Nothing was assured for Diplo when he was making his first album, Florida, in his bedroom back in 2004.
Not that his career would soon blow up when he met and produced for M.I.A., with their 2007 collab “Paper Planes” making them both stars. Not that he’d revolutionize the sound of dance music with his dancehall outfit Major Lazer, shift the sound of mainstream pop with Justin Bieber and Skrillex, clock what were then Spotify’s biggest ever streaming numbers, win three Grammys, become a father to three boys or work with everyone from Snoop Dogg to Madonna. Nor were promised the countless shows in far-flung reaches of the planet, the private jets, Vegas residencies, cult Instagram following or the big-ass house in Malibu where, this afternoon, Diplo gets on the phone with Billboard.
The occasion is Diplo, out today (March 4) via his underground-oriented Higher Ground label. It’s Diplo’s first all-electronic album in 18 years, since he made the moody Massive Attack homage Florida while, he says, “I was really smoking a lot of weed and getting super high and learning how to produce music.”
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Though the DNA of the two albums are the same by virtue of being made by the same person, using similar tools, Diplo — 14 tracks of sleek, deep, buoyant house, tech house and other sounds spanning the underground realm the electronic scene — is as far away from Florida as Malibu is from Diplo’s native Fort Lauderdale.
The artist born Thomas Wesley Pentz, 43, wasn’t making this new batch of songs with an album in mind, today saying that dance albums are simply not “that cool” because “they don’t really work conceptually.” (He also admits that “we put [2019 single] ‘On My Mind’ on there so that we have first week big numbers, because that song already has 200 million streams. I don’t know if that was supposed to be a secret, but that’s like, obviously why we’re doing [that].”) Diplo is intended to function, he says, more “like listening to a mixtape, or like listening at a nightclub.”
Populated by undergrounds mainstays like Seth Troxler, Damian Lazarus, Amtrac, Aluna, TSHA and Jungle, the artist — as agile with the mainstream as he is with the underground — hopes the album also functions as a primer for new dance listeners to acquaint themselves with the scene’s many sounds and stars.
Here, he talks about crossing musical worlds, the best set he ever played, his recent legal issues, his love for Avicii — and why, after a decade of mainstream EDM verses underground dance music, “in the end, the underground won.”
Obviously dance is a genre driven by singles; why even group all of these songs together as an album?
Because one thing I do that no DJs do — I really understand songwriting, I think. Playing dance records is probably the most lucrative thing in my career when I DJ, but I’ve been producing for 15 years. I’ve produced so many records. When I met Miguel it was with Usher, and I was an R&B producer. It was a whole other lifetime ago, like 12 years ago. I had a bunch of gold records that were R&B. That’s just how I started.
I know that I write and arrange records probably actually better than I know how to produce like, techno or something. I wrote some of these records going like, “Change the tempo to 120, let’s make records that are danceable.” I make a record that’s 60 BPM and then flip it… So I made a bunch of records that were pop songs, and then I dressed them up as dance records. It might be easier to listen to as an album, vs. 10 straight house songs that are just like, noises to people.
Has the expansion of your Higher Ground label over the last few years created opportunities in realms of dance music that you hadn’t previously been as active in? For example, I saw you were booked at Damian Lazarus’ Day Zero in Israel, and that you played that same party in Tulum this past January. Stuff like that, correct me if I’m wrong, feels rather new for you. With Higher Ground, are you working spheres of dance that you weren’t as present in before?
The first album we did with Higher Ground was a Damian Lazarus album. I went to Tulum in 2019, just as a field trip. Like, “What’s going on here?” I went to Damian’s party and got his number and texted him, and I literally had his number from like, 15 years ago. Because all of us DJs are all friends. We DJ’d Fabric, we all knew Switch, we all came from this one scene of house music. We all, like a tree, went everywhere. I went and did pop music. Damian went and started doing this insane desert house thing. I was so excited about what he was doing, all of these different parties and what it sounded like, I didn’t realize that we all knew each other already. I had just kind of lost touch with that scene.
I think my album, if nothing else, is a language of the diversity of dance music. I have like, TSHA on there who does an amazing wonky U.K. sound. I have Damian on there with Jungle, who are like a rock band. I’m trying to make all of these records with different people that you wouldn’t otherwise expect. I’ve got Rampa from Keinemusic on there helping me produce a song with Leon Bridges. I’ve got Lil Yachty on a tech house record. It’s showing that with dance music, there’s no rules to it.
How does that lack of rules apply to you?
I’ve been going to Burning Man for 10 years. For the first couple of years, me and Skrillex were riding around playing whatever. It was chaos. We played rogue for anybody who would have us. Then this past year I did a Robot Heart sunrise set, and it was life-changing for me. It’s such a crazy medium — to program this on your own and do this perfect sunrise event. It really felt like an accomplishment for me, to make it perfect.
