Diplo was halfway to Burning Man when the pilot got lost.
It was just the two of them in a tiny prop plane last summer, on what was supposed to be a two-hour hop from Los Angeles to the arts festival in the Nevada desert, where the 36-year-old music entrepreneur was scheduled to perform. “The pilot was this guy I know–he offered me a ride,” Diplo recalls. “This guy is always trying to get me to invest in things, always doing things to try to impress me. But it always goes wrong.” This time, it went wrong somewhere above the Sierra Nevada mountains. “The radio communication died, and he couldn’t find the landing strip,” Diplo says, rolling his eyes. “So he gave me the controls and had me fly the plane–showed me how to turn and stuff–while he tried to fix the radio. After we landed, we had to sit in the airport in the desert for six hours because it turned out he was flying illegally. But we finally ended up getting to the festival. I did 10 shows. Debuted a bunch of new material.”
It’s the story of Diplo’s life: Fly high, get lost, and ultimately land in the red-hot center of a pop-cultural moment.
Diplo’s real name is Thomas Wesley Pentz, and he’s what music moguls look like in the early 21st century. For starters, he is a world-famous DJ who packs dance clubs in Las Vegas and elsewhere with thousands of fans at up to 300 shows a year (and draws tens of thousands more at the sponsored “block parties” he throws every summer in cities across the U.S. and Canada). But he doesn’t only spin records–he also makes them. His music label, Mad Decent, had 45 releases by 20 innovative global artists in 2014. He’s one of today’s most in-demand music producers, crafting tunes for Beyoncé, Usher, and Madonna (whom he helped with her upcoming 2015 album). He’s also a fashion model (for Alexander Wang), a product endorser (Axe, Diesel, BlackBerry), a technology investor (for Phhhoto, an app that takes GIFs), an Internet-radio programmer (with about 4.6 million followers on SoundCloud), and an actor (he had a tiny part in 22 Jump Street), as well as a filmmaker, author, cartoon creator, philanthropist, and restaurateur. Above all else, though, Diplo is a trend spotter. “I think one of the reasons I’ve been successful is that I can see things before other people do,” he says. “I’ve always been able to do it.”
That’s a handy skill for a cultural tastemaker, and it has made Diplo famous as much for his own music–a unique jumble of Jamaican dancehall, Brazilian baile funk, Angolan kuduro, and ’80s pop beats–as for his uncanny ear for the next cool sound. It’s why he’s in demand as a collaborator; earns $100,000 to $250,000 per DJ gig, according to Billboard; and draws swarms to his block parties–the 22 mini-festivals Mad Decent held last summer sold a total of 180,000 tickets at about $50 each. It’s why he’s courted by TV producers (he’s got a show on VH1 and an animated series in the works at Fox) and film execs (he just sold Fox Studios a comedy he’ll be producing that he describes as “Superbad at a rave”). And that’s just the old media; he’s also able to conjure dollars simply by pushing buttons on his iPhone (he gets $400 worth of free Uber rides every month by tweeting a line or two about the app-based car service to his almost 1.3 million Twitter followers). “Money, for me, is just to create bigger and better things,” he says. “A lot of guys in the deejaying world flaunt it, but I don’t see any use in that. I don’t need anything. I live in hotels. Most of my clothes I get for free. I like to invest in ideas. In people.”
His stage name is short for Diplodocus, a long-necked herbivore from the Jurassic period. It was Diplo’s favorite dinosaur as a kid; he’s got a silhouette of the creature tattooed inside his right forearm. “I used the name Diplo at one show when I was really young, and it just stuck,” he says. “I never meant to keep it. But it’s kinda cool.”
