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Why Global Demand Is Soaring For Groundbreaking DJ-Producer Peggy Gou: ‘I Worked Hard To Have a Glamorous Life’

On a hulking gray building on a wide boulevard once bisected by the Berlin Wall, a silver call button grants access to an expansive, shadowy, unfurnished foyer. Ascend a winding set of stairs and open the door at the top, and you’ll find the office of the CEO: South Korea-born Peggy Gou, who has swiftly become the world’s most in-demand female DJ-producer working in dance music today.

Inside Gou HQ, the bright overhead lights contrast with the early-April rain outside. The sprawling room — which has a vibe that’s more “friend’s apartment” than sterile corporate sanctum — is outfitted with a wooden meeting table, full bookshelves and a plush green velvet couch from which Tasos Filippou, Gou’s touring manager, arises to serve Gou and me black coffee in little terra cotta mugs on peace sign-shaped coasters. Gou wears baggy jeans, a black sweater that covers her many tattoos and sunglasses with silver reflective lenses that offer only occasional glimpses of her eyes. Her hair is piled in a loose bun, her skin is flawless, and even in casual mode, she’s giving cool-girl glamour. She offers a quick handshake, closes the window to make sure the room is quiet, then sits down to attend to business.

In the last 12 days, her slick brand of house has taken her to Miami, Mexico City and Buenos Aires. Of course, it’s not unusual for DJs to party hop across continents — what’s less typical for a DJ is having an office. But Gou’s story is defined by a business acumen that could be characterized as corporate hustle if it didn’t also happen inside dark techno clubs.

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A Korean woman in a scene dominated by white men, Gou, 32, has orchestrated her own dizzying rise, immersing herself in Berlin’s electronic scene upon moving here 10 years ago, then ascending to white-hot producer/fashion tastemaker thanks to last summer’s viral single, and her first Billboard chart hit, “It Goes Like (Nanana).” This new ubiquity — ever-higher billing at the world’s major music festivals, a German Vogue cover, a 2024 BRIT Award nomination for international song of the year — has neatly teed up Gou’s debut album, I Hear You, coming June 7 through eminent indie label XL Recordings.

The rare self-managed marquee artist, Gou has achieved much of her success on her own, and the room we’re sitting in functions as an extension of the command center in her mind.

“I remember meeting managers who told me, ‘I can make your life easier,’ ” Gou recalls. “I was like, ‘How? Tell me.’ Even if you take care of all these emails, you still have to come back to me because no one can make decisions for me. Every decision has to come from me.”

Peggy Gou photographed March 26, 2024 at Maison Celeste in Mexico City.

Peggy Gou photographed March 26, 2024 at Maison Celeste in Mexico City. Sentimiento tracksuit, Tercer Mundo vest, Cruda shoes, AYANEGUI earrings and necklace. Aaron Sinclair

These decisions have produced an expansive business that includes heavy touring; A-list brand deals; her label, Gudu Records; and a merchandise line, Peggy Goods. With strong fan bases across continents, Gou will next be raising her profile even more in the United States ahead of and beyond I Hear You’s release.

“Because Peggy has such an incredible touring footprint globally,” XL Recordings head of U.S. campaigns Laura Lyons says, “in the U.S., we’re in a position where, because we haven’t historically had her in the market as much, we need to build on the moments when she’s here in person and also translate the excitement of an international, globe-­trotting DJ to the local market.”

One week and 6,000 miles later, the odds will look clearly in Gou’s favor.

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The first time Gou played Coachella, in 2018, the line to get into her show wrapped around the at-capacity Yuma Tent where she was performing at three in the afternoon. “Even one person not being able to see my set, that upsets me,” she says. “So I was like, ‘Maybe next time, I play a bigger stage.’ ”

On the first night of the 2024 festival, that “maybe” has become a firm “for sure.” Gou presides over the Sahara Tent — Coachella’s biggest and most established dance music mecca — from atop a towering stage as an emoji version of herself smiles at the audience from massive LED screens. With the newly expanded Sahara Tent stretching 320 feet, not including spillover — almost a football field long — it’s likely Gou’s crowd is the largest ever assembled to see a female producer in Coachella history. (After the set, she shares Instagram Stories of herself backstage hanging with J Balvin, getting chummy with Will Smith and then getting a burger from an In-N-Out somewhere in the ­Coachella Valley.)

