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Diplo and the Search for the Perfect Beat

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Diplo has spent his entire life in motion. He was born in Mississippi, but his family moved around a bunch, following work – they lived in Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina before settling in north Florida, where his father ran a bait shop. Diplo worked there, sometimes taking out a boat and fishing for shrimp. "We never had much money," he says. "I had to borrow surfboards to go surfing. I never had a video game."

In his late teens, he took to hopping freight trains, once traveling from Tennessee to Georgia, stowed away on flatbeds. "I wanted to see how far I could go with, like, $60 in my pocket," he says. A movie fan, he enrolled in film school, eventually transferring to Temple University in Philadelphia. He taught reading and art at a Philadelphia after-school program, became a social worker and took up DJ'ing. "I was never good at scratching, but I was good at collecting old records," he says. "Florida was a great place for that, because it's where people go to die." In 2003, he started a party called Hollertronix with a local DJ named Low Budget. "People hated us for, like, mixing electro and hip-hop and world music, whatever," Diplo recalls. "We'd bring in black kids from the hood and kids from college, but we had to work to get people to come out. It was such a struggle." He hung out at Philadelphia vinyl shop Armands, where the customers included Questlove and a then-fledgling Kanye West.

By 2004, he was making enough money DJ'ing to quit teaching and took a trip to Brazil to learn more about the dance scene known as baile funk: slum kids chanting Portuguese raps over bass-heavy beats, cacophonous horns and Eighties-pop samples – a wildly hybridized sound he adored. He released a mix of baile-funk tracks called Favela on Blast, which made its way to M.I.A. She and Diplo began collaborating and, after a bit, dating.

They made a mixtape called Piracy Funds Terrorism, which Diplo peddled to stores, pocketing "like, $80,000." The mixtape helped build buzz for M.I.A.'s debut, and boosted Diplo's reputation as a scene-spotter, importing the mongrel pop of the global underclass to American clubs and blogs. (Critics have accused him of hipster imperialism, and while he waves off most of their attacks, he acknowledges that he benefits from "white privilege," and regrets that the only artist name that appeared on the Favela on Blast artwork was his own.)

Diplo and M.I.A.'s breakthrough came in 2007, when Diplo, obsessed with the opening guitar line from the Clash's "Straight From Hell," decided to transform it into a narcotic hip-hop track. The result was "Paper Planes," a woozy track about anti-immigrant hysteria that was a surprise smash, hitting Number Four on the Hot 100.

Instantly, major-label A&Rs began begging Diplo for what he calls "Paper Planes Part 2." By 2011, Kanye West was summoning Diplo to Watch the Throne sessions. "Kanye put me in a room with this Nigerian pop star, put on 'Lift Off,' told us, 'Fix this track up,' and left," Diplo recalls. "Mary-Kate and Ashley were there, too, listening to stuff, like a litmus test for white America." Recently, hitmaker Dr. Luke called Diplo in for three days of studio work. The dance titan Tiesto co-produced a house track with him. Last summer, true to genre-scrambling form, Diplo tapped the respected classical composer Nico Muhly to play on a whispery slow jam called "Climax" – it's Usher's new single.

Diplo is unconcerned about sullying his cool by saying yes so often. "I do work with anybody," he says. "Seal's people just got in touch, and I'd have done it, but the scheduling wasn't right." BlackBerry shilling notwithstanding, he's done a good job maintaining his outsider aura. His only indulgences, he says, are maps, which he collects ("I just bought a $1,000 topographical map of Jamaica"), comic books and L.A. Clippers season tickets.

A lot of his money goes into his label, Mad Decent, a clearinghouse for exciting underground artists. In L.A., he listens to Mexican norteña; in New York, he goes to gay "ballroom" parties. He's recently fallen in love with Korean rappers: "They're so much cooler than our rappers over here, and they dress fucking insane."

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Song Stories

“Nightshift”

The Commodores | 1984

The year after soul legends Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson died, songwriter Dennis Lambert asked members of the Commodores to give him a tape of ideas. "And the one from Walter Orange has this wonderful bass line," said co-writer Franne Golde. "Plus the lyric, 'Marvin, he was a friend of mine' ... Within 10 minutes, we had decided it should be something like a modern R&B version of 'Rock 'n' Roll Heaven,' and I just said, 'Nightshift.'" This tribute to the recently deceased musicians was the band's only hit without Lionel Richie, who had left for a solo career.

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