All glowed up with everywhere to go, Thomas Wesley Pentz is at least partly responsible for the globalisation of modern pop music culture. A few days short of his 40th birthday, Diplo slid into a hot tub to talk to us about his tracks, travels and the trajectory that got him here.
“You want a nipple?”
Asks the man born Thomas Wesley Pentz; known onstage as Diplo, and off- duty as Wes. He’s playing peek-a-pec with the faux fur Balenciaga coat he shrugged on over his bare chest; and is styled with red Givenchy tracksuit pants and rather slender Prada dad sneakers. He doesn’t break gaze with the camera as he works the look—Pentz knows what to do to get the shot. When he strode onto location at The Standard in West Hollywood for this photo shoot, he began with little preamble and immediately stripped down to try on the clothes, flexing in fashions sized for models far less, ahem, ‘swole’ than his own carefully looked-after physique. “That’s why I get less and less work done, because you have to work out more as you get older.”
When said work includes some 300 days a year of being on tour, it’s hard to imagine when and where one would cram in one’s reps. Or when you’d even have time to bathe for that matter. Our interview was supposed to be done after the shoot, but got bumped to the following day at his house due to a last-minute change in schedule. I guess for Diplo, sometimes all you can do is take meetings from your personal hot tub in lieu of having any hope for the time to take a shower.
Aside from the obvious comforts that his kind of success brings (like the outdoor, steep-sided wooden Japanese-style bath he soaks in for this interview), it doesn’t seem that life is all that different compared to what it was 10 years ago. He’s still roaming the globe, making friends, harnessing sounds, producing music and then playing the shit out of it at parties. He admits that life is definitely a lot easier now, at least. It’s been years since he slept in the back of a tiny car on tour, for one. Despite his insane schedule and what I can only imagine as pay cheques to match, he’s well aware that the cost of a flight across the States in a private jet could send one of his two kids to college for a year. And that the price tag on a blingy watch is equivalent to even more than that. He states emphatically and more than once throughout the interview, “I’m old,” as he floats around in his steaming ofuro. “I know not to invest in shit like that. I know to buy property and shit.”
At 40, Diplo is now the veritable dinosaur he named himself after in an industry that today sees 18-year-olds as past their best-before date. The opposite of a relic, Diplo is in high demand for his DJ sets, his production skills and his ability to catapult artists into a different space after they are featured on a Diplo record. Often described as having a ‘preternatural ability’ to forecast the musical climate, the fact of the matter is, his genre-breaking superpowers come from being out in the field, hands literally on deck to gauge what is needed to move dance floors all over the world. That is where big shifts in music have always originated: underground and on the streets. And that’s where you’ll find Diplo. He doesn’t just have his ‘finger on the pulse’. He knows what makes that pulse beat faster because he’s witnessed it the 300 days of the year that he’s on tour, conducting heaving crowds into a frenzy in the depths of Uganda to obscure parts of China, from the streets of Cuba to the hills of Los Angeles. So let’s just address all of those who have pegged his success to being a ‘cultural colonialist’ right here, and argue that perhaps those who do, are projecting their own guilt onto the great white male icon that is Diplo.
“I’m 40 years old. I’ve done a lot of cool things. I’ve been all over the world. But it’s not a very cool [to be a white guy]. It’s not in vogue. My narrative doesn’t fit to talk about different experiences and I have to understand that. I’m a smart guy, I know what I’m doing. I’m not going to try to change that, or take advantage of those things—as a white guy I don’t need them. I’m perfectly fine with who I am. I think that people a lot of times can distort it in a lot of ways. Which doesn’t help or benefit the rest of us.”
In an era where tweets can be deleted and entire Instagram grids can be archived, you’d best believe that someone, somewhere will be sitting on the damn receipts. As the first DJ on Twitter, @diplo used to say a lot of shit. These days, that shit is kept to a (verified) fake Twitter account (which Pentz supplies that, “Someone else writes, so I’m like, I didn’t do that. I don’t write all that stuff… I write maybe some of it,” he laughingly accedes. And at his level of cultural Inception, it is actually a really funny Twitter account, in that deliciously shady way Twitter can occasionally be).
Though, on the other hand: “Instagram is hard for me. I try to stay away from it as much as possible now. I think Kanye made a really good point—he said something I like: the culture of likes, and the culture of activity on your Instagram and what you get really affects people.”
Pentz tries to keep away from all of that now on social media, and admits to struggling with it as a potently destructive part of modern life. But at the same time, as an artist, his public must be served.
