From dark underground clubs to festival and stadium stages and the top of the charts, smiley French DJ and producer David Guetta has done it his way, writes JIM CARROLL
IT’S THE SOUND of the crowd on a Saturday night, those ubiquitous pop anthems such as I Gotta Feeling, When Love Takes Over and Titanium. They’ve become the soundtrack to everything from a sports team celebrating another win (how many times have you heard I Gotta Feeling used in that context on those TV video highlight montages?) to another weekend spent whooping it up.
All of the tunes mentioned feature the handiwork of a permanently grinning, 40-something veteran French DJ and producer. David Guetta was a fixture at underground clubs in Paris alongside Laurent Garnier back in the 1990s, but it’s his recent studio successes that have made him one of pop’s most valuable players in the past few years.
It’s highly unlikely Guetta would be top of the bill at big shows in Dublin and Belfast next weekend – and banking large fees for his trouble – if he was still playing the kind of tunes he was spinning back in the day. The underground is one thing, but the big stages require something else entirely – and that’s what Guetta has worked on.
What’s fascinating about Guetta’s successful run of hits is how obvious they all seem in hindsight. It’s as if the formula was hiding in plain sight and it took the French producer to discover it and put the elements together.
Deconstruct a Guetta hit and you’ll usually find a soulful voice – such as Kelly Rowland, (ex-Destiny’s Child), on When Love Takes Over – singing over banging, booming, fairly mainstream pop-house beats. Add in an occasional soar or a bit of a breakdown and you have the Guetta blueprint. Big voice plus big beats – hip-hop plus house, basically – equals ker-ching!
But when Guetta first tried this template out back in the early years of the last decade, no one really paid that much attention. On his debut album, Just A Little More Love, released in 2002, eight of the 13 tracks featured collaborations with US soul singer Chris Willis. All of these are strikingly similar to the tunes he produces now.
“My thing was always to bring soul into electronica – that was my sound from the very start,” Guetta explained in an interview with The Ticket last year. “You mentioned Chris Willis and Just A Little More Love and that’s what we were trying to do then. It became clearer and clearer over the years that this approach was right. At first, I was a little shy about what I was doing, but then I went for it 100 per cent because I could see it was working.”
While 2007’s Pop Life fared better with the public – especially Everytime We Touch, aided and abetted by Willis’s vocals and songwriting and production from Swedish House Mafia – it was 2009’s One Love that really established the pop power and panache of the Guetta template. After that, there was no looking back for the Frenchman as the mainstream came in search of his magic.
In recent times, his productions have become pop radio’s meat and potatoes, the easy, go-to tracks to get an otherwise run-of-the-mill show buzzing.
Back in 2003, it was estimated that more than 40 per cent of the tracks played on commercial radio were produced by the then high-flying Neptunes. There’s no doubt that Guetta is enjoying a similar reach today, if anyone cares to do the data-mining.
The pop business is always looking for a hit, so record labels, pop singers, r’n’b acts and their “people” were quick to recognise the potential of working with the Frenchman. A list of Guetta’s past, present and in-the-pipeline collaborators resembles a who’s-who of modern pop, from Black-Eyed Peas and Usher to Nicki Minaj, Snoop Dogg, Rihanna, Akon, LMFAO, Flo Rida and Jessie J. These acts give Guetta a call because they’re thinking I Gotta Feeling or Titanium and want a hit of similar quality to define them.
But while it’s often the acts rather than the producers who end up with the fame and sold-out shows, Guetta’s own star and pulling power have risen hugely on the back of these million-selling tracks. Whether it’s festival stages in Irish fields, club nights in a resurgent Ibiza or huge events such as Ultra or Electric Daisy Carnival in the United States, Guetta is very much the ruler. His crossover from underground DJ and producer to mainstream pop star is more or less complete.
The US’s current full-on fling with dance music has helped acts such himself, Swedish House Mafia and Skrillex to break it big over there. They may call it electronic dance music, but Guetta just calls it “crazy”.
“It’s like going into the wild west and finding a new frontier. It reminds me of the old days in Europe because there’s so much energy and excitement at the gigs. It’s so crazy. I remember when I used to play New York or Chicago, I would get a buzz because that’s where house music was born.
“But now, it’s a different generation and the excitement from the dancefloor – from people who are discovering the culture for the first time – is so unique that you have to be moved by it. In Europe, I feel we’ve become more blase because we’ve had it nonstop for the past 20 years or more.”
It’s clear that feeling blase is not in the Guetta handbook. Moreover, he’ll have little truck with the underground’s views on his new pop fame or with charges of selling out.
“There’s always pressure to do things in a certain way and I know I broke a lot of rules. Before, there was almost a war between hip-hop and electronic music. It took me a little courage to do it and cope with the criticisms I received. Dance music was always about credibility and I think that is what kept dance music from being successful.
“The people who came to work with me also got criticised at the start, but today, everybody is doing it.”
And everybody is likely to keep doing it, provided the Guetta hits keep coming.
David Guetta plays Marlay Park, Dublin, on August 24 and Belsonic, Belfast, on August 26
On the bill at Marlay Park
A London rapper resident at the sharp end of the pop charts, Example has had hits such as Changed the Way You Kiss Me, Natural Disaster and Stay Awake, as well as choice collaborations with Calvin Harris, Professor Green and AN21. Let’s just hope David Guetta doesn’t get around to reading last year’s Guardian interview where Example gently dissed him.
The Italian DJ and producer’s Electroman album from last year was brimfull of tech-tro hits and collaborations with Chris Brown (yeah, we know), Kelis and Black-Eyed Peas.
Also had a hand in producing Madonna’s MDNA album, but please don’t hold that against him: work is work.
From Brighton via a spell at the Brit School, Harley Alexander-Sule and Jordan Stephens will win you over with their bright, breezy, exuberant hip-hop/pop jams. Check last year’s fine Stereo Typical album for examples of their likable sound.
American electrohouse DJ and producer Joey Youngman has had hits aplenty, as his Weekend In America album from last year shows. Meanwhile, collaborations with Skrillex and Deadmau5 plus appearances at Coachella and Electric Daisy Carnival have upped his appeal (and booking fee).
This Australian DJ and producer is based in Los Angeles, from where he has released tracks for the Dim Mak, Mau5trap, Subliminal and Toolroom labels.
The fear factor
It’s not just David Guetta fans who have August 24th highlighted in their diaries. In the wake of events at the Swedish House Mafia show in the Phoenix Park last month, there will be a huge focus on what happens in and around Dublin’s Marlay Park when 22,000 people turn up for this show next week.
Post-Phoenix Park, there have been various misguided attempts to paint all dance-related shows as events to avoid or which require over-the-top policing. You can see this in opinion columns about the evils of dance music and scaremongering about “electric music”.
The truth is that the trouble at the Phoenix Park had nothing to do with dance music. For a start, Swedish House Mafia – and Guetta – are more mainstream pop than anything else . You don’t get 45,000 people turning out for an undeground dance act.
But of course, it’s much easier to point the finger at “electric music” rather than examine the real causes behind the trouble at the Park. The latter would involve focusing on Ireland’s abusive relationship with alcohol, the policing of a large outdoor concert, the licence application process, the security briefing for these events, the role of the Office of Public Works in determining who gets to promote shows in publicly owned venues, the provision of non-public duty gardaí and other relevant matters.
Too many worms in those cans, so it’s better to pin the blame on some DJs with their hands in the air.