Before the invasion of disco sticks and leotards, before Born This Way birthed a new breed of superfan and Joanne galloped away with the world’s collective heart, the first chapter in the legend of Lady Gaga’s career rested on little more than a throwback beat and a wide-eyed girl with nothing to lose and only pop cultural domination to gain.
Now, one decade after Gaga splashed onto the scene with her debut single “Just Dance” (and ushered in a new era of glistening electro-pop on mainstream radio), EW caught up with its creators — longtime Gaga producer RedOne and recording artist Akon, who helped launch Gaga’s career via his KonLive record label — to celebrate the track’s 10th birthday on April 8. Below, the pair dishes on the songwriting process that almost placed “Just Dance” in the hands of other artists, why Akon’s smooth, featured vocals were replaced by newcomer Colby O’Donis’ on the final version, and what the success of the song means to them.
[EW contacted Gaga’s team for an interview, but a representative indicated she was unavailable to contribute to this article.]
A struggling artist from New York City, Lady Gaga had been signed and dropped by Def Jam by the time she was 20 years old. After songwriter Rob Fusari pushed the up-and-comer to producer Vincent Herbert (Toni Braxton, Destiny’s Child), the latter signed her to his new Streamline Records imprint at Interscope in November 2007 under the supervision of Jimmy Iovine. Work began on her debut album, The Fame, with Akon and producer RedOne.
REDONE: At that time, I just did my first hit with Kat DeLuna called “Whine Up.” After that hit, I told my management that I wanted to work with established artists. But they called me and said, “Hey, we [want you to work with] this girl…. She’s talented if you want to meet her for five minutes.”…. I met her outside of the Sony building in New York, and I liked the vibe I was getting! She was like, “Oh my God, I love ‘Whine Up!’” [Laughs]. In those five minutes, I felt like she was so special. And those five minutes turned into a few sessions. [Despite multiple attempts, EW could not reach Vincent Herbert for comment.]
Gaga recorded “Boys Boys Boys” at RedOne’s Queens’ studio later that day.
REDONE: We were talking about rock like Mötley Crüe, you know, “Girls, girls, girls!” but we needed “Boys, boys, boys!” instead…and that created the sounds for the whole album. For “Just Dance,” I wanted to do a rock song with big drums but instead of guitars, it’s synths. That’s what “Just Dance” is! The opening [synths] are like a guitar chord…. [I began] taking her to every session I had with other artists, too, but as a writer. And every artist got scared of her and asked me to not bring her again. I remember telling her, “Gaga, you’re an incredible artist and they feel your energy!” She was so creative, giving them ideas about how to dress and how to behave, and they started feeling so small. And Gaga started crying, like, “I just want to help them!” I said, “Yes, but keep those ideas for yourself. You’re an incredible artist.” In one of those sessions, I presented her to an [industry friend] named Efe, and the first time I played her music he was like, “Oh my God, this girl is the next Madonna!”
AKON: I [was struck by] her in general. When I see a star, I just know it. From the moment she walked in [for our first meeting], her appearance and her attitude felt brand new and fresh. She was so fearless. When I [had discussions with] Jimmy Iovine, from that moment everything ignited. We got excited about her, started making records, and started to craft her image. At that time, she was doing jazz-type music, and I think she needed someone to hear it all the way out and see what made sense with her idea, her look, and then pairing her with music that meshed it all into one platform.
REDONE: After that, we did all the [iconic] songs: “Just Dance,” “Poker Face,” “LoveGame”…and Akon said, “Red, hold on to that file. Don’t give it to anybody until I come for it, because I want to take these songs to Jimmy so we can make her a priority!”
The pair presented their work to Iovine, who briefly suggested The Pussycat Dolls record “Just Dance” for their 2008 album Doll Domination.
AKON: I was contracted to do songs for The Pussycat Dolls and I had writer’s block the day of, so I asked RedOne if we could collaborate together to open our minds…and “Just Dance” was originally going to be submitted for The Pussycat Dolls. When we finished, there was no way “Just Dance” could be for them.
REDONE: We met with Jimmy and he heard the songs. He said, “I love the song. Can I give [it] to The Pussycat Dolls?” And Akon was like, “No! It’s Gaga! She can be the next big thing!” Jimmy said, “Okay, but one thing: I have a problem with [Gaga’s similarities to] her highness.” I was like, “Who is her highness?” And he said, “Gwen Stefani. She reminds me of Gwen Stefani.’” And Akon goes, “No, she’s totally different!” [EW spoke to Iovine. Though he did not want to be quoted directly for this story, he felt that both Akon and RedOne were correct in expressing a desire to keep the song for Gaga.]
Gaga’s willingness to experiment in the studio made for instant chemistry, and her debut album, The Fame, was finished approximately one month later via Akon’s KonLive, Interscope, Streamline, and Martin Kierszenbaum’s Cherrytree.
AKON: Literally every song that we wrote was done within 30 minutes to an hour. It was all chemistry. The Fame was done in 30 days: mixed, mastered, and ready to push out. That was another reason I was so excited about working with her, because the ideas and things she sparked were so fresh. We opened our minds and tried everything. No bars, no barriers, whatever we felt that felt good, whatever we wanted to say, we said it. It was the first time she had no one telling her what she should be doing or how she should be doing it.
