Rap doesn’t hide its hardships. When the music sounds like listening to the survival stories of soldiers walking through hell, they usually are. When you have young, black rappers coming from neighborhoods and areas built on fire and madness, their music takes the shape of that merciless trap, where the drugs are being sold, guns are being bust and survival isn’t certain. Enemies and Hennessey, fatherless homes and dead presidents, the world the way they see it, the world the way they’ve lived it. These are the tales they tell, through this art form they can escape. Music can open up doors for progression in a world intent on shutting them out, a path that leads away from confinement and caskets. They sell the stories of their misfortune, receiving profit for their problematic purgatory. Rappers are going from homeless to mansions, dealing drugs to selling millions, this is the industry for the underdog. But the transition from the block to the Bugatti isn’t always smooth, the same persona that took you from the trap, encases you in a new one.
Particularly in a genre that can fixate on “realness,” song lyrics are expected to exactly parallel the livelihood of the recording artist. It wasn’t a coincidence that Pitchfork took Chief Keef to the shooting range for a feature that lead to a violation of Keef’s parole and more jail time for the Chicago emcee. His lyrical content deals with gun violence, he’s from a city plagued by gun violence, they didn’t see a 17-year-old kid, but a caricature that wasn’t a stranger to artillery. Their intent was to further sell an image, polarizing the rapper made infamous for shooting at police officers.
In an age where everyone’s always on camera, the line between life imitating art and art imitating life is more blurred than ever. When Noisey went to visit Migos at their mansion, they were greeted by the celebrated trifecta and enough guns to start a baby war: machine guns, pistols, sniper rifles, the kind of weaponry that you only see in Call of Duty.
I noticed people on my timeline blaming Noisey for Migos’ recent arrest this past weekend for gun and drug possession. Noisey has a tendency to highlight the darkest corners of world, documenting and glorifying the dangerous. I’m almost certain their presence is what encouraged the trio to expose a collection of guns that should’ve stayed hidden. Yet, this is the kind of imagery you hear in their music. A trip to Starbucks would’ve left viewers puzzled, you can’t just go from trapping out of bandos to White Chocolate Mocha nonfat milk with an extra pump of white chocolate. Footage like what Noisey captured confirms their lyrics are authentic and real. Even though they moved into the suburbs, the mentality hasn’t changed. Is it worth impressing fans if you attract law enforcement?
Back in 2006, a FBI analyst recommended that prosecutors and law enforcement look for rap lyrics when investigating crimes because of the potential for leads and confessions. Since then it’s become an increasingly common law enforcement strategy, officers are now spending hours combing YouTube searching for supporting evidence. Rap isn’t an art form, in their eyes it’s another way to lock voices away. We witnessed this with Bobby Shmurda, Mitch catching a body and a plethora of other lyrics were used as part of his December arrest. The same viral hit that got him signed to a record deal assisted in getting him locked behind bars.
Lorne Manly’s brilliant “Legal Debate on Using Boastful Rap Lyrics as a Smoking Gun” article for The New York Times is full of information on how law enforcement and prosecutors are using rap lyrics as prominent evidence. Reported last year, there were at least three dozen cases in the past two years alone where rap lyrics were included in criminal cases. Virginia rapper Twain Gotti who was arrested for a double homicide based on lyrics in his song “Ride Out.” The case was considered cold, seven years with no evidence, but everything changed once a detective stumbled upon his song. It was enough to get him incarcerated; Twain was cleared of the murders, but given a 16-year jail term for firearms offenses. The lines between art and real life were no longer intellectual debates, they were being examined in court with real life consequences.
Everyone from amateur rappers to bubbling breakouts are being targeted by law enforcement. Curtis Williams of Two-9 and Key!’s home was recently raided by police and the two were taken into custody on felony charges. Details are scarce, but the two are currently released. San Diego-based rapper Tiny Doo is facing nine counts of criminal street gang conspiracies, along with 14 other alleged gang members who seemingly attempted to increase their stature and respect following a rash of shootings in the city in 2013. Despite not having any criminal record, it’s Tiny Doo’s violent rap lyrics that has him facing 25 years to life in prison if convicted under a California law that makes it illegal to benefit from gang activities. Cameron D’Ambrosio was arrested in 2013 for posting a rap lyric on Facebook that officers deemed a “terroristic threat.” The line, “”fuck a boston bombing [sic] wait til u see the shit I do, I’ma be famous for rapping, and beat every murder charge that comes across me.” Distasteful, yes, but grounds of an arrest? Last year, Rashee Beasley and Jamal Knox, two Pittsburgh men were convicted of intimidation, terrorist threats and other charges after releasing a video that threatened police officers.
