ClashMusic caught up with Major Lazer at 2009’s Notting Hill carnival, watch the video HERE. We also talked to the duo, Diplo and Switch, for issue 40 of Clash magazine, read the interview below.
Royally fucked. Literally.
It took the British government just twelve months to pull out of Jamaica after they had bled the natural resources to death. Just a year and a simple signature laid down in 1962 for the colonial henchmen to set up this victimised nation for an even bigger fall.
After centuries of repression the Jamaicans were numb to decision-making. If they displayed any form of initiative they were repaid by bludgeons from their British beaters, meaning their commitment to commitment lacked any trace of our own YTS flair. Yet, after varying close shaves with crude civil war, the Jamaicans righted their captors’ wrongs through music. Prince Buster, Clement Dodd and Duke Reid, a trio of former soundsystem rivals from the early ’60s, pulled together to spark a music scene that restored the unity that had been whipped, beaten and raped from the displaced conscious.
Now, over four decades later, Jamaica is arguably the most distinct place to hear or make music. Their distinct blend of arch experimentalism, sun, bass and social comment has seen multitudes of musicians flock to the musical isle to rub shoulders with their magic. Characters who’ve sampled such delights are as varied as Grace Jones and The Clash, yet the latest pair are two of the world’s most successful underground DJs: Diplo and Switch, a duo whose four hands have (in brevity) launched MIA, Santogold and Kelis into the mainstream and popularised such dance splinters as baile funk, fidget house and B-More.
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Major Lazer – Hold The Line
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As producers they are both very open into which creative areas they stray. Diplo’s flight schedule is as unpredictable as a well-heeled spy as he flits week to week from the favelas of Brazil to New York, Europe and onto to Trinidad. Switch is equally elusive, and their underground vibes are perfect for Kingston, as the Dubsided label owner explains: “We wanted it to be faceless and kinda confusing in an anonymous way, really DIY, cheap and fun – nothing too serious. The name, for example, came from a list of words we made and the first to get struck off that list were Major and Lazer – so that was it! We’re both huge fans of dancehall and reggae, especially some of the more progressive stuff. It’s more influential on Western music than people realise, so we just wanted to go and expose some of the Jamaican artists and producers to our fan base. From the top we really wanted the record to be relevant in Jamaica, so it was pretty important not to just make a crazy club record.” They pitched up to Jamaica with just two weeks to make their own dancehall dream a reality.
With a handful of ideas and even less phone numbers it was an open book that could have ended up in all sorts of places. Having been so influenced by Jamaica’s music, Diplo (AKA Thomas Wesley Pentz) prays his album of skanked-up riddems will stand up to local scrutiny. “I hope that if you took our names off it people wouldn’t know. I think only ‘Pon de Floor’ sounds like a weird club thing we’d do, but I think the rest of it sounds like a cool reggae record taking in all aspects of reggae from lovers rock, forward-thinking house tempo’d tunes to old skool dub stuff, to bashment. Jamaica’s music is weird, dancehall is weird. If you think of their records one at a time they are WEIRD. I think the Jamaicans got our beats but weren’t fazed by anything; they can bob over any music but the rhythms they are making on their own are like from outer space. We thought we were gonna show off but they have worked with much weirder people than us.”
Despite Jamaica’s huge tradition, dancehall in recent times has become less about place and more about attitude, with immigration and seduction pushing the sound to open huge markets in Japan, Germany, New York and the UK. As such, their environment didn’t faze the two Westerners. “We didn’t really feel too much pressure going there,” breezes Diplo, “and we weren’t really that worried because there isn’t really that level of authenticity that existed before in dancehall. It’s like, the kids (Jamaicans) these days, they don’t care at all. It is business as usual for these guys. A lot of the guys I grew up with in the US were into dancehall and were white boys, like Kenny Meas, Next Phaser, Bobby Konders, and I am always getting dubs from them, so the whole scene is multi-cultural.” In just under two weeks the pair amassed over twenty-five vocals to bob and ride over their varied, yet always sullied dancing rhythms. A few were preordained through collaborations, such as with Vybz Kartel, who rapped on ‘Diplo Rhythm’ four years ago, and Mr. Vegas, who’d been contributing via the Internet in advance thanks to previous work. From Mr. Evil to Leftside, their use of local talents hit all the dancehall spots, but it wasn’t all plain sailing.
