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Diplo and the Search for the Perfect Beat

From the favelas of Rio to making tracks for Bieber, the wild ride of a global jet-set party-starter

Diplo performs in Bogotá, Colombia.
Shane McCauley
March 22, 2012 1:05 PM ET

Diplo is at a studio in Burbank, California, searching for inspiration, raising a two-word prayer to the heavens. "Justin Bieber, Justin Bieber," the 33-year-old DJ and producer chants, rubbing his neck thoughtfully. In 24 hours, he's set to begin a four-day studio session with the Canadian teen-pop phenomenon, bouncing song ideas off him and working with him on new music. Diplo searches his laptop for sounds he can flip into the building blocks of a hit: distorted snares, booming kicks, electronic burps and bzzaps. "This is a big record," Diplo says. "It could be generational, you know?"

The only problem is that Diplo's got nothing prepared – he got the call from Bieber last week, while he was at Geejam studios in Jamaica, deep into a two-week collaboration with Snoop Dogg. "It was a really good vibe," Diplo says. "Snoop went to Rasta temples, weed fields, Tivoli Gardens, meeting all the regular people there. Everywhere we went in Kingston, we had four SUVs and police escorts, and every time we got out, there was a riot."

With cropped dirty-blond hair and a strong jaw, Diplo has the thuggish good looks of a Marine and the laid-back charisma of a born networker. Over the past five years, he's become one of pop's busiest producers – Kanye West, Dr. Luke, Usher, No Doubt and Chris Brown have all put him to work – and one of the unlikeliest: A former hitchhiker and self-described "counterculture kid" from Florida, he dropped out of film school and made his name as an underground club DJ in Philadelphia in the early 2000s, staging raucous collisions between electro, Top 40, crunk, throbbing beats from Rio de Janeiro, frenetic Angolan hip-hop, and on and on.

Popularizing underground scenes and championing little-known acts who've gone on to huge indie fame (he was early to M.I.A., Sleigh Bells, Santigold and the xx), he's established himself as a living, breathing recommendation algorithm. A new book, 128 Beats Per Minute, collects pictures of Diplo hanging out in exotic locales with beautiful people; the Travel Channel wanted to make a show documenting his journeys (it fell through); a Korean beer company paid him $80,000 to play a show with Major Lazer, his whimsical dancehall project; and billion-dollar brands from BlackBerry to Beyoncé have hired him (the former for an ad campaign, the latter for two songs on 4M), hoping that some of his cool will rub off.

Diplo's schedule reflects his cachet: Life is busy, and life is good. Later today, he'll get on a plane to Las Vegas, where he has a new Monday DJ residency at the club XS, earning "like, $30,000" for spinning two hours of house, hip-hop and dubstep. At 3 a.m., he'll head to Spearmint Rhino, a Vegas strip club, where a dancer wearing a thong and Lucite heels will give him a long lap dance, and where a woman with tattooed legs will ask me if I want to dip my head into her lap and snort cocaine from a baggie. "Diplo wants me to get you fucked up," she'll explain. "I know it's Monday, but it's always Friday when he's in town!" He'll go to sleep at 8 a.m., barely managing to catch an 11:10 a.m. flight back to Los Angeles as the gate is closing. Later this week, he'll leave the Bieber sessions to board a private jet and "DJ a Call of Duty-Warcraft video-game fucking thing for so much money – like, $75,000 for an hour set."

Diplo (the nickname, short for Diplodocus, comes from a youthful infatuation with dinosaurs) plays "300" shows a year, and while Los Angeles is his home, he estimates he's in town only one week out of every month. He rents a house in Los Feliz with unobstructed views of the San Bernardino mountains, sharing it with Kathryn, a beautiful half-Asian, half-black woman he was dating a couple of years ago, and they "got pregnant by accident." Together, they have a year-and-a-half-old son with curly brown hair named Lockett. Kathryn used to work as a bartender, but now she's a full-time mom.

The Burbank studio belongs to Ariel Rechtshaid, a lanky producer and one of Diplo's closest collaborators. "I can definitely play piano, but I'm not someone like Ariel who can just lay out a song," Diplo says. "He's like an encyclopedia of pop craftsmanship." This is the division of labor Diplo favors: He comes up with left-field suggestions and relies on more traditionally gifted musicians to implement them. "What I can't do as a player, I make up for with ideas," he says.

Sitting at a mixing board, Diplo opens an e-mail from his manager, with a vague brief from Team Bieber: "They're looking for tempo," he reads. "What the fuck does that mean?" Diplo asks, laughing. He cycles through sounds from his laptop, firing up a jerky loop he made from a sample of Pac-Man chomping. He turns it off and plays a thrillingly chaotic dog pile of synthesizers. "I don't think Bieber can do that," he says.

They aren't sure what to expect from Bieber. "We met him when we were working with Usher," Rechtshaid says. "He came with this diamond-encrusted Rubik's Cube someone had given him, just playing with it."

Rechtshaid has several demos on his computer in various states of completion. One features a bouncy piano melody and a sweet, innocuous R&B refrain. "It's kind of wack, but we could work with that," Diplo says. He plays a dirty synthesizer sound on his laptop, crashing the demo's milquetoast vibe with rude bursts of noise. "Ariel's more anxious than me to do whatever it takes to make the Bieber record," Diplo says later. "I just want to do it if it's something that's really interesting. Pretty much every producer nowadays is kind of cookie-cutter. If you get an Alex da Kid track – I love his tracks, but it's gonna sound a certain way. A David Guetta track. A Sandy Vee track. They're gonna sound a certain way." (Kid, Guetta and Vee are blue-chip songsmiths behind hits by Rihanna, the Black Eyed Peas and Katy Perry.) "I'm always making things up and don't know what I'm doing half the time. So when people come to me, they don't know what they want to sound like – they just want to sound like something from the future."

Diplo arranges the synth noise into a jabbering riff in the same key as the demo. "That's hot," Rechtshaid says. "Give me the stem, and I'll work on it."

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