Editor’s Note: With breaking news that Daft Punk are hanging up their helmets, we’re revisiting several of our relevant features. That includes Lior Phillips’ ambitious look at Daft Punk’s debut 1997 album, Homework, in which she examines, song by song, both the group’s influences and how they impacted the music that followed. This crash course in Daft Punk’s Homework was originally published as an anniversary piece in January 2017.
Homework will be playing as my soul glides into the ether.
These days, Daft Punk announce their superhuman abilities almost immediately — some might argue they’re more ubiquitous for their robotic guise over their actual music — but 20 years ago, when they released their sublime debut album, Homework, they were merely two French tricksters named Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo. At the time, they had begun wearing masks to produce an ego-less, universal presence for dance music — a language that could exist without signifiers, if you will — though decidedly not the chromed helmets of today. Rather than mechanic flourishes on the album art, they opted for simple satin.
Though the packaging has ramped up to surreal new heights of whimsy and wonder, it’s now remarkable to see just how much of Daft Punk’s sound has crystallized over the past two decades. Of course, it helps that they chose some valuable inspirational signposts in house, techno, G-funk, and hip-hop. Even so, the two producers were only 22 years old, an incredibly early age given the clarity and grace they had exuded in this complete and timeless masterpiece. In fact, it’s become more or less an instruction manual for current would-be producers, namely how it runs through genres as though they were hyperactive cartoon characters.
For that reason, the album’s connections to the past and influence on the future can be viewed much more clearly. Granted, the genres they twirled into Homework were previously indebted to sampling and remixing, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg to this album. What’s far more intriguing is the matter bubbling underneath, which is why we’ve gone ahead and dismantled each of the album’s 16 tracks piece by piece, searching for particular influences that they might have had and uncovering which artists might have been influenced. It’s an around-the-world study of Daft Punk, and one that requires zero airfare and zero SkyMiles. Dancing shoes are optional.
Prior to 1997, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo had been using the minimalist but entrancing “Daftendirekt” as the intro to their live performances, making it a fitting and wise choice to their debut album. It puts on display their embrace of house, a minimal yet disorienting groove that relies on a slow boil to get feet moving as the album crystallizes. With robotic vocoder and staccato 909, these beats combine the techno tapestry of Armand Van Helden’s “Witch Doktor”, a beguiling and funk-ified take on Sound on Sound’s “69”, and a bone-cracking “Le Patron Est Devenu Fou” by Etienne de Crecy — it’s moving when taken as a whole. That simple yet powerful formula made waves immediately, bringing the French house scene to the public attention — to the point that even Janet Jackson sampled it in “So Much Betta”, borrowing a bit of their robotic cool to add some unexpected oddness to her sultry compositions. In a sense, Daft Punk work as a link between the mechanic music of Kraftwerk and the electronic-indebted pop of the 2000s and ‘10s, and “Daftendirekt” shows how much and how quickly their influence spread.
Though the 28 seconds of “WDPK 83.7 FM” may not be the most influential or important track in their catalog, it works as a succinct transition between “Daftendirekt” and “Revolution 909”, using the sample of Vaughan Mason and Crew’s “Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll” as a bridge. The voice announcing the titular radio station, some have claimed, belongs to Bangalter; whether that’s true or not, the playful idolatry of dance radio fits in with Daft Punk’s self-aware adaptation of Western dance tropes. The sampled, slick “musique” (from their own track of the same name) plays a perfect rhythmic counterpoint to the tinny hi-hat echoey clap and heavy bass on the downbeats, a quick but effective track.
After the radio intro of “WDPK”, “Revolution 909” opens with its own narrative swatch: a rave getting broken up by the cops who insist that they “stop the music and go home.” But of course, police intervention couldn’t stop a beat as pulsing and insist as this one, the Doppler effect of the sirens transmuting into a mesmeric synth spin. The beat ripples and pops with an urgency, akin to the late ‘80s Chicago acid house of Phuture, though the track works off a clean bass line to smooth out that potential venom. The layers phase in and out of prominence, Daft Punk toying with the loops just enough to keep the heart rates racing, but not so much that it’s distracting. They manage the drama of the piece into a tidy arc, pushing and pulling at marionette strings to keep everyone dancing. Though only comprising the first 45 seconds of the five-and-a-half-minute track, the police story shows the band’s keen attention to narrative, something that’s proven incredibly influential both in the storytelling electronic music of acts like Nicolas Jaar and the more literal storytelling of Gorillaz — who actually sampled the crowd being broken up by the police in their 2005 track “Dare”.
