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.