In March, Gou made her debut at Miami’s Ultra Music Festival, and in May, she’ll play dance mega-festival EDC Las Vegas for the first time. These shows, “from a perception point of view,” Lyons says, “are going to broaden [her] audience from this more underground electronic fan to a more mainstream kind of electronic base.”

Peggy Gou photographed March 26, 2024 at Maison Celeste in Mexico City.

Cueva top and skirt, Ket Void jacket, Cruda shoes. Floral Art Installation by Flores Cosmos. Aaron Sinclair

That might be anathema to some purists, particularly those steeped in the techno-as-religion culture of Berlin. But Gou has been able to maintain her underground cred even while blowing up. The early-April screening of the music video for I Hear You’s third single, “1+1=11,” happened at a smoky Berlin club where the techno went until 3 a.m. on a Wednesday, and her friend group includes revered producers like Four Tet and Floating Points, whom she was recently hanging with in Mexico City. “I love those guys,” she says. “So nerdy. Like, ‘Guys, stop talking about how fat your drum is.’ ”

I suggest to Gou that her underground pedigree, paired with a forthcoming debut album that’s refreshingly accessible, might make her uniquely well-suited for the United States, where the so-called “underground” styles of house and techno have become the scene’s prevailing commercial forces in the live space. For her, that idea is beside the point. “Some people are like, ‘She’s really underground,’ or ‘She’s commercial,’ ” Gou says. “I don’t care. I’m just going to keep doing my thing and you can say what you want.”

Growing up in South Korea’s third-most populous city, Incheon — where she was born Kim Min-ji — Gou listened to “sh-t,” “good music” and “everything.” She lived in the shadow of her older brother, who’s “like super genius, one of the crazy Mensa IQ people.” Meanwhile, “Study wasn’t my thing. I was kind of rebel. So if you tell me to stay here, I will not stay there. If you tell me to go, I will stay. I didn’t like people telling me what to do even from when I was a kid.”

Her parents, recognizing that their 14-year-old was not “doing well” in South Korea, asked if she wanted to study English in London; she did. In the United Kingdom, Gou lived with guardians but snuck out to parties, fostering a clubbing habit that matriculated with her into the London College of Fashion. She began DJ’ing, booked her own residency at a club in Shoreditch, finished school, moved to Berlin and worked at a record store by day while she was indoctrinated into techno by night. “After one month, I’m like, ‘OK,’ ” she says flatly of her first trips to the city’s notoriously exclusive techno institution, Berghain. “Three months later” — her voice grows louder and more forceful — “ ‘OK.’ Five months later, I was like, ‘I finally get it.’ ”

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By 2016, she was making her own music, and by 2018, revered dance label Ninja Tune was releasing it. She started her own Gudu Records in 2019; that same year, she released the groovy house track “Starry Night,” which featured her singing in Korean and became a dance world hit.

All the while, she was touring. As her own manager, “I was the only person who was pushing me,” she says. “I didn’t need to be there. I didn’t have to do that. I think I got hyped. I got too excited about the shows and getting many shows.” In 2019, she played in 25 countries, including some, like Lebanon, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, that are far from the well-trod dance world circuit.

“Imagine a bullet train,” Gou says, speaking rapidly. “This was me in 2019. When it stopped, it didn’t stop slowly; it had to stop super fast.”

When the pandemic started, she returned to South Korea and spent three months at home — the longest amount of time she had been with her family since she was 14. She recharged even as life in South Korea — which introduced what many considered one of the world’s best COVID-19 control programs — continued without large-scale lockdowns. (“Asian culture is different because when you have a flu, you wear a mask,” she says, “so it was not that difficult for Asian people to keep the rules.”)

In Incheon, Gou had the time and head space to focus on music. She echoes a pandemic-related refrain prevalent among DJs who tour heavily: “It was a hard time for a lot of people, but for me, it was one of the best things that happened to me.”

Peggy Gou photographed March 26, 2024 at Maison Celeste in Mexico City.

