Before Thomas Banglater and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo were robots donning their signature silver and gold helmets and Hedi Slimane designer spacesuits, they were a pair of twentysomethings trying to make it big in the French house scene. The duo made their name by breaking the rules, most apparent in their dedication to upholding the band’s mystique. In a world of musicians desperately trying to craft themselves into pop icons, Daft Punk could be seen wearing a variety of masks to conceal their faces both onstage and in photoshoots. The pair always told stories, whether it was the origin of the fictional band “The Crescendolls” in Interstella 5555 or their very own origin story about how, according to legend, they woke up as robots after a studio explosion in 1999. By experimenting with their public image, they developed a platform for their dance music to leave the past traditions of rock and pop behind.
In the late 1990s, popular American rock was fading. The old grunge bands on MTV were all going through the motions, trying to tap into what made Nirvana popular. The newer pop punk and rock bands were no better, presenting rebellion but very much a product of large record-company committee meetings. As a result, MTV turned to a new wave of ‘90s rave culture – mostly UK-based electronic groups such as the Prodigy, Underworld, and The Chemical Brothers.
Around the same time, the first French house groups began receiving attention from the European dance music scene and UK press. In 1995, Daft Punk released “Da Funk”, a single that was initially ignored but eventually received commercial success after the song’s dancing robotic beat was incorporated into The Chemical Brothers’ live shows. Daft Punk signed with Virgin Records, allowing the band to create bizarre yet eye-catching music videos with directorial talents like Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry. The “Da Funk” music video depicts an anthropomorphic dog named Charles who travels around New York City carrying a boombox. Along with “Around the World” featuring dancing robots, the music video catapulted the album Homework and the band itself into mass popularity. This early foray into video paved the way for the band to expand their creative reach into other forms of media and led to their future engagement in film with Interstella 5555 and Electroma.
Daft Punk was unique even in MTV’s electronic lineup. While many of the British big beat bands who crossed over to mainstream audiences did so by working within the existing pop and rock framework, Daft Punk’s use of house and disco acted in almost direct opposition. For all their futuristic sound and vision, the band was also obsessed with the past. In the house-party track “Teachers,” the band pays tribute to their musical influences, citing artists like Brian Wilson, George Clinton, and Dr. Dre, as well as house and techno musicians including Lil Louis and Jeff Mills.
In a musical era of self-importance and grandiosity, Daft Punk, by being unabashedly themselves, formed their own version of cool with their often-unorthodox approach to modern radio. Although Homework does not possess the sweeping story and melodic progression of the band’s renowned sophomore album Discovery, the debut album’s legacy stands with the band’s youthful expression of both playfulness and conviction. Along with catchy singles like “Da Funk” and “Around the World,” the album also features noisy, growling hooks in “Rollin’ & Scratchin’” and a combination of screeching feedback with a groovy bassline in “Burnin’” to demonstrate the band’s willingness to experiment with more jagged and harsh tones.
In addition to the way Homework sounds, its production story was also part of its revolutionary appeal. The album foresaw a more independent future for mainstream music with the rise of affordable samplers granting the ability to make albums with little to no studio expenses or producers. As its title alludes to, Bangalter and Homem-Christo mostly made Homework in the former’s bedroom using their own equipment. In many ways, the band’s debut album marked the beginning of a digital age where artists could sell their own records online without needing the backing of a major studio.
In light of the band’s decision to end their musical journey just last year, Daft Punk has cemented themselves as one of the most ground-breaking electronic and pop acts of all time. Homework’s house tracks went gold in the US, and within a few years, it grew into straight pop music, especially in Europe, where French house was dominating music charts into the 2000s. House bands like Justice drew directly from Daft Punk’s sound, and in 2005, Madonna released Confessions on a Dance Floor, an album filled with significant French house influences. Through its bold sound and production, Homework not only helped push French house to an international level but perhaps more importantly, introduced Daft Punk to the world.