A few days ago, Calvin Harris got together with Zane Lowe on Beats 1 for a show counting down his favorite songs from his career. The track that topped that list, the song that literally changed his life, was his first single with current collaborator Rihanna, “We Found Love.”
The seminal anthem — which encapsulates not just the feeling of Harris’ career. but the feeling of the EDM genre and the craze around it — was released five years ago, on Sept. 22, 2011. The 24th-highest-selling single in United States history that ultimately topped 31 charts in 25 countries was not carefully crafted or particularly well thought out. It wasn’t even originally written for Rihanna, and yet, it remains by Harris’ own admission the greatest song of his career so far, perhaps of its era, which it most certainly defines.
Happy birthday WFL — https://t.co/ZkXzNb8qfI
— Calvin Harris (@CalvinHarris) September 22, 2016
Five years isn’t the grandest watermark, yet the scope of “We Found Love” demands a retrospective even as it lingers in the collective mind. Not yet old enough to be nostalgic, the five years Harris has lived since make the moments before feel nothing short of a lifetime ago.
We can’t be sure what first turned Rihanna onto Harris’ work, but the bona fide pop star did invite the up-and-coming producer to open on her tour and mentioned a casual willingness to collab. As Harris tells Lowe, this was when his single “Bounce” with Kelis was getting play, before he’d even begun recording “Feel So Close.”
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He was however entering a period of intensely focused writing, wherein he chose to hone his chops to find the perfect pop-dance sound. His musical mind began to revolve at 128 beats per minute. He got off tour and hid away in his London studio, and on one seemingly innocuous day, started building a melody with an organ sound he used as an homage to old rave songs, from the Prodigy and the like. He dug it, then he flipped it with a bit of tropical tom drum.
Thus the unnamed song had a body, but it still needed soul. Harris got on the mic and started humming till he struck a chord he liked. Then he started rambling random words and phrases till the golden lyric clicked.
“It took like six minutes of going round and round,” he tells Lowe of the title hook. “I didn’t know what it meant when I said it, and then you try to fit it into the nonsense sounds that work so well with the music… It’s actually a lot less clever than you think.”
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He didn’t know who was going to sing it other than that it should be a woman. He had no track record with Rihanna beyond that stint on tour. It was his manager’s connection with the singer’s manager that really made a play. Of course Rihanna loved the demo and agreed to hop on, which was good thinking on her part: “We Found Love” remains Rihanna’s biggest hit to date as well.
The song was released while Harris opened yet again for Rihanna on tour, with an appearance on both his 18 Months and her Talk That Talk. Its success jump-started a career that would take Harris to new heights that dance music had never reached. Rihanna brought the future star onstage at the MTV Video Music Awards and introduced him to audiences still new to the dance music scene.
Five years later, he’s the highest-paid DJ in the world as well as one of its most selective. He needn’t take a gig he doesn’t want. His Las Vegas residencies and handful of festival appearances afford him plenty of time to focus on his true love: the studio. He and Rihanna once again top charts with a magical collaboration called “This Is What You Came For.” The world clamors for the release of his next album and hangs on his every release. He’s become a household name, a tabloid persona and certainly transcends the confines of a genre steeped in subcultural history. In five years, he’s gone from hipster to heartthrob, and there’s no real going back.