Major Lazer, the global fusion dancehall crew led by Diplo, are the busiest boys in music. Kevin E G Perry joins them for 24 hours at London’s Lovebox
Luton isn’t the most glamorous airport in the world. It isn’t even the most glamorous airport around London. But it’s where Major Lazer find themselves at 1:20pm on Friday July 15, piling out of a private jet and into the first of a fleet of blacked-out minivans waiting on the tarmac. They’re already an hour behind schedule. Even private jets have their drawbacks. Nobody ever tells you about the delays.
“When we fly from Burbank to Las Vegas on Southwest Airlines we’ve only had one delay ever,” Diplo reminds Jillionaire and Walshy Fire as they pull away, sipping on nothing stronger than bottled water. “On private jets I’ve had, like, 30 delays. What the f**k is the point?”
Talk about first world problems, but these are the things that might concern you too if you flew more often than a commercial airline pilot (Diplo estimates he took 300 flights last year) and your entire life was planned out minute by minute. Last night the trio, who’ve been performing together since 2011, headlined Benicassim in Spain.
Tonight they’ll do the same at London’s Lovebox, then tomorrow it’s Longitude in Ireland and then on to Vieilles Charrues in France. Four straight nights of headline shows. More pressingly, Diplo needs to get to a meeting with his management and then to his own solo DJ set at Lovebox this afternoon. From the outside, Major Lazer looks like a non-stop carnival of debauchery, basslines and booty shaking. From the inside, it’s run with military precision.
Hence the bottled water. Their rider is more Gwyneth Paltrow than Mötley Crüe, all coconut water, green smoothies and kombucha, although Diplo says he “drank a whole bottle of rum in Cuba”. That was back in March, when Major Lazer played the biggest show of their career – one of the biggest shows of anyone’s career – in front of an estimated 400,000 people in Havana.
So far, stuck on the road between Luton and London, the reality of life in Major Lazer isn’t quite living up to billing. “As you can see, it’s pretty lame,” says Diplo. “The three of us in a car, drinking water. Every once in a while we might meet a girl, but we usually don’t because we have to go to the airplane.” He shrugs. “We’re pretty normal guys, you know?”
At 2:45pm, we arrive at their hotel in Fitzrovia and Diplo runs in for the meeting with his management. Despite what he says, there’s nothing normal about his workload. As well as Major Lazer’s relentless tour schedule, recording with Skrillex as Jack Ü and producing for the likes of Beyoncé and Madonna, he’s also still hands-on running his label Mad Decent. He has other investments in companies like Snapchat, and his total net worth is estimated at around £11 million. On top of all that, in a week’s time Major Lazer will release ‘Cold Water’, intended as the first of a series of big singles leading up to their new album next January.
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Featuring Justin Bieber and Mø, the laid-back dancehall of ‘Cold Water’ is a sort of coming together of Diplo’s two biggest tracks of last year: Jack Ü and Bieber’s ‘Where Are Ü Now’ and Major Lazer and Mø’s ‘Lean On’. Weirdly, given that it’s now racked up over 1.49 billion views (making it the ninth most-watched YouTube video of all time) and helped push Major Lazer up to the status of major festival headliners, they originally didn’t intend to release ‘Lean On’ themselves. It was offered to both Rihanna and Nicki Minaj, who each turned it down.
“We felt like any song we did would be bigger with a Beyoncé or a Nicki Minaj on it,” explains Diplo. “I’m a producer at heart, but I realised that it’s way better to do it ourselves. I think the power of the superstar has significantly gone down in the last 10 years. I’ve always worked in an industry where your goal is to give it to the biggest star. That’s gone now. I tried to shop that record around and people didn’t understand it. Now, every song on the radio sounds like ‘Lean On’.”
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Before ‘Lean On’, it was Beyoncé’s sampling of their track ‘Pon De Floor’ on 2011’s ‘Run The World’ that convinced them that they could have mainstream radio success without compromising their sound. “‘Pon De Floor’ was never a big hit, it was kinda underground,” says Diplo. “It took two years for somebody else to put it on the radio. It made us think: ‘Why are we doing all this stuff for other people and then waiting a year to get sampled? Let’s just be trendsetters on the radio.’ We realised that no one’s got an edge with reggae and dancehall, and it’s such a massive undercurrent.”
At a time when the divisive, racist politics espoused by the likes of Donald Trump are running rampant, it’s significant that the music Major Lazer make is a truly global soundclash, drawing on Caribbean and African beats, but also with European, Indian and North and South American influences. For Diplo, this all stems from his childhood growing up as little Wes Pentz in southern Florida, where, he says: “Haitians, Latinos, Cubans, white kids, Jewish kids and hood kids were all in the same neighbourhood and the same schools. Miami is the most diverse place for human beings I’ve ever been to.”