Homework made an immediate impact with fans, but it’s remarkable how quickly their contemporaries and even those that predated them found inspiration in their subversion of house, hip-hop, and more. “Da Funk” is their G-Funk-leaning jam (specifically Warren G’s “Regulate”), a Moroder-esque synth hook that latches on at its 110 BPM lope and never lets go. The song was making such big waves that, as it’s told, The Chemical Brothers started incorporating it into their sets. Even years later, another massive dance-leaning act would crib from “Da Funk”: LCD Soundsystem would grab snippets of it during extended jams. Daft Punk’s imprint was massive and immediate, and the bump and grind gangsta lean of “Da Funk” makes that obvious from minute one. Their fountain of ideas was already seemingly limitless, and this gleeful melody — resembling a wordless verse-chorus-verse structure, produced on a TB-303 bass synthesizer — and tight four-four drum pattern show their pop takeover potential. The one thing I cherish about them is their absolute inability to refuse a good gambit.
“Phoenix” opens with a simple, straight-ahead percussive loop, a bass drum hitting the downbeat hard. Layers of cymbals and drums snap into polyrhythmic place, building outwards like layers of mechanic shell around a thudding heart. The two-note synth hook takes lead not long after, eventually subsumed by an enigmatic, fascinating bass line — something like the humming of a lumbering giant skipping his way home. It makes sense that the track was eventually remixed by Basement Jaxx, an English duo locking down their own corner of the underground house world; Jaxx opened for Daft Punk on their first UK tour, the two groups sharing a lot of the same playful layering and subversive flips, something that followers like Justice and SBTRKT have latched onto expertly. Though not a stereotypical dance pattern, the track clearly gets the body moving; this same phenomenon was arising in drill and bass offshoots in the same year like Aphex Twin’s “Bucephalus Bouncing Ball” and Squarepusher (as well as late-era Daniel Bell, eventually), making even the most complicated rhythms irresistible.
Sub a live vocal hook into “Fresh” for its delightfully disorienting chopped and looped voice, and you might wind up with something akin to the swirling, sweet party jams of Hot Chip or VHS or Beta. Opening and closing on the wash of waves, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo quickly establish the primacy of a guitar that ripples just as sweetly as the surf. Concentric circles of synth and phased percussion dominate most of the track, but the psychedelia of the guitar and that incessant vocal make for a compelling brew. That same interplay of traditional dance patterns, melting instrumentation, and a simple, yet expressive vocal performance (and whatever the voice on “Fresh” is saying, it seems seriously felt) laid groundwork for bands that would further fuse electronic music with pop-friendly structures. In fact, it may have been laying groundwork for themselves as well; while others built on the intense drama of Radiohead’s OK Computer or the glitchy breakbeats of Autechre’s Chiastic Slide, Daft Punk continued down the rainbow path of “Fresh” and eventually led to “One More Time”.
“Around the World”
I had never seen a mummy dance before! Sampled, remixed, or covered by everyone from Jojo to Snoop Dogg, “Around the World” clearly has as much appeal with other artists as it does with the millions of adoring fans who still fill the dance floor whenever it gets played, even 20 years later. The deceptively simple beat builds an entire party globe out of five different layers, each cut up and pasted back together in equally simple chunks — though when all glued up, they produce a collage of grand dance repercussions. Before they got the opportunity to reassert the power of Nile Rodgers by actually playing with him, “Around the World” rode a super-Chic bass line into hearts around the world, but the Heil talkbox used here to produce some of their earliest robo-voices may just be the most memorable aspect of the track. Infusing disco and R&B into house music wasn’t unique at the time, but neither was it entirely common; the thing that really sells “Around the World” as a vision of the Daft Punk future is the way in which they turn the repeated house vocal line into something otherworldly and dystopically cool.
“Rollin’ & Scratchin’”
In a world where waiting for the drop has become the national pastime and industrial-adjacent synth scrapes are just a part of everyday parlance, “Rollin’ & Scratchin’” shows you exactly how far ahead of their time Daft Punk were. The seven-and-a-half-minute track opens for nearly two minutes on a single repeating drum beat and a slowly building synth drone. Eventually some roboticized handclaps mix in, followed by some sine wave bass rumble. The high end wins out, though, the sound of teeth getting drilled paired with nearly buried and scrambled radio signals. The road from here to Skrillex and dubstep may not be a straight line, but it shares a lot of the same infrastructure. And when Daft Punk reach their peak on “Rollin’ & Scratchin’”, they truly pop off the soundwave, all rough edges and swaggering confidence. But as with most Daft Punk productions, this one straddles house and European techno as well, combining the drawn-out builds of Lil Louis (think “French Kiss”) and German producer Losoul (whose “Sawce” was surely influenced by Daft Punk’s squared synth tones).