Superstar DJ David Guetta is here to party

By Luke Bainbridge

Playing in Auckland tonight, superstar DJ David Guetta is the man who has taken dance music to the masses with his hits with the likes of the Black Eyed Peas, Kelly Rowland, Akon, LMFAO, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Usher, Snoop Dogg and more. Luke Bainbridge reports from Miami on the man whose work polarises opinion - but sells millions

'My studio is a laptop. Everybody I work with is the same. We make computer music, we're the laptop generation.' - David Guetta. Photo / Supplied
'My studio is a laptop. Everybody I work with is the same. We make computer music, we're the laptop generation.' - David Guetta. Photo / Supplied

"Miami! Are you ready? This. Is. The. Biggest. Party. On. Planet. Earth!"

David Guetta, the floppy-haired Frenchman in his mid-40s, shouts as he takes to the stage in front of thousands of delirious, bouncing teenagers in various states of fluorescent undress.

As Guetta drops his pop ballad Titanium, Paris Hilton, whose latest career plan is to launch herself as a DJ, gyrates just behind the decks with her Dutch boyfriend Afrojack, one of Guetta's closest collaborators.

The dramatic, imposing setting of Ultra Music Festival - on the edge of Biscayne Bay and in the shadow of the towering downtown skyline, where the final scene of Miami Vice was filmed - only makes the event more bizarre.

During his set, Guetta picks up the microphone to address "my party people". "It's incredible what's happening in the world right now, with our music, especially in America," he tells the crowd. "I never thought for one minute that this would happen!"

After he finishes, his entourage, including his wife Cathy, Afrojack and Paris, and long-time manager Caroline Prothero, are whisked through successive VIP sections, until they reach their own tiny enclosure behind a velvet rope.

Waiters scoot past bearing magnums of champagne with fireworks attached to the necks, as the crowds in the neighbouring not-quite-as-VIP section crane their necks to get a glimpse of the group - more of Guetta than Paris. He is the major star here.

Miami has always had a slightly preposterous side, but this week it feels even weirder due to the electronic musical epiphany mainstream America is going through. The previous night, Madonna, never one to miss an opportunity to show she's down with the kids, took to the same stage with the 22-year-old Swedish DJ Avicii to remind these new converts that there has always been a dance element to her music. "Electronic music has been a part of my career since I started, and I can honestly say ... a DJ saved my life."

Ultra takes place at the end of the Winter Music Conference (WMC), dance music's equivalent to the Cannes Film Festival, which for nearly three decades has welcomed the world's electronic music industry to South Beach for a week of bacchanalian hedonism very loosely disguised as work. It's always a heady, excitable week, but this year there's a heightened air of expectation. Although dance music was invented here, in the clubs of Chicago, Detroit and New York, it has only periodically troubled the top of the US charts, and for the most part remained a relatively niche genre. But in the past couple of years, electronic dance music - or EDM, as it's increasingly now abbreviated - has gone mainstream.

Last year 150,000 people attended Ultra. This year capacity increased to 200,000 and it still sold out three months in advance. Dance music artists have also headlined other US festivals such as Lollapalooza, Coachella, SXSW and Austin City Limits - and Identity Festival took EDM on a tour through 20 smaller US cities.

Dance music went mainstream in Britain in the 90s with the rise of superclubs and festivals, but the likes of Ministry of Sound and Creamfields in Britain have nothing on its current commercialisation in the US. All week in Miami, planes fly overhead trailing 12m banners advertising new gigs in Las Vegas for Guetta, Afrojack, Swedish House Mafia, et al. Vegas has no interest in alternative music - only in who sells the most tickets, and the casinos that used to court Elton John and Dolly Parton are now scrambling to offer residencies to DJs.

If one person has personified and largely been responsible for this change it's the 44-year-old Parisian David Guetta. The Frenchman's music combines the populist US urban culture of hip-hop and R&B with the poppier end of European house culture. His smash hits polarise opinion among the purists but they sell millions and millions. His collaboration with the Black Eyed Peas, I Gotta Feeling, was number one in the US for 14 weeks, and a global hit, selling 13 million units.

His rise has been unstoppable since, including hits with Kelly Rowland, Akon, LMFAO, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Usher, Sia, Jennifer Hudson, Snoop Dogg and plenty more. He has 31 million friends on Facebook, four million followers on Twitter, and is probably the most sought-after producer on the planet, his homogenous four to the floor beats as ubiquitous as the Neptunes were a decade ago.

I meet Guetta for a late lunch the day after his set at the poolside restaurant at Fontainebleau hotel. Sunbathers' heads turn in slight disbelief as he makes his way around the pool. In person, he's amiable and almost as relentlessly upbeat as his pop music. His favourite word is "crazy". Despite his success and age, he still has a boyish enthusiasm and can't quite believe what has happened over the past few years. How "crazy" things have got.

"It was really like a war to get the music to where we are," he says, grimacing and miming a tug of war, "because no one would let us through."

Guetta started DJing 30 years ago in Paris as a teenager, long before most of his contemporaries were born. He and his wife Cathy ran nightclubs including Le Palace and Les Bains Douches. Balearic legend Alfredo told me that Guetta once booked him and Ibiza club party Manumission to play in Paris in the early 90s, which was the night Manumission promoters Mike and Claire first had sex live on stage, later a regular, and infamous, feature at their club.

