IN JULY 2014, the songwriter, producer, and mogul Lukasz Gottwald, a.k.a. Dr. Luke, paced the halls of one of his favorite workplaces, Conway Studios in Hollywood, and mused about thriving under pressure. The way he saw it, he faced more of it as a behind-the-scenes hitmaker than artists do. “I always hear artists talk about that,” Gottwald said, in a previously unpublished segment of a Rolling Stone interview, at a moment when the 10-year hot streak that began for him with Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” was about to come to a cataclysmic end. “But as a producer-songwriter, you have to do it all of the time. Every day, it’s like, ‘OK, you had a hit. How do you beat that one?’ There’s that overwhelming feeling: fear of failure and doom. And that’s natural. That’s part of the creative process.”
Gottwald’s creative talent and ruthless perseverance have rarely been under dispute, though the same couldn’t be said for his character. Within months of that interview, he became one of the most reviled figures in the music industry, thanks to a mud-splattering legal battle with his former protégée Kesha. In a suit filed in October 2014, she alleged he gave her a pill and then raped her on a drunken night in 2005 — and also triggered a life-threatening eating disorder by criticizing her weight. Kesha’s lawsuits stalled out by 2018 after a series of unfavorable rulings, none of which reached a factual conclusion about the rape allegation. But Gottwald pursued a defamation countersuit, alleging she invented the accusation to get out of her contracts with him. (The case expanded to a separate count, ultimately upheld by a judge, that Kesha defamed Gottwald in a text to Lady Gaga that falsely claimed he raped Katy Perry.) In late June of this year, with a trial looming, Dr. Luke and Kesha settled his defamation case.
In the joint social media statement for the settlement, Kesha wrote: “Only God knows what happened that night. As I always said, I cannot recount everything that happened.” Gottwald’s attorney, Christine Lepera, told reporters the statement “clears Luke’s name” of the rape allegation. Kesha’s quote ran next to one from Gottwald: “I am absolutely certain that nothing happened. I never drugged or assaulted her and would never do that to anyone.” The settlement was likely triggered by a ruling that Gottwald is a public figure, which would have made a court victory more difficult for him. But the wording of it all, obviously the product of extensive negotiations, was clearly “slanted” in Gottwald’s favor, as attorney Susan Crumiller, who wasn’t involved in the case, put it.
Long before that apparent final victory for Gottwald, in an industry with short memories and an unending appetite for hit songs, he’d already made it back to the center of pop music — and his renewed success arrived despite a series of reputational bruises that went beyond the rape accusation. The allegations of fixating on Kesha’s weight have never gone away (though he’s denied it), along with accusations of controlling behavior toward artists, and the overarching sense, as one successful songwriter puts it, that Gottwald was “a fucking dick to everybody.” But even so, “he continues to just win,” says an executive who works with producers and songwriters. (Like the other sources interviewed in this story, he asked for anonymity because of Gottwald’s power and influence.) “It’s unbelievable.”
LAST YEAR ALONE, Gottwald had a Number One smash as one of the writer-producers on Nicki Minaj’s “Super Freaky Girl” and a Number Three hit with Latto’s “Big Energy,” along with continued streams and airplay for multiple collaborations with Doja Cat. Those songs, among other successes, were enough to win him ASCAP’s Pop Music Songwriter of the Year award in May. Unlike, say, the Grammys, the prize wasn’t a subjective decision. It simply meant he’d garnered more streams and airplay than any other songwriter that year.
Gottwald’s return to the top seemed particularly unlikely in 2016, when outrage over Kesha’s allegations hit its peak. The public perception at the time was that her contracts with him would block her from releasing music, and her alleged experience became a symbol of every creepily exploitative Svengali-protégée relationship. Fans held organized protests outside of courtrooms and signed petitions; Adele gave Kesha a shout-out from the stage of the BRIT Awards; Lady Gaga, Fiona Apple, and Jack Antonoff expressed support online; Taylor Swift gave Kesha $250,000 to cover financial needs. It was the era of #freekesha.
