“The goal is to expose the artist.” Wesley Pentz is on the phone from Hawaii, explaining how he publicizes up-and-coming hip-hop talent. “It’s basically putting promotion and marketing in your own hands,” he explains. Contrary to what you may think, Pentz is not a record executive; he’s a DJ with a passion for making mix tapes — not the romantic type you made for your college girlfriend, but the compilation cassettes (and CDs) created in bedroom studios, copied in bulk and found for sale on the streets of urban centers like New York, London and Miami.
For Pentz, better known on the club circuit as Diplo, taking a business approach to his art is nothing new. He has learned to combine his mixing skills with media savvy, turning a career spinning in clubs into a globe-trotting, genre-hopping exploration of sound.
Consider “Piracy Funds Terrorism,” his recent collaboration with Maya Arulpragasam, a Sri Lankan Tamil emigre to London whose work encompasses dance hall MCing, electro and hip-hop. Arulpragasam, known professionally as M.I.A., chirps over rhythms that Diplo has liberally borrowed from old-school hip-hop, first-generation MTV pop and baile funk, the jittery, bass-heavy party music born in the ghettos of Brazil.
Living up to its name, “Piracy” is a bootleg — a set of music where the vocals or instrumentation of popular groups have been isolated and shamelessly reconfigured without legal clearance from the artists. Bootlegs also lack conventional channels of distribution. Now available online at places like turntablelab.com, most people first heard “Piracy” via copies thrown out at M.I.A./Diplo shows or the ones that showed up on file-sharing networks later. The word-of-mouth technique worked. The buzz surrounding both artists is now deafening in many critic circles, with “Piracy” making numerous ‘Best of 2004’ lists (and not only on indie Web sites like pitch forkmedia.com, but also in media such as GQ and U.S. National Public Radio).
Pentz is pleased with the results. “It’s amazing. There’s so much work putting together a real album, but then you just throw something together D.I.Y., something with a street aesthetic, and it can reach a lot of people these days.”
He believes that this unorthodox method of music dispersal and the underground culture surrounding it are quickly becoming new and exciting promotional tools. “Piracy,” he says, was made on the cheap in two weeks, but has accomplished the hype that labels work so hard to generate. With no PR machine or label money, both M.I.A. and Diplo are turning up in mainstream media (three pages in The New Yorker, no less), and tours of the West are expanding East — from Hawaii to Shanghai and then Tokyo later this month.
Before Pentz became Diplo, he was a teenager learning the art of spinning vinyl in Daytona, Fla., and then Philadelphia, where he studied film at Temple University (of course he made his own beats for his soundtracks). After graduation, Pentz spent a semester at Temple’s Tokyo campus in Minato Ward, working for the university’s video production unit and slugging it out in the campus’ boxing club.
After returning to Philly to pursue DJ’ing full-time, he produced “Florida,” a hypnotic experiment in moody turntablism often compared to the work of contemporaries like DJ Shadow and RJD2 (then again, what turntablism isn’t?). Then, instead of joining the city’s competitive club scene, he created his own. As Hollertronix, he and partner Low Budget (born Mike McGuire), promoted their own series of DJ parties, earning themselves a spot on The New York Times’ “Best of 2003” list. Soon after, some Brazilian dancers sent him a mix of music they wanted to hear at an upcoming event.
“They sent me a demo of what they dance to. It was a really bad cassette tape, with a lot of hiss, and there were all these ridiculous people screaming Portuguese lyrics and hard drums, samples of Morrissey, cartoon sounds. It was loud and punk rock and hardcore dance music.” It was baile funk, a sloppy, explosive hybrid of hip-hop, samba and electro-funk created and played almost exclusively in the ghettos surrounding Rio de Janeiro. Pentz was fascinated — so much so that he decided to go to Brazil and learn more about the music and its creators.
This was no easy task. Anyone who has seen the Brazilian hit film “City of God” knows that the favellas — hillside slums often run as fiefdoms by drug lords — don’t really cater to tourists. “At the time I needed some help,” Pentz admits. “So I proposed a story [about baile funk] to Fader magazine. They went down there with me and brought a Brazilian photographer. He was the key to everything.”
This gave him safe passage into the outdoor dance events called bailes (Portuguese for “ball” — as in “have a ball”). According to the Rio newspaper Jornal do Brasil, there are around 500 bailes every weekend. These massive block parties are run by competing sound systems playing funk, but not the funk you may be familiar with. In the ’70s, groups like the JB’s and Kool & the Gang were the first to be played at bailes, Pentz explains, but gradually, favella DJs made their own tunes, adding whatever moved the crowd best: electro, hip-hop, carnival rhythms and eventually, the immensely popular bombast of Miami Bass drum machines. “But they kept the name ‘funk’ because it was all directly related to James Brown,” Diplo says.
The music matches its environment: aggressive, reckless, crass and, at times, highly eroticized. At first listen, many find the off-key chants and breakneck beats overwhelming, even repulsive, like the first stinging sip of local hooch. After a few more slugs, however, your head feels light and your posterior begins to twitch on its own accord. It’s not long before all inhibitions are lost and you’re grinding the nearest warm body with your hands in the air.
Baile funk’s ghetto origins keep it from earning acceptance in Brazil’s middle and upper classes, and give it even less chance of gaining access to their money and studios. “Ask a Brazilian about it on the Internet and they’ll most likely laugh and say, ‘That’s just trash music,’ ” says Pentz, but he hardly seems deterred. He has returned twice already to get more mixes and meet more DJs, and just filmed a video for “Florida’s” most propulsive track, “Diplo Rhythm.”
At the upcoming DJ showcase for his U.K. label, Ninjatune, Pentz will be an odd fit — if he fits at all. Label mates DJ Food and the Herbaliser came of age during last decade’s acid-jazz/trip hop boom, and their work reflects it. Pentz’s roots lie more on this side of the millennium, drawing deeper from bootlegs and crunk, the southern-style party rap that now floods today’s airwaves. He says favella music and the M.I.A. collaboration will feature prominently in his set, instead of the laid-back “avant-thump” of the LP named after his home state.
“I’m a club DJ before anything else. I go out to make people dance, not scratch their heads. If I want to go see a show I’ll go see Bob Dylan or something else amazing, but if I just go out at night, I just want to have a drink, dance with a girl and have a good time, and that’s what I try to do as a DJ.”
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