The dance messiah: How David Guetta became the world’s biggest DJ
His beats have energised the biggest R'n'B hits of the decade. His wild club nights have transformed Ibiza. Even his mum approves of his DJ excesses...Make some noise for David Guetta!
Sunday 28 August 2011
Round 9.30pm tonight, a smiley Frenchman with flyaway hair will take to the stage at a music festival on a country estate near the Cheshire village of Daresbury. He will be unaccompanied by musicians or vocalists, but a couple of 9ft robots with laser-guns may stomp on stage for a bit. Beyond that, his stage kit will comprise an elaborate, elevated, wheeled DJ booth. There won't be any record decks per se, only four spinning CD players. His vocal contributions will consist largely of enthusiastic exhortations to the crowd of 50,000 to make some noise and waggle their phones above their heads.
From such rudimentary performance tools (OK, the robots are pretty cool), David Guetta will be hoping to conjure a headline set worthy of Creamfields, Britain's biggest dance festival. Handily, the DJ/artist/producer can also count on some of the catchiest pop-dance songs of the past decade. Playing at the event last year, as the crowd went mental to Guetta hits "When Love Takes Over" (recorded with Kelly Rowland), "I Gotta Feeling" (with Black Eyed Peas) and "Sexy Bitch" (with Akon), the ecstatic DJ shouted that Creamfields was "the biggest party on the planet".
This year, the Parisian is aiming to go bigger still. Given his track record – he played Paris's 80,000-capacity Stade de France arena with Black Eyed Peas in June; has had five UK number one singles; won a Grammy for his remix of Madonna's "Revolver"; and features vocals from Usher, Snoop Dogg and a host of others on his new album, Nothing But the Beat – Guetta will probably deliver the goods.
"Before, I used to come to clubs with vinyls [sic]," recalls the father of two in his largely impeccable but occasionally wayward English. "Tonnes of vinyls. My back was hurting [carrying them], it was terrible. Then I moved to playing CDs. Now this is what I use at my shows," he says, proffering for inspection a one-inch-square memory stick. "I have all my music on this – 32 gigabytes."
Guetta pokes the stick into his laptop. Different titled playlists pop up on the screen. "New York Pacha four hours" says one, referencing the club. "British tour," says another, referring to the spring jaunt he took around the UK, selling out a string of 3,000-capacity venues. Pointing at another, Guetta says, "This is the music I played for the opening of F*** Me I'm Famous in Ibiza."
F*** Me I'm Famous (FMIF) is the name of the Ibizan party run by Guetta and his glamazon wife Cathy. They've turned it into a hugely successful club brand in the 15 years since launching themselves on to the White Isle dance scene in the summer of 1996. You can buy FMIF lollipops, luggage tags, bikinis, headphones and crash helmets. A night might feature burlesque dancers, transvestites and trapeze artists performing nudie acrobatics, or a permutation thereof. Cathy sometimes opens proceedings borne aloft by brawny gym bunnies, before dancing deliriously in skyscraping heels and spangly frock. At bigger FMIF events – the Guettas are a big draw at Las Vegas's grander hotel-casino complexes – Guetta's DJ sets can be augmented by a huge light-show, glitter cannon, flame volcanoes, smoke machines and an impressive liquid feature: words and images (stars, hearts, a stripper, "Paris Rocks", "Put Your Hands Up") shaped by multiple, timed, thin streams of water descend from the ceiling behind the decks. "The spirit is that it's freedom and tolerance and no rules," says Guetta of the outré club night. The shows he performs under his own name are different, less cabaret-silly.
Although sometimes, if he's doing a club night with his new hip-hop friends, there's extravagance there too. "Once in a while, it's cool. Hot girls, party, champagne – it's nice!" says this excitable man who, in a club full of people, will often be the one dancing most energetically to his music. "But I need to be able to express myself also as a DJ. If I had to play only for people who liked the music because they heard it on the radio, it wouldn't make me happy. That's why I'm working so hard to have, yes, a profile as an artist, but also a profile as a DJ." This, he adds, is why Nothing But the Beat is a double album. The second CD features vocal-free, hardcore(ish) electronic tunes, some in the style of his French compatriots Daft Punk and Justice.
avid Guetta used to have the straightforward, wee-hours life of the itinerant DJ playing other people's records. He was well known on the French nightclub scene, which is where, 22 years ago, he met Cathy, a waitress and hostess at the time. They put on their own nights and opened their own clubs. "Then I started to make music by making beats that are missing in my sets." His early tunes were electronic and instrumental and tailored solely towards the dancefloor.
