Blink and you'll miss Diplo's cameo in Favela on Blast. In documenting MC Colibri, one of the major players in Brazil's baile funk scene, Diplo sneaks into the frame to shoot secondary footage of two girls hypnotizing the camera by the beckoning twirl of their waists. It would be the last time we would see Wesley Pentz this hands-on for the film. The story he and director Leandro HBL tell this July is not about Diplo, even though behind the scenes his personal discovery of Rio's rhythmic sub-culture was about as adventurous as an Indiana Jones movie. We talked to Diplo about the making of Favela on Blast and his initial trip to Brazil with then-FADER editor Knox Robinson. Favela on Blast is out today on DVD from Mad Decent.
The Partnership Between Diplo and Leandro HBL
When I first left college (I didn't actually graduate), I applied for this job at an art magazine called Colors. They do United Colors of Benetton. It's sort of like a weird National Geographic, kind of like FADER. They actually gave me an opportunity to go work for them for two weeks. They bought my ticket to Milan, like around Venice. I dunno if I was actually in the job or not, but kind of quit. I was like, "This was weird, I don't like Europe, I don't like these European people." I played a lot of basketball, which was cool. I met Leandro, he was working there too, he was a bit older than me—this was when I was 20-years-old—I think he was 23. I always kept his contact because I never met anyone in Brazil before. I was into what he was talking about: he's weird and knew film and stuff and I was there to do film as well, and we just kept in touch.
After I went there, I looked in my rolodex and I go, "I am gonna hit Leandro up because he is the only Brazilian I know, plus he makes movies, maybe he might know somebody." He was like, "I dunno what fucking baile funk is, fuck that shit. I listen to surf rock." So after about a year of me trying to do stuff, I made a mixtape, and was like, "Let's do this film down here. I'll rent an apartment for a month, and make this movie in two months." I ended up going down there with him and we rented an apartment in Rio, it was mad expensive. This was like 2005. Fuck it I'm investing some money into something I believe in, and it's gonna be a film, it's gonna be amazing.
Setbacks in Filming Favela on Blast
I think shooting was like three years, and a year-and-a-half to two years just to tie up everything. It was only shot in a year, but me and Leandro had a falling out with a sponsor and some of our characters went missing. We had to start over again. Everything that could have happened wrong happened. But this is learning how to make a movie with like no experience. Leandro never made a film on his own. I had never made a film or worked on a film on my own. We never had any money to do anything. I was just bringing money back from trips. Leandro was having to edit some commercials to have some money to live to make this film. I think I would leave for two weeks to go DJ at some parties and come back and all the money I made was invested into film. I even had a show in China and I bought the camera that we started shooting some of the footage with. So the whole film was me kind of like scurrying around, doing work, and helping to edit and shoot. So it's sort of a real sloppy way to make a movie. The first thing I learned if I'm ever gonna make another movie—which I wanna do more now that this is coming out—is you use somebody else's money to begin with, and find a fucking real producer. You just get some money behind it because I spent a lot of money on my own just to do this, but I believed in it. I believed in what we do with music in general at Mad Decent.
DJ Marlboro's Influence on Diplo
So we went down there, and because of the connection with FADER, I got immediately introduced to DJ Marlboro who was the biggest DJ down there at the time. We went to the studio and he was like, "Oh you guys are from The FADER?!" We were the first magazine people to go down there and talk to him. We were from this big magazine, to learn about this culture. He's like, "Cool man, well come with me to this party tonight. Actually, we're gonna do four or five parties." Oh great, even better. So we went to this first party and it was nothing big, just like 20,000 people and he was like on a stage in the middle of the favela. We're like, "What the fuck is this?!" He had me come out on stage, "This is this gringo he's from America, he's doing a story on this counter-culture, and we want everyone to give him a shout, his name is Diplo." He gave me some CDs and T-shirts to throw to the people, and I was this weird gringo, circus freak that went and threw shit out. We went to this other party, "Here is this gringo from America, came to do this story on us from The FADER magazine, I want all the girls to come give him a kiss." This was a small party and all these girls came and gave me a kiss. "This is the gringo, I want all the DJs to give them his number so you guys can meet." So after this night, I met every DJ there was. I was this gringo, I was DJ Marlboro's homeboy. There's no fucking better ghetto pass than that. So I owe FADER to even give me that connection in the first place.
The first time I went there I don't remember any of the favelas. The only one I remember was a small favela in Complexo do Alemão. That place was like so big, I went there about four or five times after that just to look for areas. There's like 100,000 people in that favela, different factions just within the favela. Oh, we did go go Camp de Gallo. It's just a really famous one because it's just on the edge of Liblon, the most common favela. You see it on the top of the mountain if you're looking at Copacabana. I think I might have gone to Rocinha on the first trip, just to see it. That's the biggest, most classic thing of a favela, a lot of things happen there. That was always a recurring place. I ended up renting a house in Rocinha on the third trip to shoot stuff. There's a lot of main favelas, Rocinha, Camp de Gallo, Digigal, Complexo do Alemão, then some way out in the desert that we'd have a relationship with some of these artists.
