In the midst of 3,000-year-old ruins just outside Islamabad, I am playing tourist with American producer-turned-pop star Diplo. He is here for less than 24 hours and is keen to explore the ancient city of Taxila – what’s left of it – clambering over a Buddhist stupa in a Burberry trenchcoat and traditional kurta tunic. Armed guards stalk the long grass around us, while Diplo spots some puppies, who look suspiciously like they have been planted there for our visit. “We’ve found the ancient animals!” he deadpans, as he poses for a photo for his Snapchat or maybe a forthcoming calendar. “This is one of my top five international moments.”
It’s Diplo’s second time in Pakistan, and later today he will be throwing his next “block party” in the capital, where 4,000 twentysomethings will turn out for a set from his DJ crew Major Lazer, alongside local artists such as SNKM. The first event he did, in 2016, “might have been the only DJ show that ever happened here,” he says. This year, he has flown in to throw another one, before zipping back to the US to soundtrack a Super Bowl after party and perform the dance routine from his latest video on The Tonight Show. Diplo, AKA 39-year-old Wesley Pentz, can’t seem to locate his off switch. “Honestly, I’m waiting to be irrelevant,” he drawls, drolly.
That wait might be a long one. Pentz has a growing CV of collaborations that boasts Beyoncé, Drake and Usher, an estimated net worth of $28.5m (£20m) and a lucrative Las Vegas nightclub residency. Chances are, even if you didn’t know you were hearing a Diplo song, you will have picked up on his scent. It could be Paper Planes, his breakthrough with MIA from 2007, or, 10 years later, it could be because of what has been widely described as the “dolphin flute” noise that trills through so much of modern pop (and can be traced back to his hit with Justin Bieber and Skrillex, Where Are Ü Now). These days, it is easier to list the people he hasn’t worked with than the ones he has – even Sting, who apparently “did a song for Major Lazer that we might release one day”.
Pentz is also known for searching out the worldwide underground. Whether it’s dancehall and reggae, reggaeton and Afrobeats, or New Orleans bounce and Miami bass, he pairs emerging genres with whatever electronic beat is pulsing at the time (electro in the early 2000s, then Dutch house) and enhances the lot with a major boost of steroids. In Major Lazer, he has a festival-dominating act to take that music to places off the usual touring circuit. In 2016, they were the first major US act to play Cuba in 50 years, in a show for 400,000 people (a film about the show was released in January); in the past year alone, Pentz has played in Bangladesh, Nepal, sub-Saharan Africa, China and South Korea.
Pentz grew up in south Florida, near Miami, in a mixed neighbourhood where there were regular reggae parties at the park near his house. He calls the state “a giant retirement home”, and he used to hop freight trains to see how far away he could get. He says he was a nuisance for his ex-military dad, who ran a fishing bait shop, and his mum, who worked in a supermarket. “I was a really bad kid, I was always disappointing my family,” he says, in the back seat of a bulletproof car as our convoy heads back to Islamabad. “I can’t count how many times I made my mother cry.” Have his parents forgiven him? “They still thought I was a drug dealer until, like, 10 years ago,” he says, smiling, but he says his father is one of the reasons that he’s so driven. “I don’t think he even knows how hard I work, but I’m always trying to show him that I do.”
In the early 2000s, Pentz was a scrappy DJ in Philadelphia who would mix Missy Elliott into New Order at his hipsterish Hollertronix parties, when he heard about Brazilian baile funk, a rudimentary clash of electro and rap that was bumping out of Rio’s favelas. He flew there, made a mixtape of it and eventually a documentary. Since then he has left no genre unturned, releasing artists as varied as Syrian wedding singers, nosebleed dubstep dudes and DJs peddling rhythmic crazes (anyone remember moombahton?). Perhaps more than any other figure in modern music, he has championed the idea that contemporary pop isn’t exclusively western, but international.
By 2009, Pentz had turned his restless attentions to another region of rump-shaking music, and conceived the Jamaican-inspired Major Lazer soundsystem with his London-based mentor, Switch. They released a blinding debut album of riotous digi-dancehall, teeming with guest appearances from some of Kingston’s finest MCs, but Switch left in 2011, to be replaced by Jamaican MC/producer Walshy Fire (who is absent for this trip) and Trinidadian hype-man Jillionaire (who barely speaks to me).
In the same year, US electronic dance music began to boom. Major Lazer started incorporating EDM’s characteristic nosebleed drops, clattering trap and OTT stagecraft. Overnight, they went from being besuited blokes behind decks to a confetti cannon-firing, crowd-zorbing, all-twerking monster. “We took advantage [of EDM’s popularity],” Pentz says of being a fixture at cash cows such as Electric Daisy Carnival and Ultra festival. “But I always thought Major Lazer was different. We weren’t big-room house music; we were diverse.”
He sees the EDM phenomenon as “cheesy” – though he still maintains his Vegas hotel shows – and lampoons its authenticity vacuum by executive-producing What Would Diplo Do?, a mockumentary series in which he is played as a hopeless jocular spanner by James Van Der Beek. In reality, it is curious to see where that TV caricature ends and the real Diplo begins. Our convoy pulls up at a textiles shop so the Lazer mob can pick up some souvenirs, and he takes an impressively lithe jump at a towering stack of rugs. “Did anyone get that on video?” he asks, adjusting his bleached man-bun.
