David Guetta has played a pivotal role in turning dance music into the chart-topping juggernaut it is today. His impact has been impossible to ignore, or to underestimate. He can be considered among the elite group of super-producers whose sound is synonymous with an era – such as Trevor Horn, Rick Rubin or Dr Dre.
With his landmark new album, Listen, Guetta is announcing the end of that era – and signposting the way to the next. The electronic-dance-music (EDM) sound he pioneered rules the world. A surging, smiley fun-gasm that rose the same time as the world economy crashed, EDM gave pop culture a huge shot of optimism and escapism. But, ever the tastemaker, Guetta is ahead of the curve. “I needed to create a new sound,” he says. “Music is all about cycles, about action and reaction, and there has been a reaction to EDM becoming the new pop. Listen is completely different to anything I’ve done before.”
Listen has been three years in the making – in the studio in London, LA and Ibiza, where Guetta lives; as well as out on the road. Composing on the hoof has become stock-in-trade for superstar DJ-producers, writing beats on their laptops jetting between exotic locations; and Guetta has been no exception (he has residencies at XS and Encore in Vegas, Ushuaia and Pacha in Ibiza, and DJs to millions around the world each year). Now he is doing things differently: “I used to always make beats first, then write the songs. This time I spent much more time in the studio, and started with the piano, or guitar, and the voice. I started from the song – not the beat.”
Listen is a sophisticated, varied and emotional collection of classic songs. It’s not all peaks and pool parties – there are moments of uncertainty and introspection – though, this being a Guetta album, it still sounds like a good time. The fat and funky opener, Dangerous, featuring the previously unknown Sam Martin, sets the bar in terms of quality – a slow-tempo disco groover, propelled by warm analogue bass, Eighties synths, Chic-style guitar and orchestral string arrangements. (It is the current single; Jonas Akerlund has directed the video).
“Of course it’s amazing to work with famous people,” says Guetta, whose long list of collaborators includes Rihanna, Madonna, Usher and Snoop Dogg. “But the reason behind their fame is their talent. So if I find talented people like Sam who are not famous, it’s equally amazing to put the spotlight on them. It’s like being a DJ, which is about pleasing people but also about making them discover new sounds.”
Next on Listen comes Emeli Sandé, on anthemic form on What I Did for Love – singing acapella at the piano a full 90 seconds before the beat kicks in: “It hurts, but I remember every scar/But I’ve learnt that living is the hardest part.”
On what he learnt from making the album Guetta says “I spent way, way more time on songwriting. It’s probably my most personal album. Until today I was doing lots of songs about happiness and love and sexiness and just having a party – it was basically my life, you know? And lately, my personal life has been a little more difficult, so it reflects also on the album, on the things that we’re talking about, on the type of chords. I’ve never done this, because even for me it was all about making the people dance.”
Musically, Listen is Guetta’s most ambitious work yet – a blend of live instrumentation and precision-programmed technology. “I’ve used lots of classical orchestras,” says Guetta, “I wanted it to be epic and cinematic.” Key to helping him achieve this has been his co-producer, the classically trained Dutch composer Giorgio Tuinfort, who has worked with Michael Jackson and Lady Gaga. “I met him working with Akon – we get along so well we finally decided to partner on this record.”
Tuinfort is a constant presence, but, as with Guetta’s previous albums, Listen is a series of genre-bending collaborations – with each performer bringing their absolute A-game. These include John Legend deftly blending acoustic soul with electronic production on the title track; Ms Dynamite and the Swedish rapper Elliphant on the volcanic reggae-house hybrid No Money No Love; the Script turning Goodbye Friend into an almighty indie-dance crossover; Sam Martin again on Lovers on the Sun – the first single (31m YouTube hits and counting); Nicki Minaj on the speaker-mashing Hey Mama. Also: Nico & Vinz, Sia, Bebe Rexha, Skylar Grey, co-production from Avicii, Afrojack, Nicky Romero… the list goes on.
It was in 2009 that Guetta, a successful DJ and dance-music producer with three albums and a residency in Ibiza, became a pop trailblazer. He did it by fusing dance music with urban on his fourth album – his first in terms of mainstream success – One Love. By teaming up with some of the biggest names in hip hop and R&B, and reinventing their sound for the dancefloor, Guetta created pop alchemy. The ensuing hits – such as I Gotta Feeling (with Black Eyed Peas) and When Love Takes Over (with Kelly Rowland) and Sexy Bitch (with Akon) – propelled him to superstardom. They also set a new template for the sound of commercial radio, especially in the US. This was instrumental in turning EDM into the biggest youth-quake since hip hop.
“I’d always felt frustrated: why were radio stations not playing dance music? Why was the media not giving us more attention, when hundreds of thousands of young people are coming to hear us every weekend? I desperately wanted to get to where we are now… I guess these records did this.”
Milestones and accolades for One Love included: 3m album sales and topping the album charts in 17 countries; 15m single sales; 2 x Grammy wins – and a further six nominations; and more wins at the NRJ Music Awards, MTV Europe Music Awards and the World Music Awards.
In 2011, Guetta’s fifth album, Nothing but the Beat, scaled even greater heights – with 4m sales and another avalanche of hits, including the almighty global hit Titanium (feat. Sia), with its dark theme of alienation and exclusion: “My first step towards changing my sound.”
It’s easy to forget it hasn’t always been this way – he used to promote raves in his native Paris with nothing more than photocopied flyers. Guetta’s need to communicate with his audience led him to become a prolific early adopter of social media – he has a colossal 57m Facebook likes, 17m Twitter followers and is the most-followed artist on Spotify.
His huge online audience has helped him to become an effective goodwill ambassador for Unicef – donating free music and generating Twitter traffic for their “The World Needs More…” campaign. He is also one of the brains behind Dubset, the genius new music platform on which DJs can upload and share mixes – and which pays royalties to the artists featured.
So how does Guetta sum up his new direction? “I’ve had to be honest with myself. Did I want to make another record about ‘It’s Saturday night – let’s forget everything, spend some money and have a good time’? I’ve done that. Now I just want to make music that comes from my heart and soul – I don’t want to write songs like that if it’s not how I feel.”