Gruff but not unfriendly, Diplo's voice booms down the phone. It's so deep that I do a double-take, This is Diplo, right? There's a heavy silence and I realize the clock is ticking. After all, the DJ/producer runs in VMA-friendly circles that include Skrillex, Katy Perry and Madonna (who's new album he's working on), and has long passed the point of having to explain himself. That he's a controversial figure in music is old hat: yes, he's been called a cultural appropriator numerous times, and, yes, he can come across as brash as his Las Vegas residency, but the passion in his voice when he's on a roll is undeniable. That's why sometime between dropping a Major Lazer fronted soca remix and tweeting about producing a new Chris Brown track (that's since disappeared from Soundcloud), he hit pause to speak to The FADER about where his love of dancehall and reggae started, how a dead-end job on a cruise boat first got him to Jamaica, and why Céline Dion is the biggest star in the islands.
What was the first reggae or dancehall thing you connected with growing up? I grew up in South Florida—in Broward County, North Miami area. For me when I was younger, that was the most diverse space I’ve ever been. My neighborhood was middle class, working class, Jamaican, Haitian, Jewish, white kids from the country—it was kinda like a really mixed area, you know? I went to everything from Bar Mitzvahs to Haitian restaurants and Mexican restaurants. The park by my house always had reggae and dancehall parties on Fridays and so I was always hearing music from those parties all the time.
Some of the big records were “Queen of the Pack” by Patra [below] and "Bam Bam" by Pliers, those kinda early ‘90s dancehall records. I’ve always been a dancehall fan because it’s really ingrained in the culture in South Florida. I didn’t like reggae music until about five years ago because there was a stigma around it for me—like, white kids who like reggae music—but as I got older I really dug deeper into Bob Marley’s work with Lee Perry and his earlier work. It was like the most fascinating music to me, so crazy sounding production-wise and the music was melancholy and really beautiful. Then with Major Lazer we got to explore everything because of the overlapping theme of reggae and Caribbean music—the project had reggae songs and dancehall records and just futuristic kind of records.
When did you first visit Jamaica and did it give any new perspective on the music you'd grown up with? Going to Jamaica for the first time sucked. I was a young producer trying to work in Jamaica—I had had some buzz, with M.I.A. for instance, but no knew who I was or what I was doing, so I was in there and it was kind like a pay-to-play situation where I was equal with the Japanese guys getting dubplates or the German guys there or the Italians. Back then it was a really international place for music, people coming from all over the place and buying records. Reggae was still having a little bit of movement on the radio. The only person who really gave me a chance was Leftside, actually.
But how I ended up in Jamaica was that I couldn’t even afford to get there. I got a job DJing on a cruise boat. It was so weird for me. I hated the boat, so I got off at Rios and just quit my job. I paid a taxi to drive me from Ocho Rios to Kingston and I just got a hotel room and tried to find people I knew. There was a couple of guys that connected me, like old Kingston dudes, kinda like A&R guys who live in Jamaica and connect all the artists who are interested in making reggae music. I hooked up with those guys. And then I met with Vybz Kartel—I'd recorded a record with him like three years earlier called “Diplo Riddim” that nobody actually heard [laughs]. That was like six years ago probably. It was a crazy step from going there and being like, This a bitch, 'cause we didn’t have anything and people gave me wack songs, to doing a show with Major Lazer and Skrillex in Kingston that sold out to 6000 kids. I think that our profile grew a lot, our music got a lot better, people got interested in our music, but I think the state of music in Jamaica got a lot different, too, over the last five years—it's such an international place as far as the taste of the kids and the way that people are accepting music in the islands now.
"I got a job DJing on a cruise boat. I hated the boat, so I got off at Rios in Jamaica and just quit my job."
Is there more interest in electronic stuff? I know that when I started playing, no one wanted to hear me play dancehall records. My first couple of shows that were like my own thing, they wanted to hear something different because they hear dancehall all the time. Jamaica is such an adept, connected place, like everybody in Jamaica—the poorest people, the richest people—have a Twitter account, have an Instagram, constantly are feeding off internet media. Pop radio in Jamaica is so much bigger than dancehall radio, people don’t realize that. The biggest concerts in Jamaica in history are like, Kenny Rogers and Céline Dion. Céline Dion shut down Jamaica when she played there. That’s like the real truth of Jamaica, that’s what people fuck with. Dancehall is always happening but in general they’re big fans of pop songwriting and classic songs.
How has dancehall shaped your music over the years? One of the first records that turned me on was “Memories,” by Beenie Man, like as far as content and lyrics. I always loved Patra, ‘cause her videos are so fuckin’ sick. There was a show on TV called Caribbean Rhythms that was like late night and played dancehall videos, I used to watch that all the time. And then just collecting mixtapes. When I was 19 or 20 in Philadelphia I collected a lot of mixtapes, lots of ‘45s of riddims that just stuck around forever like "Bookshelf." That riddim was crazy for me, I just thought it was so sick, the production on it.
Where's the craziest place you’ve seen dancehall pop off on your travels? I see dancehall everywhere. The biggest shows that we do as Major Lazer are festivals and raves in New York, we’re really big in places like France, Germany and Holland, but when we play somewhere like South Italy, we play solo shows for 5,000 or 10,000 kids and they only want to hear dancehall records. Like, they only want to hear the hardcore dancehall. That’s one of the biggest dancehall markets in the world, Southern Italy. Germany still has a lot. Japan, I haven’t played there for like two years but that was always big for Major Lazer. Weird parts of Canada, like Calgary, Edmonton, where they have African and Jamaican diaspora. Canada has a really crazy immigration policy, with the rest of Commonwealth—there’s a lot of places you wouldn’t imagine with dancehall scenes. For instance, I just played in Toronto at the Mad Decent Block Party in Fort York for like 10,000 kids, and afterwards I wanted to play a smaller party so I played a gay weekly party called Parts and Labor. It was hardcore dancehall—everyone was smashing the ceiling when I played dancehall records.
What is it about dancehall that does that to us? They’re very rhythmic records, and there’s a certain trance-y vibe to it—it’s got like a primal feeling to it. It’s also made really archaically. The producers and dancehall artists, none of them are classically trained musicians. Like when Yellowman and those guys were doing the first records it was just remaking reggae rhythms and making digital stuff with keyboards. They literally had nobody to tell them what was right and what was wrong. They just did slack, crazy records. There was no rules or regulations to it; they made something that’s really primal.
Big Dada/Ninja Tune will re-release Diplo's 2004 debut album Florida this fall.