cut covers

Doing Diplo

The buff cowboy-DJ-mogul-dad is all grown up and ready to party.

Photo: Erik Tanner
David Webb earrings and necklace, price upon request, at Dior Men pants, $1,000, at Dior Men Boutiques. Photo: Erik Tanner

The plan was to spend the afternoon in a hot tub with Diplo. The activity was offered to me. I didn’t even ask. But it seemed like fate. Like, of course, the only way to interview an omnipresent DJ-producer who had just recently started posting a lot of high-caliber shirtless pictures on social media and posing in Calvin Klein underwear ads would be in a tiny, man-made, temperature-controlled body of water, doing … well, I don’t know what. What do two people do in a hot tub? Talk? Simmer together like two ingredients in a soup? Still, it was easy enough to picture: a galaxy of chest freckles in which float planets of bad tattoos, abs so well defined they resemble freshly grouted bricks, muscular thighs, skater-boy-length blond hair, all wet, all enhanced by perspiration, him smiling, single gold front tooth glinting in the sun. I chose my bathing suit with care.

But the conditions for a hot-tub party for two weren’t optimal: L.A. was locked in 98-degree weather, and nobody was willing to suffer heat stroke (well, I was). Plus Diplo had other things to do: a facial appointment, yoga, meetings, which is how we’ve ended up in the last place you’d expect to find Diplo: a rent-by-the-hour conference room at the type of West Elm–furnished co-working space where the snacks are free and the water bottles are branded with a petcare start-up’s logo. Apparently, Monday-morning meetings are a fact of life, even for DJs.

Prada suit, $2,680, at De Beers necklace, price upon request at Palace Costume belt. Photo: Erik Tanner

Diplo needed to meet with the writer’s room for the relaunch of Major Lazer, the short-lived FXX animated series from 2015 that he developed based on his first and best-known music project, the electronic-dancehall group by the same name. He is late, though, hopping out of his Tesla with his team about an hour after the writers are scheduled to arrive. Hurrying to make himself professional, using the Tesla like Clark Kent’s phone booth, he changes into cowboy boots, while Sara Nataf, his creative director and Swiss Army Knife companion (friend, joint roller, spirit freer, vibe keeper), holds up three different belts with big, showy buckles. “Wes” — short for Wesley, as in Thomas Wesley Pentz, his actual name — “choose one,” she says with some urgency. He does, but rejects three baseball caps, even though he thought his hair looked dirty, saying he’d prefer a cowboy hat. He’s recently committed to a specific attire — Westernwear — inspired by one of his more recent projects, a country-music persona, Thomas Wesley, under which he plans to release an album soon.

He slings his Gucci backpack over his shoulder, hitches his belt, and, with an actual “Yee-haw,” ambles into the elevator, expecting the doors to open onto a team generating ideas for him, as if he were the guest of honor at a party that’s meant to be in full swing. He is the first one to arrive.

“Why am I at this thing? No one’s here,” he says, a few minutes later, sitting at the head of a mostly empty table, going through a list of people who were supposed to be here today. Diplo has to leave in 20 minutes for a music-video shoot in a desert state park outside Los Angeles. A voice on the phone tries to explain: The team had moved the time. They’d met the day before at a meeting Diplo couldn’t attend. He got too busy on Friday to make the meeting on Sunday, he explains. “I was in Vegas on Friday night. I didn’t go to bed until six, and I had to take a flight at nine in the morning to go to my son’s birthday, “I was there until six. Then I went to yoga. Then I went out with her” — he points to Sara — “Saturday night. What were we doing?”  He asks, then continues on, not waiting for an answer. “Oh, a birthday party. Then I went to an ambient rave until, like, 7 a.m., and this meeting was at ten. I was like, I can’t make it. I slept until three.”

If Diplo, who is 41, looks out of place in the conference room, at least his weekend itinerary seems in character: Name a spring-break party or an international multi-day festival, or an electronic-music bacchanal, or any version of Coachella in any country, and Diplo has performed there. A few years back, he renounced the kind of EDM DJ stuff you’d expect from him as “corny” and has been working mostly as a producer, he says, but he still probably takes 300 flights a year for work, performing around the world, a stat he throws out as often as a tall guy repeats his six-foot height on dating profiles.

