Multi-platinum selling producer, DJ to tens of thousands every week and EDM figurehead: Afrojack is undeniably one of global dance music’s biggest names. In a refreshingly frank interview, the Dutchman cuts through the crap and criticisms and discusses the EDM boom, the concept of selling out and gives us an insight into his upcoming album...
There’s nothing like a bit of success to get people scowling and sneering. In sporting terms, think Michael Schumacher during his Formula 1 heyday, Manchester United’s Premier League domination or how much many people loved watching Tiger Woods’ descent from well-oiled machine to rusting, demon-plagued shell. But dance music can be an even harsher beast than that. Producers and DJs struggle and strive to build a following and as soon as their fanbase gets to a certain, even modest size, charges of ‘sell-out’ are swiftly levelled at them.
But Afrojack’s success in recent years has been far from modest. He’s produced his own hits, such as profile-raiser ‘Take Over Control’, remixed artists as diverse as Madonna, Keane and Leona Lewis, collaborated on and co-produced huge global successes including David Guetta’s ‘Titanium’, Beyoncé’s ‘Run the World (Girls)’ and Pitbull & Ne-Yo’s ‘Give Me Everything’ and headlined dance music’s largest festivals including UMF Miami, Tomorrowland and Electric Daisy Carnival in the US, and Creamfields and SW4 in the UK. He’s also won a couple of Grammys and played a key role in helping create and maintain the global monster that is “EDM”.
Afrojack, real name Nick van de Wall, is very matter-of-fact concerning the ascent and success of EDM when DJ Mag catch up with him on a rare day off. “Nothing really changed,” he says. “It just exploded in America but in England and in Holland it’s always been there, electronic music has always been the standard.
In America it just changed in the last three years from rock and country being the standard to electronic music becoming the standard. That’s why everyone says that’s the commercialisation of dance music, but the music doesn’t change, just the perception of the music and the people that understand it.”
Raised in the Rotterdam suburb of Spijkenisse, Afrojack says that dance music’s now global success is hardly a surprise. “It’s really fun music so why is it so weird that suddenly the rest of the world discovers it at one point and also love it?” he asks. “Of course you have a lot of purists that say, ‘But it’s our special thing and it’s our secret and they’re taking the love out of it’, well, that’s what always happens. You’re going to have people that come and say, ‘Hey, it’s nice’ but they don’t really like it and they leave again. The real dance music lovers will always be there so it’s not going to be something that’s going to make it fade away.”
Although he believes dance music’s future is assured whether the bubble bursts or not, he says that its current popularity has many positives. “It does give us opportunities to work with gigantic productions and that makes dance music even more powerful, it visualises the music. Usually it was only rock bands and country singers and Celine Dion, and now it’s me and Tiësto and Armin [van Buuren] and David [Guetta]. If you compare it financially and capacity-wise, we’re doing the same as the pop stars around the world. It’s not that crazy any more to see Avicii play in one arena and then next week seeing Bon Jovi play the same arena.”
Afrojack’s native Holland continues to be a particularly productive hotbed of superstar DJ talent, spawning Ferry Corsten, Tiësto, Sander van Doorn, Armin van Buuren, Hardwell and Bingo Players, to name just a few. Afrojack says that the Dutch wealth of talent isn’t unusual for any country that’s been immersed in dance music for so long though.
“It’s not just Holland, it’s also the UK, France, Belgium,” he says. “I think it’s basically the upbringing, it’s in the culture so it makes it OK and normal for people to think, ‘I want to DJ’, or ‘I want to produce’. It’s not that crazy a thought. In America dance music was only for gay and underground clubs that were perceived as really sketchy. Now that EDM’s become cool, there are producers just rising up out of America like Porter Robinson and Dillon Francis.”
When asked what he puts the success of his own career down to, his response shows that his feet are still firmly planted on the ground.
“Success doesn’t have shit to do with private jets, with flying all over the world, with what kind of car you drive,” he says. “Personal success is when you make your family and friends proud. I remember six, seven years ago when I played in Holland still, I had one of my first gigs in a 200-capacity club and there were 10 people. When I played a song that made them dance I was so happy. That’s the thing about DJing that makes me successful as a person, it’s when you play a song and other people can relate to it. Commercial success is nothing. It doesn’t touch anyone personally. It matters if people relate.”
Afrojack is similarly humble when summing his own contribution to the success of dance music in the US.
“I feel that I’m just on the same journey as EDM,” he says. “I was there at the right time in America to see it all happen and grow with it. I was one of the first DJs that ever got booked in Vegas and to see it grow so exponentially, it’s just beautiful to be part of it. The only role I see for myself is being one of the few guys who really does not give a crap about genre or style and just [cares] about the music.
That openness to mixing styles and genres up also applies to Afrojack’s own productions and has increased during the past few years. He is now happy to produce full songs as well as dance tracks and put this name to them, but that wasn’t always the case.
“I grew up as a music producer, not as a DJ, and a lot of people don’t know this but I produced ‘Titanium’ with David Guetta,” he explains. “Two or three years ago, he sent me an email saying, ‘Do you want to do David Guetta and Afrojack featuring Sia ‘Titanium’?’. I just said, ‘No, it’s OK, it’s too much of a song for me, it’s not really my style’.”
This led Afrojack to contribute without sharing the full headline credit with Guetta on the release. “That’s the only thing that changed for me during the last three years, I also started to love producing songs,” he says. “I still do hard, underground tracks like ‘Ray Bomb’ but these are two different things. I really changed as a producer to do multiple things.”
