the Afro-American Roots of Kraftwerk

zhao

there are no accidents
i've bee saying this for ages, on this forum too, meeting with considerable objection. Thanks to David Toop for saying it during his recent lectures, and Tony Herrington for following up in the pages of The Wire:

techno didn't emerge from tabula rasa, and Kraftwerk should be seen as firmly WITHIN a lineage of electronic music innovators, who all paved the way toward the techno music of today, and NOT the game-changing sole inventors as they have been made out to be.

"African-American contribution to Kraftwerk’s sound has been routinely sidelined by three decades of rhetoric proclaiming them der Patenonkels of techno and electro."

Reasserting the roots of Kraftwerk’s sound in African-American R&B and jazz reveals how the soul of electronic dance music is being throttled by the dead hand of the culture industry. By Tony Herrington.


To address the common negative responses i have seen over and over:

"Everyone knows this"

it shouldn't be controversial, and it should be obvious. But speaking from personal experience, the resistance is overwhelming when ever it is brought up. And not regular joes off the street, these are music journalists and academics. Just look at the comments under The Wire article. These are not morons... even smart enough to try to invoke "post colonialism" to justify their denialist position. So i disagree, that "history will sort itself out", and believe it is important to fight for versions of narratives which closer approximate truth.

"Kraftwerk themselves said they wanted to get away from the blues scale and did not want to sound American"

This needs to be seen in the context of an earlier statement documented in Wolfgang Flür's book, that they listened to tons of James Brown and were trying to emulate that and other Black-American artists in their music. The entire Kraftwerk project should be understood as recreating Afro-American pop music in a different way; or, robots playing Funk and Motown.

"Techno didn't come from the ghettos. Those detroit guys were all Euro-philes."

While the Detroit guys might have had stylistic aspirations, and took aesthetic ideas from Europe, and may have wanted to appear slick and posh, surrounding themselves with minimalist furnishings, it is unlikely that these were anything other than affectations. And regardless of the actual economic background of Derrick May and his friends (pretty sure poor), it is certain that they grew up immersed in the culture of the underclass, which shaped their music much more than any other other factor.

"But Kraftwerk revolutionized music!"

David Toop on facebook: You say that Kraftwerk was the first group to propose a complete transformation of music and lay a whole philosophical groundwork to it. That ignores Sun Ra, to give one example. It also works from hindsight. Kraftwerk seem a lot more important in this moment than they did in the 1970s, precisely because of their own mythopoiea and the distortions of history.
"music has always been about a marriage of cultures, with much cross pollination."

No doubt, but it is sad when such statements are used to preserve a status quo of fabricated myths which massively, routinely, systematically, marginalizes the primary pollinators, and deifies a secondary one as the all important inventor of new worlds. Statements like this basically mean: "The roots of techno are so numerous and complex, with so many different strands... why don't we just keep it simple, and stay with the currently widely accepted narrative, and just say that it's a predominantly white European thing."

"Well, all modern rhythmic music have African roots, so what is all this fuss about?"

This is simultaneously paying verbiage to an all encompassing abstract "African Essence", and refusing to give due credit to real, in the flesh, contemporary Afro-American innovators. What is being said here is that "EVERYTHING and EVERYONE came from Africa. Africa is everywhere, like the air we breathe, thus it exists and it doesn't exist, and there is not much need to trace lineage"
____________________

all these responses equal a desire to preserve the status quo, which paints an image of Kraftwerk having invented techno out of nothing. "everyone invented everything, everything is African (meaningless statement), so what is the use of trying to discern influences? Why re-think history? Lets just leave the narrative as it is, perfectly Eurocentric and White supremacist the way everyone finds comfortable.
 
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griftert

Well-known member
Good post but I think your logic is in danger breaking down a little bit. You seem to imply that europhilia amongst young black people isn't something that is a legitimate position, or that they weren't aware of how naive this position was or something, as if there is an essential historical set of precursors that black creatives can draw from and anything else is illigitimate. But I agree with your main point (and Toop's article, in the main) that Kraftwerk have taken on a more foundational role in electronic music than maybe they deserve.
 

paolo

Mechanical phantoms
Yeah that's a good article. Got to say that I actually didn't know how much Kraftwerk were influenced by black American music, but I don't think that anyone can deny that they took things forward in a way that very few people have been able to do
 

CrowleyHead

Well-known member
So is the goal just to demystify Kraftwerk here or... I'm not opposed to the arguments here. I'm more or less confused as the goal.

Unless there's a part of the world population which thinks that Black Music has nothing to do with techno. I know there is but, at least amongst the educated, this shouldn't be an issue.
 

zhao

there are no accidents
You seem to imply that europhilia amongst young black people isn't something that is a legitimate position, or that they weren't aware of how naive this position was or something, as if there is an essential historical set of precursors that black creatives can draw from and anything else is illigitimate.
? i don't get what you're saying. Europhilia is not really a "position", and of course all sources and influences are legitimate...
 

zhao

there are no accidents
i dont think article or anyone is denying that Kraftwerk were ground breaking and revolutionary, only that the industry routinely fails to mention their roots in the Afro American heritage, in order to construct the myth of 1. a "pure" machine music divorced from history, spontaneously emerging from the rubble of post-war Germany and 2. a predominantly white European identity.

but i wish i can find the old thread where things got quite heated about the roots of techno... i wish i can remember who were the Dissensus regulars that refused to accept this, responding with many of the above lines...