“Regardless of whether or not Dr. Luke did that,” Pink told The New York Times in 2017, referring to the rape allegation, “this is his karma, and he earned it because he’s not a good person.” Kelly Clarkson was a particularly vocal supporter, testifying in a 2017 deposition in Kesha’s case that she found Gottwald to be “dismissive and belittling.” “I don’t know anyone who likes him,” she said, adding that an employee of her former record company, RCA, told her “almost every female at our label doesn’t like working with him.” The next year, Clarkson told the Rolling Stone Music Now podcast that she found herself “totally bawling on the phone with my manager” at the prospect of working with Gottwald for a second time, in 2009. (Clarkson’s reps had no further comment.)
In the face of that level of opprobrium, for four years — 2015 to 2018 — Gottwald’s songwriting and production career seemed to fade. In 2013 alone, before the lawsuit, Gottwald worked with Britney Spears, his longtime collaborator Katy Perry, Shakira, Nicki Minaj, and Maroon 5, among others. In the years that followed, A-list women were mostly absent from his résumé, save for stray tracks with Jennifer Lopez, Fergie, and Minaj. (Lopez apparently didn’t know Gottwald was involved when she recorded her track, and it appears that Fergie worked with him before the lawsuit.) Gottwald co-produced Perry hits from “Teenage Dream” to “I Kissed a Girl,” but his credits were absent from her post-2013 albums. (A rep for Perry did not respond to a request for comment.)
Pink and Clarkson were not alone in their feelings about him. “Do I believe that people wanted to see him lose?” says the successful songwriter. “Yeah.” (A representative for Dr. Luke did not respond to multiple requests for comment. A representative for Doja Cat also did not respond to a request for comment.)
The lawsuit forced Gottwald into the shadows, in contrast to what had been an unusual level of visibility for a writer-producer — he had even come close to becoming a judge on American Idol. Even in retreat, however, the powerful business apparatus he built at his peak kept humming. His publishing company, Prescription Songs, continued to sign songwriters of various stripes: the melody writers known as topliners, producers, beatmakers, artists, “vibe people.” He also had a Sony-distributed record label, Kemosabe, and Gottwald never stopped his own production work, even as he experimented with abandoning his Dr. Luke moniker for aliases like Tyson Trax and Made in China.
Prescription only grew larger during the Kesha-Gottwald battles, becoming one of the industry’s most successful pop factories: It ranked seventh on Billboard’s 2022 Year End Hot 100 Publishing Corporations list. Among the songs credited to its signees are hits for Dua Lipa, Lizzo, the Weeknd, Selena Gomez, Iggy Azalea, Troye Sivan, and dozens of others. In modern pop songwriting, any given song might be worked on by multiple songwriters and producers who are unlikely to have ever been in a room together — and any number of them might be signed to Prescription Songs. “You can’t set foot in a session here without working with someone who is signed to Prescription,” one L.A.-based songwriter says. “It’s everywhere.” That approach was at least partly pioneered by Gottwald, as a songwriter who used to work for him points out: It’s a business model based on “building teams of producers and songwriters, like forming Voltron,” he says. “It’s creativity through a brutally commercial lens.”
In private, Gottwald apparently projected nonchalance in the face of his challenges. He “comes across very confident,” says one songwriter. “His aura is very, like, not worried, unconcerned with that sort of thing. He’s fucking lawyered up. I think he probably feels somewhat invincible. Clearly, he took a gigantic reputation hit through all this. But I think he still feels like, ‘Well, I still make the music industry go through me.’”
Gottwald’s swagger is only reinforced by his wealth. As early as 2011, he said he was set for life financially — in the first decade of his career, he earned $77.8 million in royalties as a producer-songwriter, according to his lawyers. In 2015, he bought a luxury compound in Hawaii where he hosts artists and writers. In 2018, he sold a bottled-water company he co-founded, called CORE Nutrition, to Keurig Dr Pepper for $525 million. “He probably feels like, ‘I still have my compound in Hawaii. I still fly private,’” one songwriter says.
WITH GOTTWALD’S REPUTATION seemingly keeping established female stars away from him, he simply doubled down on working with new ones. Prescription and Kemosabe, and the scouts at each, were powerful tools to funnel new talent his way. “I think the nature of being a writer-producer,” says the executive who works with songwriters and producers, “is it’s such an inside job that I think you can kind of sneak your way back into the ballpark.”
