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Diplo talks production work EDM and the Mad Decent Block Party

Diplo is not an easy man to get a hold of. The first time I tried to interview him the Dropbox account where he stores all of his production work had been hacked with a bunch of unreleased tracks downloaded. When you consider that he’s working on new material for his larger than life dancehall collective Major Lazer a new collaborative project with Skrillex and production work for enormous stars like Chris Brown Beyoncé and 2 Chainz the whole thing could have resulted in a disastrous batch of leaks.

A full month later and my attempts to reach him on the Sunday afternoon before he plays Chicago’s Wavefront festival are met with silence. An hour later after pestering his publicist and management multiple times I finally get him on the phone. Turns out there was a good reason for the delay — he was locked out of his hotel room and didn’t have access to his phone or the wallet containing his photo I.D.

The difficulty in talking to Diplo (born Thomas Wesley Pentz — on the phone his handlers refer to him as Wes) isn’t due to any sort of too-cool elitism or a drug-fuelled scatterbrain. Instead he’s simply got an unbelievable amount of things on his plate. Along with running Mad Decent — the blog-turned-record-label that’s helped popularize everything from M.I.A. to dubstep to whatever EDM exactly is — Diplo’s also one of the most sought after producers and remixers on the globe having shaped the sounds of the zeitgeist’s biggest and brightest stars winning Grammys changing careers and producing mind-blowing work like last year’s nuanced heartbreaking Usher single “Climax.”

Scrambling to sneak in some lunch and a shower between a morning of hotel room production work and an evening of crowd-rocking it’s evident that Diplo’s well aware of who he is how he fits into the music industry and what he’s doing to create and curate some of the world’s most unique sounds.

“We don’t really have to keep any authenticity. We’ve never been authentic we’ve just been doing music that we like” Diplo tells me. I’m asking him about how he feels regarding EDM the mammoth new genre sweeping North America that’s essentially a vague catchall abbreviation for “electronic dance music.” Spearheaded by North Americans like Deadmau5 Skrillex and approximately half of the Boonstock lineup along with pop-crossover Europeans like Tiesto the fist-pumping college kid music is spreading like wildfire throughout the continent. “EDM will come and go” he says. “We’ll still be doing stuff.”

He’s not trashing the genre however. In fact the rise of EDM has been great for Diplo and the Mad Decent imprint. In the same way that Green Day taught a legion of kids about Jawbreaker EDM’s working as a gateway into the dance underground where many newcomers are discovering the varied and forward-thinking artists Mad Decent has to offer.

The democratization of the Internet also means that more and more artists are cropping up and making a career out of DJing. “When I was a young kid we just DJed at bars. That was our dream. There were only three or four full-time DJs in Philadelphia. No one else would make money off of that you’d never quit your job doing that. Now it’s so realistic for you to just commit to music. There’s so much opportunity for kids who make their own music to perform live and DJ.”

While he’s dedicated to discovering new fascinating corners of the underground Diplo’s also helping to shape the mainstream as a go-to producer for weird left-field experiments. “Most of them don’t hit me like ‘Yo I want a pop hit’ they hit me because a lot of big artists need to know what’s happening in the underground” he explains. “The underground shapes everything in the mainstream so that’s just what I’m doing. Every Rihanna record has a sampling of what’s happening in the underground whether it was dubstep or trap or strip club music or pop house. The main goal is to just have something different…. I want you to do something that you’re not comfortable with or that’s different for you.”

It’s worth mentioning that Diplo was partially responsible for Bauuer’s “Harlem Shake” the single that shot up to number one on the Billboard charts and spawned a whole legion of normies to get weird on webcam. But even though it inspired your wienery uncle to share a goofy faux-flashmob video on Facebook “Harlem Shake” was hardly a manufactured pop record. Instead Diplo released it for free via Jeffree’s a Mad Decent offshoot.

