There are certain shows that defy easy description. Shows whose premises aren’t exactly cut out for the program guide on your TV. Shows like, say, Major Lazer. Here’s the briefest thumbnail we can muster:
Somewhere far off in a dystopian future, Jamaica has become Earth’s most powerful nation—and an epicenter of oppression. From the White House (which has since relocated to the Caribbean), the grumpy, nefarious President Whitewall persecutes the Jamaican people and aims to curb all the good times. He’s aided by the metal-jawed General Rubbish, a right-hand man with what looks to be a vinyl-record-turned-buzz saw for a right hand. Meanwhile, Whitewall’s teenage daughter Penny just wants to cut loose and soak up the music and culture of the real Jamaica—its dancehalls, bars, and streets. She’s also secretly befriended Whitewall’s number one enemy: Major Lazer, a brawny, beret- and sunglasses-clad supersoldier whose right forearm has been replaced with a laser gun. Lazer, who has been portrayed by Terry Crews in live-action form, runs a strip club full of holograms, enjoys cannabis, and can surf on a bird if need be.
There are also several vampires and at least one ninja.
So goes the high-intensity absurdity of FXX’s long-gestating animated series, which premieres at midnight tonight (really that’s midnight tomorrow, but you know what we mean). With a hero voiced by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (aka Lost‘s Mr. Eko), the music-heavy program is based on the mascot for Major Lazer, Diplo’s party-starting, culture-fusing dancehall/electronic act. “Every single episode is pretty ridiculous,” says Ferry Gouw, art director and co-creator of Major Lazer (the character and the show). “Really stupid and really deep at the same time.”
The character’s road to animation started around 2008, after Diplo first created the music project. Diplo and his manager auditioned Gouw, a visual artist, to design a “Rasta commando with a laser gun for an arm” as the project’s visual centerpiece. The properties they offered up as reference points—Marvel Comics, and 1980s cartoons like G.I. Joe, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, and Centurions—were the kinds of things Gouw grew up with. He created a few quick mockups of the Major Lazer character and project logo, and his designs have been used and stayed almost entirely the same ever since.
Gouw has made hundreds of Major Lazer illustrations for albums, remixes, tweets and other uses, but the project really turned a corner with the video for Major Lazer’s 2009 track “Hold the Line.” The clip, which Gouw animated, depicts Lazer battling a vampiric villain; interspersed is a lovingly detailed commercial for ’80s-esque Major Lazer-themed figures and vehicles. Gouw doesn’t speak particularly fondly of the result—“looking back, it’s embarrassing and shitty,” he says—but it was nominated for a 2009 MTV Video Music Award for Breakthrough Video. “That was the start of the idea that this illustrated character could have some legs and go on to become a natural animated thing,” Gouw says. “The look of the world in the video, and the toys—people remember that era instinctively.”
Adult Swim then approached the Major Lazer camp about making a cartoon for it. News of and production sketches of a Major Lazer show date back to 2011, and a pilot was created at some point, but the results never made it to air. The show’s launch was spearheaded by Nick Weidenfeld, a producer for various Adult Swim series including Metalocalypse and Moral Orel, but then Weidenfeld left the network to head to Fox, and the project began to drag. In February 2013, the series was officially canceled. However, over at Fox, Weindenfeld was planting the seeds for what would become FXX’s Animation Domination High Def block; eventually, Major Lazer joined him at his new home.
The show’s visuals are still ripped out of the late ’80s/early ’90s animation playbook—colorful, slightly faded, semi-realistic, semi-clunky—and its villains are grotesque weirdos, just as in programs like Toxic Avengers and Captain Planet and the Planeteers. The show’s cast is promisingly diverse, including J.K. Simmons as President Whitewall, Andy Samberg, Aziz Ansari, and Charli XCX. (We’re not sure how that happened either.)
The most surprising element, though, is the fun the show has with recreational vices—for good or evil. Riff Raff voices Double Cup, a cough-syrup-powered villain who wants to poison the local water supply with cough syrup so that everyone slows down (thus literally slowing down any rebel forces). Another episode involves getting too high to the point of literally flying into the sky and confronting a terrifying weed monster.
But while Major Lazer sports all the trappings of a contemporary stoner comedy—the chaos, the weirdness, the post-modernism—Gouw points to its emphasis on narrative flow and pacing. There are no Family Guy-style cutaway jokes; rather, the narrative morphs to a music video back to the narrative, then to a fight scene, and so on. “It’s just frantically moving forward,” Gouw says. “In that way, it’s kind of like being high—but not the kind of high where you laugh at slacker jokes,” he says.
It’s been a long time since we’ve enjoyed the shamelessly silly music spin-off cartoons; New Kids on the Block and MC Hammer’s Hammerman were both more than 20 years ago. The difference between those tie-ins and Major Lazer, of course, is that this turns the wink-wink, so-goofy-it’s-good knob way up—but just like its predecessors the show’s appeal still hinges on its crossover element. As part of contemporary electronic/dance music culture’s massive upswing in popularity, Diplo’s been having a really long (and ongoing) moment worth capitalizing on.
Gouw is confident that the show’s characters and story are rich enough to push past the novelty of the tie-in, and could even potentially survive the waning of electronic music’s cultural power. But while he envisions a full-fledged toy line of action figures and vehicles, he knows that there’s more to success than arm-mounted weaponry and some killer beats. “There’s nothing more sad than keeping [it] going when it’s shit,” he says. “As long as it’s good, we’ll make it.”