David Guetta is on a deadline. Posted up at his Ibiza estate, the French producer is busy at work. He doesn’t seem to be enjoying it.
“Today is a nightmare,” Guetta tells DJ Mag during a break from the studio. He assures us that despite the posh backdrop of the White Isle, his to-do list isn’t sexy. There are no pop stars lounging about the veranda waiting to record vocals or prolific writing sessions in process by the pool. No, this afternoon the 50-year-old icon is solo, doing some “boring”, “extremely time-consuming” and “extremely specific technical stuff” that needs to be finished. The project? His new album. The deadline? Like, ASAP.
“I'm sorry,” he says, trimming down our interview time, “but just imagine that I have to deliver my album tonight.” He’s being polite but you can hear it in his voice – the man is stressed. He just wants to get back to his boring technical stuff and finish an album four years in the making.
Working under such pressure has been a constant for Guetta since he more or less invented the EDM crossover to the limelight nearly a decade ago, helping spark the worldwide scene and in the process becoming one of the most commercially successful producers on the planet. But before the confetti and bottle service there was experimental sounds and gear set up on folding tables in dark rooms. Guetta fell into electronic music in Paris, his hometown, in the late-‘80s, an era in which the nascent genre existed exclusively in the underground. Then a skinny teenager, Guetta spent his savings on vinyl and cut his teeth playing house and techno and at parties and clubs, getting so nervous before shows that his hand shook when he dropped the needle on his records.
Flash forward three decades and the skinny kid had become the biggest EDM artist in the world, reaching the apex of DJ Mag’s Top 100 in 2011, the same year he released his fifth LP, ‘Nothing But The Beat’. He was still skinny, but now a worldwide brand famous for his longstanding F**k Me I’m Famous parties in Ibiza and his Midas touch on pop records. In 2009 he produced the Black Eyed Peas’ ‘I Gotta Feeling’, an unavoidable dance-pop earworm so ubiquitous that the Peas performed it in front of 10,000 people on the 2009 season premiere of Oprah. The track won the 2010 Grammy for Best Pop Performance, the same year Guetta and Afrojack took home the award for their remix of Madonna’s ‘Revolver’. In 2009 Guetta also released his own LP, ‘One Love’, which was tricked-out with features by artists like Akon, Ne-Yo and Kelly Rowland – who delivered the vocals on ‘When Loves Takes Over’,” which Billboard would later declare the top dance/pop collaboration of all time. The Guetta effect on contemporary pop music was in full effect.
Capitalizing on the success of ‘One Love’, every track on ‘Nothing But The Beat’ was a megawatt collab, cementing the “pop star + massive EDM production = fans and money” template with cameos including Nicki Minaj, Snoop Dogg, Usher, Lil Wayne, Chris Brown, Jennifer Hudson and Sia. (Sia’s track, ‘Titanium’, was a worldwide hit and the first of her seven collaborations with Guetta.) ‘Nothing But The Beat’ delivered four top 20 hits in the Billboard Hot 100 and was nominated for a Grammy for Best Dance/Electronic Album. (Skrillex won.) While it was a double album, with the second disc featuring straightforward dance collaborations with artists like the sadly, recently-deceased Avicii and Afrojack, it was the pop-oriented disc that blew. Guetta’s music was digestible by both EDM fans hungry for festival bangers and the mainstream music industry machine in search of fresh sounds and new revenue streams. Guetta was the total package – a prolific musician with underground street cred who was able, and willing, to produce slick, unabashedly joyous commercial pop music.
“A lot of my success,” Guetta says, “was to take dance music culture and make it more understandable for the masses by using the codes of underground dance music and EDM and coming with really solid songs and melodies.”
Cracking this crossover code made Guetta one of the world’s most in-demand DJ/producers, and he had the high-flying lifestyle to prove it. He was among the first crop of DJs signed on for lucrative Vegas residencies, once attracting more than 10,000 people to XS over a single weekend in 2013. He worked on albums including Rihanna’s ‘Unapologetic’, played major sets at Ultra Music Festival, Electric Daisy Carnival and Coachella when electronic festivals were exploding in the States, appeared on the first Forbes top earning DJs list in 2012 and made a documentary about his life sponsored by an energy drink. His skyrocket to success was literally a private jet that delivered him to shows around the world and ensured the champagne flowed prodigiously while en route. A Rolling Stone profile of this era found him in Ibiza being served calamari by a manservant while lounging next to a pool shaped like a crucifix.
But in a way, David Guetta’s hand was still shaking.
“[Your early career] is driven by love, passion, curiosity — only positive feelings,” he explains. “Then when you get to the top [and] it's the other way around. You need to fight to stay on top, so that drive is not passion and love, but fear.”