Knox told the judge he’s also made music about non-violence; and that while he didn’t intend for this video to be released, he felt he had to maintain his rapper image. But he accepted responsibility for it.
“He had no intention of making this song, in the format that it was, in public,” said Knox’s defense attorney, Al Burke. “He had no intentions of bringing harm to the police, but certainly the lyrics reflect his attention to things that have happened in the community.”
Song lyrics are art, not confessions, but that’s not how law enforcement and prosecutors perceive them. In their eyes, rappers are no different than O-Dog from Menace to Society. The way he flaunted the video tape of him murdering the husband and wife in the gas station, rappers exude the same boastful braggings in their songs. But the character of the rapper shouldn’t be determined by the lyrics they write. If Leigh Whannell isn’t behind bars for writing the script for Saw, if Johnny Cash never saw a homicide investigation, if Jack Keroac’s On the Roadis hailed as an American classic not evidence of rampant drug possession and criminal activity, Twain Gotti shouldn’t be under investigation because of rhymes he’s written. Rashee Beasley and Jamal Knox should be able to express their frustrations without worrying about being embraced as wrongdoings.
It’s hard to solely place blame on the police and courts when so many are at fault. Rappers feel like their brand is bigger than their humanity. That’s celebrity culture, you have to be the person that attracts fixation. On social media, in your music, onstage, in documentaries for Noisey, you are an entertainer for their admiration. They forget they aren’t immune to the laws of the world. Then labels take advantage, seeking out the ambitious, inner-city kids and molding them for stardom but leaving them stranded once they see flashing lights. They have no problem selling the stories of crime as long as those stories are profitable. They don’t care if the lyrics are real or fictional until the law arrives. Police and prosecutors refuse to see beyond their own preconceptions. Possibly their own racism. They have a romanticized image that is as fictional as some of the lyrics they play for convictions. Not everything rapped is autobiographical, is it that hard to believe creative writers can use their talents to rap? Unless you start running into the homes of murder mystery authors, rap needs the same immunity as every other creative expression.
“No other fictional form — musical, literary or cinematic — is used this way in the courts, a concerning double standard that research suggests is rooted, at least in part, in stereotypes about the people of color primarily associated with rap music, as well as the misconception that hip-hop and the artists behind it are dangerous.” Killer Mike’s Op-Ed
The media is also at fault. Noisey’s work was aimed at taking YouTube tourists through an expedition of the hood. They capture all this footage, label it as a documentary, yet only focus on the people who perpetuate stereotypes. Atlanta is more than crack rocks and rap beef, the city is rich with culture, hundreds of artists, many of whom have nothing to do with guns and drugs, but they choose to only keep us fixated on the negative. And my piece on Kendrick has similarities with what officers do to rappers, slicing and dicing their lyrics until it’s something they can sell it as vicious and heinous. My intention examining those lyrics was to understand Kendrick so I can better understand his art, to dig deeper into his music not any potential criminal record, but for an officer that motivation is completely reversed, entirely focused on “real life” evidence, not art. Doing that article lead me to write this.
A$AP Rocky expressed an interesting outlook during his recent interview with Complex, he claims the term “rapper” doesn’t mean anything honorable. This mentality completely belittles the idea of rappers as artists. No matter what kind of canvas it’s presented on, rap is often a medium for imaginative self-expression. Rappers are artists, what they do over beats is no different than what folks singers do over acoustic guitars, what poets pour into notebooks. The biggest difference is that the world perceive poets as these thoughtful, creative writers while rappers are assumed to all be glorified gang bangers. Outside of the rap industry, our own country looks at rappers as menaces to society. Maybe that’s just how America views young, black men in general.
There’s more murderers with badges than with microphones, but the police’s actions are always justified, they say they fear for their lives, that their shootings don’t warrant arrest. Yet when black men document a lifetime of fear in their music, they want to put them in a cage.
a woman, or a force personified as a woman, who is the source of inspiration for a creative artist.
noun: muse; plural noun: muses
synonyms: inspiration, creative influence, stimulus; formalafflatus “the artist muse” @theartofalbaseer
IM GETTING THIS
Leica Japan is set to release a new camera set in conjunction with 1,200-year-old, Kyoto-based textile company, Hosoo. The time-honored Nishijin textile tradition was roused up for a Leica T camera case that offers improved grip and bolstered protection. Only 15 limited edition sets have been produced – eight in black and seven in champagne gold. Price varies depending on which lens is purchased, but ranges from $3,283 USD to $4,166 USD. The Leica T Hosoo limited edition camera set is available exclusively at Leica’s flagship Kyoto store.
Since the major labels lost the power to write the rules of the music industry, DJ-producers—as curators of cool, adept at arranging sounds and talent—have been well positioned to forge an alternate path. According to Diplo, the 36-year-old DJ, producer, label head, radio host, product endorser, and all-around impresario, that path involves becoming an entrepreneurial brand.
