Hitmaker of the Month: How Diplo Found Dance-Pop Perfection With ‘Electricity’

Presented by BMI

Behind the Hit: How Diplo Found

The third time was a charm for super-producer duo Silk City, the first collaboration between longtime friends Diplo (A.K.A. Thomas Wesley Pentz, Jr.) and Mark Ronson, who between them have worked with everyone from M.I.A. and Madonna and Beyonce (Diplo) to Lady Gaga and Amy Winehouse and Bruno Mars (Ronson). After releasing the pair of disco-tinged singles “Only Can Get Better” and “Feel About You,” they scored Grammy gold with the ’90s throwback “Electricity,” which slowly but surely evolved from club anthem to radio hit to the modern-day classic category since its release back in September. (This latest win for Best Dance Recording also happens to be the third Grammy on Diplo’s trophy shelf.) So far the song has logged on-demand streams of more than 57 million, according to BuzzAngle Music, and its video, based on the New York City blackout of 2003, has racked up 78 million views.

They say that asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness, which perhaps explains why the 40-year-old Diplo works with so many people: His other projects also include leading the group Major Lazer, the LSD collaboration with Sia and Labrinth (which released the hit “Thunderclouds” last year), and, oh, he just happened to release the solo EP “Europa” today. And on “Electricity,” he had no qualms about reaching out to nearly a dozen friends for assistance in the end. “It started as me and Mark’s project. Writing piano lines is the first thing we did in the studio, but we couldn’t really find the direction of the sound,” admitted Diplo (pictured above, right, with Ronson). They both agreed on the vibe, however: “Chicago house, kind of like vintage U.S. house music,” said Diplo, who is having quite the busy week in between the Oscars this weekend, the Brit Awards in London, and trips to South Africa, Rome and Vegas. (“It’s going to be one of the longest weeks of my life, but it’s fun,” he said.)

“Jr. Blender came up with that chorus, which wouldn’t work for an entire record but was really catchy,” Diplo said of Philip Meckseper’s alter ego. But as it turned out, what this track needed was a woman’s touch. Four women, actually, including Diplo’s frequent collaborator Diana Gordon, “whose beautiful melodies jump-started what would become ‘Electricity,’ ” according to Ronson’s Instagram post. But it almost became a hit for Florence and the Machine. “Florence [Welch] is friends with Mark and she liked the record,” Diplo said. “She wrote a whole song to it and we had her on the record, but it didn’t really fit — I don’t think she loved it — so we needed to rewrite it. But we always kept the concept of electricity.”

Enter Romy Madley Croft of The XX. “She came over and did some rewrites — she wrote basically the whole lead of the song and filled in some parts,” recalled Diplo. Fast forward to Ronson calling Variety‘s 2018 Hitmaker Breakthrough Artist of the Year Dua Lipa, who wanted to contribute more than just her trademark vocals. “We were at a loss of who to finish this tune with and have sing it,” Ronson wrote of Lipa, “who truly brought this tune to life with the only voice that could convey the emotion, sultriness and diva shit that worked.” Added Diplo: “She loved the demo and she was the perfect voice for it. Mark Ronson is a great vocal producer; he tracked her himself. She rewrote some extra parts and they wrote the bridge together.”

Diplo estimates the entire process took “over two months of finding the right lyrics to the song, which is what happens when you’re writing pop records,” he said. “You spend time perfecting the lyrics when you know something is big.” Surprisingly, he and Ronson had to admit that they were somewhat out of their element on the production side. “Mark and I are not inherently house producers, but Alex Metric and Riton are two guys who are very current with house records in England, so we knew that we need them if we wanted to get this record played — and be authentic. They came through with helping us to get the drums and the arrangement right, and then my friends the Picard Brothers came up with the bassline using an old 909 machine. Even though we wrote the meat of the record, the lyrics and the piano — me and Mark and those four women — it took those other guys to help us make the sound how it is: perfect. That’s how important I feel it is for a great dance record to be: A bit of a vintage sound and a bit of what 2019 sounds like. We wanted to be both of those things.” (Additional cowriters include Jacob Olofsson and Rami Dawod.)

Fortunately, retro realness is, in fact, Ronson’s area of expertise. “Mark is like a god of making vintage sounds, finding a a certain era and being able to really kill it, and I think we did that,” said Diplo. “I mean, it wasn’t that vintage — it was only like from the ’90s — but he was able to hone that in.” For Diplo, “Electricity” also presented an opportunity to unite his love of disparate genres. “I’ve always been good at pop songwriting and I play and produce a lot of dance music, but this is sort of like the best of both worlds,” he said.

Diplo initially tested the final mix’s appeal by playing it for friends in the car (“everyone wanted to hear it all the time when I was driving around”), but ironically, he wasn’t sold on its dance floor appeal until recently.

“It’s crazy because even when I DJ, I didn’t start hearing the response to it until recently,” he said. “When it first came out, it wasn’t really fitting into my sets. It was a certain tempo and style — very poppy, very happy,  a lot of female energy. Now it’s one of the biggest records I play.”