For two superstars orbiting the booming DJ / producer / dance music universe, Diplo and Skrillex are surprisingly down-to-earth. I know this for a fact, because I worked with them through years of live shows in Las Vegas, at the heart of the great American EDM explosion of 2010 to 2014.
Diplo and Skrillex are a huge attraction at nightclubs and music festivals, doing hundreds of events a year around the globe — the duo headlined Madison Square Garden last New Year’s Eve. They’re constantly developing new music with a dazzling array of co-stars and styles. Both appear on Forbes’ list of The World’s Highest-Paid DJs with annual earnings estimated north of $15 million each.
But they carry themselves with a low-key vibe, as if all the success is no big deal. Show after show, week after week, they are approachable and cool — putting their time and energy into strong performances, then patiently taking photos with fans, eating with the crew, and generally moving through life with a smile — not the prima donna trappings found with some of their famous EDM counterparts.
Before they came together as the genre-defying party monsters called Jack Ü, Wesley Pentz and Sonny Moore built followings organically, taking deep journeys through diverse music subcultures, absorbing ideas and sounds, growing stronger and savvier as their output accumulated. Both are prime examples of the most efficient business model the music industry has ever seen, but you wouldn’t know it from meeting them. Dressed down and friendly, they are multi-tasking music machines who oversee small empires, operating as producers, DJs, songwriters, artists and label owners (Diplo is the point man for Mad Decent; Skrillex spearheads OWSLA).
When the mostly European “big room” EDM sound blazed through American pop music, these U.S.-born, blue collar stalwarts emerged as the counter-point to the formulaic glitz and V-necked button-pushers. Diplo and Skrillex (along with Kaskade and Steve Aoki, two more American titans of the DJ game) showed that hard work and innovation are the keys to forming longer-term connections with your fans.
The Jack Ü project represents the future step of an ongoing artistic evolution — the album is diverse by design, featuring collabs with Justin Beieber, 2 Chainz and Bunji Garlin. It’s loud, demanding your attention. But the guys behind it are too cool to force it on you.
Diplo was born in Florida and grew to prominence as a DJ in Philadelphia, before exploding as a producer and a champion of underground sounds from Brazil and Jamaica. Without a defining hit single or an easy-to-identify style (to the contrary, by defiantly embracing many styles) Diplo became an icon of hipness, working with a startling array of genres and stars, including Madonna, Beyonce, Usher, and his own electro-reggae outfit Major Lazer. Along the way Diplo became a sex symbol (he dated Katy Perry last year) and a lightning rod for social media chatter, where his offbeat sense of humor and intentionally silly, postliterate text often raises eyebrows.
A decade younger, Skrillex was born in Los Angeles and immersed himself in the hardcore scene as lead signer for the band From First to Last. A natural musician, Skrillex soaked up styles, mastering multiple instruments and production techniques; he emerged as a solo artist in 2010 with a fully-formed, ear-shattering sound that catapulted him to fame. Skrillex has won six Grammys but remains honest and real, recently confessing his personal struggles with an adoptive childhood to Howard Stern, before making self-deprecating jokes about his (often cited) resemblance to 80s film actor Corey Feldman.
Lucky to be in Las Vegas, in the studio — the ideal location to watch the Jack Ü collaboration take shape — I was endlessly impressed by the duo’s passion for music. Beyond the futuristic beats and bleeps that reverberate from their own work, they’re into all kinds of rock, rap, pop, house, trap, twerk and other styles. It’s a pleasure to explore the side streets of their musical tastes, dissecting the Clash and Biggie, Minor Threat and Kraftwerk, or next-wave producers whose genius they’re the first to recognize.
What’s very apparent is the bond these two have — brought together by mutual respect, a low-key approach to fame, their shared status as insider/outsiders, and by their complementary talents. “His production value is the highest,” Diplo says of Skrillex, “And I think that my creative concepts are one of the highest out there. So, together, that is what Jack Ü is trying to be — production value at 100 and creative ideas at 100.”
A couple weeks ago, Jack Ü launched their debut album with a 24-hour DJ set streamed live on Twitch. Working from behind the decks at an understated, undisclosed Los Angeles apartment that gradually filled to capacity, the dynamic duo appeared upbeat and ready for the marathon challenge. With a few DJ friends like Dillon Francis in the mix, they traded off sets that, as per usual, featured a wide variety of sounds, from the Doors (who Skrillex collaborated with) to classic hip-hop, to their own soon-to-be-released trap bangers. The broadcast was eminently watchable and very entertaining; while the technology involved was nothing new, the content felt fresh and cutting-edge, with two very likable DJs as the hosts. It was a fantastic way to launch an album, and the record promptly debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Dance/Electronic Albums chart.
