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
Shane McCauley
Diplo performs in Bogotá, Colombia.
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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."

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."

Diplo has also got the kind of unpolished attitude that mainstream success can buff away. Over lunch, I ask him about "Look at Me Now," the spacey, Grammy-nominated track he produced for Chris Brown. Did he feel conflicted giving a hit to a convicted domestic abuser? "I'm not a circuit-court judge or anything," he says. "Chris Brown served his sentence. What else can you do? I do think he's an asshole – like, at the Grammys, he could have been more graceful. But he's an artist. He's good at what he does."

He's blunt when it comes to M.I.A., too. They broke up, but continued collaborating until the sessions for her last album. "She didn't really know what she was doing," he says. "She was really abusive, telling me I wasn't good enough or fast enough." Discussing M.I.A.'s middle-finger flip at the Super Bowl with Madonna, he says, "It was kind of stupid. I think her being on that Madonna song is kind of lame, and she was trying to make up for that. That song is such a flop."

Diplo chews a forkful of salad, and turns contrite. "I'm still a huge fan of her stuff," he says. "I owe her a lot for what she did for me."

The day after the Vegas gig, a car picks up Diplo from the airport. I ask what happened after the strip club – last I'd seen, he was leaving with a voluptuous brunette. "I hung out with some girls at another club, went back to the hotel with them at around five, then they left and some other girls came out," he says, nonchalant. "It's real lucky I woke up when I did this morning. I literally had no idea when the flight was."

The conversation drifts to music. On the horizon, there's another Major Lazer album and a solo Diplo EP. "In three years, I want to leave L.A. and move to New Orleans," he says. "I love that city. I want to build more music there and more culture." He also wants to revisit his earlier love, filmmaking. He directed a baile-funk documentary released in 2010, but he wants to make features: He wrote a screenplay about an Oklahoma flea market involving "a tornado and Bigfoot."

We arrive at his house. His keys are buried in his bag, and he doesn't feel like fishing them out. Kathryn and Lockett are visible through the glass front door. He knocks. They look up, but stay put. "I hate my family," Diplo jokes, walking around to an unlocked side door. The day before, I asked him about the terms of his relationship with Kathryn. "Um, I don't know," he said. "I don't really want to talk about that because it's too personal. But sometimes, I hang out with other girls, I guess. Like at the club in Vegas, there'll be, like, local girls there."

Taped to the kitchen wall are several pictures of Diplo clipped from magazines. It looks like a self-celebrating shrine until you realize that Lockett is its intended audience: On the central picture, someone has written the word "Daddy" with an arrow pointing toward Diplo's face.

Kathryn is sitting on the couch, peeling yellow grapes for Lockett, who's tottering in a diaper. Diplo gives her a kiss. "How was Vegas?" she asks. Diplo doesn't respond. I tell her it was fun. Kathryn says that Lockett completed a block puzzle all by himself. Diplo beams. He goes upstairs to change. "Underwear! I haven't worn underwear in, like, four days!" he yells down. Kathryn rolls her eyes.

Diplo returns and approaches Lockett, who mumbles with pleasure at the sight of his dad. "I've gotta go eat lunch," Diplo tells Kathryn. "I'll bring you guys some food, but I might have to head straight to the studio." "Really?" Kathryn says.

Diplo grabs his bag and pulls on a pair of shoes. He's been back for about 10 minutes. "Give me a hug," he tells Lockett. "I'm leaving."

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This story is from the March 29th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1153: March 29, 2012
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