“When we first got there, the first three days no one showed up and I was getting worried,” confesses Diplo. “Then on the fourth day everyone showed up. But then Jamaica is like that; it’s electric, even when working with people you’ve never voiced before. Like, for example, one studio we were in we got a song off the two girls playing in the yard. It was cool; they were doing this like rhyming off each other in the corridor and we just grabbed them. Everyone over there is doing something musical. Even walking past people in the front yard there’s people trying to demo to you. Even people in the street; everyone has got a song.”
In such a volatile environment as Jamaica there were clearly going to be problems. Self-belief is belted out on every corner with confidence being the best route to the success that so many yearn. Therefore it’s not surprising that there was the occasional tight spot, as Diplo reveals: “There was this one guy called Jimmy Lickshot (laughs) who is an old soundsystem guy who makes these crazy noises like ‘bbiiioorrrrrreee’ and ‘briiiiieeeeeeeeeeooooouuuuuu’. He used to be an MC. He wanted to voice and he was in the studio, but we didn’t really have the money to pay for a guy to make noises, so we were like, “Here’s fifty dollars”, and he was like, “Fifty bucks! Fifty bucks!” Then he started going crazy and threatened to stab Santi(gold). We ended up making peace with him but he was insane. Serious.”
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Major Lazer – Hold The Line
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“It can get expensive voicing records,” Diplo continues. “Some of the bigger artists will work for free, be on the project and split the writing credits, but voicing is different. A lot of these artists have never worked with contracts and aren’t used to getting the royalties. It’s hard because they are scared of contracts, but on the other hand we were giving them the fairest contract they probably have ever seen. Most of the big Jamaican labels have been exploiting the locals for years, signing all the writing and the publishing and paying the artist like fifty dollars, like the song we sampled on this [album] – the original sold twelve million copies and the label made all the money and the girl that sang didn’t make a cent.”
In such a climate competitiveness is almost suffocating, with rivalries making and breaking careers and families. Although more honourable, the rivalry of Clement Dodd and Duke Reid in the ’60s laid a template of tension that has been violently magnified ever since. Jamaica has one of the highest murder rates in the world and dancehall feuds are abundant and well documented. For example, a war of words raged for a while between Major Lazer contributors Vybz Kartel and Elephant Man. So, did Diplo experience problems working with over twenty local artists over ten days? “One guy, Einstein, has become a gangsta since we recorded him; he’s been shooting up some other studios and shit, but it’s not really to do with us, so not really. We were warned not to link up with each other again. I am not sure how much of all the rivalries are contrived or half serious or what. I think it is to do with authenticity and in the neighbourhoods where there’s not a lot of money. There’s a lot of showiness, a lot of jewellery, lots of bling, a lot of hip-hop, but most of that money isn’t even there. A lot of people claim to have this cash but they don’t and that’s a real Jamaican thing. The people that had the best fashion sense are always trying to get a one-up on each other you know, especially at the dances where they turn up in the most expensive Versace boots. But that money ain’t there. There’s a lot of struggling for artists coming up, so anything they can do to make a bit of noise looks like it will help them. Politics in Jamaica has always been very violent. Right up until Michael Manley [Prime Minister to 1992], to secure the elections you’d need gang violence. A lot of these gangs were associated with the soundsystems and that link was always strong. People will do anything to survive there. It used to be a pretty happening place when the British were there but it’s been crumbling ever since.”
What the British left behind was a mess. But what the locals raised from the smoking ashes through the ’60s and ’70s was a music scene that has influenced Western music scenes ever since. More than you can imagine. From their studio techniques to their alchemy of sub bass to how they cut their vinyl and onto stylistic structures of rhythms, Jamaica has influenced genres as disparate as techno, rap, drum and bass and newer scenes like dubstep. So, what was the greatest thing that this duo learnt from their trip? Switch’s answer should be noted: “Untie your car battery before you go in the club.” Yet it is Diplo’s answer that’s a tad more over-arching: “That dancehall in general has a real sense of humour. Down there it’s fun and if it’s not fun then it’s the last thing that the world needs. Everyone is about the fun and it’s not really about the gangsta, because without the music the gangsta side of things would just be like civil war with hostage taking. If their records were all really real then Jamaica would be like Haiti where it’s non-stop trouble. Everyone in Jamaica wants you to be part of something musical, no matter who you are.”
Words by Matthew Bennett