DJ and music producer Diplo poses for a portrait at the Mad Decent Studios on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Dan Steinberg/Invision/AP)
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Don’t bother calling Diplo if you want to make something that sounds like a Diplo record. He’s not interested.
“Producers in L.A. were hitting me up: ‘We need a Diplo record. We want to sound like Diplo,'” the producer said. “And I’m like, Diplo is the guy who’s doing what nobody else is doing. So unless you’re willing to jump off the cliff with me … ”
Jumping off the cliff has put Diplo right in the middle of things as Sunday’s Grammy Awards approach.
Up for producer of the year, he’s got parties with Snoop Dogg and Skrillex planned in the run up to music’s biggest night. Next he’ll release a new, much-anticipated Major Lazer album and the reggae album he produced for Snoop. Down the road he’s got projects with Chris Brown, 2 Chainz, Tinie Tempah and Riff Raff among others.
The producer, whose given name is Wes Pentz, took time out Thursday to reflect on where he’s been over the last 10 years. He admits over a quick snack of sketchy sushi in the conference room of his label Mad Decent that he’s not really sure what tomorrow will bring. But wherever he travels next, he knows he won’t be covering the same ground twice.
“I think we’re on top at this label right now and what we do as far as creative people, but if that changes I’ll start making pizza,” Pentz said with a laugh. “I’ll be the best (expletive) pizza maker. Underground pizza, whatever that is.”
The drive to do something different and new has taken Diplo from the fringes of dance music to the top of pop. Along the way he reshaped hip-hop, exposed the world to new sounds from places like Brazil and Jamaica, and caught the attention of stars like Beyonce and MIA.
His latest convert? Justin Bieber.
“I Twittered I was with Justin Bieber and some kids were mad at me…” Pentz said. “I was telling some other producers in the EDM world and they were like, ‘Man, I can’t go in the studio with Justin Bieber. My fans would leave me.’ I’m like, ‘What? (Expletive) your fans.’ I don’t do it for the fans, I do it for myself. If they want to go or whatever and find something new, that’s cool. You’ve got to believe in your music first of all. If you’re going to be a slave to your genre or your fans, that’s a death sentence, you know?”
His inventiveness and willingness to merge different sounds into new things makes Diplo a different kind of producer, one others recognize as a player to pay attention to. He caught Rick Rubin’s attention, for instance, when he began working with MIA. Rubin thinks “Paper Planes” was something of a milestone in the hip-hop world, helping force the genre in a new direction after tracks started to become interchangeable.
“The sort of world beat that he brings, I think it’s finding more accessibility,” Rubin said. “And with each record he makes that widens that spectrum, it allows others to follow that new trend or be inspired by the trend to see, ‘Oh, somebody made this left turn, now I can make this right turn.’ And it just opens things up.”
Diplo sees Rubin, who broke through in hip-hop but has evolved into an unclassifiable player in the music industry, as someone to model his career after — someone who brings out the best in artists and makes them think differently.
Diplo began thinking about different sounds and how they might flow together while traveling around the South with his family as his father migrated from job to job in the healthcare industry. He lived in Mississippi and Tennessee and Florida, before moving to Philadelphia and finally Los Angeles as an adult.
In Fort Lauderdale, he found an unexpected multicultural harmony where kids of different backgrounds and races attended parties together. His family had always exposed him to country and gospel music. At the same time he was discovering dancehall and freestyle music with his friends from the Jewish, Haitian and Cuban communities.
The Mad Decent label carries his eclectic taste, putting out music in innumerable styles — psych rock, rap, dance music and sounds that don’t even have a name yet. Pentz says he nearly closed the label several times in the last year until he settled on a new business model: Giving away music.
“The kids love it because we put out things they’ve never heard before,” Pentz said.
Pentz and label staff were learning on the job Thursday as they marveled over videos starting to pile up on YouTube for a song called “Harlem Shake” by Baauer. It was released last May, but for some reason began catching on 24 hours earlier. Some of the videos featured entire offices dancing to the music and had hundreds of thousands of views already.
And each video that showed up Thursday proved they were on to something.
“So we gave away music and it gave us the opportunity to sign more (artists) and publish more records so we could make our money on a label signing it or a movie picking it up. That’s where it is,” Pentz said. “I just see record sales continually declining. … The levee’s broken and they’re fixing it with Band-Aids.”
The ride takes him to the Staples Center on Sunday where he’s nominated for his work with Usher, Snoop, Santigold, No Doubt, Wale, Bieber and Alex Clare, among others.
The trophy’s kind of beside the point. The real victory is already at hand.
“For me, I just get to see all those other artists who have to pay attention to me because everybody’s got to pay attention for a minute,” Pentz said. “That’s the only thing that’s cool right now.”