Hiding in Plain Sight: Dr. Luke Is Back With Doja Cat’s Smash ‘Say So,’ But Did He Ever Really Go Away?
Doja Cat’s fast-rising hit “Say So” — which soars to No. 2 on the Rolling Stone Top 100 this week and hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 — is the kind of song that you feel like you’ve heard before.
Maybe it’s because of the razor-sharp vocals or the TikTok-ready guitar licks, or — bonus — the Nicki Minaj guest rap on its just-released remix. But most likely it’s because the effortlessly effervescent chorus, which is virtually impossible to get out of your head once you’ve heard it, came from the same writer as Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone,” Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball,” Katy Perry’s “California Gurls,” Britney Spears’ “Hold It Against Me,” Pink’s “U + Ur Hand” and dozens of other hits.
That would be Lukasz Gottwald, a.k.a. Dr. Luke, the formerly high-flying hitmaker who was “disgraced” by a widely publicized 2014 lawsuit by former protégé Kesha that alleged sexual assault and emotional abuse and attempted to free her from her label and publishing contracts with him — charges he has steadfastly denied while his lawyers have won multiple rounds over five-plus years in court. It’s been as many years since Gottwald’s name was attached to a major chart hit.
While the credited producer of “Say So” is one Tyson Trax, that name is among several pseudonyms Gottwald has used since being effectively shunned in the court of public opinion. In reality, the music never stopped for the producer, songwriter and executive. His Prescription Songs publishing company is a powerhouse that has won ASCAP’s Indie Publisher of the Year crown three times in the decade since its founding, and has credits on dozens of hits, including Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now” and “New Rules” and Arizona Zervas’ “Roxanne.” His Kemosabe label — which includes Doja, Becky G and, yes, Kesha — is a partnership with Sony Music/RCA Records that he publicly removed himself from in April 2017, but still participates in profit sharing via royalties he earns from credits on those artists’ releases. And while he’s less active as a songwriter-producer than previously, he’s taken a strong hand in the development of several newcomers, most prominently Doja and Kim Petras (the latter under the pseudonym Made in China). Dr. Luke may have vanished, but Lukasz Gottwald — and his businesses — haven’t gone anywhere.
But even in the book of Luke, which counts well over a dozen top 10 hits, “Say So” is massive. Consider the song’s 1.8 million adjusted song units sold, according to Alpha Data; 100 million-plus views on YouTube, 400 million streams on Spotify and nearly 200,000 spins on terrestrial radio, per MediaBase, in addition to staggering stats on TikTok — these are the kind of numbers the music industry was built to seize and gloat upon openly and loudly. So much so that the question needs to be asked: has Dr. Luke been un-cancelled?
“The guy’s a genius,” says veteran artist manager Larry Rudolph, whose clients include Spears and Petras. “He’s incredible at what he does and always has been. He got into an ugly and unfortunate public situation with an artist — but it’s not like his talent went away.”
Indeed, as Variety learned, when it comes to Dr. Luke, the industry seems to have gotten past the optics of working with someone accused — but far from convicted — of a criminal act. “It’s not forgotten but it seems to be less of a conversation, for sure,” says one A&R executive.
No one can argue that Gottwald isn’t an unusually gifted music maker who’s acutely in tune with trends on the horizon and sonic flourishes of the not-too-distant future. He’s also a notoriously tough businessman with the sort of personal wealth that allows a freedom in which he doesn’t have to give a damn about offending those around him.
“Luke’s an asshole — everybody knows it,” says another top industry insider. “But I don’t think he’s a rapist.”
Kesha’s allegations scared off much off the industry for a while — as did public statements critical of Gottwald from Clarkson and Pink, not to mention widespread support from the #FreeKesha social-media wave in 2015, and a $250,000 donation from Taylor Swift after Kesha’s injunction to free herself from her Kemosabe deal was denied by a judge. But given the lack of proof, not to mention his musical track record, it didn’t stay away for long.
“Initially, you’d rather be safe than sorry, and I think everyone needed to take a breath until the facts came in,” says another top label exec who has worked with Gottwald. “I kind of wish he had stepped back a bit, in terms of the media coverage,” the source adds, referring to the blistering statements from Gottwald’s camp in response to each of the multiple lawsuits around Kesha’s allegations.
“If criminal charges had been proven, it would be a different story, but it’s not like he’s Harvey Weinstein,” the exec continues. “And at the end of the day, if a song is great and the artist is okay with it, it’s not really my business to stand in the way.”