Guetta's parents originally frowned upon his choice of career.

"My parents were extreme left," he says, "so everything was against the system. I was walking barefoot in the streets of Paris when I was 8. When I started to DJ they hated it, because for them, nightclubs, and all of this life, was terrible and fake. But when I stopped doing only this, and became an artist, my mother was like, 'Okay, now I'm proud of you'. Which is crazy."

Guetta spent years down the bills at clubs and festivals. Now his club brand, F**k Me I'm Famous, masterminded by Cathy, sells out every week over the summer at Pacha in Ibiza, with thousands of clubbers paying €70 ($113) to get in. He plays in several countries, often continents, a week. He is a global priority for his record label EMI, a key asset because of his ability to shift millions.

Having come from an underground culture that relentlessly analyses itself, the dance music world often frowns on mainstream commercial success. There are relatively few acts who have combined huge success while retaining credibility.

"In a way, this is what killed dance music for so many years," argues Guetta. "That spirit of wanting to keep this only for ourselves, and anything that's successful is bad. That culture that goes in a cycle where everybody loves someone and they're all talking about him, and then in one second, because he's successful, 'Ah, f*** him, he's bullshit!' What? But you were saying the same guy was a genius last year, now he's the worst person?"

Guetta is now France's biggest musical export, but the French version of the British satirical puppet show Spitting Image, Les Guignols de l'info, has had a light-hearted dig at him a few times for the simplicity of his poppier tunes. One episode showed a craftsman customising a grand piano for Guetta - and when the lid was opened it only had one key. But he laughs off any such criticism.

"I thought it was really funny. Honestly, I loved it!" he says. "I showed it myself to a lot of DJs and it became a joke between us.

"I don't take it wrong. It's crazy because usually they just focus on the president or ministers."

Being such a relentlessly upbeat character makes him easy to caricature, but he shrugs off any jibes as an inevitable backlash to his success. There isn't a huge difference between his public and private personas, a man whose cup is not so much half-full as overflowing. The only time he seems a little tired is when approached by a fan for a picture during our interview. He patiently explains not now, but he'll happily do it afterwards.

Over the past couple of years he has been rumoured to be producing everyone from U2 to Madonna, but he explains that he has no desire to tie himself down to a studio for months on end to produce a whole album for anyone. He makes most of his records on the road. "My studio is a laptop. Everybody I work with is the same. We make computer music, we're the laptop generation. I have studios in the different places where I live - in Ibiza, Paris and London - but they're not crazy studios, they're just rooms with good monitors, and all I do is plug my laptop in. It's a different way to make music, but for me, I love it, because it's more connected to the world."

As much as he is unapologetic about his poppier anthems, Guetta is keen that people, especially those fresh-faced teenagers new to dance music, know there's another side to his music. Last year's Nothing But the Beat was a double album, the first disc containing the radio hits and the second disc purely instrumental tracks. If you heard its closing track, The Alphabeat blind, you would be more likely to think it was Daft Punk than Guetta.

"Listen, let me tell you," he smiles. "This story is so funny. Xavier [de Rosnay of Justice, another French outfit] told me: 'Man, I love The Alphabeat, it's so crazy ... Jackson [Fourgeaud, of Jackson and his Computer Band] sent me the album, saying: I. Can. Not. F***ing. Believe. That David Guetta did this.' That put a smile on my face, because people like to put a stamp on what you do."

Guetta doesn't think it matters that many of the young American kids experiencing an epiphany with dance music don't appreciate its history.

"It's just different now," he says. "To us it was underground, it was a subculture, it was a lifestyle. But these days, it's not really working like this anymore. It took me 20 years to do what I did. Avicii, last year, no one knew who he was. Now he's the biggest thing on the planet. You understand? It's totally different."

For Guetta, dance music's newfound popularity can only be a good thing. He won't convince everyone, but few in the industry would deny his phenomenal success in the US has given the industry as a whole a healthy financial boost. "Listen, some people take themselves very, very seriously," Guetta says. "I'm not a politician, you know what I mean? You remember in the old days you had people like Underground Resistance?" [a late 80s militant dance collective from Detroit]. He pauses and smiles. "I never took myself so seriously."

What local star DJs think of him ...

P-Money
"David Guetta is kind of like McDonald's. It's incredibly popular and fine every once in a while but you won't find Jamie Oliver or the Heart Foundation singing its praises."

Bulletproof
"What David Guetta has done is amazing. Multiple No. 1 singles in the charts is legendary, but I don't think what he's done has saved dance music at all. Actual dance music, the hundreds of different genres and styles that fall under that banner, is all very much alive and well. David Guetta's production style appeals to the more commercial side of club music. That side is in constant need of saving, if you ask me. If he's the man for the job, then you couldn't ask for a better saviour I guess."

Marc Moore (People of Paris)
"Sure his stuff is pretty cheesy but he has some great toe-tapping anthems. I call his songs 'guilty pleasures'. He has helped to push dance music out to an even wider audience through his collaborations with pop icons. Not sure if I like the way he dances in his video clips though."

Who: David Guetta
Where: Vector Arena, Auckland
When: Thursday, May 3

- TimeOut / Observer

- NZ Herald

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