In more ways than one, it’s kind of a fluke that Afrojack and David Guetta are up for a Grammy this year. Their nominated single “Hero” is classic main stage EDM, a sound Guetta and Afrojack pioneered and popularized worldwide in the early 2010s — and a sound the best dance/electronic recording category has largely turned away from in the last few years as its embraced more IDM and experimental sounds.
With “Hero” released independently by Afrojack’s Wall Recordings last May, the duo also just kind of… forgot to submit it to the Recording Academy.
“I was like, ‘But isn’t the label supposed to do that?’ And then I realized that I’m on my own label, so my lawyer did it,” Afrojack (born Nick van de Wall) tells Billboard. “I never thought about it again, and then I saw the nominees like, ‘What the f—? Wow.’”
The nod for “Hero” marks Guetta’s tenth Grammy nomination and van de Wall’s fourth. The pair won the best remixed recording, non classical award in 2011 for their edit of Madonna’s “Revolver.” Regardless of whether or not they win on Sunday, van de Wall has already presented plaques to everyone on his team involved with the project, from social media managers to engineers.
“I don’t know if it’s legal to like, make fake Grammy plaques,” says van de Wall, “but they say, ‘Wall Recordings Presents,’ so it was fun.”
Where was “Hero” made, and when?
It started in Los Angeles, when I was in the studio with Stargate and they played me the a cappella already written by Ellie Goulding, Ryan Tedder and Jamie Scott, sang by Ellie Goulding. I was like, “Wow, I think this could be big.” I started messing around, sent it to friends, we got some demos, started working on it with David. It was all digital. Everything was sending files back and forth.
It’s actually funny; when the nomination came in, no one expected it. You have to bring your record to the Grammys. It’s not like it automatically gets nominated. You have to enter it, and no one did it. But my lawyer wrote me like, “Yo, maybe you should submit the record, because it’s a great record.” I was like, “But isn’t the label supposed to do that?” And then I realized that I’m on my own label, so my lawyer did it. Shout out Kurosh. I never thought about it again, and then I saw the nominees like, “What the f—? Wow.” Even if we don’t win, being nominated for a Grammy is such a big feat within the industry, and to be able to do that with a few Dutch people within a Belgian office just going freestyle, it shows the scope of what’s possible in this industry if you present music people.
What did David say when he found out?
I was with him in Dubai when it happened and went to him like, “You’re not going to believe this, we’ve nominated for a Grammy.” He was like “How?” It was the same for him — we’ve been with major labels, we do big releases, so we never expected our record that we pushed out ourselves independently to get that far.
Why do you think the track appealed to Grammy voters?
I think it’s one of the few tracks at that time that had positive character. All the records that came out at that time were very gloomy and sad, because everyone had Covid depression. We had the record for a long time. We wanted to premiere it at Ultra right when covid kicked in and everything got canceled. We put it out and it did okay; it wasn’t the biggest record of all time, but it did very good, and a lot of people seemed to like the positivity. We got great feedback. Also, when you look at the competition within the nominees, all the tracks are pretty gloomy and dark, really Covid era. So it’s nice to be that little glimmer of light between the gloominess.
The collection of tracks nominated this year is really sonically diverse, from EDM to IDM to rave to dance pop. What’s your take on quite disparate styles of dance music competing against each other in the same category?
It’s actually very funny, because a friend of mine told me that they wanted to submit this song to pop. Before it got nominated, there was like, an internal struggle about whether the record is pop or dance. It’s 128 BPM, it has gigantic drops, opening filters, don’t tell me it’s a pop song. It’s not a pop song. It’s like 2000s retro EDM, birth of EDM style. I’m very happy they defined it as a dance record, because it is a dance record. We’re dance artists. We f—ing DJ all over the world.
But also looking at the definition, we cannot say what someone’s definition of something should be. People will define for themselves, and if they define you in the wrong category, it’s your fault for your brand maybe being too pop. If they had defined me as pop and I hadn’t been nominated, I cannot say, “Oh they’re stupid.” It means that people apparently see me as a pop guy. If I want to be nominated in dance, I’ve got to do more dance-y stuff, and dance is very wide, because it goes all the way from Afrojack and David Guetta, down to Rüfüs Du Sol and the indie side all the way down to Black Coffee with deep 118 BPM. The dance genre is so wide.
Would you like to see the Recording Academy in any way expand or update the way they handle electronic music?
They can’t! What else can you do other than putting dance music professionals in the actual voting board. The only thing they could do is make voting [open to the public], but then you’d get a popularity contest, you don’t necessarily get the best music. But even within the music industry, if you’re an a–hole, no one is going to vote for you. Unless you make really good music. Deadmau5 is a great example. Everyone hates him, but his music is so good you just have to say, “Okay that’s very good. You suck, but that’s very good.” I have a history with Joel. I wish him all the best. His music is mind-blowing. It’s new melodies that you cannot track back to.