What’s amazing is that he started on that path a little more than a decade ago. Born Thomas Wesley Pentz, Diplo went from a kid in central Florida obsessed with Miami bass music to a college student at Temple University who threw one of the hottest parties in Philly and released mixtapes that spread his reputation well beyond the city limits. Next he built a recording studio/gallery/event space in Philadelphia called the Mausoleum.
As his popularity as a DJ grew, clubs came calling, as did a life-changing collaborator. One night in 2004, while Diplo was spinning at a London club, British rapper M.I.A. approached him about working on some tracks. The music they created together, including songs off her widely acclaimed debut, Arular (2005), represented a postmodern approach to world music in their mash-up of electro, hip-hop, grime, baile funk, and dancehall influences—a collage that continues to inform Diplo’s sound. With the launch of his Mad Decent label in 2005, he set about his mission to develop talent and bring new genres of music into pop culture, including Brazilian dance-funk band Bonde do Role, absurdist rapper Riff Raff, and Major Lazer, Diplo’s own punk-dancehall project with a revolving cast of collaborators.
Once Diplo gained a reputation as being preternaturally in touch with what’s next, his ascent to superproducer was quick. He has worked with some of the biggest names in the industry, including Bruno Mars, No Doubt, Snoop Dogg, Beyoncé, and Drake. As EDM exploded into the mainstream, he was one of the first to embrace its crossover potential and share bills with Swedish House Mafia and Skrillex. Mad Decent’s annual Block Party festivals quickly became a destination for dance music fans who agreed on Diplo’s strongest convictions—that it’s the culture you create that matters, not the number of records sold.
Now Diplo is reaching even higher and wider. In the last few years, his DJ sets have become blowout bacchanals of celebrity cameos, strobe lights, and confetti in the biggest clubs in the world. And in just the past few months, he released an album with Skrillex as the superduo Jack Ü; he produced songs off Madonna’s latest album, Rebel Heart; and wrapped a third Major Lazer album to be released this spring, (to be accompanied by a cartoon). He also has a stream on SoundCloud and a show on BBC Radio 1 that he hosts, and of course he’s as active as ever in the club circuit (including a residency at the Wynn in Vegas). It’s just as he said with the title of a 2014 compilation: Random White Dude Be Everywhere.
As Diplo tells the producer Zen master Rick Rubin, he can imagine quieter paths ahead—a home in Malibu, a place in the Florida swamps—but right now, his globe-trotting life is just too fun, and too fulfilling, to slow down.
DIPLO: I remember being here with you at your house, like, five years ago maybe. If I walk outside my studio is in Burbank, it’s just like a bunch of kung-fu studios and gun shops; it’s not like the beach. You let me ride your scooter. I forget who I was with. Maybe it was Switch? I honestly don’t remember what we were meeting about then. Maybe we were meeting—
RICK RUBIN: Just to meet! I think Kevin [Kusatsu] hooked it up.
DIPLO: Yeah. That’s cool that you still seem to be part of Kevin’s life, too.
RUBIN: I love Kevin. How did you originally come in contact with him?
DIPLO: I had no manager. I was just a DJ starting to make music, and Kevin got wind of my shows in Philadelphia and other things I was doing …
RUBIN: So that far back—to Philly!
DIPLO: Yeah. Kevin worked as a manager for me for, like, a year without getting paid. Back then I didn’t pay taxes, and I bought a house just on the cash I made from doing DJ gigs. I was like, “What do I need a manager for?” And then Kevin showed me what he could do. We’ve been doing that for about ten years.
RUBIN: It’s cool that you found somebody that you trust early on.
DIPLO: I see so many people change managers all the time, and with Kevin, we’re partners in the brand of me.
RUBIN: So tell me what’s been going on?
DIPLO: Skrillex and I put out a song today with Missy, she jumped on the remix, and then next week we’re just going to flash drop the whole album that we’re doing. We don’t really feel it’s necessary to promote anymore—like the old days of marketing a record leading up to the release.
RUBIN: The viral world is so fast; you can’t catch up.
DIPLO: Yeah, I feel like you waste time. You spend four months promoting something, and people have already heard it, and they’re over it. By the time you release it, it’s just like, boosh. And we’re doing so many projects I just want to get out. I want to make more music. That’s my motive now. I was working with a guy named Mikky Ekko for a little bit. You know him?
DIPLO: We did something for Major Lazer. He’s such a great songwriter, and his confidence is great, but he never wants to put something out. And I was thinking to myself, “Man, if you just let a record out, and even if it’s not a great record …”
RUBIN: Just make another record.
