RECIFE — David Guetta, who was honored at last month's French music awards, Victoires de la Musique, had just returned from Brazil, where he spent the beginning of the year. Brazil, seen from its joyful, festive side, is a playground for the smiling Frenchman.
To celebrate the release of his sixth album at the end of 2014, the Parisian DJ returned to the ember country for 12 massive concerts, where he spoke with Le Monde. Here in Brazil, the DJ sensation is idolized by fans who don't always know he's French. "I nearly moved here," he says. "We did an arena tour with Will.i.am [in 2010], and had so much fun. The weather's nice, lust for life is vital and the present is essential here." Almost trademark-Guetta values.
The 47-year-old Guetta is the second highest-paid DJ in the world, according to Forbes — behind Scotsman Calvin Harris, who reportedly earned $66 million in 2014. His concerts are huge events, and his primary challenger and ally is Avicii (Tim Bergling, third on the Forbes list), a 25-year-old Swede. Together, they are building a mass phenomenon, Electronic Dance Music (EDM).
The clubs where they come from have become too narrow, too closed to social diversity. They are now the heroes of open-air festivals. In France, Guetta the Parisian is often mocked, labelled as a bouncing blondie. Unpopular, "because there's a conflict between house music and the EDM intended for the masses," he says. And because the French audience missed a chapter: Over the course of a decade, the Ibiza party animal transformed into a global pop star with 17 million Twitter followers (three million more than Beyoncé).
A David Guetta concert is an ode to joy. It's Pharrell Williams' "Happy" combined with the sounds of an uninhibited party. In early January, when times were hard, Guetta posted a simple "Je suis Charlie" on Facebook page. He still can't believe he received furious "Je suis Gaza" comment in return.
Guetta, who grew up in eastern Paris near the Aligre market, where Jews and Arabs lived together, is a popular, intercommunity artist, which is rare for a music genre that is typically regarded as the domain of white people. But Guetta has collaborated with the elite of black American music: Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Kid Cudi, Usher, Kanye West, who feature on his albums and vice versa. "I have a black musical background," he says.
When Black Eyed Peas frontman Will.i.am made a 2007 stop at the Pacha Club in Ibiza, he fell for the "Guetta sound" while dancing to "Love Is Gone." Will.i.am. had thought about Madonna's intuitions, she who was among the first to combine EDM and pop and entrusted electronic musician William Orbit to produce her Ray of Light album in 1998. As for Guetta, he understood that to grow, he had to bring together black singers and his metallic electronic sound. For "Love Is Gone," he chose Chris Willis, a former gospel singer.
In 2009, he turned the corner with "Sexy Bitch," recorded with the R'n'B star Akon, who has Senegalese origins. "The track became No. 1 on American radio," Guetta says. "It was a historical change in pop music, because an EDM song had never been in that place before. Then, Kelly Rowland [former Destiny’s Child alongside Beyoncé] came to see me, and we produced 'When Love Takes Over,' another global success." The same year, the Black Eyed Peas-Guetta alliance produced two generational hymns: "I Gotta Feeling" and "Rock That Body."
Guetta performs "around 140 concerts per year," he says after a sweltering party in Recife, on an empty site next to a former textile factory. At 1 a.m., he disembarks from his private jet that flew in from Bahia. At 2 a.m., he's on stage amid a torrent of lasers and fireworks. At 4 a.m., he leaves the stage, and his car hurtles off to his hotel. It's a fast-paced life. "I spent 15 years of my life without leaving my room," he says. "Shows, hotel, music in my own little world. Now I'm releasing the tension. I go out a bit. I'm changing."
He separated from his muse Cathy, who was born in Dakar, after 22 years of marriage. It is evident in his latest album, which is "more introverted, more nostalgic," he says. "It's a moment of my life. It's more focused on emotion. There are fewer electronic instruments. I didn't write this one around rhythms, but I started with the piano, the guitar. In the end, it's not very EDM."
"Dangerous" is the title song that has topped charts around the world. With a cello solo in the intro, it's sung by Sam Martin, an alumni of the prestigious Berklee College of Music who has an angelic voice. But Guetta has long reversed the rule: The starring role has been taken away from the singer by the composing DJ.
The Guetta "touch"
There's a Guetta "touch." While Avicii develops his pop themes in loops, Guetta builds his rhythmic surges on sound peaks during which the crowd goes into raptures. His hits such as "Without U" and "Turn Me On" inspire audiences to sing at the top of their voices. His arms forming an X, with the body language of a preacher, Guetta wants to spread joy, and it works.
Crowd at a David Guetta concert in Amsterdam — Photo: maartendive
On giant screens, pictures of the dancing crowd merge with the DJ's smiling face. On the posters announcing his world tour, he seems almost Jesus-like. "It's the idea of sharing, the desire to be just one, and happy," he says. "I come to party with people. Visually, electronic music has long been nebulous, foggy. It had no face. Identities kept changing, the names of the DJs, of the labels. Daft Punk's very singular helmets don't hide them, but quite the opposite, make them visible. As soon as they arrived at Virgin [in 1996], and in 2001 with Discovery, they had in mind to "market" their fans." Daft Punk are among his friends.
Guetta spreads a culture of tolerance, which is oddly considered goofy in France, maybe because he always looks happy. "In 1986, I was a DJ at the Broad, a gay club in Paris, where I played funk when the fashion was new wave," he recalls. "I combined house music, a gay culture, and Public Enemy, Eric B. & Rakim or Run DMC's hip hop, which wasn't gay at all."
At the time, the DJ recalls, there was still a strong anti-disco sentiment. In 1987, Guetta was 20 and dancing to "Love Can't Turn Around" by Farley Jackmaster Funk, the legacy of disco mixed with the house music that was born in Chicago and Detroit's black and gay underground. These were the presages of acid house, "an up-tempo that made people dance," he says.
"For me, a DJ was somebody who played alone with people dancing in front of him," he continues. "One day, in London, at the Shoom, my life changed. The audience was participating, the DJ was watching them. I began a crusade for acid house. I gave out flyers." It gave way to the so-called Second Summer of Love, an ecstasy-fueled movement that was totally opposite the kind of aggressive hooliganism seen in soccer stadiums.
"In England, it was a revolution — all the colors, all the sexualities were together," he recalls.