A Soul Train-Style Detroit Dance Show Gets Down to Kraftwerk’s “Numbers” in the Late 80s

Imag­ine Kraftwerk’s Ralf Hüt­ter in his robot voice, say­ing, as he once said to his friend Boris Ven­zen, “Our music is good if blacks and whites can dance to it at the same time.” This state­ment is the essence of Kraftwerk. Despite their ear­ly 70s avant-garde phase and their famous­ly satir­ic Teu­ton­ic look, the robot­ic Ger­man tech­no pio­neers set­tled ear­ly on their “prac­tice of fus­ing Euro­pean elec­tron­ic music with black Amer­i­can rhythms, forg­ing an aes­thet­ic that reached crit­i­cal mass with the release of Trans Europe Express.

So writes John Mor­ri­son at The Wire, in an essay that explores this fusion in some depth. Mor­ri­son also quotes for­mer Kraftwerk per­cus­sion­ist Karl Bar­tos on the band’s debt to black music: “We were all fans of Amer­i­can music: soul, the Tamla/Motown thing, and of course, James Brown. We always tried to make an Amer­i­can rhythm feel, with a Euro­pean approach to har­mo­ny and melody.” The exper­i­men­tal method emerges even in their ear­li­est work, in which they begin work­ing with the “’Bo Did­dley’ beat… that dom­i­nat­ed rock ‘n’ roll in the 50s and ear­ly 60s,” Mor­ri­son notes.

Black DJs in the states picked up on what the Ger­mans were doing, and start­ed play­ing Kraftwerk—along with Gary Numan, Yel­lo Mag­ic Orches­tra, and New Order—in the dis­cos. Mean­while, Kraftwerk start­ed incor­po­rat­ing ear­ly Amer­i­can house music with their 1981 album Com­put­er World. The response to Kraftwerk in black clubs was huge, and they became even more famous after Afri­ka Bam­baataa sam­pled “Trans Europe Express” in his 1981 track, “Plan­et Rock,” a song that had a seis­mic impact on elec­tron­ic dance music around the world.

Kraftwerk’s most sin­gu­lar impact in the U.S. hap­pened in the city of Detroit. As Mor­ri­son writes:

[Kraftwerk]’s influ­ence took a par­tic­u­lar­ly strong hold in Detroit with Urban radio DJs Like Elec­tri­fy­ing Mojo intro­duc­ing the Euro­pean elec­tron­ic sound to the gen­er­a­tion of black youth that went on to cre­ate tech­no. In recent years, sev­er­al clips have been uploaded of The Scene (and its spin-off The New Dance Show), a Soul Train-style dance show that aired from 1975–87 on Detroit’s WGPR TV 62. In these videos, black youth from Detroit can be seen danc­ing to Kraftwerk and a vari­ety of pro­gres­sive elec­tron­ic dance music, giv­ing us a glimpse into Detroit’s scene at the time.

If you ever need­ed to know how to dance to Kraftwerk, writes Dan­ger­ous Minds of the exu­ber­ant Soul Train-like dance line above, “this is how it’s done”—or at least, how it was done in Detroit in the late 80s on The New Dance Show. From the ear­ly 80s on, Mor­ri­son writes, “Kraftwerk became increas­ing­ly aware of the black music scene,” and leg­endary Detroit tech­no DJs like Juan Atkins, Der­rick May, and Kevin Saun­der­son became increas­ing­ly aware of Kraftwerk, a sit­u­a­tion cul­tur­al schol­ar Paul Gilroy might fold into his con­cept of “the Black Atlantic,” but which could also be called some­thing like The Trans Düs­sel­dorf-Detroit Afro­fu­tur­ist Tech­no Express.

“All of the city latched on to” Kraftwerk’s sound, says May in a 2010 inter­view above. Atkins put it this way in a 2012 trib­ute to Kraftwerk pub­lished on Elec­tron­ic Beats:

[T]he first time I heard ‘Robots’ I just froze. My jaw dropped. It just sound­ed so new and fresh. I mean, I had already been doing elec­tron­ic music at the time, but the results weren’t so pristine—the sound of com­put­ers talk­ing to each oth­er. This sound­ed like the future, and it was fas­ci­nat­ing, because I had just start­ed learn­ing about sequencers and drum pro­grams. In my mind, Kraftwerk were, like, con­sul­tants to Roland and Korg and stuff because they had these sounds before any of the machines even appeared on the mar­ket.

I mean, there were oth­er funky elec­tron­ic bands around—Tan­ger­ine Dream and Gary Numan and all that—but none were as funky as Kraftwerk­. I mean, you could actu­al­ly play the stuff on black radio, and that wasn’t a small feat. You could go to an all black club in Detroit and when they put on ‘Pock­et Cal­cu­la­tor’, every­body just went total­ly crazy.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch Flo­ri­an Schnei­der (RIP) in Clas­sic Ear­ly Kraftwerk Per­for­mances

The Case for Why Kraftwerk May Be the Most Influ­en­tial Band Since the Bea­t­les

Kraftwerk’s “The Robots” Per­formed by Ger­man First Graders in Adorable Card­board Robot Out­fits

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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