From: Paris, France
Best known for: Breaking dance music in America with a string of huge hits.
Fave tune of 2020: “CamelPhat & ARTBAT 'For A Feeling’.”
Rising star DJ/producer of 2020: “I'm a huge fan of ARTBAT and I think they can become even bigger than they already are.”
What’s the greatest dance record of all time? “The best dance album ever is ‘Homework' from Daft Punk. I don’t think it will ever be challenged.”
“It’s really incredible, I think I feel happier than the first time!”
David Guetta is sat on a comfy sofa in an airy East London photography studio. He’s been having his photo taken by DJ Mag’s cover specialist Dan Reid for the last three hours, dressed in a variety of outfits, and has remained chipper and super-positive throughout the afternoon.
We’re here because David has been voted the No.1 DJ in the world again — a full decade after he last won the title in 2011. The only other time he won, Guetta said that winning the Top 100 DJs poll meant more to him than having a No.1 hit record in America. And evidently, winning it a second time means even more to him than that. “It’s interesting, cos it’s a different time,” he says. “Things are way faster now. When I won ten years ago, the reality was that I felt like it came late. The reality of the numbers when I was touring, it was already like two years where I felt, ‘Why am I not winning?’, y’know?”
This isn’t just an idle brag from the healthy-looking, self-aware Frenchman. In late 2011 he was the biggest dance star on the planet, having broken down the doors of mainstream America with a string of global dance-pop hits following in the wake of ‘When Love Takes Over’, which featured ex-Destiny’s Child vocalist Kelly Rowland. “When I won the first time, I was like ‘OK, if I go to Google search and my name is ten times higher, it should have happened’,” he tells DJ Mag. “It’s funny because ten years ago when I won, all the trance fans were so mad against me because it was the first time that trance wasn’t winning — for years. It was the beginning of that EDM era in the festivals.”
Younger readers may not remember that the Top 100 DJs poll was dominated by trance spinners throughout the ‘00s. After three victories for Tiësto (when he played trance) and two for Paul van Dyk, Armin van Buuren won four times in a row (2007-10) until Guetta claimed the crown in 2011. The Top 100 DJs awards party that year was held in Amsterdam during ADE for the first time, and a partisan Dutch crowd of Armin fans booed Guetta when he was revealed as the new No.1. “Armin is my friend, he was feeling really bad about that,” smiles Guetta at the memory.
Guetta’s first Top 100 win a decade ago did signal EDM — basically the rebranding of drop-heavy electro-house for the US market — taking over from trance and dominating the 21st century’s second decade. Guetta spearheaded a slew of dance tracks penetrating the mainstream American market, and the subsequent global explosion of electronic music gave untold people a viable career in the industry at long last. “Yeah, this is why some people were hating me!” David exclaims. “It’s funny, I was public enemy No.1 for doing this — for being successful — and also for working with people who were part of the urban community. It then became what every successful DJ/producer is doing now, completely acceptable, but I think the younger generation doesn’t even realise that when I started to do this, people were mad at me for doing this.”
Who wouldn’t want to work with Rihanna, asks DJ Mag? “Why are you not gonna want to work with a talented person? To me, it doesn’t make sense,” David concurs. “Those reactions were more coming from fans than the artists because actually all the big DJs at the time — including the American pioneers — were coming to me and saying, ‘Oh my god, I’ve been dreaming all my life to do this, how did you do this? This is crazy’.
“It’s interesting to see that the first time that I won [the Top 100 DJs poll] it was for making our music cross over into the mainstream, and for me, it was also the fight to have our culture more recognised,” he continues. “I was always feeling strongly about the quality of our music, and thinking ‘Why are we not as big as hip-hop or rock or pop? Why is the music industry looking down on us?’ I think all those hits — ‘I Got A Feeling’, ‘Sexy Bitch’, ‘When Love Takes Over’, ‘Memories’, all those records that became global No.1s — made our scene more respected in the music industry. And also everybody got more money!”
