Inside Diplo’s big summer: Las Vegas, ‘Lean On’ and Justin Bieber

Diplo in his recording studio in Burbank on June 16, 2015.

Diplo in his recording studio in Burbank on June 16, 2015.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

When Diplo travels to Las Vegas for his regular gig at the nightclub XS, he doesn’t take a private jet as many of his peers in Vegas’ cash-choked club scene do. Instead, the Los Angeles-based DJ and producer usually trudges through TSA with the plebes at Burbank’s Bob Hope Airport, not far from the recording studio where he does much of his work.

“My family growing up was so cheap that I feel dumb blowing money on something like that,” he said recently. Nevertheless, Diplo splurged a few weeks ago, bringing his personal trainer with him on a chartered jet that departed from Van Nuys. “That was an extra 30 minutes to get to the airport, and then we sat on the tarmac for an hour,” he recalled. “I was, like, '$10,000 for this? I should’ve flown Southwest.’”

The problem, one gathers, wasn’t that he couldn’t afford it. As much a translator as a creator, Diplo has emerged over the past decade as an important (if polarizing) presence in both hip-hop and electronic dance music, guiding popular taste with his ahead-of-the-curve sound and enterprises including a record label, Mad Decent, and an endorsement deal with BlackBerry.


Now, at 36, he’s having a serious pop moment, with two song-of-the-summer candidates near the top of Spotify’s Global Top 50 chart: “Lean On,” a slinky synth tune from Major Lazer, Diplo’s reggae-inspired group with producers Jillionaire and Walshy Fire; and “Where Are Ü Now,” a futuristic ballad by Jack Ü, his duo with the EDM star Skrillex, featuring Justin Bieber.

“He’s, like, the guy right now,” said Gary Richards of Hard Events, which next weekend will put Diplo and Skrillex in front of an estimated 65,000 fans at the Hard Summer festival in Pomona. “I booked him before I even heard the Jack Ü album.”

Diplo can feel the heat around him, but he knows it’s fleeting. “You only have a certain amount of time as a person making relevant music,” he said. “There’s a window, and I’m in the middle of it.” In other words, it wasn’t money he was wasting on that private jet — it was time.

You could get a sense of how much Diplo is packing in one morning last month at his studio, a surprisingly low-key space he shares with Ariel Rechtshaid, a fellow producer known for his work with Vampire Weekend and Charli XCX. Dressed in sweat pants and a designer T-shirt, Diplo had returned the night before from Vegas and was scheduled to record in a few hours with MO, the Danish singer featured on “Lean On.” For now, though, the sisters of Haim were busy in one room, while the DJ A-Trak hovered over a laptop in another. Stepping outside, where a shiny black Tesla was parked, Diplo pointed down the quiet suburban street to a karate studio and a gun store.

“That’s why I like Burbank,” he said with a laugh. “It’s just like Florida.”

Born Thomas Wesley Pentz, Diplo grew up north of Miami, where his father ran a bait shop. (The stage name, short for “diplodocus,” came from his childhood love of dinosaurs.) A neighbor who built computers charged Diplo $400 for a machine equipped with music-editing software, and soon he was making beats and honing DJ skills he’d later use as a college kid in Philadelphia. After finishing school he started traveling the world, exploring underground music scenes in Brazil and Japan and showing off his discoveries on a series of mixtapes.

One of them, a collection of frenetic funk tracks from the slums of Rio de Janeiro, caught the ear of M.I.A., with whom Diplo began collaborating. In 2008 they crashed the mainstream with “Paper Planes,” a woozy Clash-sampling jam that reached No. 4 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and earned a Grammy nomination for record of the year.

Diplo’s habit of polishing styles from far-flung locales led some to accuse him of taking credit for the work of less privileged musicians. But his flair for addictive beats and unusual hooks attracted stars like Usher, for whom he produced “Climax,” and Beyoncé, who more or less remade Major Lazer’s “Pon de Floor” as “Run the World (Girls).”

The Australian singer Sia remembers receiving Diplo’s demo for what became “Elastic Heart,” their hit from the “Hunger Games: Catching Fire” soundtrack. “I’ve never, ever, ever called someone up after they’ve sent me a track and said, ‘Do not give this to anyone else, please!’” she said. “But that day it happened.”

