Thirty minutes outside of Rio de Janeiro, the driver killed the car’s headlights and turned on the lights inside the vehicle. It is a massive motoring no-no in most parts of the world but during the middle of the night in Rio’s infamous favelas, it is a move that might just save your life. This way, the gangs that prowl these tin-roofed shanty towns can see that the vehicle’s passengers are neither police nor rival gang members and might just decide against opening fire.
The vehicle in question was not carrying a narco, or anyone else who might threaten the established lawless order – in fact, it contained one of the world’s most sought-after record producers and DJs. Diplo, real name Wesley Pentz, has gone to some pretty intense lengths to discover new music, but this time his life was on the line.
He was in Rio to gain more exposure to a sound known as baile funk – a raw dance music sub-genre which was created in these Brazilian hillside ghettos,with lyrics which are neither quite rapped nor sung, more like shouted with an intensity that only the truly desperate can channel.The genre was unknown outside of Brazil until Diplo began his sonic excavation, but it has rapidly built up a following in the developed world.
This is what Diplo does. Like a top chef who travels to all corners of the globe looking for new influences and flavours that excite, or at least surprise, him, he scours the uncharted territories of the musical landscape for coarse sounds produced by bedroom beatmakers, even if the musicians in question often don’t have a bedroom worthy of the name in which to work.
In his time he has organised a music education workshop for Aboriginal children deep in Australia’s outback, concocted plans for a project in Angolan kuduru music, and witnessed gun-toting 12-year-old kids doing lines of cocaine in Rio on his fact and beat-finding mission to Brazil’s favelas.
Yet it is not just the musical output of the places he visits which inspire Diplo, he is also a keen collector of found sounds, as he explains: “I once sampled the mating call of a yeti in the Alps when I was on tour in Sweden.That’s probably the best I’ve ever done, I’m very proud of it. Yetis are surprisingly elusive.”
Yet it has not always been this way for the favela-adventuring,yeti-sampling mad musical professor. Raised in Florida, he eventually left the suburbs for Temple University in Philadelphia and worked as both a teacher and social worker before realising DJing could become more than just a hobby. Alongside his partner, Low Budget, Pentz formed the DJ duo Hollertronix and began throwing parties which have become legendary in the Northeast of America, largely for their use of mash-ups – mixing the vocals of one song with the music of another, often from seemingly disparate genres.
“It was very cool because it was a very grassroots movement,” recalls Diplo. “We found a place that noone used in our neighbourhood –the Ukrainian social club – rented it, brought our speakers, sound and lights in and we made it happen.”
A series of mixtapes whichfollowed soon cemented Diplo’s reputation. It was also around this time that his fascination with baile funk began. “Brazilian music, baile funk specifically, really appealed to me because it comes straight from the favelas and the Brazilians’ desire to bring a new form of party music to their culture,” he explains.“It’s music for the people, and it also happens to be really appealing as a unique evolution in music.”
In many ways, this desire to give an audience to the previously unheard was also the catalyst for Diplo’s own success. While DJing at London’s infamous nightclub Fabric, he met with an underground musician whose tunes he had been spinning that very night. M.I.A was a London born artist of Sri Lankan Tamil descent whose violent lyrics and explicit references to the Sri Lankan civil war had made her an appealing provocateur for record companies, but it was her unification with Diplo that channelled everything into a perfect package.
“I think we were always on the cusp of something,” Diplo says.“Me and M.I.A, that’s just lucky timing, I think. The world needed an anti-pop girl and the labels were done – a broken machine – and we came out just doing it guerrilla style and we broke through. Not to mention we made good music too and were stylish – that’s half the battle.”
Diplo produced a track called “Bucky Done Gun” for M.I.A which included a distinct baile funk power and it was followed by a non-label mixtape, Piracy Funds Terrorism, and then M.I.A’s first album, Arular,in 2005. The latter was nominatedfor the Mercury Music Prize but it was the release in 2007 of hersecond album Kala that sent things stratospheric for both M.I.A and Diplo. The single “Paper Planes” went triple platinum in the US and received a Grammy nomination for Record of the Year.
