Southern Diplo-macy

by John Dugan

 [I profiled Diplo for Time Out Chicago back in 2005 or so in advance of a visit to Sonotheque, which ended up being Sonotheque's biggest night up until that point. It was bananas.]


Diplo dabbles in doc film and daydreams of retirement  

Diplo, real name Wesley Pentz, is the main American proponent of Rio's favela-rooted funk carioca/baile-funk culture, which we at Time Out Chicago can't seem to shut up about. So it's only natural that he's joining baile-funk king DJ Marlboro for the MCA's TropicÁlia: A Revolution in Brazilian Culture festival.

With various mix-CDs from his Philly label/collective Hollertronix, his production on M.I.A.'sArular album and new stature as a remixer to Beck, Gwen Stefani and Bloc Party, Diplo has brought the Miami bass–derived homegrown dance music of Rio into the hipster solar system. But he has more music coursing through him, including a new, jaw-droppingly good Fabric mix-CD, slated to be released by the label wing of the London club where, incidentally, Diplo fatefully met M.I.A.

"Basically it's about me growing up in Florida," Diplo says of his latest, as he chats with us on his cell phone while runningerrands in Manhattan. The disc sums up his influences without regard for geography. "All that techno stuff on there, I kinda felt like that was Miami bass until I found out it was from Detroit a couple of years ago," he laughs. On the disc, he jumps from Detroit electro to Rio funk to booty bass back to ghetto tech, then sprinkles indie snippets like Cat Power and Le Tigre.

He plans to release (through Turntable Lab) a live set from an upcoming Brazilian festival, to show his love for pop, his solo creations and Brazilian street music. Tomorrow, he's jetting to Rio, so today he's getting a camera, film, dropping off original tracks for a new 12-inch at Turntable Lab...and ordering a pineapple roll for lunch in Chinatown. "I might hire a cinematographer when I get there," he says.

Just as Diplo is poised to hop from cult figure to star status, he changes mediums. The DJ plans to spend the next few months filming a documentary on Rio de Janeiro's baile-funk scene. "I don't want it to be seen just as a trend," he says. "I want to make sure that people see the energy level as well, not just the drugs and the gun culture around it. It's like kids making a whole music industry out of nothing."

The road to Rio has been indirect. Diplo grew up near Daytona Beach, where he turned on to the rave scene. "I'm talking about the big pants, the glow sticks," he says of the fairground gatherings of his youth. Diplo soaked up Orlando's budding club scene and he picked up a love for "fun, bouncey shit" before Disney dominance and curfews crushed it. The first chance he had, he set off to Philadelphia, where he enrolled in Temple University's film program. He then dropped out of the program to become a schoolteacher, but soon quit "because I was making more money deejaying and I got caught up in the bureaucracy at the school," he says. A teaching-assistant stint in Japan taught him where not to be. "I need spontaneity and it's not spontaneous there," he says. "In Philly, there's always a stolen car running into a stop sign or something."

Establishing himself in the gritty city wasn't easy. "Three or four years ago when I first started getting up there, kids didn't like me," he says. "I couldn't get my own night; they didn't like my style. That's why I started Hollertronix. Now I think I represent what the kids want, so all the young kids like me."

This year, Diplo's southern hemispheric sensibility has come into vogue. Rather than cash-in personally, he wants to inspire a grassroots scene: more white labels and more kids doing club nights. "I think that Chicago is probably one of the only cities that has a real underground, that has different DJs and different followers...but that's about it," he says. "Club culture is dead everywhere else in America." But he doesn't see himself a part of that culture at 40. "I want a life where I can raise kids, catch shrimp and live off the land."