Dancefloor inciter Diplo and fidget house inventor Switch are two of the last producers one would expect to tire of making DJ albums. Both have risen to the top of their respective games – Diplo with his Baile funk and Baltimore bass DJ stylings, Switch with his celebrated remixes and copious producing credits – but 2009 saw the duo venturing towards Jamaica to create something even odder than before. To be specific: a one-armed ex-commando named Major Lazer who pumps out genre-bothering dancehall like his life depends on it.
Hey Diplo, how are you today?
I’m good, just running around getting passport photos.
How did you and Switch first decide to do a dancehall record?
I’ve been trying to do a record with him for a while and we had so much work after M.I.A and Santigold’s records that we decided to put that to good use and make this record. I started working on the dancehall album two years ago – I was making rhythms for the next Diplo album – and I gave Switch some demos and he actually remixed them on his own. And that was pretty cool so then we decided to make the album together.
Could you talk about the vision that you had for Major Lazer?
In the beginning we wanted to make a guerrilla style album, an album that wasn’t ours to promote, but that was more marketable and unique. I felt like we really accomplished that with the story, the art, and the concept. I’m sick of putting out DJ albums and producers and this and that, but it’s difficult to promote a reggae record. It’s not very popular and also we’re two white dudes, so it falls by the wayside of DJ tools. We thought it would be stronger to put a whole concept behind it and represent something awesome about dancehall culture — not just remixes, but a whole amazing universe. Now we have this cartoon, which is being produced for The Cartoon Network. The artwork was done with the same artists who showcase a lot of our records.
Is it a little awkward promoting a dancehall record as two white dudes?
It is! That’s why we invented Major Lazer so he could do it himself. We didn’t really want to work the album so it was better to have this ‘guy’ to push everything forward.
Who came up with the Major Lazer persona?
We were just trying to make an album. We didn’t really come up with it offhand. At first we wanted to make an album title with two different words. So we threw some in a bucket and the first two were Major and Lazer, two kinda old-school dancehall words. And we just put them together instead.
We were sitting at a bar when we came up with the concept of the album. It has its roots in old ‘80s dancehall records. A lot of the artists that we grew up with were named after Western movies and sci-fi movies and they were really anti-heroes. A lot of artwork from dub records, like Scientist and King Tubby, was comic book and punk rock-influenced.
What were you drinking at the bar?
We were drinking absinthe.
Absinthe! Tell me more.
(Laughs) I don’t remember anything more! I blacked out and ended up in Brooklyn in some alley.
And you woke up and thus Major Lazer was created?
Yeah, I had my socks in my pocket and I just thought of it. I don’t know how I ended up with my socks in my pocket!
Did your vision for Major Lazer change once you got to Jamaica?
No, because we actually recorded the record before we came up with the concept, to be honest. We were just doing loads of demos in Jamaica. I mean, Jamaica is a great place to work; even if you are not working on your own record, you can work on other people’s records — we did some production for the artists down there on the side. There is so much energy and creativity down there. It comes out really strongly.
What was your favourite part about working there?
I think working on the “Cash Flow” song but when it was just a rhythm. Just getting into Tuff Gong and recording instruments and feeling the vibe of the old school days. Mixing and recording and adding tape delay and all that stuff. That became really strong and it was really fun to work on that. Back in LA when we finished all the vocals, mixing it was really cool because we came up with some crazy ideas, like putting the Auto-tune baby on the “Baby” record, and things like that.
Was it intimidating working at Tuff Gong [the studio and record label founded by Bob Marley and the Wailers]?
Nah it wasn’t. People go there every day – low budget people and big stars all go there. They’re just happy to have anybody in. The engineers are so old school — there is this old Chinese guy who runs the studio with the craziest Jamaican accent. He looks like a Chinese wizard or something, which just adds to the weirdness of Jamaica.
How did his role influence the album?
He kept trying to fix a tape, reel to reel. I kept asking for the wireless password and he was like “I don’t know anything about that! What the hell’s a ‘wireless’?” He didn’t about how the Internet worked, so that was pretty funny.
What was the most difficult part about working in Jamaica?
I guess having to sell yourself to the artists is always difficult because a lot of people didn’t know who we were. Some people did, some artists were excited.
The next album should be much easier, now that we’ve been to Jamaica on a tour and formed relationships with different artists. Beenie Man’s daughter emails us and is like “I love Major Lazer! I want my dad to be on the record. “ So when stuff like that happens you know that you’ve made it. The first time we were down there, we had to sell ourselves. We didn’t get the best performances from some artists but we did our best with what we got and I think that came out on the record.
I read an interview with Switch about how optimistic you both were about finding fresh new talent in Jamaica. How did it work out?
