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“Not everyone understands”: The genius of Random Access Memories

With an abiding love of disco and house, inthemix writer Jim Poe first discovered the raw power of Daft Punk as a New York DJ in the 1990s. (It was also around that time he toured across America with Aphex Twin, an adventure he revisited for inthemix.) Now, on the weekend that the duo returns with Random Access Memories, Jim goes deep on how the dance music originals have come full circle.

This story begins as so many others must: with an in-depth analysis of a DJ Sneak tweet.

This week, after Daft Punk began streaming their latest album Random Access Memories (you may have heard of it), as the penultimate stroke in has to be the most diabolically clever marketing campaign in human history, the Chicago-house gangsta and impresario posted the following on Twitter:

Not Everyone Understands Daft Punk Music, It’s A Spiritual thing> A Robot thing> a Soul thing. great Job guys> the story continues.

In case you missed it, the reference is to Eddie Amador’s 1998 single House Music – a movement-defining anthem from an era when the pre-helmet Daft dudes were just starting to make waves on the international scene along with their French brethren like Bob Sinclar and Alex Gopher. “Not everyone understands house music – it’s a spiritual thing, a body thing, a soul thing.” For a house-head like Sneak it’s the ultimate compliment.

If reading news posts on inthemix has left you with the conclusion that Sneak is an unforgiving bastard who lives to torture European dance-music wannabes – well, you’re probably right. But why doesn’t Daft Punk fit into his axis of evil that includes Swedish House Mafia and now Seth Troxler? Why does one of the most overexposed acts on the planet – and Euro as they wanna be – get a free pass from the arbiter of underground cool? And why does Sneak seem to be indicating that this radically ambitious collection of polished pop, Euro-disco and indie-R&B qualifies as house in the first place?

I’ll get to the issue of why Random Access Memories is a supremely house album despite the fact that it doesn’t contain one housey-house dancefloor-first 125-bpm track later. First, let me tell you a badly kept secret about house music. Real house-heads, no matter how hard or ghetto they may seem, are big softies, pussycats at heart. They don’t judge by race, sexual orientation, creed or border. They only care about one thing: how the music sounds, preferably in a darkened basement. And they tend to be equally passionate about any kind of good music, made by anybody, from the Doors to Depeche Mode, as long as it carries a certain intensity of feeling.

(I should mention that the saltier side of Sneak did show up when a follower tweeted a reply, inarticulately questioning his agenda in promoting this admittedly over-hyped album. Sneak, who after all collaborated with the Daft gang years ago, snarled: “I’m going to ignore your ignorance you Lil prick. U know nothing about nothing.”)

For mine, Random Access Memories is a supremely house album despite the fact that it doesn’t contain one housey-house dancefloor-first 125-bpm track.

As I write this, thousands gather in Wee Waa, Middle of Nowhere, Australia, for the official launch of an album that’s been available for free everywhere for days. It is, for some reason, the most-publicised event since the last royal wedding, or maybe since the invasion of Normandy. Perhaps some fans will pause to flick the hay out of their hair and wonder what it all means. To me it sounds like ultimate redemption for a distant musical era – an era for which ‘disco’ is a convenient but limiting tag.

In 1979, in one of the most notorious incidents in American pop-culture history, 50,000 people flooded the gates of Comiskey Park in Chicago for ‘Disco Demolition Night’. A radio shock jock named Steve Dahl rallied the frenzied multitudes, mostly young white guys, into chanting “Disco sucks! Disco sucks!” as a crate containing the offending vinyl was dynamited on the baseball field; the scene then escalated into a near-riot.

Today this explosive moment is widely seen as a paranoid and resentful backlash against the black, Latin and gay subcultures that disco represented in a society divided along hard economic and racial lines. “It felt to us like Nazi book-burning,” Chic mastermind Nile Rodgers has said. (Sneak, née Carlos Sosa, would have been about 10 and living not far away on the South Side.)

A little bit younger than Sneak, and probably a lot more sheltered, I was blissfully ignorant of such tension. My musical memories of that era are of spending hours in my cousin’s bedroom in Oregon, listening and dancing to 7” singles of hits by Blondie, Lipps, Inc. and a little act known as the Bee Gees – or watching Dionne Warwick introduce the same acts on Solid Gold. Hugely popular but undeniably weird tracks like Heart of Glass and Funkytown were readily digestible by my young psyche but contained a mystery and fascination that would eventually open up a larger world for me.

But the backlash against disco and the excesses it represented was very real – if not always as violent as Disco Demolition Night. Soon it just wasn’t cool anymore to be as fabulous and free as John Travolta’s symbolic working-class kid in Saturday Night Fever. The word ‘disco’ itself became a joke. Queen, Kool & the Gang and Donna Summer had to adapt or fade into obscurity. Rodgers and his partner Bernard Edwards fell so out of favour in the music industry that they “couldn’t get arrested.”

The economic realities of the early ‘80s dictated a pop mainstream that was safer, more straitlaced. Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna waged heroic efforts to shake us out of it, of course. And incredible things were happening on the New York and Chicago undergrounds – but it would be quite a while before I was aware of that.

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