As a white man, he’s been accused of cultural appropriation for profiting from all these varied traditions. He argues he’s simply responding to the music around him. “When I grew up, no one told me what I was supposed to listen to,” he says. “On the radio, Miami bass was always the thing for me, and heavy metal – that was big in Florida too. My parents listened to country. Rap was on the radio. I grew up and I loved music. I didn’t think: ‘Oh, I’m white, I’ve got to play a guitar.’ I never had a guitar.” He laughs. “I really f**ked that up. I only had turntables. I wish I got a guitar, then I wouldn’t have so much criticism. For me, the band that’s most influential to us is The Clash. Nobody said: ‘You’re culturally appropriating’ when they made ‘Rock The Casbah’. I think what makes a great artist is someone who can change the direction of music, not someone who stays the same all the time. Otherwise music would be so f**king boring.”
It was in Miami too that he learned how artists could build an audience by hustling mixtapes, not by signing to a major label. He’s recently worked again with his former girlfriend M.I.A. on a new track ‘Bird Song’, although she’s struggled to release it due to interference from her label. “Back in the day I told her not to sign that deal with Interscope,” he says. “I was like: ‘What’s the point?’ The point was to become bigger and more popular and work with Timbaland and all that stuff, but none of that matters if you own your own music. We’re independent. We do our music on our own in America. What you learn in the underground is how to make money out of nothing.”
Diplo arrives at Lovebox just after 4pm, the first of the trio to arrive at Major Lazer’s backstage village. It’s a VIP section within the VIP section, a little enclave with security at the entrance, separate dressing rooms, offices and even their own catering and toilet. Huge steel flight boxes have been upended and opened up to create wardrobes for the dancers. In the main dressing room, a set of decks has been set up so that Diplo can DJ – and not just to keep him entertained.
“We’re always working on music on tour,” he explains. “We have these set-ups backstage so we can play music and fine-tune mixes, work on new music and try different ideas. We cut vocals on tour sometimes. We never waste any time. We don’t have any time to waste.”
A little after 5pm he jumps onto a chauffeured golf buggy which careens off around Victoria Park in search of his DJ set – except nobody’s actually quite sure where it’s supposed to be. Somebody told Diplo he was on after Chronixx, but we can hear him disappearing in the distance. Eventually we find the West Stage, one of the festival’s smaller venues. “Damn, they’re getting smaller all the time,” he jokes.
Backstage his decks are being readied. They’re on wheels so they can be pushed out onto centre stage when he goes on. Diplo is bouncing around, apparently untroubled by his lack of sleep. Just before his decks are rolled on he dives underneath them so he can be wheeled on unseen. When he jumps out, the crowd erupts and he rewards them with a set that features everything from Kanye and Beyoncé to snatches of Whitney Houston and The Lion King soundtrack. He finishes the set standing up on the decks, arms outstretched as the crowd bounces to ‘Where Are Ü Now’.
The set feels rehearsed and faultless, but afterwards he reveals it was entirely spontaneous. In fact, he’s a little annoyed that he couldn’t find everything he wanted to play. “I f**ked up and couldn’t find a couple of tunes,” he admits. “I usually try not to play any Major Lazer, but I dropped one in.”
With their headline set just a few hours away, it raises the question of why he bothers – most performers would probably be happy just to take the pay cheque for the main slot and kick back in the afternoon. Back in the golf buggy, he shrugs it off, saying: “Why not? I’m here anyway – I might as well get paid for a Diplo set. What else am I gonna do, sit in my hotel room?”
He adds, though, that he’s driven by the desire to cram as much as he can into his career. He spends half his week in LA with his two young sons, Lockett and Lazer, and says he has: “no social life, it’s only my kids. I probably won’t do this so much when they’re older. You only get a short window so I want to do as much as I can.”
Back inside Major Lazer’s VIP area, Jillionaire and Walshy Fire have arrived and are hanging out with Mø, who’ll come on to close the show with them tonight. Just before they go on, Diplo is pogoing around his dressing room, DJing topless. “Building vibes,” as Jillionaire puts it.
They huddle backstage dressed in full cricket whites, an idea they picked up after touring in India. It takes less than 20 seconds from Diplo shouting: “London!” until the first volley of pyrotechnics, and soon all you can smell is the metallic scent of fireworks. In front of them, thousands of Londoners lose their s**t to a set that’s euphoric and totally unpretentious, concerned only with the making of good times.
Even after the set, their work isn’t over. They head straight from Lovebox to Tape, a 250-capacity club in Mayfair, for Diplo’s third set of the day. He takes back what he said about not partying hard. “I mean, we do,” he says. “We sleep, like, three hours a night. On tour we do everything we can. We want to take advantage of every moment we’re out here alive. That’s our high.”