RUBIN: Certain people get to that stage where—especially if they put out one thing and it’s well received—they’re always wary about putting the next thing out because, “Oh, what if it’s not as good, and people don’t like it?” And they get frozen.
DIPLO: Yeah. I feel like 20 years ago that might have been an issue, because you needed a whole label machine to push something out. And if you had a flop, it was harder to recover. But nowadays, make another funny video or get on another social media outlet. It’s about you selling the personality more than it is about selling the actual records you’re making, you know?
RUBIN: I don’t know very much about the DJ world, so tell me, how did you end up in Vegas?
DIPLO: It’s a funny story. DJ AM was a friend of mine; he passed away [he died of an accidental drug overdose in 2009]. Back then, about five years ago, the DJ world wasn’t what it is now. It was so small, and DJs were like AM. I was a little bit like that style—I was mixing and mashing things up. I had a party called Hollertronix. Then there was a guy named DJ Z-Trip—I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of him.
DIPLO: He was another mash-up DJ, and he took over AM’s spot. He didn’t want to DJ at this club called the Palms anymore, so they put me in, and that was a developmental place for me. The Palms closed, but by the time it did, EDM happened, and all these guys came into Vegas, like Tiësto, Afrojack, Calvin Harris, and Hardwell. I took a Monday night at one of the big nightclubs because I had built a little name there. And Monday was the weird night. I was playing hip-hop when everybody else was playing the giant rave music. But my night was so fun that it became one of their most popular parties, and now I’ve become probably one of the top four DJs in Vegas for residencies.
DIPLO: We just did two nights this weekend. I’m the only guy that’s able to play … Not to knock a lot of the DJs, but a lot of them don’t really DJ so much; they’re producers who became DJs to perform their music. And I was a DJ first, so I really love to mix music up and improvise in my set. I guess that’s the only reason I’m relevant.
RUBIN: Equipment-wise, what are you using?
DIPLO: Well, like, tonight I might go to this party at the Roosevelt, and I just have a USB key in my pocket. I don’t even need headphones or I’ll just borrow a pair. In Vegas, I’ll have my laptop. I use Serato, so I just have set lists, like hip-hop, you know, late-night stuff. When I DJ in Vegas, I’m guaranteed to play for two hours, so I usually play for four hours. [Rubin laughs] Because it’s busy! And I love to play. If you come to my party on the Monday nights, I play new music. I’m gonna play crazy stuff that I’m looking at for my Radio 1 show. I do one Monday a month. It’s not a good-paying night where you have, like, bottles being sold, but all the strippers and the bartenders and the cocktail waitresses come because they hear the same shit every night, so they want to go listen to new music and hip-hop.
RUBIN: It’s the hot club.
DIPLO: It’s the hot night. I feel like people disregarded Vegas for so long. I’ll tell you right now, there are so many cool DJs there. The music fans that listen to so-called EDM, are now the cool kids; they’re smarter now, they learn. They got into it at the base level, and now they’ve expanded their palette to where they’re listening to someone like Kaytranada. Like, he’ll probably have a Vegas night at the SLS or something.
DIPLO: So I just happened to be there early and establish my name. And it’s all about having a name. It’s really hard for a brand-new DJ to come there and have a headlining slot, but I was super lucky to get in there with AM and that crowd. Also, because I can go to Vegas and make the money I do, I’m able to spend a lot more time producing music that I love.
RUBIN: You don’t have to travel as far.
DIPLO: Exactly. I just do the Vegas gig and then stay home all week and work on new ideas.
RUBIN: Talk a little bit about that transition from DJ to being a producer. What was the first thing you did on the production side?
DIPLO: When I first started producing, all I had was this little crappy sampler called a S20, which had, like, a minute sample time. I was making crappy beats since I was, like, 17 or 18, using Florida rappers, where I’m from. Then I started DJ’ing because I just wanted to have a new job. I was a schoolteacher for a while, and it was the worst job.
RUBIN: What did you teach?
DIPLO: In Philly, there are a lot of social programs. If you have a degree, you can go and apply. I was basically a social worker, but I became sort of a sub teacher in a special program, helping kids with reading or math. But we would also do plays, learn about music … We were doing lots of fun stuff, but that was such hard work. I couldn’t do that anymore. So I started DJ’ing in Philly and producing music at the same time. I put out this record on Ninja Tune called Florida when I was about 22. And at the same time, I was DJ’ing and beginning to mix stuff up and promote shows in Philadelphia and New York and my own parties and make mixtapes, put out bootleg white labels. I was actually selling the mixtapes at Kim’s Video and different shops. I would go to, like, St. Mark’s Place [in New York] to sell cases of them. I made so much money when I was selling mixtapes hand to hand. This was before I had Kevin, so I didn’t pay taxes. [Rubin laughs] I met M.I.A. this way because she had heard some of the mixtapes.