His explanation trails off as he falls into a phone trance. He’s prone to slipping into his phone mid-conversation. One minute he’s talking about his love of country music, or Burning Man, or DMT, and the next he’s sucked into a vortex of Instagram, DMs from girls, videos of him performing, videos of other people dancing to his performances, while sharing it all on his Stories. His head snaps back up as baby-faced writers start rushing in, trying to play off the fact that they had to scramble from wherever they were to get to Diplo in 20 minutes or less. Laptops open, introductions are made, people start tossing out episode ideas for his approval.

It takes zero time for all of them, Diplo included, to assemble behind one computer to watch different YouTube videos, geeking out about animation. It feels like I’m in a college dorm room watching boys watching anime. He throws out references to animators and films, the type of esoteric stuff, he says, he usually reserves for his Finnstagram, where he posts late-night musings for the handful of friends who “get his sense of humor.” (He won’t tell me the handle.)

“Who is that animator who worked with Sturgill Simpson?” he asks the writer next to him. The guy’s face freezes in a fake-thought expression, the one you make when you want to seem like the answer is on the tip of your tongue. I’m watching Diplo in his own workplace comedy.

Longer necklace: Tiffany & Co. necklace, $165,000, at Shorter necklace: Bulgari necklace, price upon request at 1-800-BVLGARI. Photo: Erik Tanner

By the end of the meeting, they’ve decided to make one episode of the show, which is scheduled to air sometime in 2020, in which the main character gets canceled after sending a problematic tweet, and as we walk out to the car, Diplo keeps riffing on the prospect of his own career demise. It would start with a bad tweet, like in the cartoon, then his music would start to suck, and then he’d just be gone, he jokes. Maybe he’d even stage it himself, he says, do it as performance art, like Joaquin Phoenix in I’m Still Here.

It’s hard to imagine that Diplo would ever fully torpedo his career, at least intentionally. He’s been immersed in the music world since he was bouncing around high schools in Florida in the mid-1990s, driving to Orlando with his friends when they weren’t hanging out at the Barnes & Noble in Daytona, where he lived. He started DJ-ing as a college student at the University of Central Florida, eventually relocating to Philadelphia and attending Temple University. In 2002, he and a friend, DJ Low Budget, started throwing the now-legendary Philly-based parties that got big enough they could push mixtapes, which got him famous enough to start a studio/performance space and a label, Mad Decent.

There was a time when Diplo seemed to influence the way most music sounded, an era bookended by two major contributions, MIA’s “Paper Planes,” which he produced in 2007, and “Lean On,” by Major Lazer, DJ Snake, and MØ, in 2015. Those dates also happen to coincide with a time when Diplo was widely considered “a dick,” a public opinion carefully chronicled in a 2015 Gawker article expressively titled, “Diplo Is a Dick.” The evidence of his bad behavior included years-long fights with MIA, who was also his ex-girlfriend, that played out in interviews (he took credit for her success, while she accused him of being jealous and claims she was the one who discovered him). He often took shots at Taylor Swift, seemingly on the basis of just really not liking her music, most notably tweeting that someone should start a Fundly to get Taylor Swift a booty, and, then, so dedicated to his own joke, he tweeted out a link to a Fundly to get Taylor Swift a booty started by one of his Twitter followers. When Swifties call you an asshole, the reputation is hard to shake.

Diplo was painted as an entitled spring-break-party fixture (and in fact played one in a too-on-the-nose cameo in 22 Jump Street). In other words, he was a familiar archetype: “The DJ,” the dirty hot man, standing behind two turntables, asking people not to expect much more from him than a steady BPM. Diplo seemed to be the incarnation of bottle-service clubs, cocaine postnasal drip, and 4 a.m mistakes. (See also Calvin Harris, Tiesto, Zedd.) He was the kind of guy you’d swipe right on upon finding him on Raya, even if you knew better.