But my message is: It doesn’t matter where I came from — if I was a pop guy or whatever — I learned the ropes of this scene. I’ve been making dance music for years and the album, if nothing else, portrays that there’s so much diversity in dance music right now. Not just diversity in the sense that there are more female producers, gay producers, black, white — there’s that on my album — but the different sounds. There’s techno, there’s rock and roll, there’s soul, there’s rap. I was trying to do every corner that I love.
It feels like there are endless variations of the type of music you make. Is this album for a particular segment of Diplo fans, or are you trying to make it for everybody?
When I talk about how I came from a songwriting world — if you don’t like dance music or you don’t go to Tulum or Burning Man or Berghain or whatever — you can still listen to my album. You’re going to hear the Miguel song and go, “Oh this is comfortable for my ears and I understand this.” It’s a pretty straightforward house record, but you can listen to it and not be familiar with house. You can get through it and love it.
The whole album is like that, because I have pop arrangements. If you aren’t familiar with dance music you can learn it, because I literally have everything on there for you. I have Danish goth sounds with WhoMadeWho. You have tech house records like “On My Mind.” So you can learn from my album too, if you’re new to dance music.
Let’s talk more about that Burning Man set. I’m not one of the only people who was there who was like, “That was one of the best sets I’ve ever seen.” It sounds like it was special for you too. Does playing underground music allow you to flex in ways that you don’t, or can’t, in other venues or genres?
Yeah. I really spent time programming that before I got there, and I feel like it was probably my best set ever. I just felt such a vibe when I was there, and when you’re in tune with an audience, every track, you know what they want, or it’s what they’re going to want. I was playing Radiohead in the middle of it and mixing in Afrobeats. That audience was on the ride with me. They trusted me. That’s the dream for a DJ, the communication. That’s what’s beautiful about being a DJ. It’s like being a chef, adding little spices here and there. A dream gig is that gig, at sunrise.
How did it come together?
Honestly I was so lucky with how it happened. I had never done a proper sunrise set at Robot Heart. I’d done sunset. They’re friends of mine and they were like, “You’re not really ready to play sunrise.” [Laughs.] It’s embarrassing, but they were not wrong.
Last Burning Man I helped Geo, who was one of the guys who ran Robot Heart who passed away recently, I helped him get a cow down from the roof of the heart, I was missing my flight to Electric Zoo that night. It felt super important to be at Robot Heart and get this cow down.
Wait, are you saying “cow”?
Cow, yeah. There was a big metal cow on top that they stole from Oktoberfest in Germany, and they tied it to the roof and had to bring it down, during Damian Lazarus’ set actually. I went up and got it, and helped them bring it down with a rope, and we didn’t die and it didn’t hit anybody and they were like, “if you get it down we’ll give you a set next year.” And I texted him like, “Bro, I got that cow down.” And they were like “F–k, okay.”
“S–t, now we’ve gotta let him do it.”
I wasn’t even going to go to Burning Man this year. There was gonna be no water, people were gonna be like, dying, it was like, “no way I’m going there.” And then for some reason I had a freakish set in Reno the night before Burning Man. I don’t know how, it was a random gig. I didn’t plan it. I was talking to Kimball Musk — I’m not trying to name drop — but he was at a party I was at. He was like, “You’ve gotta come this year, I have a camp.” And I was like, “I can’t, I have a show in Reno.” He was like, “Well, that’s right there.” And I was like, “Whoa, you’re right.” So he was like, “After the Reno set, I’ll get you a car.”
They drove me from my Reno gig straight to the desert; it was only three hours away, and I got there at a 5 a.m. and started DJing. They actually bumped a DJ off to let me play, which felt bad about, but I don’t really care anymore. I played instead, and it was probably my favorite set I ever did.
I wish I could do that every night, but I can’t — because I’m meandering through different scenes, and it’s still a business for me. I’m a different kind of DJ, where I might do Major Lazer one day and have to go do a Diplo deep house set another night. And I love that, because it makes it really fresh for me. I don’t ever get bored of playing, which a lot of DJs do. I feel lucky that I have a lot of different avenues.
So you’re saying that’s a positive thing verses a dividing your time, fracturing your mind kind of thing.
A hundred percent. Sometimes my wires get crossed, but at the same time — because I’m able to hear different music in different places — I’ll go to a dancehall party in L.A. and figure out how to make that work in my set. I go here, I go there. I don’t think other DJs get that experience, because they’re in the same scene all the time. I’m really excited to be in different places all the time.
I’ll play this gay party in L.A. called Evita. The guy before me does straight vogue music, the guy after me does straight techno. I see how the audience reacts. I’m like, “Oh, I’ll take a little bit of that from there, and that from there.” I’ll see Honey Dijon play at CircoLoco and think, “Whoa I should drop that.” I’ll go see Adam Port drop this cumbia record, and I’m like, “I can do that.” That’s what I do. I’m taking influences from as many places as possible.
