Before Lean On, before Bieber, before Madison Square Garden, Diplo was the Philly club king with an album called Florida, a party called Hollertronix and production credits for M.I.A., the rising star he happened to be dating.
In 2006, the superstar-in-wait came to Australia for the first time to play a tiny club tour that hit venues like the now-defunct Mandarin Club (RIP!). On support at his Sydney show was local DJ Levins, who hit it off with the U.S. selector. So when Diplo returned in 2007 as part of the Big Day Out line-up, he, Levins and Nina Las Vegas hooked up to establish Heaps Decent, an initiative that runs workshops and music programs around Australia designed to nurture the creativity of underprivileged and indigenous young people.
2017 marks ten years of Heaps Decent, which made the timing of Diplo’s current Australian tour very fortuitous. On Sunday night in Sydney he sat down with Nina Las Vegas for a Q&A session that spanned topics like discovering, collaborating and creating – an event that was staged to raise the funds Heaps Decent need to keep running workshops.
inthemix was there and found Diplo had plenty of wisdom to impart. Read on to find out what we learnt at the Q&A session, and find out more about how you can support Heaps Decent over here.
Diplo didn’t release his first album until he was 24, which is basically geriatric by today’s standards. But he’s achieved a lot in the last 14 years, a success he puts down to his relentless hustle.
“When I realised I had the opportunity to make music, I didn’t waste any time. I was like, well this is better than going to my day job as a school teacher,” he said. “I feel like I’m lucky to be a musician. If I have an opportunity I never want to waste a second. Even here in Australia, every second I’ve been here, I’ve just been shooting videos and going to studios and doing whatever I can. It’s not a vacation for me or anything.”
So you’ve made a banger. What now? According to Diplo, actually getting it in people’s ears is the hardest part. “The best music doesn’t get heard sometimes. One of my favourite artists from the last year was Francis and the Lights, and I don’t think anybody heard that album because it was just not promoted well,” he said.
“I think that the music scene is bigger than just making music. Look at Kanye West – he creates fashion, art, the videos. I think it’s important to understand that music is sometimes only 10 percent of actual sounds. The other 90 percent is your image and building that brand.”
Not even music’s biggest biggest stars are immune: “I don’t think many people heard [Beyonce’s] Lemonade because it was only on Tidal,” he said.
But is it possible to put out good music without having a big social media presence? “Yeah,” Diplo concedes. “Flume is an example. He doesn’t really exist that much on social media but he’s massive.
“It’s embarrassing for people like me that spend so much time on social media! Sometimes I admire anonymity. At the same time he does have a brand, but it’s not exciting or electric. He’s very honest with his music, which is what I appreciate about him.”
You might think of Mad Decent as one of dance music’s most popular labels, but Diplo said there were a lot of times the business almost went under.
“About six years ago I had a business manager and he told me that I needed to quit Mad Decent. I was spending like $50,000 a year just to keep it open. I wasn’t making any money, but we were putting out all this music that I loved,” he told the crowd. Things changed when they signed a little record called Harlem Shake in 2013 and turned the label around.
“I must have put like $200,000 of my own money into the label, for years, before we turned a profit. That’s the nature of the business – it costs a lot of money before you get profitable.”
“These days you go to a festival there’s 100,000 people there and they’re all on drugs,” Diplo told the audience at Giant Dwarf, making the dance music scene of 2017 very different to the tight knit community he came up in. Does that get him down? “It does, but it’s a necessary evil,” he explains.
“The last two shows in Sydney have been great. At the same time I did EDC in Mexico and it wasn’t that exciting to me. I had the last set of the night and at that point everyone was so tired, it was kind of boring. They’d been staring at DJs for 12 hours. There’s not much else I could do at the point [to get their attention] except set myself on fire. I love Mexican crowds, but it just didn’t feel like I was getting that much energy back.
“It’s hard, sometimes you go to a show and have diarrhoea or something. It’s a job.”
Katie Cunningham is the Editor of inthemix. She is on Twitter.