At the end of a Saturday interview with Diplo, Jillionaire and Walshy Fire of Major Lazer during the second weekend of the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival, I mentioned my upcoming conversation with 2 Chainz, scheduled for later in afternoon.
Diplo's eyes lit up: "Tell him to come on stage and perform with us."
In 2 Chainz' smoke-filled tour bus about an hour later, I casually brought up Diplo's request. The interview, which was slowly wrapping up, ended abruptly: 2 Chainz took out his phone and immediately called Diplo. When the call went to voicemail, 2 Chainz asked me to reach out to my contact in Diplo's camp. I did, and eventually Diplo's people spoke to 2 Chainz people -- all while a freshly baked Chainz frantically listened to "Bubblebutt" and tried to re-memorize his lines.
Thirty minutes later, Jillionaire and Diplo were telling a crowd of rabid festival goers that they had a special guest: 2 Chainz, who came out, plowed through his verse with trademark swagger, and promptly left the stage.
Sometimes even when Diplo doesn't call you, you answer anyway.
As the head of Mad Decent, an independent record label that recently notched a Billboard No. 1 in the form of Baauer's "Harlem Shake," Diplo has found himself on the edge of the biggest music festival in the world: the internet. "Harlem Shake" leapfrogged to the top of the Hot 100 chart on the back of hundreds of thousands of fan-made YouTube videos that featured only 30-seconds of the song. (It also contained unlicensed samples, a mess Diplo says he has since "sorted out," despite the fact that Baauer told Mad Decent there were no samples on the song and signed an indemnity clause when the label picked up the song.)
"We are a label that exists on the internet, so when something like that happens, we know how to incubate it and make it go crazy," Diplo said. "There are no rules to running a label anymore. We have, like, seven people working for us, but Interscope probably didn't even have a record as big as 'Harlem Shake' last year and they have thousands working for them."
If Diplo -- born Thomas Wesley Pentz 34 years ago in Mississippi before growing up in Florida -- sounds like he's happy to buck the system, it's because he is happy. "Interscope dropped Major Lazer when we asked for money for a video for 'Get Free,' and we sold 150,000 copies of that song," he continued. "So that just proves that labels have no idea what's going on anymore. They just want to jump on EDM dick -- shit that sucks because they don't feel the music but think it's happening. We are in these streets."
While Interscope is doing pretty well in electronic dance music (it snapped up Zedd, one of the most-liked middle-of-the-road house producers on the scene and also boasts Modestep and Nero), Diplo's right that major labels haven't exactly been hip to the many subgenres that Mad Decent specializes. Whether it's dancehall, trap or any number of the many interpolations of cultures and sounds that his army of super young artists produce, Diplo maintains that it's authenticity and artistic maturity that make everything come together. "We are adults in the music industry," he said. "And when it comes to dance music on the fringe, there's no A&R that can teach you or guide you."
Mad Decent is the fruit of Diplo's wide-ranging production pedigree. Over the past decade or so, he has put in work on songs or complete albums for MIA, Robyn, Drake, Beyonce, Die Antwoord, Chris Brown, Alex Clare, Lil Wayne, Wale, Santigold, Usher, Justin Bieber, Rita Ora, Azealia Banks, Bruno Mars, PSY, Snoop Lion, No Doubt, Mac Miller and a host of lesser-known but highly adored singers and rappers. That's an impressive network of happy campers.
At the moment, however, it's Major Lazer that has his focus. The dancehall-inflected trio finally released its second album, "Free the Universe," after six months of delays last week, and the record seems dearest to Diplo's heart. Based heavily in Caribbean culture (Jillionaire is from Trinidad; Walshy Fire is Jamaican and Diplo has recorded on the the latter album for years), Major Lazer offers a dance party that's a bit more specific than its fist-pumping counterparts.
"Dance music is so interchangeable," Diplo bristled. "There's not a lot of face to it. It's a bunch of Dutch DJs with the same haircut. You go see a dance stage at a fucking dance festival and I'm bored out of my fucking mind. That's not going to last very much longer, because kids see that it's the same shit every single time."
All three of Major Lazer's members agreed that their main competitor was Skrillex with Bassnectar and Macklemore also providing very different but important inspirations for the group -- a curious set of influences given their Caribbean roots. Still, Diplo insists Major Lazer is creating, not aping, Jamaican culture. "The amount of people who come to see us and the radio play we get in Jamaica," he said before trailing off. "I was so nervous when we did the first Major Lazer show there, but that was one of the best shows we have had, to this day. A lot of people think that we're taking Jamaican culture, but in reality, we're one of the most influential acts changing what's happening in Jamaica."
Diplo also believes he's finessing youth culture. "We don't make music for old people who have built-in expectations," he said. "When older people start hating on you, just aim for the younger kids. They're very animalistic and instinctive in terms of what they like."
Between American frat boys (a group Diplo identified as part of Major Lazer's core American audience) and Jamaican radio listeners, Mad Decent is casting a pretty wide net. The label struggled through a series of rock releases and almost shut down when it couldn't find a way to make money. Ironically, it wasn't until Mad Decent decided to give music away for free that it hit a nerve. The label's roster -- from Baauer to drum and bass icon DJ Fresh to meme rapper RiFF RAFF -- is diverse to an extent that it almost looks like the only explanation is that the releases are all things that Diplo would like. At Coachella, Diplo said the fundamental rubric is simple: "If it doesn't exist yet, we want to help it be out there."
That dedication to artistic freedom is rooted in a very specific experience. Producing for MIA in the mid-2000s "was the first time I had someone pay for me to go to the Caribbean and work on music," he said. "I never had any money before that -- I could never go work in a studio. Even the world that we're in now, she forged that path. For a while it was weird, because we were both talking mad shit about each other. I was just digging holes all the time, but now I'm very comfortable with all of it."
Given the conviction and borderline arrogance underlying his his comments on dance music (he also told me he thinks he "took over what Pete Tong was doing" in terms of breaking artists at BBC Radio with his weekly show "Diplo & Friends") and major labels, I asked Diplo when he became confident in his own taste.
"I still don't know when things will work," he said. "I played a record last night, a trap remix of Macklemore and it was the most awkward reaction. But I'm out there and I'm trying shit. What we lack in actual musicianship, we make up for in courage."
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