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Flying Helicopter High With Grammy Nominee Diplo (Exclusive Photos)

Diplo
Shane McCauley

The producer-DJ, No. 12 on THR's Top Hitmakers list, lets us ride shotgun on his whirlwind four-city tour.

“Whose stupid idea was this?”

In roughly six hours, Diplo -- Grammy nominated for producer of the year -- will ask this, midway through one of the most insane tours of his career. After a breakout 2012, the DJ-producer known for his work with Justin Bieber (“Thought of You”), Bruno Mars (“Money Make Her Smile”) and Usher (“Climax”) decided to raise the stakes.

It all starts at 5:30 p.m. in Baltimore, with Diplo, 34, bolting into Ottobar, a ramshackle club overheated by a hyper crowd. It’s the first destination in his Trap Hawk Down tour. The mission: to spin sets in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Atlantic City, and New York City -- in 12 hours or less.

The stupid idea, of course, was his. He previously has partnered with Red Bull, American Express, and BlackBerry, with which he’s had a six-figure deal. But this time, “I’m paying for this tour myself,” the 34-year-old Diplo (or Wes Pentz, to his friends) explains later from the six-seater helicopter flying him from gig to gig. “I got an offer in Atlantic City, which I’ve never played before.” Always one to thrive in chaos, the DJ transformed that dubious milestone into the Ultimate Night Out. His gamble paid off: All four shows sold out.

Diplo’s set, like his off-kilter producing style, is a whirl of reggae, rap, pop, house, baile funk and dubstep. He honed his sound working with ex-girlfriend M.I.A. “I had a style, but she showed me how to take it to the next level,” he offers, diplomatically. “Now I’m trying to make my own lane with different influences, not unlike what The Clash did.”

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He paid homage to the trailblazing punk band by sampling its song “Straight to Hell” for M.I.A.’s buoyant hit “Paper Planes” -- in turn, sampled by Kanye West for Jay-Z and T.I.’s single “Swagga Like Us.” It scored Diplo his first Grammy nomination in 2008. Since then, he’s become a studio ninja, working with everyone from Beyonce to 2 Chainz to No Doubt and just as easily found hanging with hip-hop golden boy A$AP Rocky and fellow EDM prodigy Skrillex. Thus far, Diplo-produced songs have accrued more than 10 million in combined sales.

“I’m still doing tours and always working and always traveling,” he says, when asked about his Grammy nom. He’s on the road 270 to 300 days a year. “I’m different than the other producers because I’m always out in the street.”

Much of his edginess is rooted in his global finds, which end up on Mad Decent, his label that’s more travelogue of sonic curiosities than money-making venture. The most recognizable name on the roster is arguably Diplo’s own dancehall project, Major Lazer, which will release its second full length, Free the Universe, in February.

And last year, Diplo dropped a benchmark solo hit, “Express Yourself”; he picks that single to round out the kickoff Baltimore set. As the fairer sex jumps onstage to perform the accompanying booty dance, security springs into action. Yells Diplo, “I seriously don’t mind girls dancing on my stage, OK?” His unflappable photographer, Shane McCauley, 36, who shadows the DJ around the world, darts around the stage to capture the spectacle, one of many that eventually find their way to Twitter. Of his 800,000-plus followers, more than 10,000 have tweeted #ExpressYourself pictures.

After a 40-minute helicopter ride, Diplo arrives in Philadelphia, where he got his start as a DJ. “My dad saw you here back in the day!” says the excited van driver taking Diplo to Soundgarden Hall. There’s an uncomfortable pause. “I can’t believe dudes’ dads like me now!” Diplo exclaims, before adding, “Tell your dad he’s freakin’ mad real.”

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On stage, Diplo is too busy oscillating between three mixers and a laptop to look up much. But when he does, swooning girls greet the occasional Alexander Wang model with intense eye contact. He ends the set by putting the lyric, “white girls," on a loop. “That’s, like, the best thing I’ve ever done,” Diplo says in the copter, cracking up.

After landing in Atlantic City, he passes a billboard with his face on it, touting his stint at MIXX, a club at the Borgata casino. “Hi, handsome,” he quips. Of the next gig, he notes: “It’s a bottle-service club. People go there to sit down and not really dance.”

The rigors of the night catch up with him after that gig, and Diplo goes unusually silent on the way to New York City. “I’m seriously tired,” he laments, chugging a Red Bull. A limo, outfitted with a tacky bar and neon lights, meets him at the helipad. Last stop: The Westway, a former strip club teeming with hipsters tonight.

Only, there really is no end to a Diplo tour. The set will conclude around 5 a.m., and eight hours later, he’ll be on plane to Jamaica for the Mutiny Aboard the Molly Roger tour -- a five-day jaunt through the Caribbean by sailboat.

But right now, the Red Bull has kicked in, and a wired Diplo poses rakishly in the back of the limo while tweeting on his phone. “Are you filming this?” he playfully shouts at McCauley, jolting him. Diplo smirks: “You’re fired. Everyone’s fired!”

Twitter: @THRMusic

Shane McCauley
Shane McCauley
Shane McCauley