Before becoming a hit-making producer and globe-trotting master of ceremonies, Pierre David Guetta grew up in Paris saving pennies for vinyl records he’d rush home from school to practice mixing. Begging club owners for a shot, he scored his first club gig at 17, yet neither of his left-winged parents—a Belgian mother and a restaurateur father of Moroccan Jewish lineage—initially disapproved of his DJ aspirations.
“I started as a hip-hop DJ 20 years ago, and then I discovered house music and I fell in love with it,” Guetta recalls. “I was one of the first house music DJs in France, but I kept listening to urban music. It was a dream to find a way to make them work together.” He hosted at Parisian clubs through the ’90s, also releasing hip-hop collaborations like “Nation Rap,” with French MC Sidney Duteil.
By 2001, production took the forefront. Guetta signed to Virgin France and dropped his debut album, Just a Little More Love, a major success in his home country that quickly opened borders for international DJing gigs, from the States to Japan. He continued dropping albums and compilations that buzzed heavily in Europe, and by the time U.S. mainstream artists started discovering the eager producer-DJ, it was only natural that a new breed of superstar was born.
In a happy twist of fate meeting talent, Guetta got his big chance while spinning at a club one evening in 2009. “I played the instrumental of ‘When Love Takes Over’ and Kelly Rowland was there. She became really emotional and asked me what the record was and if she could sing on it. It was an honor,” says Guetta, who remembers receiving a call from will.i.am to produce “I Got a Feeling” for the Black Eyed Peas the same week. Everything truly changed when Guetta linked with Akon for “Sexy Bitch,” a smash hit that torched airwaves, house and urban clubs. “That was the beginning of that new sound,” he pinpoints.
America suddenly had a new musical hero. But the crossover crown didn’t come without backlash. R&B purists condemned him for bastardizing artists like Usher’s and Jennifer Hudson’s customary soul and converting them into worldlier, party-starting anthems. “I’m just using electronic sounds, soulful chords, rock codes and urban melodies on up-tempo beats. It’s like taking the best from all of the different worlds,” says Guetta. His crystal blue eyes light up when he speaks about music. “‘Without You’ was perfect because it’s capturing that emotion, but also the pumping… [But] I don’t want to be stuck in that sound. Because I’m a DJ, I also have the responsibility of moving things forward. I’m already somewhere else.”
Back in his trailer, David Guetta’s musical journey is coming full circle. A pensive, illuminating look takes over his should-be exhausted eyes as he greets Mike Bindra, the man who once ran NYC club Twilo in the ’90s—a nightspot Guetta would wait in line for hours to get into. The man is now producing Electric Zoo, where Guetta is the headlining act. “When our friends’ 11-year-old kids—and their parents—are begging to come to E-Zoo to see David Guetta, we know that a paradigm shift has taken place,” says Electric Zoo’s executive producers Mike Bindra and Laura De Palma.
Yet, even as Guetta worked the knobs and controllers poking from the DJ console like a scion of sound during tonight’s live show, there are naysayers. For the millions of fans out there hanging onto Guetta’s every bass-drop, there are plenty of bloggers and artists who enjoy jabbing at his skill set. In a June 2012 Rolling Stone interview, fellow jockey deadmau5 poked at Guetta, calling him a button-pusher who needs merely “two iPods and a mixer” to make people happy. But Guetta insists he’s working his ass off behind the decks.
“For so many years I DJed in clubs and learned the hard way,” Guetta explains. “The big DJs start by being bedroom producers and they have a hit and suddenly start playing in front of thousands of people. But the way I did it was by working six nights, playing eight hours sets every night. I’ve learned a lot about how to communicate with the crowd, so when my music crossed over that stayed. The connection with the people is what makes the difference for me.”
But just what exactly separates Guetta from, say, a Funkmaster Flex? “If you listen to a hip-hop DJ, he’s not playing his own music. It makes a huge difference,” he clarifies. “When I perform, everything you hear is me playing my own music. You’ll hear unreleased music; every record I play, I will edit and use parts of another record to make it unique. I’m not gonna play what you hear on the radio.”
Guetta has to bolt. His nonstop itinerary has him in El Paso, Texas, tomorrow for Sun City Music Festival, followed by a gig in Vegas the following night. But for now, he’s got some friends camping out in front of his trailer. Guetta has adjusted to the lifestyle, and he’s confident the electro tunes currently dominating charts will continue to sustain it. “It’s going to have the exact same cycle that hip-hop had,” Guetta says of EDM. “When hip-hop first started becoming mainstream, it stayed there for 10–15 years. I think we have 10 more years at the top.”