About 18 hours into the party, the LAPD rolled in and shut down the proceedings. Forever friendly, Skrillex grabbed the mic and thanked the police for allowing the event to continue as long as it did. Before signing off, he politely admonished a fan nearby: “Put the cell phones down tho, jeez man. Live in the moment…”
A couple months prior to that launch event, Diplo and Skrillex were inside The Studio at Wynn Las Vegas, a private sound sanctuary beneath Encore Beach Club, putting final touches on some of the music that would comprise the Jack Ü album. It was there that I spoke with them at length — initially with Diplo alone, and then with Skrillex joining in. In the midst of non-stop production and frenetic touring, they opened up about the music and ideas that motivate them. Wes drops gems in a wide-ranging conversation, including: being the first DJ hipsters; his roots as a vinyl hustler, selling samples to Questlove and Kanye West; his time as a teacher in an underprivileged school in Philly; and the impact his music is having in Vegas and around the world.
I often say: everyone wants to be successful, everyone wants to make money, but the real measure of a man is how he acts when he’s made it. By this standard, Diplo and Skrillex stand tall as genuine knights in a kingdom of self-gratification.
Below is an abridged (but still hella long) version of our conversation; you can listen by clicking ‘Play’ on the SoundCloud embed below.
Shecky: So I had the pleasure of joining you for three or four dates for the Mad Decent Block Party. It’s really pretty incredible. The Philly show had over 10,000 people. The New York show, I think, had over 16 or 17,000. You’ve obviously tapped into something.
Diplo: We have done New York now for four years and it just keeps getting bigger, but Philly has been going on for six or seven years — I think people just keep coming back for the party because it’s a lot of word of mouth in that city. We have done it for so long and we have done it in the streets. I was looking back at the old parties when we had, like our friends and the style alone was so different. The kids were like normal and they went out for a weekend, they went to see us play locally in our neighborhood. Now the kids, like the younger kids, raver kids, black kids, white kids, it’s crazy how the crowd grew and it just kind of morphed in what it is now. But the Philly one’s been going for so long, it is definitely a vibe and a culture that we kind of put in the city…
What strikes somebody is the diversity of the crowd — there’s people from different ethnicities, different ages, different genres of music, different styles, especially the Philly and New York shows. There was a lot of hip-hop around…
Diplo: Yeah, we had French Montana come on and do a set, Kiesza came out with me and performed her big hit “Hideaway,” Flosstradamus, Dillon Francis, the whole crew as well.
So that’s a big part of what I think Mad Decent is and I think what you are as an artist and a producer — being diverse. Is that what you want your identity to be, as someone that is kind of not hemmed into any one genre?
Diplo: I think Mad Decent has always been about us curating cool music and new stuff. We’re an old label for this world, you know? We’re almost 10 years old now. That’s like 30 years in record label days, you know? And I think we’ve always been a place where the cutting edge stuff happens. You know our first releases were DJ Blaqstar and Bonde do Rolê and records that seem pretty tame now, but at the time they were very unusual. Hardcore stuff.
I want to go back to that era for a moment. When you were in Philly, which is also my hometown, we kind of both drank from the same water if you will.
Diplo: Yeah. Water ice, Rita’s. Shout out Rita’s Water Ice.
Yeah that was the best, the watermelon.
Diplo: When did you leave Philly?
I haven’t lived in Philly since the 80s, but I would visit a lot. So Hollertronix kicked off and you started doing sort of a “mash up” type thing, for lack of a better word. What was your motivation at that time?
Diplo: When we started Hollertronix like 10 years ago, maybe even longer, 11, 12 years ago—we were just DJs. Me and Low Budget were just DJs in the same crew. We were young guys coming up in the city that was very divisive. You had a rock and roll scene, there was a DJ scene in fact. And there was a house scene — which I didn’t even know what was going on — there was a black house scene and a white house scene. There was like Vikter Duplaix, King Britt and they kind of mixed in with the hip-hop/neo-soul scene, which is Roots Crew, Floetry, the kind of stuff that happened at the [venue] 5 Spot. And then there was a ghetto scene, just like everything from Beanie Seigel rap music to Jersey/Philly club, Baltimore club, to just hood rap music. Those scenes didn’t mix. And me and Low Budget, I think we kind of were the precursor to like what hipsters are, which is people who are just into cool things. Not any particular genre, you can’t mark them as being from a certain space or community. And we were just mixing everything together at the time, and it’s weird I mean, hipsters didn’t exist back then.
People dress in the clothes they wore to work and then they go out to party. It’s unheard of now, what we did was so cutting edge then. It really was weird, and we were like racking up the shows and doing all kinds of crazy shit because we were in demand for mixing in a hip-hop style — rock and indie and dance records of the time. And that seems so boring now. If you think about it, like it’s just average.
Did you find that you were attracting those diverse crowds?
Diplo: Oh yeah. Philly for sure. When we rented out halls, community halls, and we did parties where you would have the art kids come, fashion kids, kids that are just were from the neighborhood, our friends, people we just invited. And eventually a word of mouth happened and these people would come and they would hear a Radiohead song mixed with a David Banner record or Missy and then the Clash. We were just doing whatever we wanted. And we had like a certain style and we developed mixes that we loved and we started putting out bootlegs, and I think I learned production basically from that era, making those mixes on shitty programs like Acid. Nowadays you can do anything so quickly on the DAWs that you have, but back then we were using like Cool Edit Pro and Acid and pressing vinyl and selling mixtape CDs and making money that way.
You have a pretty deep history with vinyl. The word is that you were once a vinyl hustler of sorts, or a middleman kind of a thing?
