Listen Up! David Guetta—EDM’s Top Superstar DJ
There’s a certain level of stardom that’s reserved solely for those artists that have achieved that coveted “household name” status. It’s a phenomenon that’s usually intangible and indefinable—largely validated by phrases like “My mother loves this song”—but there’s a specific scene in 2012 Anna Kendrick-fronted teen comedy Pitch Perfect that succinctly shows just how ubiquitous French DJ/producer David Guetta has become.
In the scene, female a cappella group co-leader Chloe discovers the vocal talent of Beca (Kendrick)—a part-time mash-up producer—when she overhears her singing David Guetta’s crossover smash “Titanium” in the locker room. When asked if she was indeed singing the song, Beca—completely unironically—asks, “You know David Guetta?” Then, Chloe responds, “Have I been living under a rock? Of course, I know him.”
Whether or not comedic romps through the trials and tribulations of collegiate vocal troupes are up your alley, the scene goes a long way in showcasing the shift in the cultural zeitgeist that David Guetta played a large part in starting—he essentially forced the public to finally accept DJs and producers as superstars themselves.
After gaining a measure of clubland success with Chris Willis-fronted singles like 2007’s “Love Is Gone,” Guetta continued to collaborate with top talents and eventually knocked the door down. His ’09 production for The Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling” earned acclaim beyond the club and earned a Grammy nomination. But it was the runaway success of 2009’s One Love album—and its singles “When Love Takes Over” (featuring Kelly Rowland) and “Sexy Bitch” (featuring Akon)—that allowed American radio programmers and listeners to get acquainted with the notion of the producer stepping out of the shadows and receiving higher billing than the track’s vocalist.
The 2011 release of Nothing But The Beat and the singles “Where Them Girls At” (featuring Flo Rida and Nicki Minaj) and “Titanium” (featuring Sia) cemented this paradigm shift, certifying Guetta’s position as a pop star in his own right.
It’s been three years since the release of Nothing But The Beat, and these years have seen Guetta enter into a period of deep introspection and creative searching amidst a never-ending onslaught of headlining festival performances and sold-out shows. A high-profile divorce from wife Cathy, with whom he collaborated on the F*** Me I’m Famous club brand, put him in the sights of the tabloid rumor mill in early 2014. But the French DJ/producer kept the music as the main focus by spending the rest of the year dropping a series of club-ready tracks through his Jack Back label and working on new material.
The end product of this methodical approach? Listen, Guetta’s sixth and arguably most adventurous full-length offering. The album release on Big Beat/Atlantic this past November was preceded by the single “Dangerous,” a one-two punch of rock influences and orchestral strings propelled by a midtempo rhythm that threw away the notion that the album would be a set of 14 EDM bangers. That being said, there’s no shortage of danceable bops present, but the wide range of sonic textures—from the reggae-influenced Nicki Minaj and Afrojack collab “Hey Mama” to the scenic piano-driven house of “I’ll Keep Loving You”—and personal lyrical content clearly shows the evolution of the artist.
The rest of the album further showcases Guetta’s ability to break down the seemingly rigid walls dividing dance genres from both themselves and the larger world of music. Whether he’s closing the album with an acoustic piano ballad (“The Whisperer” sung by pop songwriter du jour Sia) or enlisting South African choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo to sing on “Lift Me Up,” Guetta’s dedication to subvert the expected while staying true to the aesthetics of pop music and house music that he loves is both evident and admirable.
Amidst his massive promotional schedule for Listen, we connected with David Guetta to talk about the work leading up to the release of the album, as well as his friendships with other DJs like Laurent Garnier, his thoughts on the current music scene and his 25-year DJing career.
DJ Times: When did work on the album begin?
David Guetta: About three years ago.
DJ Times: Was there a concept or vision that guided the recording process?
Guetta: Yeah, the first year was trying to find anything and trying to find a new sound and it would be a year, and then one of the first records that I thought was interesting was “Dangerous.” I was like, “Wow, I like this direction!” I kept on working in this direction, but then I kind of had a block for like six months where nothing was coming. And then, the last year, I was really productive. I made “Bad” and “Shot Me Down” before the album because I knew that was going to come with something that was a combination between artistic and electronic, and I wanted to do something purely EDM right before to then surprise people with a sort of new turn.
DJ Times: Before anyone even knew you were working on a pop album, you released a string of banging club singles. Was that a deliberate attempt to get back into the clubs or just to surprise people?
Guetta: It’s not to get back in the clubs, as I was never away from the clubs. It was more to surprise people. I am going to hard EDM and, then when everyone is going to expect me to do this for the album, I’m going to do something completely different. It was to play with and trick the mind a little bit.