Then Will.i.am heard his 2007 song "Love Is Gone". The Black Eyed Peas' chief creative officer asked Guetta to work with him. Together they made "I Gotta Feeling". It became a global smash and Guetta was reborn as a pop-dance producer. Singers – mostly from the world of American R'n'B and hip-hop – started falling over themselves to guest on songs on his albums, or to hire the Frenchman to produce tracks for their own albums. Now he's the biggest DJ-turned-producer in the world. And, via FMIF, he and Cathy preside over a club-cum-kinky-lifestyle marque that, during its summer residency at Ibiza, generates tens of thousands of euros every week.
His schedule is so tight that he had to film the videos for the first two singles from Nothing But the Beat back to back in just two days in Los Angeles. "Where Them Girls At" features Flo Rida and Nicki Minaj; "Little Bad Girl", Taio Cruz and Ludacris. All four guest vocalists – all from the punctuality-phobic hip-hop/R'n'B world – were wrangled into showing up for Guetta's 48-hour shoot. "Can you imagine the nightmare?" he sighs.
But Guetta insists his newfound fame hasn't changed him. The hotel penthouse suites and private planes are functional luxuries, facilitating his nonstop, jet-set, time zone-flouting work schedule. The high-rolling celebrity life isn't his bag. He recently had cause to chastise his production team for going all bling with his rider requests. Aware that his show "is becoming so big", they had begun to request "wine and chicken and cheese" from venue promoters, "and I wouldn't use it. So I was very mad at them. Because I don't like to give that image. The big star that is asking for crazy shit – 'I want my wardrobe to be all pink' – and is not even using it... I think it's terrible," he tuts. "So I spoke to them and said that I don't wanna see this any more, I want the strict minimum.
"Everyone is different," he shrugs. "Some artists, they're difficult because they know it's gonna be a kind of publicity," he says, better aware than most of the reputations of Guetta collaborators such as nine-times-shot 50 Cent, the gun-toting Lil Wayne and recent drink-driver Flo Rida. At best, "They're always late...But I'm not like that. I wanna be a nice guy."
The 43-year-old who started hosting parties in his parents' garage when he was 13 is both a music obsessive and good-time-Charlie. Over the summer months, he performs in a different country almost every night. But he flies back to Ibiza by private jet each Thursday to meet his FMIF obligations, and to catch up with Cathy, son Elvis (seven) and daughter Angie (four), who base themselves in their Ibizan villa during the school holidays. Wherever he goes he likes to create the party-heartiest club shows and concert events. And in between all those commitments Guetta works – while on planes or in taxis or in his hotel rooms – on the songs that helped his last album, 2009's One Love, sell three million copies worldwide and that, on Nothing But the Beat, his fifth album, attracted a stellar roll call of vocal and songwriting collaborators.
Peering at his laptop, Guetta breaks down his FMIF playlist – a little spiel that gives some insight into his range. There are hardcore collaborations with the fast-rising Dutch DJ Afrojack; a run-out for "Club Can't Handle Me", an American smash that Guetta produced for Flo Rida; then "Sex And Drums", "which is a beat that I'm giving to Timbaland for his album..." Then he dropped another song called "I'm David Guetta, Bitch". "People," Guetta grins delightedly, "go crazy when I play it." His ego suitably stoked, he likes to reciprocate.
Half-an-hour into the Ibiza launch party, he played "Where Them Girls At", "but a different version". After the song leaked online in May, Guetta announced that he was hiring a "security specialist who works with the Pentagon" to investigate the hacking of the unfinished track. No matter. In America alone it sold 160,000 downloads in a week, and immediately thumped to number one on at least ten countries' iTunes Dance Charts.