“Luke was always a tough business man, sometimes tougher than he needed to be,” says Chris Anokute, a veteran A&R executive and head of Young Forever who has known and worked with Luke for more than a decade. “He didn’t always know when to fold, and never made it easy if you were on the other side of negotiation. But personally, he was always a great friend, is in fact very sensitive and vulnerable when you know him. Sometimes business makes you put on a mask, so that you don’t even recognize yourself sometimes. “
Still, the Kesha war has been an extremely ugly and destructive legal battle that has grievously damaged several careers, dragged Lady Gaga and Katy Perry into the proceedings, and affected dozens of the artists and executives with whom Gottwald has been affiliated.
Anokute thinks that’s unfair. “Nobody’s perfect, people make mistakes,” he tells Variety. “In a court of law, he has been proven innocent. Dr. Luke is one of the greatest producers in modern day pop music. Creatively, there’s no one better. I’ve never sat next to anyone with that much talent. He’s taught me more about how to hear, dissect and arrange a hit song more than anyone I’ve known.”
Gottwald’s net worth is the result of royalties that he’s entitled to on his own work and Prescription’s — for loose reference, a chart-topping song in the U.S. can earn $2 million a year in publishing with additional funds coming from master rights, synchs and public performance payouts — and also savvy investing. He also owned a stake in beverage company Core Nutrition — which some claim he pressured his artists to invest in — that netted some $525 million when it was purchased by Dr. Pepper’s parent company last year. In addition, his portfolio includes a significant amount of prime real estate in Hollywood.
Gottwald’s rise from cocky guitarist in the “Saturday Night Live” house band to one of the biggest hitmakers of this century gained steam around the turn of the millennium, when he began an apprenticeship with Swede Max Martin — who actually is the biggest hitmaker of this century, with smashes ranging from the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears to Justin Timberlake and The Weeknd. Gottwald hit the ground running in 2005 with Clarkson’s career-defining “Since U Been Gone,” then followed with a multi-platinum barrage including Kesha’s breakthrough “Tik Tok” in addition to hits by Perry and Cyrus.
He launched Prescription Songs in 2009, a publishing company/hitmaker boot camp styled on Martin’s company — which itself was inspired by Cheiron, the studio, label and publisher created by Martin’s mentor, the late Denniz Pop, the creative force behind the early ’90s blockbuster act Ace of Base. (Going back even further, the Swedish pop business has been deeply influenced by Abba’s nearly unprecedented musical and business success in the 1970s and ’80s.) Over the past decade, Prescription has grown into a powerhouse, with offices in Los Angeles and Nashville.
Some good news for the producer came in March, when a federal judge in Los Angeles overturned a $2.8 million jury verdict against Dr. Luke and several others in the “Dark Horse” copyright case. A jury found last year that the hit Katy Perry song — which Dr. Luke helped write and produce — had borrowed an eight-note recurring riff from an earlier song by the Christian rapper Flame. But Judge Christina Snyder vacated the decision, finding that the riff was commonplace.
Clearly, Gottwald no longer needs to write songs in order to keep the lights on. But in another longstanding music-industry open secret, the presence of someone’s name in the credits of a song — particularly in the dozen-or-more-writer pileups that accompany most hits today — doesn’t mean that person worked closely with the artist in the studio, or even contributed musically at all. Gottwald, like many top hitmakers, has earned a reputation for such a practice made easier by the very existence of Prescription, as well as for being a demanding overseer that expects those under him to work grueling schedules with hours upon hours spent editing those fine, barely audible but necessary sonic details.
Thus, when media alarms sounded over Gottwald’s name in the credits of Iggy Azalea’s 2018 non-hit “Savior,” Azalea responded on Twitter, writing: “It’s produced by Cirkut [a.k.a. Canadian songwriter-producer and frequent Gottwald collaborator Henry Walter] and another kid MHL, who have production agreements with Luke. Their deals and who they are tied in with business-wise in no way make ME ‘working’ with Dr. Luke.”
However, Gottwald remains a credited writer of the song, and its listed producers are Cirkut and the mysterious “Manhun Glow,” a name that apparently has no other songwriting or production credits and, following the MHL acronym, would be an indelicate pseudonym.
On “Say So,” that Dr. Luke magic can be heard from the opening bars: specifically in the way the chorus, in all its earworm glory, hits you first. It’s the sort of lightning-in-a-bottle moment that comes from experience in the form of a trained ear, genuine talent and relentless pursuit of a hit. Gottwald has this holy trinity down pat, and unlike recording artists, it’s not as if he needs the “Dr. Luke” brand to succeed.
“Time is the great healer, and he’s been all but exonerated, as far as I can see,” the high-ranking executive says, adding, “as an industry, we’ve forgiven far worse.”
“I will work with him again,” says Anokute. “Once a hitmaker always a hitmaker.”