Remember back when he had goofy-ass hair?
This interview has been in the works for a long time, and I finally got to do it on Saturday afternoon, when I dragged my hungover carcass over to the Tribeca Grand Hotel. Diplo was waiting in the lobby for a ride to pick him up and take him back to Philly. The previous night, Diplo had DJed at Studio B in Brooklyn at a showcase for his new label, Mad Decent. The two acts on Mad Decent, the baile funk trio Bonde do Role and the Baltimore club producer Blaqstarr, had performed earlier in the night. I’d been at the LCD Soundsystem show, so I missed all of Blaqstarr and most of Bonde do Role. But I did get there in time for about my billionth Diplo DJ set, which was as much fun as all the other ones I’ve witnessed, which is to say very. I’ve written critical things about Diplo and about the scene surrounding him in the past, including this somewhat ill-considered piece, which had led Diplo and a lot of his supporters to think that I had some sort of overriding vendetta against them. I’m not entirely sure how this happened, though; I’ve always considered myself something of a booster of Diplo and of the entire Hollertronix scene, and I’ve probably had three positives to say for every negative. A few of those negatives, though, came from something pretty ridiculous. I’d been a bit suspicious of what I saw as attempts to co-opt and exploit Baltimore club music, the mutant dance subgenre that comes from my hometown. After thinking on it for a while, though, I’ve decided that my position was pretty untenable. Club music isn’t really mine to protect, and even if it was, I get suspicious when anyone evokes the authenticity trope in something as by-definition inauthentic and hybridized as pop music. And anyway, Spank Rock might make club-influenced music, but they don’t make club music, and their stuff became a whole lot easier for me to enjoy once I started letting all that go. Diplo emailed me a while after I wrote that piece, and we’ve been trying to set up a face-to-face conversation since then. This interview was, among other things, a chance to clear the air with Diplo and to talk about all the ways in which internet shitstorms develop. The interview is a bit chaotic; Diplo was sitting with Blaqstarr and the 16-year-old rapper/singer Rye Rye, and he was also fielding calls on two different cell phones, so the conversation gets a bit disjointed at times, but we still got to get into some interesting territory.
So you’ve read my stuff before, right?
Yeah. You hate me.
No, I don’t. I really don’t. I like you. Why do you think I hate you?
I didn’t really know your stuff. Have you always been writing for the Village Voice?
You’ve been writing for Pitchfork as well?
Yeah, I write for Pitchfork too.
Did you review Bonde do Role’s 12″ back then?
I might’ve done a single review. [Edit: turns out I did.]
Someone said it was bad Portuguese or something. Maybe it was you. So you gave that a bad review, and then you did the Low Budget thing.
Yeah, I did that.
Which was cool, but we’re all family, so everybody was really mad at you, and I was like, “Well, I’m mad, too.” And it was a thing about me, but you put Low Budget in there, and that’s our family, me and Naeem and all them guys. We were all mad.
Honestly, when I wrote that Friends of Diplo thing, I was in a really bad mood, and I was thinking about the whole Gutta Music thing and why it bothered me.
Yeah, but you know how distanced we all are from that now, right? Like, you understand that? I don’t want to do an expose about the whole thing, but nobody was into that. I had nothing to do with that mixtape; even Low Budget didn’t say [Aaron LaCrate] could use the Hollertronix name.
