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The Record

Diplo: Building A Bridge From The Underground To The Mainstream

Originally published on Tue September 18, 2012 6:41 pm

The music made by Thomas Wesley Pentz, better known by his stage name, Diplo, is one part club-music mashup and one part pop music forecast. In 2009, he took bubblin' — a syncopated house style born in the clubs of Holland — as inspiration and collaborated with fellow DJ Switch, his partner in the group Major Lazer, to make the dance-floor hit "Pon de Floor." But he wasn't done with the bubblin' sound yet. In 2011, he used that song as basis for "Run the World (Girls)," a single by the pop star Beyonce. Over the last few years, Diplo has made a name for himself as a tastemaker, traveling the world in search of interesting sounds and making them popular.

On his latest release, the Express Yourself EP, Diplo explores styles from two old port cities: New Orleans and Washington, D.C. In a conversation with NPR's Audie Cornish, he describes the title track as his "dip into doing a bounce record," referring to the electronic version of hip-hop that originated in New Orleans nearly 20 years ago. "Express Yourself" features the genre's trademark call and response vocals — supplied by New Orleans singer Nicky Da B. On "Set It Off," Diplo references Washington, D.C.'s latest dance-floor mongrel, moombahton. "Set It Off" supplements moombahton's blend of European house and Latin American reggaeton with, as he puts it, a "pop chord progression" and a cappella "vocal stabs."

Some have leveled the criticism that Diplo is only a middleman — that time and again, he hijacks a sound from a culture or a place and, in pushing it toward the mainstream, becomes the face of it. "I think that's been an argument and a controversy for me since I started, since before I had any press," he says. "I never thought I would be producing Beyonce or Usher or No Doubt."

He says that he aims to act as a link between musicians in niche genres and casual listeners. "I want to let people hear this music. I want people to listen to something like 'Express Yourself' and just dance to it — not have to think about why it's interesting or what it is. I want it just to reach them immediately. So that's always my goal — to make music that can reach people."

Despite his rising fame, and the fact that he's become a spokesman for more obscure musicians, Diplo says that the relationships he's cultivated with artists from around the globe best represent who he is. "You're not going to find an artist that I've ever collaborated with that has some kind of [negative] feelings about me," he says. "That's what I care about — the people that I work with, and representing them, and helping to make their music apparent for the rest of the world."

So what will Beyonce's next chart-topper sound like? Diplo says we should look out for what he calls "Tribal," a style made by a few musicians in Monterrey, Mexico, that mixes African and Mesoamerican sounds with "cheesy techno riffs." You can hear his explanation of the sound below.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

The typical album by the DJ known as Diplo is part club music mash-up, part pop music forecast. Case in point...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: That's a style known as bubblin', born in the clubs of Holland. When Diplo heard it, he took the sound as inspiration and added other flavors to make this club single.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PON DE FLOOR")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Pon de floor.

CORNISH: But he wasn't done yet. He then took that single's DNA and used it to produce a hit song for pop superstar Beyonce.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIRLS WHO RUN THE WORLD")

BEYONCE: (Singing) Who run the world? Girls. Who run this motha? Girls. Who run this motha? Girls. Who run this motha? Girls.

CORNISH: Over the last few years, Diplo has made a name for himself as a tastemaker, traveling the world in search of interesting sounds and helping to make them popular. His latest collection of songs is called "Express Yourself." And when he visited our New York studios, we got to ask, how does he find this stuff?

DIPLO: Most times, the promoters that bring me to places like Baltimore or Texas, you know, wherever I might go, they'd be like, oh, I want to show what we have here. This is what we're doing here because I was always that guy that was, you know, the purveyor of the interesting sounds and the weird stuff that that was in the different corners of the country. And I expanded that into, like, going to places like Brazil and looking at music or Argentina or China or Japan, wherever it is. I'm just fascinated by the local music scenes for sure.

As a DJ, it's my job to break new music. And instead of it just being the stuff that's coming from the major labels or the big pop records, I've always gravitated to something that's just different, you know? I'm really influenced by what overall is out there and how exciting it could be to introduce these kind of sounds to different people.

CORNISH: This latest release features the sound of New Orleans' bounce music...

DIPLO: Right.

CORNISH: ...which has been around for a little while, and it sort of has a call-and-response element to it. Can you describe what this music sounds like and what drew you to it?

DIPLO: Bounce music has been around for 20 years. When it first came out, it was New Orleans' take on hip-hop. It was very electronic. They were always sampled, 808 drums. It's, like you said, call and response in a way you have like an emcee-host saying something, and it's usually for a live performance. They'll play like a backing track, and they'll scream and hype the crowd up.

CORNISH: This song we're listening to is called...

DIPLO: Yeah.

CORNISH: ..."Express Yourself," and it features the artist Nicky Da B. Listen to a little bit of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EXPRESS YOURSELF")

NICKY DA B: (Singing) Get you, get you, get you, get you, get low now. Express yourself, express yourself, express yourself, express yourself, express yourself, release and go, attack the floor and work it low. Express yourself, release and go, attack the floor, just get low.

