Center: Shirt, $275, by Post-Imperial / Pants, $950, by Gucci / Watch by Montblanc / Bracelet by Tateossian / Sunglasses by SALTLocations: Golf Course Hotel, Kampala, Uganda (left and right), Wildwaters Lodge, Kangulumira, Uganda (center)Music
On Tour With Diplo In Africa (Exclusive)Facebook
By Will Welch
Photographs by Kent Andreasen
11 hours ago
What happens when a superstar DJ leaves a pile of Coachella cash on the table to go break even on a tour of Africa, where a red-hot music scene is on the verge of going global? We flew to Uganda and Ethiopia to find out.
It's 3:22 A.M. at the Protea Hotel in Kampala, Uganda, when my phone buzzes. The text is from Thomas Wesley Pentz, a.k.a. Diplo, who's in his room upstairs. Earlier in the evening, Diplo brought a globe-spanning DJ set to an un-air-conditioned banquet hall full of stylish young Ugandans at the nearby Golf Course Hotel.
After the show, a few of us went out to a small local bar called Deuces to drink Nile beer and dance to an Afro-pop set by a local DJ. And now we're back at the Protea, praying for sleep to descend before the sun starts to rise.
The text message is just a BBC News link—I click to find the headline “The Nation in Love with Country Music.” The story features photos from an annual event in Kampala called Let's Go Country, where Ugandan country-music fans wear cowboy boots and ten-gallon hats while riding horses and watching mud wrestling. Apparently Diplo is up, doing online anthropological research—he's been fascinated by his local driver's “wild-ass country-music station that has been pumping not just outlaw country like Johnny Cash,” Diplo tells me, “but new country pop like Sam Hunt.” The eternal search for this kind of culture clash is what drives uniquely Diplovian exploits like this six-date DJ tour of Africa. Meanwhile, it's Coachella week in America. Diplo guesses that he's breaking even by doing shows in Nairobi, Lagos, Kampala, Addis Ababa, and Johannesburg, plus a Burning Man–like festival called AfrikaBurn. He sees the African audience as a burgeoning one, and he hopes to build his rep on the continent so he can return in the future. Diplo being Diplo, he's also here to connect and make music—primarily with the Afro-pop artists in Lagos. If he were back in Southern California, he figures, he could've pulled down seven figures at Coachella's two festival weekends and all the celebrity-starved satellite parties.
But money aside, this is where Diplo thrives: thousands of miles from his peers, exploring the edges of global pop music. At the end of a free day that we spend 50 miles east of Kampala in the disarmingly chill town of Jinja, Diplo posts a photo of himself standing atop an unfinished building we climbed for a sweeping view of the Nile. He's wearing a Princess Diana memorial T-shirt. The caption is blunt: “Everything u think you know about Africa is wrong.”
The following interviews took place during a long Range Rover ride from Jinja to Kampala—and a phone call weeks later that finds the DJ still on tour, this time in Alberta, Canada.
GQ Style: Before we met here in Uganda, you were in Nigeria, which is the center of the Afro-pop movement. What was that like?
Diplo: Everybody always warned me not to go to Nigeria to do shows. All the reggae artists—I remember having a conversation years ago with Sean Paul and Shaggy about Nigeria. Sean Paul's like, I was going through Nigeria and they put these cactuses up in front of the stage. People just stood on the cactuses trying to get onstage until guys with guns batted them in the head to get ’em off. And Shaggy's like, I got a better story. My first tour in Nigeria, they had a fence up around the venue, and the crowd was so crazy, they were shaking the fence. The police were afraid, so they sent the dogs out on the people to break up the crowd. And then one dog came back over the fence dead. They killed the dog and threw it back over the fence. So that was what I knew. I'd never been to Africa, besides South Africa, and everybody in South Africa calls it fake Africa.
I've always heard the same thing: South Africa is safe Africa for tourists.
Like, I'm in Uganda right now. I never thought this place would be so beautiful. I'm ignorant on that level. But Nigeria has this huge diaspora, like Jamaica. Nigerians live everywhere: England, L.A., New York. Nigerians have had a huge impact on music in the last ten years. Like the UK funky stuff that ended up becoming “One Dance” by Drake. And then, over the last three or four years, Nigerians have been taking over with this new Afro-pop movement.
It's almost like Lagos is the Atlanta of Africa.
One hundred percent. I didn't know this before I got there, but the music scene is amazing because they have pop stations—you're gonna hear Bieber and Katy Perry. Then they have all the hip-hop and R&B—“Bad and Boujee” was a hit in Lagos before America. Then they have all the Nigerian stuff—the Afro-pop like Davido, Wizkid, Mr Eazi. And then they also have legacy stuff, like Fela Kuti and Femi Kuti, palm-wine music, and highlife. It's crazy.
