Interview: Diplo On The Politics of Outsider Dancehall

March 26, 2012

Words by Jesse Serwer, Interview by Eddie STATS Houghton—

Okayplayer head honcho Eddie STATS Houghton recently sat down with Diplo and Chief Boima of Dutty Artz and Ghetto Bassquake fame for a wide-ranging conversation themed around the politics of the emerging music phenomenon known as tropical bass. The concept was inspired in part by a long-running, Twitter-fueled debate between Boima and Diplo regarding the current globalization of underground music, and set out as its aim bringing that conversation to some sort of resolution. Among too many other topics to name, the conversation touched on the politics behind Major Lazer and Diplo’s interaction with the dancehall. Read below to see how that particular segment of the conversation played out. And if you never have, catch our LargeUp TV episode with Diplo in Jamaica for more on his interaction and background with dancehall culture.

STATS: What’s the collaborative process like for Major Lazer?

Diplo: Major Lazer is an interesting project because the first record was like recording dubplates. I went Jamaica and I would pay $1,000 for a vocal, that’s an average price, you get an easy one-sheet deal—when we first did those deals, our label Interscope wasn’t happy with them, so I’d go back there and negotiate again, and it became very difficult. One person who definitely benefited from this project is Vybz Kartel who was [credited as] a writer on like, everything. He wrote on different beats of mine, he became a writer on “Pon De Floor,” he was on the Beyoncé credit. I think “Pon De Floor” probably has garnered more money for Vybz Kartel than any reggae record in the last ten years. But I still don’t believe he even collects all his royalties. There’s no infrastructure; he fires a manager every two months, or they end up going missing.

STATS: So, even if you have the paperwork right on your side, is it going to make a difference on the Jamaican side?

Diplo: Even with [the deals we did], everybody’s getting 50% of the writing deal. I don’t buy vocals from people, everybody on there is a writer. It’s kind of hard to negotiate records when it’s like five writers, but that’s what the lawyers have to do, that’s what we pay them for. For me, everybody gets the writing credit for sure, but Jamaicans–I feel like–don’t collect their royalties, some of them don’t have publishing deals still. [Reggae labels] VP and Greensleeves have been really great. People always complain about them, but they want to put their artists on Major Lazer records, they know these records can promote them further and further, so it’s been real easy getting contracts with them–like Elephant Man for instance has been easy.

STATS: But there’s still this gap where, even though Caribbean music drives a lot of inspiration in the mainstream and makes somebody a lot of money…it’s very seldom that the originator in Jamaica and the person selling a million records are the same person. As a general question for both of you who work in this sphere—and I’ll include myself–how can we make it better? How do we negotiate that gap that exists between the market and the people that are inspiring that stuff?

Diplo: One thing is…a lot of them are getting a lot more savvy. Like Mr. Lexx for instance, I feel like we jumpstarted his career with “Hold The Line.”  He started to tour a lot on that single in Europe. In Jamaica there’s no sense of two to three months ahead, it’s always about the next weekend, it’s always been like that, even in Brazil, there’s not a lot of infrastructure to teach people how to make money on music, it pretty much goes show to show, that’s how people make their money. Major Lazer; we sold less records than our advance was worth, we made all our money on our shows and when we can we bring artists with us. We did two or three shows with Mr. Lexx here in New York. But even visas for Jamaican guys is kind of difficult. Especially England; Vybz Kartel can’t go there, Beenie Man can’t go there, the issue of homophobia was a big problem. I remember when he first came out and Spin Magazine gave us like 2 out of 10 because we even featured Elephant Man. So the article was just about homophobia in dancehall, which is like…we have nothing to do with that.