Diplo on Ripoffs, Why Streaming Hurts Taylor Swift and Being a 'Poseur'

Outspoken DJ-producer discusses how he stays ahead of curve, being parodied by James Van Der Beek, a "disco" album with Mark Ronson and more

Credit: Alexei May

Everything else keeps changing – EDM sinks, young rappers rise, rock legends die – but there's one apparent constant in music this decade: Diplo just keeps getting more famous. An unexpectedly moving new documentary, the Apple Music exclusive Give Me Future (out November 17th), showcases a history-making 2016 show that his group Major Lazer played in Cuba; Viceland's What Would Diplo Do? offers a fictionalized, comical version of the DJ-producer, played by former Dawson's Creek star James Van Der Beek. And the actual Diplo keeps making interesting, future-shaping music, from the trap-and-highlife-influenced recent Major Lazer EP, Know No Better, to his pop EP with singer-songwriter Starrah. And while he's not the most sentimental of humans, he'll never forget that Cuba show, the first by a U.S. act in more than a decade. "We had a moment where those kids felt like they were part of a global music culture," he says.

The manipulated vocal sound you and Skrillex created for Justin Bieber's "Where R Ü Now" ended up on a million songs afterward. Did you feel ripped off?
You can't be mad – you just kind of gotta go with the flow. Music does whatever it wants. It's like getting mad at, like, a wave. Hopefully people know the history, that we were one of the catalysts for so many sounds. But as time goes by, it gets less apparent who did what. So you just kind of gotta stay ahead of the curve. And with Justin, we were just trying to be as punk as we could in the lane of EDM.


Drake has an approach similar to yours in some ways – he finds new sounds and artists and quickly incorporates them into his music. What's it like to see a huge star employ your methods?
Drake is a huge songwriter and a cultural engineer. Drake was the first guy to jump on a song with Migos. He was the first guy to put [Nigerian artist] Wizkid on a mainstream record. He sees trends, and he gets ahead of them. I think I'm the same way.

Do you fear getting to the point where you hear new sounds and just don't understand them?
There are some young rappers that I kind of go, "Jeez" – until I see them live. Rap music is a very youthful scene right now. It's not made for people like me: white men, 30-plus years old.

How has streaming changed what becomes a hit and what doesn't?
Music is in the hands of the kids. Streaming is literally what kids want to listen to over and over again. They want to listen to [Post Malone's] "Rockstar" and [Cardi B's] "Bodak Yellow" – they don't want to listen to, like, [Taylor Swift's] "Look What You Made Me Do." That music doesn't relate to them at all. I don't think it ever did. They were only given that, by radio and marketing budgets. I'm impressed with Post Malone. I can relate to him more than Taylor Swift.

Does the goofy fictional version of you on TV make you self-conscious?

It hurt to watch it the first time. It made my stomach twist. I think that James plays a really funny Diplo. He's doing his best, but he's just an idiot. I don't mind being ridiculed. People relate to dance music, but you can't relate to a Zac Efron DJ movie, right?

On the show, Diplo asks, "Are we just poseurs pushing buttons?" Is that a question you ask yourself?

I know I'm a poseur pushing buttons onstage! You can't really deliver a lot as a DJ in concert. There's not much you can do. Your job as a producer is to make enough great material that people will show up to see the music you've made. It's the same reason you show up at a Rolling Stones concert: to hear the hits.

You said that you and Mark Ronson are working on a "disco" album together. What's going on with that?
I met Mark as a DJ in New York probably 12 years ago. I was more of the underground version of him, in a way. We always said, "We should do something together one day." Now we have some ideas. We just want to go on tour and do a little DJ'ing together.

You've said that you want to get off the road and just be a songwriter and producer. Wouldn't you miss it?
The thing about shows is the money is immediate. With songwriting, you might write 10 songs and they're all B sides. Or you might make a song that gets picked up by Beyoncé as a single. If I do a show, I get paid this month.

Your Twitter used to be really wild, but now you've toned down. Why?
Every once in a while, I might be political, and I just get millions of people attacking me. I don't really feel like being a catalyst for arguments on the Internet, whether it's politics or whatever. Sarcasm doesn't travel well over the Internet – especially being a white dude on the Internet. I don't have any pass to say anything sarcastic or funny.