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Getting to Know: Major Lazer

By Kendah El-Ali, photo by Sean McCauley on October 5, 2009


Getting to Know: Major Lazer

Long ago, nestled somewhere in the not-so-natty wilds of Ladbroke Grove and Ft. Lauderdale, two young white boys developed unlikely obsessions with the rhythms of the West Indies. Sometime around then, a Jamaican commando called Major Lazer fought in the secret Zombie War of 1984 and lost both his arms in the process. In turn, the U.S. military rescued him and gave him lasers for prosthetic limbs.

Time passed, and the two music dorks grew up to be ubiquitously recognizable producers known not only for their own record labels (Dubsided, Mad Decent) and A-list remixes (Bjork and Bart Simpson, to name two) but who are also in many ways responsible for two lady acts we all love: M.I.A. and Santigold. As our Indies-rock heroes grew to international fame, Major Lazer was hired as a renegade soldier to fight vampires and “various monsters” as an undercover dancehall nightclub owner in Trinidad. What’s not known is how they all crossed paths, but what is known is that they did.

Major Lazer is what happens when a Brit called Switch (Dave Taylor) and a Yank called Diplo (Wes Pentz) spend a little too much time junking out on music (and, likely, other stuff) in Jamaica to create the world’s first tongue-in-cheek-white-boy-island-dance album whose face is a cartoon zombie killer. Be skeptical if you must, but Guns Don’t Kill People - Lazers Do is guaranteed to crack up even the most sour-pussed dance floor - over and over again.

The project had its humble beginnings in a London club when the two long-time music partners drunkenly decided to take a trip down to Jamaica; in the tropical heat, it snowballed into something more elaborate. “It’s been in production for about a year, but it’s been a hobby record for us both,” says Diplo from a car en route to Heathrow. “It sounds demo-y in a way. Like it could be [for] any of the artists on there.” Collaborators include Santigold, Ms. Thing, Amanda Blank, a co-production shout-out to Italy’s Crookers and a video with Andy Milonakis. Diplo and Switch are also working on a future release with M.I.A and Busy Signal.

“The whole project has been a bit of an indulgence between us,” adds Switch, searching through his apartment in L.A. for a cigarette. “We’re both just massive fans of dancehall. Jamaica is such an inspiring place if you’re a music head. The music scene down there is serious, and music means a lot to people there. It’s education, it’s politics, religion, there’s the bad man side of things, slack songs and daggering side of things, too.”

“I just love the music down there,” says Diplo. “There’s a bit of everything. It’s the first music that sampled itself, even before hip-hop. It’s a quintessential post-modern sort of music, but it’s a serious scene.”

“And the last thing on earth the two of us needed to be was serious if we were going to make a dancehall record,” laughs Switch.

So, in typical Patois style, they threw together different, retro-appropriated styles of music from the entire region and let it all drop with an unabashed sense of self-effacing humor. The result is pretty damned danceable, too. With the album comes a commando marketing scheme that includes not only the Major himself, but ensuing posters, toys, videos and fake paparazzi sightings, all neatly packaged in a late ‘70s Jamaican cartoon record sleeve aesthetic (a la King Tubby).

Hired to create the visual aspects of the project was Indonesian-raised, London-based musician and artist Ferry Gouw. “It literally is the most fun I’ve ever had,” says Gouw from a London club. “Their manager was telling me this outlandish story about a guy who fights zombies and monsters and has a rocket-powered skateboard. Usually, that’s where you want to go with a client and you get a big ‘no’ in return. With this it was the total opposite.”

And while Major Lazer certainly won’t change the face of its creators just yet, boys will be boys, and they definitely know how to have fun while doing a proper job of producing and marketing their monster. Or, as Diplo puts it, “This record is rad and I hope that people love it. We hope that with all the joking around, it just gets to more people.”

This article is from FILTER Issue 36