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The Hit Whisperer


Luke has an arsenal of potential radio hits either on the air or in the launching tube—at one point in his studio he says, “What other songs have I done in the past year?” then opens his own Wikipedia page and scans down the list of tracks—but he has particularly high hopes for “Dynamite.” He says, “When I gave it to Taio, I told him, ‘Listen. This song is not yours. You have to earn it.’ Because I felt from the beginning that this was going to be big.” A pounding, synth-heavy party-starter, “Dynamite” is exactly the track you’d want the D.J. to drop at the moment you enter the club. The lyrics, as with most Dr. Luke songs—“I came to dance / I hit the floor ’cause that’s my plans / I’m wearing all my favorite brands”—are basically about how fun it is to hear a Dr. Luke song. From “Tik Tok”: “Don’t stop / Make it pop / D.J. blow my speakers up.” From “Party in the U.S.A.”: “I put my hands up / They’re playing my song / I know I’m gonna be okay.”

Dr. Luke wrote “Dynamite”—sort of. It’s not entirely correct to say he writes his songs, at least not in the romanticized sense of a lonely dude scratching notes while strumming away on an acoustic guitar. Rather, he assembles songs. He curates them. He hears a song before it exists, then he figures out who can best help him bring that song into existence.

In this case, he created a basic beat track with his fellow producer Benny Blanco. (Dr. Luke has a slate of producers signed to his company, Prescription Songs.) The track was originally intended to go to the rapper Flo Rida, but it wasn’t a good fit as a rap song, so Luke sent it to Sweden, to Max Martin, who wrote half of a hook for the chorus. Luke wrote the other half, then sent that track to Bonnie McKee, a lyricist. Then Luke started looking for the right vocalist to attach.

“I feel like I have a good grasp now, but that could change any minute. Three months from now, my sound could be over.”

He plays me a few different early versions of “Dynamite.” In one, a singer laid vocals over the beat around the theme of “double it up,” but it fell flat. Another vocalist tried the song in a reggae-dancehall style, which Luke hated. A producer wrote a melody over the original track, but it was weak; listening to it, Luke grimaces. “I would call this a failed-hook attempt.” He seems almost offended by weak beats. He can’t exactly explain why one groove “moves” while another falters. He just knows by listening. “Certain people are amazing songwriters. I don’t really know that’s my skill,” he says. “It might be more knowing what song is right for which artist and what to do—like, don’t do it like that, do it like this. Making the right judgment calls.”

He tells the story of “Right Round,” the song he created for Flo Rida. At the studio, Luke listened with Flo Rida to a track he had made and one submitted by another contender. “I was like, ‘Dude, I am not telling you this because I’m going to get paid. I’m telling this for you. Mine is a better version of the song.” Flo Rida wasn’t convinced. Later, some women showed up at the studio, and Luke recalls saying, “ ‘Why don’t we ask the girls what they think?’ And we played my track and they were like, ‘Absolutely that one.’ ” The song went quadruple platinum.

“A hit song is the right song, with the right artist, at the right time,” Luke says. Described this way, a hit might sound like mostly luck or happenstance. To Dr. Luke, it’s more like an intricately managed miracle. “It’s a million things going right, and any one thing can derail it. So I want to make sure the right decisions are being made—or, more important, that the wrong decisions aren’t being made.” This often means orchestrating the work of six or seven different collaborators and listening carefully to assemble the right beat, the right hook, the right singer, the right sound. “He’s a really good editor, that might be the best way of putting it,” says Maura Johnston. “He can look at a song from a certain high-level view and see exactly what’s working and what isn’t.” Of course, many super-producers have enjoyed their own moments, from the Neptunes in the early aughts to Timbaland teaming with Justin Timberlake. “I don’t think Luke is changing the tempo and tone of music in the way that someone like Timbaland did,” says Sean Fennessey. “But there’s a professionalism and clarity to the delivery of his songs that’s incredibly appealing. I think he’s kind of a genius. I’m curious to see how much longer he’ll be able to do it. There’s not a lot of guys who stay this hot.”

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