Before Thomas Wesley Pentz, a.k.a. Diplo, received a Grammy nomination for Record of the Year, before he collaborated with artists like M.I.A., Shakira, and Snoop Dogg, before he became the musical curator and cultural tastemaker that he’s known as today, he was a student at Temple University, a community organizer in South Philly, and a DJ at his Hollertronix party night near 7th and Girard. That’s where photographer Shane McCauley first met him, shooting the party for The Fader magazine in 2003. They’ve since toured the world over, from the UK to Jamaica to Israel to Asia, capturing sounds and images every step of the way.
Their new book, 128 Beats Per Minute: Diplo's Visual Guide to Music, Culture, and Everything in Between, portrays life on tour in pictures and playlists. Through Shane’s lens, we get a candid look at packed clubs, exclusive after-parties, exotic vistas, and new artists. The first chapter of the book--and the only chapter dedicated to a city instead of a country—is Philadelphia. “We wanted to pay homage,” Shane said when I sat down with him earlier this week. We talked about Philly parties, an average day on tour with Diplo (spoiler: there’s no such thing), and the internet’s role in newcomers-turned-superstars.
You grew up outside of Philly. When did you start getting into music and photography, and how did the city influence you?
I started going down to Philadelphia from Lancaster when I was 15. I was into punk rock, so I’d go to shows in the basement of a church on 48th and Baltimore. That’s where I started getting interested in arts, politics and music, and that all led to what I’m doing now. Back at that time I was listening to hardcore bands, but it was the same kind of idea: DIY politics, DIY aesthetics, DIY grassroots parties. And that’s what Hollertronix was. It was a party started by 2 dudes in the basement of a Ukrainian club in a bad section of Philadelphia.
Hollertronix was really fun. All my friends used to go to it, and we’d just drink and dance and have a good time. It was weird because my friends and I were changing a lot at that point. We were around 24 years old and this was something new to us; we’d been going to punk shows and then all of a sudden we were going to dance parties. I feel like there was a shift in what was happening in music at that time too. It was the start of a shift away from rock music and towards dance music, which is going strong in American mainstream music today. Now the DJ is the rock star, and rock bands aren’t bringing it as big as they used to. Dance music culture has been taking over, especially dubstep and stuff like that. That Hollertronix party was a good snapshot of what was going on both in Philadelphia and music in general at that time.
So you first met Diplo in 2003. Did you guys keep in touch between that shoot for The Fader and when you went on tour with him a few years later?
I shot him once or twice for other magazines. Soon I moved to Los Angeles and I lost touch for a couple of years. Weirdly enough I ran into him on the way back from London in 2006. We were on the same flight. I was like, “Hey dude,” and he was like, “Heyyy.” (laughs) He just kind of looked at me weirdly; I don’t know if he knew who I was or not. We reconnected in the summertime of 2008. He was starting to do his first Mad Decent Block Party and they were looking for someone to document it. They asked our mutual friend, Sean Agnew, if he knew anybody and Sean was like, “Yeah, you should get my friend Shane.” They liked what I shot. It was kind of a photo essay—I didn’t really try to do party photos—and they liked my approach. They were like, “Hey, do you want to go on tour with us to Europe and Israel next month?” and I was like, “Sure,” so I kind of just jumped on a plane and went. And that went really well and they kept asking me to do stuff and it went on for 3 years and then the book came about.
Did you initially intend to create a book, or did that idea come up later?
It was our idea all along. We were like, maybe no one cares about this now but in 15 or 20 years people are going to look back on this and think, holy shit, these guys started a musical movement. We wanted to get it from the moment of its inception. We’re all fans of the CBGB book where you can see The Jam hanging out with Blondie there, and even Fuck You Heroes. And it’s funny to see Henry Rollins hanging out with Ian MacKaye and stuff like that. That’s what we wanted to do—we wanted to have a nostalgic book, but we thought it was going to come out in 15 or 20 years. We didn’t expect 3 years, so that’s just a bonus, for me especially.
In the book Diplo talks about the evolution of a new cultural language. How do you portray this in photography?
I don’t think you can do that in one photograph. I think you need a series of photographs to tell the story. Each place is different with its own pace, its own vibe, its own set of rules, its own flavor. That said, I think the internet has a lot to do with how things are evolving in music. It used to be that it would take years for an artist to develop into a superstar, but now if you’re doing something really good people will catch on, and you can be headlining 2,000-capacity clubs within 18 months. I’ve seen it happen several times already. That’s kind of the interesting thing about this book; like I said, we intended on showing it in 15 or 20 years but that’s not really necessary anymore because these people who are starting from scratch are becoming superstars in 12 months. We’re like, okay, we have this book of people who are becoming huge in today’s music culture-- we might as well do something now. We don’t need to wait 15 years. We can put the book out in 3, and it’s relevant yet still nostalgic somehow.
What is an average day on tour with Diplo like?
It’s always different-- that’s what keeps this job exciting. It could be as boring as being in transit; Wes might be on his laptop remixing a song, and I might be photographing landscapes. If there’s time during the day I might get out early and run around the city and photograph people and just shoot whatever or whoever lets me shoot, just doing the best I can with no plan. There’s usually a show every single day, and it’s a crazy fun dance party every single time. We have a couple drinks, we go back to our hotel rooms and go to sleep, and we do the whole thing all over again.
You have a mix of landscapes, street fashion and party photos in the book. What do you most enjoy shooting?
I always seem to gravitate toward landscapes. I don’t have any idea why. It’s something that comes very naturally for me. I love shooting portraits of people too. Every now and then you come across a great personality, and it’s fun to photograph that person. I really love the landscape of Tel Aviv in my book. I’m also really fond of the photograph of Wes and Lykke Li working together in Jamaica.
What are some other projects you’re working on right now?
I’m doing some short documentary series, focusing on different musicians and DJs. I jut did a job for Spin, and I’ve got a lot of commercial and label work. I have a few additional projects right now that I can’t really talk about, but I’m very excited about what’s going on this year.
Favorite Philly parties?
Making Time, Mad Decent Mondays, SORTED Party at the Barbary, Sammy Slice and Luke Goodman’s party at Silk City, BNNA CLPS on 6th and Washington, Snacks at Voyeur.
Check out more Shane McCauley photography at ShaneMcCauley.com and ShaneMcCauley.tumblr.com, and catch Diplo & Major Lazer at The Roots Picnic, June 2nd and 3rd, at the Festival Pier at Penn’s Landing.
Follow Jenn Wexler on Twitter: @J_Wex