Diplo: Yeah, I was definitely making my living for a little while by sleeping in a car and going to New Jersey and reselling records. The cool thing about Philly was we had crazy musical heritage. There wasn’t like cool collectors in Philly. We just had like the ‘hood, and I would go to people’s houses and clean out their basement, dig up their records, or I would go find old shops and offer a guy a $100 to go through his collections. Wake up at like six in the morning, drive to Quaker Flea Market across the Betsy Ross Bridge and just buy crates of stuff. And I would go to New York and I would sell it for a shitload of money!
Diplo: [Retail stores] Sound Library, A1. Those were the two big ones back then. They both closed down, I think. I would go to eBay and sell ‘em, or I would go to dealers, I would go to shows and meet people. Questlove bought some stuff from me, Kanye West bought records from me back in the day.
Diplo: I actually met him at a show and he just got my number… he did a drop for me once on mixtape. If you ever listen to the first AEIOU mixtape, which is a mixtape I did of rare groove stuff, Kanye does a drop for me. Like 10 years ago.
He was just a producer probably back then.
Diplo: Yeah, he was like, “Yo, Diplo has got the most old records I have ever seen in the world!” He says that in the mixtape.
So do you remember what records earned you the most money back then? Do you remember a kind of big score?
Diplo: There was one that was really good. It was Carl “Sherlock” Holmes, Investigation No. 1. It was like a rare, really rare soul/funk record from Philly that I found like three sealed copies. I used to steal from my library, at my university. They had like a really cool collection. I remember I would go there and find like all the psychedelic rock and the library records. Libraries had stuff that was made, copyright free music made by like Italian, mostly Italian people. 60s and 70s. Italian and English. And they would have like these sounds.
Like, the funkiest.
Diplo: And crazy, crazy stuff, and it was copyright free. You can sample it still today… you didn’t have to pay for it. When you buy those records, just like you buy Vengeance Loops now to put in dance music, and people sample those things too. You used to buy these library records and you would put them in your soundtrack of your gangster movie or your sci-fi movie or whatever. You used to just buy bulk of that stuff.
You were also working as a teacher, is that true?
Diplo: I did that, yeah. For a little while. It was an after-school program. If you are familiar with Philly, North Philly kind of ends at Hunting Park. It was by the Hunting Park stop and it was at 9th and Lindley, it was a school called Burney Elementary. And I just got a job there because of a friend, and we did afterschool programs. There’s a reissue of my album Florida coming out, and there is a video that comes with it. It’s a 30 minute long video of all these things that this guy found on footage, and there is footage of me in my class… Recording a song with these kids about Cheetos. It’s really funny, I have dreadlocks in the video. I was like 22 years old, 21 maybe. Pretty tight.
That’s crazy, I gotta check that out. Let’s listen to something from Florida, your first album. It’s called “Big Lost.”
Diplo: If you listen to this one record that just came out by Chris Brown called “X,” it was a song from Florida. A demo that I finished for him. I just found it and I finished it and he heard it and rapped over it.
So what genre is the Florida stuff?
Diplo: I call it lo-fi. It’s like trip-hop. Downtempo. Some club stuff. It was me learning how to make music. There’s a club record on there called “Diplo Rhythm” that was actually kind of big at the time in the clubs. I did it with Vybz Kartel and this girl named Sandra Melody, and even to this day if you go to see 2 Many DJs play, they play that song, it’s funny. They used to play it all the time on their sets and it got on a TV show, it got licensed. It was the first time I ever saw any money from music. It was Grey’s Anatomy.
You were quoted recently in an interview saying back in your high school days in Florida that everyone was into either Miami bass, reggae or heavy metal. Are those your musical roots as well?
Diplo: 100 percent. Heavy metal and mostly hardcore punk too. I love metal and I love pop music too and I love freestyle. Miami bass is a sort of the ghetto version of electro from Florida and freestyle was a sort of pop version of bass music and electro. And it came from either New Jersey and…
The Latin world of Miami and Jersey…
Diplo: Yeah anywhere where there was Latinos they made freestyle music in the 80s and 90s so… mostly New Jersey had a lot of it. I found a website recently of all Philly freestyle and I will forward it to you, you’ll love it, I just got it yesterday and I’m just downloading like zips of like all this music I never heard of.
Original electro music is an era that came around early hip-hop — it’s kind of disco related, it’s electronic, it’s Kraftwerk related.
Diplo: Definitely Kraftwerk. I think, when people were playing disco records, some of the Kraftwerk records slipped in as party records. And I think a lot of the black community in New York gravitated towards Kraftwerk, I have no idea why… But they played some of the records and they flipped ‘em and remixed ‘em. I have this amazing story that… I was also a writer for a little while, and I wrote for The Fader magazine one issue. I actually wrote a cover story about hip-hop in Atlanta seven years ago. But I wrote an article for them about Kraftwerk when they released their live DVD, and I interviewed Florian. And I was like, “Tell me about meeting Bambaataa.” Because I was super curious about Afrika Bambaataa, one of the biggest hip-hop DJs. He had met Bambaataa at a show in South Bronx and Malcolm McLaren took him. He was like, “Yo, you gotta check these things that are happening in New York man, in the ghetto.” And back then, I imagine Bronx looked like something out of a movie.