“I feel like we lose a lot of what it means to have self-assurance in what you’re doing and who you are, because we’re relying on the feedback of the people who could find you. It’s crazy because it’s all algorithms anyway, so you’re not even getting in touch with the fans, it’s whatever is happening at that moment in that culture.”
Pentz is an avid watcher of the data. He counts the streams his records rack up and the views his videos get. But make no mistake. What he does is not ‘predicting culture’. Pentz is one of those forces that in fact moves culture through music with the sheer force of his own will and with an earnest love for music. And if he is starting to tire of hearing and playing the EDM that perhaps some of you might know him best for, then it’s time for another project to drop something, since he’ll have already been making whatever music best reflects his mood at that point in time. Like Silk City, his project with Mark Ronson.
“My sets are changing. They used to be aggressive and hardcore because that’s what the crowd wanted. But now I’m gravitating towards a deeper sound just because it’s a lot more fun for me to be there and deejay those songs. Silk City was my attempt to let people be introduced to house music a little bigger. So if that works out, then I’ll just keep doing that. I’m more excited about deejaying that kind of music anyway. It creates a better vibe when you’re playing what you like.”
It’s an ouroboros of a feedback cycle. One of his recent tours was around Africa, where he says Major Lazer played their best shows. What is happening there is a deeper, more complex emanation of the Diplo Effect that occurred in Brazilian baile funk. On closer inspection, Pentz now not only understands the current context of music and culture, but his own impact on it and what he can do within that.
“The people that were there [in Africa] at our shows, they grew up in this different world of the Internet. The new language around music has been created in the last five or six years. They’re much more aware. They know that YouTube and streaming services are our medium, that Major Lazer goes that way. We don’t go through labels and we don’t run through pop radio the way other people do. Which is crazy.”
And what about in America, then? “They just know Instagram… And their minds aren’t open anymore. They act like they are, but they’re not. They’re literally just these robots that dress in the same clothes, listening to the same bands, same hip- hop and top 10 records, and it kinda sucks.” As a result of Internet culture in America being a place where a few things influence everything, Diplo observes that it’s a very homogenous scene. So when counterculture becomes the said homogenous scene, how does an artist who built his career being a snotty, renegade culture-punk keep, well, being punk?
“My shows and parties are getting smaller a lot lately. I’m playing this secret show on Saturday, and I’m going to play new music from Major Lazer there, and I’m not gonna announce myself. I’m just gonna go there and play. That’s what I do now with Major Lazer. But with Silk City I’m just trying to figure out what the show is. This other project LSD, I love. I wish I could go on tour with that because it’s such cool music.” With LSD, Diplo teams up with the elusive yet ubiquitous Sia and equally brilliant British talent, Labrinth. He laments that it’s impossible to go on tour with Sia because “she doesn’t give a shit” about stuff like that. He’s clearly frustrated about it, but allows it because making music with Sia is “amazing” to him.
“I feel like we lose a lot of what it means to have self-assurance in what you’re doing and who you are, because we’re relying on the feedback of the people who could find you.”
“I’m just doing whatever I can to help add on to the culture. I know I’m not gonna be putting out gqom records from South Africa on a big scale. The world’s not ready for that… Maybe like in four years Beyoncé will sample it again or something, because you know, I don’t have the power to come out like that. I’m not a Kardashian.”
“I’m just a producer, a DJ, I don’t have a big platform. I just gotta find a vehicle to use whether it’s Dua Lipa for ‘Electricity’ or whoever is the next artist for Major Lazer that I’m using to put out a different style or sound. That’s the science to breaking music and styles now.”
And it’s true that that’s also just how people consume culture these days. There is no mass culture context any more. I don’t mention Taylor Swift (or beef ) because, well, I don’t, but he points her out to me anyway.
“It’s not easy for Taylor Swift or a big pop record to sell and go number one like it used to be. Big record labels used to have everything in pocket, and they knew how to make it happen.” Not anymore. He is very well aware that ‘making it’ often boils down to going viral with a meme in 2018. After all, Pentz gets the landscape of the music industry, and of culture at large. And his grasp of these is anthropological. Nuanced. He will also quietly drop anvils about his own impact on those very things—and rightfully so.
“Now, you have little memes and Drake still luckily finds a way every time. I don’t think he predicted ‘Kiki Do You Love Me’ was gonna be a dance, but it was just lucky. We had the same luck with ‘Harlem Shake’. Mad Decent had the first number one dance record in the history of Billboard with that record. So you have to find ways to learn and live with it, but I think just like building a culture around you as a person and your brand is important, you know. Halsey, Cardi B, Post Malone, they are so good at that. They just own that thing. So they’re developing something on the outside. On the inside, it’s just like this meme culture that are loops of the same shit all happening right now.”
