It wasn’t long ago that rapper M.I.A. and producer Diplo made electrifying hip-hop together — influential singles like “Bucky Done Gun,” “Paper Planes” and “Tell Me Why” came out of their collaboration. Then they split up, creatively and romantically, leaving an ugly aftermath of insults, apologies and denied apologies. And they hadn’t worked together since — until one night in June, when M.I.A. dropped by Diplo’s set with his popular dance band, Major Lazer, at the Parklife music festival in Manchester, England.
“You know, we always talk, since 15 years ago. We’re always in communication. Never really that dramatic of a situation,” says Diplo, born Thomas Wesley Pentz, who has produced and worked with megastars such as Beyonce, Justin Bieber, Usher and Madonna. “We’re pretty much both adults. We have the same attitude since we first started.”
“Bird Song,” the first M.I.A.-Diplo track since 2010, came together after another artist at the Parklife festival made off with a car earmarked for Major Lazer. “We just sat in the parking lot of the festival until about 2 in the morning,” Diplo says. “We only had enough power for two hours. We did as much work as we could do until our computer died.
“It was very much M.I.A.-style — record in the parking lot, and I have to mix it for two weeks,” continues the 37-year-old producer, by phone from Burbank, Calif. “And there’s not enough vocals for the song, and the day before masters, she records four lines and sends it to me. It was done very much in her style: complete chaos.”
Born in Tupelo, Miss., raised in South Florida, Diplo was once most famous for his groundbreaking work with M.I.A. — dance music that had the blunt political force of the Clash, sometimes with gunshots built into the chorus. But over the past 10 years, the producer has expanded to a diverse roster of high-profile projects, all built on his aesthetic of mixing Jamaican dance-hall reggae, Brazilian baile funk and other funky worldwide influences into booming party beats.
Jack U, his band with dance-music star Skrillex, scored a 2015 smash with Bieber, “Where Are U Now”; Diplo worked closely with Beyonce on her “Lemonade” album this year; his long-running label Mad Decent Records put out Baauer’s ubiquitous “Harlem Shake”; and Major Lazer, in addition to headlining top festivals, gave Diplo yet another 2015 hit, “Lean On,” with DJ Snake.
After Major Lazer’s latest hit, “Cold Water,” co-starring Bieber and Danish singer-songwriter M0, he told an interviewer he’s working on 40 records simultaneously. “Well, some of them are old. Some of them are maybe 1 ½ years old — I want to update them,” he clarifies. “There’s probably 100 ideas I’m working — there’s 40 I can remember, and if they’re that strong, they’re easy to remember in my brain: ‘I’ve got to do a bridge for that, I’ve got to do a drum part for that.’
“Like any painter or sculptor, I have ideas all over the house,” he continues. “Time passes, and it doesn’t measure up to what (artists) want it to be, so they don’t finish it. Somebody told me 99 percent of all the music in the world you never hear. It sits alone and doesn’t see the light of day. That’s about right for what I have on my computer.”
Diplo didn’t exactly come from music. His mother was a supermarket employee, and his father ran a bait shop. “Wes” Pentz’s plan, at first, was to go to college and learn to be a paleontologist. But the music he heard in Florida — reggae, metal and Miami bass music — drew him down a different career path. He wound up graduating from Philadelphia’s Temple University, then living briefly in Japan, where he recorded beats for other artists.
“I didn’t really grow up in a creative household. I had to find out (music) on my own and figure out how to do it,” he says. “As a kid, your parents are like, ‘What are you doing? Go to work.’ “
After returning to Philadelphia from Japan, Pentz had been a DJ and social worker and worked at a movie theater. Hooking up with a fellow DJ, Low Budget, he created a club night called Hollertronix, and that became the foundation for Diplo’s empire — it led to an influential mixtape called “Never Scared,” then a debut 2004 album, then a compilation that same year called “Piracy Funds Terrorism,” Vol. 1,” which begat M.I.A.
Over time, both as a solo star and a behind-the-scenes producer, Diplo has expanded electronic dance music and helped turn the genre into a commercial force. But he also delights in ripping the genre. “I don’t think EDM ever existed to begin with. … All these DJs were already big — they were already part of conglomerate management companies and festival circuits. A lot of cool things were happening in dance and electronic music — you’re in Chicago, so you know. You don’t need EDM to come in and save you.
“It’s always been like, ‘Oh, how can we sell Sprite?’” he says, then pauses with a wry laugh and a “Game of Thrones” reference. “Yeah, the EDM winter is here, and the White Walkers are coming to eat you.”
©2016 Chicago Tribune
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