It was desolate as hell… late 70s, early 80s.
Diplo: Yeah I look at pictures and it looks like one project building and then like six abandoned and crumbled buildings next to it. He said they went to this basement and they were playing the Kraftwerk song “Metal On Metal.” And he said, “Yo this is so weird, all these black people dancing to my music, I was super scared and worried I was going to get murdered.” And he was super German and old at the time. And he said he was like, “This is crazy, this song has been up for 15 minutes. This song is only six minutes long on my album.” He was like, “How are they doing this? Is there some kind of weird tape machine or something here?” He went to the DJ booth and Bambaataa was cutting it up and just playing the song forever. And he met him then, he was like super weirded out about it.
I think the more people realize how influential old school electro was… it really was at the roots of house music, at the roots of techno. And you’ve turned me on to some things, Detroit stuff, that was early techno.
Diplo: Model 500, right? [pseudonym used by techno producer Juan Atkins]
Right. And then that… what is that one, “HariKari?”
Diplo: It’s called… it’s “ShareVari.”
“ShareVari.” That was bonkers.
Diplo: “ShareVari” by A Number Of Names, that’s the name of the group. It’s a great name for a DJ crew.
There’s a video on YouTube that shows like a television show in Detroit, in the early 80s, and they’re dancing to it and it’s amazing.
Diplo: Like a Soul Train that was strictly a Detroit dance one, and they play like a lot of disco at the time. They play this record, which was big in Detroit, and it’s crazy to hear it and see it. It’s like a weird, fake Kraftwerk, all black group rapping on it and doing voices on top of it. It is a sick, live, disco beat.
Let’s jump ahead to your production — the early M.I.A. “Bucky Done Gun” was a kind of a breakthrough record of sorts.
Diplo: Y’know this record samples a big Miami bass record called DJ Battery Brain. It’s called “Volt Beat,” and that beat was like the basis of so much baile funk stuff that was happening in Brazil.
Exactly and that’s why I wanted to play this one, because it touches on one of your first adventures in a foreign genre. I guess you went to Brazil and you got kind of swept up in this sound…
Diplo: I went to Brazil as well on another Fader article I was doing for them. I was a writer — a bad writer part time. I still write, I should write some more. One of the editors named Knox Robinson, and he was a friend of mine. He was the editor for about a year and he got me a job going down there. Because he was like, “Let’s explore this music. It’s pretty cool and crazy…”
You went to the favelas and all that?
Diplo: I went to the favelas. He got me a ticket down there and the first thing we did, we linked up with DJ Marlboro, who’s like the DJ Drama of Rio. Like this guy has all the stations, he was like the most respected guy and we were like, “Hey we’re doing a story for America, for the music” and he was like super into that. He just gave us like the biggest ghetto pass. We went to every hood, deepest hoods, like the fancy clubs that he played in and met everybody like, “This is the gringo that’s into funk music, take care of him.” That first trip was really mind blowing. I would get these records and collect them and edit them and play them live in America, and they were such weird productions. There were like samples of James Brown and Miami bass records and these giant tamborazos which were like these bad recording of samba drums that are really heavy… It was like a crazy music and all made really with MPCs, you can hear all the chopping. I’m super into it still and I even played a bunch of records when I went to Rio, and I brought some back. There is a new scene there that I got into and started playing which is called rasta niño, which is like this slowed down reggae music from the favelas. It’s kind of like moombahton, but with vocals and stuff. Still so much stuff happening in Rio, it’s such an explosive place and a humongous place with one of the craziest cultures of music. It’s like New Orleans in America where everything kind of happened and mixed and fused at once. Rio is like that version of it for Brazil.
Now let’s discuss Jamaica, because that that’s been very influential for you. You published a book where you shared a lot of those images.
Diplo: Yeah, we did like a zine kind of thing called Blow Your Head and we did two issues, one was in Jamaica, which actually sold out a couple times. I was there hardcore trying to make music for about two years, just being part of it and working out of it. It seems that I am getting more done now that I’ve been there before and I made the connections. You kind of just have to pay your dues really, I did that for a long time and now Major Lazer and Skrillex just did a show there in December, we are doing another one coming up. But we did like 6,000 kids in Kingston, Jamaica and it’s so crazy to see how we grew from playing small little parties and trying to make music with people to doing our own giant shows there and being on the radio.
Is the Major Lazer sound taking off there as well?
Diplo: It got really popular there. I think “Pon De Floor” was the first record that really kind of broke dance music in Jamaica on the radio, one because Vybz Kartel was featured on the record, and at the time he was like the Jimi Hendrix of Jamaica, he’s just such a star and that record popped off. Then we had a record called “Bumaye” that was really huge. And then now the Sean Paul one we did is giant, it’s called “Come On To Me.” “Get Free” was a huge record there, like really big in Jamaica, and the video was like our homage to the scene and the city, and I think that resonated with people, like the respect that we paid to what happened there. We did a song with Chronixx on the same rhythm, and that was really big. It’s weird, a lot of our stuff just got big there. It’s weird to think about it, but Jamaica has a lot of hipsters too. You know like, kids are on the internet checking out the music. And the DJs out there have always been super progressive, and always showed us love and always liked to play new music and break new music. That’s like a skill there and a sense of pride, to break new records there.