He himself loops too, albeit in upward spirals. Before there was ‘Run The World’, there was ‘Pon De Floor’.
“I don’t mind being the stepping stone for other music. Like with Beyoncé, I’ve had a production credit on almost every record that she’s put out. Just because she always hits me up like, “What’s the next thing?”. Even with Lemonade, I had two records on there. I mean, I’m happy to work with Beyoncé, but now I just have the confidence to put out every record myself and take advantage of it, because when it’s not successful, it’s on me.” And when it is successful and it was done independently, then it means more coin clinking into his piggy bank.
Amongst many other things, 2018 sees Major Lazer releasing Major Lazer Essentials, a 10-year retrospective of important milestones from the project. Still in the hot tub, Pentz glides over to where his iPhone has been politely parked and starts to scroll through his Artist Spotify app, comparing and contrasting the rather unfathomable number of streams between his biggest, more recent hits, and the records that came out pre-streaming services. Like most modern people living in the age of information, he keeps an eye on these numbers. He’s just really proud that people love his records. With Major Lazer, he has a track—‘Lean On (ft MØ)’ by Major Lazer & DJ Snake—belonging to the elite company of 10 songs which have hit more than two billion views on YouTube. Songs from Major Lazer’s earliest years have only a teeny tiny fraction of streaming numbers, comparatively. And yet, Pents feels lucky that he can still play those tracks. He still likes them, after all.
“Say you’re like, Miley. I don’t think that you wanna play ‘Party In the USA’ when you’re 40 years old, you know? Or like, songs from her Disney era, or whatever it is. Maybe she does. Personally, I wouldn’t—and I love her, too—but there’s not a Major Lazer song out that I wasn’t proud of.”
“You can’t deny if music makes you feel a certain way—you can deny all the things around it, the periphery, whether you like this person or if this is even cool. You can’t deny good music.”
And depending on what point you caught the Diplo-wave, it’s highly likely that even fans don’t realise the breadth of his cultural significance in the Internet era. Even if you do, you’ll most likely have forgotten much of what he has had a hand in; because meme cycles are lightspeed, browser histories can be deleted and human memory is fickle.
Pentz recalls the time when the initially controversial ‘Where R U Now’ was a flop, when the Internet and particularly Skrillex fans were so offended by it (and Justin Bieber). He was in Ibiza, and some radio station was playing a ‘Hot Or Not’ game with the tracks of the moment. ‘Where R U Now’ got voted out as decidedly ‘Not’.
“And I was just like, well. Whatever. And then eventually it became number one. If people dismiss you for whatever political or social reasons, just make great music. I always think that’s above the pressure of having a hit song or working with the ‘cool’ people. You can’t deny if music makes you feel a certain way—you can deny all the things around it, the periphery, whether you like this person or if this is even cool. You can’t deny good music.”
He doesn’t care whether every one of his tracks becomes big or not, and he doesn’t mind being ahead of the times. His trajectory to date corroborates with this, but in the end, his relentless desire to make music means that one way or another, the majority of records he touches eventually finds some success. This is thanks in part to his savvy in gaming the system, and in another part, in being chill enough to move on whilst the rest of pop culture catches up with him and his back catalogue. But mostly it’s because he is consistently working, and is so prolific that he ensures people just cannot miss the music he is making.
With this, Diplo keeps pushing up the artists he works with, and himself along with them; whether it’s with yet another incarnation of a major international pop star like Usher or Madonna, or in a self-made remix of his own track as with ‘Light It Up’. He is constantly plucking regional artists like MØ (the Danish singer from ‘Lean On’,) and Pabllo Vittar (a Brazilian drag queen that Pentz made out with in her ‘Então Vai’ video) from relative obscurity, to levels where they’re nominated for awards and are able to put out crossovers into various territories with Diplo or Major Lazer branding and support to boot. Pentz easily transcends differences in cultural elements that many others regularly shrink from or mishandle.
“So many gay young artists were running sick shit too [in Brazil], it wasn’t controversial at all. That’s the favela way of life. They were way ahead of it as far as their social responsibility. In America now, we’re just having that moment. Frank Ocean is the closest one we have, but there hasn’t been a big gay pop star in America and it’s crazy.”
Making the move to LA has given him a front-row view of the day-to-day workings of the scene, and of how his peers are holding up. “I think a lot of DJs are stuck because they got a lot of buzz on this thing and got famous on this thing, and then the floor gets kinda empty for them. It’s really difficult for them to find their footing when the scene around them has grown up and changed.”
