Kraftwerk. “They gave the musical power to the person behind the computer.”
Kraftwerk, who can be described as a nerdier version of Devo, is the Big Bang for all popular music we listen to today. From hip hop to house to pop, the music of 2021 is covered in the fingerprints of Kraftwerk.
This German group started as a traditional krautrock band with guitars and drums in the late 60s. But they ditched the live instruments all together by the mid 70s in favor of a new sound. Something that would distance them even further from the blues influence that was the rock norm of the time. By utilizing new synthesising and sequencing equipment, they created a sound that was smooth, clean, mobile, futuristic and mechanical. Often instrumental, when they did use vocals, they used a Vocoder, which took speech and regurgitated it back out as a robot voice. They cut their hippy hair and tried to act like robots (pre Daft Punk), but it was their human touch that made their songs more than just a mechanical droning noise. This wasn’t experimental anymore. It was music.
Listening to Kraftwerk’s catalogue now, is like looking through a telescope at a distant universe and realizing it is the past. You can hear disco in Kraftwerk. You can hear the entire 80s sound! Of course you can hear Hip Hop. And you can certainly hear Techno. Kraftwerk used the word “techno” in the title of their classic “Techno Pop” record in 1986, once again foreshadowing (or influencing) the future.
While one branch of African American culture was taking Kraftwerk samples and creating hip-hop, black kids in Detroit were being influenced to produce music the way Kraftwerk was doing it. Creating and sequencing in real time. Incorporating the relenting 4 on the floor artificial drumbeat throughout and Techno was born.
“It’s like George Clinton and Kraftwerk caught in an elevator with only a sequencer to keep them company.” proclaimed Techno founding father Derrick May. Inventor of Detroit Techno Juan Atkins was intrigued by the robotic sounds Kraftwerk was introducing from Germany, especially the 1978 song “Robots”. “That really made me research getting into sequencing,” says Atkins. “To give everything that real tight robotic feel.”
And the fact that they were able to perform this music live, opened the bridge to the dance club scene. A cross pollination of cultures that strengthens the bond of Kraftwerk to Techno more than any other community. Kraftwerk were basically DJs before that was the term. It was the Kraftwerk record “Computer World” that flipped young Derrick May’s world. “I finally felt like it was something that made me feel I could really start to identify with.” May’s admitted. “It wasn’t just a feeling like something cool or something I really wanted to dance to. This was as if it was on a mission.”
This music from Germany really connected with these kids from Detroit, as if on a spiritual level. Both places are known for cars and manufacturing. The music emphasised mechanical repetition and automation. If robots can assemble cars, they can assemble music.
This year, Kraftwerk will be inducted into the Rock N Roll Hall of fame. Just over a year after the death of Kraftwerk founding member Florian Schneider-Esleben. The Hall of Fame recognition is long overdue for a band whose influence surpasses “rock n roll” itself. Fortunately, Florian was able to live in the future in which he envisioned his work. A world of robotic music made by machines.