That’s an interesting point, I want to return to that in a moment about the function of the DJ and breaking records. But what was the style of reggae that got you into loving it as much as you do?
Diplo: It was dancehall. I think it was in the late 90s, early 2000s. My first introduction to reggae was watching BET late night Caribbean Rhythms with Rachel, who was super hot. That was the first time we heard records like Patra and “Murder She Wrote” and you know, Supercat. I was really scratching the surface back then, but those records were playing on the radio in New York.
You as a DJ represent a lot of things, but the main thrust of it is that really you’ll play everything. There is no genre you don’t touch, there is no tempo you don’t touch, and you have been responsible for inventing a few genres along the way. What is the role of a DJ? What is a DJ supposed to be?
Diplo: I’m coming from a hip-hop world, first of all. Like my favorite thing that got me into music was people like Bambaataa or Premier or Shadow or guys who were creating new styles and exploring music in a new way. That was just fascinating to me. And I was learning, I was a music fan, first and foremost. As I got older, I got deeper into reggae music, deeper into psychedelic rock and deeper into like disco and techno. I come from that world where it’s exciting when the DJ is really creating something. A lot of DJs just play the records and kind of mix them in, and that’s cool too. Some people want to hear those records, and they’re big fans of those DJs’ work. But I’ve always been a guy that’s really excited about breaking new sounds and breaking new ways to mix records. And that’s what a DJ was for me always: someone that uses the turntables like an instrument. Before you could make a mash up on Ableton you literally had to put an acapella on one side and a beat on the other side, and we would do that, and scratch it in and make mixes live. If you listen to the Hollertronix mixtape you can tell. Our beats are off sometimes, and we’re doing it live in the studio. Yeah for me that is the most exciting, is to do something new. I want to hear new record, especially in Vegas it’s weird. When I first started playing here, I did the Monday nights early on, it’s been like three years almost now.
At XS Nightclub.
Diplo: XS. And I was playing hip-hop records and nobody wanted to hear ‘em it seemed like. Or DJs would come and see me play like, “Where do you find these records?” I’m just like, “They’re on the radio and y’know, you can like get them off the internet.” And now it’s like my big draw is probably like the fact that my sets are eclectic here.
We lived through a big EDM boom here in Las Vegas and in the United States overall, but it does seem that things are slowing down…
Diplo: Like the dust may be settled, and the guys who are really out there putting in work are the ones who are staying around. I haven’t had like giant hits on the radio or anything, but I still keep a strong following here in Vegas, and I think it’s because we created a vibe where anything goes. And I think that it comes back to being a great DJ and being able to play for a crowd and also give the crowd something new, because that works really well on my nights, the industry nights, because those guys do want to hear new records. Or somebody like Skrillex, to me he also is in the same vein. He is a younger guy than me, but he plays across the board, all tempos. He’s like a little more harder than mine, but we’re from the same school, just like Dillon and Snake. I think everybody in my crew are like the new school of DJs. I even went to see Hardwell DJ and he went into a hip-hop set, in the middle of his set, at Hakkasan.
No way. What hip-hop songs?
Diplo: “Turn Down For What.”
Well that’s a step in the right direction...
Diplo: That motherfucker invented a lot of genres on his own too. He invented, apparently, bubbling. He was like one of the first guys to really take bubbling, that sound that was playing… he did production for Chuckie back in the day. He did hardstyle, he did a mix for “Diplo and Friends” that we never posted that’s all dancehall reggae. So he’s like a G.
He’s a young boy though right?
Diplo: He’s like 25, but he’s literally been producing for 10 years, as long as I have, from 14 years old. You know when I was 14, I was trying to play basketball and skateboard. ‘Cause back 10 years ago, you couldn’t really say to yourself I was going to be a producer or a DJ. Like I tried to be a DJ, but I was failing until we did Hollertronix and built something that was our own. I wasn’t good at being a working DJ, like getting into clubs and playing what people wanted to hear. I wanted to play my own stuff, my own styles, and I was like 25 before I figured out that I just got to give everything to my music. 25 is like way too old nowadays. You have to be like 16 to start DJing nowadays, it seems like.
I think that the United States is based around the tastes of black music, it’s very dominant—hip-hop, R&B, disco, soul, funk—and because of that, the tempos, we don’t always want it to be 128. We like 100, 110, 90 you know?
Diplo: On urban radio or rhythmic radio, music changes so fast anyway, like things move around. Right now it’s very Mustard on the radio. That happened out of nowhere, because it was a little bit too dancey, R&B for a little while, and I think people got back to swinging and grooving and wanting to bounce to the beats, and I think in general black music in America has always been very progressive. It’s been like the spearhead for the rest of the world. I’ve always been like, a DJ that plays black music. And a few people, I meet them at parties sometimes, they’re like confused that I’m white actually. I don’t know why people can’t Google me or look at the photos on my Twitter page, but they’re confused. They might just hear my music and hear the mixes I do.
