It’s a new year, and while you’re waiting to find out your 2015 frequent flyer status, we at Infinite Legroom are pleased to announce a new series of features called the Infinite Interview.
Rather than simply doing travel profiles, we’ve decided to dig deeper into conversations with influencers and bring you unique testimonial pieces that put their travel choices in perspective. Why stop at “how do you pack your hats” when you could ask “tell us about your first hat”?
To kick off this series, I personally sat down with my long-time friend and expert globe-trotter Diplo. This man is known for popularizing music from far-off places like Brazil and Angola to overlooked locales like Baltimore and New Jersey so he is a natural candidate for this fine website. We’ve all seen him make the kids twerk all the way to Madison Square Garden, but how much do you know about his early days as a vinyl collector in swap meets?
Here is the inaugural Infinite Interview with Diplo, by A-Trak.
The Early Years of Diplo’s Career
A-Trak: I wanted to start off talking about a side of your career that people might not know as much about…the early years. Even before I met you…your record-digging hustle, opening for RJD2 and all that.
A-Trak: Of course I know Egon.
Diplo: Egon used to have a radio show in Nashville. Before I moved to Florida, I lived in Nashville during high school. I used to listen to Egon’s show on Vanderbilt [College] Radio. I was really into hip hop culture in Nashville. Nashville’s not really a hotbed for hip-hop culture, but I started doing graffiti there really hardcore and breakdancing. Well, I was trying to breakdance, but I was never any good. This is when I was like 14.
Egon always had guys like Count Bass D on his show and one of those guys had a hip-hop shop that sold paint cans and graffiti markers and stuff. When I started breakdancing the first record that would come on during the dance circles was “It’s Just Begun” by Jimmy Castor Bunch. The beat was sick but the lyrics to that song were so dope. I love hip-hop because I love that song. It was a revolutionary song to me.
Around that time I got into DJ Shadow; his first EP was on Mo Wax. Mo Wax was a big deal for me. That’s what inspired me to make music. I was also reading Egon’s forums and I learned about David Axelrod. That was probably the first guy where I was like, “What is this stuff? Why doesn’t anyone know about this stuff?”
I hated the Eagles. I hated the Beatles. But I loved all these crazy-ass old psychedelic rock records. I got into soul and R&B a lot. I hated disco until I was like 30. You were way ahead of me on that. But, you’re French—that’s why. You’re born with it.
How Orlando Influenced DJ Culture
Diplo: When I moved back to Florida to finish high school, I started trying to DJ. My hip-hop scene was basically Orlando, that was the next big city from me. I was in all these shitty outskirts of hip-hop culture, like third wave cities. But Florida was probably the biggest state for DJ culture in America. I’ll say that. Florida.
A-Trak: Yeah, it was a big rave state!
A-Trak: Blowfly was dope.
Diplo: He was one of the biggest songwriters of soul! Miami had this black soul music culture. They had disco on lock. And on top of that, Miami Bass! Today, I feel like all roads lead back to Miami Bass. Old Miami Bass influenced Trick Daddy, then Lil Jon came from that, and then everything we have now—trap music, crunk, all the little steps—came from Miami Bass.
Miami and New Orleans are two cities where I feel I should live in. Orlando had culture too, like when I was younger, DJ Khaled was on the radio. He was the big DJ in Orlando. And of course you know [visual artist] System D128 from my old days. You remember Duey right?
Diplo: He’s a legend.
Diplo: Then, of course, I met you. I think you were a big turning point for me because you got me into a wider array of non hip-hop. You were one of the first DJs I met that was able to do hip-hop—you were like a hero from a hip-hop background—but you were playing other music. I was kind of doing the same thing but you were really in that world. You would mix records in a way where you wouldn’t think twice about it.
A-Trak: It’s funny you say that, because when I was thinking about this interview, I remembered something about some of the early shows that you and I did together; you really had routines, in your own way. Remember we would play spots like Sonotheque in Chicago?
One time I was playing a set with you and I was about to play Ludacris “#1 Spot” and you’d be like “No, no, please don’t play this. I have a routine with it.” You had transitions of three joints in a row; I remember you had one with Britney “Toxic” and it was all worked out.
