Diplo: The Cultural Agitator

by Brian Heater / photographed by Rodolfo Martinez
Diplo wears a suit and shirt by Balenciaga.

"I just don't want to fuck up," Diplo answers blunty, when asked whether mainstream success has made it more difficult to make the music he wants.

"But at the same time," he adds, without missing a beat, "if I lost everything today, I'd just start over again. Maybe I'll open a daycare and make up the best self-help book about it. Or maybe I'll open a pizza shop and make it the best pizza shop in Burbank and we can chain it. I'll be good at what I do or at least at making myself happy. I'll always be pushing forward. I think music is just something I got sucked into and I'm just doing it because it's going in the right direction. As soon as I suck and everyone hates me -- which might be right now and I don't know it -- I'm just going to quit and do something else." Those pizza making days are still a ways off, of course. These days everyone wants a piece of Diplo.

Over the past few years, the Mississippi-born producer has found a remarkable level of success, both through his own pet projects like the electro-dancehall-dub-hop-trap funk collaboration Major Lazer and producing records for some of the biggest names in music, from Bieber to Britney.

Diplo's career went into overdrive in 2008 when the then-Philadelphia resident successfully transitioned from mixtape DJ to superstar producer thanks to his work on "Paper Planes," the Grammy-nominated single that also made M.I.A. a household name. These days, a conversation with Diplo includes semi-regular name drops like Usher and Snoop Dogg -- not so much for bragging rights as a casual commentary on what he's up to these days. A scan of his resume will reveal a staggering number of chart topping singles from the last few years, while a quick Google search brings up a slew of stories about an Instagram photo that may or may not have been shot during a whirlwind Jamaican vacation with Katy Perry.

Diplo wears a shirt by Dries Van Noten and sunglasses by Gucci.

What's truly remarkable about Diplo's resume, however, isn't so much the astronomical ascent as his ability to maintain an impressive level of autonomy and cred, even while he's steeped in the major label machine. That success owes a lot to Mad Decent, the label he founded back in 2006 that has actively worked to upend preconceived notions of genre, particularly when it comes to such nondescript blanket labels as EDM.

"EDM is just a term that journalists came up with for the part of the market that sells energy drinks," Diplo explains, before launching into his label's mission statement. "At Mad Decent, we're cultural agitators. No one was checking us out at EDC [Electric Daisy Carnival] or those festivals. We don't fit anywhere on these festival circuits, because we're not big room, we're not big room, we're not trance. But some of the artists we have on the label like DJ Snake are having number one albums on Billboard."

The other major factor in Diplo's maintained autonomy is, naturally, the internet, which has helped blur -- if not remove entirely -- stigmas surrounding genre and cultural context. "There's a new accessibility to music," Diplo says. "You used to just have radio as your point of distribution -- or MTV. Now it's SoundCloud. It's a rabbit hole you can go down for hours, and kids are excited about music. More kids are making it -- I'm talking about kids that are between eight and 18. They're the ones who are interested in Mad Decent. They're our fan base. Their older brothers listen to rap music or pop music or EDM. The younger ones listen to all that together."

Diplo wears a suit and shirt by Louis Vuitton.

The zero barrier to entry of distribution methods like SoundCloud have fostered the DJ's experimentation in ways that were once limited to low circulation mixtapes, providing a method to try new things and -- invariably -- fall flat on one's face on occasion. "Every time we break through, it's kind of by accident," he says, before adding, "I don't have a lot of pressure on me that other producers do. [Producers are] only as hot as their next song. As a DJ, I can put out thousands of songs. If one sticks, then it becomes popular."

"We just have to make people want to go out and dance," he explains. "No one will tell us what to do. We can go straight to SoundCloud and have a hit that way, like 'Harlem Shake.' [Ed. note: a Mad Decent creation, incidentally] There are no rules." It's a model that continues to baffle big labels, 15 years in. "You have labels that don't want to waste their resources -- they have to keep their lights on with these giant record campaigns," he says.

Diplo all the while, is in the decidedly charmed position of serving as a conduit between the two camps. As a known experimenter, major artists tap him to help shake things up for the sake of artistry and maintaining cultural relevance. "If I'm doing something with Madonna, I'm trying to push the envelope," he explains. And given how uncertain the music industry is at present, there's plenty of opportunity for someone in Diplo's position to do the pushing. "It's like the wild west right now. We have someone like DJ Snake [of "Turn Down for What"], who's selling more than Mariah Carey's album. He makes music in front of his computer. He's going triple platinum and Mariah Carey can't even sell 10,000 copies."

Styled by Jessica Zamora-Turner / Grooming by Marcel Dagenais at LVA Artists for EVO Hair Care


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