RUBIN: Oh, cool.
DIPLO: She was an up-and-coming artist. We linked up and I did my first, like, real songs with her. It was a song called “Bucky Done Gun,” off her first album [Arular]. And then I met Switch, who was probably the guy who taught me the most about producing. It was such a super-weird way, the way he was doing things, and super wrong. But I really owe him everything for teaching me, instead of going through the regular circuit of songwriting in L.A.
DIPLO: I think that he kind of helped define what M.I.A. and I did. Those two, as well as Santigold, were kind of my crew when I came up from Philadelphia about ten years ago.
RUBIN: But you didn’t grow up in Philly.
DIPLO: I grew up in Florida in different cities. I was born in Mississippi. My parents moved a lot, so I moved to Tennessee, Alabama, South Carolina, Virginia, all through the South. But my family’s roots were from central Florida, like Daytona Beach area, so we ended up moving there.
RUBIN: How old were you then?
DIPLO: Well, I was in Fort Lauderdale from about age 7 to 14. And that’s where I learned the most about music. My favorite DJ was this guy named DJ Laz and the Miami bass guys. I was super into, like, Arthur Baker, that kind of stuff.
RUBIN: Yeah. Like, fast hip-hop, 808.
DIPLO: 808, you know, the ghetto bass music. And then also in Florida, we had people like DJ Icey and these kind of breakbeat DJs and breakdance music and dancehall.
RUBIN: It’s interesting about Miami bass, because it was such a particular thing in Florida, but in the rest of the country, it wasn’t big!
DIPLO: Sir Mix-A-Lot had a hit, but it was a strictly Florida thing.
RUBIN: We had that record “Brass Monkey” with the Beasties that was also like a bass record.
DIPLO: Yeah, “Brass Monkey,” of course. If you listen to Trick Daddy—that stuff was basically Miami bass broken down. His records were the ones that made me say, “I want to make music!” Because I loved the way they were broken and crazy. And I loved the energy of them.
RUBIN: Me too.
DIPLO: And that was Florida music and the Atlanta music, like Lil Jon’s early stuff … It had so much energy and was so futuristic to me.
RUBIN: It was, like, scary!
DIPLO: It was super-scary. But I came from that era, and that was what got me into wanting to produce, and I think people thought that was weird …
RUBIN: It’s so interesting that you picked those out, because it wasn’t at all in the mainstream and not particularly well liked at the time. It had a very cult-like following.
DIPLO: It did. But if you see the shows, the energy … I never really lived on the East Coast until I was going to college in Philly, but in Florida, when hip-hop played at shows, it was, like, a riot always, with energy and people dancing. New York was very stand-back and chill-out at that point, ten years ago.
RUBIN: Do you think all that moving around when you were young affected your musical sensibility? It just sounds like you’re exposed to a lot of different stuff.
DIPLO: I do think that, and also that I never got tied down to any social scene. I was just into creating stuff. And I think even today that’s how I’m able to work and move between so many different genres—I want to be part of what’s happening, I want to make new things. I think back in those days, lots of kids got tied down. It’s amazing that, like, a black kid or a Mexican kid in L.A. or whatever, they’re into dance music, goth … When I was in high school, you had to pick if you’re into this or that. Now kids will be listening to emo on their way to a rave, and then they’ll leave and listen to Drake.
RUBIN: It’s so cool. It’s a really great thing for music because people just like good stuff. Kids now don’t care whether it’s new or old. They don’t care if it was from the ’60s and it’s cool or it’s from yesterday and it’s cool.
DIPLO: I feel like it’s beneficial for the artist, too, because anybody can reach anybody now. All you need is a SoundCloud or a YouTube, and if the song is great, it’s gonna rise up there. But even, like, five years ago, labels were like gatekeepers.
DIPLO: I mean, you can imagine if you were in a rock band, you have to find a group of friends that are interested in music, start a band, rehearse, learn to play the instruments. Then you have to write songs. Then go find a studio. Write a demo and maybe find somebody who knows somebody who can send a demo to somebody. Maybe get a deal. Then maybe get a release. Then maybe go on a tour. And that’s like a five-year process.
RUBIN: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
DIPLO: Now a kid can go to a computer, download some samples, write a good song—or go to YouTube and learn how to make a song—and two hours later go to SoundCloud and be signed, tour and open for Drake or whoever it is.
RUBIN: [laughs] How do you separate what is Major Lazer material and what’s your material?
DIPLO: Well, I’m trying to actually retire Diplo material at this point. Diplo has a ceiling in Vegas, and I’m doing great there, but I’m so proud of Major Lazer—the way it sounds, the way it’s mixed. I feel like if I devote my time to that, it could grow.
