How The Reign Of Diplo Started, and Why It's Not Going Away
By Kathy Iandoli
The greatest success stories in music always start from the ground up. With labels like Def Jam starting in a college dorm, it’s a misconception that successful music ventures begin in a boardroom. Philly-born Mad Decent is living proof. When Mad Decent opened its doors back in 2005, it wasn’t just the start of some indie-tinged record label; it was a call to action. Founder Diplo (née Wesley Pentz) chipped away at the stiff musical boundaries set forth by major labels by holding every genre from every artist from anywhere under one large, flavorful roof. Sure, it’s idyllic for all walks of sound to come together and get along – some have tried it, but few have succeeded at it. What Mad Decent put together was unheard of at the time, and whether you love or hate Diplo, his label has since grown into a worldwide brand. However, an organization is only as great as the sum of its parts. So what exactly makes this cross-cultural empire such a big deal? MTV Iggy dives in.
It’s hard to fathom that Mad Decent operates as a fully functioning label with less than five employees. Run by label manager Jasper Goggins, what initially started as a safe house for various one-off releases, evolved into a label with a gargantuan roster.
“When I first came in contact with Mad Decent, they hadn’t officially signed anybody,”
recalls Zeb Malik of the group POPO, one of the first acts ever signed to Mad Decent. “They had released a bunch of singles. I talked to a couple of other labels at the time who were established, but the fact that Mad Decent had this big question mark was really exciting to me.”
The label shuns the notion that one organization should house one type of sound. With Diplo’s standard for designer dance music, coupled with bands like POPO, Dawn Golden and Rosy Cross, Maluca, and Bosco Delrey along with the dubstep deliveryman Rusko, there is no musical stone left unturned in the House That Wes Built.
“It was pretty new for a label to have such a different approach to genres, being so open to any genres that are fresh and interesting,” states Andrea “Bot” Fratangelo of production duo Crookers.
“The label is definitely about trying out different experiments and seeing which ones stick and not really being jammed into a certain genre,” adds artist Bosco Delrey.
After speaking with some talent on the roster, it became clear that the business behind Mad Decent aims for artists first. “The business side that I see from Mad Decent is that they reinvest to create a happy environment for people to release their music,” Bot says. “It’s about growing and building, and supporting new artists. That’s by far more interesting than the traditional label model of ‘let’s make the most money we can.’”
The mystique of the brand stems largely from Diplo himself. Starting as a DJ throwing the famed Hooked On Hollerphonix parties with DJ Low Budget, Diplo rose to fame with his cosign of Sri Lankan artist M.I.A. in her early years. His knack for discovering hidden global movements led to other wins like bringing Brazilian Bonde do Role to the US, birthing the baile funk movement stateside. Further, along with artists like Rye Rye and Blaqstarr, Diplo recharged the fledgling Baltimore sound of go-go meets booty house. “I realized what Diplo was doing with the baile funk movement and the Baltimore scene that was really interesting at the time,” Bot says. “It’s not that they created that sound, but they were a great way to discover that sound.”
With tastes in music that hug every hemisphere, Diplo welcomes talent of all shapes and sizes into his home. In 2010 he even released Free Gucci, a compilation of remixed versions of tracks from then imprisoned Gucci Mane’s Cold War mixtapes. “The label is definitely about trying out different experiments and seeing which ones stick, and not really being jammed into a certain genre,” Delrey says.
In 2009 Diplo teamed up with producer Switch to form the genre-bending collective Major Lazer. They released their debut album Guns Don’t Kill People…Lazers Do that same year, recording most of it in Jamaica’s famed Tuff Gong Studios. Pairing traditional dancehall riddims with various electronic elements, Major Lazer pushed the sonic envelope with their bold take on Caribbean infused music. “When I first heard about [Major Lazer], I knew that it would be something that would take off,” says frequent Switch collaborator, Sinden. “Those two in their own different respects are just genius guys. Diplo is a world traveler, finding new genres, and Switch as producer in the studio is just a solid genius, really. So when those two collaborated you knew something magical was going to happen.”
The breakout single on the project “Keep It Goin Louder” featured Queens twin duo Nina Sky along with Brooklynite Ricky Blaze. “When we recorded [‘Keep It Goin Louder’], we weren’t familiar with what the Major Lazer project was. We went into the studio, Diplo played us beats, we recorded a few ideas and had no idea what to expect of the finished track,” says Natalie of Nina Sky. “When we heard the final album version, we were surprised at how they created this dance-infused reggae song from bits and pieces of unfinished verses, choruses, and melodies. It was a different experience from working with anyone else because we’ve never heard someone rearrange our vocals like that.”
Major Lazer also collaborated with UK crossover act La Roux to form Lazerproof, an amalgam of the former’s sound along with the haunting vocals of La Roux’s Elly Jackson. The duo also has an upcoming reggae album with none other than Snoop Dogg.
