much just my money and people who work hard as fuck like Jasper [Goggins], Paul Devro, and it’s just a team of kids who love music and shit. With Downtown, we’re trying to take advantage of the opportunity, because those guys are always really crazy with the way that they change things. They take chances on records, you know? They had hit singles that are fucking weird, like Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” or pushing Santigold’s record when nobody else would fuck with her and they had success with that. The multimedia, it’s just a way to reach kids. I mean the only way I got to the Grammys is because “Paper Planes” got into a stoner movie. I thought the song was great but no one gives a fuck because there’s sort of a chain of command for people who listen to records and that’s something that goes on the back shelf for a major label. M.I.A. was ready to retire before that shit blew up, remember? She really needed a release and we just got lucky, so it’s all about just doing things like that and getting lucky. And like now, we’re at a point where we’re a big enough voice and people trust us to do things and we’re just trying to take advantage of it, man. I mean, it’s not easy by any means, but as long as we keep staying fresh, then I think we’ll be alright.

No doubt. I appreciate it, man.

Yeah, cool man.

For more information on Diplo and Mad Decent, visit Diplo’s Myspace page and the Mad Decent Website. For more information on Heaps Decent, visit their website. For Major Lazer tunes, tour dates, and information, visit their Myspace page.

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  1. Posted July 13, 2009 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    Great work RJ!

  2. mike
    Posted July 15, 2009 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

    Winter Park represent!

  3. Posted July 21, 2009 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    nice interview. my favorite dj.

  4. tonyg
    Posted July 21, 2009 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

    Diplo sure knows how to touch kids.

  5. Andrew Fegan
    Posted July 22, 2009 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    Sick interview!
    The Major Lazer show was great @ Neumos… got to chat with Diplo for a bit after and hes as chill now as he was in 2005.

  6. Chris
    Posted July 22, 2009 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

    well done interview!

  7. clark
    Posted July 22, 2009 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

    hell yeah WP

  8. Ian
    Posted July 24, 2009 at 1:07 am | Permalink

    Great interview. i’m a big diplo fan and he is my favourite dj. I saw him twice this year at ape at the apollo [manchester] and chibuku [liverpool] and he just destroyed the place with his set. Plus i’m a sucker for the mad decent t-shirts.

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