Underground Disco?

Low-pass filters from the land of frogs and Ninja Turtles

A couple years back, French disco duo Daft Punk opened their Homework CD with a muted,indecipherable voice that sounded like it came from the bottom of a sewer. This was fitting, because house music had pretty much fallen into a creative sewer, usurped by more fashionably alternative jungle, trip-hop, and techno. Actually, I'm not 100 percent sure this is true; by mid decade I'd become so bored with the Euro formula (diva vocals, bravado male rap, weedy synth hook) that I stopped listening altogether. Euro is hardly the only type of house—though it's mostly what you hear on the radio—and for all I know there might've been great things happening in the dance underground (in '96 I was too busy trying to decide if I was the guy who wrote "Wonderwall" or the guy who sang "Wonderwall" to investigate). All throughout Homework you can hear Daft Punk tear the lid off the sewer, letting the music breathe again,stealing a few rays of sunshine in the process.

I mean to say you can literally hear them do this. That "muted" voice is a specific effect Daft Punk use over and over: those moments when the music disappears into near nothingness, as though the studio itself were being smothered in a thick coat of slime. But it's not the disappearing act that makes this effect so effective—it's when the music returns, breaking loose into high-end exhilaration, fulfilling disco's ecstasy quotient and wowing Keyboard readers like myself. The technical term for this dublike effect is "lowpass filter sweep," the function of which is described thusly in the manual for the Kurzweil K2000 sampler: "Lowpass filters cut the levels of all partials above the cutoff frequency without affecting the partials at or below the cutoff frequency (the low frequencies pass through)." I know—yawn.

What matters is that in 1999 sewer lids are being opened up all over the place: scores of dance producers are twiddling the exact same knob to get the exact same effect—with flashy, exciting results. The idea of a studio gimmick taking hold of the dance world is hardly novel—"Funky Drummer," anyone?—but it's always fun to fit puzzle pieces together.

The craze is actually more a post-Stardust thing than a post-Daft thing, maybe a moot point considering that Daft Punk begat Stardust (ladies and gentlemen, meet Thomas Bangalter, currently the richest man in house music and who knows—or cares—what he looks like). But if "Da Funk" was the "Subterranean Homesick Blues" of house, "Music Sounds Better With You" was "Like a Rolling Stone": the earthquake following the tremor. A couple house DJs I work with tell me the Stardust 12-inch was massive before it even reached the first chorus; one stopped playing it after three gigs because it already seemed beyond the saturation point.

All the new low-filter records have a tongue-in-cheek cheapness—the strings in Armand Van Helden's "U Don't Know Me" and piano inPhatts and Small's "Turn-a-round" sound like third-generation samples, disco absorbing lo-fi. And they're all disco deja vus: 1975 (the sub-Philly Soul of "U Don't Know Me"); 1977 (Cassius's "Cassius 99" is the Dr. Buzzard record Kraftwerk might've produced); 1979 (Daddy's Favourite's scandalous but brilliant "I Feel Good Things for You" is little more than Patrice Rushen's "Haven't You Heard" played straight up with obligatory filter sweeps thrown in); 1980 (Van Helden's "Flowerz" is what the early disco Prince might've evolved into had he kept his Zep and Funkadelic records in the closet); and 1985 (the rollicking feel of "Turn-a-round" recalls classic Chicago house). I love all these songs, but less as individual recordings than as pieces of a bigger conversation. I can't hear one without referring to another.

 
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