Diplo: Yeah, there weren’t like routines in the way that you do, but I had those mixes… You met me around the Philly era. Well, I think I met you before in Florida but I didn’t talk to you because you were too famous to me back then.
Diplo: I think it was an ITF championship. But in those Philly days the two DJs that were really transitional to me were you and Stretch Armstrong.
Diplo: Yeah, yeah. You were already in New York at that time, weren’t you?
A-Trak: I wasn’t living there yet but I was going there a lot.
Diplo: Ah, yeah I think I came to your old condo in Montreal…?
Late Nights in Montreal
Diplo: Man, we had some parties in Montreal, some very late nights. Those were the good old days!
A-Trak: Yeah! I remember you coming to Montreal when you were working on your record for Big Dada/Ninja Tune, and I wasn’t able to hang out because I was busy working on my DVD. Do you remember I put out a DVD like 10 years ago?
Diplo: I remember that, I remember that…
A-Trak: You called me like, “Yo, let’s link up” and I couldn’t, and then you asked me where there was a good dancehall party. I remember being really surprised because back then I wasn’t really checking for dancehall like that.
Diplo: I knew there was lots of Haitians and Africans in Montreal.
Diplo: I did a lot of work in Montreal because it was the [North American] home for Ninja Tune. Those guys used to have a real fanbase, bro. Montreal’s always had this trip-hoppy, hippy thing.
A-Trak: Yeah, completely.
Finding His Signature Style
Diplo: Back then Stretch used to do these routines, and I’d stand there like, “What the fuck?” I’d never seen anyone DJ a nightclub like that. He would mix the Strokes with hip-hop records. It was Stretch, and of course Low Budget.
Low Budget taught me how to DJ for a Philly crowd, which is way tougher: more street, you have to mix quicker and do a lot of call and response and basically be better than all the other DJs in the city.
Then Stretch showed me the next level. How to take that style and take it to a bigger audience. And then you showed me the international style, in my opinion.
Those three guys are the ones who transformed me more than anyone.
A-Trak: That’s dope!!
The Start of Mad Decent
A-Trak: You started Mad Decent around that time, what was the inspiration for Mad Decent? What were some of the labels you wanted to model it after?
Diplo: You know Domino records? I met a guy from Domino around that time—I can’t remember his name—and also Richard Russell from XL. Those guys have legendary labels in my opinion. They were deep into hip-hop culture.
The first Mad Decent release was a bootleg. The first Mad Decent release was [M.I.A.’s] “Piracy Funds Terrorism,” I guess. Then we started moving it forward through other labels. I think the next release was Bonde Do Rolê. Blaqstarr was the first artist where I was like, “This guy is a prodigy, he could be like Dr Dre.” What he was doing was next-level shit.
I still feel like he was the most inspiring producer to me. Blaqstarr, DJ Shadow, and DJ Premier. They would do things that made me feel like, “How do you come up with this?” I wanted to put Blaqstarr’s music out, so “Shake It To The Ground” was the first big single that we put out our own way. That was one of the first videos of that wave that got a million views.
We’re Not Traditional Producers
A-Trak: You know sometimes I think about your impact on the style of production that’s been prevalent in more recent years. I really remember hearing your creativity and your talent on a production level before it was even really production, when you were doing mash-ups. You would post mash-ups on your Myspace, like I remember when you put that Bart Simpson acapella over [Kinfolk Kia Shine] “Krispy.”
Diplo: [Laughs] That was more like your world, DJ world…
A-Trak: I feel like the way we all produce nowadays, it’s almost like we hack the system. We’re not traditional producers. I think you’re a good example of a guy who always had great ideas and would just kind of figure shit out. You kind of showed a lot of people that it’s possible to be a producer, even if you’re not trained, if your ideas are clever enough.
