Diplo has built an impressive résumé with his uncanny ability to look ahead and highlight scenes from around the globe that are about to break open, ushering them into the mainstream. But for his latest project, the 41-year-old producer-DJ-musician looked backward to his childhood in the South as a kid who grew up absorbing hip-hop, dance music, and country music in large quantities.
The recently released album Diplo Presents Thomas Wesley: Snake Oil Chapter 1, which uses part of Diplo’s real name — Thomas Wesley Pentz — is what it sounds like when a renowned tastemaker hangs out with the country musicians in and out of Nashville. It doesn’t resemble anything like a George Strait album, but rather leans more toward mainstream country experimentation, with radio stars like Thomas Rhett and Zac Brown and outsiders like Orville Peck all blending Diplo’s ear for danceable electronic production with songwriting that straddles country and pop.
“Heartless,” Diplo’s trap-country collaboration with rising star Morgan Wallen, is a streaming monster with 128 million Spotify plays alone, though it hasn’t done much on country radio. Some of that may be due to both men’s obligations to their day jobs.
“If me and Morgan didn’t have our own careers popping off and our labels just had this one record, it would be the biggest record in the world,” Diplo tells Rolling Stone. “But we have so much other stuff going on it’s hard to find where it fits in.”
Diplo’s progressive approach to songwriting and production occasionally proved challenging for Nashville stars used to the way things have long been done on Music Row, where organization and longer lead times still reign supreme.
“These country guys, when I meet them, they overthink it way too much,” he says. “What’s the worst that could happen? You’re gonna get kicked off country radio forever? No one’s getting banned from this place. You only have the opportunity to get bigger and make a bigger audience and be broader. There’s such a fear in Nashville. I’m like, ‘Guys, fuckin’ chill out.’”
Does it feel strange to be putting out a record in the middle of so much going on in the country?
It does, I don’t think it’s the easiest thing to do. If you’re as big as Lady Gaga, you’re gonna cut through. But my album, the Thomas Wesley album, actually is kind of a relief because if I was on tour all the time I’d be doing house music and playing club music. I’ve been playing records like this in my set list before the stay-at-home orders. Like I was playing “Heartless” in my sets, people knew it, it became a big record.
How was it working within the Nashville system, or close to it, while you made Snake Oil?
Just taking whatever I could get, taking the crumbs off the table. Whoever wanted to work with me, I would do it. There wasn’t a lot of people. There’s people like Florida Georgia Line, guys that have been doing pop radio for a long time and we had some ideas, but I went with these other guys that made it more unique. It’s leaning toward something different, it’s not totally different. It feels more like a Southern rock record or something, some of the stuff I’ve got on there. You can tell it’s my album if you listen all the way through.
Country tends to be aware of what’s happening in pop music and elsewhere, yet sometimes the attempts at trying those things feel kind of hammy. But you’re bringing an authentic dance music background to country settings, so it doesn’t feel forced.
I don’t want to make a joke album. I don’t want to make “Cotton Eyed Joe,” which… I loved it. I’m not trying to make meme country, you know? The songs are great. If you take everything off, the production of it, they’re just great songs you could sing with an acoustic guitar. That’s what I’ve always done with my songwriting, even if it’s with Major Lazer. They’re just dancehall. This one’s gonna be more like a fusion of country, what it means to be country, and also be self-aware and be American and listen to all kinds of music because I grew up listening to country music and hip-hop equally, and dance music, because I was into that too. There’s a way to bridge it together if you think about it really well.
How did you get Thomas Rhett and Young Thug together on “Dance With Me”? That seems like a coup.
That one is the one I think people look at that and think, “OK, this is gonna be some kind of industry plant, some totally thrown-together piece of crap,” or they’ll be intrigued by it because it doesn’t make any sense. It makes zero sense. Me and Thomas and Ryan Tedder wrote it and we were like, “Actually, this is kind of cool, but what are we trying to accomplish here? What are we actually trying to do? Are we trying to break some barriers and shake things up? If that’s the case, let’s get a fuckin’ really crazy feature on this.” To be honest, Young Thug was one of our last ideas, because we thought it wouldn’t work. And he actually just crushed the verse.
How did you realize that trap drums would work so well for the ballads like “Heartless” and the Ben Burgess song “Heartbreak”?
It’s been controversial — not for me, I always thought it just sounded like the song made sense — but it was always controversial for the artists. They’re like, “Oh, really I don’t know about this.” But Morgan and Ben Burgess are both really young guys, and Morgan became really big in the last year, so it’s different for him, but when they started out, they didn’t give a shit. If I was gonna go ask Tim McGraw to do it, he might be like, “I don’t know, man.” But these guys are so young, they’re like, “Fuck it, let’s do this,” and they loved it. That’s a punk rock attitude that’s happened in Nashville. People like Zac Brown or people who are doing independent records like Colter Wall, people that are doing their own sound that are young. That’s a wave that’s happening with Southern music and country music right now.
But even before I did the trap beats, country radio had introduced the snap beats, 808s or whatever. It was already there and it was big. When you give a ballad a trap beat and put some subs in it, it makes it so much more multi-format.
Can we expect a Chapter 2?
A hundred percent. I’ve already started writing some ideas. This album is a kind of a collection of pop stuff I wrote that I made more country. But as I got more into it, I was starting to listen to more Leon Bridges and working with him, and I really love “July” by Noah Cyrus and some of these folky records. I think there’s something really big to be done with those kind of records, so I’ve been writing a couple ideas. I’m gonna try to get it out before the year’s over.