ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
If you pull up in your car to a red light this summer and the car in the lane next to you has the windows down, they're blasting music, there's a pretty good chance this is the song you're hearing.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHERE ARE U NOW")
JUSTIN BIEBER: (Singing) Where are you now that I need you?
SHAPIRO: That's "Where Are U Now," by the DJ duo Jack U, with Justin Bieber on vocals. The song is one of the biggest summer hits of 2015. And another contender for that title...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEAN ON")
MAJOR LAZER: (Singing) All we need is somebody to lean on.
SHAPIRO: ..."Lean On," by the group Major Lazer. OK, one more inescapable hit this summer...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE U THERE")
KIESZA: (Singing) I will never dream of your love to take me there, to take me there.
SHAPIRO: ..."Take U There," with Kiesza on vocals. So what do all three of these tracks have in common? They were all created by the same producer-DJ music mastermind - Diplo. His real name is Thomas Wesley Pentz. Musically, he kind of owns this summer, and he joins us now from our studio in New York. Welcome.
THOMAS WESLEY PENTZ: Hey.
SHAPIRO: OK, those tracks that we just played - they are not only different vocalists. They are different albums, collaborative projects. And tell us about - how do these collaborations take shape?
PENTZ: Well, I guess people like me - DJs and producers - have a bigger say and a bigger voice than we've ever had before, you know? I'm not a superstar, per se. I'm not, like, on the radio myself. I'm not, like, in the press shots, but I'm, like, a musical creator, a producer, in the same vein as what Quincy Jones or Pharrell and Timbaland were. But this year, people like me are able to go perform the records we play live. And I think that it gives me leverage to bring artists to me to, you know, produce records and kind of be in control of the way it sounds.
(SOUNDBITE OF MADONNA SONG, "B**** I'M MADONNA")
SHAPIRO: Well, speaking of big artists, you also collaborated with Madonna or her latest album this year.
SHAPIRO: Let's hear one of the tracks that you produced for her latest album. And because this is public radio, I think we have to call it something else, like, "Ma'am I'm Madonna."
SHAPIRO: (Laughter). What do we call this?
PENTZ: "Ms. Chick I'm Madonna."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "B***** I'M MADONNA")
MADONNA: (Singing) We go hard or we go home. We going to do this all night long. We get freaky if you want. [Expletive], I'm Madonna.
SHAPIRO: So how do you take what you bring to the party and make that harmonize with what Madonna has established as her identity over all these years?
PENTZ: Well, with Madonna, it was really special for me because I became really close with her and friendly with her that I never would expect. And even when I first got the notion that Madonna wanted to meet and maybe do something, I was like, OK, I'll do this because I want to get an Instagram picture with Madonna at least.
SHAPIRO: (Laughter). That was the motivation?
PENTZ: Yeah, you know, I didn't expect to even see her more than one afternoon. But with her, she's already getting more comfortable with me. Then this song happened because we were, like, getting a little drunk in the studio, and she's like, well, what's the craziest thing you have on your computer right now? Like, what is it? And literally, it was this crazy noise - this buzzing sound (imitating buzzing sound).
But she loved it, and it almost feels like the kind of buzziest record for her album. And it does sound like a Diplo-Madonna song together, you know? The other songs were kind of me trying to find, like, the Madonna from the future or something, you know? And this one was kind of, like, we just threw caution to the wind and made something as obnoxious as possible, which is what - kind of what her career's always been like, you know?
SHAPIRO: It's funny that you mention trying to find the Madonna of the future. You told Rolling Stone, when people come to me, they don't know what they want to sound like. They just want to sound like something from the future.
SHAPIRO: I wonder if you can pinpoint what the future sounds like.
PENTZ: You can never figure out what the future sounds like. As soon as you make it, it's the past, so you're just constantly chasing it. You want to find something that just - you haven't heard before. There's a great story of "I Can Feel It Coming In The Air Tonight," Phil Collins, you know? Like, the drums on that are just literally the talkback mic. You know what I'm talking about, right?
SHAPIRO: I love that your example of a great musical experimentation is Phil Collins, which I think most people who are, like, of-the-moment trendsetting would be afraid to site as a musical reference.