Diplo: Yeah, in the beginning all I had was a cassette desk and a SP1200 that was Duey’s. Then I got a SP12 that had more sample time. I learned everything through Acid. RJD2 was the first person to teach me how to put things in a scale. He was a big influence on me, man. He took me under his wing a bit as a producer. I think by accident. I don’t even think he liked me…
Diplo: He was a really good producer. The fact that he sampled everything and had like sixteen records on a song…he was the most musical of all the sampling artists, for sure.
Quitting His Day Job
A-Trak: Let’s talk about travel a bit. What was the trip that changed your life? Was it your first trip to Brazil?
Diplo: Well, before I went to Brazil I went to India for six months. It was my first time out of the country, when I was 20. I worked for the Red Cross and then I just bought a motorcycle and rode around and smoked weed.
Then there was the Brazil trip. My first trip there was like an extension of Hollertronix. I was starting to DJ more and I wanted to quit my job. It was driving me crazy.
A-Trak: What was your job?
Diplo: I was a teacher at Birney Elementary School in Philly. If you look at the artwork on the Hollertronix mixtape, I made that mixtape with those kids. That captured our culture, with me, Low Budget, my boy Tony Larson, who’s Triple Double—you might have met him before?
Diplo: He was the leader of that school program and he brought me in. So anyway, I was trying to quit my job. At Hollertronix I met these girls and they were obsessed with music and they showed me a Baile Funk mixtape. Before that, my music partners were people like Paul Devro, Rory Them Finest, Egon, people who were collecting records and trading.
Tony Larson taught me so much about sampling and the music history. He was like my dad in that world. Paul Devro was a record digger too but he used to dig for like cumbia records and African music before it was popular.
Baile Funk was the first thing I found that none of these friends knew. I was obsessed with it. No one had heard that stuff. I couldn’t find any information on it. The internet wasn’t popping yet. So I showed the mixtape to Knox Robinson, remember him?
A-Trak: Yeah, at The FADER. So The FADER sent you down—that’s right, I remember that.
Diplo: Yeah, FADER sent me down, they wanted me to do the story. By the time we got around to doing the story, I started putting a bit of music out so they were like, “We’re going to do the story about you now.”
I went down there, with Knox’s help, and I literally got the craziest ghetto pass. People were like, “You want to do a story?” No one had ever come down. At the time, the things I got into were so bizarre, so crazy. We can get into it another time… [laughs].
Favela On Blast
A-Trak: You must have befriended a couple DJs out there that helped you get into the Funk parties, right?
Diplo: Yeah and they taught me to sample stuff. The thing is, they used Acid too. The same program I was on. I was like, “Whoa, I can talk to them?” We spoke the same language. They would sample the same stuff: James Brown, Public Enemy. It’s like all the producers I met down there only spoke English in a Miami Bass language.
DJ Marlboro was the main producer down there. He’s the guy that gave me all the crazy shit. The first “Favela On Blast” was 80% that Marlboro gave me. The rest was stuff that I got from Gorky or street music.
So, I put the mixtape together and it got really big. It linked me to M.I.A., and that linked me to my first production job. That linked me to what I’m doing now as a producer. I still had no idea what I was doing back then. I was still doing stuff with Acid and Soundforge. The shit I did was so bootleg. I had to learn quick.
The guy who taught me how to actually produce music was Switch. He was sort of like, “You’re a chump, but your ideas are cool.” When I did the Florida album that was literally just loops on top of each other. I never had a multi-track DAW [digital audio workstation] back then, dude. I used Cool Edit Pro.
In the beginning, it was only one screen, one window. You would loop up records and have a calculator to time-stretch things. I would paste things on top of each other, it was the worst way to make music. Everything was out of tune and the mixes were terrible. But now we’re about to reissue those records [laugh].
Reissuing Florida a Decade After Its First Release
Diplo: I made Florida between a small apartment in Philadelphia and my mother’s house in Florida. I was working late nights and taking a bus through the city every night, smoking weed, putting on headphones and just making things I never heard before and could just imagine. Making this record created an entirely new world for me. Now that I think back it’s a very strange beginning and it’s crazy it’s been 10 years since its first release, but really, this record represents my first 23 years of life – what I had inside of me and where I came from so I’m excited to revisit it.