It does seem that it’s more the American DJs that are bringing it back.
Diplo: I think American music in the last 50 years has been the trendsetting music. In techno, it was a black music that went to Europe and became very white, and became very German again, back and forth from the Germans who first started it with Kraftwerk, to here, back again. Even in Jamaica, like I see the kids who give me demos now, they’re like weird. They’re like J Dilla kind of beats or electro music and it’s because those kids used to only have access to the radio or the parties to hear music. Now they have YouTube and they have SoundCloud and they can go anywhere. They can spend an hour on the internet and literally get lost in some music and find something that they’re excited about. It doesn’t matter where they’re from or who they are, they just can find something and be, “This speaks to me.” So music is changing fast like that.
Skrillex: What’s up guys?
Alright we got Sonny Moore, Skrillex! Talk to us about Jack Ü.
Diplo: We were talking about me and Skrillex and our DJ styles being similar and stuff, and we worked on some music. One song became a record for his album called “Dirty Vibe,” which is actually a pretty unique record, because in the way I create music, I like to just—no rules, make something crazy. And I think originally we were like, “Let’s make a band that’s like only Asian rappers…”
That was your Korean rappers right?
Skrillex: Actually that was the archetype. The first idea, we were joking for Jack Ü and we were like, it needs to be all Asians and Koreans, like K-pop. And the first record we did was with G-Dragon and CL, funny enough. And then it sort of just sprouted from there.
Diplo: Yeah. That song was a Jack Ü kind of idea. It really fits his album. It’s actually a fucking cool ass record. But that was kinda the first thing that we did, and I think that that song is between genres too. It’s like K-pop, it’s like a weird trap. It’s like the drums are double-time. Skrillex is one of my favorite producers, and he’s also one of the most weirdest, progressive dudes. The way I like to DJ, he doesn’t really take any influences, he just kind of mashes it up and he is able to make something sound like it’s coherent, even though it’s crazy.
Skrillex: Dude we have a lot of dope shit. We just got this thing, we’re working on this thing with [producer] Snails right now.
Diplo: Snails is another guy who’s like a crazy young producer. I think the best way to talk about Jack Ü is it’s like a curating process. We like to put on the most craziest stuff happening. Now that we see where we stand in this world of like the EDM stuff — we’re kind of outsiders, but we’re making records that are getting bigger and bigger. He’s like headlining festivals, but he’s the only guy playing weird music.
Skrillex: That’s the thing, there are so many good DJ records out there that don’t get heard really.
Diplo: Let’s be honest, almost 90 percent of the DJs play it safe, like really safe. We’d rather drop something crazy that’s a bomb that no one likes than to play the same records all day long. That’s like our ethos.
Skrill, it seemed like you took a little time off from DJing, especially here in Vegas, and now you’re coming back with a vengeance. What was behind that and where is your head at now?
Skrillex: I was working on my record and just not touring as much. I wanted to take a little bit of a second, but now it’s like, everything has been really busy just because of the new music coming out…
What are some of your immediate goals now with the Jack Ü project?
Diplo: Right now we’re mixing these songs to be as strong as any record out there, but they’re definitely crazy sounding records.
Is there a word for what genre it is?
Diplo: Yes it is called dooble-dooble.
Dooble-dooble [laughs] yes.
Diplo: We don’t have a name for it, and I think… we’re trying to break the genres down man. Like, it’s a big genre castle, that’s Babylon. We’re trying to break it down and set it on fire.
Skrillex I know when I first would hear you DJ I was always pleasantly surprised to hear a lot of hip-hop in the mix. You know Biggie and Fatman Scoop and stuff like that. And now it seems like Fatman Scoop is back too.
Skrillex: Fatman Scoop just got on a Hardwell record, and he says the same thing. He says, “Turn it up!” It’s like the same thing. That shit’s dope tho.
Diplo: I think Fatman Scoop heard Skrillex and was like, “Oh my god, who is this Skrillex guy? Get me on the phone with him!” Immediately he was like…
Skrillex: He hit me up dude. It was like full-flex express.
Diplo: You were talking to me and you were like, “Yo Fatman Scoop just called me,” and I was like “What? What the hell is that? What does that mean?”
He can be relied on to do his thing, for sure.
Diplo: All you gotta do is get him to take his shirt off in the video though, because he loves that and he’s crazy and he turns it up.
Skrillex: Shout out Fatman Scoop
Let’s take a little quick listen to “Take U There”…
Diplo: I do a lot of songwriting too, besides doing like dance music, and I think that the songwriting side of it is as strong as anything. ‘Cause I think that a lot of people that can produce amazing sounding records can’t like write good songs too, can’t write amazing songs.
Skrillex: Or the other way around, once music gets too songy, it’s not dance music anymore, it’s like a balance, you know.
Diplo: We’re trying to make songs that are crazy sounding production-wise, like they’re from the future, but at the same time we want there to be some songwriting there that’s just like whoa. For me I think Skrillex represents right now, more than any other artist. He represents like new America, or going around the world and just taking EDM or whatever it is and just scrunching it up and making it as something as its own.