But this Diplo — the one who was just offering to airdrop 20-somethings his favorite anime soundtracks — is not the Diplo of “Diplo Is a Dick” or even the Diplo you’d expect if you watched him bouncing around behind his laptop with his headphones hanging on his neck on a Vegas stage. He doesn’t have much interest in being that guy anymore. He’s in his 40s now. He’s a dad. He’s realizing that what he says in public can make him seem like more of an asshole than he actually is.

Part of the problem, as he sees it now, is that he used Twitter wrong — well, he was “one of the first guys” to use it, and it helped his career a lot — but he was always pissing people off. He doesn’t really think he’s crossed any boundaries, though: “I’m not a malicious guy, you know? So if someone didn’t understand that, I put it on them, you know?” Still, he’s apologized for the Taylor Swift beef, for the MIA feud. And he was only on Raya for a month a long time ago. He mostly used it to connect with people he already knew as friends (including Joe Jonas, his “soul mate”). He felt really bad for women who use it because all the men are like him (“DJ losers”) while “the girls are better than us.”

He’s still a DJ, but he seems to treat it like a job — one that’s helped put his net worth at a reported $29 million — not a personality. He’s served up his old reputation for parody, on the now-canceled Viceland show What Would Diplo Do, gamely letting James Van der Beek play him as a nice but thick-skulled musician who beefs with Calvin Harris. Meanwhile, his presence in pop music has become more ambient. I often listen to a song, like Usher’s “Climax,” or Robyn’s “Dancehall Queen,” or more recently Silk City’s (Diplo, Mark Ronson) “Electricity,” featuring Dua Lipa, without realizing Diplo had something to do with it. He reliably shows up on awards-show red carpets, always well dressed, occasionally baring his chest underneath a suit jacket. (Though if he did quit music, he says, he already knows he’d go on to make films, which he’s wanted to do since he was anthropology major at Temple.) He’s not really the platonic ideal of a shame crush anymore. Instead, he’s openly sharing a more self-conscious, nerdy, dad-cowboy upgrade, which he hopes might lend itself to a different sort of crush designation altogether.

(Left) Shorter necklace: Bulgari necklace, price upon request at 1-800-BVLGARI. Longer necklace: Tiffany & Co. necklace, $165,000, at Helmut Lang pants, $318, at (Right) Chopard earrings, price upon request, at chopard.comHermes necklace, $5,900, at Photo: Erik Tanner

Diplo’s internet presence is a slightly softer version of what it used to be, too. People seem to approve of, and actually like, the Instagram brand he’s been solidifying. In addition to shirtless thirst traps with self-deprecating captions, he goes full goober, posting memes (does anyone love a goofy, face-manipulating filter more than Diplo?) and connecting with the younger musicians he works with, largely by gently trolling them and allowing them to gently troll in return. Sometimes he’s prone to long earnest captions about his kids, or about his past, or his respect for his own music heroes, like Alan Jackson. He’s smart enough to have started outsourcing his Twitter, at one time leaving it partially in the hands of one of the Major Lazer writers he’s working with on season 2, Cash, a gregarious 20-something who walked into the writers’-room meeting wearing Crocs he’d jazzed up with spikes.

Even with outsourcing — he doesn’t have the password to his Twitter at this point — Diplo can’t always escape his digital past. Recently he began to suspect that Drake “for sure hates” him, and can’t figure out why Drake unfollowed him on Instagram and Twitter. He and his team went back through a whole history of tweets to find the possible offense: a now-deleted joke Cash made about Drake’s son joining Brockhampton.

“I can’t remember exactly what it was, but it was super-funny,” Diplo says. He laments the fallout because they are both creators, both hang out in Vegas, and both have kids: “Come back, dude! I miss us! I miss us!”