DJ Times: You really flipped the script when you released the album’s lead single “Dangerous,” which is a midtempo track full of keys and strings. Did you pick that one to send a message about what the album was going to be like?
Guetta: I just like surprising people, especially when making an album. Lately, EDM has been very formulaic, and I wanted to do something completely different. So I came in with “Bad” and “Shot Me Down,” and then thought, “OK, people are going to expect this on the album.” So then I worked with classical music orchestras and mid-tempo, funky basslines and guitars, and a new singer [Sam Martin] when I’m known for collaborations with big stars. I just like trying to surprise people!
DJ Times: Speaking of collaborators, the album has some returning ones like Nicki Minaj and Sia, upcoming artists like Bebe Rexha and Magic!, and then completely unexpected ones like Ladysmith Black Mambazo. How did some of these collaborations come about and get formed?
Guetta: I am only thinking in terms of making it the best possible at the time. I have been working a lot on the songs first, on the production second, and then on who would be the best artist to sing that song. So it was really the way I did it this time, which was really kind of different for me. I just want to have the best record possible.
DJ Times: There is a really surprising track with Sia on the album called “The Whisperer,” which is a piano ballad. It’s such a switch up from some of your earlier material.
Guetta: As I said, I don’t want to repeat the exact same formula. Of course, there are some classic David Guetta records like “What I Did For Love” and “Sun Goes Down” that are in the vein of the club records that I’ve done before that make you stronger. Then there are emotional dance records in the vein of “Bang My Head,” that’s like “Titanium,” but I also wanted to do things that were totally different, like working with Sia on some amazing, emotional songs. It was a great statement. Honestly, it was the fight of my life to get dance music played on the radio and have it respected as much as pop or hip hop, so I think for me to work with symphonic orchestras and do a beautiful ballad on the record is again saying to the world, “OK, yes, we make beats on computers, but I can also do this.” It’s music with soul, it’s music with melodies and lyrics, you know what I mean?
DJ Times: That makes sense.
Guetta: It is also good to show that you can connect to people with dance, but it doesn’t only have to be about hands in the air and sexy girls.
DJ Times: So is there more of a personal edge that pulls from your life in this album than previous ones?
Guetta: Yes, absolutely.
DJ Times: There even seems to be a soul influence and even some R&B influences that hark back to the ’80s and ’90s when you were playing hip hop, funk, and disco in French clubs.
Guetta: It’s just what I have inside! Of course, whatever I was listening to as a teenager is still inside of me and still inside of my music.
DJ Times: Right now, “deep house” seems to be a buzz word that’s got everyone talking, from DJs and producers to labels and fans. What’s your take on this, coming from someone who’s been DJing for nearly 30 years?
Guetta: Actually, I’ve been playing deep house, but I was playing it back in ’92 or ’94! [laughs] I just didn’t feel like jumping on the train for my album. I wanted to do my own thing, but yeah, I think the return of house is a blessing. I’m happy about this. I love house. It’s where I come from and it’s in my roots.
DJ Times: A lot of these roots stem from playing clubs in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. Even though you now headline festivals everywhere, you recently played over at Marquee New York. How important is it to still make time to play clubs?
Guetta: I love playing clubs. My residencies in Las Vegas and Ibiza are something I really just love. This is where I come from all my life. As much as the energy is—of course—amazing at a festival or a David Guetta concert, what we do at all of those is give a show, and that includes things like special effects and lights and videos and production. What I think is DJing—which is like playing clubs, having a breakdown in a record where people are feeling like they’re in a tunnel, looping four bars for 10 minutes, and playing with a cappellas—doesn’t need so much space. And if you do this in a festival, people wouldn’t understand because DJs are just banging all day long and you just have to maintain that for a crazy 90-minute set. Whereas playing in clubs is different, and I love it. I love not knowing in advance all the records I am going to play. I love seeing the people and seeing the eyes of each person in the club when I am dropping a record. I love all of this.
DJ Times: It’s a completely different vibe.
Guetta: Now it’s all about superstar DJs and producers, but these resident DJs… I respect them a lot. They’re playing six-hour sets and educating people; I think it’s amazing.
DJ Times: At Amsterdam Dance Event this past October, Laurent Garner did a panel and talked about the long-running friendship you two share, which seems pretty unexpected considering your different styles. What drew you two together and what sort of lessons do you take from each other?
Guetta: The thing is that now the scene is so huge that people are more specialized. But when we started in 1988, I think we were the only two DJs playing house music in France! [laughs] He was more techno and I was more house, but—to be honest—it didn’t make so much of a difference at the time. The scene was so small—we’re talking about maybe 1,000 people—so, of course, doing it at the same time and then we were just friends because we’re friends and can appreciate each other. So yeah, people are often surprised about this. But, at the same time, I speak to many different people, some of whom are very underground. I am good friends with Dubfire and Plastikman [Richie Hawtin], but we don’t play the same music. Imagine that there is a guitar player that plays rock and a guitar player that plays funk. It doesn’t mean that they are two guitar players who can’t talk about their passion for the music!