DIPLO: When I started making this song, I wanted to use like a dubstep synths, just like this wa, wa-wa-wa-wa, which is - it sounds like a guitar, and I just kind of put in there as a choppy, grimy sound. And I wanted to make something that sounds really electric and crazy, and I sampled this, and then I started to build a beat around it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EXPRESS YOURSELF")

B: (Singing) Get you, get you, get you, get you, get low now.

DIPLO: When I recorded Nicky Da B, his vocals, in my friend's bedroom, it didn't have a beat. I just had a tempo, like a clap. So you have to clap. It's like...

(SOUNDBITE OF CLAPPING)

DIPLO: Bounce music always has a clap. Throughout the whole record, it's on the one beat. And I recorded him doing all these vocals. He just screamed for 10 minutes over just the clap.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EXPRESS YOURSELF")

B: (Singing) With your legs spread wide and your head down low. (Unintelligible)

DIPLO: Took me like a week to go through all the vocals and find like a coherent song in it. And the hook express yourself, you just kind of do it out there. I'm like, wow, this is great. It's a perfect hook.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EXPRESS YOURSELF")

B: (Singing) Express yourself, release and go, attack the floor and work it low. Express yourself, release and go, attack the floor and work it low. Express yourself, release and go...

CORNISH: I've seen you described as a DJ, as a curator, also as a middleman, that essentially...

DIPLO: Right.

CORNISH: ...you carry these sounds from these places to top 40 artists like Beyonce or No Doubt. What do you describe your work as? I mean, how do you feel about that label?

DIPLO: You know, I never thought I would be producing like Beyonce or Usher or No Doubt. You know, I don't know. I just - I guess, I've been kind of the guy that's out there looking for the music. I want to let people hear this music. I want people to, like, listen to something like "Express Yourself" and just dance to it, not have to think about why it's interesting or what it is. I want it just to reach them immediately.

CORNISH: So what is it like for you when people level this criticism that you are crossing that line between sampling and taking or somehow taking things from these cultures and becoming the face of it?

DIPLO: I think, you know, that's been an argument and a controversy for me since I started, since before I had any press. You know, there are opportunities that I have because I'm a white dude, and it's controversial because that's just the way that the world we live in kind of is.

CORNISH: Advantages, you mean compared...

DIPLO: Yeah.

CORNISH: ...to the artists who you encounter?

DIPLO: Exactly. Like if I go to Brazil and I'm working with a Brazilian artist, a lot of these young kids from the favelas, they don't even think about leaving the favela, let alone going outside of Brazil or going to do a show somewhere. You know, getting visas for artists in Brazil was such a big challenge for me when I first started touring with a lot of the guys. It's even apparent in Jamaica. When I worked with a lot of Jamaican artists, a lot of these guys aren't able to travel outside of Jamaica. The focus shifts on me because I'm the kind of - an easy guy to write about, and I'm also an easy target for some criticism.

But, you know, I've just been making music. I've been positive. You're not going to find an artist that I've ever collaborated with that has some kind of feelings about me, you know? That's what I care about is the people I work with and representing them and helping to make their music apparent for the rest of the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: Is there another song on the album that you can give us a sort of breakdown of the elements of?

DIPLO: So another record called "Set It Off" that's on there, the genre music is called moombahton and sort of...

CORNISH: And explain where moombahton comes from and what it is.

DIPLO: Moombahton is a genre music that this kid, Dave Nada, from D.C. started, and Dave started slowing down house records. He kind of made them sound more like reggaeton records because the Dutch house records had a sort of reggae backbeat behind them. They're more like (makes sounds). So Dave started slowing down these records for fun and putting a little a capella bits on it. That was like three years ago. And in three years, I feel like there's just been thousands of songs that come out that are under the umbrella of a moombahton.

And it might - this is me trying to do something with a little bit of pop chord progression and little vocal stabs in, and then it drops into a beat that's moombahton, which is sort of like a kick on the one, boom, boom, boom, and the snare on the kind of reggaeton backbeat, (makes sounds).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DIPLO: And it's always got electronic elements and sample vocals and - within three years.

CORNISH: And I think I can hear your influence in the chord progression. There's something familiar.

DIPLO: Yeah. I mean, I'm always...

CORNISH: Like there's actually something that makes me think of "In Your Eyes," Peter Gabriel...

DIPLO: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Is that what's rising up in the background?

DIPLO: Yeah. It's - "In Your Eyes" was definitely in this song somewhere.

(LAUGHTER)

DIPLO: It's funny. You got that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: Well, Diplo, thank you so much for talking with us and especially explaining the music. It really - it was really fascinating.

DIPLO: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: Diplo, his latest E.P. is called "Express Yourself." I asked him what the next big sound will be. You can hear his answer at npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.