DJ Snake: ‘I Don’t Want to Be Stuck in One Style’
The French producer on his diverse discography, cultural influences, his latest collaboration with Selena Gomez and his perennial love for India
Many of us have grown up on the Internet and witnessed several monumental milestones in music– be it the boom of YouTube which eventually paved the way for content creators to blow up internationally, or viral tracks that introduced us to new artists from around the globe. One of these artists happened to be DJ Snake– the French DJ/producer made the world groove to his bird whistle synth lead track, “Bird Machine” in 2013 and the world hasn’t stopped dancing since.
This was when a sizable chunk of global listeners, irrespective of whether they were fans of EDM or not, heard about DJ Snake. Later that year, he would produce the bass-trap smash hit “Turn Down For What” feat. Lil Jon– one of the biggest tracks of his career that would earn him his second Grammy nomination for Best Music Video and secure the Number One and Number Four spot on Billboard’s Hot Dance/Electronic Song and the Billboard Hot 100 chart respectively. To a great extent, “Turn Down For What” defined 2014 and became a cultural phenomenon. It would go on to open YouTube’s widely popular ‘YouTube Rewind’ that year and feature in blockbuster films such as 21 Jump Street and Furious 7. Snake kept the momentum going with the mega viral moombahton Major Lazer collab “Lean On,” which would eventually make him a household name and grant him his massive, dedicated fandom in India.
Born to a French father and an Algerian mother, William Sami Étienne Grigahcine aka DJ Snake is known for effortlessly blending sounds from different cultures, creating a distinct style that sets his music apart from the rest. “To be honest with you, I grew up listening to a lot of different things,” he recalls. “I grew up with people from different origins such as India, West Indies to Caribbean, Africa and the Middle East. We’ve always been inspired by each other.”
Kick-starting his career at the age of 14, Snake spent nearly a year experimenting and mixing songs. At 15, he dropped out of high school to work at one of Paris’s most famous record shops where he spent hours earnestly reading through the catalog of records from various genres–understanding and absorbing the basics of music, eventually diving into production at 19. By 25, the producer earned his first-ever Grammy nomination for working on Lady Gaga’s track “Government Hooker” off her 2011 chart-topping pop album Born This Way.
Now, with over a decade of experience and pushing the boundaries in the industry, Snake boasts a powerful list of collaborations with pop icons such as Cardi B, Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez and more. His collaborative tracks have gone to garner billions of streams (“Taki Taki” is at over two billion alone) and views on leading streaming platforms such as Spotify and YouTube, and he has several dozen Platinum and Diamond certifications to his name.
Despite an exhaustive list of achievements, DJ Snake comes across grounded, humble and excited to share his artistry with the world, now more than ever. “You know, when everything goes back to normal, the first country I’m going to visit is India to throw the biggest party,” he says over Zoom with a smile. “Trust me!”
In this conversation with Rolling Stone India, DJ Snake reflects on his latest collaboration with Selena Gomez on “Selfish Love,” the influence of culture on his work, his growth as a producer over the last decade and his unbreakable relationship with India.
“Selfish Love” has turned out to be one of the most loved music videos since its release. What was the idea behind the track and what did you want your fans to take away from it?
We were just trying to give some good vibes to the people. It’s been a rough year and we’ve been through a lot. We just wanted to give some positive energy to the people.
This was your second collaboration with Selena Gomez. What was the experience of collaborating with her the second time around, and how has your relationship with her evolved throughout these past collaborations?
Oh, Selena is the best! She’s very professional and we always have fun working with her because she’s super open-minded and always down to try new things. She’s humble despite being a huge artist, and I’m always surprised to see how humble she is.
When I was preparing for this interview, I went through your discography and watched your past interviews. In many of them, you’ve mentioned that culture plays a huge part in your career, and you’re often inspired by music from different cultures. What region do you think inspires your work most?
To be honest with you, I’ve always been listening to a lot of different things. Growing up in my neighbourhood in Paris, you know, I’ve grown up with different people from different origins such as India, West Indies to the Caribbean, Africa and the Middle East. We’ve always been inspiring each other. When I became a DJ, traveling was the most inspiring thing; You meet a lot of different people, you see the different types of vibes, and I’m like a sponge. I like to pay homage to different cultures and this is what I do, and this is what I’m trying to do– this is my thing and I’m having fun with it. This is how I keep recreating myself. I don’t want to be stuck in one style and that’s why travelling is really important for me and right now I don’t have the chance to travel a lot. I’m grateful for all the things I’ve seen in my life, and I hope I’ll be able to travel again.
Speaking about traveling– you went from playing at some of the greatest venues around the world to being confined at home or your studio, live streaming for your fans because of COVID-19. How did you motivate yourself throughout 2020?
