Where were you in 2002? That's the year that Hollertronix 1, a 12-inch single with a green label, introduced a nervous mash-up of Missy Elliott and Timbaland's scrunched hit "Gossip Folks" with The Clash's punk-funk anthem "Rock the Casbah."
That platter served two purposes. Most obviously, it marked the arrival of DJs Diplo and Low Budget. Retroactively, though, Hollertronix 1 inspired young music devourers by actualizing a newly nagging frustration—that is, sounds such as Southern hip-hop, regional dance music and people-pleasing hits could coexist in a single club. The epoch of single-genre playlists was dying.
In 2013, a post-genre, see-what-sticks explosion of ideas has become the norm. Remembering or contextualizing how mind-blowing it could be to hear less refined genres like Atlanta crunk or Baltimore club played with abandon, even in a mash-up, might be difficult. But named after a gun-in-the-trunk stomper by Bone Crusher, Hollertronix's 2003 mix Never Scared was indeed a revelation. That swaggering, underground musical moment confronted tedious die-hards tied to the tag "real hip-hop," while shoving too-cool kids onto the dance floor for what might have been the first time.
In the decade since, Diplo has become a brand. The globe-trotting producer, DJ and canny schlockmeister now stars in Blackberry commercials and authors books about his adventures, having moved from local underground hero to Internet hipster tastemaker and beatmaker who tinkers with radio play. His cyborg-sobbing beat for Usher's "Climax," for instance, was all build-up and no satisfaction, save for a steady reverse comedown. One of last year's most remarkable songs, "Climax" sounds like the next-level remix of a song that doesn't exist yet. Like the best Diplo work, it transcends what it rips off—in this case, dubstep-house fusionist SBTRKT and druggy R&B curiosity The Weeknd.
That imitate-and-improve approach also holds for Major Lazer, Diplo's daffy dancehall project with producer Switch. Given a made-for-LOLZ origin story (the Major is a one-armed avenging angel from the 1984 zombie war), the thumping project also oozes authenticity thanks to guest spots from Jamaican singer Vybz Kartel and the second-generation Puerto Rican sisters known as Nina Sky. An autotuned baby makes an appearance, too.
Taken together, "Climax" and Major Lazer summarize The Diplo Formula. He funnels stellar curation into flirtations with the mainstream. He then ties an Internet-like fuck-all concern for cultural pilfering to dumb, meme-generating viral ephemera that seemingly exists only to entertain Diplo's core fans and provide a pitch for PR weasels and a hook for easy bloggers. This pattern has made him a star.
It's beginning to make stars of his protégés, too: That more-than-the-music impulse hit a tipping point recently with the massive success of Brooklyn producer Baauer's "Harlem Shake," released by Diplo's label, Mad Decent. The song is a raucous slab of energetic EDM. But it went viral thanks to a video dance campaign, encouraged and marketed by the label, which can monetize fan-made viral videos with YouTube advertising. Even as the tune has shot to the top of the charts, "Harlem Shake" has been subsumed by its own cultural contagion.
But "Harlem Shake" shares a name with a legendary hip-hop dance that's actually from Harlem, a plunder that upsets people. For anyone who thinks these concerns of appropriation are passé, there's a telling video of Harlem residents in shock that the name of their home-brewed dance has been commandeered and turned into something else entirely. "Yeah, I know the Harlem Shake," one viewer proclaims, "but that ain't the Harlem Shake."
Indeed, the branding of both Diplo and Mad Decent hinges on highlighting obscure-to-the-mainstream music and tweaking it here and there to make it more palatable. Some might argue that cultural appropriation has been here since rock music's start. Others might shrug and simply say, "Hey! Postmodernism, bro!" But sensitivity to such an issue should increase over time, shouldn't it? And in a culture of tweets and quick links, we don't take the time to read the references and footnotes and acknowledged influences; we can scan, skim and move on.
Diplo's careless curating can feel nihilistic, especially now that everybody can go cool-hunting with the Internet. In the last two years, Diplo has co-signed Chicago rapper Sasha Go Hard, zen Internet absurdist MC Riff Raff and slow-groove subgenre Moombahton. His approval has felt a little, well, late. By attaching his name to these sounds, Diplo keeps Diplo relevant and current, as what hits mainstream music websites tends to bubble up days earlier on personal Tumblr and Twitter accounts. The rise of a next big thing is now rapid and bottom-up, rendering Diplo's once seemingly prescient savvy dated and useless. He's now part of the machine, the guy that will nod along to your weird music soon enough.
Superstars now play the part of Diplo in their spare time: Drake and friends run a blog called October's Very Own that first highlighted The Weeknd. Rihanna recently performed on Saturday Night Live with a background that nodded to a '90s nostalgia aesthetic called #seapunk, whose origins can be traced to Tumblr. And did you catch Rihanna's photo shoot for January's issue of Complex? The most fascinating photo is Rihanna, lounging almost on all-fours, staring at her MacBook Pro. It is a poignant symbol of where artists must be now—on the Internet, digi-digging always, like Diplo's been doing for years.
That might be a small victory for someone who made his name being ahead of the curve, but all of these people closing in the rear view must be frightening, too. More than a decade after Hollertronix 1, it often seems like Diplo now needs us more than we need him.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Tastemakers always die."