Carlos Hawthorn revisits the single that blew up dance music's biggest act.
On September 30th, 1995, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, AKA Daft Punk, played to 600 people on a boat in Glasgow. It was their fourth-ever live show. The Renfrew Ferry was jammed with bodies flailing to thumping techno and acid, performed using a mixing desk, 909, 303, sampler and a keyboard. According to the Glasgow duo Slam, who hosted the party, the boat shook so hard people were worried it might sink.
This was a few years into Slam's relationship with the French duo. They first met in Paris in 1993, when Slam, AKA Stuart McMillan and Orde Meikle, were in town to play Dance Europe Weekender, a rave at Euro Disney run by Nicky Holloway. The late French DJ Tom Bouthier introduced McMillan, Meikle and their then-manager, Dave Clarke, to Bangalter and de Homem-Christo, two "very quiet, shy guys," according to McMillan.
"We hooked up in one of their friend's flats and they played us the demo, which was the first single ["The New Wave"] and it was just quite raw, quite different sounding techno," McMillan told me over Skype. "They were such quiet guys and this music was aggressive, raw sounding. I didn't expect that kind of sound."
The New Wave, Daft Punk's debut release, came out on Soma Quality Recordings in April 1994. Some time after, they sent McMillan and Meikle "Rollin' & Scratchin,'" another slice of noisy, banging techno with bags of character. It was a natural progression. But then along came "Da Funk."
"They used to visit us a lot," said McMillan. "They used to come over to Glasgow and come to the nights at The Arches and whatnot. Thomas played me 'Da Funk' in the flat and, you know, it's one of those things where initially I was a wee bit like, 'Oh, I don't know how I'm gonna play this in my set.' BPM-wise, you'd have to stop your set to play it, you know? So I was like, 'I don't know how DJs are gonna react to this.'"
McMillan went as far as to admit that he "wasn't a real fan" of "Da Funk"—its 112-BPM tempo and unserious vibe didn't suit his purist sound. Luckily for him, Slam was more of a collective back then, and the others loved it. The Da Funk EP, which featured the title track alongside "Rollin' & Scratchin,'" came out in May 1995.
"They make a joke that if Stuart doesn't like it then it's going to become a hit," he said.
"Da Funk" is the record that blew up Daft Punk. Though their previous tracks sounded wild and fresh, they were ultimately still only techno bombs. "Da Funk" was something else entirely. For one, it was a good 20 BPM slower than anything they'd made, inspired by the R&B and G-Funk productions of acts like Snoop Dogg, TLC and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. The track's lead synth, one of the most recognisable riffs in electronic music, is the kind of daring, cartoonish sound that would come to define so many Daft Punk tunes. "Da Funk" was the first hint of the duo's pop potential.
"It was around the time Warren G's 'Regulate' was released and we wanted to make some sort of gangsta rap and tried to murk our sounds as much as possible," Bangalter told the Swedish magazine POP in 1997. "However, no one has ever compared it to hip-hop. We've heard that the drums sound like Queen and The Clash, the melody is reminiscent of Giorgio Moroder, and the synthesisers sound like electro and thousand of other comparisons. No one agrees with us that it sounds like hip-hop."
That night on The Renfrew Ferry, "Da Funk" must have absolutely booted off. By then, several months since its release, the track was finally gathering steam after a slow start. It was being hammered by tastemaker acts like Richie Hawtin, Kevin Saunderson and, crucially, The Chemical Brothers, who worked it into their live shows. Soon, calls began flooding into the Soma Recordings office, major label A&Rs desperate for a piece of the action.
Despite Slam's best efforts to keep them, Daft Punk ended up signing a crafty deal with Virgin, which meant they kept full creative control of their music. In 1997, the duo released their seminal debut album, Homework. As a sign of gratitude, and also to maintain underground credibility, the LP was co-released by Soma. It sold two million copies worldwide, charting in 14 different countries. Within a few years, these two shy guys from Paris would be headlining arenas in helmets and robot suits, on their way to becoming the biggest dance music act in the world.