Diplo: Building A Bridge From The Underground To The Mainstream
The music made by Thomas Wesley Pentz, better known by his stage name, Diplo, is one part club-music mashup and one part pop music forecast. In 2009, he took bubblin' — a syncopated house style born in the clubs of Holland — as inspiration and collaborated with fellow DJ Switch, his partner in the group Major Lazer, to make the dance-floor hit "Pon de Floor." But he wasn't done with the bubblin' sound yet. In 2011, he used that song as basis for "Run the World (Girls)," a single by the pop star Beyonce. Over the last few years, Diplo has made a name for himself as a tastemaker, traveling the world in search of interesting sounds and making them popular.
On his latest release, the Express Yourself EP, Diplo explores styles from two old port cities: New Orleans and Washington, D.C. In a conversation with NPR's Audie Cornish, he describes the title track as his "dip into doing a bounce record," referring to the electronic version of hip-hop that originated in New Orleans nearly 20 years ago. "Express Yourself" features the genre's trademark call and response vocals — supplied by New Orleans singer Nicky Da B. On "Set It Off," Diplo references Washington, D.C.'s latest dance-floor mongrel, moombahton. "Set It Off" supplements moombahton's blend of European house and Latin American reggaeton with, as he puts it, a "pop chord progression" and a cappella "vocal stabs."
Some have leveled the criticism that Diplo is only a middleman — that time and again, he hijacks a sound from a culture or a place and, in pushing it toward the mainstream, becomes the face of it. "I think that's been an argument and a controversy for me since I started, since before I had any press," he says. "I never thought I would be producing Beyonce or Usher or No Doubt."
He says that he aims to act as a link between musicians in niche genres and casual listeners. "I want to let people hear this music. I want people to listen to something like 'Express Yourself' and just dance to it — not have to think about why it's interesting or what it is. I want it just to reach them immediately. So that's always my goal — to make music that can reach people."
Despite his rising fame, and the fact that he's become a spokesman for more obscure musicians, Diplo says that the relationships he's cultivated with artists from around the globe best represent who he is. "You're not going to find an artist that I've ever collaborated with that has some kind of [negative] feelings about me," he says. "That's what I care about — the people that I work with, and representing them, and helping to make their music apparent for the rest of the world."
So what will Beyonce's next chart-topper sound like? Diplo says we should look out for what he calls "Tribal," a style made by a few musicians in Monterrey, Mexico, that mixes African and Mesoamerican sounds with "cheesy techno riffs." You can hear his explanation of the sound below.
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