DJ Times: That makes a lot of sense.
Guetta: It’s just music people, you know.
DJ Times: So the commonality is that you are all DJs at the end of the day, and you all love electronic music despite what style it might be.
Guetta: Exactly! The other day I went to Dubfire and I loved his set and was dancing to it. I love Richie Hawtin. I create a record like “Dangerous” because, personally, I like hopeful melodies a lot, but it doesn’t mean that I cannot appreciate a really hypnotic drive. I love that, too.
DJ Times: Let’s switch the focus to technology for a bit. What are you using for production at the moment?
Guetta: I am using mostly Logic. For this album, I stayed on Logic Pro 9 because I was too afraid to move to Logic Pro X in the middle of an album. I just started with it last week! [laughs]
DJ Times: So you just updated?
Guetta: Yeah, you know, because changing stuff in the middle of the album is not very wise—you don’t want to have to have problem or issues. I also use Ableton a lot. I use Ableton as a base because I feel it’s very intuitive. It happens a lot that I work on sketches in Ableton and then move to Logic. I have worked in the past with [FL Studio] when I was working together with Afrojack, but the thing is that I hate Windows so much! [laughs] Logic is still my favorite.
DJ Times: So what about your DJing setup? Are you still primarily using Pioneer CDJs?
Guetta: Yeah, CDJs—they’re the best. I don’t really like working with computers. But I’ve also had an interesting experience on TV shows, because “Dangerous” is such a band record. I wanted to show that it’s also acoustic, so it was a combination with Ableton Push and acoustic instruments. That was fun.
DJ Times: I’m sure you get the occasional online troll who has thrown accusations of pre-recorded sets. You’ve been DJing for 30 years, what’s you take on that? How do you respond to that sort of claim?
Guetta: I think it’s so ridiculous. When I started, I was bringing vinyl and I was mixing funk and disco with BPMs that weren’t steady—it was an art to be able to mix those records. But—I mean no disrespect—if you cannot beatmatch two records, with steady beat, today, you’re retarded. Who would need to fake DJing today? The people that say that… it’s just really ridiculous. It would be more work to fake it than it is to do it. What is beatmatching today? With the new technology, it is really nothing. It takes me maybe two seconds to mix two records. It’s really ridiculous.
DJ Times: Yeah, and you’re not alone.
Guetta: Honestly, I am not even speaking about myself. They’ve said it about me, they’ve said it about Steve Angello, and they’ve said it about Steve Aoki. I have never seen—in my entire life—anybody doing this. I think it just an urban myth. It doesn’t exist; there is no reason to do this! What’s difficult is to create the records or to make special mash-ups or creative mixes with a cappellas and three turntables together—stuff like this. But no one needs to fake beatmatching two records. I can teach this to a 10-year-old in two hours. I really don’t understand why people are speaking about this and why DJ magazines are even giving space to it. It’s so ridiculous.
Listen: 4 Surprising David Guetta Productions
David Guetta has made a name for himself with the euphoric, pop-inspired EDM anthems that have blown up radios for years. But he’s been quite the musical chameleon as well. Here are four David Guetta productions that signaled his penchant to circumvent dance expectations and surprise listeners well before he released Listen.
Kelis – “Scream” (2010): Kelis moved away from The Neptunes-helmed production that defined her early work for her dance-oriented Flesh Tone effort, and “Scream.” Co-produced with Tocadisco, the track segues from its melodic, R&B-inspired verses to alarm-ringing robotic techno choruses.
Timbaland feat. Pitbull – “Pass At Me” (2011): A David Guetta-Timbaland-Pitbull collaboration sounds like a radio programmer’s dream, and the end result is proof why. Rapid-fire drums, a dancefloor-ready beat, and a healthy dose of reggaeton influences show that Guetta knows how to tailor a sound for any club crowd.
Rihanna – “Phresh Out The Runway” (2012): Rave goes hip hop on this cut off of the Barbadian singer’s Unapologetic album. Grinding electro synths underscore fiery bars from Rihanna, but it’s the pulsing bass and undeniable swagger of the track that make it such an unexpected gem from Guetta.
Lady Gaga – “Fashion!” (2013): Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP LP was mostly defined by icy electro production from DJ White Shadow, Zedd, and Madeon, but Guetta’s co-production with will.i.am draws its influence from the funk records that the French DJ played when he was starting out. The track’s deliciously camp vibe was elevated even further with a live performance featuring RuPaul for a Muppets Holiday Special.