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DJ, rapper, producer Diplo is everywhere

The DJ-producer draws on a world of influences and always seems to know where to look for the next big thing,writes Caspar Llewellyn Smith

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 December, 2012, 2:19pm
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If one thing can be said of Diplo, it's that he puts himself out there. Midway through Major Lazer's set at the Corona Capital festival in Mexico City, he is zipped up into a giant plastic bubble that is then propelled out and over a sea of hands, scrabbling to stay upright, and failing; later, shirt off, he elects for a more straightforward stage-dive, and is lucky to escape unbloodied.

It doesn't matter that the hamster-ball trick isn't his own, but borrowed from the Flaming Lips. Key to the creation of the Diplo brand has always been the fearless magpie fashion in which he has grabbed ideas from everywhere. The band Major Lazer may have been conceived as a dancehall reggae group, but for the Mexican crowd they mix up soca bangers such as JW and Blaze's ridiculous Palance with "mad, random s***" such as a version of The Boy in the Bubble by Paul Simon.

The other two members - Jillionaire and Walshy Fire - work on the crowd while their dancers teach a hapless male member of the audience the Jamaican dance style of daggering. Guns spray confetti everywhere. It's fun, and little wonder Diplo says, in the tour van afterwards, "if I had to go out there and play Avicii and dubstep remixes every day I'd go insane".

Diplo is the Kevin Bacon figure who has joined the dots between characters as disparate as pop hearthrob Bruno Mars (they visited a Paris strip club in search of inspiration for Mars' new album) and contemporary composer Nico Muhly (who arranged the strings on Usher's Climax, one of the year's biggest songs, and which Diplo co-wrote and produced). He has made records with superstars such as Justin Bieber, produced the new No Doubt album and is working with Snoop Dogg, but has also involved himself with English mathcore exponents Rolo Tomassi.

Diplo can count himself among the new wave of superstar DJs; he even has a residency at the new club epicentre that is Las Vegas. But the latter, he insists, is "mostly just a way of paying the bills".

Instead, the reason that brands - whether BlackBerry, with a role for him in an advertisement, or Beyonce, who enlisted him for work on her last album - hunt him out is that this 34-year-old "random-ass white dude" (his description) from Florida knows where to find the next thing. If anyone is a conduit to underground club culture around the world it's Thomas Wesley Pentz (Diplo's real name). "I'm not good at doing anything else," he says. "Just making music and having ideas, and putting people together."

Born in Tupelo, Mississippi, he grew up mostly in south Florida, where his father ran a bait shop; at university in Philadelphia, he studied film and anthropology but also started a series of parties, mixing the hip hop of David Banner with world music, house and (he remembers particularly) Soft Cell's Tainted Love. "In Florida there was such a mix: you had the ghetto stuff happening, and then you had the Miami bass and freestyle, and then the white people liked electro and disco - you had to rock everything in Florida. It was a real melting pot."

In 2003, he released his debut album, Florida, under the name Diplo (because, he says, his favourite dinosaur is a diplodocus). But in search of an even more perfect beat, he visited Brazil the following year, and discovered the baile funk scene. Mixtapes such as Favela on Blast (2004) followed and he signed the band Bonde do Role to his own Mad Decent imprint.

"With my label, we always want to put out new s*** that we're excited about, but it is hard to give it longevity," Diplo says - and it's possible the fad for baile funk has now faded. But through his Brazilian adventures, he discovered a talent for unearthing different music from around the world - and since then has championed acts including South African rave-rap duo Die Antwoord, kuduro outfit Buraka Som Sistema from Portugal, and exponents such as Dave Nada of that US hybrid of house and reggaeton, moombathon. All are strains or representatives of what is sometimes called the tropical bass (or global bass or global ghettotech) movement.

There has also been his genre-busting work with MIA, whose breakthrough hit Paper Planes he co-wrote and co-produced. The pair also dated, before a public falling out: Diplo accused her of "glamourising terrorism" on her album Maya and called her out for playing the Super Bowl with Madonna ("it was kind of stupid").

Criticism of his own "venture capitalist imperialist ass" is familiar: he's had beef with critics such as The New York Times' Jon Caramanica, who questioned the element of "cultural appropriation" at work in an early Major Lazer show, and earlier this year Diplo debated these issues with Sierra Leonean-American writer and "cultural activist" Chief Boima.

"It's not the same world they had when they made Nanook of the North," he said then, making the point that globalisation has meant that young people in Cambodia and Indonesia can make records on an increasingly equal footing with his peers now. "Everywhere I go, there's not this world of exoticism that you guys think exists."

Before Major Lazer's set, the trio change into dark suits, at which point Diplo decides that for a group shot, they should scale a derelict building backstage. "I've already got so many rips in my pants," he says, hauling himself up. "Top Man do an elasticated pair," says Jillionaire, "or we could get jeggings ..."

The group originally comprised Diplo and British producer Switch, who recorded debut album Guns Don't Kill People ... Lazers Do at Tuff Gong studios in Jamaica. Guests included Santigold, Vybz Kartel, Amanda Blank and Mr Vegas. Switch quit last year, citing "creative differences", but the mission remains: to bring dancehall music to a wider audience - and with the live shows, "to take some of the theatrical atmosphere of carnival music into the dance scene", in Jillionaire's phrase.

"The first Major Lazer was just jumbled together with Switch - he was my mentor - but now we're a group, and it's also more about the songwriting," says Diplo. "I'm bringing the level of seriousness I apply when I produce other people's records." The new Major Lazer album is due in early 2013, and guest performers include everyone from Dirty Projectors' Amber Coffman (on recent single Get Free) to Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koenig, Wyclef Jean, Shaggy, Bruno Mars and more.

The search for the next new thing continues. So where's it happening now? "Indonesia, I'd say. Kids there are creating crazy s*** … there's this Dutch house scene, but they have this real ghetto attitude towards it," Diplo says.

It is this native media appreciation of the hyper-accelerated world in which we live that so unsettles Diplo's critics: often he can seem like little more than a cool-hunter, and one with an irritatingly impressive contacts book. But there's also an absolute sincerity to what he does (plus initiatives such as his not-for-profit organisation Heaps Decent, set up to encourage hip hop artists in underprivileged communities in Australia). So what if it's hard to keep up with him?

For now, though, there is talk of a festival after-party, but instead Diplo leaves for his room, perhaps to work on a remix he says he owes a friend, Cat Power. In the morning, it is back to Los Angeles (where he's mostly resident) in time for his son's second birthday party. Another parent might think to hire a clown for the occasion. Instead, Diplo has booked his friend Skrillex to deejay. "How crazy is that?" he says, laughing.

Guardian News & Media