While it is almost impossible to tell Diplo’s story without mentioning M.I.A, he has continued discovering, playing and making music from an overwhelming variety of places and now sees his work popping up in sometimes bizarre environs: aTurkish cell phone commercial, aTV advert for the Jamaican touristboard, the soundtrack to multi-Oscar-winning movie Slumdog Millionaire, as well as countless other movies and TV spots.
He has also become something of a producer du jour for the great and good of the music world,having produced or remixed tracksfor everyone from Beyoncé and Kanye West to lesser known indie artists such as Deerhunter and Sleigh Bells. There has also been work alongside the likes of Thom Yorke of Radiohead and the XX before the latter’s first album exploded last year.
“Thom brings something really unique to the table, as do the XX,”says Diplo. “It’s always a rewarding experience to be able to work with artists that have really honed their own sound, and are able to lend a completely unique perspective in their musical realm. That being said, I wasn’t really surprised that the XX blew up, but I didn’t expect it to happen that fast – that’s very unusual.”
That Cambodia is preparing to host a DJ and producer who is in such high demand is yet another coup for the Kingdom’s growing music scene, yet this will not be the first time Diplo has visited these shores. In June 2010 he performed at Pontoon with Major Lazer, oneof his many and varied side projects. The night has gone down as one of Phnom Penh’s all-time great parties, fuelled by music which has its genesis in dancehall rhythms – another of Diplo’s slightly off beat musical passions.
“I never really went into DJing with the intention of playing anything in particular, just good music,” he explains. “Dancehall really appealed to me as a new genre that was breaking out of Jamaica and it really caught on. Pretty much everything is just an extension or blending of older styles now, and dancehall is no different. It has its ties to hip-hop,funk, and reggae, which are huge influences for me, but also incorporates some really unique African rhythms that you don’t find in these generally American genres.
”As with everything else, he threw himself into his dancehall obsession with gusto and remarks that “Jamaica, and Kingston in particular, either love you or they hate you”. It is indeed a famously insular genre of music, where outsiders are treated with suspicion at best. After laying enough groundwork, though, Diplo and Major Lazer began to be accepted by the dancehall fraternity, culminating in the kind of memory that only a musical adventurer like Diplo could recall.
“I played a show a couple of years back, right when we started on the Major Lazer stuff, and there was a point when I dropped [the Major Lazer track] “Pon De Floor” that I think the entire building was daggering across the whole dancefloor.”
The thought of standing behind a DJ booth, watching hundreds of people “daggering” becomes an even more incredible image once you find out what daggering actually is. According to a 2009 Newsweek article: “Daggering is slang for dance moves simulating sexual intercourse, some of which include excitable gymnast-like moves … Men thrust wildly, often throwing women through the air or swinging them forcefully over their groins. A version called “skydaggering” has men executing flips or leaps onto their prone female partner … The force and enthusiasm with which these moves are performed mean daggering is more than just controversial. It’s also been blamedfor several health hazards.”
While it sounds like quite the sight, thankfully Cambodia seems to be a fair way off daggering just now. However, it is unlikely that Diplo will have much trouble working the crowd when he takes to the stage at Pontoon. The mash-up style he helped pioneer back in his Hollertronix days is still to the fore and he regularly mixes hip-hop, indie, big-beat electronica, rock and dancehall with samples and hooks from acts like the Eurythmics, David Bowie and even Ace of Base.
Of course, there will also likely be a large helping of baile funk thrown into the melting pot in a set which Diplo himself labels as “crazy – I mix it up all the time”.
That that description comesfrom a man who journeyed into gun-toting slums in order to hear music recorded by Brazilian teenagers, who used stolen software and dirty mattresses as sound booths, it’s probably safe to assume that crazy is an understatement.