“I’m still figuring it out,” he says, about giving fans a personal view of who he really is. He studies the internet. He thinks John Mayer is “really good at it.” “I don’t know any of his music anymore, but I’ll buy it because he’s so good at Instagram,” he says. He, like everyone, thinks the kids on TikTok are genius and begins to explain his theory of TikTok chaos: “It’s like beyond races, beyond gender. They have old Chinese guys doing dances, then all these young people doing the same ones, and the kids accept everything on it, so it’s not like one wave.” He sighs. “It’s beautiful.” Diplo occasionally dabbles in TikTok himself. For him, social media has offered a way to stay in the conversation around music, even if he’s not the one driving it. Even his embrace of cowboy boots and flared jeans taps into TikTok’s energy; he’s right there in two-step with Lil Nas X (Diplo did his own remix of “Old Town Road” over the summer).

Diplo’s talent as a DJ is in part this ability to bend himself so willingly to whatever he’s trying to channel in the Zeitgeist. He’s got half a dozen versions of himself, each with a defined style to go with the musical output — Diplo (just him), LSD (psychedelic pop with SIA and Labrinth), Major Lazer (reggae with his buddies Ape Drums and Walshy Fire), Silk City (house with Mark Ronson), Jack Ü (pure EDM with Skrillex). Thomas Wesley was supposed to be a short-lived project — a custom suit for a Stage Coach performance of “Heartless,” a  song he produced with a country singer, Morgan Wallen, but the style stuck.

“What else is a white guy supposed to do when he hits 40? I can’t wear, like, Balenciaga pants,” he says, then pauses. “Well, I mean I can …” The way he sees it, he has three options at his age: “a cowboy, or motorcycle-gang member or something, or you’re a corporate lawyer.” He’s really leaned into cowboy, showing up on the red carpet in a silk canary-yellow suit with no shirt and a cowboy hat and matching boots, or that same outfit, but in purple, or, in a particularly notable custom suit he wore to the VMAs, white and neon-embroidered with the molecular formulae for a bunch of psychedelics. It’s all ridiculous: the long hair, the single gold tooth, the hats, the suits, but it works for him.

At first, women in his life begged him to cut his hair. “You used to be hot,” they said, but eventually they came around to it, according to Diplo. “I mean, girls still like me with my ugly tooth and my ugly haircut,” he says. “I just kept thinking, I’m never going to get laid again, when I started doing this stuff, but it still happens. I don’t know how. I just persevered, man. Persevere in your ugliness. It will just eventually become beautiful, I think.”

We finally arrive at a national park in a desert outside Los Angeles for the video shoot,. It looks like we’ve been dropped in the middle of Death Valley. Major Lazer produced the song, “Evapora,” with Brazilian artists Iza and Ciara, butDiplo’s main obligation seems to be going through racks and racks of clothes to pick the perfect outfit to stand among tumbleweed. The video is conveniently (and vaguely) outlaw themed and offers Diplo another opportunity to incorporate a cowboy hat and some snakeskin boots into his outfit. “It’s kind of the one benefit of being a musician,” he says of the wardrobe perks. “I don’t have a job, so who cares?”

Diplo goes through the racks, quietly singing “Rise and Shine” in a Kylie Jenner voice. “Ooooooh,” he coos at the clothes, like he cannot wait to get inside them. “This is like, I’m an Ayahuasca cowboy,” or “Jamaican cowboy,” or “Dashiki cowboy,” he says, handing items to his stylist. He wriggles into a pair of suede bootleg pants. “These pants are so tight I can’t even Nae Nae!” He pulls on another pair that cradle his thighs so closely it feels more obscene than having seen him in nothing but his baby-blue boxer briefs for the past two hours. The seamstress offers to let out the inseam.

Newly buff Diplo is something Diplo notices we’ve all noticed. His body is a by-product of adult responsibility and maintenance, but does he mind that he’s considered an objectifiable figure as a result? “Nope. Totally like that. Totally love that,” he says with immediate enthusiasm. “But it’s pretty sad that I have to take my shirt off to have more likes than other photos.”

His role on this shoot could be categorized as nonessential; he’s just meant to pose behind Ciara and Iza while they look like goddesses, so he’s dispatched his tour photographer, Joe Larkin, to make use of the downtime, wardrobe, and Western set for a photo shoot in between takes. When the camera is rolling, however, Diplo, used to dancing from the waist up, keeps forgetting to engage his lower body.