Skrillex: That’s what Diplodocus does.
Diplo: I’m the sound of last night.
Skrillex: Yo, I’m going to be right back. [leaves the room]
Diplo: Thank god we got rid of him, geez.
I saw a discussion on Facebook recently with a lot of DJs talking about genres, dance music genres, and one said, “No one ever requests EDM anymore, outside of what has become ‘the Diplo sound,’ which makes you wonder why EDM still pulls huge leverage in clubs.” It seems in some ways that Diplo has become a genre.
Diplo: Maybe Diplo represents just like eclecticness and being able to be strong. I think essentially being a DJ is about rhythm, and about taking the rhythm of a whole night and keeping people embraced and enthralled and into what you’re doing for the whole night. You’re never going to hear me play a straight up pop hit now that was big just to get a crowd reaction. If I do it I’m twisting it my own way, as kind of like my tongue-in-cheek way to play it. Because I play records that I love 100 percent. But I love everything. I do love DJ Mustard records, and that’s my homie, we have the same publisher. I do love old school hip-hop records. And I love now that all these guys are remixing old school hip-hop records.
If you’re a great DJ, you can spend an hour training the crowd and getting them into you and understanding your style, and when you’re done, you own them, and you can give them whatever you want. And that’s what a really great DJ can do. I’m 35 years old, I don’t have to be a DJ anymore, but I am still completely obsessed with music.
Let’s get into this, which is obviously a really big record, “Express Yourself.” You mentioned the end of your set here in Vegas and typically, this is a crazy moment.
Diplo: This record was me like, let’s get the girls to dance again, because that’s what I want to do. It started slow. Remember I gave this song to Dillon Francis, my EP, the “Express Yourself” and a bunch of other songs came out like two years ago, and he was like, “Man I don’t get it, I can’t play these records.” I remember hearing that. I was like, “Man give it a chance.” I think a lot of DJs too were like, “I don’t really get this.”
I made this record as my love for bounce music, New Orleans, electronic music and then with some EDM kind of sounds and making it exciting. Vegas and the rest of the world has been now acclimated to Skrillex and people who make giant sounding records, and no matter what you do you have to make it that full and big, but you gotta do it with you own swag and your own style. And that record is me trying to be like, “I don’t want people to stand in the club anymore, I want them to start dancing some more.” And that record is put together with tape. It’s like a crazy mix of sounds, and I think we just made our way for the break. We had a great video done cheaply and a great viral campaign with it and it really stuck. I mean now I play that record and the drop happens it’s like you hear Swedish House Mafia, first song. People hear that, they are like screaming. People are getting on their hands, and putting their feet in the air and the girls are just dancing on the walls out of nowhere and I think that was like, you could never had predicted that was going to be a big song.
There’s a lot of women that show up when you DJ. And it seems like a lot of them show up just for that moment.
Diplo: I actually love that… that moment is the best in Vegas. Because when I play like Mad Decent Block Parties for instance, a lot of young kids and I don’t even want to bring girls on stage anymore. Pretty much Vegas is like girls who dance all week long and this is the time when they can dance with their friends. They’re not getting paid to dance, they’re dancing because they want to show off to everybody else in the club, and this is a dope place to have that song go off. And even with Major Lazer “Bubble Butt,” when we play that here. It’s always like, I always made songs that have those catch phrases and kind of stay funny. It’s all about girls dancing. If you get girls in the club and they are having a good time—trust me, everybody else will show up. If you just make songs for dudes to jump and pound their fists to, girls are eventually gonna leave and go to my club.
Now we’re going to touch on something that you did for Beyonce. I thought this was an important step because… you’ve had a lot of collaborations, but this one seemed to set a high water mark.
Diplo: It’s crazy because I did a lot of work actually for Beyonce’s album, or just did things here and there for her team, and nothing really happened for the record. But Beyonce is kind of like a benchmark of what’s happening right now. And that’s cool, I always wanna be a part of it. Just like Kanye is, just like Skrillex is. So I did this… the song came out, and I just hit them up because I was on good terms with them. “Can I get this remix? Let me get an a cappella.” They sent it to me when the album came out, I mixed it super quick and it did really well, because the song ended up becoming kind of a secret single.
You touched on your production style… it’s kind of unique, I’ve seen it myself. It takes sometimes weeks and months for a song to come together. It may change, it may evolve. Things are added, things are taken away. Sometimes even the tempo changes. Explain that.
Diplo: Yeah, for sure. A good thing is this Jack Ü project, let me just explain to you how—I got some even better stories from Major Lazer—but this Jack Ü project, I was in the studio with Usher. We did a couple of songs together for the new album. And Skrillex was around hit me up like, “Yo come to studio.” I was like, “Yo come here, Usher is here.” And he was like—Usher is a big fan of Skrillex too—and he was like, “Cool let’s go here.” And we made this record with Ariel Rechtshaid, another good friend of mine who produces a lot of indie rock. And it was like us doing a record for this girl called Kelela, who was like a New York singer, kind of spooky, ambient R&B beats, kind of thing happening right now. We were like, “Let’s do a record like for her, but for Usher.” Like, write it kind of in her vein. And we did this spooky record with a spooky little line on it, and we sat on it. Nobody really cut anything on it. But I put kind of a chord progression on it a couple of weeks later. We were in Ibiza, me and Sonny, we played together and we had the same hotel. So I went with him to see this club called Ushuaia that we were interested in playing later. We went there and Kiesza was opening for Sebastian Ingrosso, who invited us to go, and I liked her songs, let’s go see her. Met her backstage and she was like—I knew one of her assistants—and I was like, “Hey you guys should come over tonight, because we’re not doing anything.” We went to the hotel room, and she cut this record on this weird house beat that I made. And we just spent time, Sonny went to the club, and I just wrote the record with her over a couple of hours, and then we cut a whole record. Now I thought it was ok, production wasn’t great, but at least the bed that we made was good to write a song.