I know this album is your first all-electronic album since Florida in 2004. This new LP, they sound different, but do they feel in any way connected?
Not really. I was listening to Florida the other day and was like, “I still didn’t know how to put anything in key.” I was smoking a lot of weed and getting super high and learning how to produce and make music. I was trying to be as creative as possible, and I didn’t have any demands; I was just doing what I wanted to. You never get that again. You never get that freedom to be like, “I don’t care what people think.”
This new album is coming five months after you make a pretty straightforward public statement about the woman who’s been making accusations against. Did that situation in any way affect the release of this album? Was there an impulse to let that die down a bit before you released anything big?
No. I don’t think it really mattered. That story is so old and trash. I don’t really want to talk about it, because it’s such a trash subject. I’m still dealing with that, because I’d rather have it play out in real life than on the internet. I’m obviously going to win that [case]. It’s such a tired con artist person. But I don’t think it affected anything. If I tried to book a show, some venues might have said, “Uh, I don’t like this story,” but basically everyone supported me that knows me. Like, “This is our guy.” I’m lucky that I had a team of people that just knew me, that know me for who I am.
It sucks for people in my family, but I’m dealing with it. It’s kind of over now. But I don’t think it affected the release, because I hadn’t even finished the records. But I don’t want to talk about that subject, it’s so old.
In the press release for this album Jasper [Goggins, President of Mad Decent] calls you “the most prolific electronic artist of all time.” Does that feel true to you?
I don’t know. Maybe. For dance music, there’s people who are busier, but I’ve done a lot of other stuff. I don’t think any other dance guys have done country. Well, I guess Avicii did. S–t, I can’t even say that. Honestly, he’s my favorite from the whole scene.
Tell me more!
He just frickin’ had the songwriting, and his mixes are so good. It took me a lot longer to appreciate him more. He passed away so young and only had this window of like, four years — but he was really a big influence on me. He was just a sick songwriter, and mainstream as hell, but the songs are classics. They weren’t sell outs. He made bangers.
Do you think he got the respect he deserved during his lifetime from people like you?
I think other producers that are in the scene, like underground guys, didn’t really give him the love. There was always a war between the mainstream and the underground. There shouldn’t have been. Seth [Troxler] is a good example; I think he had a chip on his shoulder maybe earlier, which he rightfully did. He’s a legend and pioneer, but there was like a Seth vs. [Steve] Aoki beef, whatever it was. There never should have been, because when you talk to these guys — if you know a producer and know where their heart comes from, you can tell right away that they love music. Seth loves music, and he knows I love music, and we both had stuff to share with each other, and that’s what matters.
I never collaborated with Avicii, and even there was beef with me and him in the beginning, probably — because I was just beefing with everybody when I first started making music, because that’s kind of where I came from I guess. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve just learned so much from everybody. And he was one guy I learned from just by listening, and as I’ve gotten older I’ve been like, “Damn, he really nailed this and nailed that.” And he didn’t really talk to anybody, so we didn’t really get to have conversations. He was such a young person and socially not very active, and shit, I wish I’d known him more, become his friend.
You mentioned the war between the underground and the mainstream. Where does that conversation currently exist? Is there still a war?
No, nah. There isn’t. And in the end, the underground won. You have parties like CircoLoco all over America, and they’re selling tickets. I’m not going to name any EDM DJs, but those guys are all chasing being deep house DJs now. The DJ feature on the radio isn’t a thing anymore. You’re not just going to get an artist to give you a song.
I don’t want to name names, but you put a big pop star and a big DJ together and put a million dollars behind it, and it doesn’t go anywhere. You can tell the heart’s not in those records. That’s where dance music kind of died. When you have these giant DJs and giant features and they don’t connect with people, because you can’t buy that. You’ve just gotta make great records.
Where are great records coming form right now?
The underground guys made great records. They made classics. Coming out of the scene these days are staples, I play Guy Gerber’s “What to Do” remix, that record is classic in that scene. Or “Strings of Life” by Soul Central. I mean, even Silk City, I feel like we made a classic with “Electricity.” I worked hard on that record. I stole Mark Ronson’s swag as a sick songwriter and I gave him like, the attitude. When I collaborate with people, I’m trying to absorb their energy. Or [Jack Ü], my concept with Skrillex, he’s probably the best producer of electronic music I’ve ever met him my life. He can turn anything into anything on his own terms, the guy is the master. I’m so lucky to be collaborating with those guys.
Dance music might seem disposable to some people who don’t know about it, but there are classics, and there’s good heart and songwriting in these records. And I want to be part of that wide world. I want to make classics.