On Diplo and the strange case of emotional appropriation.
Moreso than being about music, this story is about the delicate and eventual erasure of race and class in being defining issues for discussions initially defined by anger in the digital age.
Possibly the most intriguing story of music 2012 is the mainstream breakthrough of indie urban legend and Mad Decent Records head honcho Diplo. Between his credits as the lead producer of Usher’s ubiquitous Billboard #1 single “Climax,” plus hosting both BBC Radio 1Xtra programme “Diplo and Friends” and a weekly Sirius XM “Blow Your Head” mix, the producer has now fully begun his infiltration of top 40 popular music. As a label, Mad Decent’s modus operandi often comes under attack. The sound does not ascribe to a simply qualified ideal. Instead, a polyglot of localized pop styles are injected with the most basic of populist notions. Brazillian baile funk, Baltimore club, Jamaican dancehall, UK dubstep and a plethora of others are normalized through the label’s high level of conceptual acceptance with hipster culture, then placed into the mainstream as a top-level cosigned and ultimately palatable “other.” In Diplo being Wesley Pentz, a now very wealthy white American male from Florida leading this charge, his integration of the music celebrating the cultural traditions of racially ostracized or otherwise segregated cultures into his musical style is a troubling issue. However, in Diplo, and by extension Mad Decent more so appropriating the emotions of these cultural sounds instead of the entirety of the cultures themselves, it opens a new standard by which we as people can discuss “ism” and ownership in a new generation.
Likely most troubling to many DJs, producers and performers is the relative ease of Diplo, and by extension Mad Decent’s, rise to dominance. Less than a decade ago, Florida-born Diplo was residing in Philadelphia and working as a progressive DJ and producer throwing underground parties blending crunk Southern anthems with a variety of electro house styles. Of course, in the midst of the 2000s, many DJ/producers did this, yet few have ascended to the place where they are now the hottest producer in popular music. While merely ascribing his success to borrowing black, brown and gay people’s music in an ultimately dishonest manner is totally fair given the history of American popular music, it may sadly be short-sighted given the current era’s next level reality.
In the 1980s, Def Jam’s Rick Rubin and the Beastie Boys arguably created what is currently the most widely used definition of white appropriation of “other” culture. Though honest aficionados of hip-hop, the initial resistance of the transformation of the Beasties from punk rockers into 40 drinking “yo boys” from the block created a stigma-as-hurdle that whites had to overcome for nearly three decades in order to be accepted as pioneers and creatives in a racially-polarized generation. However, with the rise of the digital age, radically different definitions of literally every notion of humankind have risen to prominence.
What defines Mad Decent’s success isn’t likely as high-level thought requiring as “white guys stealing segregated cool.” In being one of the first labels to wholly embrace the digital era of Internet control, it’s in realizing that in the web’s democratizing imperative, people no longer have faces, but hearts still beat and feel. Somewhere between MIA “getting high like paper” and feeling “fly like planes,” a Lil Jon adlib, dubstep wobble, Baltimore’s club’s “Think” break, Jamaican riddims and the icy cool of a future bass groove, it’s all about people just wanting to feel better and/or dance good. In having the intellectual quotient to realize and then replicate the precise moments when those sounds emote at the highest, deepest and hardest of human psychological spaces, they succeed.
Redefining the intellectual angle at which we view and discuss creation and replication of culture is important. Holding firm to classic notions is comfortable, but touting them in conversations and positing them as truisms at the present moment is troublesome. The work of DJs and producers like Diplo is completely brand new and must be treated as such. When concepts like racism and classism are not entirely dead issues but are also in many ways rapidly becoming outmoded, it creates an uncomfortable schism that defies all definitions, thus creating anger and confusion. However, we must rise above and realize that times are indeed different. Clearly, the digital age refuses race and class as constructs, and embraces emotion over everything else. In being the first of few to capitalize upon this, demonizing Diplo is easy, but noting his rise to both fame and fortune? An inevitable truth in a difficult time.