There are no preconceived ideas of what these kids should do. Jamaican kids are influenced by everything: rock music from the radio, pop music, and soul music. There’s not a lot of direction that is given to them from the media, so they just want to do whatever. There is such a competitive spirit in dancehall music to out-do each other. Add that all together and that makes a very creative pool of artists with a lot of raw talent. Many of the producers there are a bit backwards but the artists and concepts are so big. We were able to help people out, and make the records sound bigger than they would have if they were just done by the Jamaican kids. We wanted to give people what we were good at; we weren’t trying to tell people how to write records in Jamaica, we were just trying to give them our skills.
Which contributor was the most interesting find?
We didn’t find any out-of-nowhere talent but there is a guy who doesn’t have a lot of records out that I love, named Turbulence. He did two tracks for us, “Anything Goes” and another one on the “Cash Flow” rhythm. He is just so talented and when he comes to Tuff Gong he brings a whole crew, they’re kinda like Sizzla style Rastas. They dress up in Armani and Lacoste outfits with pointy shoes, giant Rasta head wraps and their shirts tucked in. They are just really cool, drinking cognac to make their voices gruff. That’s my favourite kind of style.
I didn’t know cognac did that.
Yeah, cognac is good if you want to have a deeper voice that’s still got some sex appeal and sounds a bit gangster.
How did you and Switch divide up the duties?
Sometimes I went right to the beats. The majority of them I started and he finished and some things he did all on his own. Like “Anything Goes” was an old beat that he had, that I just found. It the end it was all about finding time to finish mixing the record. And some stuff didn’t even get finished. We did an M.I.A track that was crazy, that never even got finished, but we’ll maybe put that on the next record or EP. We both bounce ideas off each other; in the studio we have a really good dynamic.
I saw you do a live PA thing – is that how you plan to tour for Major Lazer?
Dave doesn’t like to tour, so I kind of just run the shows. We play about nine or ten tracks, sometimes more since people know the record now and there are a lot of remixes, but there’s not one artist featured on the record that we can even take on tour with us. For the most part they get paid more money than we do to perform! Thing is, I don’t like to watch whole albums get performed – I go to clubs to dance. I think our record lends itself to that, you know? Our MC runs and jumps off of balconies; it’s that punk rock Major Lazer attitude. It would be really boring to play our record live. It’s meant to be played like a dancehall party.
I noticed that in Berlin you were playing techno… was that because you were in Berlin?
Nah, Major Lazer is everything. We did a straight up techno record that didn’t come out. But we want to combine dancehall music with electronic and club music, that’s kinda where we are. If I was a straight up dancehall DJ, I’d be playing only that, but I come from a more mixed background. And I think in dancehall you can do everything and that’s what I like about it.
Could you tell me more about the techno record you did?
We made a record right off the back of Marc Houle’s “Bay of Figs” where we had these rappers go on top of it. Actually you can get it as a 12”; we put it as the B-side of the “Hold the Line” vinyl single. You can hear that dancehall is moving into 4/4, even dubstep, just like pop music is. Reggae just naturally progresses faster. When trends change, the reggae guys jump on them much quicker and refine it and do more clever things with it, I think. We even worked on another record that didn’t make the album with Elephant Man and Adam Sky, who lives in Berlin. We did a cover of “Killer”, Adams’s song with Seal, and that didn’t make the album. We did a really dark techno version of it for the record but that didn’t get finished in time.
Do you have plans to release this hidden dark techno record?
Probably not. Elephant Man has a bad reputation for homophobia and we didn’t want to associate ourselves with that. Plus, it was never really that strong. It’s never about homophobia or stereotypes for us; we are just making music. And a lot of artists have their own Christian values that don’t match well with liberal European partygoers. We don’t want to marginalize anybody in the record. Honestly, the gay crowd is a huge crowd for us, and they love dancehall music! I’ve been to parties that play homophobic records and it’s tongue and cheek for people at the Big Primpin party in Toronto, but it’s actually a real problem in Jamaica. So we don’t want to push that out there.
Are you considering starting any MC duels to drive radio publicity?
Nah. Not yet, maybe for the second record. Actually, we did have one! It was Andy Milonakis versus Prince Zimboo and they battled each other on YouTube. It was this little fat white kid who is a fake Jamaican and this African who is a fake Jamaican and they had an MC battle, which I thought was hilarious.
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
Major Lazer is not really about being “authentic” or whatever; it’s more about just being crazy. The records are not supposed to be clean, they are supposed to be weird and funny – that’s what we wanted to do with the record. Our cartoon on Cartoon Network is going to be about the weirdness of the concepts. It’s not going to be about us as producers — we’re just gonna be sittin’ back and makin’ the music.
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