Love him or loathe him, there’s no denying that Guetta lifted up the whole international scene via his hit-making efforts. Here was a guy who started out playing hip-hop and running clubs in Paris, who got into house music and made it his life for the next two decades, suddenly having mainstream success after paying his dues for many years. “When I started there was absolutely no money in this industry, and we did it for the passion and the love, y’know?” he says. “Then a few American DJs — thanks to the UK — started to become famous and charge a little more.”
He talks about being incredulous when US house DJ/producer David Morales would speak to him about charging five-figure sums for a DJ set — “at the time that was completely crazy to me, unbelievable” — and how making things more accessible has always been at the core of what he does. “That was always my thing, since I started — even as a DJ, my thing was always to take my inspiration from the underground and find a way to make it more accessible, and more melodic, with more harmonies and stuff,” David says. “I’m a musical person, I like melodies and harmonies. Even when I was playing house in the clubs and it was more underground, I would take a more underground instrumental and play a classic house acapella on the top so that people would accept the strange beat more easily. I’m talking about the early Masters At Work days and all of this.
“I would play all those crazy underground beats at the after-parties, and I wanted to be able to play also during the normal club-nights, so my trick was like, ‘OK, I’m gonna filter down and at some point drop a famous house acapella, so that my crowd — which at the time was a very house crowd — can relate’,” he continues. “Then I would drop it again. I always loved the combination between very dark beats and soulful acapellas.”
His oeuvre became more accessible in the second half of the ’00s thanks to his F*** Me I’m Famous parties in Ibiza and releases like mournful paean ‘Love Is Gone’ and his mash-up of his own ‘Love Don’t Let Me Go’ with festival freaks The Egg’s ‘Walking Away’, teeing himself up to gatecrash the mainstream via collabs with A-listers like Akon, Rihanna, Snoop, Nicki Minaj, Usher, Bieber and more. Now he was famous — and rich. He was happy cruising along at the top of his game for much of the last decade, having monster hit records and headlining festivals, but then two or three years ago he started feeling like there was a lack of big tunes to play at his EDM shows.
“In my circle of friends, including a lot of EDM DJs, I was always complaining, ‘Oh my god’,” he says. “I was really frustrated because I didn’t have the music to play out in sets. In the last few years, the more exciting music came from the underground — it brought more to the table than EDM — but because I was more stamped ‘EDM’, people were expecting me to play EDM. So when I was playing underground the reaction was… nice, but just OK in terms of energy, because I’m playing to huge festivals and arenas, and this music is made for clubs. And then when I was playing EDM it was working but I was frustrated because I’m like ‘Oh my god’, like I’m playing the same record since three years, y’know? So I needed to create a new sound.”
Guetta had already created his Jack Back house alias, but needed some new tunes to play at his big room shows, too. Along with his pal MORTEN from Denmark, now based Stateside, he started to develop a new sound in 2019. “We developed it together, and basically we’re using a lot of inspiration from the underground — from the melodic techno scene, the techno scene, more minimal type of music also, and the emotion that you can find in trance,” Guetta explains. “Trance almost became a shameful word lately.”
With techno drums, a trance sensibility and EDM dynamics, the pair’s ‘Never Be Alone’ — featuring singer Aloe Blacc — set the template for what Guetta has dubbed ‘Future Rave’. Uplifting powerdriver ‘Make It To Heaven’ soon followed last year, but then coronavirus struck. “The confinement happened right after we started Future Rave, and my first reaction was ‘Why would I release music?’” Guetta says. “I’m trashing records, because I can’t have the support from DJs as there’s no events. Then I thought again, and the fans still need the music — people that have been supporting Future Rave. This was a heavy conversation I had with MORTEN — we should do it for the fans. We’re not going to tour it, making a record a hit by playing it in every festival, but we should not abandon our scene, which is why I decided to do the EP with it. I wanted to show even more love in a difficult moment.”
