Thrown On A Deep Black Background: Daft Punk, Black Music Traditions and how to Maneuver Within Them

Listen to our Daft Punk-inspired playlist here.

First Daft Punk break up, now everyday I wake up and somebody else want it with Bob(by). 

Like most music fans, I was saddened though not surprised at the news that the iconic and revolutionary French electronic duo was splitting up—their final record, 2013’s Album-of-The-Year-winning Random Access Memories, felt like a swan song, and their musical output sense had given no indication of plans for a new project or tour. I’ve long held a deep affinity for Daft Punk; they were one of the first non-rap or Black music acts I fell in love with, thanks in no small part to Kanye and Busta Rhymes’ respective sampling of “Harder Better Faster Stronger” and “Technologic,”. But upon discovering (get it) their own music myself, especially with age, I found it more and more enticing and singular. My first real experience of Daft Punk was with their last album, the aforementioned Random Access Memories. Of course, “Get Lucky” was inescapable and still dominates a large part of that record’s mythos for myself and many others, but what really struck me about it was just how well done and tasteful the duo’s interpretations and interpolations of classic disco sounds was. 

One of the few things fifteen year old me and twenty-three year old me still hold in common is our favorite track on RAM: “Giorgio by Moroder (ft. Giorgio Moroder).” That track has forever been enchanting and enriching with every listen, the wisdom provided in Moroder’s explanation of just how he revolutionized synthesized music, the bridge he builds between disco, synth pop and beyond, and of course, the absolutely off-the wall breakdown that comes after the spoken-word intro will forever captivate me, and it’s truly one of my favorite songs ever. But the revelations provided to me by Mr. Moroder and that song led me on my own path of discovery (get it?), traveling backwards in time to thoroughly engage with Daft Punk’s legendary first recordings. I first listened to Discovery (2001), widely considered the duo’s most essential work, and was blown away by how much it resembled the sound of pop in the mid 2010s, fifteen years after its release. Of course, I was well familiar with the hits: the ubiquitous dance anthem “One More Time” (which I hated then and tolerate now), and the evergreen heater “Harder Better Faster Stronger.” With my understanding of Daft Punk’s appreciation and interpretations of disco, techno and house, “Harder Better Faster Stronger,” and it’s reimagining on Kanye’s equally ubiquitous “Stronger,” led me to realize something I am only now fully grappling with: Daft Punk has been silently, facelessly, experimenting with traditions of Black music past to influence sounds of Black music future, a process that extended into my college years.

A younger, angrier me would have immediately labeled this dabbling in disco, funk and house culture-vulture behavior, dismissing it as appropriation and doing whatever the 2015 equivalent of “cancelling” was. I was an arrogant teenager. But after revisiting their debut as well as my personal favorite record, Homework (1997), I achieved a more nuanced appreciation of what Daft Punk was doing with traditionally Black music styles. That the sonic aesthetics they experimented most successfully with (house and disco) were arguably the Black music styles most co-opted by non-Black musicians certainly slanted my perception of DP’s (NOT double penetration) work. But I gained a new affinity for Homework in college, which coincided with Yeezus (2013) becoming my favorite Kanye record. Then Daft Punk collaborated extensively with The Weeknd on his  2016 contemporary classic, Starboy, and the connection between these white, french androids and Blackness felt less exploitative and increasingly appreciative and innovative. Homework is, without a doubt in my mind, my favorite non-Chicago house record ever, because of the attention to detail it pays to the essential elements of the genre, while also building upon those elements with the technological advancements afforded to them.  It merged the classic, bass-heavy, 808 driven, rhythmic style of Chicago house with Detroit and Euro techno to create a new, yet historically rooted version of Black electronic music. My favorite track on the album, “Revolution 909,” would fit right into one of my father’s house DJ sets on the Southside of Chicago in 1984. Look no further than the Parliament/Zapp and Roger testimonial “Teachers,” which takes the time to big up the house, disco and dance pioneers that gave Daft Punk “Da Funk,” shouting out generational Black talents spanning George Clinton to Dr. Dre. 

With this nuanced understanding in mind, Random Access Memories and its thesis finally clicked in my mind. The album felt so much like a swan song because it drew influence from every sound the band had so expertly reworked to make an argument for the future, not unlike Stevie Wonder’s last truly excellent record, Hotter Than July ( I detail just how Stevie used Black history to start Black future here). Daft Punk enlisted the likes of Giorgio Moroder, Pharrell Williams and Paul Williams to inspire a new wave. They let go of their near-singular hold on dance music to quietly transition into elder statesmen, returning the spotlight to the Black artists that were continuing the legacy of their Black ancestors. 

You can see this new direction immediately in their highest profile production efforts post RAM: from their work on Yeezus’ intimidating opening trio of “On Sight,” “Black Skinhead” and “I am a God,” to their irresistibly dancy collaborations with The Weeknd, including “Starboy” and perhaps his best song ever, and “I Feel It Coming” (the best Michael Jackson song since “Remember The Time”). Daft Punk’s contributions to each track are apparent in feel and structure; the timbre and tone span the edgiest and smoothest ends of the duo’s eclectic sonic spectrum. But most notably, Daft Punk’s ability to occupy Black music without taking space away from Black artists is shown through their rejection of the spotlight. You would only know that Daft Punk had such a heavy hand on Yeezus by perusing its credits (a difficult feat considering the ethos of the record is the death of the physical album). Though they are featured artists on both Weeknd tracks, the spotlight is obviously on Abel, flexing his formidable singing talent on Daft Punk’s equally formidable production. Their retraction from fame was not a departure or new development by any means; Daft Punk’s career is highlighted by a deliberate rejection of fanfare, attention or press.

In the last phase of their storied career, Daft Punk graciously removed themselves from their seat at the table to add to the developing sonic tradition of 21st Century Afrofuturisim. Daft Punk’s relationship to Black music moreso mirrors TONTO duo Maclolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff’s collaborative efforts with artists like Stevie Wonder and Gil Scott-Heron—more on that here—than it does the more parasitic, cynical, appropriative styles of blue-eyed soul one could attribute to the likes of Justin Timberlake (for the record, Futuresex/Lovesounds is one of my favorite albums ever) or Justin Bieber. Daft Punk never asked to be lauded above their Black musical ancestors. Instead, they deliberately acknowledged their legacies and made a point to continuously contribute to the progression of sonic tradition they both graciously entered and exited. 

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