Superstar DJ David Guetta on how he built his hedonistic brand
The rogue scion of a leftwing intellectual Parisian family sits opposite me at a wooden table under a canopy on a whitewashed terrace. Blue sea and yachts are to his right, to his left is an equally blue swimming pool ringed by buff young people in afternoon repose. Behind him, on the opposite side of the bay, is Ibiza Town, shimmering in the cloudless heat. “I love being here,” says a smiling David Guetta.
The Frenchman is in his natural habitat. As one of the world’s most successful DJs, Guetta spends his summers on the Spanish Balearic island renowned for its unbridled nightlife. Each week he plays a pair of club nights, or “parties”, as he calls them, at two prominent Ibizan clubs, Pacha and Ushuaïa. With tourism to the island booming — 2016 saw a record-breaking 7.1m visitors — he began this year’s DJ-ing duties in June, a month before the season usually gets under way.
“I was a little bit scared, you know,” he says. “Because it [Ushuaïa] is a big place and the island was not supposed to be full yet. But it was packed. Insane.”
Our lunch is at Destino, a chic resort owned by Pacha. Guetta first appeared at the club in 1996 (“It is like family”). His residency is called, with characteristic delicacy, “F*** Me I’m Famous”, a perfect inscription for the age of the superstar DJ. Guetta and his fellow dance-music titans — they are almost all men — are like rock stars used to be in the 1970s, leading a lifestyle of private jets, adoration, egotism and vast wealth.
Over the past decade Guetta’s fame has gone global. His brash anthems, a kind of hyper-disco, reverberate around the world’s pleasure zones, from Las Vegas to Phuket. Like a fallen Pilgrim Father, he helped trigger the US’s conversion to the promised land of dance music in the 2000s. He has conquered the charts with dance-pop hits featuring some of pop’s biggest names, including Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Usher and Sia. He has his own record label, Jack Back Records, and divides his time between Los Angeles, Miami and London as well as an Ibiza mansion. A chartered jet awaits him at the airport, ready to take him to club nights and summer festivals around Europe. Last year Forbes estimated his annual earnings at $28m.
Today Guetta, 49, is wearing Ray-Ban sunglasses and a white T-shirt. His usual long hair has been cut short and he has a beard, gingerish with flecks of grey. It is 3.30pm. “In Ibiza everything is late,” he says. Without looking at the menu, he orders grilled chicken, steamed vegetables and rice, with water to drink, the health-conscious choice of a trim middle-aged man determined to maintain his trimness. (“In Love with Myself” comes to mind, one of the tracks from his impeccably named 2004 album Guetta Blaster.) However, he changes his mind when I muse about the fish. Guetta picks the sea bass, which the waitress glosses in English as “more clean” than the alternative, John Dory, which I choose.
“This is the only time of the year when I’m a little social,” Guetta says. He speaks in English, with a trace of an American accent. “People imagine that we [DJs] just party. But the reality is very different. You go from the hotel to the stage, there’s a security corridor to get you on stage, and then you go back to the hotel. So when I’m in Ibiza I invite all my friends. I have a house here, I go out to listen to other DJs. We hang out together, which we don’t normally. So it’s a nice time of year.”
The waitress returns with glasses filled with ice for water. Guetta does not want the ice cube in his and throws it out of the glass towards the sea in a violent motion. It bounces off a post back on to the floor. I point out the potential health-and-safety hazard. He gets up and kicks it out the way. “I don’t want you to break a leg,” he tells the waitress.
If Ibiza is Guetta’s natural habitat then the US is his adopted home. Although techno and house music are American inventions, formed in cities such as Detroit and Chicago, the nation lagged behind the rest of the world in opening itself up to dance music. That changed almost a decade ago with its rebranding as “electronic dance music”, or EDM. Guetta was its flag-bearer.
In 2009 he was asked by The Black Eyed Peas’ leader William “will.i.am” Adams to produce the Californian hip-hop group’s song “I Gotta Feeling”. The result united high-tempo Eurodance with US pop-rap, an irresistibly catchy act of hybridisation. It became one of the best-selling singles in chart history. Guetta recalls the music mogul Jimmy Iovine saying to him: “Look, David, this record is going to change the world. This is the new format of pop music from now on.”
So it proved. Guetta’s One Love album, also released in 2009, brought him a series of hits under his own name, including “Sexy Bitch”, featuring the R&B singer Akon, which was given the marginally less offensive title of “Sexy Chick” for the “clean” radio version.
