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When Diplo and Switch, two of dance music’s most recognizable names, joined forces as Major Lazer, they knew they could do whatever they wanted. As the respective heads of Mad Decent and Dubsided Records, they had no trouble convincing friends and associates–legendary toasters, shit-hot rappers, and fast-rising dance music producers–to work with them. Downtown Records CEO Josh Deutsch agreed to distribute the record before they’d even recorded a note. And the public? Even the most jaded hack blogger wouldn’t delete a press release bearing both their names–and a couple of them most definitely wet their pants.
But when Diplo and Switch arrived in Jamaica to record their Major Lazer debut, the kooky, dancehall-oriented Guns Don’t Kill People…Lazers Do, something was off. “Nobody knew who we were,” Dave Taylor a/k/a Switch, says, laughing. Though this relative anonymity had its advantages–nobody saw the point in leaking their album early, for example–it also helped to ground one of the strangest, most anticipated dance albums of the year. Major Lazer plays S.O.B.’s this Saturday night (doors at midnight), so we recently got “producer-slash-DJ” Switch on the phone from Los Angeles to discuss his love for dancehall, musical colonialism, and Andy Milonakis.
I had no idea you were into dancehall.
I’ve been listening to it since I was 10 or 11. The last three or four years, people like Steve McGregor, all these people that are doing beats that stand up in the hip-hop world, d’you know what I mean? The new stuff that is coming out of Jamaica, the stuff that’s getting played in the clubs and at the raves, that’s what inspired me and Wes [Pentz a/k/a Diplo] to really make this record, for this new generation of people who are doing dancehall, but with newer technology out in Jamaica. That was kind of the concept of the album: go and kind soak up all the newer, crazier styles of dancehall, the stuff that these new, punked out kids are listening to in clubs. That’s what we’re looking forward to developing a little more, as time goes on. But yeah, the record is not: “Okay, we’re done!” The next thing is, we want to develop it. We want to showcase Jamaican music, give it some exposure. It influences a lot of western music, without people knowing it.
Originally you two wanted to make a double album, one CD of straight-up dancehall and the other being more like what Guns Don’t Kill People wound up being–a dancehall-inflected Diplo and Switch pop album. Did you actually wind up making the first CD? Is it just sitting on a hard drive somewhere?
It developed more into an amalgamation of both. Once we got into mixing and actually doing the final production, the songs developed a lot from where they were when we recorded them in Jamaica. But the idea of the second CD and the first CD just molded into one thing, which makes the album a bit more palatable.
The two of you took this idea of making a legit piece of dancehall very seriously. The first date of your tour is in Kingston! What do you think the reception’s going to be like? You essentially began this project as outsiders, without the recognition you have in America, Europe, and Australia. Do you feel like you won some support while there?
Yeah, totally. We didn’t know how productive it was going to be, whether we would be able to hold people’s attention down there. Because nobody knew who we were. But once we got into it and people started actually hearing the music, it was a bit reassuring. People seemed to like it, and it was different from the normal work than the artists were getting. But it was on the cards from the get-go, that we wanted this album to stand up in Jamaica. The thing is, we’re not planning to do one album and then disappear off the face of the earth. We’re looking to develop some of the talent that we’re finding in Jamaica. That’s why we want to do that first show in Jamaica. Because no one’s given dancehall a fair listen, outside of Jamaica.
I know Diplo’s spent time down in Kingston, but had you been there before?
I’ve been there a couple times. Once to do music, and once to do research, buy records and stuff. But I went out there to work with Ms. Thing three or four years ago, and since then me and Wes have discussed wanting to work there. There’s so much fucking talent down there. Me and Wes were saying that even if we don’t get the people that are on our wish list, we can find talent just on the street in Kingston. So we knew [when we went down there] we were going to come back with something.
There must be something pretty intense going on down there if you were that confident.
If you’re a music person, if you’re really into music, seriously, the music blew me away the first time I went. Music is such a part of their heritage. It’s inherent in their upbringing, it represents childhood, culture, politics, badmen, it represents sex, it represents dance. Sometimes there’ll be four generations of people making music together. And if they’re not into music history, they’re all music fans. You can be traveling down some crazy back road for an hour, and then suddenly you’ll round a corner and there’ll be a three-piece band jamming or a soundsystem going, a ton of people hanging out on the corner. It’s pretty insane. It really kind of opened up my head the first time I went, and every time I’ve been back since, it’s just reinforced that. It’s an amazing place, musically.
Tell me about working with Diplo. You two have been working in the same circles for a while now, working with the same artists…
This is the first time we’ve gone specifically out of our way to write stuff together.
What was the balance of power like? Was one of you in the driver’s seat the whole time?
The thing is, the balance between me and Wes is…He’s kind of a DJ-slash-producer, and I’m more of a producer-slash-DJ, know what I mean? The balance kind of works out.
