Chris Brown’s “Look at Me Now.” Wale’s “Slight Work.” Usher’s “Climax.” All of these big left-field pop records were produced by Wesley “Diplo” Pentz. His sound—an internationally spiced blend of what’s hot in the favelas of Brazil and the foggy streets of London—may be bigger than his name is.
But that’s quickly changing. Diplo, who started out as a DJ more than a 10 years ago, is becoming a star as a mix master. As Complex learned last week at his AXE-sponsored show in Madison, Wisconsin, the Philadelphia native packs venues.
Before hitting the stage to rock, Diplo, in a Florida Gators baseball jacket, jeans, and Jeremy Scott leopard print Adidas, rapped about producing Usher’s “Climax,” how he beats the “sell out” rap, and his surprise ride to fame.
Written by Brad Wete (@BradWete)
You’re known as a tastemaker, someone who breaks sounds that people aren’t typically aware of. What’s the most obscure place—of all the places you’ve traveled – that you found a relatively new sound that you’re excited about?
I’ve been to some really obscure places. Me and Chris, my tour manager, we’ve been to Cambodia twice. There’s not a lot of music coming from that part of Asia. It’s so weird and obscure. There’s not any new sounds there, but there’s an amazing garage rock scene that was happening in the ’60s and I still find cassettes. It’s one of my favorite kinds of music, like old-school garage psychedelic rock music. That’s a pretty obscure place.
One of the coolest places that is happening right now in the world is Monterrey. It’s kind of the northside of Mexico. There’s this music called 3Ball and the band called 3Ball Monterrey. They named themselves after the city. But it’s three kids—all 18, 19, 20 years old—and they tour in America. They bring out between 2,000 and 5,000 kids every show. It’s only Mexican kids that live there. They have the number one album on Latin charts. You may not know, but they invented the sound. I met them at SXSW in Austin.
They had an entire crew of bodyguards. Mexican guys with jackets with the name of the band in the back. They got autographs with me, pictures with me because they are fans of my stuff. They don’t even know how crazy or how huge their vibe is. But that’s like the real thing. When you’re hitting that market of kids in Mexico and America rocking this one thing, it’s like bringing unity to all the interim communities. They play obscure places like Kansas or Utah. They bring out all the kids, man, with cowboy boots that are pointy, neon sunglasses like crazy hats, it’s like some future cowboy, Mexican thing.
So what do you do with that? Is that a challenge for you to incorporate something new and exciting into your work?
Yeah. Those guys I posted them on my website. People go to my website because they want to see new things. They want to see what’s going on in the world. There’s also a book that just came out today. Me traveling to Trinidad, to Jamaica, to Asia. That’s kind of like a supplement to what is going on in that kind of culture with kids and music. I’ve tried to do things like break new sounds. In Brazil I produced a band called Bonde do Rolê that produces baile funk. I recently put out a record, “Express Yourself.” It’s a new one that’s a bounce record, but with my own sounds in it. It’s kind of becoming a national record. That’s a bounce record you don’t hear very often. We made a video for it down in New Orleans. So there’s always a way to do it, but if you do it with your own flavor.
I’m always trying to do that, but it's hard to take the sound and connect it to a wider audience. But right now, it’s the best time to do it because the audience is so varied. You have dubstep breaking all these different ideas with people. You have rappers taking chances on records that you never had before on their style, on their music. Kanye West, Odd Future, A$AP Rocky, those guys are all doing crazy shit. They are more into the fashion. They’re great musicians. But they are more into the fashion side and it's helping them expand the whole articulation with what you can do with hip-hop. They are breaking down barriers of what it means to be a rapper. Like, what the appeal is or whatever. It’s a great time to different things right now.
Most DJs are a bit selfish when it comes to finding records and different sounds. Do you ever share what you learn with other guys?
Yeah, that’s all I do. With Mad Decent we have people. [DJ] Lunice is a part of our crew now. He is a different sound for me and he is throwing me stuff. He’s been adding the new Major Lazer “Original Don” remix in his set. Definitely his style, but we made a version that we can play. He’s a whole different world for me, but I love what he does.
I’m older. I’m like 32. I feel like I’ve been through so many scenes of DJs. I started DJing 15, 17 years ago. When I was DJing, people rubbed the record label and credits off the vinyl until it was only white on the front so you can’t tell what the records are. And now they’ve invented this part of your Serato, which clears the songs that we are playing so people can’t steal. There’s that one level of mystery, which I still do that—I still have some secret records people don’t know about. I still definitely have those. But when it comes to exposing new music, I’m definitely out there. That’s like most of the appeal of coming to see me and my shows, because I am playing all kinds stuff across the board.
