It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.
1997 was the year, U.S. record-biz folk decided, that "electronica" would cross over to a wider American audience. But despite Top 10 charters from the Chemical Brothers and Prodigy and lauded debuts from Roni Size and Fatboy Slim, the dance act that wormed its way into the heart of pop culture most thoroughly was also the one that seemed least likely to on the surface. For one thing, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo were French until they came along, that was generally a no-no for American rock fans. For another, what they did as Daft Punk wasn't remarkably different from what a lot of house DJs and producers had been doing for years mercilessly filtering and tweaking samples over elastic post-disco grooves. But despite the fact that their first album by and large eschews the very things verse-chorus-bridge structures, lyrics, some surface resemblance to rock that tended to find dance artists their crossover audiences, Homework demonstrates a weirdly tongue-in-cheek pop sensibility. Sure, the fact that "Around the World" simply sets the title phrase on repeat for seven minutes lodges the words in your brain, but it's the way they say it giddy, marble-mouthed and the way it works against the ascend-descend bass and synth lines that turn it from an annoyance to an actual pleasure. That's how Homework plays out generally. Bangalter and de Homem-Christo pulled off a rare trick: they made the rock audience come to them. That's got a lot to do with the fact that they know a good riff when they hear one. In their way, "Da Funk" and "Rollin' and Scratchin'" are as chewy as Zeppelin or the White Stripes, not least for the way their synth squelches evoke (without mimicking) fingers sliding on guitar strings. But Bangalter and de Homem-Christo are up-front about their inspirations: "Teachers" is a tribute to 43 artists who inspired Daft Punk, ranging from the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson to gangsta rap icon Dr. Dre to a passel of Chicago, New York, London, and Detroit DJs known mostly to house heads. It only makes sense to fill out this Six Degrees with a handful of these folks.
The Funk Teacher
Derrick May famously described Detroit techno as "like George Clinton and Kraftwerk stuck in an elevator," and the P-Funk maestro's debt transfers to all that follow. Not least Daft Punk George Clinton is one of the names mentioned on Homework's "Teachers" that non-DJ-followers are likely to know, and the French duo remixed Scott Grooves's 1998 "Mothership Reconnection," a cut-up of the live P-Funk album. Mothership Connection itself, from 1976, remains as cosmic as funk (or dance music) gets, and as teasing. Clinton enters first as an interplanetary radio DJ and then settles into the role of Star Child, friendly alien leader and/or Jesus figure ("Partying on the Mothership/ When Gabriel's horn blows, you'd better be ready to go"), who defeats the "Unfunky UFOs" with the titanic "Give Up the Funk." Boom a cosmology is born.
The Chicago House Teacher
Born Carlos Sosa in Chicago, DJ Sneak is the man who brought house music all the way back to disco in the mid '90s. He was the major mover behind the filter-disco sound of the period exactly what it sounds like, loops and samples of disco classics sent through a low-pass filter to sound like they're going in and out of aural focus, over buoyant tracks engineered with crystal precision thanks to tracks like 1995's "You Can't Hide From Your Bud" and DJ mix-CDs like 1997's Buggin' Da Beats, for Moonshine. If you're going to have exactly one mode, being able to start a party at will is a good one to have. Back in the Box isn't a collection of Sneak's greatest hits he gets artist credit on only two tracks here, "You Can't Hide" and "All Over My Face 08," which is exactly what the title says, an updated sample-slaw of Loose Joints' Arthur Russell-produced monomaniac's delight, "Is It All Over My Face?" (1979). Sneak's got such a sure touch that even this hoary idea becomes nimble in fact. Box is instead a two-CD DJ mix that in this digital version offers each of its individual tracks uncut nearly three-and-a-half hours of material as well as the full mixes, presented in single tracks. Whatever their order, these 27 selections offer a back-alley history of Chicago house and its many global tributaries. Local gems like Cajmere ft. Dajae's "Brighter Days" and Paul Johnson's slinky "Hit It Up" cut gospel uplift with raw sonics; Blak 'n' Spanish's fierce "Call Da Vibe" offers a textbook definition of a track, as opposed to a song; and the French especially show out, with Homework-era classics from Fantom, Bob Sinclar, and remixing I:Cube Daft Punk themselves.
The Detroit Techno Teacher
After parting from the duo Underground Resistance (partner Mad Mike Banks kept recording under that name for a while before going solo himself), Jeff Mills's own music grew ever more experimental and severe. In 1994 he released "Cycle 30," a 12-inch consisting of 11 locked grooves drop the needle, it plays till you pick it back up and the same year his Waveform Transmission Vol. 3 offered a similar kind of controlled single-mindedness. These tracks have the same rush as Mills's UR collaborations, but there's elegance to this frenzy. "The Extremist" kicks off with synth lines that needle around one another very quickly without quite seeming to touch; that restraint gives the track's speedy beat its lift. That's equally the case with tracks such as "Workers," in which subtly filtered synths swarm and hop like bees in a hive, and "Wrath of the Punisher," a one-riff-wonder whose minor arrangement tweaks feel huge in this sere setting. Compact and engrossing, Vol. 3 is one of the definitive Detroit techno albums.
The NYC Garage Teacher
Of course Daft Punk shouted out Louie Vega and Kenny Dope, the Nuyorican producers who billed themselves as the duo Masters at Work, on Homework's "Teachers." Together and apart, Vega and Dope churned out one club classic after another during the '90s like they were pancakes. House Masters collects 20 of Vega's biggest tracks as both producer (MAW's "To Be in Love," two cuts from Barbara Tucker, "Love and Happiness" by salsa queen and one-time Mrs. Vega India) and remixer (Kings of Tomorrow's "Finally," Black Magic's "Dance," Sole Fusion's "Bass Tone"). Vega's house classicism as well as an abiding love for classic Latin sounds are on smart display here; you won't find many better one-stop introductions to his velvet-lined work.
The London Teacher
Luke Slater was one of the small number of English producers Daft Punk name-checked in “Teachers,” but he earned his place with some of the sleekest and freakiest electronic funk grooves around, usually under his own name. But not always — he reserved the alias Planetary Assault Systems for blistering workouts of straight-up techno. This 2009 album is often, and aptly, referred to as his “Berghain album,” after the notorious Berlin nightspot where much of it made its public debut, and it has that the detailed sound design combined with unrelenting drive that made its venue — and its label, Ostgut Ton, which released it — famous.