This includes working on more tracks for other artists as he did with Pitbull & Ne-Yo on ‘Give Me Everything’, which sold over five million copies worldwide.
“I know a lot of people are always like, ‘Yeah, that’s selling out because it’s commercial’,” he says when asked about working on other artists’ productions. “But if you think about the term ‘selling out’, it’s basically doing something that doesn’t suit you personally but makes your career better, right? OK. How the fuck would making a song with Pitbull make my career better from a dance music perspective?
“If I really wanted to sell out, I would put aside my personal passion for producing music and I would only do dance music and only work together with cool producers. I wouldn’t work together with any singers because it’s cheesy. Why? Because I wanted to keep my career safe. But I’m just a guy that wants to make music. I care about my fans and I want to show my fans to live your passion and it doesn’t matter if some people don’t like it.
“It’s weird because the biggest thing in dance music is that people think it’s selling out to commercial radio but it’s basically doing the opposite. We’re not selling out to radio, we’re sharing the music with the world because it’s our music and we’re proud of it.”
With the two production strands running through Afrojack’s work, the song creator on the one hand and the club producer on the other, are different approaches needed to execute each one successfully?
“When I start on a dance track, I always make sure that the beat sounds phat and that it’s mixed properly,” he reveals. “A good dance track isn’t just like a nice song, it’s also a sonic experience. To me the most important thing about dance, for the clubs or for the festivals, is that it sounds really, really phat. It doesn’t even matter what chord is playing, what melody, I just want the sound to blow me away.
“When I’m working on a song I’m more working on the melodies and making sure that everything fits together, then I’m not necessarily too worried about the mix sounding insane! If it fits OK then I’m OK with it because if it’s a song then it’s about the song.”
That’s not to say that the two approaches cannot be united.
“The most beautiful thing for me is if you have a perfect combination that works on the dancefloor in DJ sets as well as on the radio,” says Afrojack. “That’s actually what I tried to do with ‘Take Over Control’ and that’s what I’m trying to do now with my album.”
This year has already seen him release the Chris Brown featuring ‘As Your Friend’ and the purely dancefloor aimed ‘It’s A Matter Of…’ EP, and his faithful, driving remix of Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’ is also imminent. Rumours linger that he’s producing Paris Hilton’s second album (please refer to Hello magazine for further information on that front) but it’s his debut album that forms the key part of his production plans for the rest of 2013. With a release date pencilled in for November, a taster has already been unveiled at Creamfields in the form of the no doubt chart-destined ‘Keep Our Love Alive’, which features US singer-songwriter Matthew Koma on vocals.
“My album’s almost finished now but I’m still going to work on the sonic structure of it, the mixing and mastering, and give it a little bit of extra bite,” explains Afrojack. “Most of the tracks are songs, there are going to be a few instrumentals on there, but I’m more focused for the album on catering to all my fans, not just the diehard dance fans.”
But while he enjoys delving into many different styles, he’s sticking to his dance music guns.
“My whole album is going to be a dance album. 15 to 20 tracks of dance,” he says. “I’ve been working on it for a really long time and I want my album to be what my fans expect.”
While the album is set to be largely song-based, however, Afrojack is remaining tight-lipped over exactly which vocalists he’s collaborated with. “I can’t name any names,” he explains. “I don’t want to focus on the 'featurings'. I want people that buy my album to want to hear my version of vocal dance music. It’s not like when I do a song with Chris Brown that I’m producing a song around him. No, it’s Chris Brown singing on a song that I made. Instead of trying to bring dance music to the world, I’m trying to bring the world to my kind of music.”
Aside from what will probably be a hugely commercially successful album, Afrojack is also looking to take care of his more hardcore followers.
“I have something else planned for the diehard Afrojack fans,” he explains, before elaborating. “At Ultra Music Festival I did the big Afrojack show on the main stage, but then I also did a show as Nick van de Wall on the second stage. That was all diehard shit because no one knows my real name except diehard fans. It was completely insane. People were hanging from trees. No vocals, just diehard bleeps, 808s, hard kicks and old skool instrumental EDM, like the hard stuff. That was so much fun and I’m planning to do more of this kind of stuff. I keep the big house for Afrojack and I keep the smaller diehard fans happy with underground stuff.”
WALL TO WALL
The output of his Wall Recordings imprint, which has featured releases from Bobby Burns, R3hab and Dutch chart-topper Quintino as well as Afrojack’s own more DJ-friendly releases, remains constant. He says his focus for the label is on smaller artists. “All the big DJs have their own labels these days so I’m more focused on making sure that the label stays like a place where I can develop my own dance music. Basically everything in the [regular online] Jacked radio shows and what you see me play, that’s what’s going to come out on my label. Good party music.”
So, aside from running a label, DJing constantly worldwide under his Jacked Tour banner and producing, is there any time left for the 26-year-old to entertain any more plans or ambitions?
“Next year I’m going to try and tour a bit less and make it better,” says Afrojack. “I want to get more of a visual appeal to the shows. Still keep it dance music and keep it a DJ show but just make it a little bit more filmic. A good DJ set is like a story; why not add pictures and movement to the story to make it even more visual and more of an experience? I may even lose money because the production, I’ve got so many possibilities and I basically said, ‘Yeah, let’s do everything’. Even if I lose money, I don’t give a fuck, let’s do it. It has to be something special. It’s good to do something crazy every now and then right?”
So if Afrojack’s life and career seem crazy now, things are going to get a whole lot crazier in the coming months as his new album and extravagant live sets cement his place at global EDM’s top table. Afrojack has only just begun.