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Diplo has written and produced hits for everyone from Beyoncé to Justin Bieber, Madonna to Britney Spears. That’s in addition to releasing chart-topping music under his own name and through an ever-growing list of collaborative projects with names like Major Lazer, Jack Ü, Silk City and LSD.
But for his next sonic adventure, Diplo, 44, dons a stetson and returns to the rustic landscape of his 2020 release, Diplo Presents Thomas Wesley, Chapter 1: Snake Oil. The sequel, Diplo Presents Thomas Wesley: Chapter 2 — Swamp Savant (out April 28 on Columbia), sees the superstar DJ once more adopt his western persona Thomas Wesley and team up with some of the biggest names in country and hip-hop for a new brand of Americana.
The first single, “Wasted,” features Kodak Black and Zoe Wetzel. The second, “Use Me (Brutal Hearts),” lured Sturgill Simpson (singing as “Johnny Blue Skies”) out of hiding after a five-year absence. (Sean Penn plays Johnny Blue Skies in the music video — more on that later.)
Diplo caught up with The Hollywood Reporter ahead of his Stagecoach appearance as Thomas Wesley to talk about aging out of music festivals, his unusual path to dance music supremacy and what inspired him to take LSD before running the L.A. marathon.
Good morning, Diplo. I saw pictures of you at Coachella the first weekend. Did you have a good time?
Yeah. I think I’m a little too old for Coachella, though. This is the oldest I ever felt at Coachella. It’s really fun. I love going with the general population and seeing new bands. But it’s just too much. I think I once said on Jimmy Fallon, “Coachella is the Influencer Survivor.” This year felt like that more than ever.
Over the years, the festival has become more electronic and more crossover. You kind of represent what it became.
Yeah. I think they honestly might be having a hard time booking headliners. There’s not much left. We kind of left the era of great superhero acts, like the Red Hot Chili Peppers or Daft Punk. Their [2006 Coachella set] was the most epic show. Now they book acts like Bad Bunny and Blackpink, who are cool, but they’re just the most Top 40 there is. It’s almost like they’re stadium acts.
[Coachella producers Goldenvoice] have a hard time, because I think there’s not a lot of really culturally relevant new acts. I saw Labrinth. That was amazing. I think that represents real Coachella. He’s part of the zeitgeist. But the rest of it just felt like they had to scramble to find things that were cultural touchstones, but also could bring a big crowd in. My favorite there was Diljit Dosangh. He’s this really nice Indian guy I met there. He was amazing. We made music after I saw his show.
Even the headliners they do book don’t show up. What do you make of what happened there with Frank Ocean?
I don’t think Frank Ocean’s concert needs to be the best or worst anything. It was a show where the ice rink didn’t work and that’s all it needs to be. I didn’t see his show, because I’m not a huge fan. It’s probably a generational thing. I think I was a little older when Frank Ocean came out. I was in my 30s. He has one of the best voices I’ve ever heard. I really think he just doesn’t really care about shows. I think that’s Coachella’s fault. He doesn’t really care about his fans, to give them a concert. I don’t think it matters. He’s just a musician. Some people just don’t care.
I suspect a lot of people, like you, don’t really want to be there, and maybe he was just reflecting that onstage.
[Laughs.] He definitely was like me. After one day, I was just like, “I got to get out of here.” He definitely felt like the old guy that was trying to leave Coachella. But when you’re younger, I mean, that many acts in one place? And then you’re next to Justin Bieber and you’re next to Elon Musk. I mean there’s nothing else like that — where the whole world is just thrown into one little box for a weekend.
You moved to India at age 20. And that’s where your career sort of took root, is that correct?
It’s counterintuitive, to me, that you would build a huge electronic music career by moving to India. What compelled you to go?
I think, more than anything, I just needed to live life. I was born in the South, in Mississippi, but I would attribute my life to Florida, and towns like Fort Lauderdale. Not a small town, but it’s definitely not a cosmopolitan city, by any means. Then, in Orlando and Daytona, I was experimenting with music. There wasn’t a community for that, but I loved it. I didn’t know what I was going to do, and I just know that I needed to become me, in some way. And I think that’s what India did for me.
It was my first real trip outside of the country. And you can’t throw anybody into a more wild situation than India, especially 20 years ago, when I went. India is like, you’re on a highway. All of a sudden, someone in a big, giant monster truck carrying supplies just runs into a cow in front of you, and it just explodes, and you have to go off the road. Then you have to get your bike fixed by some Punjabi guys in the desert, and you have to walk five miles to find some wire to tie your bike up.
And how did you finally arrive at the conclusion that you were destined to make music?
I was a late bloomer when I started making music and actually realized I could do this for a living. Because it’s a hard time, when you’re an artist, to really take that final leap — the one where you’re like, “I’m going to do this. I’m going to be broke, and I can’t go back to college. I’m about to be in my mid-20s, or whatever it is. It’s all or nothing.”