RUBIN: Cool. And as a producer, you produce some things as Major Lazer as well. So how does that work?
DIPLO: Everything we do as Major Lazer is kind of like… I’ve been doing a lot of stuff for guys in Trinidad and Jamaica now because the carnival season is happening. I go there a lot to work with those guys when that stuff’s going on.
RUBIN: How did you get into going down there and making music?
DIPLO: Well, I was into dancehall from being in Florida; it was on the radio there. And then M.I.A. very much touched that dancehall world. From working with her, I kind of snuck in there. People started messing with me when I was in Jamaica. The first record was hard to make. No one gave a shit. The industry’s totally collapsed there. There’s no labels. There’s no marketing at all. So when I started going down there about eight years ago and developing some of the artists I like, we made this Major Lazer character, creating something that we could market, like Gorillaz, like a collaborative album.
RUBIN: Is there a character?
DIPLO: Yeah. We have a cartoon coming out next month on Fox, with characters that are Major Lazer. We have, like, ten episodes. So the new album is lined up with the cartoon, and then we’re touring. And hopefully, 2015-16 will be our year when we can push this to the next level.
DIPLO: It’s hard to market our record. Gorillaz did it really well.
RUBIN: And how do they tour as Gorillaz? Did you ever see them?
DIPLO: Expensive. I saw them once. It was crazy. They had, like, everybody from Little Dragon to De La Soul to Paul Simonon from the Clash—I don’t know how. A lot of the guys probably weren’t that expensive, but still, probably like five, six busses. With Major Lazer, it’s a sound system. We show up, old-school style, put up speaker stacks, and do kind of a show with our songs. We’ve only done three songs live ever. Ezra [Koenig] from Vampire Weekend did a song with us in Jamaica.
RUBIN: I love that guy.
DIPLO: We do a show every year in Jamaica around December. Ezra came last year all dressed up in, like, Polo. He was so nervous. I’m like, “Man, you’re never going to be able to perform in Jamaica again. [Rubin laughs] Just go out there and do it.” And he came on stage and started singing—he has this falsetto on the record like [sings] “Do do do”—and people started screaming as soon as he opened his mouth; this old folk reggae rhythm. I told him, “In Jamaica, they just love a unique voice.” I don’t know how we ended up in Jamaica so much, but it’s a blessing because we’re trying to move now to take that sound everywhere.
RUBIN: I know you started the Mad Decent Block Party, which started as a one-time thing …
DIPLO: It’s massive now, yeah.
RUBIN: So explain about that. What was the first one?
DIPLO: It started about six years ago when I still lived in Philadelphia. I had this studio, an old mausoleum showroom, and we turned it out, made a venue out of it. We had small, weird, independent shows, and we made music there. And the thing about block parties in Philly is that the city will block your street off and the police will come protect it. All you needed to pay then was $10. It’s crazy. All you have to do is have most of the people on your block say that it’s okay to have a party that day. On our street was an abandoned building, so we only had, like, ten people who needed to sign. We had 2,000 kids come the first year.
DIPLO: Everybody on my label played. The next year, we did, like, 4,000, and the police were like, “Look, this is crazy. This only costs $10?” [laughs] And we were like, “We don’t charge anything—it’s free!” We had to move it to another venue, and four years later, we did New York, Philly, and L.A. … All of them had, like, 6,000 people. And then two years ago, we did ten cities. And then last year, we did 23 cities, sold out most of them.
RUBIN: And you pick sort of offbeat places to do them, right?
DIPLO: Well, it’s hard now because all these big ticketing and touring companies, like Live Nation, own everything, and we don’t partner with any of those guys. And we want to make it interesting because it’s kind of hard to separate yourself, so we want it to feel like a block party. We actually did a cruise this past fall, the Mad Decent Boat Party.
RUBIN: How was that?
DIPLO: Amazing! [both laugh] Pretty weird, but it was cool. We’re trying to do everything—just trying to expand that brand. I feel like if you’re smart in 2015, you don’t even try to sell records at all. You try developing something amazing that you tour with, and you want to stream the hell out of everything.
RUBIN: That’s when the music becomes the advertisement for the culture that you’re selling.
DIPLO: Exactly. Selling MP3s or physical copies, it’s still cool, but I think it’s slowly becoming outdated to where people just want to build a culture. The culture’s what you’re selling at this point. With Major Lazer, our streaming rate is amazing. Like, I hear how many people complain about that, but we do so great on streaming services. I think kids have got to learn how to work with what’s happening, work with social, work with everything. To complain about how things aren’t the way they used to be …
RUBIN: Well, for kids, there is no “the way it used to be.” [laughs]
DIPLO: No, there isn’t. You’re right. But I think kids are so lucky now. Like, if you really do get on Snapchat, whatever it is, you can find something that’s your own, 100 percent.