It’s a warm October afternoon in Southern California, and Diplo is slouched in the passenger seat of his leased Tesla Model S (he only calls Uber when he needs an SUV). He’s scrolling through emails on his phone as he talks, occasionally glancing out the windows to admire the scenery as the driver–Eric, his assistant–steers the car toward Pasadena, where Diplo needs to make a brief stop before heading to Mad Decent’s studio in Burbank. It’s his son’s fourth birthday, and he wants to pop in at the preschool party. (He has another child on the way, but he doesn’t answer questions about his private life, even though the gossip columns have recently been hinting at a romance with Katy Perry.) With his short-cropped blond hair, Euro-style bone structure, and sleepy blue eyes, you half expect a Swedish or Dutch accent. But he speaks with a soft Panhandle drawl.
He was born in Mississippi but grew up in Florida, where his dad still owns a bait shop and his mom worked as a grocery-store clerk. His parents weren’t particularly musical, and neither was Diplo. He never learned to play an instrument, never cultivated a singing voice. He wanted to be a paleontologist. But as a teenager, he fell in love with the turntable. “It’s cool to play the guitar,” he explains, “but to me it’s even cooler to scratch a guitar backward and forward, to manipulate it with a turntable. Guitars can’t do that themselves.” He got his first DJ job at 17, spinning for middle-aged tourists in a hotel in Daytona Beach, Florida. “It was all these parents with their kids, and I was playing hip-hop, Beastie Boys, Jimi Hendrix,” Diplo remembers with a grin. “The guy who hired me told me I was fired unless I started playing doo-wop and classic rock.”
There were some youthful notions about becoming a filmmaker, and he ended up studying cinema at Temple University in Philadelphia, but his true calling was throwing parties and making mixtapes. And traveling. In the early 2000s, after finishing college, Diplo went exploring in Brazil and Japan, and ventured to the head of the Ganges River in India, where the Beatles learned to meditate. Along the way, he picked up a taste for indigenous musical sounds, which he brought back to Philly and incorporated into his own dance-music mashups. For a while he lived off of his mixtapes. “I knew this bootlegger who would burn 200 CDs at 40 cents each, and I’d sell them to stores for $5,” Diplo says. “Mixtapes were like crack back then. This was before Pandora Radio. People wanted new music.”
Diplo’s own music started getting noticed. A mixtape he cocreated, Never Scared, was named a top 10 album of 2003 by The New York Times. He also caught the eye of British rapper M.I.A., who approached him while he was deejaying in London in 2004. The two began a series of musical collaborations (as well as nonmusical ones–they dated for five years) that put rocket boots on Diplo’s career. Spin named him DJ of the Year in 2005, just as he was launching his Mad Decent label (which he moved from Philadelphia to L.A. in 2010). Before he knew it, he was doing mixtapes and other projects with artists including Britney Spears and Justin Bieber, as well as developing new talent for his label.
“It’s eye-opening working with him as a producer,” says Dawn Golden (also known as Dexter Tortoriello), whose debut LP, Still Life, made with Diplo at Mad Decent, was released last May. “He has his computer open and has literally thousands of songs, and he’ll just dig through shit. He’s not trained on the piano; he uses his MacBook keyboard to do all his melodies. And he’s kind of a psychopath, in a way. His approach is supermusical and at the same time antimusical. He’ll take a sound and fuck it up until it’s unrecognizable and turn it into a drumbeat. He isn’t afraid of anything.” That fearlessness and deep creative investment has made good business sense. “People trust Mad Decent as a label,” Golden says. “It’s almost old school that way.”
Diplo is just doing what Diplo does best–riding a trend. He’s benefited from a boom in electronic-dance music, which, over the past 10 years, has become a multibillion-dollar industry: Vegas club dates generate $800 million annually. Of course, as Diplo well knows, it’s not a musical format enjoyed by all. Tom Petty, for one, has had some widely reported harsh words about DJ-based music (“You couldn’t pay me to go,” he’s said). But Diplo doesn’t take it personally. “If I were Tom Petty, I’d be mad, too,” he says. “Petty wrote some amazing songs. But to young people, there’s nothing appealing about what he does. The cycle changes.” At the moment, the cycle has Diplo on the rise. And although he’s not particularly high on Forbes‘s list of the richest DJs–Calvin Harris, Avicii, and David Guetta all earn more than the $13 million Forbes estimated Diplo took home in 2013–he is pioneering fresh ways to bring his sensibility and tastes to social-media-connected masses. “You have to feed the beast,” he says. “You have to be obnoxious and loud and make as much noise as you can.”
