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Mainstream appropriation of black culture isn't exactly a new phenomenon. Elvis Presley did it back in the day, and Justin Timberlake does it now. But Switch and Diplo's side project, Major Lazer, definitely hits a nerve in that department. Despite reggae's mainstream crossover, Jamaican dancehall is still relatively unknown outside its niche fan base.
A YouTube video uploaded in February called Major Lazer another vehicle for the white man to exploit black culture. The ten-minute "exposé" points toward the highly suggestive dancing and exaggerated facial expressions to make its case. The argument seems plausible if you aren't familiar with dancehall culture, but doing a little research shows the dancing and facial expressions found in NSFW videos like "Pon de Floor" are the norm, even tame by comparison.
The concept behind Major Lazer, fictional Jamaican commando zombie killer aside, is to take traditional dancehall and meld it with electro-house beats. The result is sort of the First World-meets-Third World sounds that have become the duo's signature, particularly when producing tracks for artists like M.I.A. and Santigold.
"Me and [Diplo] are just trying to document what we like about Jamaican music and culture," Switch explains. "There is so much talent not just in the music but in the dancing and the whole style and fashion there. We just wanted to incorporate everything. That was the cool thing about Major Lazer, which is based on Jamaican artwork from the '80s found on record sleeves."
For a Major Lazer live show, Switch and Diplo put themselves in the shadows, allowing MC Skerrit Bwoy and the dancers to take center stage. Switch says the placement is intentional because the performance isn't about them but about highlighting a culture that is obscure to most. "We wanted the shows to be a definite separation from people coming to see me or [Diplo] DJ. And Skerrit Bwoy is so animated and so into the whole Major Lazer concept that he is sort of the perfect candidate."
But good intention aside, is this just another case of rich record producers slyly coming into a developing nation and stealing its sound? Even M.I.A. herself sings on her track "20 Dollar," "I put people on a map, that have never seen a map." But who is to say they ever wanted to be found?
"We didn't want to make a record in Jamaica that would have Jamaicans saying, 'Another two tourists coming to exploit,'" Switch says. "Instead, we mixed things we are excited about and things we do along with that scene."