When you arrived in Lagos, how did you get in the mix?
It reminds me of the first time I went to Jamaica. My only calling card was that I produced “Paper Planes” by M.I.A. and it was on the radio there. I was trying to explain, but no one cared. Now everybody in Jamaica knows who I am and I've worked with every artist there. I'm dialed in. This was my first time in Lagos, and it felt like that. Like, everybody knows me from doing Major Lazer and [Major Lazer hit] “Run Up” and Bieber.
So how was the show?
It was a weird kind of success. I was headlining this outdoor festival in Lagos that happens every year, but there was a crazy thunderstorm. We didn't start until 2 A.M. It turns out the sound had blown out, but nobody told me. So I start my set and I was playing records and, like, dancing. I look up and there are all these Nigerian faces just staring at me. It was like that scene where George Michael's band, Wham!, played Communist China. I had to banter onstage for half an hour [while they fixed the sound]. By then there were probably 500 people left. But I was just like, You know what? It's 3 A.M. and there's a thunderstorm in Nigeria. What do I have to lose? It was one of the hardest moments of my career. The next night, I had to do a private party on this rooftop where people were just, like, eating steak. I said to [Major Lazer MC] Walshy Fire, Man, Nigeria is where you either live or die as a DJ. This is like the DJ Olympics.
This was Saturday, during the first weekend of Coachella, right?
Yeah. You look at Instagram, and it's the same picture with girls in front of the Coachella Ferris wheel 100 times over again. And I'm in Nigeria, playing a late-night show. Afterwards, Davido and Burna Boy and all these artists came back to the hotel with me at 5 A.M. We watched Future play Coachella online for like ten minutes. He brought Drake out. I got high, actually. I was stoned. Which I don't ever do, but I was like, I gotta get some sleep. But instead of going to sleep, we all went out to this nightclub. They opened it up for us. It was like 30 or 40 people at the club total—they're playing Afro-pop music until like 8 A.M. It was a vibe, ya know?
What's Burna Boy's music like?
Afro-pop, like Davido. All those guys have dope fucking style. Burna Boy was wearing, like, the dashiki with Gucci pants. He went to college in England and came back. All these guys left Nigeria, came back, and became huge stars. Davido was an engineer in Atlanta. And he's like, Fuck this, I'm going to Nigeria and doing this myself. This is so funny: We're outside of the studio in Lagos. We have guys with AK-47s blocking the street. So many guns outside. And this guy Skales comes in, and he's like, I went to Atlanta once, and man, I'm never going to the studio there again unless it's, like, white people. Everybody has machine guns. Because in Atlanta, all the artists carry guns. It's part of the culture. In Nigeria, the guys with guns are outside the studio.
What did you guys make in the studio? If I'm not mistaken, when you landed in Uganda yesterday they'd already sent you a song.
Yeah, me and this producer, E-kelly, did a song for Mr Eazi. Before I left, I was like, Hey, this is an idea for a song. I gave him the stems—the music for the beat. Then I land and he's already sent me three demo versions with new drums. And Skales has already done a new version of “Run Up” with new guitars. The records were voiced and mixed. I've never seen people so hungry and the quality so high. In America, I can't get Travis Scott to answer my text messages. I gotta go pour water on his face to wake him up and get him to voice a song. I don't mind doing that, but I also don't mind being here on the frontier, making music with all the Nigerians.
This tour didn't start in Africa, right? You were already on the road?
Yeah. Two weeks ago we did Bangladesh and Nepal; then we did some Chinese shows. We've been trying to go to Bangladesh ’cause the U.S. embassy invited us. I did a show in Pakistan last year, and it became a real popular idea for U.S. embassies in countries that have turmoil to do shows. I think they realize that if they bring a show or a party, they can really connect. Actually, I think that's one way America can make a great impact on the rest of the world, by inviting people to share with us culturally. Youth culture is global. I've learned that over the years.
So then you went from China to Kenya?
No, I started this run in Australia. Then I went to Miami for Ultra [Music Festival].
Is Ultra important because that's a core audience or because the check is good?
I'm into Ultra. I grew up on it. They offered Major Lazer a headline slot on Friday night. I want to do more dance-music festivals this year, just to be involved. I skipped it the last three years—we kept away from the EDM scene, ’cause I hated it.
Do you hate being associated with EDM, or are the festivals not fun?
They're not fun. The music felt like it was on a loop. It felt soulless. I mean, DJs in general, the culture's really ugly. It's cheesy. Corny. It's embarrassing. You know, I never wanted to be part of the DJ world. I just fell into it.