In his semi-exile years, Gottwald also began to refocus on hip-hop and R&B, where he seemed to face less scrutiny, the executive suggests. “Hip-hop was kind of a safe space for him,” the exec says, adding that short memories for even recent history among some Gen Z artists helped. In 2020, Saweetie released “Tap In,” a Too Short-sampling song that was solely produced by Gottwald. It went to Number 20 on the pop charts, and Saweetie later claimed she had no idea who Dr. Luke was when they worked together. “I’m so green,” Saweetie told Vulture. “Maybe that’s a double-edged sword because I’m coming into the studio and I’m not knowing who these people are. I was able to learn about all of his achievements, and all of the allegations as well, after a couple of sessions.”
The same year, the posthumous Juice WRLD single “Wishing Well” hit Number Five — it was also a Dr. Luke co-production, from an artist who could no longer be questioned about the collaboration. “That’s what makes him so prolific in this industry,” says one writer-producer who’s worked with Gottwald on some songs over the past decade. “He always figures out how to stay ahead of the curve.” (“Whatever you do, you can’t do that again,” Gottwald told Rolling Stone, in an unpublished segment of a 2011 interview. “You can’t do the same trick again, so it forces you to change.”)
Being a hitmaker for hire was never enough for Gottwald. He wanted control. He had been deeply involved in the early success of Katy Perry, but his first real attempt at single-handedly creating a superstar was Kesha, followed by his discovery of the then-14-year-old Becky G, who had a slow climb to stardom — she didn’t get to release an album until seven years of singles during her time under Gottwald’s tutelage. “It is sort of a known thing that he takes ownership of his artists,” says one singer-songwriter.
In 2012, Gottwald told Rolling Stone how deeply attached he felt to Kesha’s then-upcoming Warrior, which he was producing. “I feel in some ways it falls on me as much as it falls on Kesha,” he said, in a previously unpublished interview segment. “I feel as attached to the project. And I don’t want to let her down, and I don’t want to let myself down, either.” In June of that year, according to court filings, Gottwald saw Kesha eating “turkey and Diet Coke” when she was supposed to be on a juice fast. He started “a discussion,” he wrote in an email, “about how she can be more disciplined in a diet.” Kesha left in tears, and when her manager complained, Gottwald shot back, “We all get concerned when she is breaking her diet plan. We have seen it happen multiple times. It is also double-concerning when the A-list songwriters and producers are reluctant to give Kesha their songs because of her weight.” Gottwald’s lawyer suggested his emails were taken out of context and reflected on Kesha’s “own concerns about her weight.”
Kesha developed an eating disorder that she has said almost killed her, and ended up in rehab in 2014. “I really just thought I wasn’t supposed to eat food,” she revealed to Rolling Stone in a 2017 cover story. “And then, if I ever did, I felt very ashamed, and I would make myself throw up because I’d think, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe I actually did that horrible thing. I’m so ashamed of myself because I don’t deserve to eat food.’”
Becky G (born Rebbecca Gomez) filed a less-publicized lawsuit against Gottwald’s water brand CORE, in 2018, contending that Gottwald pushed her to constantly promote the brand, and that she was used more as “a walking, talking, singing billboard” than as an artist. “Luke made it clear both directly and implicitly that Ms. Gomez’s ability to have a music career would be tied to her continuing involvement in promoting CORE,” the complaint said. CORE Nutrition denied all of the allegations, and Gomez dropped the suit in 2019. (A rep for Becky G had no comment.)
“He’s amazing at artist discovery and development and surrounding himself with really, really talented writers and producers,” says the successful songwriter, “but he plays mental games with them, even the men. Producers or writers signed to him over the years, I would hear from all of them, how he would play favorites and make the other ones feel jealous. They all want Daddy Luke’s attention.… I’ve worked with everybody in his camp, who have all experienced him, at one point or another, making them feel small [with] verbal and mental torture. I witnessed a songwriter asking Luke for something and shaking while he was asking him. He’s a fucking genius. But he’s also a master manipulator, and awful to the people who work with him.”
In an unpublished segment of Gottwald’s very first print interview, with Rolling Stone in 2011, he painted himself as a caring mentor. “I feel like I teach them a lot,” he said. “But I think what’s amazing, the thing that I didn’t plan on when I started doing it, the thing I didn’t realize is how gratifying it would be to be able to help people and sincerely make a difference in their lives. The other thing is how much that you actually learn from other people, too. And so I think that will allow me to go a little longer.”
