‘Heck Yeah, We’re Dancing’: It’s Diplo, Live From His Living Room


Around 10 p.m. on a recent Saturday night, the party really found its groove. Diplo, the D.J., songwriter, and record producer, was holding court behind a pair of Pioneer decks, wearing a Kermit green poncho and matching bucket hat, manipulating an undulating, underwater-sounding dance track with buttons and knobs.

Next to him, the D.J. Dillon Francis bobbed his head. The crowd, 8,000 strong, had questions (“What’s this song?”), comments, (“these guys scare me, but in a good way”) and requests (“Where is the anti bacterial gel?”).

Diplo invited a fan, Robin Spears, to share the spotlight with him and Mr. Francis on one condition: dance. Ms. Spears happily obliged, throwing her hands above her head and then back and forth, swimming through air. Her roommate, Sterling Morris, pumped her fist and then turned around, backed it up, and wobbled like a Weeble.

“It was a little nerve-racking, at first, but then it was like, ‘Whatever, it’s just Instagram, who cares?’” Ms. Spears said.

The coronavirus pandemic and subsequent stay-at-home orders have delayed or canceled scores of music festivals and concerts. Nightclubs around the country are closed, bottle-service booths empty, dance floors mopped clean of their usual glaze of sweat, vodka and Red Bull.

But Diplo, the stage name of 41-year-old Thomas Wesley Pentz, he of magazine covers (GQ, Fast Company, Billboard), highest-paid D.J. lists ($25 million last year, according to Forbes) and high-profile collaborations (“Old Town Road”), intends to keep the party going. What else is he going to do?

In March, Diplo — short for diplodocus, his favorite dinosaur — began a series of live broadcasts that air Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday on social networks including Instagram, YouTube and Twitch: a residency, of sorts, streamed directly from his house in the Beachwood Canyon neighborhood of the Hollywood Hills to yours.

Instagram makes it possible for him to split-screen his video feed with viewers like Ms. Spears, who can exhibit their willingness to “go live” with him: the virtual equivalent of a performer bending down before a sea of eager, raised hands and pulling a hyperventilating fan up to the stage.

Credit…Alex Welsh for The New York Times

Other D.J.s are trying this too. Derrick Jones, a.k.a. D-Nice, has attracted virtual visitors including Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey and Joe Biden to Club Quarantine, his weekly Instagram live stream of hip-hop. Ahmir Khalib Thompson, better known as Questlove, drops music and musings in regular intervals on YouTube and Instagram.

Many celebrities are using this moment to broadcast unvarnished versions of themselves to the world, with varying degrees of success. Here is Miley Cyrus, hosting a talk show from her living room, there is Madonna, waxing poetic about the “great equalizer” that is Covid-19 from her rose-petal-filled bathtub.

Diplo disseminates no news or advice. He does not offer recipes or at-home workouts. By combining his music, which ranges from otherworldly ambient tracks to mainstream club bangers, with of-the-moment video (“Tiger King” clips) and internet memes (Thanos twerking, Cardi B’s coronavirus rant), he creates a diversion that manages to take the absurdity of lockdown and turn it into an excuse to celebrate: If we’re all inside, welp, might as well jump on the couch and have a good time. No one asked him to live stream, and no one is paying him for his time (yet), but here he is, the pandemic party starter the world didn’t know it needed.

“At this point, I don’t care, I’m super-happy not going on tour,” he said on a recent Friday over Zoom, clad in a white cowboy hat with blue snakes embroidered on the underside of the brim, and a long-sleeved T-shirt that read, “Save the Humans.” He was sitting at his dining table, below a shelf of basketballs signed by pop stars he has worked with: Ariana Grande, John Mayer, Camila Cabello and “more that are illegible.”

FOMO doesn’t exist anymore,” Diplo said. “I’m having the best time ever in my live streams. I was doing 300 shows a year before this. I hated going to dinners with the promoters I didn’t like, I hated all the travel to get there. I love the shows, but everything else is kind of awful: paying for flights, paying for a jet, that’s stuff we had to do, and I hated it. I kind of hate my house now, but other than that, I’ve learned to really respect all this, you know, time, all the time we have here.”

“I love sleeping,” he added.

Diplo wakes up when he wakes up. He spends some time with his Peloton, bought last month, and Mirror, not live streaming any of it. (“I tried working out on Instagram Live,” he said, “but people don’t really care, they just want to watch me with a shirt off or something, they’re not, like, getting their bands out.”)

He goes for a walk around his neighborhood, answers email and checks in on his sons, ages 5 and 9, who live nearby with their mother, Kathryn Lockhart, and have taken easily to home schooling. Diplo oversees their French lessons.

“It’s cool to be part of that because I can actually learn a little bit, but their level of French is so high, they think I’m stupid when I try to speak,” he said. “They’re embarrassed.”

His own work, these days, involves a lot of experimenting with eerie tones and sounds.

“I’m making a ‘Blade Runner’ kind of soundtrack,” he said. “It’s super-different from what I usually do, but I’m learning. It’s what’s driving me when I wake up — I want to make a sound like how these empty streets of Los Angeles sound.”

Right now, he said, it’s impossible to imagine being in a session with a famous songwriter writing a love song, which is his bread and butter. “It would just make no sense,” he said. “It’s already, like, 90 percent fake when you write those kinds of songs.”

Playing to an invisible crowd.
Credit…Alex Welsh for The New York Times
Credit…Alex Welsh for The New York Times

He plays some of his melancholy compositions on his Friday show, Corona Sabbath, which, owing to its doomsday vibe, is less popular than Saturday’s “Coronight Fever,” which can attract as many as 25,000 people across all platforms at any given time.