Peggy Gou photographed March 26, 2024 at Maison Celeste in Mexico City. Sentimiento top, Tiempos pants, Tercer Mundo belt, Frank Zapata shoes, AYANEGUI necklace. Batán Chairs by Taller Batán. Aaron Sinclair

She kept working upon her return to Berlin in mid-2020, finding that the ’90s dance music she was listening to during the pandemic had “changed my taste.” While she had been making her debut album for a while, she decided to make ’90s dance the center of the project, evident in the interplay of the bass and chimes on a track like “Lobster Telephone,” which sounds like it’s sprinkled with powdered sugar. The “It Goes Like (Nanana)” bassline is pure Jock Jams — the 1995 compilation that introduced a generation of suburban adolescents to dance music — and has helped the song aggregate 72.2 million on-demand official U.S. streams and 565.3 million on-demand official global streams to date, according to Luminate. Altogether, the album, on which she sings in both Korean and English, is dance music distilled down to its most polished essentials — and you don’t have to be a hardcore fan of the genre to get into it.

The sonic opposite of EDM maximalism, I Hear You may very well represent the future of main-stage electronic music. “In my career, I never once thought, ‘I’m on the next level now,’ ” she says. “Only when ‘Nanana’ happened did I realize that people were recognizing my song before my face. That’s when I really realized, ‘F–k, this is different.’ ”

Gou’s North American agent, Stephanie LaFera of WME (which represents her worldwide), says the song’s success has created “significant growth in her U.S. audience” that’s “only increasing the demand for her.” LaFera is focused on opportunities that serve Gou’s “super-engaged fan base that cuts across a lot of different spheres” while also introducing her to new listeners.

“For [“It Goes Like”] to become this global song of the summer and be Peggy’s first song to hit No. 1 on the U.S. dance radio charts was just such a fantastic tone-setter for this album,” Lyons adds, “and for what we believe she’s capable of achieving in the U.S.”

If you’re Peggy Gou, it’s entirely possible that the person seated across from you at Thanksgiving dinner may turn out to be Lenny Kravitz — which was exactly the case when, in 2022, she went to a friend’s house in Miami for the holiday.

“He had absolutely no idea who I was,” Gou recalls. “The only thing I could mention was that I did [two songs] for [his daughter] Zoë’s movie [The Batman].” It was a solid in. The pair talked over turkey, and her friend told Kravitz to check out Gou’s music. Not long after, Kravitz asked if she wanted to collaborate.

She sent Kravitz a track — a song that she had struggled to find a singer for after artists including The Weeknd and Giveon turned it down — and heard nothing back. “So I decided to go to the Bahamas,” where Kravitz lives, she says. “My friend was like, ‘You want to have Lenny Kravitz on your album? F–king book your flight, go there and get it.’ ” There was, Gou says, some “opinion clash” during the recording process, as “I’m a perfectionist and he’s perfectionist.” She adds with a smile, however, that Kravitz did ultimately tell her she was right about a part of the song they had disagreed on. Their slinky “I Believe in Love Again,” the second I Hear You single, arrived in November.

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Gou’s single-minded professional chess moves manifested her deal with XL in the first place, years after she reached out to the label about an internship back when she was a student in London. XL didn’t respond then, but it got in touch after the success of her 2018 single “It Makes You Forget (Itgehane).” “I did make a joke,” she says of her first meeting with XL, “like, ‘Check your inbox.’ ”

Gou acknowledges that working with her can be “very difficult because I push the team always harder… If you have so many opinions and you’re a woman, people call you a b–ch, but [XL] doesn’t see it that way. They think it’s a pleasure to work with someone who has a clear vision.”

XL also most likely enjoys working with a talent who’s changing the face of electronic music simply by being one of the most popular artists making it. “As incredible as it is to see a Korean woman occupy this space in dance music culture,” says Lyons, who herself is Asian American, “it’s not the reason why I’m excited by her.”

While a new level of streaming and chart success would be a nice outcome for I Hear You, to Gou, they’re “very 1D hopes.” She’ll consider the album a success if people listen to it and — she puts a hand over her heart — “get a feeling.”

Peggy Gou photographed March 26, 2024 at Maison Celeste in Mexico City.

Bottega Veneta coat, AYANEGUI earrings. Aaron Sinclair

The feelings are clearly being felt at Coachella, where people in the crowd — many of them, like Gou, also wearing sunglasses though the sun set long ago — are flailing around, arms in the air and dreamy smiles on their faces. A crew of six dancers pop and lock, vogue and gyrate onstage. Gou will take this show on the road this summer for a run that includes European festivals like Primavera Sound, Glastonbury and Creamfields. In August, she’s hosting and headlining her own one-day mini-fest at London’s Gunnersbury Park; the show’s 8,000 tickets sold out within days of going on sale.

