This week, I spent some time dissecting French DJ/producer David Guetta’s massively popular EDM single “Hey Mama.” The song sits at No. 5 on the iTunes charts presently; it has been lurking right around that area for a good while now, as the song hit big immediately following its mid-March release. In April, it hit the top slot on the Billboard Hot Dance/Electronic chart.
The song is a massive hit, and of course, part of the reason for that is the presence of Nicki Minaj, who does her freaky thing – a liberally interpreted version of Jamaican dancehall, a staccato half-rap that forms one of the song’s several hooks – atop Guetta’s assembled beats and samples. Minaj is only part of the equation, though. “Hey Mama” kicks off with a pre-verse hook that sounds like a marriage of a field holler from the American south, and a snippet of old-school gospel music. The contrast between the rural organicism of the “field-holler” hook with Guetta’s blips, bleeps, and automated hand-claps is striking, but it’s not exactly groundbreaking – Moby and Fatboy Slim, for example, had big hits employing a similar conceit during the late ‘90s.
Guetta’s hook is actually a sample of a field recording by American musicologist Alex Lomax. The tune in question is called “Rosie,” and its origins are somewhat unclear, beyond the fact that Lomax recorded it during one of his song-finding excursions into the deep South in the early ‘40s.
Following the Lomax sample, Minaj arrives to do her thing, providing most of “Hey Mama’s” lyrics in the process. (These are concerned with occasionally disturbing pledges of submission to the wants and needs of the man Minaj is addressing. So much for female empowerment.) Now it’s time for the chorus, folks. It’s a big, gauzy and fat one, a huge hook set atop a repeated synth figure that is straight-up contemporary EDM. This particular piece of the puzzle was written and performed by pop singer/songwriter Bebe Rexha, who has written tunes for Eminem and Cash Cash. For whatever reason, Rexha is not credited on the song, though all involved have acknowledged that she wrote the tune’s chorus, arguably the most important part of any pop hit.
So – we’ve got a sample from an Alan Lomax field recording; a heavily auto-tuned and edited Minaj dancehall verse; a basic musical bed provided by Dutch producer DJ Afrojack; and a chorus written and sung by an uncredited American pop hit maker. What does Guetta bring to the table? The ability to mash all of these ingredients into a gray, mushy, easy-to-digest music-resembling substance. Meet the 2015 version of a “musical genius.”
“Hey Mama” is catchy, vibrant, and obviously, danceable. It’s also completely forgettable, at least in the long view. If you’re getting sick of this one, don’t worry, Guetta’s “Listen” album is crammed full of similar ditties, including one (“Yesterday”) where Rexha actually receives credit. Guetta is a dilettante, much more of a “brand” than a “band,” and is therefore kind of an artistic joke. That said, according to CelebrityNetWorth.com, he’s worth about $45 million. So the joke is clearly not on him.