Sometimes writing a bed for a record, for a top line, is different than the production, because… the way we produce records, these crazy sounds, you can’t write records on these records sometimes. They’re just too fucking crazy. “Express Yourself” was just a drum beat. And I made everything around it after I cut some cool vocals out. That’s the way you write records nowadays. You can’t just bring into the studio like some crazy out-of-touch sounds. You kind of have to write on the records that people can acclimate themselves to, to think about in a streamlined way. So we wrote this record on something very simple, and the next day we changed the tempo and I gave Sonny this little horn line that became the drop for this, and the whole thing went from like 120 to 180.
Whoa. So like a double time…
Diplo: Or a 160. We did like two shows together during that European tour at different stages at the same places. We just worked in the hotel and made the real basis of this Kiesza record called “Take You There,” and we remixed it over a month and a half, three different ways. And that’s how it became the record that we love now. But it’s like after three different entities, you know—it was an Usher demo, a Keisza R&B/house song, to what it is now. And I think no one will know any of the other versions, which is great, because it sound like a fully formed, crazy record now. How do you make something like that? And that’s kind of exciting to me that in the culture we can write and remix records so quickly. Like when the Rolling Stones were in the studio, literally you know, someone had a guitar like, they played it a couple times. They wrote a record there, and then they recorded their instruments and produced it in that day.
I think that we’re kind of doing the same thing in our own ways, with being able to re-edit and remix songs that are making them unique. Like, the sounds of this record now are the sounds we made. The drums might have been a loop that we found somewhere else, but we created it, we rehashed it in so many ways that we’re like—we hear music in a different way now. Like I’m such a huge fan of what he does, Sonny, that all I want to do is make sounds that no one has ever heard before now. I think that was the idea from when we started Major Lazer, let’s do a hybrid kind of thing with this project and make something you’ve never heard. But his production value is the highest, and I think that my creative concepts are one of the highest out there. So, together, that is what Jack Ü is trying to be, is production value at 100 and creative ideas at 100.
You’ve been traveling the world, you have been collaborating with a lot of artists like Madonna. It’s incredible to watch from afar, it seems like you may have, like, the coolest life of anybody. Do you ever stop and take note of what is really happening, or are you kind of swept up in it?
Diplo: So swept up in it man, insane. Just to even tell you that I’m in the studio with Usher and Skrillex came out, and was kind of casual with it. It really was just like a day-in-the-life. It was like, “Oh damn I have to go to the session right now. I forgot about this.” Madonna things, flying us to London between sessions, and everything seems like a blur — to go from Mykonos, Greece to Jamaica to do a real quick session, to go to New York and work with Rae Sremmurd and do Block Party then come here. I really think I need to step back and capture it all pretty soon because it’s not going to slow down.
We look forward to many more creative ideas coming out of you.
Diplo: Hopefully… give me another year. I think I’ve got another year left of crazy shit.
I want to touch on this: there was an unfortunate incident that happened where a couple people OD’d, I think it was in Maryland.
Diplo: Yeah, Maryland Block Party.
And I thought that you handled it really well because Philly, I think, was the next event and you addressed the subject with the crowd.
Diplo: I never had anybody die at my shows. Ever. Until this happened in Washington, D.C. and suddenly there is one person that sold really bad drugs to 20 kids and all of them went to the hospital, two of them passed away and…
Diplo: It’s really bad because when you think about it one of them was older, he was 22, but one girl was or guy was 17 and it just seems crazy that this happened at a show of mine. It just seems crazy that this person, their parents, the kids are gone, like forever now. So, the thing about the drugs is that it never happened before so I wanted to say something to the crowds when I was in Philly, and because it’s also crazy that these young kids think they can do whatever they want to their bodies and that they’re not going to pay for it.
It is true when you are younger you seem to have this sort of invincibility. When you get older you think, what the hell was I doing back then?
Diplo: But nowadays, honestly, kids have access to drugs in such a strange, easy way and an accessible way, and also people are making drugs that have never been made before. Like, they are creating things and I think kids really need to not do drugs if you are going to a party. Smoke some weed, you know, whatever you got to do, but I advocate not doing hard drugs anymore.
Skrillex: [returning to the room] Skrill seconds that.
Yeah some people maybe assume that you guys are getting really fucked up or something like that, but that’s really not the case.
Skrillex: Yeah, we work out every day and eat…
Diplo: We eat macaroni bites.
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