The birth of our underground brand, Factory 93, not only brought on an adrenaline rush reminiscent of the renegade warehouse-era of raving—on which Insomniac was founded—but it also had us thinking back to all the people, places and parties that made this whole operation possible. With that came a burning desire to crack open our collection and dust off the classic records we couldn’t live without. Through our From the Crates series, we’re breaking out seminal and obscure cuts alike, imparting some knowledge in the process.
Daft Punk are both pop and electronic icons, and they’ll likely always be remembered as the robot guys. But before they were robots, they were a roughshod, aggressive young French duo who put out a single called “Da Funk,” which originally didn’t quite make waves with DJs and listeners. But upon rerelease, the monster of a tune became one of the biggest—and still best and most enduring—song of the Daft Punk canon. “Around the World” and “One More Time” might be more anthemic because they have vocal hooks, but “Da Funk” is side one / track one of the Daft Punk mythos. And it’s their best club track, period. Without it, I’m not sure things don’t shake out quite differently for the twosome. And it certainly helps make up for some of the more questionable choices in their career.
“Da Funk” was the first official release from Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter as Daft Punk. High school pals, the two were previously in the Beach Boys–inspired trio Darlin’—along with Laurent Brancowitz, who would later play guitar in Phoenix. It was actually a caustic review of a Darlin’ record by Melody Maker (“a daft punky thrash,” they called it) that inspired the name Daft Punk. Clearly, straightforward rock ‘n’ roll—whether indie alt or garage—wasn’t really in the cards for de Homem-Cristo and Bangalter. They peeled off and started recording electronic music. They were about 20 years old when they came up with “Da Funk,” likely a reference to the Redman song of the same name. Armand Van Helden would release “Funk Phenomena” in 1996 as well, which hung on a Red Man sample. Hip-hop had its fingerprints all over this early era of Daft Punk.
They came out of Bangalter’s home studio (“Daft House”) with what would go on to become a chunky, mid-tempo, acid-tinged, electro-funk monster. The song starts off innocently enough with that filtered-out synthline. Then the drums come in, followed by that swinging, throbbing bass and kick drums. This goes on for a couple of minutes before that creepy acid bassline needles through the track during a breakdown. It keeps building and building until a high-hat solo—of all things—takes over and the track crescendos before a reprise of the top synthline. This may be one of the most intense big-room tracks ever that clocks in at 111 BPM.
A vast majority of the Daft Punk catalog hangs on the spine of sampling, and this one is no different. The two key samples at work here are the glorious drum fill in Barry White’s “I’m Gonna Love You Just a Little More Baby” and the kick from Vaughan Mason & Crew’s “Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll.” The title is probably a reference to Redman’s “Da Funk.”
“Da Funk” originally came out as a single on Soma Quality Recordings in 1995, with “Rollin’ & Scratchin’” on the B-side. But then de Homem-Christo and Bangalter picked up some heat, inciting a bidding war from major labels. They eventually signed to Virgin and started working on the release of Homework (examined in more detail earlier this year for its 20-year anniversary).
The song and LP were ultimately huge hits, thanks in no part to remixes like Armand Van Helden’s “Ten Minutes of Funk” Mix.
In 1996, Bangalter also teamed with Van Helden and Junior Sanchez for a short-lived supergroup that was unfortunately titled Da Mongoloids (yeesh) that netted only one single, “Spark da Meth” on Strictly Rhythm.
And then there was the music video for “Da Funk,” titled “Big City Nights.” Spike Jonze helmed the now-classic video featuring an anthropomorphized dog named Charlie who roams around New York City with a boombox. Jonze took a fairly experimental approach and actually faded the song in and out (as well as EQed it) as if “Da Funk” was a diegetic sound playing out of the ghetto blaster, instead of just slapped over the video. The bedraggled man-dog roams the night city in a foot cast and crutches (with no explanation as to how he got into crutches to begin with), getting in and out of minor urban skirmishes (like a subdued rework of Scorsese’s After Hours) and running into childhood friends.
If you ever wondered what happened to Charlie the dog, he returns for the video for “Fresh,” with Jonze playing himself. And it turns out, Charlie gets the girl from the “Da Funk” video. (If you’re even more curious, learn how Charlie’s head was made.)
While the robot iconography was still years away, Daft Punk used “Da Funk” as a jumping-off point for their weird and wonderful mythos. It goes without saying that Daft Punk were the first techno/house video stars and are still the best DJ/producers to use media to construct a larger-than-life persona.
It must also be noted that instrumental songs like this got very, very little play on MTV up until this time, at least in America. The MTV techno-centric program AMP had just launched in 1996, and it was one of the only cable destinations for electronic instrumental music videos.
And it’s not just the iconic music video. The power of “Da Funk” has also been memorialized in at least one feature film. Here’s a fictionalized recreation of the moment Daft Punk played “Da Funk” for the first time at a house party, from the extremely French 2015 film Eden:
“Da Funk” is one of those perfect pop-culture moments of confluence. It’s not the first acid-heavy track with a swaggering backbeat, but it might be the first one that hit the American suburbs in a major way. It also helped predict house music and hip-hop converging (even though this wouldn’t really happen in a mainstream way until the 2010s). And it’s perhaps the most quintessential Daft Punk track because it ticks off so many different stylistic touchstones of the Daft Punk sound: (1) compressed but funky, (2) aggressive but catchy, and most importantly, (3) replayable.
Don’t be surprised if “Da Funk” is one of the few songs remembered from this time period in a few hundred or thousand years. It’s one of those tunes that seems to be a first ballot hall-of-fame vote (if a credible such dance-music hall of fame existed) and one you’ll never forget if you’ve heard it only once.