With his mind-bending success Guetta was suddenly responsible for the stability of all the people working for his empire – studio technicians, jet pilots, chefs, manservants – and for keeping the juggernaut in motion by pumping out more hits. His life became complicated and unwieldy, particularly as DJ fees hit the high six figures for the first time and managers and agents suddenly had more to gain from having their most popular artists on the road. While the early electronic underground was untethered from economics, EDM was a relentlessly capitalist endeavor, with Guetta as a product that suits worldwide were interested in selling.
“If I wanted to release a record,” Guetta says, “I was in a position where I had to get the green light from executives in the US, the UK, Germany and France. Honestly, if all those executives agree on a record, you probably have a shit record.”
Calling the pressure of this era terrible, Guetta says his music became what for many DJs is the worst four letter word – safe. Reviews of 2014’s ‘Listen’ were mixed, with critics calling it bland and formulaic. Guetta also became a poster boy for EDM absurdity, serving as partial inspiration for ‘Davvincii’ in ‘When Will The Bass Drop’, Saturday Night Live’s infamous EDM spoof in which Andy Samberg wears a very Guetta-like wig and plays Snood on his computer in the DJ booth at the club. While EDM had become a seven billion dollar global industry by 2014, it was – with its dancing girls and glowsticks and corporate sponsors – easy to mock. Equally problematic was that it all sounded the same.
“There was a moment where it was so much of same that… I couldn't take it anymore,” Guetta confesses. “When I was doing ‘Bad’ for example, there were thousands of records like this. You could go to a festival and hear it all day long.”
The genre-bending sound Guetta helped create was homogenized to a predictable rise/drop/confetti-blast formula, even by those who initially gave Guetta a hard time for coming up with the algorithm. “Throughout my career, so many times I haven't respected the codes of the community where I was, which got me a lot of criticism, but it also led me to make something unique that made me successful,” he says. “That became a model for the people criticizing me, because they all did it after.”
A public divorce in 2014 was another landmark of what, for Guetta, was an intense era of touring, producing and ultimately soul searching. Never a partier, he said his life was and remains rather workmanlike, with him working until dawn, waking up after noon, getting on a plane that delivers him to a show, then going to his hotel room and doing it all over again the next day. Eventually he decided that freeing himself of the constraints of his success and just making the music he likes would make him happiest. In fact, that’s what he’s doing today, as soon as we get off the phone.
“I'm really in the next stage,” he says, “and the stage is ‘I don't care’.”
This stage can be formally referred to as ‘7’, the name of Guetta’s new album, out September 14 via Parlophone/Big Beat. The title is an homage to the spiritual concept that life happens in seven-year cycles, an idea that going back to the bible when God created the universe in six days then took a day to rest. (By a pool shaped like a crucifix, presumably.) It was seven years ago, almost to the day of ‘7’’s release, that Guetta dropped ‘Nothing But The Beat’, which sparked a phase of life that saw him achieving the highest echelons of EDM fame and its corresponding intensities – fame, money, hype, expectations, limitations, criticism and pressure to deliver.
‘7’ makes peace with these accomplishments and constraints. Like ‘Nothing But The Beat’, it’s a double album divided into dance-pop bangers and underground sounds evoking Guetta’s earliest days in the scene. He’s even sampled music he played during the ‘90s. The result is David Guetta like we’ve never heard him before. While big tracks like ‘Flames’, a new collab with Sia released last March, is sure to appease industry suits and masses of festivalgoers, and the moodier track ‘Pelican’ is more challenging. Altogether, it’s got Guetta feeling the love again.
“I'm coming back to my original stage in terms of passion, excitement, energy and also musically. I'm not denying my love for pop music, but I'm also not denying that sometimes I just need to go back to my underground roots.”
Ironic of course is that the scene at large has made a similar shift, with “underground” house, techno and tech house becoming the favored genres in mainstream dance as hip-hop continues its infiltration and takeover of the spaces – think top 40 radio and festival line-ups – once occupied by EDM. The scene is indeed making its own seven-year transition, with Vegas, the nexus of EDM in the States, also shifting to house and techno. This fall, the Wynn – where David Guetta once drew 10,000 fans, will introduce Art Of The Wild, an event featuring new residents Jamie Jones, Black Coffee and Rüfüs du Sol. Vegas jumping on board demonstrates that there’s clearly money to be made in the underground sound. That’s not why Guetta is doing it.
“It doesn't have to be a record that sells millions,” he states. “Sometimes you might also do something even though you know it's not going to be commercially successful, but it's still good music. This is really what matters to me. I just believe in good music.
“My label was like, ‘Why don't you collaborate with all your friends and show people this electronic side?’, he continues. “I was like, ‘No, I want to go further than what they do. I want to go 100-percent. No compromising. Zero. The same for the pop. If I'm going to go pop, I'm not scared. It's okay. I love pop. So what?”
“So what” might be the most accurate summation of Guetta’s current mindset. If he does pop he’ll have haters. So what? If he does underground music it might not sell. So what? David Guetta isn’t feeling the pressure anymore. Except for right now. Right now he has to get back to work.