Diplo may not be the biggest DJ in the world, but his talents and aspirations are exposing him to an increasingly wide audience. Tellingly, one of his role models is Richard Branson, the Virgin Records mogul who parlayed his music label into an airline and (soon) space shuttle service. Like Branson, Diplo knows the importance of personal branding, of being his own best marketing tool. “Electronic music is voiceless, so a lot of DJs get lost,” he says. “But you still have to connect to an audience. You have to make a connection with people. And I’m lucky that way. I put a face to it.”
The Tesla parks in a section of Burbank that doesn’t get visited by a lot of $70,000 electric cars. There’s a shabby martial-arts studio at the corner. A shuttered minimarket. A gun shop. But if you were to stick a pin in a map at one of the hippest spots in all of Los Angeles, it would be here, on a side street in the Valley, at a squat, red-brown industrial building that looks like a plumbing-supply depot. This is Mad Decent’s new corporate headquarters.
“It’s still in progress,” Diplo says, apologetically, before beginning the tour. Mad Decent took over the 2,500-square-foot space only four months ago, and the renovations are going slowly. Electric wiring snakes out of the drywall in spots where light fixtures will be attached, and judging from the smell, the paint is barely dry. “We wanted to put a helicopter pad on the roof, but the Burbank police said it was illegal,” Diplo says with a frown. There’s almost no artwork on the walls–although somebody found a spot in a hallway to hang the platinum album plaque for Baauer’s “Harlem Shake” (a Mad Decent release that was downloaded millions of times after it became a YouTube meme). There’s a small sound booth–where Lorde recently recorded a song that Diplo produced–and a hive of cramped studios, green-screen stages, and offices crammed with cameras and computer equipment, where Mad Decent’s staff of 10 mostly male, mostly twentysomethings supply Diplo’s online outposts with content. Except for a small piano in one of the recording rooms (with an old Barbra Streisand LP propped on its rack), there are no musical instruments on the premises. This is not that sort of studio. It’s more like the command center for Diplo Inc.
If you were going to draw an organizational flow chart of Diplo’s businesses, it would look like an M.C. Escher sketch. Everything is interdependent, looping in on itself. That animated series he’s developing with the Fox network? It’s based on a cartoon Rasta superhero that Diplo created as a fictional frontman of his electronic-music project, Major Lazer, which is signed to his own label, Mad Decent. “Think of it as Milton Bradley,” says Kevin Kusatsu, who’s been running the business side of Mad Decent and Diplo’s other endeavors for eight years. “There are a bunch of games within the portfolio of Milton Bradley. There are strategy games, puzzle games, adventure games, and so forth.” Same with Diplo. “There’s the recorded-music division, where he finds artists and puts out his own music. There’s the live-performance division, with the Mad Decent Block Parties. There’s Diplo’s deejaying shows, which are their own entity . . .”
Diplo credits Kusatsu, who worked at Warner Bros. before helping launch Mad Decent, with a large chunk of its success. Before the two met, “I had no organization in my life,” the DJ says. “I was trying to build things, but I didn’t know how. Kevin’s the guy who said, ‘Let’s turn this into a business, let’s pay taxes.’ Literally, that was the first time I paid taxes. I was 28.” Kusatsu sees his relationship with Diplo as more symbiotic. “He’ll have a wacky idea,” Kusatsu says, “and I’ll try to figure out a reasonable way to execute it and make it part of the overarching business that has become Diplo.”
