20 minutes with Diplo, dance music’s coolest nerd
In 2014, you’re as likely to find Diplo’s name on TMZ as you are inthemix. Keep up with the tabloids and you’ll hear how he’s being owned by Lorde on Twitter, that he’s apparently dating Katy Perry and that he just named his second child Lazer. Amongst all the madness, you could be forgiven for forgetting who Thomas Wesley Pentz really is: a dude who really, really loves music.
When we caught up with Diplo in the lead-up to this year’s Stereosonic tour – the festival he’s headlining alongside a rollcall of dance music’s other titans – we were reminded of exactly how much he cares about what he does. From his role as Mad Decent label head to his pro bono job mentoring a generation of electronic music’s ascending names, Diplo’s devoted his life to finding, championing and producing great music. And that’s something he could talk about all day long.
I wanted to ask you about Florida, because I’ve been listening to that a lot lately. What kind of music you were listening to when you made that album?
Man, I was so excited about everything, you know? As a kid I was like listening to a lot of old psychedelic rock for one. Do you know Tame Impala? That’s a local band I guess.
The music they sound like is the music I used to listen to. Like the stuff that came out in the 70s and 60s, that kind of vibe. I listened to a lot of that. But my favourite producer at the time was Trick Daddy, who made Shut Up. The Florida hip-hop at the time was really influential to me, like Rick Ross’ early records, 2 Live Crew, MC Eighty, DJ Magic Mike, DJ Icey, just local stuff happening in Florida that I was obsessed with.
And I started digging up old records and just learning about stuff. I was fascinated with music, and back then we didn’t have the internet really to teach you about stuff. I would look at the back of record covers and I would listen to radio shows and download whatever little music I could find. I would just search and research and learn about stuff any way I could. It was such a cool time for me, just developing my attitude and my style.
So how different are your tastes now? Are you still listening to those same kind of genres?
I’ve always been fascinated with music and now it’s just so hyper, it’s coming out so fast and so now I’m listening to a lot of younger producers. I guess I’m still learning about old music, but really I feel like my knowledge of music history is pretty succinct now. I think I’ve got a graph in my head of where it all came from.
My job for the last ten years has been as a curator of new music. That means everything from going to Brazil, to doing Baltimore club stuff, to putting on Jersey club from Norway or people like Swick from Melbourne, or Dawn Golden, or Ryan Hemsworth. Just meeting new people and helping people develop. DJ Snake, Dillon Francis – finding those people that are exciting to me. Now there’s a new guy I met and he’s named JAWZ who just blows my mind with the records he makes, so does Boaz van de Beatz from Holland. I’m loving all the new cool people that are coming out with fresh ideas. I just like hearing other people’s ideas about music, learning and being influenced and trying to create more shit.
How do you find music now? Do you sit on Soundcloud and dig, or do people send it to you?
I have a great Soundcloud that I follow people on and everyday I turn on so much music whether it’s like, like local indie guys or people who are great selectors, or just following A-Trak – whoever it is! Such great music. Soundcloud is a great place for that.
And then a lot of my friends send me stuff that they love. DJ Benzi, another guy who I love, he’s always sending me great music. His group’s called TWRK we put out some of their stuff on Mad Decent. Or people like Alex Kazemi, a young blogger who just always links me to cool music. And then I get my stuff myself. I’m always learning, always keeping my ears open for any cool stuff.
Yeah. One of the Mad Decent artists I’m super into at the moment is Zebra Katz. Do you remember how you first came across his stuff?
I don’t know how we ended up getting Ima Read, it was through a friend. And then Zebra Katz realised we were from the same area of Florida. I love his stuff, I love his attitude – I love people with a big personality. For me, Zebra Katz just really fits on Mad Decent, like Dillon Francis or Riff Raff do – people who are just so loud and obnoxious and make great music. I know those people will last. DJs come and go, the ones who’ll be remembered are the ones who you either love or hate, but you have to sit and pay attention to them.
And going back to Florida for a second – what was your motivation in re-releasing the album?
I just don’t think that I’ll ever be able to do it again! I’ve been making music for ten years and I want to give people something more. A lot of people are interested in turning up and doing crazy stuff, so I want people who are younger – like 16, 17 – to find it and hit me up on Twitter about it.
It’s such a weird album, I made it with such an archaic program with such a loose attitude. I didn’t have any of the real people teaching me how to do anything back then, so it’s such a raw capsule of what I was doing. Some of it I listen back I’m like “this is so bad”. Like, it’s mixed so bad. But back then I didn’t care, I was just making things – I was learning how to make music and you can kinda tell that listening. It’s real authentic though, what I was trying to do and the attitudes took, my moods and what I was feeling.
I have a vague memory of you being in a studio with Flume or doing something with Flume when you were here for Big Day Out. Did anything like ever come of that?
Well I was working on Major Lazer stuff when I did Big Day Out, I had been working on that record for about a year – I started it October last year, so Big Day Out I was really writing and finishing some stuff. Or actually, one of the records I was doing at Big Day Out was that thing on the Hunger Games soundtrack. And it’s Ariana Grande singing it, it’s a Major Lazer record that she features on. It’s got Lorde and MØ, from Denmark, so it’s very cool.
I was going to ask you how the Major Lazer album was tracking. Are you guys done with it now?
It’s pretty much done, it’s just a matter of mixing and mastering it, so we’re going to have a single out in January. And we’re going to launch the whole project around December for our Jamaican show we do – we do a big show there every year and then that helps just launch it. We get a bunch of new artists that are featuring on it to come do the records live.
Yeah, so we have a single coming out in January and then an album in March or April next year. Hopefully we start the whole project around then. You’ll see us again in Australia really soon.