David Guetta’s Dance Music Melting Pot

People were so busy comparing Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” to Madonna’s “Express Yourself” earlier this year that they didn’t notice the similarities between the lead single from Gaga’s new album and French DJ/producer David Guetta’s 2009 Kelly Rowland collaboration “When Love Takes Over.” Indeed, when you strip both artists down to their sonics, the cultural revolution represented by Guetta’s two most recent records could be potentially more significant than anything yet manifested by Gaga.

Guetta, neither a prissy purist nor a smug segregationist, is effortlessly bringing the mutually embattled worlds of rap, r&b, pop, rock, and underground dance music together in ways only hoped for by America’s most idealistic DJs. His new album Nothing But the Beat (Capitol) solidifies his bid to be the Quincy Jones of contemporary groove pop, even while his critics dismiss his admiration of seminal experiments in American rap and underground disco. But Guetta never wholly replicates his favorite atavisms; he merely evokes and pays passionate homage to them.

Echoes of Hanson & Davis, the NYC Peech Boys, and even the Taurus Boys are audible in some of the male choruses Guetta deploys, and he has the ability to summon the laser-like timbres of vintage Phil Collins or Annie Lennox from his star vocalists. But he carefully updates all such allusions with modern touches. Guetta is naturally funky, with a nuanced ear for the percussive tones and textures of the human voice, and he gets spectacular results out of letting singers add both syncopation and hooky harmonic variety to what would otherwise be a turgid and overly redundant series of loops.

Guetta fell in love with the raw emotion of Chicago house after hearing Farley “Jackmaster” Funk’s sampled 12-inch “Love Can’t Turn Around” on French radio in 1987. That’s why he still likes to make vocals float above crisp musical beds, their lyrics etched in sonic relief against propulsive backing tracks. Guetta’s first production was a collaboration with a French rapper; his second single “Up & Away” was a 1994 collaboration with Chicago house legend Robert Owens. He cultivated a following by running theme nights at various clubs in and out of Paris. He co-founded GUM, an artist-oriented production company, in 2001, then released the first of many collaborations with American singer Chris Willis. The following year, that single became the title track of Guetta’s first studio album A Little More Love.

Nuances of intonation, identity and intent are rarely lost on Guetta, which is why the rappers he works don’t lose their edge in the middle of electroclash rave-ups and why divas like Kelly Rowland lose not a shred of dignity or gravitas when wailing against his dubwise walls of sound.

Where the 12 succinct edits on his 2009 album One Love served as teasers for longer, lusher 12-inch recordings, the deluxe version of Nothing But the Beat — which is split between a disc of vocally led tracks and an all-instrumental disc — more resembles a polished mastermix that takes its influences from all over the map. The dreamy piano intro to “The Alphabeat” resolves prog-rock noodling; “Paris,” a tribute to Guetta’s home town, is snare-driven French techno; “Toy Story” is dream house re-purposed as an anime soundtrack; and the trippy construction of “Glasgow” proves that club music can hit on the two and four just like a funk tune, yet feel completely different. Guetta’s heaping side portion of instrumentals may fly mostly over the heads of crossover fans, but he wants us to understand his exotic roots — and to eat our vegetables.

Any honest remixer will admit it’s easier to create dance tracks without the distraction of needing to seduce a great performance from a vocalist. This fact has prevented many gifted remixers from moving into the more lucrative realm of artist production, but Guetta evidently has little problem getting artists to relax and give him exactly what he needs. This implies a trust and a meeting of minds between him and the astonishing array of established acts, from Snoop Dogg to Rihanna to Nicki Minaj, he’s lured into his studio.

Guetta pairing with pop-crossover veterans like the Black Eyed Peas posed virtually no risk to either side, but when I first heard Akon on a Guetta track, I worried about the chance the Senegalese star was taking with his hip-hop base. As it turned out, “Sexy Bitch,” despite in some ways serving as an act of aesthetic bravery, paid off in sales and popularity, and now a veritable Soul Train line of black stars and starlets seems eager to let Guetta remake them in his slightly Ibiza-flavored image.

The album’s two flagship singles, “Where Them Girls At” and “Little Bad Girl,” are sly hip-house throwbacks that slant first to the chirpy bounce of a Ya Kid K gone Katy Perry, then to the gritty swing of Tyree Cooper gone crunk. In each case the playfulness is so audible that the guest stars can be heard adding attitude and cross-references of their own. Nicki Minaj and Flo Rida bring humor to the disco carnival ride “Where Them Girls At,” while the darker synth colors used on “Little Bad Girl” give way to a silky male tenor drenched in digital echo, followed by a low-slung melodic verse spiked by Ludacris’s staccato freestyle.

Guetta lets Timbaland and Dev couple up to talk dirty on “I Just Wanna F—” but puts Chris Brown and Lil Wayne together on the sweeter attempt to croon a girl out of her underwear “I Can Only Imagine.” Toying with stereotypes and expectations in this way is part of Guetta’s production strategy, as is the Snoop Dogg track “Sweat,” which successfully recasts hip-hop’s Doggfather as Janet Jackson’s comrade in the Rhythm Nation.The female-fronted cuts here permit Guetta to cast each damsel in a different iconic role: the anthemic “Titanium” has Sia peaking the dance floor like Cher, Cry$tal’s “I’m a Machine” reminds me of Pink, and on “Turn Me On” Nicki Minaj gamely shifts between her Madonna range and her Rihanna register.

Overall the album is a triumph of collective will and creativity, but not every track fits every performer perfectly: Jennifer Hudson sounds a bit lost on “Night of Your Life,” and Usher, while pushing himself vocally, sounds like a Glee Project also-ran on “Without You.” If Nothing But the Beat were to be measured against, say, Songs in the Key of Life it might fall short, but this season the only other dance album as worthy of your attention is the imminent Trax Records: The 25th Anniversary Collection. Arriving from Trax this October, the two-disc set contains the pioneering house productions that David Guetta and his peers heard at the beginning of their careers, then bent and twisted into their own images of dance music.

Published in: Village Voice, August 29, 2011