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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

Diplo’s discography – whether recorded or curated – suggests the instincts of a musical magpie, constantly flitting around in search of fresh stimulation. Each stage of his migration, he says, is inspired by the ideal of “breaking new records – which I’ve been doing since the beginning with Hollertronix.” His 
mission has been assisted by the ease of accessing music via the Internet: You don’t need to risk a trip to a Rio de Janeiro slum to experience the high-strung, frenzied sounds of baile funk. You can simply download Diplo’s Favela On Blast mixtape and revel in the vicarious kicks.

“The audience today is so [much] more open-minded than it [once] was,” Diplo says. “Kids love the underground. If you told me a kid like Rusko would be playing dubstep to 3,000 people every night across the U.S., 
I’d have said you’re crazy. But that’s what happened.”

Rusko, a 25-year-old producer from the North of England, is one of many artists who have benefited from Diplo’s patronage. But the merits of the quick blast of media interest and accompanying flurry of hipster fans that follow a recommendation by a tastemaker can put a long-term strain on an organically sprouted music scene. A generation of Bay Area rappers are still struggling with the shackles of the hyphy tag after that local scene found itself the focus of the world’s attention thanks to songs like E-40’s “Tell Me When To Go” and the subculture’s vivid paraphernalia of sideshows and ghost-ridden cars. Erk tha Jerk, an upcoming rapper from Richmond, Calif., says that after witnessing established artists attempt to hitch a ride on the hyphy bandwagon, “I think I cried.” With national interest quickly moving on, Erk says it’s made it harder for young artists to establish careers based on their own virtues. The hyphy shackle still smarts. A brief spell in the spotlight can resemble a smash-and-grab at the expense of a small scene’s welfare.

For his part, Diplo insists that his motives are musically philanthropic and creatively inquisitive, not financial and self-serving. Of his penchant for airing out fresh sounds and styles, he says, “I think it’s my job, as a DJ. I always try and play new music for people, definitely.” There’s no ulterior intention behind highlighting a song or artist – “stumbles” is the word he invokes to describe how he comes across new music. Gorky, from the Brazilian band Bonde do Role, says his band released a record on Mad Decent after a DJ friend of theirs happened to pass a demo CD Diplo’s way – although by that point a curious Diplo was already asking around for the name of a group he’d heard “mixing baile funk with grunge music.” Bonde do Role’s new album will be released on the record label Domino, but Gorky says they’ll continue to work with Mad Decent.

Other artists back up this model of collaboration without collusion. In an interview before the release of her debut album, M.I.A. recalled her first meeting with Diplo: “I was at a club in London called Fabric and he was DJing there. He was playing my song, “Galang,” when I walked in. It was like we were destined to hook up.” (Maluca, a current Mad Decent signing, tells a similarly serendipitous story in her biography, except this time it’s a Manhattan karaoke bar where she and Diplo met.)

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