I’ve actually been thinking about this a lot, and I approached the whole thing in a really bad way to start out with, so I apologize for that. And I still haven’t heard the fucking Gutta Music mixtape, but I’ve heard a bunch of LaCrate’s shit since then. I was thinking that I didn’t like it because it was fake Baltimore club. And now I think I just don’t like it because it sounds like ass; I don’t really care about the whole fake club thing. There’s a ton of people out on the internet saying that I shouldn’t be writing about rap, I don’t know shit about it, I don’t have credentials and all. And me getting mad at Spank Rock like that…
I think you’re too involved in it because we actually know each other. You’re from Baltimore. The connection’s not just from music journalism; it’s a little bit too close to home now. A lot of rock journalists that do hip-hop get criticized. It’s all the same thing. It’s all white guilt or whatever. I get it times a hundred since I started doing this stuff. I did an interview with Philadelphia Weekly with my friend Joe, who does the What’s Up section of Philadelphia Weekly, and we talked about this and I said it clear. I’ll send you the link to it because I don’t want to repeat the stuff I said in there. I always want to have a discussion. Since we first came out with Hollertronix, I always wanted to keep it out on the table. I know exactly what I’m doing. I know exactly what it affects. I’m involved in the music industry now; I make a living. I make music and release music now. I take full responsibility for everything that I do; I just think that it’s important. As long as someone realizes what they’re doing and has a conscience… it’s difficult, man. It goes really deep. [Blaqstarr comes over to show Diplo something on his laptop.] This is Blaqstarr. He played last night, and it was a really good show. You missed it, though, man. He does shows all the time. He plays for this new kind of crowd in Baltimore. It’s totally a whole different scene, what he does there. On the EPK, you can kind of see it. The music he makes is really weird. It’s pretty uncommercial stuff. Those kids all wear All-Stars and listen to Nirvana and stuff. It’s real grassroots. I really like what’s happening there. There’s kids like him who work really hard at creating this image of being rock stars and having this pride in what they do, being really proud and really arrogant and at the same time making something really progressive. Like, this dude has the craziest falsetto voice, and I think he’s a real prodigy, but he works hard. They’re not into promoting how gutter they are and how ghetto and drug-oriented Baltimore is. They’re really proud of who they are as musicians, and I think it shows. I think there’s a lot of emotion because it is kind of weird that this kind of music has become popular so instantly and no one knows where the credit is due. People feel that they’re getting taken advantage of.
But it’s still not really popular.
It’s not. But we have the internet, and we have this false sense of what’s happening. [Diplo fields a phone call.] Yeah, it was kind of messy last night. I was real drunk, but it was a really cool show. I was super-excited. It was the first jumpoff for everything, the label and stuff. [Blaqstarr] performed, and people kind of got it, but it was maybe too much for people. People didn’t know how to take it. But Rye Rye was sick, and “Superstar,” people knew the lyrics, and it hit hard. I was just super-excited to see it come together. We went all night long; it was cool. I’m surprised at how well Bonde do Role has been accepted, too; they’ve made their mark as well. It’s kind of crazy; I work with them, and they get hated on, too.
I just don’t like baile funk that much.
Yeah, I think it’s an acquired taste. But for what it is, what I took out of the scene from the beginning — kids screaming, weird samples, heavy distorted bass — they’re just that. They sampled Alice in Chains. They’re exactly what I liked about it in the first place, and I think they represent that. They don’t make any lies about where they’re from or what they do either, and I think they do a good show and that they’re fun. They have their own culture around them, too. They had a really great show in Philly. They’re doing like 400 kids in cities like Jacksonville. But yeah, no hard feelings about any of that. I just feel like the internet gives a false sense about what’s really happening.
That’s part of the reason I wanted to talk to you. I actually really like your stuff, but I also feel that some of your fans and friends, some of them do not take any criticism well at all if anyone has anything bad to say.
Nobody likes criticism. Amanda Blank, who I really like and I’d like to help her develop her style, she’s not making so much music because I think she’s afraid to fail. It’s hard, man. It breaks my heart every time I read a bad review of what I do. People say what I do is either false or taking advantage of people. It breaks my heart because nobody wants to hear that. I make music; it’s my life. I make music, and I’m an artist. It’s sensitive. I’m putting my heart on my shoulder when I make music, and I’m really giving people everything. People that don’t make music that are on the internet criticizing what I do, I do get mad because they don’t understand what it is to be an artist and to put stuff out. Just to be a DJ is one thing, but to actually produce music and put out your product is another thing.
Well, I think there’s a difference between message-board chatter and music criticism.
Yeah, but you also walk a thin line with that because your Village Voice blog is also kind of like a message board.
I don’t like to think it is.
But it is kind of call-and-response. It’s a discourse, at least. But when kids don’t really come with it seriously and take into account what’s going on, it’s stupid. Having white kids talk about race in the internet is the dumbest thing in the world. It’s the most overdone use of energy you could have.
It’s funny, though, because indie-rap people get mad at me. They get really mad.
What do you mean by indie-rap?