So it’s not like a Basement Jaxx thing where one person has hooks, and the other’s handling mixing and arrangements and sound?
It works both ways. One time, it’ll be that one of us has a hook idea, and the other will come up with a beat, or the other way around. There’s no real one system that works.
On a few tracks, there are co-production credits by people like Crookers and Afrojack. What, specifically, do they bring to the table on these tracks? Is it mixing? Is it a hook?
We tried to collaborate on stuff with a lot of our friends, people doing similar things as me and Wes. The Crookers thing was us sending them a vocal idea we’d put together, and they came back with a synth line and the outline of a drum, and me and Wes took it, played with it, added stuff, took out stuff we didn’t like. Again, it’s just people pitching in, trying to get the songs together. I’m working on the Crookers’ album at the moment, so that was an easy way to have them involved. It was a similar sort of thing with Jack Beats. Rusko did a track that didn’t quite make the album, which we’re going to use as a remix.
What about the vocalists? Did you have particular artists in mind for particular tracks, or did you just send lots of people lots of demos and let them record over the tracks they were most enthusiastic about?
In Jamaica, nobody really knew what we were about. People had heard of M.I.A., but as far as all the remixes and club stuff that me and Wes do, that stuff didn’t really carry any weight. So the first few vocalists that we had, they had more choice of the beats. But on the other side of that, we had records that we were holding back for particular artists, so it was a juggling act between the two.
We knew we wanted Vybz Kartel for “Pon De Floor.” His hook was more sort of club-orientated, a bit faster. And the beat that he’d originally done was kind of a rocking, uptempo thing. We knew that was a sign, so we took that one out of the equation. The other one that was like that was the Ms. Thing record. We wanted to do something more hip hop with that one–“When You Hear the Bassline” was kind of put to one side for Ms. Thing. I’d done a track with her three or four years ago, and this one had a very similar sort of vibe.
Tell me about working at [Bob Marley’s famed] Tuff Gong. Or, more specifically, the experience of making your first dancehall record in a place like that.
It definitely kind of intimidated us a little bit. Especially when you walk in, and they’ve got the gold discs on the wall, and photographs from the 70’s when the Marley family was big in the game. But it also was pretty inspiring, y’know? Like, “Okay cool. Let’s make sure we get this right!” [laughs] It was really cool. The place is amazing! It’s got a pressing plant out the back, with a little record shop, and we’d go hang out there during our downtime. There was a lot of artists just in and around, we found Jimmy Lickshot at a burger van just 20 yards down the road. Literally, just going to get a burger, and here’s this famous artist who used to do all the lick shots on all the records from the 70’s and 80’s.
On the subject of getting it right, were there things you were wary of, going in? Things you didn’t want to happen to this album?
I think that’s the cool thing about me and Wes. We’re both fairly musically open-minded. We wanted it to represent everything we that we get from dancehall. That’s why we included the super-slack track with Einstein. That’s a big part of their culture. And, like, the badman thing, that track with Jovi? He’s calling out criminals that abuse children and shit like that. We weren’t like, “Okay, let’s go down and make 12 radio records that we can plug,” y’know? We wanted to approach it in a way that, y’know, kept the integrity of what we like about dancehall, and give it a go.
In the past, Diplo has had to deal with critics accusing him of a kind of musical colonialism, going out and exploiting or stealing other people’s cultures and music. Do you foresee that happening with this record?
I dunno. To me, that’s kinda lazy journalism, d’you know what I mean? Diplo’s a DJ. All he’s doing is exposing the music, bringing it to a different platform, and that’s what we’re trying to do here. We’re not trying to steal anything from anybody, we’re just want to bring it to a bigger audience. It does more good for lesser-known forms of music than it does harm. Take what he’s done for Brazilians and baile funk. He’s given exposure to all those producers and brought their music to people who normally wouldn’t get to hear it.
Final things now: all the Major Lazer footage available on YouTube shows Diplo doing all the work on stage. Are you just going to be the hypeman on tour?
[laughs] Not exactly. The set we put together, the South by Southwest show, was more testing the ground. We’re going to have a more incorporated set when we go on tour, where we’re both pitching in. We’re going to be doing live, new versions of our tracks on the fly and mixing it into what we normally do as DJs.
Are you going to hire a big bodybuilder or something to play Major Lazer on stage?
[laughs] We actually wanted to bring Skerrit Bwoy, but he’s kind of involved in this whole daggering movement that our sponsors didn’t feel was very suitable for our tour. But we’re going to bring Klash with us, and he’s going to be our hypeman. There’s going to be a bunch of us on stage, doing the usual, handing out CDs and T-shirts and sponge laser beam arms and shit. [laughs] As long as everybody has fun…
Well, better Klash than Andy Milonakis, I guess…
Oh no, Andy’s coming along with us as well!