“That moment in 2009 something really unique happened. And it happened, I would say, from 2009 to 2016. There was a moment when the music in the United States and Europe was the same. This never happens. Maybe at the time of The Beatles, you know, but it’s very rare,” he says.
Guetta detects a change today. “Music is back to very hip-hop in the US and pop and dance here,” he says. But the EDM genie cannot be returned to its jar. The Frenchman remains a frequent star at mega-raves in Miami and Las Vegas, appearing on immense podiums surrounded by fireworks and manic lighting shouting “I have come to party with you!” to thousands of revellers like a disco Olympian. “It’s huge. It’s an industry now,” he says. Although growth slowed last year, the EDM market still reached $7.1bn.
Guetta himself has slipped slightly down the Forbes annual earnings list and believes it is time to adapt. “Because it’s the end of a cycle, with death there is every possibility. There is like an empty space that needs to be filled,” he says. In September he will fly to LA to work on his seventh album. It will include his latest hit, “2U”, which features Justin Bieber, formerly derided as a teen-pop brat, now lauded as a credible A-lister. “He got a lot of shit for his career for a bit, which I guess comes with success for anyone. And then when you stay, people are like — OK!” He gives a Gallic shrug and reaches for an olive from a bowl.
Guetta has his own haters. He has been lambasted as a purveyor of trashy, vulgar songs for the masses, crude in execution and outlook. His fellow EDM superstar Deadmau5 called him “a shitty overpaid DJ” in 2015 when a horse was ridden into Pacha to open Guetta’s F*** Me I’m Famous night. The video to his 2014 single “Dangerous” is a fantasy in which the fast-car-loving Guetta wins a Formula One race, aided by a team of female mechanics in impracticably scanty unitards. “In a club nothing really matters,” runs a robotically intoned lyric in one of his tracks. To Guetta’s detractors, the sentiment sums up his vacuity.
Cap Martinet, Ibiza
Bread and olives €6
Wild sea bass with vegetables and rice €36
John Dory with vegetables and rice €40
Ocumare chocolate and vanilla ice cream €12
Artesian water, still €10
Americano coffee €4
Earl Grey tea €4
Total (inc service) €127
“I never felt like I was a sellout because I have always made the music I love. I was just trying to make it for a broader audience. There was a moment in my career when I wasn’t sure because there was so much pressure and I was doubting a little bit, so I would still play those underground parties,” he says, referring to his transformation into an EDM icon. “But the minute I said, ‘Look, this is who I am, this is what my heart feels like, this is what I want to do with my life and people are happy — what is the problem?’ From that day I never heard those criticisms.”
I ask whether he regrets the chauvinistic sentiments of “Sexy Bitch”, which he wrote in Atlanta with Akon, who came up with the title and lyrics.
“No, actually. It was super-funny,” Guetta replies. “At the time I was married, very much of a good boy, and he was like, ‘You don’t understand anything about women, my friend. You have to understand that this is going to make the girls so horny, a song like this.’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘they’re going to feel insulted.’ But from the time I released this record it was so crazy, girls would throw me underwear. He was right!” He laughs. “It was insane! This was like a late lesson about woman’s psychology.”
As he talks, his body pulses to the sound of the background tunes. He projects the self-confidence of one who spends a good portion of his life standing above thousands of people with their hands in the air and rapture on their faces. “I’m trying to do something timeless,” he says of his music. “People always want to listen to something new, but at the same time emotions are always the same. There’s not a new emotion that is going to come out, because we are human beings.”
Our food arrives, fish and vegetables with bowls of rice. Guetta forks some rice into his mouth before piling it on his plate. He has two chunky rings on the fingers of one hand, rock-star jewellery.
His DJ-ing epiphany arrived in 1988 when he visited the London club Shoom at the height of acid house, where the DJ Danny Rampling stood under banks of lights, the star of the show, not an anonymous record-selector in the darkness. “That changed my life completely,” Guetta remembers. He returned to Paris, where, with his wife Cathy as business partner, he created a mini-empire of nightspots, including two restaurants and a burlesque bar. Guetta recalls that this time “was amazing as a social experience but business-wise, oh my God, it’s one of the hardest businesses to make profitable. You have to really count everything and I’m not like this at all.”