It’s scary. But I just knew, somewhere in me, I wanted to be a creator. I went to school for anthropology. I was just into culture. I was into music and people. And if I heard something on the radio, or if I heard something on an old record, or if I saw someone dressing a certain way, or acting a certain way, I always wanted to know: “What creates people’s culture? What is it that makes people do what they do, and who they are?”
For a while, it was a dirty word, mixing cultures. “Appropriation” was a word thrown around with what I do. But that’s such an old, tired argument nowadays, because the music I’ve made has stood the test of time, and the people I’ve worked with have stood the test of time. People realized the world gets bigger [when you cross-pollinate]. You realize how we’re all [in this together], that there are no rules to this.
Can you read music?
I can’t read music. I could probably struggle to read it. I can read guitar tabs. That was never interesting to me. But I play by ear, and I could always hear something on a record and replay it on a keyboard, if I had to. As I got into the actual technical aspect of making music, I just decided to use laptops. I just bypassed the idea of being a musician or instrumentalist. The plus and minuses is that you can’t give me a piano or guitar, and have me play an overture of my songs. But I could hear raw audio, and I could change it in a way that was really unique.
Thank God I did that, because that’s what music did. It became soundbites and electronic, and it became cultural, and it became sampling. That’s what I loved. I always tell people, when I made M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes,” it wasn’t just that I loved the Clash guitar sample, but I loved what the Clash was.
I’m glad you brought up 2008’s “Paper Planes.” That’s the song, wouldn’t you say, that really launched you?
It was so huge, that song, and it’s so, so great.
It was such an outlier, and it barely made the album. It became a hit because of Seth Rogen, really. He put it on the Pineapple Express trailer. This is before TikTok, but it’s the same thing. When TikTok songs become big, one influencer just has an idea for a song. They make a trend, and it becomes big, and that song reaches millions of people. One person has to love it, and they share it with their friends, and it’s just the platform is bigger now.
We have such access to sounds now, and the labels aren’t just in control of giving you these big, massive projects that we’re forced to listen to. We kind of were able to explore. There’s this word-of-mouth culture that is really cool.
With “Paper Planes,” you said it started as a Clash sample. And where did you get the gun shots and the cash register sound?
Those are just in my computer. I think they’re probably from samples from the Looney Tunes Sound Library. And I had the Clash song, and I just sampled that bass line, because it was such a cool little bassline, but also, the high-end guitar. It was very Lou Reed, in the way that it held the note.
So I just replayed the bass line on the piano, and the organ, and the little sounds. We made the record, and I just thought, putting the cash register and the gun shots was the most punk thing we could do. The [record company] tried to take it off, and we couldn’t play it on the radio, either. This is kind of post-9/11, and having gunshots on the radio wasn’t very cool. It still isn’t, I guess. We had a safe version that was really funny. It had Street Fighter sounds in it, that actually got on the radio first. But then they just started playing the original. DJs started playing the record on hip-hop radio, and they were mixing it in, so you couldn’t really have them play the radio edit.
You and M.I.A. fell in love while you made that song?
I think we just fell in love, just in general. We were just such a crazy pair. She’s older than me, and honestly she taught me so much, because she was in the industry. I was just a little punk kid in Philadelphia, trying to make music however I could. I didn’t even know how to use a laptop that well. I just made some silly songs and mixtape stuff, and she introduced me to a bunch of big producers, and major label people took notice to me.
She was really just a fun, crazy person. We had the best time together, and we made great music together, and we just experimented, and we learned things together. We were the product of Missy Elliot and the Neptunes and that kind of stuff, before they were on the radio already. But we were influenced by their nonchalant attitude, to doing whatever the fuck they wanted.
We spent a couple years together. I learned so much from her. This was my first real, solid girlfriend. Of course, you move to L.A., and everything falls apart. I started living and working out here, and just learning to do things on my own, and trying to be a producer. I think we just drifted apart. We’re really close now. We have similar friends, and a lot of her ex-boyfriends are people I work with — like Rex Kudo and Troy Baker, and some of her producers. It’s just a big family, and our kids are the same age. So she’s just an awesome person, I’m so glad that I came up with her.
I talked to her today, actually. She’s supposed to come to the studio on Monday, but I forgot to WhatsApp her at 3 p.m., and she was mad at me.
I want to ask about Madonna. I know you guys have obviously collaborated on music, like “Bitch, I’m Madonna” and “Living for Love.” You were there in the Madame X Tour announcement video, and then you were in the Celebration Tour announcement video. Tell me about your friendship.
Madonna was sort of my first big obsession. When I was younger, I loved this one record called “Physical Attraction.” I used to tape off the radio, and I thought she was so awesome. I loved that kind of music growing up in Florida, because we had freestyle down there, and Madonna was a pop version of it. Freestyle was this kind of silly girl music that was Miami bass with silly vocals, but Madonna actually could sing, and she had great production on her live shows. So my first obsession with Madonna was as a young kid.
