Digging in the dirt
Musical mastermind Diplo comes home. But is he a pioneer or a plunderer?
Published: December 16, 2010
DiploClose to the Edge Music and Art Festival
Friday, Dec. 17 through Sunday, Dec. 19
Edgewater Ranch at the intersection
of Cow Creek Road and 442
It’s 7:30 a.m. on a November morning and Diplo, the DJ alias of Wesley Pentz, is en route to an L.A. recording studio. There, he’ll finish producing new songs for Beyoncé and Britney Spears. Three weeks later, he’ll remove himself from the high-powered side of the music industry and travel back to his hometown of Edgewater, Fla., to perform the first of two shows at Edgewater Ranch. The second of the shows sees him headlining the inaugural Close to the Edge Music and Art Festival – a large leap in status from the days when Pentz would throw Hollertronix parties he once described as “like Girls Gone Wild with dudes dressed up as Osama [bin Laden]” in a small Ukrainian working men’s club in Philadelphia.
Diplo’s headlining status at a festival that bills itself as showcasing “local to global” sounds is appropriate. Today, he is a worldwide tastemaker with a staunch passion for spotlighting the local. When he or his record label, Mad Decent, profile an individual or a municipal music scene, the world’s media takes notice. Artists like M.I.A. (with whom he was nominated for the Record of the Year Grammy in 2008 for producing the singer’s smash single, “Paper Planes”) and Spank Rock, and sub-genres like Brazilian baile funk and Angolan Kuduro, have all benefited from Diplo’s nod of approval. His record label biography anoints him “a working model for the truly 21st century artist.” But if Diplo’s ascent has left behind a trail of vivid and colorful sounds, it also begs questions about the ethics of regional music fetishism and the role of a DJ in an Internet era defined by quick and freely accessible downloads.
The aura surrounding Diplo has been boosted by a personal mythology cloaked in playful obfuscation. He was born in Tupelo, Miss., but grew up in Florida. His debut solo album from 2004 is titled Florida; an early 12-inch single states it was recorded at “Indian Mound Fish Camp, New Smyrna, Florida.” It’s a bait shop and campsite where, he says, his father works and his family “make our money.” During an early e-mail interview that took place when he released the 2003 single, “Newsflash,” I asked him about his musical background. He wrote back, “My granddad was a famous harmonica player in Florida. He was blind after the Korean War ... but he killed it with the harmonica.” Asked about the anecdote today, he laughs as if he’s never heard anything so absurd. “No, I don’t know who told you that,” he says. “My grandfather was psychopathic.”
Likewise, local rumors suggest he was caught stealing records from Rollins College radio station WPRK, then trying to sell them to Park Ave CDs at that time. He denies it, but adds that his friend, Dewey, did get wrapped up in that. “He got caught shoplifting from Downtown Disney and went to jail; he got fired from his job at the House of Blues.” Then, Diplo mischievously adds, “I used to shoplift from Best Buy on Park Avenue. I stole everything, the PlayStation, mad CDs. If you had a razor blade, you could cut off the little scanner tags on the back and put it in your jacket or bag. So I would go to Winn-Dixie, steal a razor blade and then go to Best Buy and just steal everything.”
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