The magic hour has just descended on Seven Magic Mountains, an outdoor art installation near Las Vegas. As if the sunset and Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone’s pillars of candy-colored boulders aren't a striking enough backdrop, lightning flashes across the sky as DJ Snake poses for photos and the Afrobeat rhythms of London-born Ivorian artist Afro B’s “Drogba (Joanna)” pulse from a speaker.
“This is the biggest record in the hood right now,” says Snake, the 32-year-old artist born William Grigahcine. “I want to make a record like this with Rihanna.” That’s the kind of dream collaboration Snake -- the French-Algerian DJ-producer behind “Turn Down for What” featuring Lil Jon, “Lean On” with Major Lazer and the Justin Bieber-assisted “Let Me Love You” -- could realistically will into existence.
If casually invoking Rihanna speaks to how far Snake has come, the barren setting speaks to a more desolate moment in his career. Before he released “Bird Machine” -- his 2013 breakthrough single that won him the support of Skrillex, Dillon Francis and Diplo -- “I was in a desert, walking by myself, struggling,” says Snake. “I wanted to quit music. I was about to get a [nonmusic] job ... and bang, God blessed me.” (He drew on this idea for the cover of his 2016 debut album, Encore, which shows him wandering in the direction of a Paris Métro stop incongruously plopped in the middle of a sandy waste.)
Back at his hotel room at the Wynn, Snake reclines on a couch in a fresh camo jacket and athletic pants. He fingers his sunglasses and admits with a grin that “when I take these off, no one recognizes me.” He chuckles as he recalls buying scalped tickets to Miami’s Ultra Music Festival and flagging down Francis from the general-admission crowd despite barely speaking English. “We went backstage and I met RL Grime, Flosstradamus and Baauer,” he says. “I got all their phone numbers, and I was so excited that the day after, I was sending all my music. I was the worst -- like, 10 emails each.”
Born to Algerian parents in the poor Parisian banlieue [suburb] of Ermont, he dropped out of school at age 15 to work in a record store. He says he has never smoked, drank or done drugs, though he earned his stage name as a young street artist due to his skill in slithering away from the police.
Ermont is “just like every ghetto in the world,” he says. “A lot of poverty. Drugs. Criminality. No hope. You just feel like no one cares. All they give you is a few soccer fields in your hood, and everything is closed. So you just play soccer. You don’t have nothing else.”
Now, though, Snake never misses an opportunity to rep for France. He formed the DJ collective Pardon My French with his countrymen Tchami, Malaa and Mercer in 2015, and became the first artist to perform atop the Arc de Triomphe in Paris in 2017. He also now counts soccer superstars like Neymar Jr. and Kylian Mbappé among his friends, and planned his summer travel schedule around France’s World Cup matches: “There was no way I was going to be in the sky missing the games.” He also attended the final in Moscow. Watching alongside Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt and Dutch DJ Armin van Buuren, he broke down crying after France prevailed 4-2 over Croatia.
“Our country needed this,” he says. “We had some fucked-up shit going on for the last couple of years. I was putting the pressure on the players. Texting every motherfucking one to give everything on the field. And then we won ... Everybody was happy watching me crying, because I’m not that type of dude. I never show my weakness.”
In ebullient scenes broadcast on Instagram, Snake could be seen singing “Let Me Love You” with fans and players, hoisting the World Cup trophy with Mbappé and dancing atop a table with Paul Pogba while wearing a gold medal. The next day, Snake awoke to an email from French President Emmanuel Macron inviting him to join the victory parade in Paris.
“He said, ‘The kids in France look up to you,’” he recalls, paraphrasing Macron. “And that’s going to be a big moment for them, to see this world champion team [alongside] a lot of different types of people -- African, West Indies, Arabic, French, Italian -- but all of them are French and repping France.”
Snake canceled a show and rerouted his travel to oblige, cutting a striking figure in a neon-orange trench coat alongside the president. Snake says that Macron thanked him, and told him, “We need to see someone that started from nothing and became one of the biggest French artists in the world.”
As a teenager, Snake avidly followed American hip-hop acts like 2Pac and Fugees, though, he admits, “I had no idea what they were saying. I was just listening to the beats, the flow, the vibe.” He was inspired to take up DJ’ing after seeing a scene in the classic 1995 French film La Haine, in which turntablist Cut Killer performs from his window for the neighborhood below.
