It was May of 1997, and technology was asserting itself.
In New York, an IBM supercomputer named Deep Blue delivered a gut punch to the power of human intellect by beating chess legend Gary Kasparov in a series of six matches. In theaters, a just-released film called The Fifth Element took audiences to the 23rd century. And in nightclubs, a French duo (who in two years would actually “become” robots) was ushering in a style of electronic music that paid homage to the analog past while also sounding like the shining future.
Originally released in 1995 as a 12″ single on Scottish label Soma Quality Recordings, Daft Punk’s “Da Funk” first hit earholes on a mass scale when The Chemical Brothers started rinsing it in their live sets. The track got an even bigger look in January of 1997, when Virgin Records released the funky, glitchy, somewhat raunchy track as the second single from the group’s game-changing debut album, Homework.
Five months later, the song had ascended to No. 1 on Dance Club Songs, where it reigned in the apex position 24 years ago today (May 14). First hitting Dance Club Songs on April 5, 1997 (where it debuted at No. 39) “Da Funk” was the first Daft Punk song to ever appear on a Billboard chart. On May 14, 1997 its N0. 1 position was followed by Aaliyah’s “One In A Million” at No. 2, with the rest of the top ten filled out by a very eclectic and extremely ’90s group of artists including Reel 2 Reel, Paula Cole and Sneaker Pimps.
From all of these acts, Daft Punk was certainly the most accurate bellwether of where club music was heading near the turn of the millennium, particularly as technology was taking a quantum leap in the Y2K-era. (In ’97, AOL was the internet provider of choice, with Netscape serving as the world’s premiere browser.)
While the group’s Thomas Bangalter famously said that “Da Funk” was their attempt to make something reminiscent of Warren G’s 1994 G-Funk masterpiece “Regulate,” the song was also steeped in tech-forged acid house, the famously squelchy genre that that had emerged in the ’80s upon the release of the Roland TB-303. While few could have said so at the time, the song was of course also a blueprint for French Touch, a soon-to-be essential genre that Daft Punk were themselves then forging.
Did “Da Funk” sound like its namesake genre as well? According to a review in this very publication, the answer was oui. “Feel the funk, kids,” Billboard‘s former dance editor Larry Flick wrote in a March 1997 issue. “This is the sound of clubland for tomorrow. Already a mega-smash on dancefloors all over Europe, this wriggling instrumental combination of cutting-edge electronic dance and Cameo-styled funk is ripe for the openminded or anyone who is tired of the same of thing.”
Indeed, “Da Funk” may have been am homage to G-funk and ’70s disco funk itself, but anyone who heard it in clubs must have either consciously or intuitively understood that the slick, swaggering track was far from the same old thing. Neither was its video: Directed by Spike Jonze, who in ’95 had also directed clips for acts including Bjork and Sonic Youth, the video follows the fairly mundane misadventures of Charles, an anthropomorphic dog with a leg injury who spends a night wandering the streets of New York on his crutches, clutching a boombox playing — you guessed it — “Da Funk.”
It was weird and clever, and not only because it showcased the song without any appearance from the famously photo-shy producers — who in the years following the release of Homework would rarely ever again show up public without their masks or robot helmets. (Charles himself would make a reprise appearance in the video for Homeworks‘ “Fresh,” which finds him across the country in Hollywood, where he’d since become an actor.)
“Da Funk” ultimately spent seven weeks on Dance Club Songs, a relatively humble run that was simultaneously a powerful announcement that many things about electronic music were evolving and that Daft Punk were key architects of this change. Not only were U.S. club kids hearing a singular and futuristic sound, the next generation of producers — even the ones then too young to legally enter a club — were also listening. Artists including Kaskade, Tchami and Blond:ish have all told Billboard that Homework is the album they’d give to anyone looking to get into electronic music. (“It’s the gold standard for me,” noted Kaskade.)
In the 24 years after they first ascended to the top of Dance Club Songs, Daft Punk has tracked five Hot 100 singles, with “One More Time” and “Around The World” both hitting No. 61, their legitimately funky Grammy winning global hit “Get Lucky” reaching No. 2 and their pair of Weeknd collabs — “I Feel It Coming” and “Starboy” — hitting No. 4 and No. 1, respectively. Now global icons of musical history, the group announced their retirement in February. (Prices on Daft Punk memorabilia spiked after the news broke, with a”single Get Lucky” condom going for $10,000 on Etsy.)
But back in ’97, they were just two French dudes in the studio making material that would forever change the sound and scope of electronic music. Although lyric-less, “Da Funk” loudly asserted as much.