Tripping the Beat Fantastic
by Kevin J. Elliott

Philadelphia-by-way-of-Florida native Wes Pentz has already lived a semi-charmed kind of life behind the name Diplo. But long before fronting Major Lazer, producing tracks for a laundry list of mainstream stalwarts (Kelis, Snoop, Robyn, Santigold), and winning his first Grammy as the wizard behind MIA’s “Paper Planes,” he had plenty of time to travel the world playing the role of ethnomusicologist by sampling local beat concoctions from which he could relay to his Hollertronix mixtapes and funnel into his 2004 down-tempo, avant-solo record Florida. Adding the “ologist” to Diplo’s resume isn’t as technical as it sounds. Though he’s known to dig about the culture, gain relationships and “research,” most of what he does in these locales—from New Orleans to the Australian bush—is grunt work, getting his turntables into the trenches and basically soaking up whatever it is that makes the place intriguing. He’s constantly searching for that beacon of bumpers shielded from the rest of the world.

One such place that he fell in love with was Rio de Janeiro and the city’s regionalized take on hip-hop and Miami bass, known as Funk Carioca or Baile Funk (though the latter simply refers to the party at which funk plays). By now, Diplo has been the foremost expert on the genre, exporting it to his own DJ nights, amassing hour-long mixes of the brightest and best, and eventually filming what he found over a period of three years back and forth. Favela on Blast (in reference to the vibrant slums of Rio where the music is conceived) is the result of countless interviews, ducking drug lords, and risking his life on the vast hillsides where outsiders are rarely welcome. The film documents how in such meager conditions funk has flourished, if only because the creators of funk use the basest of elements to make their music. Funk is built on thrift-store samplers and 808s, assembled with bootleg software and tattered hardware, sped-up and distorted, usually employing lyrics so hyper-raunchy even 2 Live Crew would blush if they could speak Portuguese. Favela on Blast is a non-stop blur of color, dance, and music, and not a snapshot of a fad or trend made for ephemeral consumption. Though it’s been almost six years since Diplo started the project, Baile Funk has spread and embedded itself into the zeitgeist of the entirety of Brazil, not just the neighborhoods of Rio.

As a man who is constantly sidetracked, it’s no surprise that it’s taken so long for Favela on Blast to get a domestic release, complete with subtitles and outtakes to finally shut the door on one chapter of Diplo’s career. In my conversation with him he readily admits that he hasn’t returned to Brazil in quite some time, but that the influence of Baile Funk on modern hip-hop hybridizations and blogosphere dance music is stronger than ever. For now, Diplo continues on as a sort of renaissance man. Besides the obvious demands for his production and remix skills, his endless tour with Major Lazer, and being label head of his Mad Decent empire, Diplo is finishing up a cartoon starring his vampire-slaying, Jamaican superhero for Adult Swim, gotten back into filmmaking with his No One’s Safe series for Current TV, and still finds time to aid underprivileged and indigenous kids in making their own music via his Heaps Decent initiative. Much like the making Favela on Blast, at first it all sounds so ambitious, but Diplo ultimately finds a way.

I guess the first question would be how you initially found out about Funk Carioca and what eventually prompted you to do a movie on the subject?

Diplo: Specifically finding out about it was just a case of someone passing it along to me. I’m always out looking for new music and I just came across. So I eventually went down to Brazil to physically find out about it and do some research.

It’s been a long time since you filmed the movie and since that time I’ve found that funk music in Brazil has become pretty commonplace among their mainstream artists. Do you go back frequently enough to know how these artists and the genre has progressed?

D: I haven’t been back in three years, but I know exactly what you are saying about how it’s moving on. In the last five or six years it’s really moved out of Rio and into everywhere else in Brazil.

When you were first visiting Rio, what do you think it was about that city that produced this music, because it’s very specific, very regional?

D: Rio’s infrastructure is really fucked up to begin with, but there’s always been constant music coming from the city, starting with samba and onto bossanova from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. Funk really grew there because of its similarities to Miami. Even with the record covers, I think kids there could really relate to MC Shy D records. The ingredients are short. It’s bass music with a hip-hop direction. The same electronics are involved and it’s the same budget with kids using free software and using loops. These are kids with no musical background and all of these things have come together.

Do you think the beat of funk has found its way into American and European hip-hop and dance music, and if not, why not?

D: Rio definitely has its own sound and they’ve attached it to the beat, but honestly that beat has been in America forever. Kraftwerk and Africa Bambaataa have the same patterns. It’s the same thing, but in Rio they prefer it to be more distorted, more live sounds.

Does it bother you at all that M.I.A. has become somewhat synonymous with that beat? Because honestly I think the best thing she’s ever done is the Piracy Funds Terrorism mixtape, which was basically you.

D: Not at all, because I think since the beginning she’s always been an artist people look to for that hybrid sound. She’s a magnet for post-modern, new sounds, so that beat fits.

Florida came out more than six years ago. Do you feel, even with all of the projects you have going at the same time, that you need to make another solo record? At this point what will it sound like?

D: It will sound less avant-garde, I guess. I’m actually working on that kind of stuff now. I think I’m trying to turn that shit in November.

You’ve been very busy producing a number of bigger artists (Robyn, Snoop, Kelis) lately, so did you ever imagine you’d get to a point where you were in demand to make mainstream radio hits?

D: Not really. I don’t really think I do that anyway, as it never gets on the radio. People are always just expecting me to do something different. I’m always the guy that tries to bring a beat to the artist that whey will respect. But you never know.

Is there someone you dream of working with that hasn’t happened yet or never will?

D: Bat for Lashes.

You’ve also been busy producing rock bands for the first time. You did Popo last year and just finished an album for the British band Rolo Tomassi. Did you find it difficult to transition into that?

D: My whole job with Rolo Tomassi wasn’t to go into the studio to make them sound like Gucci Mane. It was trying to make them sound like the best band they could be. I was so mad at Pitchfork for reviewing the Rolo Tomassi record and then using the first paragraph to ask “Where are the funk beats?” What the fuck are you talking about? I want people to listen to the record, so I lend myself to something like that, but I don’t want to turn everything into a ghetto dance party from Siberia.

Can you elaborate on what we can expect from Mad Decent the rest of this year? Can we expect more grand projects like Favela on Blast or will there be more of the shorter films like the one you just did on New Orleans?

D: The next big goal for us is to move into those types of things (films). Right now we’re finishing up the Major Lazer cartoon, which will start at the end of the year. We have all the voice acting for that. I’d love to do more stuff like the New Orleans show, No One’s Safe, but you always need the right team to do things like that. That’s why I’m always trying out new things. Favela on Blast was done by myself, with my own budget. I produced and directed it entirely with Leandro (HBL). It was the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever done in my life when I think about it now.

Last question: what was the last thing you listened to?

D: I’ve been listening to this record by Bonobo the last two days, and it’s amazing.