Gwaan Get Free
There’s an escalating case that electronic dance music is on the verge of disco-ing out, that some nebulous tipping point is on the horizon where EDM will hit its own version of Peak Oil — all of its resources tapped and suddenly those with the deepest means of exploration will control the current. It’s explicit that the internet and digitalization have torn down the barriers to entry, freeing the R&D aspect of beatmaking from most of the requisite sweat equity needed to find untapped influence. Right now, Diplo and his Mad Decent imprint are the ExxonMobil of beats, holding assets from the most far-flung of places, pounding the pavement, cobblestone and dirt roads — rather than the keyboard — of whatever exotic, developing or perilous locale is incubating the next mile marker in electronica.
His online documents reveal him to be more of an intellectually curious voyager than a simple (but important) tastemaker and now, already having illuminated native curio like Sissy Bounce, opened the door for oddities that leak into cinema like RiFF RaFF, been the guy behind the guy behind (or to blame for) the Harlem Shake’s resurgence and vested away K-pop and funk carioca findings, Diplo’s focus is fully on Major Lazer. While his peers are singlemindedly focused on the visual component of EDM — i.e., Skrillex’s gaudy spaceship or Bassnectar’s Great Wall of high beams — his roving sweatbox of a showpiece that doesn’t just sample sounds of the West Indies, but its absurd, hypersexualized energies as well.
Last Thursday, Major Lazer’s show at the Cat’s Cradle, completely sold out a week after its on-sale date, was the essence of those energies, formalized (but not too much) into a unified front by the five-person crew of Diplo, Jillionaire the selector and Walshy Fire the toaster, and a pair of extremely fit female dancers who, once the countdown to the Major Lazer Sound System expired and the curtain dropped, were spun like clockwork toys for 90 minutes.
Their orderly, but absolutely R-rated moves implied that there is indeed a right way to dance at a Major Lazer show, even if the sardine can of a crowd couldn’t quite comply. The crisp, trooping snare of “Pon de Floor” suggests feet planted, hips gyrating and hands bouncing a real or imagined partner, otherwise the ideal vehicle to get one’s dagger — the dancehall staple whose most successful outcome is landing in the ER with the worst injury a man can sustain — on.
The Major Lazer experience, however, is less about potential penile fractures and more predicated on recreating the dancehall experience in an ostensibly safe environment — the danger in its most authentic environs are paramount to its culture. Many of the genre’s principles are either paroled (Busy Signal), currently incarcerated (Vybz Kartel and Buju Banton), pending trial for capital charges (Ninjaman), regularly under arrest (Bounty Killer) or continuously under fire for truly odious, violent lyrics (too many to name), yet Diplo has a knack for whitewashing the unsavory aspects just enough that its fit for isotonic consumption. The bawdiest Thursday night got lyrically was Mr. Evil’s sinister hook on “Bruk Out” (“I met Jill, she was a stripper/ I told her my name was Jack the Ripper,” sung in baritone patois), but even those moments were diluted by classic Jamaican roots from Toots Hibbert tossed into the mix.
But that’s what makes Major Lazer’s Dancehall fusion exhilarating — you don’t get tracks like “Pon de Floor” or memes like #expressyourself from being familyfriendly. The irony there being that the women who answered Diplo’s call at “Express Yourself” to “do the dance, you know the one” — the one whose basic qualifications are the ability to do handstands and look really good in short-shorts — are enacting a human response to normative social controls. It’s a reminder that 40 years after George Clinton introduced us to the notion, free your mind and yes, your ass will still follow.