Pentz’s personal heroes in music are people who were able to mutate themselves and consequently the culture they were operating within. Artists like Bowie, Herbie Hancock, David Byrne and James Brown.
“You have to understand that you’re never going to please the same audiences. And you have to manoeuvre and find new audiences, maybe refresh the old ones, but that you always have to grow. I see these guys [DJs] and they’re in a drought, mentally. Because there’s a dip in what they’re doing; in who they are, because they were blowing up in a certain bubble. Our [Major Lazer] bubble didn’t burst, and we secured the bubble, in a way. So it’s just a fake bubble now. We’re living in this world where we do the Vegas residency and a lot of these DJs are doing their thing. I’ve always been lucky. I’ve been putting out more music that’s different from what I’ve done and it wasn’t on purpose, it’s just what I’ve always done. I’ve always been into every kind of music.”
His attitude towards creative expression is simple. There are no rules. For him, music has always been a place where all expression is free, no matter who you are.
“Make sure you don’t try to disrespect people, you have to have some sensitivity, but whatever your expression is, you are free to do whatever you want. That’s what the meaning of art is. I make whatever I want. And if you don’t like it, turn it off. But your sister is gonna listen to it.”
But what happens when even that dude’s sister isn’t listening to you anymore?
“I just keep making music. I don’t go away, I’m never scared for what I’m doing. I just love music. It’s always been my MO to make music and find people to make music with.” Pentz talks about the lessons he learned from his risk-averse father, who taught him concepts like having insurance. For someone who seems to be as fearless as Diplo, backing himself up is at the bottom of why he’s able to take crazy leaps where others fear to tread. “My dad always taught me to make sure I have a platform, so if I fall down, I can build up easier every time. And I use that in my musicality. Like, if this doesn’t work, make sure I have a publishing company as well, so I can work with young artists, young producers. So if I don’t tour anymore, I have these guys to help produce records. If I didn’t have that, I’d be a lot more afraid, you know. And I’m old too.”
He does intend to slow down to around 200 shows a year. He doesn’t like to do shows as much as he used to, in certain ways. Touring is hard. Especially since he’s been through the circuits in more markets than most artists could ever dream of. “China is really hard for me. They keep offering more money, but the shows are just so hard to do. The crowd’s great, but the smoking in the clubs, for example, gets me sick. So I go there and I’m in pain. And it’s things like that that will hopefully change. Or maybe it won’t.” Pentz, like most everyone, wants a piece of that China boom. “I’m doing shows in China because it’s important. We have this new album and China’s having the biggest moment now where they’re gravitating towards whatever is in their discourse. For a while, we had fans in China but they were very underground and they were just on the Internet and finding us their own way. Now you just have to be big in front of their faces and they will pay attention to you. I wanna be a part of it, but it’s hard.”
Not that he has ever let things like inaccessibility, socio-economics, international politics or language barriers stop him from doing what he does.
“When I was in Brazil in the favelas I had no problem with people. I didn’t speak Portuguese, but I knew how to speak to them about Acid Pro and Ableton Live. I knew how to talk to them about every programme they were doing music with. So I communicated with every DJ and they treated me like a producer friend of theirs.”
The language of music is something that he wants his two boys to learn; who are themselves, multiracial and multicultural. He’s taking them trick or treating later that night, and is still working out his costume for the evening. “You’ll see it later on my Instagram. I’m just so lucky to have so many awesome people around them. Their mom is so dope and their lola [grandmother in Tagalog] lives with them. They have a great life here in LA; they’re so creative and I’m just so lucky to have the freedom for them to do whatever they want. My older son is a really sensitive kid, they’re both just smart kids. They can go be ballerinas or airline pilots. I don’t care what their career is or whatever. I just want their minds to be great.”
For most regular folk, kids are the most obvious and easiest path to immortality. Pentz is self-aware to the point of engineering and then profiting off of being in on his own joke; successfully turning it into even more cultural cachet. The fear of being irrelevant is real, though.
“I remember I was in LA with this guy, Spank Rock—who is someone from my school days—and he and Amanda Blank used to always diss the Black Eyed Peas. So we went to this party and Will.i.am was there and said to Spank Rock, “Yo, I like what you do, I just want you to know man, that what you guys are doing is cool, but make sure you know what you’re saying cause someday people are gonna say the same thing about you.” Spank Rock is the guy who never really lived to see that happen. You gotta remember that because there’s always gonna be some guy underneath you who’s like, “That guy is washed up.” So. If I can just live long enough not to be the enemy, I’ll be happy.”
Photographer assisted by Xin Wang and L Luo.
Shot on location at The Standard, West Hollywood. Special thanks to The Standard, West Hollywood.
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