How Major Lazer Bet on Diversity (and Data) to Make Global Hits: 'The Audience Controls Music No
On a hot May afternoon in Miami, Major Lazer is gathered at a dockside seafood spot called Garcia’s for a lunch of conch fritters, grilled mahi-mahi, rice and plantains. The vibe is very Jimmy Buffett, with a deeply tanned middle-aged posse pulling up in a speedboat and hopping out for a meal, and an actual pod of dolphins cruising by, much to our table’s delight. Diplo, whose real name is Wesley Pentz (everyone calls him Wes), is especially pleased by a mural with a cartoonish manatee, which he poses in front of for a potential Instagram or Snapchat hit. “I love manatees!” he says. “I have a tattoo of a manatee. They’re the best.”
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If Major Lazer has a spiritual home, it has to be Miami. At the crossroads of the United States, Latin America and the Caribbean, the city pulses to a Major Lazer-ish mix of dancehall, hip-hop, EDM and reggaetón, all of which you hear constantly booming from passing cars. Diplo, the crew’s founder, went to high school just up the coast in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where he fell in love with reggae, metal and Miami bass. Walshy Fire, the second of Major Lazer’s three DJs and its main MC, was born in Jamaica but spent a big chunk of his childhood in Miami, where he lives today. Jillionaire, the team’s third spinner, hails from Trinidad and lives in New York but is prepping to move to Miami. “I love it here,” says Diplo, 38. “I already moved to L.A. eight years ago, but I would’ve come to Miami if I knew it was going to be productive like it is now.”
These days, Diplo’s hair is bleached a ghostly shade of white and long enough to pull back into a bun. It’s the subject of consternation among his many female fans online, who have collectively decided it makes him look a little creepy. But he’s enjoying the backlash. “I go to Vegas, and every dude is the exact same guy,” he explains. “Every DJ looks exactly like The Chainsmokers! So freeing up my image is really important to me. That’s what Bowie did. Every fucking four months the guy was like a new human being.”
Diplo wears a COS shirt and David Hart suit.
Walshy (his real name is Leighton Paul Walsh), 34, has a warm, chatty vibe, in contrast to Jillionaire (Christopher Leacock), 39, who is all laid-back reserve. The three DJ on their own around the world and maintain a wide variety of hustles. Jillionaire runs his own label, Feel Up Records, throws a touring festival-style party called Chicken & Beer and owns a Caribbean restaurant in Brooklyn, Pearl’s Bake and Shark. Walshy throws a weekly blowout in Miami, Rum and Bass (which he’s planning to take on the road), invests in real estate and is working on an album inspired by a recent tour of Africa.
Diplo and his management team run Mad Decent, the indie label that releases Major Lazer’s music, along with hits by acts like Jack U and Dillon Francis. He also puts on an annual summer traveling festival, the Mad Decent Block Party, produces for A-listers like Beyoncé and Madonna, and is a savvy investor in major tech companies like Snapchat and Tesla. He has two TV series in the works: the Entourage-ish What Would Diplo Do? on Vice, starring James Van Der Beek as the DJ-producer, and a competition show, which NBC has greenlighted, where he and his team will try to help revitalize veteran artists’ careers. And that’s not all: “I’ve also been talking to American Idol on the side to try to help them with the [ABC reboot] with Katy” -- Perry, that is, his buddy and rumored former girlfriend. “I just like the idea of working with them. They’re cool.”
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The whole squad is a little bleary today. The previous night, Major Lazer played a private show on a remote state-park beach for Bacardi, with which it has teamed on both a rum and the promotion of its new dancehall single “Front of the Line,” with the soca star Machel Montano and Jamaican hitmaker Konshens. It’s from the act’s new, summery six-song EP, Know No Better, which features everyone from Travis Scott and Quavo to Camila Cabello and Sean Paul, and world-spanning styles from tropical house to reggaetón to main-stage EDM to Afrobeat. “Doing a rum is easy,” says Jillionaire of the opportunity, “but it fits in with the lifestyle. You see people doing, like, a fucking ad for a Cadillac, and it has nothing to do with their vibe.”
To Diplo, the main advantage of the partnership is promotional. As he points out, dancehall is a niche sound outside of Jamaica, and by leveraging Bacardi’s marketing budget, the track might get a chance to compete on streaming services and, once that happens, radio. It’s a characteristically smart deal for the crew, which has operated independently while scoring seven Billboard Hot 100 hits, including “Lean On” (featuring DJ Snake and vocals by the previously unknown Danish singer MØ, which cracked the top five, topped charts around the world and has accrued 2 billion YouTube spins); and the smash Justin Bieber-MØ team-up “Cold Water,” a Hot 100 No. 2 hit that resulted from a favor its co-writer Ed Sheeran owed Diplo. “We did a show with him at Cannes,” explains Diplo. “So when we were like, ‘Oh, Ed, can we do a song later?,’ we got one. We don’t go through 16 channels to get to people.”
Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for iHeartRadio/Turner
Diplo (right) with Bieber in April 2016, a few months before the release of “Cold Water,” a Billboard Hot 100 No. 2 hit.
“It’s an organic combination of spotting new sounds and knowing what’s cool right now,” says MØ, breaking down the Major Lazer formula. “When you put them together, you’re able to push things to the next level.”
An hour after the sun sets on Miami’s Virginia Key, the trio hits the stage at the Bacardi gig in matching white baseball jerseys and busts straight into “Front of the Line.” Walshy gets the crowd hyped: “You know this is a new Major Lazer song, right? Everybody Snapchat this!” The group uses the show to test new material -- the trio’s own tracks and remixes of both underground jams and radio hits -- that might make it into its festival act. Major Lazer is constantly optimizing its sound and promotional strategy by incorporating data from Spotify and Apple Music. It’s also inspired by Drake, whose More Life “playlist” topped charts, and Kanye West, who kept tinkering with The Life of Pablo long after it had been released.
A year ago, Major Lazer was planning to release an album in early 2017. But now, the group intends to let material trickle out throughout the year -- and, in fact, might never create an album again. “I shifted my goal to just make singles, because no one really buys our albums,” says Diplo. “What’s our platform that works? It’s streaming. The audience controls music now. That’s in our favor.” The trio’s last full album, 2015’s Peace Is the Mission, has earned 793,000 equivalent album units, according to Nielsen Music, powered in large part by streams and downloads of “Lean On.” But Peace has sold only 94,000 traditional albums.
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Since the beginning, Major Lazer has operated on one key insight: that pop music is now a truly global phenomenon, with fans and hot new sounds as likely to be found in Lagos, Nigeria, as they are in Los Angeles. Diplo’s own production career took off in 2007 with M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes,” a top five Hot 100 smash by the Sri Lankan singer-rapper born in London, and built around a Clash riff, which defined the sound of the mid-2000s. Music is, in a way, only now catching up. Near the peak of its set in Miami, Major Lazer drops the clearest evidence yet of pop’s borderlessness in the form of “Despacito,” Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s sun-splashed reggaetón hit, sung entirely in Spanish. The remix featuring Justin Bieber is now in its sixth week at No. 1 on the Hot 100; Major Lazer played its own propulsive remix of the original. Or take another recent Hot 100 No. 1, Ed Sheeran’s “The Shape of You,” with its West African lilt -- proof of the Major Lazer guys’ prediction that Afropop sounds are the next big thing.