The Magick of Kraftwerk

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Summer’s almost here and with DEMF (Detroit Electronic Music Festival) just around the corner, fans of electronica are shifting into high gear. Amidst all the hype,  one salient fact should be remembered. Without the pioneering antics of some funky dudes from Düsseldorf, DEMF would not exist. Plain and simple! Kraftwerk are the bonafide godparents of electronica / modern pop music, influencing artists such as Gary Numan, Franz Ferdinand, Joy Division and Bjork. Their futuristic sounds inspired American DJ’s Juan Atkins, Derrick May, Carl Craig and Kevin Saunderson (aka The Belleville Three), to create a new form of music that would be the foundation of rave culture. Detroit’s industrial backdrop combined with Kraftwerk’s machinistic precision proved to be the perfect marriage between European metronomics and Afro-American rhythmic sensibilities. Ultimately, this resulted in the creation of techno. You can hear Kraftwerk’s influence clearly on Cybotron’s “Cosmic Cars”, and most famously, Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” which contains an interpolation of Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express” and “Numbers.” Their influence on hip-hop and electro is undeniable, yet in spite of all this, Kraftwerk’s legacy seems to be largely unrecognized by today’s generation of listeners.

 

Kraftwerk’s journey began in Düsseldorf in the late 1960’s when Florian Schneider met Ralf Hütter at The Robert-Schumann-Hochschule; a college for music studies at university level. Both musicians initiated an avant-garde experiment where they pushed the boundaries of music, subsequently opening up new frontiers (“krautrock” being one of them). In this incredible footage taken from a live WDR TV performance of “Ruckzuck” in 1970, you can hear unmistakeable elements of minimal, trance and rock. With Schneider blasting staccato stabs on flute, Klaus Dinger holding it down on kit and Hütter rocking the organ, Kraftwerk chugs along like a futuristic funky locomotive. Providing glimpses of a musical genre 20 years ahead of its time makes for a somewhat discombobulated studio audience (though you could see some hippies actually getting into it like, “I don’t know what this is but it sounds good yah!”). Then at 2:29, Kraftwerk shifts gears into some kling klang, rocked out synth experimental jiffy, playfully tweaking dynamics, resulting in sounds eerily reminiscent of a vocoder which was to become their trademark (3:53). And the zoned out expression of the couple chewing gum at the end – priceless!

 

Fast forward 30 years later to an age where the average North American household has 2 computers. Have these guys become moded, outdated even with their newfangled experimental wizardry? Hell no! Kraftwerk’s genius is ubiquitous even in hip-hop. How many of you know that Jay-Z sampled “Man Machine” for his hit, “Sunshine.”

 

Even Chris Martin from Coldplay couldn’t resist sampling “Computer Love” for “Talk” on his album X&Y. But Kraftwerk didn’t hand it to him on a platter. No sirree. Martin wrote them a letter, requesting permission which was forwarded to the notoriously reclusive group through their lawyers. Then he sat on his hands and waited a couple of weeks, until he received a written reply which simply said, “Yes.”  

The first track I recall from Kraftwerk is “Numbers.” Hearing that tune on an electro mixtape my uncle gave me really flipped my gourd. I’d never encountered anything like it before; mysterious, playful and downright funky. To my adolescent ears, it sounded like a Speak & Spell having an epileptic seizure. Robotic voices counting in multiple languages proved to be a headtrip, as I would rewind and listen repeatedly with the biggest smile on my face. At the time I didn’t know who Kraftwerk was, but I knew this was important. Little did I know that I would end up hearing that same song being played at a rave years later. “Computer World” is a must in any music lover’s collection, as one can trace the evolution of electronica from this landmark album. It’s also an eerily accurate prediction of the world we live in now where “business…numbers…money…people” are all part of the ruthless cycle of capitalization. Keep in mind Kraftwerk was creating this kind of music in the 70’s, when the majority of people didn’t have computers (or even know what they were). So you see, this power plant of artistic innovation from Germany must be given the utmost respect for their peerless contributions to modern music. Lang lebe Kraftwerk!

Copyright © 2012 Frankie Diamond. All rights reserved. Excerpts of less than 200 words may be published to another site, including a link back to the original article. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety and posted to another site without the express permission of the author.

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