Oh, you know, like Roots fans and stuff, El-P fans. They get really mad at me, but none of them ever publicly threaten to bank me. Your guys do. I know they’re not going to, and I’m not nervous about it, but they do it.
That’s funny. That’s pretty cool, though. I think it’s just a family. We all came up together, and we all got a certain sense of hate together. It’s a lot of animosity in the whole crew, too, even between me and all the other DJs from the beginning, like, “Why does Diplo think he can make a record and leave Philly and shit?” By this point, they’ve all reached a level where they’re making music and they’re artists and we all understand, we all feel like we have something special in Philadelphia. In retrospect, man, we really did. When I travel, I can be in Finland and see Plastic Little 45s. We’re not making the same music, but we all came from the same group of people, the same space. We all have the same beginnings. We have a scene that started from that whole urban thing manipulated. [Rye-Rye comes over to say something.]
So is there a scene that you’re involved in?
Well currently, me and Mike don’t throw parties no more, but there’s White T’s and White Belts, there’s Monster. What we did, there’s like five kids doing the same kind of thing. I’m not mad at those kids; they’ll say they came up through Hollertronix. But we don’t have to do the party, Hollertronix, anymore specifically. Everybody knows that that’s where it all came from.
Well, there’s a trend now in clubs generally. I remember when Never Scared came out, and for one thing it was the first time I heard anyone from outside Baltimore playing club music.
You were mad at that, too?
No, I was psyched.
We always had club music on the radio in Philly since the first time I arrived there. It was drive-time, and it was DJ Ran, and he’d totally be playing hardcore club stuff, like Scottie B stuff. I heard it in Philly, and I didn’t know it was from Baltimore; it was just called party music in Philly. It was a younger kids’ thing. When I was teaching school, it was an elementary school up at Logan and Broad, and those were the kids that would always be on baltimoreclubtracks.com, Technics’ site, like all day. When we had internet class, it was that or porno sites. And so I was like, “What the fuck is this?” I was fascinated with it. Doing the music I was doing, that I was interested in, I thought it was the most revolutionary thing.
Never Scared was, like, club music and Southern rap and synthpop, which were the only three kinds of music I really wanted to listen to when that came out. And that kind of mixing, that jumping between those things, do you think you guys were the first ones doing it?
Oh, definitely. What we did, there’s a few people like 2ManyDJs, I guess, that were doing something similar. But at the time we made Hollertronix, there was a girl named Lily, who was my girlfriend back in the day. And she had this party called Hi-Score. She was doing the 80s party, which was the jumpoff in Philly at a little small club. And I was a hip-hop DJ. Me and Mike were just DJing at black clubs. He DJed at, um, it changed its name like six times, but it’s on South and Broad; I forget what it was called. But clubs like Transit, the Palmer. We were hip-hop DJs, but we wanted to stray away from what we were doing. We loved hip-hop, but we hated being club DJs. And I loved her party. I loved the music, and I loved everything that was going on. I was like, “We can mix these records, and we can make money like they’re making money.” And we had our own party; we kind of started Hollertronix up that way. We kind of crossed over, and I think Philly was the only city where we could really bring out a crowd that wasn’t sponsored by an alcohol company or a magazine. We just put out fliers on little pieces of paper, and we had kids come out. That was like 2001, 2002. Our first party outside Philly was here at the Tribeca Grand, and that was right after the blackout in 2004. It was in the basement here, and we had this crazy line of kids that were coming, and people were excited. It was my first taste of leaving Philly to do a party. And like five years later, it’s nothing new. You go to a club, and it’s not like what I did last night at Studio B is any different than what other kids are doing except that I’m playing some music that I made. So I can’t be mad at it, but I think it didn’t enter the East Coast until we were doing that kind of stuff. It was just your cocaine rock parties, and then it was your black clubs, and there wasn’t much in between. There maybe were some small ones, but we took it to a bigger level, and we kind of created a style with it.
A lot of people are doing it now.
You’re going to hear club music. Every DJ in New York City has a fucking Baltimore club track and probably a baile funk track at this point. It’s not mysterious music anymore, and the kids know where to get it. And there’s a whole ethics, I think, of cross-cultural stuff. I also think it lends to black radio getting a little bit weird in the past five years. You know, you can hear a rock track in a black club, and you have groups like OutKast making one of the best rock tracks of the past twenty years. And look at Gwen Stefani. She’s a white girl who used to be in No Doubt, and she can get play on black radio, have one of the biggest urban hits two years ago.
