In 2003, a 24-year-old Wesley Pentz, along with DJ Low Budget, started a series of parties and mixtapes dubbed Hollertronix. Based out of Philadelphia, Pentz quickly began getting the underground American dance scene buzzing with a mishmash of styles and genres that on paper seemed disjointed, but somehow the duo made it work. On his own, Pentz would also later borrow (or appropriate) sounds that were foreign to Western audiences, most notably Brazil’s baile funk.
Such are the humble beginnings of one of EDM’s biggest figures, Diplo, who these days spends more time jetting from festival to festival than throwing parties. The Weeknd, Beyoncé, Madonna, Justin Bieber, and other stars have sought his production skills, while he also collaborates with other artists under the monikers Major Lazer, Jack Ü, LSD, and Silk City.
It’s hard to find a dance music festival where Diplo isn’t featured high on the bill — and if you’ve seen him DJ for a crowd, you know he’s earned it. American audiences in particular love his more palatable brand of dance music, which mixes plenty of hip-hop and pop at a frenetic pace, contrasting with a long-held belief by other dance music DJs that sets should slowly build up to something. That’s perhaps earned Diplo some detractors that dismiss him as fluff.
However, Diplo emerged when the American dance music scene had yet to be turned into a three-letter acronym and marketing buzzword. When he and Low Budget started Hollertronix, there wasn’t anything like it. In 2004, Diplo would also release his debut and only studio album, Florida — named for his home state — on Big Dada, a Ninja Tune imprint.
Later that year, he’d also drop his mixtape with then-unknown British rapper M.I.A., Piracy Funds Terrorism Volume 1. That release, which featured early demos and mixes meant for M.I.A.’s debut, Arular, combined with crowd-pleasing pop and hip-hop songs, was critically acclaimed and shared aggressively on peer-to-peer services such as LimeWire.
Then, in 2005, came Arular, for which Diplo produced three tracks, including the standout “Bucky Done Gun.” However, the level of influence he had over M.I.A.’s career, particularly her debut and followup, Kala, has been a point of contention for the British rapper. “If you read the credits, he sent me a loop for ‘Bucky Done Gun,’ and I made a song in London, and it became ‘Bucky Done Gun.’ But that was the only song he was actually involved in on Arular,” M.I.A. told Pitchfork in 2017.
If Diplo’s early career before mainstream success is defined by anything, it’s his relationship with M.I.A. (AKA Mathangi Arulpragasam), with whom he was involved both professionally and romantically. The two started dating at the beginning of their careers. However, M.I.A. told Rolling Stone in an article on the tenth anniversary of Arular that as she experienced early success — landing on magazine covers; being signed to a major label, Interscope; and being asked to work with Missy Elliott — Diplo essentially gaslighted her in regard to her rising career. M.I.A. concluded his behavior was due to jealousy. Diplo later admitted to Billboard that nothing she said was a lie and acknowledged jealousy played a big role in the demise of their relationship.
Even now, their friendship remains rocky: One day they’re speaking; the next they’re slamming each other in the media.
However, Diplo certainly owes some gratitude to M.I.A., because his work on her only Billboard-charting single, “Paper Planes,” is perhaps why the mainstream began to notice him. When Jay-Z and T.I. sampled the song on their hit single “Swagga Like Us,” the music industry came knocking on Diplo’s door.
In the meantime, Diplo was also working on his new project, Major Lazer, a collaboration with another M.I.A.-associated producer, Switch. The two took plenty of influence from dancehall and reggae and dropped their debut, Guns Don’t Kill People… Lazers Do, in 2009. It was a monumentally important album for EDM, combining sounds that at the time were foreign to American and European dance floors. “Pon de Floor,” which would later be reworked by Beyoncé for her single “Run the World (Girls),” easily stood out and was put on rotation across the globe.
However, for whatever reason, Switch abandoned the project, leaving Diplo to steer the ship in a more hip-hop- and pop-oriented direction. Major Lazer would later find mainstream success with its third studio album, 2015’s Peace Is the Mission. The DJ Snake-and-MØ-assisted track “Lean On” would go on to reach number four on the Billboard Hot 100.
Though most EDM fans probably live blissfully unaware of Diplo’s underground beginnings, there’s always that set that grumbles about him before he was a “sellout.” But to his credit, Diplo didn’t simply sell out — he rose with the EDM bubble at the beginning of the decade. While his sound has certainly evolved to include more mainstream tastes, so have audiences who clamor for his genre-hopping style of music.
For the old-school Diplo fans, they’ll always have Piracy Funds Terrorism.
Life in Color. With Diplo, What So Not, Said the Sky, and others. 5 p.m. Saturday, January 19, at RC Cola Plant, 550 NW 24th St., Miami. Tickets cost $79.99 via licmiami.com.
Diplo. 11 p.m. Saturday, January 19, at LIV, 4441 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 305-674-4680; livnightclub.com. Tickets cost $55 via tixr.com.