PENTZ: I love any music that makes me feel something, you know? I want music to give me goose bumps. And when I make a song like that, then I know it's good, you know?
SHAPIRO: Can we do sort of anatomy of a song? Because "Lean On" is such mega-hit this summer, I'd love it if you could break it down for us and tell us what's going on in there.
PENTZ: Well, it started as just a really slow reggae song. And the funny thing is - about it is that MO was fan of ours. I didn't know who she was.
SHAPIRO: She's the singer on this track.
PENTZ: Yeah. She's a Danish singer who has a very jazzy voice.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEAN ON")
MO: (Singing) Do you recall, not long ago, we would walk on the sidewalk?
PENTZ: She came to our shown in Amsterdam, and she introduced herself. And she forced me and the other guy in Major Lazer to go to her room to play music for her. Like, she came to this city. I was like, OK, I'll give this girl a chance. And I left her this record - the instrumental - and she wrote like four songs in a week.
PENTZ: And we just sat down, and we tried a lot of ideas. And I eventually said, look, we need something fresh, so I turned it into a hip-hop beat. And then, the main thing of the beat is this reggae drumbeat called a dembow. And you hear it underneath the song the whole time right here.
(SOUNDBITE OF MAJOR LAZER SONG, "LEAN ON")
PENTZ: (Imitating drum beat). It's like a - it's one beat that they used in reggaeton and dancehall records in '90s for, like, 10 years. So we just put that in there and compressed it and made it sound very thick and rich.
SHAPIRO: And so when you sent that to her, what was her reaction?
PENTZ: She did not like this at all.
SHAPIRO: You're like, this is the biggest summer hit of 2015.
PENTZ: Yeah. Eventually I convinced her. I was like, this is - trust me, this is going to be big.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEAN ON")
MO: (Singing) All we need is somebody to lean on.
SHAPIRO: I want to rewind the clock. You were born in Mississippi, grew up in Florida. What's your earliest memory of making music?
PENTZ: I would probably say - this is kind of funny because I hope it counts as making music, but I used to just record the radio on cassette tapes and just make little mix tapes, like a pastiche of different things. Like, I would record a lot of - I remember pop music, like, stuff like "Physical Attraction" by Madonna. I used to love that record, and I recorded it and listened to it a lot.
SHAPIRO: How old were you when you were making those first mix tapes off the radio?
PENTZ: Like 8, 11. I don't know. Something like that.
SHAPIRO: It's so funny because, you know, most people start with piano lessons or violin lessons or something, but, like, you were a DJ from day one.
PENTZ: But it's funny. In South Florida, DJ culture is so big, you know? Like, in the neighborhood I lived in Fort Lauderdale was, like - there was just so many street parties. I think that that area was, like, the most diverse place I had lived in. It was - my neighborhood was, like - literally, I went to bar mitzvahs. I went to, like, Haitian kids' birthday parties. And, you know, my family - cousins would come down from Orlando. They're all rednecks. It was like...
SHAPIRO: So it was like a young Diplo in the making...
SHAPIRO: ...Where you can hear the sound of it.
PENTZ: It was everything. It was every music there. Until I moved to Philly, then I realized how segregated music was, you know? When I went to Philly, we started a party called Holotronics, and we played, like, really crazy music. And that was kind of the inspiration for me to quit my job and go full time. You know, it's crazy because when I was in Philly, I never thought you could make money making music. I was trying to keep any job I had because there wasn't any DJs that had a living doing that, you know? So I had to do it all myself. I'm like an older guy in this DJ world, you know?
SHAPIRO: You're 36?
PENTZ: Yeah, I'm 36 years old, so, you know, I'm lucky I'm still doing it and still excited by it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE U THERE")
KIESZA: (Singing) You show me there's something more to us than the same old thing - no usual affair.
SHAPIRO: Well, Wes, in the middle of your crazy-triumphant whirlwind summer, thank you for taking the time to talk with us.
PENTZ: I appreciate it. You've been a great interviewer. You knew a lot about my music. I appreciate that.
SHAPIRO: Thomas Wesley Pentz is a DJ and producer better known as Diplo.
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