David Guetta: Inside His Latest Hit Parade, 'Nothing But the Beat'
He's an international networker whose musical openness and megawatt personality have made him a magnet for established artists seeking a brand-new sound.
He's the studio savant who parlayed that trust and collaboration into career--defining anthems, in the process redefining the American radio hit.
He's an industry power player who wields the kind of clout that only the ability to create hits at will can afford.
Yet that person rejects all such labels--in favor of one far more humble.
Video: David Guetta, "Where Them Girls At"
David Guetta would like you to know: He's a DJ. He says so himself--literally, "I am a DJ"--no less than 10 times in a span of 20 minutes. That title defines who he is, how he thinks and creates, the community with which he primarily identifies and the one he's most interested in nurturing.
"I want to use my success to do what I do as a DJ," he says. "To play hits, but also educate people. Give them a good time, but help them discover my culture as well."
Guetta's new album--"Nothing But the Beat" (Astralwerks/EMI), out Aug. 29--is laser-focused in more than name alone. Despite his acceptance into the pop club, the fresh album and all of Guetta's activity around it--including multinational brand partnerships and touring so extensive that it puts him in front of up to 300,000 fans each week--are meant to champion dance music, elevate its native sounds and forms, and more strongly identify Guetta as you know what.
"David doesn't want to turn into some other kind of pop star," says his longtime manager Caroline Prothero. "He doesn't want to mimic anything. He wants to take DJ culture and place it alongside everything that's come before, with its values intact."
"Nothing But the Beat" is Guetta's fifth full-length, but has all the pressure and expectations of a sophomore effort. After three albums that tested the concept of merging American urban music with the utilitarian thump of dance, 2009's "One Love" perfected the format in grand fashion, with enough star collaborators to take it to the masses. "['One Love'] was about artists making records all for fun, for David and for them. Experimenting with new structures and refreshing the way they wrote songs," Prothero says.
The result was nothing less than a pop cultural tidal wave. Four "One Love" cuts--"When Love Takes Over" with Kelly Rowland; "Sexy Bitch" with Akon; "Gettin' Over You" with Fergie, LMFAO and vocalist Chris Willis; and "Memories" with Kid Cudi--each presented a different take on Guetta's melting-pot style and sold a collective 4.2 million singles, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Meanwhile, Guetta's productions for other artists were helping make his sound literally omnipresent, like Flo Rida's 2010 "Club Can't Handle Me" (2.6 million singles sold), Rihanna's 2010 "Who's That Chick" (538,000) and the biggest digital song of all time, the Black Eyed Peas' 2009 "I Gotta Feeling." It has sold 7.4 million singles and was No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for 14 weeks, cementing Guetta's pogo synths, chiming keys and looped hooks as the reigning sound du jour.
Video: The Black Eyed Peas, "I Gotta Feeling"
How do you follow that up? "It's difficult, of course," Guetta says. "Some of my recipes have been used so much--not only by me. I know I can deliver a hit now, but I wanted to try something different. My challenge was to surprise people."
First "Beat" single "Where Them Girls At" with Flo Rida and Nicki Minaj sounds more than a little like "Sexy Bitch," and is already making an impact: It has sold 804,000 units since its May 3 release, and is No. 27 on the Hot 100. But true to Guetta's word, the majority of the album covers new, unexpected or just richer ground. "Nothing Really Matters," with kindred pop wizard and good friend Will.i.am, contains the album's namesake lyric ("Nothing really matters/But the beat"), an irresistible synth riff and sampled strings--a new addition to Guetta's sonic palette--for some extra grandeur.
"Night of Your Life" takes a structure usually reserved for breathy chanteuses--the big-room trance vocal--and adds the firepower of Jennifer Hudson. "Obviously she's an amazing singer, can do anything with her voice, but it's more a matter of specific things with this type of music to keep the energy up," Guetta says. "I like surprising the listeners as well as the artists themselves."
"Titanium" with singer/songwriter Sia is Guetta's quirkiest and most epic track to date (in itself an unusual combination), and "Turn Me On" is the first track to feature vocals--yes, vocals--by Minaj. "People are not going to believe she can sing like this," Guetta says.
But the album's centerpiece is "Without You," an electro-ballad sung with palpable anguish by Usher that's "maybe the biggest song I've made in my life," Guetta says. "We were in bargaining sessions for a while. Usher was saying, 'I need this record for my album.' I said, 'I'm sorry, I cannot give it to you.' After a while he called me back and gave in." The song has all the makings of a major hit and is slated to be the next single.
"Beat" also features six instrumental tracks--in some countries, it will be packaged as a double-album--which Guetta characterizes as labors of love, meant to further his mission to evangelize true dance. In collaboration with hot dance producers whose careers he helped nurture--like Avicii and Afrojack--the tracks are artful, tech-y and dirty, recalling Daft Punk and Chemical Brothers. "Some people who buy my album, they're not the type who would buy electronic music like this, so this might be their introduction," Guetta says. "But I also want to have the DJs and purists be like, 'Oh, wow, he can still surprise us and come up with crazy sounds.'"
Astralwerks' three-phase marketing plan for "Beat" capitalizes on Guetta's many international brand partnerships and his legendary work ethic. "He seems to have the ability to go nonstop 24/7, 365 days a year," says Paul Morris of AM Only, his U.S. booking agent. "If he is not in the studio, then he's on a plane, in a car, at a gig or doing promo. His schedule is ridiculous. He is 'on' the entire time."
According to Astralwerks president Glenn Medlinger, phase one, which is happening now, includes simultaneous support of four focus tracks--"Where Them Girls At," "Nothing Really Matters," "Without You" and "Little Bad Girl" with Taio Cruz and Ludacris--with radio promotion, single releases and videos. Release week features parties in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago, all with appearances by Guetta. There's the premiere of a documentary, "Nothing But the Beat," produced by Burn, Coca-Cola's European energy drink brand, with behind-the-scenes and performance footage, as well as interviews with Guetta's pop star collaborators and fellow DJs. A potential theatrical release is being eyed.
Phase two kicks off in October, with more extensive U.S. touring. "The priorities are to continue to develop his core electronic dance following by playing nightclubs, which is really where David's passion lies on a performance level, as well as continuing to build out larger hard-ticket events and playing major festivals," Morris says. A David Guetta range of DJ headphones for Beats, Dr. Dre's premium headphones brand, will roll out around this time. A developing technology partnership with HP--which is looking to enhance its music software capabilities, and already has a relationship with Beats--could also come into play.
Phase three carries the campaign into 2012, and will most likely center on the domestic launch of Guetta's international Coca-Cola partnership, for an as-yet-undetermined Coke product. But if the product placement in the "Little Bad Girl" video is any indication, it looks like it will be vitaminwater.
Meanwhile, in DJ booths from Ibiza to Los Angeles, Guetta continues the constant cycle of testing and editing that he says sets him apart from all other pop producers. "You'll see him in the booth with a pen and piece of paper," Prothero says. "When he's playing a new beat, he'll write down the trigger point that makes the crowd react, go back to his hotel room before he sleeps and make the changes, and play it again the next night."
"Playing in clubs gives me the opportunity to try new sounds and see the reaction of the people -- not only to my own music, by the way," he says. "If I see that people love it, I think that might be a direction I could take in the future."
Anyone who's seen him rock a room, arena or field won't deny it: David Guetta is indeed a DJ. But part curator, tastemaker, purveyor and personality, he's just unlike any DJ the world has ever seen.