Diplo said his newfound cachet hasn’t cleared every obstacle from his path. Before “Lean On” became a Major Lazer song, he shopped it to “so many people,” including a superstar he declined to name; all passed on recording it, saying the track was too weird. And getting Bieber to sing the relatively edgy “Where Are Ü Now” required softening of the ground around the troubled teen idol.

The last time he worked with Bieber, on the singer’s 2012 album, “Believe,” they made “a couple of songs I wasn’t that excited about, to be honest. We had some other ideas that were cool, but at the time nobody was ready to push Bieber in that direction.” Three years later, with the singer having “hit rock bottom” after a stretch of bad publicity, his camp was open to shaking things up, Diplo said.

“Justin had been away for a while and was in a different place,” said Bieber’s manager, Scooter Braun, who noted that Diplo is playing a “pivotal role” on the singer’s next album. Collaborating with Diplo, he went on, gives Bieber a bit of “credibility in a world he’s never been in before.”

And then there was Madonna, who recruited Diplo for several tracks on her 2015 album, “Rebel Heart.”

“We went head to head on music all the time,” he said. Those disagreements didn’t bother him; he was impressed by how “invested” she is in her work. Yet he felt the rollout of “Rebel Heart” — in which Madonna seemed to be actively trolling critics who said she’d gotten too old for racy theatrics — clashed with the album’s “classy” vibe.

“But I’m not about to step in and talk to her about marketing. She’s Madonna! And you have to the play the game. You can’t sit back and complain about the way the media portrays you.”

Diplo’s own persona is fixed somewhere between cool-hunting hipster and catcalling bro. (When Este Haim emerged from a room at the studio to find the producer shirtless, she seemed less than surprised.) On Twitter, the father of two young children has invited disgusted eye-rolls with unseemly comments about female stars such as Lorde and Taylor Swift, whose supposed nemesis, Katy Perry, he’s said to have dated.

And he’s still answering charges of cultural appropriation from people who say he’s “not black enough,” in his words, to do reggae with Major Lazer or “not white enough” to do country music with the Band Perry. Recalling a recent trip to Jamaica, where he said he heard countless remixes of “Lean On,” he insisted, “I’m not just excavating stuff and taking it home to my library. It’s a back-and-forth conversation.

“But I do talk a lot of” trash, he allowed, using a stronger word. “I’ve got to watch that.”

That’s what he seemed to be doing when he began talking about how, after “Paper Planes,” artists only wanted more songs like that from him. “I did a session with Missy Elliott and played her ‘Pon de Floor,’” he said, cutting himself off with a wary chuckle. “Never mind — I’m not gonna tell that story.”

The show-business politics are an indication that Diplo is pondering a future in which his continued ascent depends on his increasing visibility. Certainly that renown is part of what draws artists to Mad Decent, which scored a No. 1 single in 2013 with Baauer’s “Harlem Shake.” (On July 31, the label will launch an annual tour featuring many of its acts that’s scheduled to stop at L.A.'s Center Studios on Sept. 19 and 20.)

And the high profile can’t hurt his ongoing attempt to make a record with Rihanna, one of pop’s savviest collaborators and a Diplo holdout. Alluding to the worldwide success of “Lean On,” he said: “Maybe we’re getting to the point where she can’t ignore us anymore.”

John Ivey, program director at L.A.'s powerful Top 40 radio station KIIS-FM, said that “to get to that next level, Diplo needs to brand himself a little bit better” — meaning stepping out from behind the high-concept veil of Major Lazer, with its cast of animated characters. Yet that move could affect his reputation in the dance scene, a risk given that his lucrative Las Vegas shows pay for his experimentation in the studio, he said.

For now, at least, Diplo is holding the line, according to Hard’s Richards, who admitted he was suspicious of the Bieber song before he heard it. “But when he’s working with these pop people, he’s bringing them into our world,” he said. “It’s not like he’s changing his style and trying to be something he’s not.”

Whatever the setting, Diplo said, that style is his currency. “I saw Usher at the gym this morning, and he put me in his car to listen to some music — like, ‘Wes, what do you think of this?’” he said. “People respect my opinion now to the point where I have a little leverage. I have to take advantage of that.”

Twitter: @mikaelwood


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