“Wes! Move your leg,” yells Sara, who is warm and French, with a constant smile. Diplo responds by leaning back, putting one hand in the air, and waving back and forth like a glitchy windmill.

Ugh! Do something else,” Sara yells again. “Don’t just Nae Nae!”

Diplo loves to Nae Nae (as in the dance that Georgia rap group We Are Toonz invented in 2013 and is now deployed in dance fitness classes at local Y’s). He Nae Nae’d in the car, in the trailer, in the desert, in the bluffs. I am sure he would do it in a boat, or a moat, or on a street, while he eats.

“What? I should do a dance I didn’t learn on the internet?”

(Left) Pomellato bracelets, $28,400 - $79,500, and ring, $7,100, at Dolce & Gabbana top, $215, at select DG Boutiques. (Right) Dolce & Gabbana robe, $5,795, at select DG Boutiques. Ralph Lauren pants, $495, at David Webb necklace, price upon request, at Photo: Erik Tanner

We leave the desert at sundown and head back to Diplo’s house for come-down hours, driving up to the area of L.A. made famous in a song the Weeknd sings about getting molly sads and texting exes. Diplo’s home doubles as his studio, his office, and a crash pad for friends. When we arrive, about a dozen people are hanging out, working at the massive dining-room table, or playing chess. Someone puts on the new Star Wars trailer (twice), and there’s talk of going to the Jonas Brothers concert at the Hollywood Bowl later that night — Diplo has been friends with Joe for a few years. They met through their exes and would run into each other at the gym, then became the kind of friends who celebrate nuptials together (Diplo attended both of Jonas and Sophie Turner’s weddings) and play pranks on each other (Diplo usually does the pranking).

Diplo orders dinner, and Sara is dispatched to give me a tour of the house. I take in the décor: A Chanel surfboard is mounted on the wall like art, and about 40 pairs of shoes ranging from “kicks” to Gucci dress shoes and all his cowboy boots are lined up from the door to the couch in his living room, also like art. Diplo’s two sons, Lockett, 9, and Lazer, 5, live nearby with their mother, Kathryn Lockhart. I wonder if they are endlessly fascinated (or terrified) by the heated high-tech toilet that functions more like a video-game console; if women who come over are more impressed by the gold records that decorate the walls or the two chickens he keeps; if anyone knows how long Jr Blender, the bleary-eyed German producer tucked away in the basement studio, has been here?

Diplo announces the takeout vegan Thai food has been delivered, and everyone hustles into the kitchen to gather around the vast black-marble island and eat family style. “When I was younger, I was vegan for a different reason. I wanted to kill everybody that ate meat and that was anarchist. Now I’m vegan because of selfish reasons. I want to be healthier and live longer.” He was inspired by a movie called The Game Changers, which investigates sports performance and diet, and the book Homo Deus, by futurist Yuval Noah Harari. “Vegan food is going to let us live forever, right?” PETA recently sent him a whole bunch of vegan food, which made him feel guilty since he eats meat about once a week, usually with his kids. “We’re plant-based,” someone reminds him. Several members of Diplo’s usual crew have switched to “plant-based,” too, but not everyone feels the same benefits. I ask Joe the Photographer how it’s going for him. “I’m so tired,” he says with a hint of pain in his eyes.

One by one, we finish eating and load our plates into the dishwasher. Jr Blender wanders up silently and rolls a spliff, Sara rolls a joint, and we all trot outside to the deck to give Diplo time to work. He needs to finish a few things so he can carve out time to take his sons to a pumpkin patch tomorrow.

Diplo wasn’t always the model of dedicated fatherhood. But he’s been getting better about time management, he says, to be consistently present. His Las Vegas residency has helped: He plays two hours of music for people who will definitely dance without him having to get too creative, and he can commute home after — it’s a 45-minute flight from Vegas to Burbank. He can’t get away with being half-present anymore. “They’re not stupid, you know. They’ll be like ‘My dad never gave me that real time.’” For Diplo, this means spending less energy on “women” or “stupid things like getting lost on YouTube looking up samurai swords.” He isn’t really dating, and doesn’t actually know if he believes in monogamy at this point, but his kids are teaching him a lesson about intimacy. “I guess I really understood that true love from them, which is cool,” he says, “because I was getting kind of jaded at this point. But when they came, I was like, ‘Wow, now I understand what it must be for other people.’ To feel love, to really have that feeling. It’s cool.” Without prompting, he acknowledges that he’s got the easier part of the deal of co-parenthood. It’s been harder on Lockhart — and he’s often made it hard for her.

