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How Diplo Is Making Pop Music Weird

With two songs burning up the charts this summer, the "Lean On" hitmaker tells TIME about working with Madonna, Justin Bieber, Tinashe and 2NE1's CL

He has nearly a decade of hits to his name, but Diplo still likes sneak up on listeners. “A lot of people don’t know what records I’ve worked on until they maybe check my Wikipedia or Google the production credits,” the 36-year-old DJ-producer says. “But that’s cool to me. It’s going to be a surprise.”

An even bigger surprise might be which artists Diplo hasn’t worked with by now. His credits include some of pop’s biggest names—Beyoncé, Britney Spears, Madonna—as well as artists you’ve probably never heard of. He teamed up with Iggy Azalea before she was fancy, helped Usher get his groove back and put Snoop Dogg in touch with his reggae side. As founder of indie label Mad Decent—the label that brought you “Harlem Shake”—he’s pushed global sounds into the mainstream thanks to his early work with M.I.A., his dancehall project Major Lazer and his embrace of Korean pop and Brazilian baile funk. Recently, he recorded with country trio The Band Perry and jammed out with Arcade Fire alongside EDM titan Skrillex, with whom he records under the name Jack Ü. There are few sonic threads that tie his work together, but Diplo’s more than okay with that—he knows even the most accomplished producers must evolve or be forgotten. “If I had a signature sound,” he says, “I think that would be the end of me.”

These days, the man born Thomas Wesley Pentz is a little harder to miss thanks to two tracks that have been all over the radio this summer. First, sitting at No. 4 on the Hot 100, is Major Lazer’s “Lean On.” The collaboration with DJ Snake (“Turn Down for What”) and Danish singer MØ (whose prior claim to fame was a semi-viral Spice Girls cover last year) has already topped the charts in more than a dozen countries. Yet it almost wasn’t a hit at all: Diplo, who first wrote the song with MØ as a slow reggae track, unsuccessfully shopped the beat to the camps of Nicki Minaj and Rihanna. He calls their rejection “a blessing in disguise.” “[MØ] sounds better than anybody was going to sound on that record,” Diplo says. “All we want to do is make the records feel like classics, even though they’re feeling progressive and strange to a normal ear.”

Then, in the No. 12 spot, there’s Jack Ü’s Justin Bieber duet “Where Are Ü Now,” which gave Bieber some cool cred following a period of unfavorable tabloid coverage. Working with Bieber may not seem like a creative risk given that he’s one of the biggest pop stars in the world, but the track’s most distinguishing sound—a noise that resembles both a flute and a boiling tea kettle but is actually a pitched-up sample of Bieber’s voice—doesn’t exactly scream mainstream, either. “We opened him to a lot of new ideas,” Diplo says. “His whole management team, his whole team of writers, [they’re] like, ‘Woah, we don’t have to do this formulaic music anymore.'”

Both songs lit up the charts within a few months of their release—a relatively quick rise for a producer more used to sleeper hits. “Paper Planes,” his breakthrough collaboration with ex-girlfriend M.I.A., took off when it was featured in the Pineapple Express trailer more than a year after its release. Major Lazer’s “Pon De Floor” was out for two years before Beyoncé sampled it on her 2011 single “Run the World (Girls).” More recently, his Sia collaboration “Elastic Heart” debuted at No. 17 on the Hot 100 in early 2015 after initially appearing on The Hunger Games: Catching Fire soundtrack in 2013. “Records are like seeds you plant,” he says. “You just throw them in places and see what happens and see which ones grow.”

In the past year, he’s been able to reap the rewards. In February, he scored a rare Missy Elliott appearance on a remix of his and Skrillex’s Kiesza collaboration, “Take Ü There.” “I have no idea how we got Missy Elliott to do that song,” he says before crediting Atlantic Records, home to both Elliott and Jack Ü. “They don’t like to help us with anything it seems, but that was the one request they took seriously.”

He also scored an affirming co-sign from Madonna, who sought Diplo out for a fresh new sound while making this March’s Rebel Heart. The storied queen of reinvention gave Diplo full permission to go left-field on songs like “Bitch I’m Madonna,” which features production work from SOPHIE, an affiliate of London’s enigmatic PC Music collective. “I think Madonna’s manager was like, ‘Who is this person?’ and I was like, ‘Trust me, this is very cool to have him be part of this song,’” Diplo remembers. “PC Music is a really post-modern attempt at pop. It’s something the kids are generating because everything is so clean as far dance music [is concerned].”

One of Diplo’s most buzzed-about collaborators is singer-rapper CL, one fourth of the mega-popular South Korean girl group 2NE1 who now shares management with Bieber. Last week, she and Diplo dropped the video for their song “Doctor Pepper,” and CL has also worked with Skrillex and Blood Diamonds ahead of an EP due this fall. Her solo material is decidedly more hip-hop-oriented than her work with 2NE1, Diplo says, but a few songs they’ve cooked up reflect her pop roots, including “Birthday,” half of which is delivered in Korean, and “One,” which he calls a “real pop, teenage-graduation kind of fun kid record.”

“K-pop is a weird term because K-pop has everything—rap records, it’s very pop-sounding, there are really boy-band sounding records,” Diplo says. “It’s going to be [labeled] K-pop because she’s doing it, so it’s going to be coming from another place and there’s going to be Korean lyrics. But for the most part it’s eclectic. She’s very rap-leaning, she’s very fashion forward. She’s like the Nicki Minaj of that world.”

Also coming sooner rather than later is his work with R&B upstart Tinashe. Diplo says one song he recorded with the “2 On” singer will be out by the end of the summer before her banger-filled sophomore LP arrives later this year. “She’s also an international act—she tours all through Europe, she goes to Africa, she goes to Asia—and when she performs live, she wants to keep it uptempo,” he says. “We’re giving her records that feel good. She’s beautiful, she can sing really well, she can dance and she lives right by my studio in Burbank, so it’s not hard to track her down. I really want to do more with her—I really believe in her as an artist.”

Major Lazer touring commitments have kept Diplo from being too involved in the upcoming Bieber album—expect a few more songs like “Where Are Ü Now,” he says—but he still squeezes in sessions whenever he can. After our interview, he’s set to meet up with Sean Paul to go over a few track ideas, and he and producer pal Benny Blanco (Maroon 5, Kesha) are scheduled to finish a Gwen Stefani track for Major Lazer the day after. He has a studio in Burbank, Calif., which he shares with producer Ariel Rechtshaid (Haim, Sky Ferreira), but Diplo says he doesn’t even own a house—he lives out of AirB&Bs and hotels and works from his laptop while traveling.

“90 percent of the records I make are spontaneous,” he says. “Take Ü There” was recorded with Kiesza in a hotel room and mixed the following week; Ellie Goulding, who appears on Major Lazer’s “Powerful,” approached Diplo via direct message on Twitter; Ty Dolla $ign, who recently jumped on a remix of “Lean On,” is another friend and collaborator he met through Twitter.

“The only motivation is how crazy can we get, how far can we get as a producer, how unique can we make it sound,” Diplo says. “When we think about big records, a lot of producers are thinking of how to make it as standard as possible. I think those days are gone. I think you have to surprise the audience in 2015.”

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