It was 2002 when then unknown DJ Diplo started throwing his Hollertronix parties in Philadelphia. There's nothing special about that really, except that he's more than your average DJ: like any cultural curator — say, art-school instigators Andy Warhol and Tony Wilson — he created an aesthetic in his discipline that corresponded with the advent of "mash-ups." DJ Diplo has become a tastemaker, a hunter of unique sounds and combinations. In the process, he's helped to forge a universalistic approach to music consumption. Everything is fair game, from Lil Jon to the Smiths, Missy Elliott to the Strokes, Kelly Clarkson to Daddy Yankee. Hollertronix represented a celebration of liking it all. It all came together for Diplo when he was asked to produce a track for Arular, the 2005 debut by M.I.A., the genre-bending London-based Sri Lankan siren. (He also produced her breakthrough mix tape, Piracy Funds Terrorism, Volume 1.)
"It seems a lot of DJs today are taking pride in their scenes, and how far they can go and have a great party," he writes in an e-mail regarding the impact of Hollertronix. "There wasn't a thinking like this one year ago. But I can definitely see all these new young kids producing and working harder at DJ'ing and moving music `forward` faster."
Diplo isn't exactly standing in place himself. He's always had a talent for picking up on trends. Last summer, he could be found at the Knitting Factory spinning opening sets for grime up-and-comer Kano. This past February, he unveiled his new label, Mad Decent (a partnership with Phoenix contributor Chris Nelson), by releasing a 12-inch vinyl EP by the unknown Brazilian baile funk group Bonde do Role.
Bonde do Role is Diplo's attempt to bring Rio favela-born baile funk to the American mainstream. Bonde, as Diplo affectionately refers to them, falls in the tradition of invigorating Brazilian dance music that's been reared in the filthy slums of Rio de Janeiro over the past decade. But until Diplo brought it over and threw it into the pan-cultural pastiche Arular, the music was all but unknown outside South America. Its fan base in the U.S. remains minuscule — something he hopes to change with Bonde do Role's more accessible, more Americanized take on the form.
"People say, yeah, I like baile funk, but only really nerdy kids on the Internet can name one artist!" he points out. "I thought, let's have a fun artist, let's produce a group proper for the world — just as an experiment."
"Traditional" baile funk — also referred to as funk carioca, favela funk or just plain funk, if you're in Rio — comes from the ghetto, he says, but the three kids in Bonde do Role grew up listening to it in the suburbs. Its drums are loud; its vocals supersexual; its rhythms are reminiscent of double Dutch schoolyard chants. The beats are propulsive and consistently twisted around a set of playful rhythmic flourishes. In Brazil this music isn't purchased, it's simply heard — 2,000 kids or more at every Rio party, Diplo claims, and up to 5,000 parties every week. "It's as strange and street-driven as any music has ever been." And he concedes that Bonde do Role aren't even a "beep on the radar" in Rio, much less the world at large.
But Diplo isn't trying to put one over on anyone either. He's the first to admit that Bonde do Role is a group of middle-class kids who've appropriated the vocabulary of baile funk. What they're doing, he explains, sounds more like a funk-infused parody of traditional Brazilian music than the really dirty favela stuff. They're fourth-wave baile funk, fans not pioneers, and their new single is about having fun with the music they grew up with.
Like M.I.A.'s recordings, the Melo do Tabaco EP is a bewildering grab bag of worldly pop. The six tracks (the title track, an instrumental version, an a cappella version and three B-sides) hop and fly, as catchy in their melodies as anything on American top 40 radio. "Melo do Tabaco" includes an Alice in Chains sample, and there's a "doo-wah-ditty" refrain in "Jabuticaba."
Nothing quite like Melo do Tabaco has ever put much of a dent in the U.S. market. Bonde's only arguable antecedent comes from the old Hollertronix nights in Philly, which brought leagues of suburban kids out to the dance floor to hear Cam'ron, Gang of Four and Lil Jon in the same set.
So if anyone can popularize baile funk in the U.S., Diplo's the man. With Hollertronix, he took the notion of "I like all kinds of music" away from the people who really didn't and gave it to kids who really did. He established the cultural landscape necessary for something as invigoratingly weird as Bonde do Role. Now he's hoping that baile funk can transcend its blogger-fueled cult following in the U.S. Earlier this year, Diplo went to Brazil to begin work on Bonde do Role's full-length film and a Rio funk documentary. The idea is to create a more complete understanding for American fans. "That's what's missing, there is no context. It's just exoticized and trendy. I hope to change that, to make it a little more viable in people's eyes."
He's already proved he has an ear for what works. Anyone tempted to accuse him of cultural exploitation should consider that, without Diplo, baile funk wouldn't even be a beep on the Internet. Buying a few Brazilian discs on a tour stop and bringing them home may be no great achievement, but he's the one who did it. And he's the one who's fighting to bring it to a larger firstname.lastname@example.org