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David Letterman's Legacy in Electronic Music is Small but Real

Here are the eight most pivotal electronic music performances from Dave's 'Late Show.'

by David Garber
May 20 2015, 6:23pm

You probably are aware that tonight, Late Night legend David Letterman, is hanging up his horned-rimmed glasses for good, and will be saying goodbye to his show after an historic 27 year run. Shortly after, Stephen Colbert will be taking over Late Night duties.

In addition to his quick wit and penchant for pet tricks, David Letterman has long been revered for his taste in music. When his historic 27 year run as a late night host comes to an end with his final episode of the Late Show tonight, the many musicians who played his stage will remain a substantial pillar of Letterman's legacy. Even if you never watch TV at 11:35 (or 12:27 AM when the music segment of the show typically begins), the performances on Letterman's Late Show made an impact. Case in point: the 2014 appearance of Future Islands which led to the band being hailed as a breakout star of the year.

Everyone knows Dave has always been a rock guy and perhaps a bit too old to have had a real penchant for house. Still, throughout the show's run there have been a handful of dance music-leaning acts who staked their claim in late night television, often as the first of a genre to appear in late night or on network TV at all.

As we shed a tear for Dave's departure this evening, take a look at eight of the acts that turned studio the Ed Sullivan theater into a dancefloor, albeit briefly.

8. Holy Ghost! "Dumb Disco Ideas" - November 1, 2013

Brooklyn synth-pop duo Holy Ghost! is a fitting musical guest for Letterman because like many other electronic-leaning acts to appear over the years, they sit on a border between rock and dance-centric sounds. There to promote their 2013 album Dynamics, the guys put down a live performance of their song "Dumb Disco Ideas." While group member Alex Frankel spins from behind a set of turntables, Nick Millhiser is appears singing live and playing guitar. The guys are also joined by a full band (and motherboard of analog gear) as well as Nancy Whang and Juan from another DFA indie-dance outfit, The Juan Maclean. A performance like this aptly displays some of the far-reaching possibilities that dance music can have in the live sphere, as well as on television.

7. Die Antwoord, "I Fink U Freeky" - February 6, 2012

One can't help but chuckle hearing Dave say the words "rap" and "rave" in succession, but he did, before South African outfit Die Antwoord stormed on the stage to perform "I Fink U Freeky" from their second studio album, Ten$ion. Easily one of the weirder performances to ever take place on the show, Antwoord's song featured their acclaimed brand of hardcore rave party sounds courtesy of Ninja, Yo-Landi Vi$er and DJ Hi-Tek, who wore a frightening animal mask on stage—probably another first for late night. This was also a high-profile spotlight on the merging of electronic music and hip-hop styles for the mainstream. Shocked like the rest of the audience, Dave cheekily caps the group's set with a quip: "there's your halftime performance."

6. Icona Pop, "All Night" - October 3, 2013

There's indeed something a bit odd about Caroline Hjelt of Icona Pop seen merely twisting a knob on a lone controller during the opening notes of the Swedish electro-pop duo's Late Night debut. It happens right before she eventually makes her way to a microphone, and is probably intended to signify the fact that this is an electronic music band. We see it again when she fiddles with a Korg for about one millisecond. It's a bit silly, but plenty of people do silly shit on TV, plus the delivery is solid. Performing "All Night" from their album This Is...Icona Pop, the duo let loose on a track that lyrically (and stylistically) captures dance music's carefree hedonism, with the lyrics "we can do this all night."

5. DJ Shadow, Q-Tip, and Lateef the Truth Speaker, "Enuff" - November 24, 2006

Back in 2006, Dave welcomed to the stage one of the defining voices in beat-focused electronic music, California artist DJ Shadow. Shadow was one of the first to bring turntablism, hip-hop and electronica to the masses, becoming a powerful voice in the next generation of post-rave dance music. While the performance of "Enuff," from his album from that year, The Outsider, (alongside hip-hop figures Lateef the Truth Speaker and Q-Tip), didn't turn the tune into a radio hit, seeing the DJ go scratch-crazy on a pair of Technics prompted the usually staid studio audience of tourists and middle aged New Yorkers who hangout in Midtown to throw their hands in the air. Seriously, that actually happened.

4. Kiesza, "Hideaway" - July 11, 2014

Last year, Canadian vocalist Kiesza skyrocketed from obscurity to viral-stardom with her grooving house number "Hideaway" (her video currently lies at 24 million views). She's since done collabs with Diplo and Skrillex, released a full-length album, and sold out venues across the world. Back in July, Kiesza made her network television debut with Letterman, performing her hit alongside a crew of dancers, Stomp-style drummers, and of course, a DJ. While her track was already a club and festival mainstay, Kiesza's appearance on Letterman introduced her and her formidable pipes to an even wider audience, as well as probably a fair amount of old people who have never heard of SoundCloud.

3. Chromeo, "Night By Night" - Setember 20, 2010

Chromeo's 2010 performance of "Night By Night" from their album Business Casual wouldn't be the duo's last time gracing the stage of the Late Show. In 2014, they would return again to perform "Jealous (I Ain't With It)" (before Nick Jonas ripped them off). They've also performed on other late night shows like Kimmel over the years. The 2010 performance put P-Thugg's vocoded croons and Dave 1's saucy guitar licks and vocals front and center while a string-section of Rockette-like musicians served as a backup band. And because it's Chromeo, it was totally funky.

2. Moby and Gwen Stefani, "South Side" - November 6, 2000

It was an interesting time for dance music in 2000. After years of hype, the biggest electronica crossover act turned out to be a quirky bald vegan man by the name of Moby who reigned supreme with a string of singles from his multi-platinum album Play. Performing alongside Gwen Stefani, who was just emerging as a solo star after only two albums with No Doubt, the performance featured Moby—sporting an Al Gore campaign t-shirt on the night before the Presidential election—on guitar and vocals, alongside Gwen on the mic, as well as an array of musical knick-knacks, and a lone turntablist. The performance had tremendous energy, totally millennial swagger, even outlasting the recount process of the next day's election.


1. Zedd and Foxes, Clarity - January 3, 2013

At the time, Zedd's Late Show debut was hailed as a first for EDM. If you consider EDM a subgenre of electronic music (or discount the rest of this list) that can be true. More importantly, Zedd's performance on Letterman came during the heat of the EDM explosion but the young DJ/producer pulled a fast one on Dave. Performing the track that would eventually win him a Grammy, "Clarity," Zedd put down an acoustic rendition of the track with the help of vocalist Foxes and his buddy Alvin Risk, flexing his classically-trained chops from behind a grand piano alongside a string section. It's a little ironic that EDM's big-time debut didn't feature even a single CDJ or CO2 blast, but Zedd's performance caught so many people by surprise who thought that dance music was exclusively CDJs and CO2 blasts. With the right songs (in this case, one penned by Matthew Koma), EDM can be versatile wide-reaching. Even if you didn't watch it then, this was a big moment not just for dance music in 2013, but for the future of dance music.

David is on Twitter.