But I don’t know if the Grammys could do anything better. They could be more transparent about how it works, but that kind of takes away the magic, and I think when you dive into it, it is pretty transparent. They’re not trying to hide anything. I think it’s very important that up-and-coming artists understand you don’t automatically get nominated. You have to submit, and even if you submit, you have to hope people hear it, because there are a thousand songs they’re going to have to listen to, or however many. Also, if you release a song in January, it’s very unlikely it’s going to get nominated for a Grammy a year later, because it’s an old song. No matter how new it was at the time of release, if everyone starts copying you for the rest of the year and those songs get submitted later, that’s going to sound fresh and your record is going to sound old. There are all these factors.
But it doesn’t sound like there was any of that strategy around this song?
No, not at all. I’m still surprised. I’m surprised that we’re having this conversation. But I’m happy. It’s the best firepower you can have in this industry. I’m Grammy nominated again. 10 years later! F— everybody! When you’re running around with “Grammy nominated” on your name, it has so much firepower on the corporate side of the music industry. The fans are the fans. No one at EDC gives a f— if I’m “Afrojack Grammy winner or nominee.” But when you’re talking with Universal, or Spinnin, or YouTube, or Facebook, suddenly it matters.
How did your career change in that way when you won your Grammy in 2011?
It blew up. It’s the biggest thing you can have in your career in the industry. The Grammys are the biggest stamp of approval you can get, and people who don’t know anything about music think you must be really amazing. I came back to my hometown to celebrate, and we got the mayor of my hometown to light fireworks in the busiest shopping street of the city. Like, ‘It’s a Grammy winner. Come on! Let’s go!”
In the last five or so years, the dance nominations have leaned away from the dance/pop EDM sound, but “Hero” is very much that. What do you make of the reintroduction of the sound into this category?
I always loved that sound. This song is together with David, and I always said that David, to me he was pop/dance — he took dance and put it in pop. I was always the other side, trying to put pop into dance, but still keeping it dance. So he did “I Gotta Feeling” and I did “Take Over Control.” Of course, he did a lot of other records that did very well too, but that’s always the way I viewed it.
I had a conversation once with a friend of mine about credibility. I always said, “F— credibility. Make stuff you love. Be credible to yourself.” I had a situation where Pitbull asked me to do “Give Me Everything.” I was thinking about not doing it, because it would make my brand look like a sellout. Technically when you think about it, worrying about if your brand is selling out, you’re worrying about income and credibility and what people think of you. F— what people think of me. There’s this massive artist that makes great music that I’ve been listening to for years, even though it’s not my genre and he says, “Yo man, I love your music, can we do this record with you?” What do I say, “No man, I’m too cool for you?” Then I’m just an a–hole.
So what is credible? What is selling out? I took more of a risk doing “Hero” than doing a cool underground song. If I want to make sure I sell tickets, I do cool underground music. But I love trying to bring new people to dance, still to this day. I also know that people say, “This is cheesy commercial blah blah blah.” If you say so.
You must feel some vindication with this nomination, then.
I’m just happy. That’s one thing I really learned over the last five years: don’t waste time on the hating part. Spend more time on the loving part, because it’s all in your had. Every moment you spend being angry about something, you could spend that moment being happy about something. It’s up to you. You’re in control over what happens in your head, and you don’t have that much time on this planet, so try to spend as many moments happy verses not.
There are no female producers nominated in this category in 2022, and this isn’t the first year that this has happened. How do you explain the lack of female artists represented here?
This is a very difficult question. I read a lot about it online. I read a lot of interviews about it. I listen to podcasts about it. This is such a sensitive subject. First of all, I’m a guy, so it’s not the first thing I see — like, “Where are all the women.” When I’m a guy DJing, I have to say that most of the parties I DJ, a lot of them are sausage fests. Can I say that?
I think you can say that.
When there’s a sausage fest, no one is complaining about there not being any women, even though there are just places and certain styles of music that attract certain demographics… I do speak to NERVO, for example, and they tell me how hard it is as female DJs to get through in a male-dominated scene. So I understand that viewpoint too… There are so many aspects to it. There’s biology, psychology, so many things happening with people changing their identity, which is of course their right… I don’t know the solution. I try to stick to entertainment. When I see these things online, I’m like, “Wow, all the people who are devoting their lives to making everyone in the world feel respected and comfortable, respect.” I’m an a–hole, I’m not going to devote my life to that. I’m going to devote my life to my family and making music. But I do have to say, all the people that are fighting for it, much respect to them.
You and David won a Grammy together in 2o11 for your remix of Madonna’s “Revolver.” Is there a secret sauce in your collaborations?
I don’t have the ear. I do not understand pop culture and hits. I love making music. I love making dope s—. I love making weird s—. I love making what I feel. David has the ear. I always say that when I’m in the studio, I can make anything, it’s about what I choose to make. David is very good at choosing. When I played “Hero” to David he was like, “Wow, this is incredible. Wow, this is so big!” I was like ‘Okay.” He has the magic ear. I can make cool stuff, and he picks up what’s cool, and then we finish it together.
Is there anything else you want to say?
Thank you so much to everyone who allowed me to be part of the dance category, and everyone that got me into the nominations. I don’t know who are you are, but I am very grateful. I owe you a coffee.