As I became a bigger producer, she took notice of me, and brought me in. Because I think every five years, she always latches onto a great producer, and they kind of team up. So before it was me it was Paul Oakenfold and before that it was Jellybean Benitez, and I was just another producer.
But we got along so well. It’s weird. In the studio, I was just never starstruck by her. She was a peer to me, and she was always just so cool, and so is her whole team and her [longtime manager] Guy Oseary. I just love everything about her. I’m friends with her daughter, too. I work with Lourdes. We helped put out her E.P. Go [released under her stage name Lolahol] through [electronic producer] Eartheater’s label.
I’m so happy Madonna is finally doing the classics. She’s a real artist. She’s like, “I put out a new record,” and she performs the new record, and that’s it. And she’s like, “Fuck you,” to everybody else. But when you’re as big as Madonna, and you have a 50-year career, yeah, she has to give people what they want. But I like that she wouldn’t do it for so long. And now she’s really doing it.
And now you have worked on this Sturgill Simpson collaboration — part of an entire album of country music. Again, it pushes the direction of what you do.
I put out a country record three years ago, and it was kind of as, I won’t say it was a joke, but it was like, “What do I do on a major label? I didn’t want to do something predictable.” So we put out a country record, [Diplo Presents Thomas Wesley, Chapter 1: Snake Oil]. It was a tough time to really promote music back then. It was during Black Lives Matter protests, and a huge social sweeping change around America, so it was kind of left on the back burner. But we had a huge hit with Morgan Wallen on it, [“Heartless“], and he became I think the biggest male pop star in America right now.
It’s still hard to translate to my fans why I’m doing this country-tinged project. I think that with the Sturgill song, I just thought, “How do I really mix what I do, as a dance producer, with country music?” There was an era of Urban Cowboy, that movie in the ’70s, and there’s kind of this era of the ’70s chic, where country artists were rock stars, and they were doing disco, and they were doing line dancing, and they were living in the big cities.
I felt like it was the best hybrid of what I do. For the country purists, you can’t deny his voice, and you can’t deny the songwriting. And for my fans, they could still dance to it.
How does the country music scene respond to your country music?
I was talking about cultural appropriation in the beginning of our conversation. I’ve never had so much pushback in a culture than I’ve ever had with this country music. No matter what I do — I go to Africa, I go to the Dominican Republic, I’m working in Puerto Rico with reggaeton, everybody is so accepting, especially dance music. Dance music is everybody’s music, right? It belongs to everybody in the world. Everybody’s contributed to it, everybody’s been part of it. It’s one family. There are no rules.
But country music is the most pushback I’ve ever had on a genre: what the rules are, and what you can do, and how the radio is, and what their fans will say, this and that. It’s so crazy what I’ve gone through to make these records, but honestly? I love a challenge. And I think I made a great album.
How did you get Sean Penn to lip-sync Sturgill’s part in the video?
This is probably the most Malibu or L.A. story I could tell you: He’s my neighbor here in Malibu. He’s a Malibu guy, and I see him surfing. I’ve worked with him on his CORE program. I love what he does with CORE, whether it was with Haiti or Katrina, whatever it is. He’s just an awesome guy.
But I just hit him up, man. I was, “Man, I need someone to be in this video,” because Sturgill just went missing. He just up and left country. I couldn’t reach him, and I was like, “Oh my God, this is going to be a flop, my one chance.” And I just put out an APB. I was like, “Maybe Sean will do it.” He never did a video, and he loved the song, and he came in there, man.
He was getting there early at the video set, getting in character, smoking cigarettes. I know actors, but I’ve never really seen someone really act. He blew me away.
You meet people all the time, and you’re always in Hollywood, and text with them, and I don’t think everybody’s ever, will do something like what he did for me. But he did that for me. There’s some heart and some soul and some love here in LA.
Finally, I saw some headlines saying that you took acid to do the L.A. marathon?
Did you really do the marathon on acid? Is that safe?
Yeah, I did acid. I didn’t trip out while I was running. I put it in my water bottle. I’ll put it like this: I take acid a lot when I’m working, and when I’m waking up. I don’t want to do too much caffeine, and I don’t want to drink alcohol, so I put a little bit, a little drop sometimes.
I probably took half a tab of acid at the marathon, but it really motivated me, because I was running at the fastest pace I’ve ever ran. You also have all these runners around you, so your energy’s there. I was running a seven-minute mile for the first eight miles, which is crazy. I really paid for it in the end of the marathon. But that first two hours was a breeze, man. It was so fast. And maybe acid has a different effect on people, but for me, those first two hours, which is usually the scariest part of a marathon, just went by so quickly.
But you weren’t tripping and seeing weird things?
A little bit, but I mean, you’re sweating in your energy. If you’re doing something with acid, and you’re not sitting around, I think that it’s like putting stereo headphones on, as opposed to mono. You see some colors different. There weren’t giant lizards jumping out of the sky. It’s not like that. In small doses, it just gives you a fresher perspective. It’s like wearing glasses sometimes. These things are clear.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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