Unlike her early years of touring alone, Gou now travels with her tour manager and a road assistant or two. She “doesn’t always fly private,” but says the primary appeal of a private jet is a preference for efficiency that she says is part of her heritage: “I’m someone who [doesn’t] like wasting my time. I’m very efficient. I think that’s from Korean culture. Efficiencies are very important in Korea.”

A private jet “saves a lot of time,” she continues, “and you can sleep half an hour or even one hour more. Also, you don’t need to worry about the baggage weight.” Perhaps most crucially, though, flying private lets her move through the world while maintaining maximum control. “Hotel lobbies and the airport,” she says, “give me so much anxiety.”

These days, Gou’s team also includes a security detail, as she has experienced stalkers and people “waiting at the hotel or waiting at the airport for 10 hours.” She “can’t go to Italy alone” and brings two security guards to Argentina where the crowd is “quite wild.” She recalls spending the entirety of a commercial flight to Ibiza facing the window after half the plane recognized her while boarding. “I was like, ‘My neck,’ ” she says with a laugh, feigning pain. “It’s nice, but sometimes it gets a lot for me.”

“She can see 100 meters ahead in the airport. She notices the colors of things, remembers what people are wearing and is just super, super sensitive,” touring manager Filippou says, “especially when there’s a lot of people around.”

But her skin has gotten thicker as her career has grown. “In the beginning, I remember [people saying], ‘You will never be bigger than this person. No one’s going to buy your record. No one knows your name.’ I heard these things so many times.”

The criticisms “used to really affect me,” Gou continues. “I used to want to scream, like, ‘That’s not f–king true.’ ” But as time went on, she realized she was the reason her feelings were getting so hurt. “I was not happy,” she says of her pre-pandemic life. “I was so focused and tunnel-visioned. My relationship with boyfriend wasn’t doing well. Friends, workwise — nothing was happy. I learned a lot about myself during the pandemic.” Learning to listen first and react later has been huge for her. It’s why she’s wearing a mirrored headpiece that reflects her ears on her album cover and why she named the project I Hear You.

Peggy Gou photographed March 26, 2024 at Maison Celeste in Mexico City.

Sentimiento tracksuit, Tercer Mundo vest, AYANEGUI earrings and necklace. Aaron Sinclair

One of the biggest early critiques Gou experienced side-eyed her interest in fashion, which made her fear “that people would never take me seriously.” So during her early years in Berlin, she sported the de facto DJ uniform of black (and sometimes, maybe, white) T-shirts — a fit that never felt authentic. Around this time, a mentor told her to turn her perceived weaknesses into strengths, so she ditched the tees for couture.

Dressing in brightly colored, flowing sets and racing gear helped her catch the attention of top fashion houses like Louis Vuitton, with which she has had two partnerships. She was good friends with late DJ-designer Virgil Abloh; after his 2021 death, she posted on Instagram that “I will forever be grateful that in the infancy of my career, Virgil showed support at a time when not many others would.” Her own Peggy Goods line creates custom merch for each of her shows; at the “1+1=11” music video screening party, more than one person wears a bomber jacket with the song’s title embroidered on the back.

Gou documents the fabulousness of it all on her Instagram, which has 4.1 million followers and which — yes — she runs herself. To her, the account is a natural evolution of her old Tumblr, where she would post photos of her outfits, meals and outings. She uses the same approach now on Instagram — except the outfits are by Ferragamo, the meals are on a beach in Ibiza and the outings are playing for tens of thousands of people screaming her name. Her glamorous aesthetic, and the size of her audience, has yielded deals with brands including Don Julio, Coca-Cola and Maybelline.

Now other DJs ask her how they can expand their own brands into the fashion world. It’s speculative, but the most obvious answer seems to be to work as hard as she has. “People see that I’m riding in a Rolls-Royce now, but I used to take a f–king bus,” she says. “I did an interview in Korea recently, and the first [comment] was, ‘I smell old money.’ No. My dad was poor. My mom was average. I’m not from a rich family. I worked hard to have a glamorous life.”

Like most anyone who has achieved major success and its attendant visibility, people still give Gou sh-t. But in a true boss move, she has come to enjoy it.

“Now when I hear criticism, it means I’m doing super well,” she says. “So go ahead: Say my name.”

Peggy Gou Billboard Cover Issue 6 April 27, 2024

This story will appear in the April 27, 2024, issue of Billboard.