Words by Dart Adams
The late 90’s were a transformational time for both music and the music industry. As Rap became the most popular and best selling genre, it coincided with the rise of what was called Electronica by the music media. Electronica was an all-encompassing genre name that included House, Techno, Drum N’ Bass, Trip Hop and related forms of sample based dance music which weren’t directly associated with Rap. One of the most popular groups within this burgeoning genre was the French production duo Daft Punk whose debut album Homework was one of the key releases from the early days of the Electronica craze.
Daft Punk’s singles “Da Funk” and “Around The World” became two of the biggest songs of 1997, they spread exponentially faster due to their inventive videos for each track. During this stretch Daft Punk became part of the wave of artists who were making inventive, accessible, radio friendly sample based dance music that had crossed over into the mainstream much like Rap had. The difference being is Electronica didn’t suffer any of the stigmas or preconceived notions Rap did. Daft Punk was celebrated alongside Armand Van Helden, The Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy, Fatboy Slim, Moby, The Crystal Method, Lo Fidelity All Stars and others who were making inventive electronic music that was expanding the scope of what “popular” music sounded like while pushing the envelope on creativity.
As Rap finally became the #1 musical genre it began to undergo some key changes in terms of sonic aesthetic. For one, due to sample clearance and money issues Rap either relied less & less on multiple layered samples or it used one main popular sample or interpolation that wasn’t “flipped,” “chopped” or “looped” in a clever or creative manner. It was typically easily recognizable and used to ensure the song would become a hit or receive a bunch of radio airplay. During this stretch many Electronica outfits were still using sampling techniques reminiscent of mainstream Rap previous to 1997 but applied to their specific musical sensibilities. This component alone intrigued many beat heads to the genre during these years.
In 1999, the music industry was blindsided by the phenomenon of P2P file sharing Internet sites where music was shared/pirated on college campuses and in office buildings via portals like Napster. As a result record sales began to sharply decline although Electronica continued to crank out important releases by Mr. Oizo, Cassius, Bassment Jaxx and The Avalanches. As the years passed, wider usage of the Internet and music fans frequenting various digital outlets/websites resulted in widespread piracy. The economy was in free-fall as the Dot Com Bubble burst in March 2000 and those factors contributed to the failing of music/electronics box stores and later even independent record stores, which began to feel the crush and shutter. It was during this tumultuous period that Daft Punk got to work on their sophomore offering, Discovery.
Whereas Homework was more of an homage to French House and was created with little to no expectations (since it was initially conceived as a collection of singles rather than a concise album) Discovery was envisioned as a Disco themed French House project from the outset. Both Thomas and Guy-Manuel of Daft Punk decided to make an album that embodied the music they grew up loving as children that would also resonate with listeners. Each song would complement the following song, resulting in a continuous listening experience where the audience could enjoy the entire album from beginning to end.
Over a span of two years, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Cristo meticulously chose different sounds to emulate, considered potential contributors and picked sample sources to build songs from. They mixed in samples with live instrumentation until they achieved their desired aesthetic, a concept album that told a story using elements of Disco, Soul, Funk & R&B combined with French House. The lead single “One More Time” was inspired by the Funk albums of the mid 70’s to early 80’s that featured songs with vocals, instrumental breaks, progressions and multiple changes. The song featured AutoTuned vocals by Romanthony which added another dimension to the track. At the time AutoTune was popularized by Cher on her 1998 album Believe and wasn’t seen as the annoyance it is today, incidentally it was recorded back in 1998 when Antares AutoTune was still fairly new to audiences. As funky as “One More Time” was it was its video that garnered the song the most attention. Legendary anime and manga creator/illustrator Leiji Matsumoto teamed with Toei Animation to create a chapter from a longform animated film that Guy-Manuel, Thomas and Leiji Matsumoto all came up with the concept for as they assembled Discovery.
Discovery was released stateside on March 13th, 2001 and was well received from the outset. It set a new standard for what was considered “Electronica” at the time, thus blurring genre specification. On this album you heard everything from Soul/R&B to Funk to Chicago Vocal House to Synth Pop while emulating production techniques implemented in many Rap albums and Instrumental Hip Hop projects released between 1996 and 2001. Their sound was achieved using a combination of an E-mu SP-1200, Roland TR-808 & TR-909, Akai S01, JUNO 106 keyboard, Minimoog Voyager, Moog Modular 55 Synthesizer and several guitars in addition to both analog and digital recording equipment to capture the desired effect. Discovery already sounded like an adventure to another universe before the videos began to tell the tale of the album.