Guetta beams with chipper, boyish pride as he fiddles with his sticks. "When I perform, these are all linked, and all my music is here. Each could hold, I don't know, 20,000 tracks. I could play for a week nonstop with one of these." One day, you think, he might try that.
he closest David Guetta has had to a proper job? Opening a restaurant, Tanjia, a decade ago. His Jewish-Moroccan dad, a university professor of sociology (his mother is a socialist-leaning psychologist) had also gone into the restaurant business for a respite from academia. Father and son both found the experience gruelling. "It was a nightmare!" he laughs, adding that he long ago sold the establishment. "But at the same time, my mum, being extreme-left, was happy that I was an artist. She was really not happy when I had a restaurant. Because it was like being a capitalist. Crazy, right?" he laughs. "I had the most reversed education possible. Every parent wants their son to be a businessman, respectable – me, it was the opposite. When I had an artist career my mum was like, 'Oh finally, I'm proud of you!'"
His parents split when he was three, and he has "several" half-siblings. What did his mother and father think of their teenage son's enthusiasm for DJing and clubbing? "They didn't see that as cultural," he says with a wince. "And of course they were afraid for drugs and stuff like this..." he sighs. "Also I was a teenager and I was going a little crazy."
But all that's a long time ago. "It's impossible to have the career I have if you're doing drugs. Maybe it was possible in the 1970s, but not now. Even a lot of my friends that are doing it, when they reach a certain level, we speak together and they're like, 'I can't party any more like this...' Cos we need to be in the studio and produce. That's the truth – if you go crazy, you need two days to rest."
Guetta himself is an exuberant, guile-free fortysomething. A workaholic, self-sufficient, music-making machine. Wherever he goes he carries the tools of his trade with him: basically, a laptop and tiny keyboard, both stuffed with beats and software. In a "proper" studio, this set-up would cost $2,000 a day to rent. On top of his music-making, k Guetta is using his technical know-how to develop a range of DJ-friendly headphones for the Beats By Dr Dre brand. He's also partnering with Sony Ericsson to create an Android mobile app, and with Hewlett-Packard "to create a music-making laptop".
From such seemingly toy-town tools come beats and melodies with anthemic, feel-good power. Guetta is unabashed in his desire to turn as many people as possible on to dance music. Four years ago, in financial counterpoint to his Ibizan goldmine, he agreed to perform at a leading UK festival for £500. Guetta's priority was spreading the house gospel, not the fee.
All of which means that Guetta – no furrowed-brow house- music proselytiser, rather an amiable disco-messiah – is dismissed by dance-music purists for "selling out" by dint of his huge, chart-bothering collaborations with established stars. Guetta is unimpressed by that thinking.
"First of all," he frowns, "selling out for me doesn't mean anything. That would mean that I own house music. And I don't – nobody owns music. And second, I always did what I loved. The truth is that all the house music producers love urban music cos this is where [house] is coming from – from funk and disco, from Chicago and Detroit..."
His peers' sniping undoubtedly derives in part from envy. In sharing writing credits with other musicians/vocalists on songs that go on to become international chart hits, Guetta is doing something no other DJ has ever managed: to build a huge, and never-ending, revenue stream from song-publishing royalties. Perhaps this is why no fees need to change hands when he produces someone, or they sing for him. The deal is: he gives them a song for their album, they help him on one for his.
Sometimes things don't quite go to plan. "Today, Will from the [Black Eyed] Peas and I, we had... not a fight, but a very hard bargaining moment." The song he and the Peas man have made for Nothing But the Beat is "so big, Will was like, 'David, I need it for my [solo] album.' I'm like, 'No, Will, we made it for me, that was the deal.' So we were bargaining for an hour. He was saying, 'But my record company think this is the biggest song I have – and I'm giving it to you! [My label boss] Jimmy Iovine is gonna refuse that.'" Finally, an accommodation: "We're gonna put it on both albums."
Such is the power of the hit-making prowess of David Guetta. Now he's a global priority for his record label, EMI, a huge draw in myriad diverse "territories" all over the world. His international appeal is such that EMI had an internal argument about which single from Nothing But the Beat to release first. The US favoured the "American-sounding" "Where Them Girls At" – which, explains Guetta, means the fizzy party track "was a little too much champagne. That's why I wanted Nicki to sing. She brought the craziness." The Europeans preferred "Little Bad Girl". "It's really huge. It's more a club club track," nods Guetta. (The Americans prevailed). "But, you know," smiles Guetta, "it's a good problem to have. Too many hits, it's OK..."
'Nothing But the Beat' is out now on Positiva/Virgin
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