Guetta needn’t have worried about there being no live events to build a big record. His 22 million YouTube subscribers ensured that the technoid ‘Detroit 3AM’ and trance-tinged ‘Kill Me Slow’ racked up millions of streams — Future Rave was out of the starting blocks with a bang.
“It’s interesting that with Future Rave I’m bringing elements of trance, when trance is not popular anymore,” he observes. “I’m always trying to do something that is forward-thinking, that is different. So basically, it’s a combination of techno, of trance, with the production techniques of EDM. It’s that rave spirit, but maybe in a more accessible way?
“I really believe that production-wise, EDM producers are really, really advanced — sonically it’s very, very strong, it’s just that at some point I feel it became too formulaic. It became too much of a format. We’re into dance music because at first we didn’t want the format, we wanted more freedom to express ourselves with music that was different.”
A lurch back towards the drawn-out melodies of trance, and a slight shift away from the ADHD drop-filled EDM pop sound, has given Guetta a new lease of life for his big main stage sets. “I took two years to dedicate all my efforts into DJ culture without trying to do any crossover records,” he says. “So I went a little bit against the grain — when a lot of DJs are actually trying to make pop music, I did it the other way around. If I’m honest I did it for myself because I was going nuts and I made the music that was missing in my set. But I’m also doing this for the culture — for everyone. To keep my scene exciting. It makes me very happy that people appreciated this, basically.”
It’s his renewed attention on DJ culture that he credits for his No.1 placing in the Top 100 DJs poll this year. “It’s such a satisfaction to see a return for my efforts,” he says. “What’s interesting is that the first time I won was for ‘commercialising’ our scene, and this time I won for the opposite reason. This time you have the EDM scene that went super-pop, and I am the one who went, ‘This is too much, this is too formulaic, I’m going back to my roots’. That’s why it tastes so amazing.
“Winning because you have a hit record — or hit records — is, of course, a huge satisfaction,” he continues. “But winning for choosing to be less commercial is even more of a satisfaction. It feels like those two moments of my life have had a cultural impact on our scene. And our scene is my life, since I was a teenager. So of course it matters more than anything to me.”
When Lockdown happened for many countries in the spring of 2020, the music industry's live scene ground to a halt. With people locked down in their homes, some DJs started to lift spirits by doing live streams from their bedrooms. Guetta, meanwhile, commandeered the pool deck on top of the trendy Icon Brickell tower in downtown Miami on April 18th to play a United At Home big production fundraising set. Surrounded by people partying on the balconies of other nearby tower blocks, when he kicked off with his Sia collab ‘Titanium’ — indisputably one of the top three most impactful, empowering tracks of the EDM era — it was undeniably A Moment. “Miami, we are titanium!” he shouted on the mic, clad in his Future Rave t-shirt, endeavouring to bring hope to an uncertain populace.
“I was like, ‘We are entertainers, we’re supposed to come with big shows’,” Guetta says, somewhat modestly. “I thought, ‘I don’t want to play in my bedroom in front of nobody’, so I’m going to do it in the middle of towers so that people are on their balconies, and even though they’re kinda separated I have a crowd in front of me — and I can feed from them.”
“If you’d have seen the love, the happiness, the reactions from the people in Miami — it was insane. Unbelievable,” he continues. “That confirmed for me how important it is what we all do as DJs. Even when I stopped playing in Miami, people kept screaming and making noise with saucepans or anything they had on their balconies. I received thousands and thousands of messages thanking me for this moment where they forgot about everything. This shows how important our culture is.”
He raised an incredible $1.5m for US food bank charity Feeding America, the World Health Organisation, and other charities concerned with Covid-19 relief. “That was crazy for an online event, we did 50 million views with social media, which is like some of the biggest global TV shows — it’s insane,” he says. “But of course everybody was bored to death at this moment and didn’t know what to do, so they were watching social media.”
