Daft Punk Released 'Homework' Twenty-Years Ago Today and They've Rarely Sounded As Exciting Since
You're probably going to hear a lot about how this album "introduced house music to the masses"—it didn't.
This post ran originally on THUMP UK.
The year is 1993, the setting EuroDisney; home surprisingly to a rave. Somewhere backstage—we could optimistically imagine between a collapsed Donald Duck and Goofy grinding his two buck-teeth into oblivion—Glaswegian DJ Stuart MacMillan, part of double-act Slam, is talking to a pair of waifish, conspicuous French teenagers. Shouting over the music, they can barely hear each-other, but the conversation gets far enough for Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo to press a cassette into his sweaty palms.
On the tape sits a track called "The New Wave" which would become a track called "Alive"—the first semblance of Homework, Daft Punk's debut album, twenty-years old today. It's a strange, but suitable, genesis.
The rest of this story is probably known to any head with even a passing knowledge of the history of pop-cum-dance music. MacMillan's label Soma released the contents of the tape, followed by subsequent releases of "Da Funk" and "Rollin' and Scratchin'". After "Da Funk" hit, mainstream interest in the duo quickly outpaced the small Glasgow imprint's capacity. With Soma's blessing, Thomas and Guy-Man moved the party over to Virgin Records, and set about recording their debut album. The album which turned Daft Punk into the next big thing, then the current big thing, and then a cultural phenomenon.
As the album celebrates this milestone anniversary, you're likely to hear a lot about how it "introduced house music to the masses" or "reinvigorated the underground." With all due respect, that's sort of bullshit. In 1997 the UK free party scene was turning into a corporate club culture, drum & bass was hitting the USA, Armand Van Halen was remixing Barbara Tucker, Drexciya were releasing their debut LP and the KLF were calling on all to "Fuck the Millennium". Electronic music was a diverse and fierce culture that had its nails well and truly in the mainstream consciousness. It's nice to buy the narrative that two French lads with funny masks on introduced the world to house music, but the constant urge to fit the duo into some grand history of dance music—in a lineage somewhere between Jeff Mills and David Guetta—always comes off a little clumsy.
Homework didn't introduce the dance music to the masses. Dance music was doing just fine. This record was responsible for introducing something far more singular than that to the global population. Homework introduced Daft Punk.
Homework remains to this day one of the boldest statements of intent ever released. It is a mischievous, irreverent, rough-hewn album that could as comfortably be called punk as it could funk. Aside from the Big Tracks We All Know And Love—we'll get to those soon—it's easy to forget that the second half of the LP is packed with jagged, at times violent workouts. The bump and wail of "Rock'n Roll," the relentless, spangled spinning of "Burnin'" and the aggressive feedback loop of "Rollin' & Scratchin'" all serve as reminders of Daft Punk's raucous edge, as well as their early fondness for the apologetic apostrophe. This was Daft Punk before they were lost to the cosmos, and in the time since they've rarely sounded as exciting.
Talk of the noisy end is of course only half the picture. Any reflection on Homework that failed to talk about its two, towering hits would be more than incomplete. Firstly, in the shape of "Da Funk" Daft Punk showcased their inherent gift for fusing dancefloor swagger with a metallic crunch—something that would come to define the French electronic scene that followed them, best personified perhaps in the shape of Justice. Then there's "Around the World"—Daft Punk's "Smells Like Teen Spirit"—which I doubt any of us will ever forget hearing for the first time. Three words long, and quite simply one of the finest pop songs ever made.
Yet perhaps the greatest indication as to their true spirit comes nine tracks in. "Teachers," if you don't know it—and if you don't congratulations on getting this far into an article about an album you've never listened to—pairs a clattering big-beat with Thomas Bangalter's voice, pitched simultaneously up and down, as he reels off Daft Punk's guiding influences. From Joey Beltram to Romanthony to Dr. Dre to DJ Sneak to Brian Wilson, so it goes on and on. For a new act to lay their debts out so blatantly is testament to Daft Punk's deification of pop culture's past. They are unashamed nostalgists, and Homework began a career of re-calibrating their musical heritage into a bizarre and never-bettered voice of their own.
After all, their debut was overwhelmingly independent. This spirit—embodied in the music as it was their decision to retain ownership of their master-recordings via their label Daft Trax—remains their greatest achievement. As Bangalter put it in an interview with the Guardian in 2001, "We are freedom freaks because we want the liberty to do anything. Freedom is the control of your art and we live in a society where those who pay for art control it." Words that remain as prescient today, if not more so.
In terms of classic albums, it's hard to call Homework perfect. It's not the sort of album that deserves canonizing on the grounds of aesthetic completion. Instead Homework is something else entirely: an indelible, immovable, fixed point in culture—a joyous, spunky youthful expression, and over-excited noise. It lacks the ear for melody and narrative possessed by Discovery—which remains their masterpiece—nor does it bear the grandiose self-worth of Random Access Memories. Nevertheless, their debut still holds a vital quality that none of their work since has come close to recreating.
Homework is a reminder that big things don't always sound important, or weighty. When was the last time electronic music, or music more broadly, enjoyed a revolution that was this fun? In a world where "Important Culture" so often comes in monochrome, surrounded in commentary and analysis, wielding political statements like sixth-formers, Homework stands exultant as a reminder that the radical works best when it is also playful.