The venues are gone but his entrepreneurialism continues. After making “I Gotta Feeling”, his meeting with Iovine led to a link-up with the mogul’s Beats Electronics range of headphones. At Ibiza airport, advertisements show him sporting a timepiece by the luxury watchmaker TAG Heuer. One of their watches sits in chunky splendour on his wrist at Destino. “The first time I did endorsements, my whole community was so shocked. It was like, ‘Oh my god, how could you do this? It’s terrible.’ But now it’s standard. Every DJ is doing this. It’s actually a sign of being successful.”
He began wanting to be a DJ at the age of 12. “It’s so crazy because there was no famous DJ at the time. There was no glamour, there was no money, there was nothing like that.” He chomps a crunchy vegetable. “Mmm. I was just obsessed with music and I was very into the technical aspect of creating it. I don’t even understand it myself because my family were not musicians or anything.”
His Belgian mother Monique worked as a psychologist while his Moroccan Jewish father Pierre was a sociologist, specialising in the world of work. “Both of my parents are intellectuals and intellectuals always have a completely wrong understanding of real life,” he says cheerfully between mouthfuls.
When he was seven, his father decided to seek a more relaxed life by opening a traditional French restaurant. “But of course it was way harder,” Guetta says with a chuckle, “even though the restaurant was very small. He had no idea what he was getting into. It was actually a very fascinating place. My father would go around reciting the food poems of Baudelaire.”
The contents on his plate are moved around robustly, the fork chopping down on the sea bass in a no-nonsense manner. “My mum thought that everything I was doing was very stupid,” he says. “She was a communist so she felt like all this superficial life and chasing materialistic dreams were a waste of my time.”
Were there arguments? “Oh yeah, at the time, of course,” he replies, clenching his fist at the memory. And now? “Hmm, I think she’s proud of my success. She still feels the same about society. We would fight like crazy when I was young. I was like, ‘I’m going to be rebellious, I’m going to make money.’ ” He chuckles again. “That was me being a rebel to my parents. Isn’t that funny? My mum was almost disgusted that I was so business-oriented.”
In the 2000s he decided to sell the restaurants and burlesque bar and concentrate on music. “My mum was like, ‘I’m so proud of you, you’re finally going to be an artist.’ Like, who says this?! It’s completely crazy!”
His plate is emptied before mine. A pair of women take a selfie behind him, either to get a view of the superstar DJ’s head or the John Dory-munching features of the FT’s pop critic. The former seems more likely.
Our plates are removed. Guetta waives dessert but I suggest I might have one. “Of course! But why not?” he replies expansively. He orders a black tea. A mobile phone materialises in his hand while I inspect the menu and is placed on the table when I choose ice cream and coffee.
In November he will turn 50, a landmark about which he professes unconcern. “I come to party with the people, that’s my thing. This is why I’m actually not tripping on my age. The people who are in front of me, they are always the same age since I started. Always in their twenties. I feel like I’m the same. My energy and passion are the same. So, OK, it’s a little crazy, sometimes I’m with friends who are 25 and they laugh at me and say, ‘Man, you know you’re double our age.’ ”
In 2014 he split from Cathy, his wife of 22 years. In an acrimonious case that generated much media coverage, she claimed half of his reported $30m fortune. (“Very hard because of course it was also having a direct impact on my children.”)
His current partner is the Cuban model Jessica Ledon, 24, with whom he was recently snapped by paparazzi “sharing a steamy kiss” (in tabloid-speak) on a beach. “Of course I don’t like it, having pictures taken when I don’t look good,” he says, laughing.
Escapism is the Frenchman’s stock-in-trade. But a final question about the troubled world beyond the Ibizan bubble — terrorism in other countries is a reason for the island’s booming tourism — elicits something of a Guetta remix of liberté, egalité, fraternité.
“I was never into politics but my choices when it comes to life and music were always to bring people together,” he says.
“I’m not especially VIP — I mean, I have money and I live this life, but I like mixing with everyone, so to me this is already the best possible answer. For me the fact that we are all together dancing on the same beat, people are coming from every different country in the world to Ibiza: this is already the best possible answer to everything that is happening.”
The dance floor as utopia — his mother would approve. “Absolutely!” he says brightly.
Ludovic Hunter-Tilney is the FT’s pop critic
This article has been amended since publication. Though a horse was ridden into Pacha, it was not David Guetta who was riding it
Illustration by James Ferguson