Twitch, a live streaming service founded nine years ago, is his platform of choice. “The people who are on Twitch are this, sort of, new millennial audience that’s really hyperactive on internet culture,” he said. “Anything you do there is kind of magnified, it goes viral quicker, because the audience is so connected.”

He noted that his audience on Twitch — about 3,200 at 10 p.m. on the second Saturday in April — is nothing compared with that of professional video game players like Tyler Ninja Blevins, known as Ninja, whose followings earn sponsorships that rival those of athletes (Mr. Blevins makes a reported $500,000 a month).

“There are, like, 20 different sponsors that can sponsor different aspects of their lives,” Diplo said. “Gamers have done a really good job of building that market out of nothing and there’s a lot of money to be to be made. D.J.s, not so much, but we’re brand-new.”

Though Twitch doesn’t release traffic or engagement numbers of specific users, Mike Olson, the company’s head of music, said Diplo is “performing really well.” He cited Diplo’s consistency and ability to connect with the audience — he repeats things like, “heck yeah, we’re dancing” into the microphone, which results in a spike of comments and emoji, or “emos” as they’re called on Twitch. “He’s doing a lot of things right,” Mr. Olson said.

There have been missteps. Diplo was meant to spend the second weekend of March in New York, shooting a music video and preparing for the South by Southwest and Ultra Music festivals. When all of that got canceled, he went to his local Target and bought a fog machine. In his living room, he set up a green screen. Because of his Sirius XM satellite radio channel, he already had the equipment needed to broadcast high-quality sound from home.

He called Parris Goebel, a choreographer and friend. “I was like, ‘I don’t want to be at home just reading the news all day because that’s probably not good for my mental health,’” Diplo said.

Ms. Goebel sent him a troupe of “the best dancers in L.A.,” he said, and they twerked around him, wearing face masks, while he played dance music. “We got a lot of flak for that because that was the first week of social distancing, and we were definitely not doing it right.”

Now, the dancers have their own green screen and camera setups at home, so he can showcase them safely. “We bought so much technology to make it so that everybody who dances for me can dance remotely,” he said.

He still has occasional IRL collaborators, like Mr. Francis, who is signed to Diplo’s record label, Mad Decent, and comes over every Saturday for Coronight Fever. “The only reason we’re doing that is because we were the last people we saw before we started quarantining,” said Mr. Francis, who is 32. “We know exactly who we’re seeing, which is just each other, and the people that live in Wes’s house. I go and eat Wes’s food. It works out for me perfectly.”

Diplo lives with his creative director, Sara Nataf, who puts together the dizzying amalgam of memes, logos and dinosaur images that are projected onto the green screen during the live streams.

She also cooks — Diplo sometimes walks off camera, midstream, and comes back with a plate of greens and some kind of protein that he chews un-self-consciously. Midway through our Zoom, Ms. Nataf placed a plate of yellow noodles and mystery meat in front of him.

“It’s vegan meatloaf,” he said. It looked good.

“Uh, maybe on Zoom,” he said. “The noodles look great, the meat looks a bit weird.”

They’re trying to become vegan, “because no one’s buying the vegan ingredients at the stores so they’re always in stock,” he said. (A recent visit to a Studio City Ralph’s suggested the opposite, but OK.) “We’ve also been making weed cookies. We’re learning the dosage slowly, every night has been a different experience. We have a pretty good formula, but we’re starting to get fat. No matter how high you get, you always get fat.”

“I’m not totally quarantined out, I’m not going to lie,” said Diplo, who asks his few guests to submit to temperature checks.
Credit…Alex Welsh for The New York Times

He used to not drink often but has taken to wine, “because it’s like, the thing,” he said.

Diplo’s assistant comes over to work “even though she doesn’t have to,” he said, before theorizing that she was probably just using him for his Peloton. The day we Zoomed, he had another visitor, Mike Milosh, a singer and organizer of Secular Sabbath, a Los Angeles gathering that inspired Diplo’s Friday night program.

“I’m not totally quarantined out, I’m not going to lie,” Diplo said. “Some people come and help. But we take their temperature.” (Not exactly a foolproof method of testing, but again, OK.) He got up, rifled around the kitchen countertop and came back with a forehead thermometer. “Come here, Mike, I didn’t test you yet.” He ran the thermometer across Mr. Milosh’s forehead and showed me the readout: 97.4, in the normal range. “If he was 99.9, he’d be out,” Diplo said.

Like the rest of those sheltering in place, he’s still figuring out how to best make use of this time at home. While sponsors haven’t been lining up, last Saturday, DoorDash and Feeding America donated 500,000 meals to families in need: one for every viewer of that evening’s Coronight Fever.

“I’ve been hired to D.J. a few parties on Zoom for people,” Diplo said. “That’s something that we would have predicted would happen in like, 20 years, not fast tracked to the summer of 2020, but I think that’s going to be the future of entertainment.”

What’s his going rate?

“You’d have to ask my booking agent,” he said. “The numbers are just starting to happen, so I’ll take whatever. The costs are low, I don’t have to travel, I don’t got to go anywhere.”

And will his fans stick around, even if they can’t physically go to him?

“Honestly, yeah,” said Ms. Spears, who has seen Diplo perform in Atlanta, Las Vegas and New York. “I’ve been aging out of festivals.” (She is 30.) “I’m done with camping. Having the festival brought to my living room where the drinks are free and there’s no line for the bathroom? That’s incredible.”

Source: The New York Times