“I was very fascinated by new sounds,” Diplo says in this new video interview to accompany the release of Diplo Drops, his first sample pack for Sounds.com’s Sounds Originals series. “Not just hip-hop drums or things I heard on the radio, but things I heard from Africa or Brazil or India. I was fascinated with Indian soundtracks, so I went to India and bought a bunch of them and brought ’em back. I was fascinated with Brazilian street music, so I went to Brazil and I bought MiniDiscs and CDs, and brought ’em back and sampled them.”
But while plenty of DJs’ tastes are eclectic, Diplo has a rare gift for turning his crate digging interests into chart-topping hits. In fact, his sonic antenna has proven to be so finely tuned to emerging music from around the world that it has made Diplo into a multi-platinum pied piper, leading the mainstream towards whatever sound is about to break big on the global stage. No wonder it seems like every major recording artist from the past decade has a Diplo production, or three in their catalog. We’re talking Beyoncé, Bieber, Britney, Chris Brown, Katy B, Bruno Mars and Azealia Banks (the list of “C” is just as long). But it’s not all big names with a capital “B” that get a coveted Diplo credit on their record.
“As long as we have chemistry and make something, it doesn’t matter to me. I don’t have any prejudices if you’re a big star or a little star. For me, it’s just about good music,” Diplo told host Heather B in an on-air interview for “Sway In The Morning” on Sirius XM’s Shade 45 in 2012. That year alone, he would work with artists as diverse as R&B star Usher, Welsh singer-songwriter Marina and the Diamonds, Australian rapper Iggy Azalea, and Brazilian tecnobrega group Banda Uó.
Diplo is a rare breed of producer whose name is as well-known as the artists he crafts beats for. Perhaps that’s because his own releases—usually done in partnerships like Major Lazer (first with Switch, later Jillionaire), Jack Ü, or, most recently, Silk City with Mark Ronson—have provided him with a celebrity profile rarely afforded lone studio wolves.
“As producers, as engineers, we’re not songwriters. We’re not the people on the front of the covers. We’re behind the scenes,” Diplo says. “So to find a voice behind the scenes is the most difficult part. If you can find that, that’s gonna take you as far as you can go.”
The journey to stardom began for Diplo in 2004 with the release of Piracy Funds Terrorism, a mixtape produced with then-unknown U.K. rapper M.I.A. The release caused an immediate stir on the burgeoning music blogs that would act as a hype machine for new music throughout the mid-2000s. Diplo was already in the thick of it, releasing famed mash-up mixtape Never Scared as Hollertronix (with partner Low-Budget) in 2003 while also dropping his only solo artist album, Florida, that same year on the Big Dada sublabel of iconic imprint Ninja Tune. The impact of those early releases was so substantial that the Philadelphia DJ would be recruited by London superclub fabric to mix their FABRICLIVE.24 CD in 2005. The disc, a forgotten gem in the series’ 17-year/100-CD run, featured everyone from Outkast to Aphex Twin, Ludacris to Le Tigre, and encapsulates the open-format DJ aesthetic of the era as well as any legitimate release, without bootlegs/remixes/mash-ups, could.
“[Diplo Drops] basically gives you guys what I did as the building blocks of my first records,” Diplo explains while holding a stack of old-school orange LaCie hard drives. “I think it’s fresh, kinda like vintage dance music sounds in a way, so it’s very cool.”
The next year, Diplo launched his own imprint, Mad Decent. Looking at the label’s run of releases from its first decade reads like an abbreviated history of club music of the past 10 years. From bloghaus MP3s by Crookers and EDM anthems like Major Lazer’s “Pon De Floor” (mixed by Afrojack) and Diplo’s collab with Tiësto, “C’mon,” to dubstep superstars Rusko and Dillion Francis, and trap acts Riff Raff and Flosstradamus, it’s hard to name an electronic subgenre not repped in the Mad Decent catalog.
However, defying genres is really Diplo’s speciality. How else do you describe the production on “Paper Planes,” which earned him his first Grammy nomination in 2010. Built on a sample of punk rockers The Clash (with a chorus allegedly inspired by Wreckx-N-Effect’s ’90s hip hop classic “Rump Shaker”), “Paper Planes” was the first record to bring gunshot and cash register samples to the Recording Academy while simultaneously being described as Alternative hip hop, worldbeat, alternative dance and “downtempo rap ballad, with a folk style melody” on the song’s Wiki entry.
The same could be said for “Where Are U Now,” Diplo’s 2015 collaboration with Skrillex and Justin Bieber. The song won him a Grammy for “Best Dance Record,” even though its snaking eastern-flavored melody and stuttering dancehall rhythm didn’t offer the sort of oomph usually associated with dance floors fillers.
Regardless, the song was a huge hit, reaching #8 on the Billboard charts and once again affirming Diplo’s reputation as a singular talent in the studio. We’ll go deeper in exploring that talent by deconstructing his technique below. In the meantime, Diplo told us “Every time you collaborate, you’re trading ideas with people, and that’s the best way to learn.” Consider Diplo Drops to be a virtual collaboration with one of the best in the game.
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