The mandate for Jeffree’s is inherently simple but feels revolutionary. “Jeffree’s is like a side label that we have and we give the music away for free. All we do is publish the records” Diplo says. Instead of signing an artist and attempting to foster a career the point is to hand out as much free music as possible. “It’s more like how our blog was which was always new music exploring…. Jeffree’s is what made us look to the future and say ‘We can do this our own way.’”

Looking back it appears that Mad Decent have always done things their own way. From their time as a blog to their current reign as one of the music industry’s top tastemakers they’ve given off an air of effortlessness. That’s because according to Diplo they just sign the artists they believe in.

“We’re just putting out good music and the audience is so much more open-minded and well-rounded in America and Canada” he says. “Every year you see artists like Riff Raff or Flosstradamus and one second people are like ‘this is whatever’ and the next thing you know they’re headlining the biggest venue in your town. People just love the Mad Decent feel of what we’re doing. They love that we’re always taking the alternative route.”

The roster has included artists as diverse as Blaqstarr Bosco Delrey Buraka Som Sistema Crookers The POPO and Snoop Lion (Snoop Dogg’s reggae alter-ego whose album Diplo produced) among many others. While the music spans a wide variety of subgenres however the artists are all united by one common trait: personality.

“We never find anybody to capitalize on whatever’s happening right now” Diplo says. “Even with Rusko — I think he was like the first dubstep act in America…. Someone like Dillon Francis it’s just like his personality is big and his ideas are big. He drew me in as a person. Same with Riff Raff he’s so outrageous that it’s exciting to me…. I’m drawn to personalities. That’s more important than the music.”

That’s not to say they’ll sign anybody with a wacky persona. In fact Mad Decent have consciously decided to slow down on pushing certain genres. “For a period we were signing a lot of rock and weird guitar-driven acts. They’re great friends of mine Bosco Delray and The POPO. I love those artists but our fans are not interested in that sort of music” Diplo admits noting that many other electronic labels have also tried to break into the rock world. “They want to legitimize themselves as record labels because they care about some of the press like the Pitchfork s and the FADER s and stuff to legitimize what they’re making.”

Though he admits that he’d like to try out some more rock acts in the future Diplo’s firmly set on staying within the realm of dance music and rap. “You’re doing this because this is your lane” he says. “Right now we’re still just trying to think about music on such a sub level and rationalizing all these different kinds of music for people and it’s working for us. I don’t want to take too much of a U-turn.”

All of this is to say that the Mad Decent Block Party is not to be missed. Whether you’re a frat bro wanting to chug some Red Bull vodkas and fist pump to your hearts content a vigilant consumer of modern outsider dance music or simply someone with a keen interest in subcultural anthropology you’ll find plenty to latch onto. Just don’t expect a standard music festival.

“The main thing that separates us from any other festival is that it’s small and it’s very dynamic and alternative to what you might hear” Diplo says. “There’s no mainstage headliners and there’s no shitty rave DJs. There’s just underground kids on Mad Decent.”

In fact don’t expect anything at all. “That’s what we do — kind of unexpected. Absolute craziness. You’re not going to see anything like this again until maybe at the next block party.”

The first Mad Decent Block Party happened organically in 2006 when Diplo learned that he could block off a street in Philadelphia for 10 dollars if he could get enough signatures in the area. The event was wildly successful and doubled in attendance the next year. From there they started expanding to more and more cities to the point where this year’s event is a full-fledged tour.

The run of dates includes the festival’s first-ever Calgary appearance at Prairie Winds Park which features Diplo’s Major Lazer project along with Zeds Dead Dillon Francis Flosstradamus Big Gigantic Paul Devro and locals Smalltown DJs.

“I love Smalltown DJs. In fact they actually brought me there to DJ my first show in Calgary” Diplo says. “It was totally empty in the bar. There were like three kids. But since then it’s grown and I’ve seen them buy a club and then another club…. It’s a cool city. I like it a lot. One of the most surprising places I’ve ever been to in Canada. You don’t expect a lot to be honest but you get a lot.”