The most notable shift of the past three years, however, is that Diplo has become the star of his songs. In 2015, Major Lazer’s Lean On became, for a time, the most streamed single in history.
What Lean On’s success showed Pentz was that he no longer needed impressive names: streaming could take a track with an unknown such as the Danish singer MØ to the top. He gamed Spotify before major labels had the stronghold they do now, employing marketing agencies to push the track to tastemaking playlists until the clicks congealed into a global smash. Even so, Pentz maintains that, “as an artist, I never listened to data”. What he has always done instead is “find places people aren’t at. Like, if reggae’s the uncoolest music ever, I’ll try to make a reggae album. A lot of the big producers, their lifestyle is based on them having a hit record every year. I DJ, so I make my money elsewhere; I can make flops and keep touring.”
An afternoon with Diplo is much like this: a look under the bonnet of the music biz. “In 2018, you can make as many missteps as possible,” he says at one point. “Nobody remembers the bad music you made. Justin Bieber is a good example: people just remember that he made a great album in Purpose.” Disappointingly, he thinks global pop has “got a bleak future. Every once in a while you have breakthroughs – Latin music’s having a moment. But I can’t see it going further than that.”
So how will Major Lazer, whose whole schtick is globalised pop, succeed? He says they need to marshal – or cannibalise – new styles rather than merely follow them.
“I never want to ride the wave of the trends,” he says. “I want to start them or mess them up.” When other artists start to sound like him, he’s flattered but sees it as a sign to go weirder. Major Lazer’s album was originally slated for spring, but Pentz is putting that on hold so he can “see what 2018 looks like” (instead, he has a solo EP of hip-hop and R&B-pop, California, out this week, and a summer of gigs with Mark Ronson as new disco duo Silk City). Major Lazer, then, comes off like a cunning changeling, serving up “great songs” that you “could play acoustic” and then adding “bells and whistles”, according to Pentz’s preternatural talent for determining which intercontinental sounds will gain traction.
His pop cross-pollination can work both ways. J Balvin’s 2017 single Mi Gente – the second non-English speaking track to make the US Top 10 after Despacito – mimicked Pentz’s penchant for mutant hooks that veer between irritating and genius (see the deranged siren of Major Lazer’s Pon De Floor, sampled by Beyoncé in Run the World (Girls), and his recent single, again with MØ, Get it Right). And yet Pentz has always been dogged by cries of cultural appropriation, whether for working with women of colour (despite MIA being his then-girlfriend) or being charged with “whitewashing” dancehall. His eyes begin to roll before I have even started to ask: at what point is being influenced by something celebratory, and at what point is it cultural pickpocketing?
“I might be too tired to answer that in a good way …” he begins, before attempting to anyway. “I don’t … really … fucking care. What kind of music am I supposed to make? Being a white American, you have zero cultural capital, unless you’re doing Appalachian fiddle music or something. I’m just a product of my environment.” A favourite comparison of his is Mick Jones and co’s reggae-pilfering punks: “I’m sure the Clash never had people mad at them for co-opting [black music].”
Pentz told the New Yorker this year that “culture is meant to be fused … That’s how culture moves”, but he has also blithely trolled the borders of taste. In 2016, as he prepared to play his first Islamabad show, he tweeted a picture of himselfwith a graphic of the Faisal mosque and the caption “dropping bombs”. Obviously he meant “bombs” of the club banger kind, but it was ill-judged. (He says today that he’s more careful, lamenting that Twitter is a “deceased art form that’s too risky to use at all”.) There is also a sense of him mining the edginess of lesser-toured places such as Pakistan and Uganda. How does he avoid his voracious tour diary looking like cultural colonialism?
“When I go out [to] somewhere like Africa, it’s not a business to me,” he says. “I think to myself: ‘This place is changing rapidly. How can we help build it?’” He points to signing Nigerian singer/songwriter Mr Eazi as being about “hoping someone in America will hear him and then make different music”.
As much as there is a perceived cynicism about his musical mission, Pentz says it’s worth it for the end result. “When it comes to making music, understand that my intentions are always great. I’m there for the music only,” he says. “I have a lot of privilege by being a middle-class white American. So if I had to trade that by being considered exploitative, and people always saying negative things about me … It’s a small price to pay.”
When Major Lazer perform in Islamabad that night, the power of partying trumps all. It is a smaller show than they are used to and it is more ramshackle: equipment keeps cutting out, security struggle to keep the VIP area in check. But it is almost certainly more intense. Every time the lights go up on the crowd, they are singing back Lean On, Cardi B and Ed Sheeran, or pogoing when Pentz knocks out Panjabi MC’s 2002 bhangra smash Mundian to Bach Ke.
Over the phone a week later, Pentz tells me that, when he first played in Pakistan, he cried, and even though he had received death threats before he went onstage this time, it didn’t stop him from yelling: “We are gonna do it every year from now on.” For all his self-awareness, you do get the sense that he will never stop chasing the unknown. “I’m constantly on the brink of burning out,” he says, “but I love feeling like I’m being a part of something – being part of making music.”