RUBIN: Yeah, and the other part of it is the ability to learn about music and hear music and find music is unbelievable. Because I know that when I was in junior high and was the only punk in my school, it was really hard to get information about it. If we had the internet, I could have had friends all over the world who liked what I like.
DIPLO: When I was, like, 18, 19, there were chat rooms where I would find people who were into hip-hop. Then I got older, and I was like, “Whoa, there’s hip-hop in Scandinavia now! There’s hip-hop in Japan! There’s kids doing dancehall in Germany!”
RUBIN: So cool.
DIPLO: That’s when I think I was inspired to make the amalgamation of all the weird stuff; everything was kind of a mash-up to me at that point.
RUBIN: I love the idea that you start with the premise that just because that’s the way something has been done, it doesn’t mean anything.
DIPLO: Right. I think it’s important that we did a tour in India. It was fucking insane, like 10,000 kids in Delhi. There are probably more kids, 18- to 30-year-olds, in India than the entire population of the U.S., and those are kids who are ripe to want to hear music and to learn about music. So now we’re talking, “Let’s do a Block Party in Mumbai.”
DIPLO: A lot of people don’t realize that it’s global. America’s definitely a trendsetter, and it’s where a lot of information goes out to the rest of the world, but if you go everywhere else, you can always come back to America and do MSG or whatever. You can come back here and do it tenfold, you know?
RUBIN: Yeah. So how did your relationship with Skrillex start?
DIPLO: He’s the first producer I met in L.A. I moved here and dubstep had just happened. He was sort of unknown, but I listened to his music and was like, “This is fucking crazy!” We met and then were just acquaintances for about a year. But we would see each other at different shows, and after the dust settled in the explosion of EDM, we were both still there.
DIPLO: I’m actually fascinated by him. I feel like Skrillex has this sort of Kurt Cobain attitude, where he’s like a spokesman for a lot of kids. And he’s so talented and positive. He could be a sort of star. He’s got nobody guiding him, but his fan base is rabid.
RUBIN: His energy as a human being is so upbeat, and he’s so great to be around.
DIPLO: I love the way he hears everything, and he’s one of the best mixers I’ve ever worked with. Nobody’s louder and cleaner than him. So we did this Jack Ü thing to be collaborative. I’d bring songs to him and was like, “You want to help me produce them and make them sound amazing?” Because with him, they sound gigantic. You don’t play any instruments either, do you?
DIPLO: Yeah, I can barely play the piano. We’re just sort of collaborators with people, you know?
DIPLO: Do you feel like you’re busier now than ever? Or has it always been off and on for you in your career?
RUBIN: In some ways, it felt busier a long time ago because of the difference in technology. In the old days, I spent a lot more time running from studio to studio, and it was just more grueling to probably get less work done. And now, because I can sit at home and they can beam me mixes and I can give comments, I have much more time in my life, even though I can still get a lot done. I think another part of it is that I recognize what part of is important and what part of is not.
RUBIN: There was a lot of wasted energy on trying to convince an artist that this thing that I believed in was better than another idea that nobody else would care about the difference.
DIPLO: Do you feel like half your time is spent negotiating the music with the artists?
RUBIN: A fair amount. I want everyone involved to like it. I don’t want it to be my way; I want to find what our way is.
DIPLO: That’s basically negotiating, though.
RUBIN: I guess so.
DIPLO: It’s like giving and taking. But do you ever come into the session and have a completely different vision than somebody?
RUBIN: I don’t. I usually don’t come in with a vision. I like to start with a clean slate, hear what the artist has. Like, not have so much of a preconceived idea.
DIPLO: Is it, like, a five-day workweek for you?
RUBIN: It depends. I try not to work on weekends because I did for so many years. For so many years, I never even took vacations.
DIPLO: Yeah, that’s where I’m at right now.
RUBIN: I don’t think it’s healthy. I don’t think it makes better music. It’s like, you got to have …
DIPLO: You have to have some time. I have two children now, and every day I break up my day around three and I pick up my son, then go see my other son till seven. I have to do that because I’m away on the weekends working.
RUBIN: So where’s home?
DIPLO: I have a place in Vegas, but then I just Airbnb when I’m here. But it’s important: my father was a great father. He was around, but he never spent any time with me. I didn’t think I needed it, but now I find that I really want to spend every day being with my son, at least playing with him, doing puzzles, whatever it is.
RUBIN: How has being a dad changed you?