Casting for Favelas on Blast
The main thing was, even though I was the gringo, I was writing the original screenplay, and bringing the most fascinating characters to Leandro. If he's gonna be there shooting, I'm like, "You have to be there doing this, and this." Even this one guy, MC Biruleibe, who Leandro is like, "What's this old guy about? I don't wanna do this guy," I'm like, "Look, this guy has the weirdest song, he's fucking bizarre, put him on the show, just shoot him, it's gonna be cool, trust me." And when we went to Rio for the film festival, he became like a crowd favorite, the guy who has a song about the parquet. I was sort of like a talent scout in a way, helping to figure out what artists to cover and what ways to make the film more interesting because Leandro, at the end of the day, he's like a fucking Werner Herzog. I'm more like a music side of things, and he's more the avant garde side of things and that's where we're able to meet, which is weird because I'm not the Brazilian that he is.
I wanted this super-hero team of weird Brazilians. I was definitely thinking along the lines of X-Men. I was trying to explain that this is a dynamic culture. You have the girl sex symbol ones, you have the Lee Perry weirdo, you have the trustee kind of guy, you have the gangster everybody guy. We even had more characters that didn't make the film like MC Gringo from Germany, and there were like four or five other guys we wanted to cover. The longer we stayed in Brazil, the whole culture changed, so I ended up putting a cap on it. So we had about 20 characters with different footage here and there. We had to cut it down to the top eight that gave the story.
If I would do it again, I would have spent three years researching and spent six months filming it with the right budget and the right time schedule. But this one was done with me DJing in Brazil, learning and making friends with the people. I don't think there's much of any other way to do it because you have to become these people's friends. You have to be a part of what's happening because it's such a weird culture, you just can't go there like, "Yo here's some money we want to shoot you for a week" or whatever and get the footage that you really want—it's impossible. You have to be there and you have to be their comrades and earn their trust and that takes a long time with people to be actually be involved with you. I think being a DJ was one of the most helpful things. They knew I wasn't there to just make some money and put it on Channel 4 or BBC. I was a peer to a lot of these people. but at the same time, it's difficult to get people's heads around what this means. It's bigger than just your local party because all the kids, they think about today and tomorrow, they don't think about two weeks or two months or two years ahead, it's just about what's happening tomorrow.
The Artist's Recognition
The first time I went down there I bought a bunch of music from Deize Tigrona, the female in the film and Marlboro. When I did "Bucky Done Gun," [M.I.A.'s] lyrics were sort of like an English version of Deize Tigrona's "Injeção" and she got credited on the M.I.A. record. From then on she started to go to France and Portugal and I would book her to play with me on different shows in Europe and Sweden and stuff and then she hooked up with Buraka Som Sistema, and she moved to Portugal. So she was always someone I was seeing for years on. I haven't seen her in a while. She works with Man Recordings, which is Daniel Haaksman's label in Berlin. She was somebody I always saw, Catra as well, I would always see him. I was booking him for some shows in Europe. I could never get these guys to come to America because it's impossible to get them visas for American shows.
But Marlboro, we had him come play with M.I.A. at our first show at S.O.B.'s in 2005. Some of the DJs that knew a little bit of English, I was keeping up to date with DJ Georgino who helped me record "Diplo Rhythm" in Brazil and DJ Edgar and Sany Pitbull is like the main guy who I still talk to today, who was really helpful in the film. He helped put together a lot of the scenes and is always giving us some of the new music and he helped produce some of the Bonde do Role stuff. He's totally the guy that's always out there doing some funk mix of samba, funk-European, funk-hybrid stuff, but he always plays deep in the favelas too. He can do the real ghetto stuff, he can do the real crossover experimental stuff.
The Evolution of Mad Decent
This is the first [film] we've done. It's pretty weird for us. We just put out our first record to be really honest, with Rusko. Everything we've done has been licensed away from us, whether it's Major Lazer, Bonde do Role or Blaqstarr. This is the first time we've done our own album. So this year is like a big year for us. We're only like three years old, but from being a homemade operation, just me and two interns to being a proper team of people...
I think moving from music to videos is huge for me. It's sort of what I really wanna do, from working on the Major Lazer stuff and making videos with Eric Wareheim, and doing Major Lazer cartoons with Adult Swim to doing a Current TV show—we did a pilot for them called No One's Safe, you can find it on Vimeo. We're developing that as a show. We're developing some other things on another channel. So I think that you know, I just wanna get this movie out there so I can show people that we can do this with no budget, and no direction or director or producer even. So it's almost like I would love to do more stuff like this. If I ever had some people in LA that do this for a living me instead of me who's a drunk DJ trying to get home every night. I think if I could do this, just on drugs every day, I think someone that knows how to do this could do something amazing. So hopefully we'll see. I'd love to, I've been producing a lot of records lately but I'd love to move out. I think you can reach more people with film. My ideas are getting more crazy the older I get.