Snake rose to become one of Paris’ top club DJs, landing a residency at one of the city’s “iconic” hip-hop clubs. But he eventually tired of playing the same rap records every night and started trying to work house music into his sets. It was not well-received: “I remember the first time I dropped a couple of house records, someone threw an Air Force One in my face.
“So I decided to stop,” he says. “I was like, ‘I want to be able to play everything.’ People were like, ‘You’re crazy. You’re going to lose all your credibility and fans.’ But I wanted to try new things and make my own music. So I became a producer.”
Snake also felt emboldened after watching fellow French DJ David Guetta find global success as a pop crossover artist. “I was like, ‘We can do it,’” he recalls. “We don’t have to be at the back of the club, next to the bathroom.”
One night, after a show in Paris, Snake gave a CD of his beats to American DJ Clinton Sparks and struck up a collaborative partnership that would bring him stateside. Aided by a friend who acted as a translator, Snake soon found himself producing for major pop artists like Lady Gaga (“Government Hooker”) and Pitbull (“Shut It Down,” “Shake Señora”). His work on Gaga’s 2011 album, Born This Way, even netted him a Grammy nomination.
“The good thing about not speaking the language is you just listen,” he says. “You listen to everyone, every producer, every writer. Then one day I said, ‘Yo, fuck that shit. Now it’s going to be my vision. I’m not going to listen to anybody, no A&R, nobody. I’ve seen this. I get it. This is greatness. But now I’m going to bring my fucking greatness, my sound.’”
That led to DJ Snake’s first bona fide hit in 2013, “Turn Down for What.” Boasting booming 808 kick drums, Snake’s signature vocal synth lead and a very hyped Lil Jon, the EDM/trap hybrid topped the dance charts and peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100. Spoofed by the likes of Jimmy Fallon, Ellen DeGeneres and Michelle Obama, who posted a Vine clip dancing along with a turnip in hand, the song became a viral smash. “God bless the internet,” says Snake.
Still, he felt a near-crippling pressure to avoid becoming a one-hit wonder. “It was pretty hard for me to make music, but I never lost faith,” he recalls. He ultimately evolved into one of dance music’s most prolific crossover acts, notching four top 20 hits in the span of three years: 2014’s “You Know You Like It” with AlunaGeorge (No. 13 on the Hot 100), 2015’s “Lean On” with Major Lazer featuring MØ (No. 4), “Middle,” featuring Bipolar Sunshine (No. 20) and 2016’s “Let Me Love You” featuring Justin Bieber (No. 4).
“Snake makes the hardest beats of anyone out there,” says Neil Jacobson, president of Geffen Records, Snake’s label. “If you listen to ‘Middle,’ to ‘Lean On,’ you hear the sound Snake solidified that’s now an absolute mainstay of modern production.”
Snake says that “Let Me Love You” came together after Bieber heard the demo and said he wanted to jump on it. Snake was skeptical that it would actually pan out but was delighted when the pop star cut the record in one session. “Justin blessed me with a huge record,” he says. “This is like the highest level of greatness. He killed the record, one night, bam.”
Snake gives a coy smile while discussing his second album, which he’s finishing, though he does say it features collaborations with A-listers like Cardi B (“She’s real. Like, the realest in the game... She’s the queen right now”), and the genre-bending blend of electronic and world music showcased on his recent singles “Magenta Riddim” and “Maradona Riddim,” the latter featuring Nigerian singer Niniola.
Inspired by a freestyle competition he heard on an Indian radio station, Snake built “Magenta Riddim” around his own pitch-shifted vocals and watched it become a festival-set staple and one of India’s biggest foreign hits this year. “Paris influenced me a lot back then, but now the world has a big influence on me,” he says. “There’s no way I’m going to sleep on the new things that I’m hearing in Brazil and India.”
Snake embraces his new station as role model to a rising generation. In March, he launched his Premiere Classe label to support new talent with a release from Jersey Club DJs 4B and Teez. Despite being an old-school hip-hop die hard, he welcomes the current crop of SoundCloud rappers (“I like the realness... they just don’t give a fuck”), and speaks about “the streets” like a living, breathing entity.
“You don’t need money to be creative,” he says. “The ghetto builds champions every day. I just want to show the kids in every ghetto in the world that we can make some hot shit. We can change the world.”
This article originally appeared in the Aug. 11 issue of Billboard.