DIPLO: I definitely have to take time really seriously, but I’m finding that hard now. Like, the last six months, doing Major Lazer, doing Madonna, and doing Jack Ü, and I’ve just been working on random things … It’s been really good, though. Like, I’ve been able to go see my family and then go to work. I think it’s going to start getting crazy again in March because we have to start touring Major Lazer. But wrapping up Madonna was hard because …
RUBIN: What was your collaboration with her like?
DIPLO: It’s probably not news to you, but working with an established artist like that, I didn’t expect a lot to come out of it. [Rubin laughs] I thought it’d be great to try, though. But then have you ever met Madonna before? Have you worked with her on stuff?
RUBIN: Yes, but never have worked with her.
DIPLO: The chemistry was just, like, awesome. Right from the beginning, she was like, “Let’s do whatever you want to do.” I had kind of a vision of how she can sound in 2015 and not be forced. And she went for it. I’m proud of the songs.
RUBIN: Give me an example of how a typical song would come about.
DIPLO: The first two days, I always have a hard time really finding my comfort level with the artist. Like, trying to find out how I can be myself and make them not feel weird and make them feel good. You know, better than being weird. [both laugh]
RUBIN: Yeah, yeah.
DIPLO: My favorite song on the record is the one featuring Nicki Minaj ["Bitch I'm Madonna"]. We were drinking at night—and I don’t think Madonna really drinks—and she was like, “Play me just the craziest shit you have.” It has, like, this Japanese pizzicato melody and a drop that’s just insane, like, a little thing I chopped up. And she was into it. And then I put guitar over it because she likes to start in with guitar. I cut the guitars up. I did it, like, in the night. And then the other songs were, like I said, negotiating. And she’s really hardheaded. [Rubin laughs] When I first came in there, she was down for whatever, but towards the middle, it became a lot more about what she wanted to do.
RUBIN: She showed her true colors. [laughs]
DIPLO: Yeah, but you know what? I wouldn’t expect anything less. I like artists that have a strong opinion. At least, they have opinions. But with some older artists, they might have an opinion just to have it. I feel like that’s an issue I’ve run into …
RUBIN: We’ve experienced that one as well. [laughs] That one stinks.
DIPLO: That’s the worst! And then they never want to switch it because they feel like it’s a defeat in a way.
RUBIN: Yeah, they’re invested in it.
DIPLO: Yeah, but I’m learning more. I tell myself that I’m going to keep producing, I’m going to keep Vegas. And after this next Major Lazer record—I think a year and a half from now—I’m going to hopefully be doing something similar to you, where I’m concentrating a lot more on developing the artist and making music. And then I can spend more time here, or maybe I can live somewhere nicer.
RUBIN: You can.
DIPLO: Burbank’s kind of hardcore, but I like it because it reminds me of Philly. [Rubin laughs] It’s, like, work every day. There’s no relaxing there. Burbank is like Florida, man-one-story cracker houses and dirty yards, and all the music businesses are run down. I kind of like working there, actually.
RUBIN: The funny thing for me is that coming from New York, it’s like I could work all day long here and it still feels like I’m on vacation.
DIPLO: Did you come straight to Malibu?
RUBIN: No, no. I lived in Los Angeles.
DIPLO: How long until you came here?
RUBIN: I moved out here, like, nine years ago, and I moved to L.A. in like 1989, 1990. I didn’t choose to move to L.A., and I didn’t choose to move to Malibu. It just kind of happened. I came out to work on something in L.A., didn’t really like it, kept working on stuff, and eventually decided, “Oh, I kind of like it. Maybe instead of staying in a hotel, I’ll get a house.” Got a house, and then five years later, I thought, “Well, maybe I should move my stuff from New York because I’m not going back.” [laughs]
DIPLO: But can you imagine still being in the rat race either in New York or L.A.?
RUBIN: Hell no, I can’t imagine.
DIPLO: I’m lucky because I still tour, so I never get bored. And we switch our house every month, Airbnb. But I think two years from now, I’ll have to switch it up and just get a real base.
RUBIN: Love to have you out here.
DIPLO: I’d love to. Let me know if you want to sell that …
RUBIN: [laughs] The bus?
DIPLO: The bus! I’ll just live there. But I also want a place in Florida, like 10 acres of this crazy swampland, but no one will ever go there with me to work on it. [both laugh] But maybe when I get older, I can convince people to come there. Right now, I like L.A. though, and I like to travel, just to bounce around.
RUBIN: But again, the nature of the gig is you get to do that.
DIPLO: I’m only doing the DJ thing because I still love it. I’m still having fun. I know a lot of guys who aren’t. So I’m lucky—I get to go out every day and do new things. When I meet artists who just want to be famous, they don’t still love making music, you know? And that’s the one thing I ask—you’ve got to love to create.
RUBIN: Absolutely, that’s the whole reason we’re here.