So you think you had something to do with…
I had nothing to do with that, but I think it helped open the gates for us to do this kind of music. I don’t think we found a secret key. Music just changed in general. The underground wasn’t as exciting as what was going on on commercial radio; everyone can agree with that. But we did it from an underground style, a club style. We did it in extremes. But music culture has changed in the past five years.
Not everyone does this style well.
A lot of people do it terribly. But in retrospect, I’m glad Hollertronix came up. It had an influence. Like Spank Rock: Naeem will tell you that he definitely couldn’t have done what he did if it wasn’t for Hollertronix. He was on the dancefloor every night, and something happened. You can lend it all to what me and Mike did there. But me, I branched off to what I’m doing now with Mad Decent, trying to do something that’s not just bootlegs.
Do you have a specific intent for the label?
No. The first time Bonde do Role happened to be an idea; I felt like this could be a project I could take on. And it helped generate some money to do some other projects. We got a couple of bands. We got Blaqstarr. He’s a proper artist, and I feel like if we could find a face of club, this is the prodigy, the first artist.
I was having this conversation a few years ago, that club music needed a Lil Jon figure, someone who could make it tangible.
If you had actually seen his performance, you would’ve known. He’s got star quality, and he’s definitely that edge that you need. He’s a Brian Wilson of club music or something. He has his own ideas and his own techniques to what he does, and club music needed someone to push it out there. But he’s doing stuff that labels don’t want to touch. I’m lucky because I am a DJ so I get an idea of what can work. Because he played for a bunch of white kids last night. It wasn’t an all-white crowd, but it was a hell of a lot different than what it’s like at the Paradox. So I’m trying to figure out what’s the best way to communicate this kind of music to maybe not a larger audience but more than what he’s used to. Hollertronix used to be me and Mike; anybody can play those records in a weird back-and-forth, but we tried putting them into context so it’s not so weird. It felt like the mixtape moved well. If you looked at the track listing, it was like, “What the fuck is this?” Same thing with the baile funk stuff. I’m not trying to be weird and scare people, but to mix stuff at the right time, to drop the right song in; it’s what a DJ is supposed to be good at anyway. I guess I’m just trying to do that with the label. Last night, Rye Rye had to go out in front of all these white kids, and it was probably the biggest crowd she had rapped in front of, but she killed it. It wasn’t difficult for her.
It was jammed in there when we came in. I left at like four, and it thinned out a lot around then.
I should’ve left at four. I was like, “I’m in New York! ‘Method Man’!” I was playing Pete Rock and CL Smooth and, like, “Tennessee.”
Yeah, you did the middle-school dance segment. You did “Jump Around” and stuff.
But that’s after I did like two hours of straight madness, and I was like, “All right, I’m drunk.” No one left, so I was like, “Yeah, time to drop ‘Gangsta’s Paradise.'” Someone definitely should’ve told me to get off the turntables then. But it was really cool to see everybody come out and turn the show out. I’m just trying to make sense of it. A major label wouldn’t come to Baltimore and pick an artist like Blaqstarr; it’s just off the radar. But a middle-ground kid like me that’s already reaching people in clubs; that’s something realistic for me to do.
Are you trying to sign other people as well?
Yeah, I got South Rakkas Crew; I’m doing their next release. And it’s cool helping them. They obviously don’t fit in Jamaica. They might have a ceiling. They’re capable of getting a song on the Chinkuzi riddim, and that was getting played in Jamaica on the radio, but I think I’m helping to deliver them to an audience that reaches them, so I’m doing an EP with them. There’s a rock band I can’t speak about that I’m working with. I can’t speak about it, but it’s really amazing shit. Here and there I might do twelve-inches, like maybe a Blaqstarr and Diplo thing.
Are you going to do albums as well as twelve-inches?
Yeah, Bonde do Role has an album, but it’s going to be licensed to Majesty and Domino. Blaqstarr, I don’t know if he’s going to presentable in album form. The songs are minimal, and I think they contain on EPs. If we do three EPs, we might put them out on an album.