What about Electric Daisy Carnival?
I'm doing it again this year, because I'm trying to see if I can help steer the direction. Instead of complaining about it being cheesy, I'll see if I can help make it better. EDM's changing. Three years ago, they just paid everybody, because all the corporations and clubs wanted a piece of it. Now they realize only a few of us can make money for them. It's a business. I'm just trying to be smart about it. Eventually I want to sit back in the studio and be more of a producer-writer, and I have my kids, too.
What are your feelings on this new Vice show, What Would Diplo Do?, where James Van Der Beek plays you?
It's hard for me to watch. I'm not a showrunner or a writer or anything, and the first season is very literal—some of the stories I've told became actual episodes, like how we made “Where Are Ü Now” [with Justin Bieber] or whatever. I can't really give you an opinion of it, because it's my life. But I guess I felt like, This could be funny and it can't hurt my career. James is amazing—I love him to death. I feel like if the first season works, I'd be excited to work on season two and make it really bizarre. Like Veep or Rick and Morty.
At this point, what role does your Vegas residency play in your career?
It pays the bills. I can count on that money every year. Four years ago, I hated Vegas, but it's changed a lot. The whole tide of that music is turning towards what me and my crew are doing. So I'm not mad at Vegas. And it's easy for me. It's only a 45-minute flight from Burbank. Rather than take a jet, I take Southwest Airlines. It's so cheap.
What is it about you that makes you want to take a cheap flight rather than be the superstar DJ Snapchatting from the jet?
Well, I think about my accountant. If I took three jets, that's like a year of college for a kid.
Right, but how did you become a person who would rather break even doing a run in Africa than make an easy million-plus at Coachella? Where does that come from?
I don't even know how to answer that. I feel like it's a no-brainer. Coachella, Vegas, all those things are gonna be there. Touring Africa is something you have to work towards. That's why I became a DJ. That's why I even wanted to make music, so I could do things like go to Africa and perform. I'd rather invest in experiences like this, rather than putting it back into my own ego.
But why do you think you prefer the complicated path over the easy one?
You know, when we did the “Run Up” video, we could have just been like, We're gonna get some cars and girls and do the video for 20 grand on a boat. Which is what everybody wanted to do. But I was like, This is Major Lazer. We have to do something a cut above. I don't know if you've seen it, but it has all this choreo, and there's a real message to it. We spent like 350 grand. A lot of times it just goes over people's heads. Same with the music: “Pon de Floor” never was a hit, but Beyoncé sampled it. It feels like we're always the guys who are throwing things out there and then people copy them. I can sit and complain, but I know that we did our best to push it a little further rather than to take the easy road. I started making music because I love the way it mutates. A group that always inspired me was the Clash, who were just, like, fusion. Or even the Police.
Let's go back to phase one: It's been 14 years since I first went to a Hollertronix party in Philly. Can you explain what Hollertronix was?
Well, this is back in the days when nothing was accessible on the Internet. Hollertronix was a party we started in Philly, and it sounds cheesy now to say we were mixing trap, hip-hop, electro, Miami bass, and, like, '80s music—that's so easy to do now—but we were doing it on vinyl. Philly was this very working-class city. It was art-school kids. They were black, they were white, they were rich, they were poor, they might have gone to U. of Arts or Temple or U. Penn. And they went out at night. They didn't dress cool; no one wore fashion back then.
Remind me what that crazy venue was?
It was a Ukrainian social club. We had to pretend we were Ukrainian to even get access to that club, and I had to go over there and clean up with them. They had no money. After a while they were like, What is this thing you guys are doing? We need to do this every week. I was like, Uh, we can't. We can only do it once a month. We knew the exclusivity was very powerful.
Yeah, in New York City, we were like, Who's got a car? How are we getting to Philly?
Yeah, at the time it was a fascinating new world. All the genres were broken at Hollertronix. If you were a white kid, you could like Miami bass or baile funk. If you were a black kid, you could listen to Marilyn Manson. Because we were gonna play “The Beautiful People” in the club.
Give me a signature song sequence from Hollertronix.
“The Love Cats” by the Cure into a cappella “Get Ur Freak On,” and I would extend it.
I feel like Mark Ronson's story has been well told: He was the white kid with real chops as a hip-hop DJ, who would also drop AC/DC songs into his set. Puffy saw him and started hiring him for parties in the Hamptons. The Hollertronix story is related to that, but it hasn't been documented in the same way.