REDONE: She reminded me of an artist who was the whole inspiration of the Gaga sound — her name is Leila K, from Sweden back in the day. I said, “Gaga, I want to play for you this artist because if we can do what she did and make it now, it can change the world.” That’s how I wanted to do an album that was different at the time for everybody — with synths, big drums, big hooks — but with the attitude of Gaga inspired by Leila K.
With a sense that “Just Dance” would become a worldwide hit, Akon recorded the featured vocals on the song, but a label dispute reportedly blocked the release.
AKON: I featured on the song originally, but Universal didn’t clear my vocals. [Several contacts at Universal and Interscope did not respond to EW’s request for comment.] It was a crazy moment…so I got Colby O’Donis to feature on it and do my verse. But, I kept my background vocals on the song, because background vocals aren’t considered a “feature.” There was a lot of politics going on, a huge competition between Interscope and [parent company] Universal, and I like to think that because I claimed my record deal at Interscope instead of [directly with] Universal, where I was actually signed as an artist, they were kind of getting me back for that. It was so political that I didn’t want to fight it. The song was done, finished, ready to go all the way until two days before we shot the video, and that’s when we got the notice that we couldn’t get clearance. It was a huge shock to Gaga [because] this was her first megaproject and her first real moment! [O’Donis did not respond to requests for comment.]
Without a trusted name on the feature, the song’s commercial prospects didn’t dim…
REDONE: The melody is so good anyway. Whoever heard it didn’t care if it was Akon or not. They just heard a good song. It was written as a good song.
…and yet the song still took nine months to peak at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in January 2009.
REDONE: We dropped it [on April 8, 2008], and it took a long time for people to love it. It wasn’t accepted in America, [but] she became No. 3 right away in Sweden because that’s the country of pop and they loved it!
AKON: My motto has always been to not put a label on any record, and let it find its own audience. That was one of the biggest challenges, even in the beginning, and why it took so long for it to hit on radio. We tried working radio in the U.S., and they didn’t bite because it was an ‘80s-sounding record, and that wasn’t the [popular] sound at that time. “Just Dance” didn’t fit the format. It wasn’t a song that a DJ could play before or after any song that was a top hit at that moment.
We flew out to the U.K. and tried to do things over there, but it didn’t work. When we went to Canada, that’s when it hit. There’s an international crowd there that’s more daring as far as what they’re willing to listen to [and] Gaga whipped their airwaves. Then, the U.S. caught it and it changed the whole game and created a new movement, [especially] on the West Coast and in San Francisco, where the crowds were really eclectic and gave her a shot. The gay community was the one that actually was like, “This record is a f—ing anthem!” and they supported her from that moment, and that became her core audience. From there, everyone else caught the wave.
The race to the summit was a hard-fought battle against reluctant radio.
AKON: Everything on the radio sounded exactly the same…you had a brand new artist coming out with something fresh! [We didn’t] try to A&R it. We let the audience choose. That was [what I said] to every station that I went to. I was like, “I know you guys have a specific playlist that you set up, but can this one record that doesn’t sound like anything else be chosen by the audience? Just give us a fair shot! You don’t have to give us a full-time rotation, just play it one time a week. Give it to the audience raw and let them make the decision!” It took almost a year to pop [in the U.S.] When we did the Interscope promo tour, we didn’t get a full [run], so I took her on my personal promo tour for my album. We couldn’t give up. I refused to because I knew she was a big star; it was just a matter of the stations giving her a fair chance. I’m happy I did that. At the end of the day, it opened up for a new genre and wave of music. It was worth the fight!
Ultimately, the song was certified 8x Platinum in the U.S. en route to becoming one of the best-selling singles of all time.
REDONE: Every time I hear it, it’s like yesterday. It’s so beautiful. It’s the song that changed our lives. The lyrics are Gaga. I can’t take any credit for the genius lyrics. It comes to her so fast. I love perfection and she gives you perfection every time. She’s a machine! It spoiled me because everybody I was working with that was talented and globally known, they [couldn’t] match how Gaga spoiled me with class and genius lyrics. I helped her with words here and there, but I can’t say I wrote or co-wrote the “Just Dance” lyrics. but I can take credit for melodies, chord progressions, and production.
AKON: The artists that have the door open to be themselves are the ones that win. Their opinions should be the first thing that matters. The moment record companies get involved and try to tell you to go in one direction for this sound or to try something else for a certain amount of hit records, that’s bulls—t. It’s about if you bring something fresh and new to the game and it works, everyone else is going to cling on and try to do the same. If you’re the creator, you have the longevity in the business and it gives you the creativity and freedom to try something else new and fresh, and it always works.
And yet fans still think Gaga’s saying “red wine” instead of plugging her trusted producer’s name at the top of the track.
REDONE: People always tell me, “Oh my God, I thought she was saying red wine!” This is the story of my life, that the world thinks she’s saying “red wine!” Especially because Gaga sings, “I’ve had a little bit too much” at the start. People think she’s talking about alcohol! Like she had a little bit too much red wine. I’m still happy that we made history, so I don’t care! It’s a beautiful thing I was a part of. We created history that will last forever.