He did another United At Home live stream a month later up a New York skyscraper, beginning with a re-do of Jay-Z’s ‘Empire State Of Mind’ by way of an intro, and including a track — utilising Martin Luther King’s historic I Have A Dream speech — made in honour of George Floyd, the Black man whose murder by a cop a few days previously kicked off the Black Lives Matter movement in the US and across the world. “The world is going through difficult times…” Guetta said on the mic, “I really hope we can see more unity and more peace.”
It’s impossible to fault David Guetta’s desire to bring people together; to unite different cultures, colours and creeds through the power of electronic dance music. The odd big gesture of his may seem cringeworthy to some, but of all the big names he’s arguably the most humanitarian, well-meaning and genuinely idealistic. “This year I took some risks,” he says. “Of course, whenever I do something I’m a nice target, you know what I mean?”
DJ Mag wants to know if he’s shielded from any criticism, if it washes over him, or if any of it stings?
“It hurts me, of course,” he replies. “There are some mysteries around my career that I’m not sure why they exist. Like, why is it that there are some rumours that I’m playing a pre-recorded set, or all these crazy things? It’s so fucking insane!”
DJ Mag points out that his skills DJing with vinyl in clubs are well documented on film and such-like. “Man, when I was 18 years old I was doing scratch shows. It’s so weird, I don’t even know where this is coming from. So yes, when it’s so stupid like this it does affect me, and I shouldn’t be affected — it’s part of success, and with anyone reaching a certain level of success there’s jealousy. There’s people that wanna be cool, and the way to be cool is by saying that you don’t like what everybody else is liking — this is the definition of being cool.
“There are moments of my career, because I’ve been doing this for many years, where I feel like I’m too ahead, moments where I feel like I’m too late, and magic moments where I make music that is credible and that is also touching masses,” he continues. “That I have crossover success, and also respect from the scene. Those moments are not easy — this is the most difficult thing — because to be only commercially successful is very hard, but not that hard. And to be very respected and credible is hard, but not that hard. But to have it at the same time is the hardest thing — ever.”
He starts talking about being a huge fan of ARTBAT, CamelPhat and Tale Of Us, and how he had a lot of fun a couple of years ago playing back-to-back with Solardo at Hï Ibiza one night. “Actually I really appreciate those guys,” he says. “When I started Jack Back, I was inspired by CamelPhat and Solardo, they welcomed me and encouraged me and I’m really thankful for that. I wish there was more solidarity between the different scenes. Honestly, this exists between DJs, cos we all have the same life — it doesn’t matter if you play trance, if you play techno, if you play house or if you play EDM, we are all DJs, we are all passionate about music. But sometimes, for some reason, the fans feel more tribal and start to hate on the other crowd, and I don’t think it should be like this — especially when we’re going through such tough times at the moment. This [pandemic] shows that we are actually One, because we are all in the same situation right now.”
“This is one of the beauties of dance music — it’s about love and passion,” he continues. “In the last few years, with our music crossing over and being more successful and becoming a real industry, I’ve also witnessed a lot of new attitudes. DJs dissing other DJs — negative stuff. That was never part of our culture; it was maybe part of hip-hop culture or even rock at some point, but we were always about being One, always about love.”
When DJ Mag asks Guetta about racism in the dance scene, he gives a very powerful answer: “Racism is the most terrible thing. It’s really crazy, and so ignorant, because our scene comes from black gay clubs. Some fans, or even some new DJs, don’t know about this — they haven’t been through the struggle. I remember when I did ‘Sexy Bitch’ [with Akon] receiving tons of racist messages saying that I was a traitor to our culture for selling our music to Black people! I’m like, ‘You’re so fucking ignorant, our music comes from Black music — disco and funk, and definitely from Black clubs in Chicago and New York’. This is so crazy, so ridiculous — we were always about tolerance, love and freedom. Never about racism — this should never exist in our world.”
Guetta thinks taking divisive bad attitudes from other music genres shouldn’t be a part of dance music culture. “What is happening to us right now — being neglected by governments — is showing us again that we need to be all together to be stronger,” he says. “So that we can survive. I think it’s so terrible that all governments are completely ignoring us right now. It’s like we are nothing. I’m feeling the frustration at not being respected again, like I used to feel 20 years ago — and I really thought it was impossible to go back to that situation.”