Oh, it’s been pretty weird, to not be able to travel and see anybody. We did a couple of live streams, but it felt weird. At the same time, I wanted to give some positive energy to my fans. To be honest with you, I’m not really feeling this live stream thing because I need to feel the crowd, I need to feel the energy. I want to hear people sing along. I don’t see what I do as a job. I see it as a feeling– a priceless feeling. And not being able to be with the fans and feel the energy is super weird. I didn’t want to let them down, so I did those live streams to give them a little something during those tough times. Instead of just sitting in the studio, I’m trying to make the best music. And hopefully, I can play them live when everything will be back to normal, soon.
I was part of your 2019 concert in Bengaluru and I remember the energy was off the charts. I knew so many people that traveled from all over India just to watch you perform your set live. What does it feel like to have such a dedicated fan base in India? Were you aware of how strong your fanbase here is before your first visit?
It’s a blessing. I always get love, no matter what. My Indian fans are super crazy and I love them. During this pandemic, they never stopped showing love on social media. There is a powerful connection between us and I don’t know, it’s hard to explain, but it’s magic. And it’s real. I feel the love and I think they feel it’s real, it’s organic, and I just can’t wait to be back. We’ve built something special. Many people don’t understand my love of this country, and a lot of people are jealous. Like, ‘why are you always talking about India? Why are you always going there?’ And ‘why do you always shoot in India’ because I’ve shot like two or three videos there. But, you know, it is what it is. I just love this country and the people and the culture. It’s insane.
Speaking about India, what would your typical day in India look like from the second you arrive?
It’s always love. From the police at the airport to the customs officers. Everywhere I go, people are super happy to see me and very respectful. They ask for pictures or to shake my hands. When I’m at my hotel, people are waiting downstairs to show me their love and support. I’m always trying to show love to everybody. When I’m in my room doing interviews, the room service people come in and politely ask for pictures. And it’s not toxic at all– it’s like real, genuine love. My time in India is always super busy– I have interviews lined up, I have to meet people, I have shows to perform at; I always try to give in to the culture. It’s insane. I’m always trying to enjoy the moment and I don’t sleep a lot when I’m there, because there’s so much going on. It’s always the best time and the best vibes. Always.
Many people think there’s a secret recipe for a hit. But if one were to go through your discography they’ll soon realize that with every single, collaboration or album, you’ve given your listeners something different. So in your own words, what is the ‘secret recipe’ for a hit?
It’s hard to explain. I just do what I love and I give it to people. The people make the song a hit. I’m always trying to give something timeless, fresh and global with a strong melody. Melodies are the most important thing to me–I grew up listening to songs I couldn’t understand the lyrics of, because when I was younger, I couldn’t speak English. I fell in love with artists such as Bob Marley and Michael Jackson without understanding the lyrics. So that’s why, to me, melodies are the most important thing. Sometimes you get goosebumps listening to a song, and you don’t even understand the words. It can be like an African song, an Indian song or a Brazilian song–you listen to it and it touches your heart and you’re like, ‘Wow, I don’t know what this guy’s saying but this is powerful.’ And this is what I’m trying to do with my music.
I’m just going to take a second and just reflect on the astounding stats “Taki Taki” has garnered so far– 10 billion plus streams, and it’s received 101 platinum certifications, and 20 diamond certifications worldwide. That’s phenomenal. Congratulations on that. Does it ever get overwhelming for you, especially when you’re working on your next track? Do you ever feel constant pressure living up to these bars you’ve set in the past?
There’s always going to be pressure. But this is good pressure. It makes you want to do better and go bigger. This is fun for me. It’s like an athlete that’s trying to do better, season after season. This makes me want to keep going. The day I don’t have this thing anymore, it’s going to be boring and I want to continue working in this manner– I want to feel the pressure. I’m a challenger so this will not affect me. I like this.
You’ve been in the industry for nearly a decade. How have you grown as a producer? What has your journey been like?
I never overthink when it comes to music. I’m just trying new things. It’s hard to find the right balance between trying new things and having your style, touch and sound. I’m trying to go left when people expect me to go right.
Assuming everything returned to normal tomorrow, what venue would you want to play first and what song would you open with?
That’s a really tough question. But I’ll probably open with something very aggressive and new. I just want to shock people. It’s been a year since the last time we partied. And I think people are gonna go crazy, period. It is going to be a new world and I just can’t wait to drop the first song and see the crowd go crazy.
Can we expect an album sometime this year? Are there any other projects apart from an album that you’re working on?
I have no idea right now. This is the type of pressure I don’t like– when you put yourself in a position where you announce an album and blah, blah, blah. I’m just making music right now. I have a lot of songs, almost like 60 songs ready and I just keep working on it. Whenever the world’s gonna get back normal, something’s gonna happen, for sure. I’ll try releasing music and we’ll see.
Let’s wrap up with a simple question: Do you have a message for your fans in India?
Stay positive. Keep smiling behind your mask– wear your mask, and be patient. Because when everything goes back to normal, we’re going to have the best time ever. And I think it’s going to be pretty soon, hopefully. I’m going to come when things get normal. Like one of the first countries, I’m going to visit India to throw at the biggest party. Trust me!