Before the private jet and high BPMs, David Guetta surrounded himself with hip-hop and soul music. Can the dance DJ spin the fate of R&B?
It’s hard to tell where the crowd’s flickering lighters meet the beaming LED screens strung around Randall’s Island like Christmas trees on steroids. The sun has set on the former juvenile delinquent reform school site as David Guetta steps onto the main stage for his performance at New York’s enormous electronic music event, Electric Zoo. The 35,000 dance music devotees look like a sea of neon-clad ants from up here. One thing is clear: The scene is definitely a zoo, and the 44-year-old Frenchman is its ringleader.
The show has begun. Spasmodic lights begin to flash and flicker while Star Trek-esque synths pump from the speakers. Guetta drops the opening chords of Sia’s “Titanium (Alesso Remix)” before announcing his arrival to the Big Apple this morning from Ibiza, the island that’s home to his famed Fuck Me I’m Famous party that draws the likes of will.i.am and Diddy weekly. “New York!” he drags out. “Are you ready to party?!” On cue, the break beat drops and concertgoers collectively go ape shit as Guetta dances, flails and orchestrates in the DJ booth. He neither sings, raps, chants, nor ad-libs—yet the man puts on one hell of a show.
“It always means something special to me when I play in cities like New York or Chicago or Detroit because this is where [house] music was born even though it became more of a European thing later on,” says the tall, lumbering producer/DJ from beneath a mangled mane of blonde waves and a grin so wide it teeters on goofy. The one-hour set wrapped 20 minutes ago, and he’s now lounging lithely on the black leather couch in his trailer, wearing a crisp black T-shirt with an eagle screen-printed across. The peaceful energy Guetta exudes is contagious in a way that anyone—from within a room to an arena—can feel, part of why millions flock to see him nightly across the globe.
It’s difficult to believe this gangly guy just performed a pyrotechnics-filled, confetti-blasting set where he spun whomping electronic, bass-fueled tracks like Afrojack’s “Rock the House” crossed with an a cappella of Estelle’s “One Love.” It’s a mash-up of sounds he defines as “urban dance” that he’s tapped and bottled for his five LPs, all self-produced. Imagine a basic down-tempo R&B or hip-hop track like Lost Boyz’ “Renee”—only with the BPMs revved up on eight cans of Red Bull. Then the caffeine abruptly wears off and the track comes crashing down by the time Mr. Cheeks reaches the hospital to find that Renee is gone. This is the glossy-yet-underground aesthetic that’s earned Guetta two Grammys and a rap sheet of superstar collaborators including Nicki Minaj, Akon, Black Eyed Peas, Kid Cudi and Jessie J. Within the past three years, Guetta has become France’s biggest export since cheese. But what is it about him that’s making such a big stink?
“What sets David apart is the understanding that soul music and R&B is about making people feel and giving them the soundtrack to special moments in their life,” says seven-time Grammy Award–winning artist Usher, who reached out to Guetta to craft 2011’s sweet single, “Without You.” “When we finally got together to create a song, the fusion of our two worlds created a new experience of a celebratory party connected to an emotion.”