The second single “Aerodynamic” dropped in March 2001 and the third single “Digital Love” was released in August 2001 both with animated videos that revealed yet another chapter in the story behind Discovery. While both songs were well received globally, stateside fans were completely intrigued by the running narrative of the entire project after seeing both Toei Animation produced chapters. It was announced that the first four chapters of the animated Discovery project between Daft Punk, Leiji Matsumoto and the creative team at Toei Animation would air on Cartoon Network on September 1 st, 2001. Those first four videos consisted of the first four tracks of Discovery in order: “One More Time,” “Aerodynamic,” “Digital Love” and “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger.”
After the clips aired audiences were even more blown away by the level of creativity exhibited by Daft Punk to team with a creative outside of the realm of music on visuals for their project. It made all the sense in the world to them since Discovery was based on creating a concise project culled from the music they loved from their childhoods. They grew up watching Matsumoto’s anime series throughout their youths in France. Daft Punk had raised the bar and showed that the sky was the limit on creative pursuits in music. Heads hadn’t seen anything this off the wall or creative since DJ Qbert’s 2001 animated film “Wave Twisters” set to his 1998 turntablism LP Wave Twisters, Episode 7 Million: Sonic Wars Within The Protons which he screened at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival in January 2001 before self releasing it that Summer. Minds were blown.
Although Discovery was an ambitious concept/art album that was praised by creative beat heads and electronic music enthusiasts, it had yet to achieve anything more than critical acclaim stateside if you judge by sales numbers or charts performance. Unfortunately, the album was heavily pirated, shared and bootlegged online as well as burned to CD-R’s for years after its initial release so sales just didn’t represent the overall significance or popularity of this album. Discovery was a staple amongst the musical cognoscenti and a favorite among those who pursued creative fields. You’d be hard pressed to find someone with a brand new iPod (which dropped in October 2001) without either selections from Discovery or having the entire album in it.
Daft Punk’s Discovery spread over the next couple of years steadily gaining more and more fans with the passage of time. In May 2003, Virgin finally released the completed anime film collaboration between Daft Punk and Toei Animation under direction of Leiji Matsumoto, Interstella 5555: The 5tory Of The 5ecret 5tar 5ystem. The 65-minute anime feature is perfectly synchronized to Daft Punk’s Discovery, telling the story of a band from another star system which is kidnapped by an evil record executive/manager on Earth, then disguised them as humans and turned into his musical slaves via mind control devices to crank out hits for a record label. If you haven’t seen it for yourself I’ll spare the spoilers.
Once Interstella 5555 became available for purchase and rental through Netflix, it began to spread exponentially throughout that year. As it become more widely available among anime and music fans of all ages, it introduced Daft Punk to different audiences that weren’t previously aware of them and more and more fans throughout the years actually purchased Discovery and their debut album Homework. As a result, several new waves of fans became acquainted with Daft Punk either through individual songs from Discovery their videos, the longform anime Interstella 5555 and Kanye West using part of “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” in his 2007 hit “Stronger.” So Discovery finally reached Gold sales stateside on October 11, 2010, almost a full decade after the album was initially released.
As we look back at the legacy of Discovery, it reaches far beyond simple charts success or sales. This album has left an indelible mark on music history over the past 15 years since its release. Keep in mind that Daft Punk don’t do a lot of interviews or public appearances, preferring instead to have their music speak for them. The music they made was genre-busting, it defied labels or classification even though it was inspired by the Soul, Funk & Disco of the mid 70’s to the early 80’s. Their approach to music production and the value they placed on art and presentation inspired creatives, artists, musicians and producers alike. Their live performances helped to inspire many in both the turntablism and beat culture arenas in years to come.
Everyone from French House outfits like JUSTICE and musicians/singer/songwriters like Toro Y Moi, to beat culture producers such as Flying Lotus and Hudson Mohawke and even bands like Tame Impala have been inspired by and taken cues from Daft Punk over the past two decades. Their influence can be found in multiple genres of music and the creative risks they’ve taken have pushed the art and the limits of expression beyond what we once thought were the limit. They continue to expound on their already impressive resume, most recently with 2010’s Tron: Legacy score/soundtrack and 2013’s Random Access Memories. Think how differently things would be in the world of music if not for two dudes who don’t like to show their faces so much they would rather perform in robot masks so people focus on their work as opposed to them?