Lockhart, an Atlanta native and aspiring actress, met Diplo at one of his concerts in 2008, where they were introduced by a mutual friend in the band Black Lips. When I ask her later, over the phone, what she thought of Diplo when they first met, she answers directly: “I didn’t like him, actually. He was very … Wes.” Then a different sort of Wes began to emerge. He courted her through MySpace and Facebook. “I realized he’s just a really goofy music nerd, movie nerd. And he just happens to be cool. Deep down, he was just a nerd,” she adds. When he came back to visit her in Atlanta, she was in. “I knew then I’d probably have his kids one day. It’s a hard thing to explain.” They dated for two years and had Lockett in 2010. Neither had planned for the child but gave it a go. They split in 2014, when she was two months’ pregnant with their second child, Lazer.

Diplo attributes their breakup to a “a lot of petty shit and miscommunication.” He explains, “We were like, Have a baby, avoid problems, and then we wouldn’t talk about anything.”

“There was a lot of hurt,” Lockhart says of the time. She’d put her career as an actress on hold to accommodate his schedule and raise their kids, and he was often absent, working. She was often upset by the things people said to her on social media and about him in the press. When she got pregnant again, it was rumored he was dating Katy Perry (Perry later put Diplo third on a ranking of men she’d slept with, after Orlando Bloom and John Mayer.)

But Lockhart’s seen a shift in him lately, she says. He’s more forthcoming with his emotions, in “the way he wants to make everything run smoothly for them and put them over his needs.” Now, Diplo says, he knows that all his family needs is full security. “She just wants to know that whatever I give … if she needed anything, I have it for them,” he says.

He rises from his computer, having completed enough work to feel he can party a little. He comes out to the deck to rally us all into a car. “Who wants to go to this concert?,” he asks, before herding a few of us, now too stoned to resist, into an Uber.

In the car, Diplo settles into what seems like his most natural state: sitting low in the shadowy back seat of an SUV, controlling the playlist, energy restored by a sparkling matcha and the promise of the night out.

As we walk up to the stadium, chatting about the music Lockett likes (not the JoBros, as it were), Diplo stops suddenly, in awe of the deafening wall of shrieks and roar of pure, raging hormones from all the fans going crazy for the Jonas Brothers. They’re losing their voices, minds, and shit over them. It’s basically their horny Super Bowl.

Diplo joins them, screaming, “Woooo, Jonases,” as he struts by. He is snapping photos like a proud father to three fully grown, tight-pantsed, gyrating pop singers. He claps Joe the Photographer on the back, singing lyrics with him. He takes videos he immediately uploads to Instagram. He makes sure Sara can see. He’s dancing and laughing and passing a joint to Jr Blender, who remains bleary-eyed. When there’s a problem with our seat (a friend of the actress Priyanka Chopra, who is Nick Jonas’s wife, claims ownership over seats we’ve also claimed), it’s Diplo who tries to pacify. “We’re all homies,” he declares, trying to make room for everyone like a dad solving a dispute. It doesn’t work, and the friend ends up flipping us all off. Some wisp of his old energy must remain. Maybe it’s the gold tooth.

Across the way, I can see a man around Diplo’s age, in a blue argyle pullover sweater with a zip neck, with what looks to be his wife and son. His kid, about 10, has fallen asleep halfway through the show, but this guy is still going, white-wine sippy cup in hand. He raises the roof in a comfortingly cheesy way. I look back to Diplo, who suddenly seems to have more in common with this sweater dad than his former self. The erstwhile DJ–producer–international booty call arches his back and raises his hand to the sky for the 500th time that day and does his favorite dance. And you know what? I give in. Nae Nae for me, Daddy.

Doing Diplo