Of course, the success of Hungry Hungry Hippos never depended on Milton flying to Burning Man or modeling men’s fashion. All of Diplo’s businesses rely on the continued coolness of the man at the center of it all. If his hipster divining rod ever goes haywire, the model collapses. “You know,” says Kusatsu, “a lot of our success has been an accident. Diplo never walks into a situation and says, ‘This is a home run.’ He never says, ‘This is going to be a smash.’ He walks in and goes, ‘This has to be the best possible thing it can be.’ That’s how we’ve always operated.”
Where Diplo’s cultural sixth sense will lead him next is anybody’s guess, including Diplo’s. “We try to stay in our lane,” he says. “We veer to the right and left, with film ideas and whatnot, but only if it works for us. Every day is a new crazy thing happening. I never let anything catch up to me to the point where I understand fully what I’m doing. I haven’t really sat back and thought about how insane it is. Maybe in five years I’ll figure out that, Hey, that was a really big deal working with Madonna or going to Wembley Stadium with Usher . . .”
Right now, he has other priorities. In a couple of hours, he’ll catch a flight to Texas for the Austin City Limits festival, where he’ll spin records for yet another crowd of thousands. Then he’ll zip back to Las Vegas for a show at the Wynn (where he has a DJ residency), then down to San Jose for a performance at the SAP Center, followed by Vegas again, and Miami, then a week in Australia, and–finally–he’ll finish up 2014 with a New Year’s Eve show with Skrillex at Madison Square Garden in New York.
“I don’t get much sleep,” he says, revealing one secret of his outrageous productivity. “I got about four hours last night. I’ll probably get four hours tomorrow night. But I’ll sleep more. Eventually.”
A compendium of his work, both in and out of the booth.
Diplo performed about 300 shows in 2014. According to musician-tracker site Songkick, he has traveled more than 1 million miles–or 40 times around the world–through touring alone.
In addition to 2004’s solo record, Florida, he’s released dozens of mixtapes and compilation albums. His side project, a music (and art) endeavor called Major Lazer, combines his beats with the vocals of Jamaica’s dancehall superstars and has featured voice work from Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, Bruno Mars, and Big Sean.
Recently, Diplo worked on tracks for Madonna, Jessie J, and Jennifer Lopez. Previous collaborators have included Justin Bieber, Usher, Robyn, Britney Spears, Snoop Lion, and Beyoncé.
Mad Decent, the label Diplo launched in Philadelphia in 2005 and now operates out of L.A., has a large roster of artists, including “Turn Down for What” artist DJ Snake, ”Harlem Shake” creator Baauer, and festival favorite Dillon Francis. The company’s rowdy Mad Decent Block Party tour hit more than 20 cities this year and now includes a boat party.
Diplo cowrote and produced M.I.A.’s Grammy-nominated summer jam “Paper Planes” in 2007, and Lorde tapped him earlier this year to create an original song for the Hunger Games: Mockingjay–Part 1 soundtrack that she curated. Last summer, he and dubstep DJ Skrillex created an electronic-dance-music duo called Jack Ü, which will perform at New York’s Madison Square Garden on New Year’s Eve.
Last summer, Diplo hosted VH1 and Questlove’s Soundclash, which brought seemingly disparate musicians together for live performances. Meanwhile, Diplo’s Major Lazer character, a futuristic Jamaican soldier fighting a shadow government, will get his own animated show, set to premiere on Fox in 2015.
He wrote and directed Favela on Blast, a 2008 doc about the Brazilian electronic-music scene, and produced a series about New Orleans bounce-music for the now-defunct Current TV network.
After decamping for L.A., he rented out his studio, The Mausoleum, to a fellow Philadelphian. It’s now a fine-arts gallery known as the Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art.
Every week, he hosts Diplo & Friends on BBC 1/1Xtra, where he invites musicians to craft mixes and discuss the biz.
Heaps Decent, the Sydney-based arts organization Diplo cofounded in 2007, offers workshops and programs to support disadvantaged youth, emerging artists, and Australian music.
Diplo teamed with photographer Shaun McCauley on 128 Beats Per Minute, an image-driven story of his rise to international beatmaker, and Blow Your Head, a zine series that has been focusing on dancehall and New York nightlife.