So you just can’t be a random dude can roll up and be like, “What’s that?”
I mean, if they ask me, I’ll tell them. If anybody is excited about my music, that’s all I care about. I care about people who are excited about new music. You meet a lot of people even today that are kind of like closed minded. They don’t like house music. They don’t like dubstep. I like all those things and I try to combine everything. I see the value in every kind of music, even country.
I worked on a record with Snoop Dogg and he wants to put Willie Nelson on one of the songs. He loves Willie Nelson. They already recorded a record for Willie and he wants to throw one on the next record. I love that idea. I hate people who are just like, “I don’t really do that because of their style.” They feel some certain way. That’s the goal with my career as a DJ, to fight against that narrow-mindedness.
It’s crazy that nowadays DJs are such draws independent of a singer or rapper.
That’s a new thing. That’s been in Europe for years and in the Trance scene for years. Tiësto, he’s 43. He has been doing it for like 20 years. He’s like Snoop Dogg. He’s like above the music really. He’s like an icon. I’ve always been the guy who had to to parties. I never had that luxury. I have been DJing for so long. I’ve been to Vegas. I had people tell me exactly what kind of songs to play. I am getting paid so it’s cool. Now I can do whatever I want. It’s kind of cool. I am becoming a personality where I have a party in Vegas called Magic in London and people can come hear me do what I do. But I’m not above the crowd. I still do parties that are private or whatever and I still want to make people happy during the day. You’ve got to find a fine line.
Does it trip you out that you are the star now?
No, I was just born into the evolution. I’m just lucky when people think of me they think of all kinds of music. When they say, “I’m going to a Diplo show.” This girl today asked me, “What kind of show is it?” I didn’t even know how to explain it to her. I’m really lucky to have that kind of aura around the shows and stuff.
I’m trying to always do new things because if you stay behind and fight the future, you are just going to be left behind.
You seem to always be on the cusp of what’s new and hot.
I’m trying to always do new things because if you stay behind and fight the future, you are just going to be left behind. You know what I’m saying, that’s always going to change. Everything is going to change around you. You just have to be adaptable. You just keep what you have inside and whatever that is about you just keep it intact. I think that I quit my old job as a school teacher in Philly because it’s such a demanding job.
What did you teach?
I taught everything, man. I was in an after-school care program. So kids who leave early because they had behavioral problems, I would be the guy who would teach them how to read, teach them math, extracurricular stuff like plays. I just realized that’s such a hard job. There’s no respect for teachers. There’s no respect. There’s no money. There’s no room to grow in that job. I always wanted to do more. I still want to incorporate working with kids, but nobody seems to care. I am trying to raise awareness with that. I do projects like teach in Australia. I do projects like that but when I do interviews, no one ever wants to talk about like that. I am fighting the good fight, but the press always want to talk about other shit.
Well, you see that’s on my list. You are bringing computers kids and stuff like that with Heaps Decent.
We do projects where I find sponsors. When you are someone like me, and you get Apple computers, I’ll be like, “Yo, I want you to be involved in this.” You are not going to say no to a bunch of kids who are learning stuff. I mean a lot of people are learning music now and I love to be involved in that. This Axe tour, they want to promote music. This is great because this is a free show to give kids. When they are going to book me, they are going to get new kinds of music and break new things. I am really into people supporting music. When comes down to helping kids, a lot of ways for education to move forward is through music because that’s exciting to kids. Reading books and going to a bookstore is not that exciting. But if you can incorporate music or something that is exciting, you could teach people a lot of things.
Let’s talk about credibility. Do you find that it's a struggle with among your DJ peers that you also produce pop radio records?
You know, I am really lucky, man. Because when I tell people, “I’m going to make this Usher record, they’re like, “How the fuck do you get away with all this shit?” I don’t even know, because people don’t really question it. I never been a part of one scene. If you label yourself a genre or whatever it is, you have diehard fans you are not going to steer from one thing to another. I get haters all the time. [They say] “Fuck this, Diplo. You shouldn’t be fucking with that.” So I get all those detractors. But at the end of the day, as long as the music is good, I’m good.
And with Usher, I’m really proud of the song. It’s not like I went out there and made a pop record and tried to sell it. We tried to make a song that we are all really proud of and that’s all that matters. If the music is good, that’s all that matters at the end of the day. I’m definitely the guy who is working on fringe stuff. If someone were to hit me up, they’re not gonna ask for a pop record anyway. He’s gonna try and do something a bit more expansive or whatever. I don’t know how the fuck I got into all this stuff to be honest. It just fell in my lap.