For producer-DJ Diplo, the past 12 years have been a slow but unrelenting march from the ultra-hip fringes to the dead center of pop music. Right now, he has two Top 20 singles from two different projects: the Justin Bieber-featuring “Where R U Now,” from his Jack Ü collaboration with Skrillex, and “Lean On,” from his dancehall-inflected act Major Lazer, which went from studio lark to festival-packing force. Diplo, who first broke through to the mainstream circa 2005 as M.I.A.’s producer, says there’s never been a master plan: “I’ve been 100 percent improvising,” he says. “When I moved to L.A. to produce and write, I kept DJ’ing on the side, but I thought that was never gonna go anywhere.”
So is Justin Bieber officially cool now?
He’d been stuck in a rut where he has to do a certain thing because of his fan base. Guy from Disclosure texted me, “Yo, man, that Bieber record is amazing,” and I’m like, “Man, you would’ve never written that a year ago,” and he’s like, “I know, this is very difficult for me to text right now.” Bieber’s personal life is whatever it is — he’s a rich kid and he’s pretty much gonna have to be a jerk. But he’s respectful to me, and he has that weird gene where he’s good at everything: better at basketball than me, better at drums. For us it’s more like an art project where you utilize his voice.
You’re a thoughtful guy, but your social-media persona is sort of obnoxious. Why?
If I have a fight with somebody, it makes me look like a prick, but it makes the social-media numbers explode. It’s the Kanye West theory: In 2015, become a prick and just get more popular. I don’t want to be thought of like that, but also I just don’t really care. I’m doing jokes and people take it seriously, like that’s the person I am.
Any chance of squashing your beef with Taylor Swift, after your comments about her “booty”?
We squashed it! I saw her at the Grammys and she was supernice and cool. Her fans loved the beef, though. That’s all they have — they don’t have, like, real things going on. It’s still startling when these artists pay attention to my Twitter. Like, Ed Sheeran unfollowed me when I said something about Taylor — I can’t believe these people even know who I am.
EDM’s rise boosted your career, but you also stand apart from it. How do you see that relationship?
It’s been a slow evolution in America — you still have the biggest, glossiest, most masculine music at EDM raves. But it’s got young people excited about music. Jack Ü is headlining festivals now, and Skrillex and I are up there playing random records, doing what I love, being unpredictable, being trendsetting. Some of the big guys are changing too — David Guetta’s new album, nothing’s really dance on that. And there’s stuff like Disclosure and [French house producer] Tchami that’s not about being the biggest and brightest. Skrillex — there’s no precedent for what he’s doing and what he could do. His persona can be as big as a rock star.
You co-produced several songs on Madonna’s new one, including her new single. What do you make of the ageism she faces?
She created the world we live in. It already sucks to be a woman in the music industry, but to be a boss woman is even harder. She sold out her tour in minutes, but no one seems to want her to succeed — “Madonna, we’ve been there, done that, now we’re about Kim Kardashian.” Her song “Ghosttown” was a guaranteed Number One for anybody else, but she didn’t get a fair shot. With “Bitch I’m Madonna,” everyone said there’s no way it will go anywhere, but I’m like, “Screw it, it represents you more than anything.”
You’re 36 — do you worry about aging out of pop yourself?
There’s not usually the old white dude in the music industry. You either get a job in management or you’re Willie Nelson — the only dude that’s cool and old. But age has nothing to do with it, as long as people are paying attention to me.
Your music is pretty raucous — what do you listen to when you want something chill?
I love Marvin Gaye, I like jazz and all that stuff. I used to be a record collector. Mark Ronson, Questlove and I used to be part of, like, a record-trading crew. Classic rock, psychedelic rock — I like to dig up old music and see what I can get influenced by.
What would you do with a rock band?
I’ve done a lot of songs with Ezra Koenig [of Vampire Weekend], some really cool stuff that I hope people get to hear. We wrote a couple of things for another artist that might be huge records for the end of summer — one of them started with a Vampire Weekend idea. But he’s not traditional rock — he’s like me, a hodgepodge of styles and influences. And I have a studio with [producer] Ariel Rechtshaid, so every day I’m harassing Haim to listen to my beats. But I don’t make anything that they ever like [laughs]! My first production job after M.I.A. was actually the xx, but they didn’t like what I did, and at the end of the day we used their demos.
Any other unexpected collaborators?
I just did a session with the Band Perry, and I didn’t think that would work. But I listened to it yesterday — I’m like, “Yo, this is a big, awesome song.” The way we recorded it was unorthodox — I just did it in a room with a mandolin. I mean, I’ll try anything once.