A hundred percent. Mark was doing similar stuff, and we were all into hip-hop, but we were a little deeper in the music we pulled from. Mark was playing for bottle-service clubs in New York—the beginning of that. We were playing for middle-class kids in Philly. By the way, I've known Mark almost since I was in high school. I met him when I first went to Philly. I taught at a school, and he was classmates with my boss. I went to go see him play Allen Iverson's birthday party at the Palmer, which is an all-black club. I just thought, This guy is cool. Actually, me and Mark are doing a collab album. You know the album I did with Skrillex, Jack Ü? Me and Mark are trying to do something with disco music.
You gotta tell me a little more about that.
It's something we talked about over the last year. Jack Ü was awesome, but it was very young. I want to do something that feels more my age. I feel like me and Mark can do something more sophisticated.
How would you characterize what you bring to a studio session?
I'm not good at anything specifically. You know, I was editing this song earlier [plays sounds on laptop], and the longer I spent on here, the more I felt like, God, this sucks. I don't want to sit here going through presets. I'm the guy who's like, Okay, Mr Eazi's in town. I'm trying to do an Afro-beat song. And maybe we'll play it for Rihanna or whatever. But actually sitting here putting drums in? That's fucking wack.
So how do you get something to Rihanna?
I just want her on a Major Lazer song. She's like the one artist that we can't ever get.
Rihanna and Major Lazer seem well aligned.
I think before we're all done, she'll be on a song of ours. Hopefully. But if not, I don't really care. I played her “Lean On.” She was like, I don't do house music. I face-palmed so hard on that one. Another time I had a session with her, and Future was also invited. The Weeknd was there. Metro Boomin was there before anybody knew who he was. I was so contact high. Future played her, like, 700 songs. It was four in the morning. Finally, I was like, Yo, G, I'm leaving unless you let me play her a song. So I played her a song. And she was like, This sounds like a reggae song at an airport. [laughs] I was like, I'm gonna go kill myself.
You did an appearance on Ugandan TV, and when they asked what you knew about Uganda before you arrived, you said Idi Amin. Was that awkward?
To me it seems like a new Africa. And that's not just a catchphrase. The kids who are under 30 have grown up post-apartheid in South Africa. Rwanda's post-genocide. Uganda's post–Idi Amin. When I said that, they kind of laughed it off. It felt like, Oh yeah—that guy. He was a terrible dictator, but it seemed like they're really far removed from him. Which is beautiful, because in America, our history is so fucked-up, and we can never forget anything. When you travel, you can start to see how, in America, our history defines us. And we should never allow that. When a new generation is born, everything should be brand-new. And that's what this “new” Africa felt like to me. To these kids who were at my show, it's like Idi Amin never existed.
The show in Kampala was at a modest rental hall. But in Addis Ababa, you played a huge outdoor show. Why were the two so different?
Ethiopia is something different and special. It didn't feel as African in the traditional sense, with the tribal culture. Ethiopia has a little taste of Africa, but a lot more taste of the Middle East. They have their own music, all in Amharic. People there like commercial music and dance music, so it was a dance-music crowd, as opposed to the hip-hop and Afro-pop crowd in Uganda.
After your show in Addis, I got on an Ethiopian Airways flight back to the States. All the shows on my in-flight TV about Africa were back to the same clichés: specials about elephants and giraffes. Even on an African airline.
Well, that's the only way to sell Africa: a live version of a natural-history museum. All we have is sensationalized news about Africa. Growing up, all I knew about Ethiopia was people starving to death. Just vultures eating babies, you know? And once you have that image in your mind, it's hard to change it. We saw everything that's going on there now. They're creating a new language and a new culture that's becoming bigger and more beautiful every day. But safari is still how Africa is marketed. Plus, you were on a tourist flight.
Right—it was Addis Ababa to Atlanta.
Yeah, so a flight from Ethiopia or Zimbabwe or Kenya to the U.S. is going to be full of white tourists. But you fly Lagos to London and it's going to be oilmen and Afro-pop musicians.
I left feeling that, with all its culture and all its spending power, Africa is about to become the epicenter of a new cultural economy.
Historically, there's always been so much music in Africa. But there's never been much of an industry to sell it on a global scale—or even just at home. But now that's happening. These young Nigerian kids are selling it. They're selling it in Lagos. They're flying around Africa performing it. And because of the diaspora, they're traveling to London, New York, Chicago, Toronto. The diaspora is helping to promote it. And now they're selling out the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. There's so much cultural capital in Africa, and that usually comes first. Cultural capital leads to financial capital. And once you have both, it explodes, like gasoline to a flame.
Will Welch is GQ Style’s editor-in-chief.
This story appears in the Fall 2017 issue of GQ Style with the title “Diplo in Africa.”
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