David has been living at his place in London for most of the time in recent months — spending time with his kids, and making music practically every day. DJ Mag mischievously asks him if he shouldn’t be starting to retrain as a plumber or something, in light of what UK government ministers have said about jobs in The Arts not being viable.
“In the UK, they said it. In the rest of the world, they didn’t say it but they mean it,” he says, curtly. “It’s incredible that they would have the guts to say it.”
“This is taking me back to those moments when I started, and I really thought this time was over, because I think the new generation doesn’t necessarily realise the fight that it was at the time to make our culture what it is,” he continues. “Everyone was looking down on us because we weren’t classically trained musicians, because we were associated with drugs or gay music, or all of this. I really felt like we’d established, we’ve done the job all together to be the same as every other cultural movement, and now I feel like we’ve gone back 20 years, you know what I mean? It feels like, ‘We’ve done all of this for nothing?’ Crazy.”
He asserts dance music’s part in youth culture — “and not only youth culture, actually” — and the economic weight of our industry, and is annoyed at how the authorities in some countries seem to have forgotten that dance culture exists. “Of course, I’m a very privileged person and I’m conscious of it, that’s why I tried to help during Covid,” he says, “but there are thousands and thousands of DJs who are independent contractors — freelance — and there’s also the tour managers, the light guys, the club promoters, the security guards, everyone who is living in our industry. I feel like everyone is being helped, except our industry. For me, I can survive through this — I’m privileged because I have enough money on the side that I can go through these hard times — but I’m really asking myself how everyone else is going to be. It’s terrible.”
He then launches into a passionate diatribe about the importance of the dance scene globally. “People need to release, forget about their problems, people need to dance, people need to meet other people that are not necessarily from the same social circle,” he says. “Life is so formatted, it’s terrible. The only place where it doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, if you’re Black or white, if you’re gay or straight is the club or the festival. This is the only place in society where there are no social barriers. I really feel that what we are doing is important for people to meet, and I really feel that clubs are incredibly important for social evolution. It’s crazy to say that there’s thousands of people who dedicated their life to a culture, and they now just need to retrain for something else?”
As people in the East London photography studio start clearing up around us, talk turns to the return of events and how this is going to be possible. Guetta reveals that he chose not to play any shows over the summer, but hopes there will be a way back in early 2021. “Let’s work on a way to make it possible,” he says. “I went to Berlin last week, I had a test and I had the result after one hour. I am absolutely sure that people would be ready to wait one hour to get inside a festival. What would be the problem with that? My concern is: we can afford one year, but we can’t afford two.”
Most DJs get a buzz out of playing to a crowd in the flesh — has he missed that feedback immediacy? “Yes, terribly,” he replies. “Of course, of course. Everybody is different, but I’m definitely all about interaction with the crowd. As much as the virtual shows are really cool — and I was really happy to be there for Tomorrowland, because I’ve been there with them since day one, they’re always forward-thinking — the reality for me was that I was in front of a green screen. I really believe that DJing is about the energy moving around, not only from the stage to the people. It’s also from the people to the stage.
“When is it going to come back? Oh my god, I miss it so much. The people who don’t know about this don’t know how much people are missing it.”
Guetta starts talking about 2021, and how he looks to a positive future whenever he’s feeling a little bit down. “It’s happened to me a few times, that electricity would turn down when I’m in the middle of my set in a festival or a concert,” he says. “When I was a beginner I would feel, ‘Oh my god, this is a catastrophe, everyone is going to leave’. The reality is that when people have to wait and it’s coming back, the party is ten times better. So I’m hoping that 2021 is going to be the biggest party year in history! I’m visualising one whole year of non-stop partying. Imagine when they’re gonna press the button and we’re gonna get the green light? It’s gonna be so insane!”