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Digging in the dirt

Musical mastermind Diplo comes home. But is he a pioneer or a plunderer?

Photo: , License: N/A

Photo: , License: N/A

Orlando didn’t just offer Diplo illicit kicks – it gave him a bountiful arena in which to pay his dues in the dusty world of vinyl record collecting. While living somewhere “off Dean Road,” he’d hit up flea markets at 7 a.m. on the weekend, then venture out to a record store in Crescent City. “The small towns all around Florida have crazy records,” Diplo says.

“I used to sell a lot of good psychedelic rock that came from Florida,” he says. “There’s a record from out of Daytona Beach, a 45, called The Little Black Egg. It’s like garage punk by the Nightcrawlers.” He sold a copy of it for $400. Another niche came from selling 
disco records to Puerto Rican DJs who had moved from New York to Orlando to retire. “I used to make my living buying and selling records,” he says.

Immersing himself in “old, used, weird shit,” helped Diplo cultivate a DJ’s ravenous ear for new sounds. It’s a skill he’s since flipped into a career that has surpassed the notion of a DJ as someone who simply plays songs, while still adhering to the role’s inherent vow to pitch new sounds to the world. If you track popular culture’s fleeting musical trends over the last five years, you’re in large part following a Diplo playlist. Back in the early 2000s, his Hollertronix parties and mixtapes, run in conjunction with Philadelphia DJ Low Budget, gleefully smashed together tracks by a rag-tag bunch: footnote Atlanta rapper Miracle, indie rock darlings TV on the Radio, Timbaland-produced Missy Elliot instrumentals, assertive ’80s femmes Klymaxx. Along with future Gnarls Barkley producer Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album, which meshed together a cappella tracks from Jay-Z’s The Black Album with music sampled from the Beatles’ The White Album, Diplo’s work helped popularize the concept of the mash-up in the mainstream.

With his profile boosted, Diplo jubilantly hopped around and helped shine light on scenes yet to rise to national interest. In 2005, he penned a column for an overseas music magazine about the rising Southern rap scene. Of Slim Thug, who was just about to sign a deal with the Neptunes’ record label, he wrote: “The music sounds like a big band where the drummer is ten feet tall backing a Japanese monster comedy from the ’50s, where monster Slim steps on Nissans and then Thugga repeats the chorus 16 times after each verse in a Houston fashion so you don’t forget [it] no matter how thowed you might be ... ” It’s prose propelled by the unfettered enthusiasm of a fan. Quickly, Diplo’s journey took a sojourn in Brazil and its salacious baile funk rap scene, Baltimore’s club music movement, London’s grime kids, Jamaica’s dancehall culture via Diplo’s Major Lazer project with DJ Switch, and New Orleans bounce artists like Sissy Nobby and Big Freedia. His label’s latest release is Blow Your Head, a dubstep compilation focusing on the dark, cavernous electronic sounds radiating from London’s inner cities. Next stop, he predicts, will be mumbaton: “It’s like reggaeton but is more house music, almost.” After that, he says he’ll concentrate on finishing up a book of haiku poems. (He couldn’t be coaxed into reciting any of them.)

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