Diplo and Switch met while collectively working with M.I.A. Switch’s remixes for artists like Santigold, Mike, Lily Allen, Spank Rock, Diddy and many others have earned him the role of the go-to producer for the deconstruction of tracks. “Working with Switch has always been one of things where we just vibe together. A lot of the stuff we come up with is just from conversations we’re having with each other when we’re out. When we get in the studio it’s really natural,” says Sinden whose remix of Santigold’s “You’ll Find a Way” with Switch was a standout track on Santi’s debut Santogold. “He was the first person that really inspired me to start working in the studio.”
Diplo has since evolved into a super producer of sorts, having worked on high-end projects like Beyoncé’s 4 with the colossal track “Run the World (Girls)” (with Switch) and the latecomer cut “End Of Time.” His self-funded studio “The Mausoleum” is where most of the magic happens, most recently Usher’s comeback track “Climax.”
“Usher’s lyrics may be on there and he’s singing, but the music is powerful in the sense that it’s not something you hear everyday,” says Dawn Golden Rosy Cross’ Dexter Tortoriello of Diplo’s hand in the new Usher single. “The production is very high, the contents of the song and the way it works and everything is really beautiful. I don’t think there’s enough beauty in pop music.”
While Diplo can be working on a million dollar project one moment, he’s assisting in ground level talent the next. “Mad Decent as a whole is about giving that 19-year-old kid a chance when he previously didn’t have one,” says Shane McCauley, Diplo’s touring photographer and the visual element of the Mad Decent brand.
But while Mad Decent is known for its progressive sensibility and ability to seamlessly weave multiple genres under one roof, some find this approach off-putting. Diplo as a world traveler is polarizing to some who feel his niche market cherry-picking claims ownership of movements that were in place for years. Further, it reflects the notion that the popularization of certain sounds only happen when packaged a certain way. “A couple of years ago when we started doing Major Lazer, a lot of people were like, ‘Who are these guys trying to make reggae music from America and England,’” McCauley recalls. The audacity eventually wore off. “Now they’re played on the radio in Jamaica.”
There are also outside complaints of opportunism and egotism on the part of the Mad Decent constituents, along with difficulty working with Diplo. However, McCauley, – who spends most of his time trotting the globe with Diplo – has only positive things to say about his travel-mate. “He’s not egotistical; he’s always willing to have a conversation with anyone,” Shane says. “He’s very down to earth.”
In the beginning of April, Diplo and McCauley released the coffee table book 128 Beats Per Minute. The book details the travels of Diplo, while McCauley snaps photos of every moment. “Originally we felt like maybe it was something 20 years from now where you look back and see pictures from back in the day. It just happened so much faster – partially because of the internet, partially because there would be deejays I would photograph and nobody knew who they were then nine months later they’re headlining gigantic clubs in NYC,” says McCauley on the genesis of 128 Beats Per Minute. “We were thinking it was a good long-term thing, documenting the music scene as it is today. Then we got approached by a publisher to do a book, so we did.”
The work hits all angles of Diplo’s tours – with flicks from shows, travelling to various continents and crew downtime. Locations include Israel, Jamaica, Europe, UK, Asia, Philippines, Russia and other spots. “I had a hard time cutting stuff,” Shane says. “There were so many places we’ve been. We hit every corner of the world.”
What’s perhaps the most important aspect of the book is not the actual book itself. Rather, it’s the notion that Diplo’s music has transcended his neighborhood and spread globally – enough to fill an entire picture book. Viewing the crowd photos in particular, his worldwide reach is evident.
“In 2008 he was performing at festivals,” Shane adds, “now he’s headlining them.” McCauley hints at some other book projects in the works, along with motion pictures and lifestyle shorts featuring artists on the Mad Decent roster.
Meanwhile, Diplo just launched his own radio show Diplo and Friends on UK’s BBC/Radio 1, airing both in the UK and the US. He’s also the face of Blackberry and a model for Alexander Wang. In an effort to corral his fans and artists, Diplo holds his notorious block parties as one big happy meet-up. “When you get all of the artists together at the block parties, it’s fun, raucous, no holds barred craziness,” says Bosco Delrey.
Perhaps the secret to Mad Decent’s success is that it thrives without a formula “It’s actually been the most uncomfortable I’ve been as a musician,” says Zeb. “That discomfort pushed me to explore new stuff and I appreciated it more in the end. I don’t like to fuck with things if I’m going to see the same shit I’ve already seen. It’s inspiring, challenging.”
While Mad Decent continues their pursuit of all-inclusive music, they’re simultaneously building their brand in other facets. “We’re just not the kind of people who like to sit around on our laurels,” McCauley states. “We accomplish one thing and it’s on to the next one.”
All of this from an organization that hasn’t even reached their decade mark yet. Says Zeb, “Mad Decent is still a baby, and when I think about that it’s so exciting.”