GOTTWALD GREW UP IN MANHATTAN as a musical prodigy, an indifferent student, and a teenage drug dealer. “I’ve gotten into fucked-up situations,” he said of his teen years, in a mostly unpublished interview segment from 2011. “I had a good business going on, you know? I was 15 years old, I was walking around with like $15,000 cash in my pocket. And stupid, jumping the turnstile in the subway station with like a few pounds of weed in my backpack and all that money. When you’re that age you’re just not wise. You think you’re invincible.… I was moving a good 25 pounds of weed a week.”
His guitar teacher persuaded him to stop dealing and get serious about music, but it was actually his own weed dealer who led him to his big break, the guitarist slot in the Saturday Night Live house band. Gottwald kept that job for a decade, and during that time, friends at the hip-hop label Rawkus Records got him started doing remixes of rap records. He also launched a side career as a club DJ, which led him to songwriting legend Max Martin and his colleague Rami Jaffee.
“Either the first or the second thing we did was ‘Since U Been Gone,’” Gottwald told Rolling Stone in 2011. We were listening to the Hives and the Strokes, and Max was like, ‘Why can’t they just write a hit chorus?’ And that’s what we did.” That’s Gottwald’s guitar on “Since U Been Gone” — and the opening riff on “Party in the U.S.A.” is likely his, too.
Only three years after the Kesha lawsuit, a new Gottwald protégée emerged. In August 2017, Kim Petras released her first single, “I Don’t Want It at All,” one of many collaborations to come with Gottwald.
One creative director who worked closely with Petras says Gottwald involved himself intimately in her career, “from the music to the visuals to everything. And he’s very specific, he’s very controlling, but also, he has a lot of experience making pop stars. So he does, in some ways, know what he’s doing.” For the first time since the lawsuit, Gottwald was back in full Svengali mode.
Petras faced extensive criticism for her work with Gottwald, but kept collaborating with him. She tweeted (and then deleted) in 2022, “5000000 ppl work with him why y’all only coming at me. I have nothing to say or be ashamed of at all. go away.” Gottwald is all over her new album, Feed the Beast. (A rep for Petras did not respond to a request for comment.)
It was another new artist, signed around 2014, before Kesha’s lawsuit hit, who would truly open the door for Gottwald’s return. Doja Cat’s breakthrough hit, 2019’s “Say So,” was solely produced by Gottwald, under the alias Tyson Trax. The song was so undeniable that it won Gottwald his first Grammy nominations since 2014. In 2021, Doja told Rolling Stone she wouldn’t work with Gottwald again.
Gottwald also helped pave the way for his return to the mainstream by improving his behavior, the exec says. “You [would] just hear that the guy was impossible to work with and went head to head with the heads of the majors.” But, in recent years, he adds, “he’s been a really decent guy.… He’s been lovely. I’m sure that when things happened, he realized he had to kind of ease it back a bit.”
In the world of Prescription, too, Gottwald stays in the background, and lets a crew of personable executives — almost all women — run the company. “They’re mostly great people to work with, to be honest,” the songwriter says. “They act as a buffer between Luke and the company.”
One artist manager says Gottwald’s track record of success was enough for some artists to overlook any qualms, even before the settlement. “It’s almost like a neighborhood restaurant that is a little bit too expensive, and the service is bad, but some people are still gonna go there,” he says. “It’s the way I see Luke. Not to take away from all the awful stuff that he’s done, but people are gonna go to their favorite restaurant, even if they had a Trump sticker in the window.”
It’s too early to say whether the settlement of the lawsuit will remove some or all of the stigma of working with Gottwald.
“I would bet you that some people will still not be comfortable working with him,” says the successful songwriter. “And I think that there are some people that are fine with it.”
The real test of Gottwald’s return will be when a truly A-list pop star openly works with him again. His onetime collaborator Katy Perry, for instance, is due for a new album. But no matter what, it’s hard to imagine anything or anyone getting Gottwald to stop — at least before he decides it’s time. “I really like doing the work,” he said in 2011. “And when I don’t like doing it anymore, I won’t do it.”
Additional reporting by Ezra Marcus, Cheyenne Roundtree, and Gavin Edwards.
From Rolling Stone US