I can understand why some Germans might be averse to this, because they have never had a youth culture of their own, having borrowed everything from jazz era to disco, and it must be nice to be able to pretend that Techno is kind of THEIR thing.

and i wish i can find that article where, Levon Vincent was it? said something like "we didn't invent anything and took it all from Kraftwerk" -- to which i would say individual artists are of course not immune from the effects of dominant narratives, and can reproduce oversimplified, reductionist and simply false claims made by the media about their own work/culture, perpetuating hegemonic positions. There are numerous examples of artists misrepresenting their own culture, for a variety of reasons.
 

griftert

Well-known member
Sorry, my last post was sloppy. I'll try and get what I mean again. I guess I'm trying to say that young black musicians listening to european pop music in detroit and being inspired by some elements of what they heard, and back and forth shouldn't diminish anyone's sense the originality of their music.
Italo disco was huge in the early days of chicago, and italo disco was a european attempt to ape classic disco records of 5 years earlier.
I'd say all modern popular dance music has its roots in disco doesn't it which is basically an african-american creation.

Fwiw zhao, the minimal techno I've heard recently sounds as far away from the soul and funk of detroit as schlager.
 
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zhao

there are no accidents
Sorry, my last post was sloppy. I'll try and get what I mean again. I guess I'm trying to say that young black musicians listening to european pop music in detroit and being inspired by some elements of what they heard, and back and forth shouldn't diminish anyone's sense the originality of their music.
Italo disco was huge in the early days of chicago, and italo disco was a european attempt to ape classic disco records of 5 years earlier.
I'd say all modern popular dance music has its roots in disco doesn't it which is basically an african-american creation.
of course i agree. significant european influence, from early industrial to mute stuff, depeche mode, italo new wave and disco, jean michel jarr, etc. But yes i agree again, all these Euro strands were themselves takes on Afro-American music.

And no, of course it does not take away from the originality of Detroit and Chicago to recognize stylistic influence from across the pond! IN EXACTLY THE SAME WAY, acknowledging the Afro-American roots of Kraftwerk doesn't take away anything from Kraftwerk. If anything, to me, being recognized as an important link in a long and rich tradition only adds to their significance!

Fwiw zhao, the minimal techno I've heard recently sounds as far away from the soul and funk of detroit as schlager.
numerous strands of techno by now for sure, some of which comes from more of a polka type rhythm... which i tend to stay away from but that's another matter :)
 

CrowleyHead

Well-known member
Shifting gears for a minute; I'm always hideously depressed by how much the post-punk/industrial/gothic scenes of music are so overtly influenced by black music, and the people who get into them very VERY rarely acknowledge this. Moreover they almost always use it as escapism... I remember Dominick Fenrow doing this list of 90s alternative rock for a website, talking about how it was the most challenging commercial music of it's era. American Radio staple stuff like Stone Temple Pilots and Alice In Chains... I could've fucking gagged.

I know it's not relevant to this discussion strictly, but I find it irritating that some people in the universe use things such as say... the more monochromatic techno, or industrial type music as escapism for the more multicultural aspect of reality. Or when they do embrace it, it often ends up as this weird pastiche music that isn't offering enough of it's own voice to not seem like limp-wristed impersonation (The Inc. album on 4AD from a year or so ago comes to mind). And even if white musicians do try to go for this, they're often villified by their fans (a good amount of time I saw Arcade Fire fans talk about that last album James Murphy produced, they kept complaining about all the "jungle/voodoo stuff". Just the slightest shift from Springsteen-style Rock Pomp into something 'other' just throws them off.
 

zhao

there are no accidents
found one of the old threads, it wasn't Levon Vincent, but Anthony Shakir who said "all we did was put a black face on kraftwerk", a perfect example of individual artists not being immune from infection by dominant narratives, and reproducing oversimplified, reductionist and simply false claims made by the media about their own work/culture, perpetuating hegemonic positions of power.

Shifting gears for a minute; I'm always hideously depressed by how much the post-punk/industrial/gothic scenes of music are so overtly influenced by black music, and the people who get into them very VERY rarely acknowledge this. Moreover they almost always use it as escapism... I remember Dominick Fenrow doing this list of 90s alternative rock for a website, talking about how it was the most challenging commercial music of it's era. American Radio staple stuff like Stone Temple Pilots and Alice In Chains... I could've fucking gagged.

I know it's not relevant to this discussion strictly, but I find it irritating that some people in the universe use things such as say... the more monochromatic techno, or industrial type music as escapism for the more multicultural aspect of reality. Or when they do embrace it, it often ends up as this weird pastiche music that isn't offering enough of it's own voice to not seem like limp-wristed impersonation (The Inc. album on 4AD from a year or so ago comes to mind). And even if white musicians do try to go for this, they're often villified by their fans (a good amount of time I saw Arcade Fire fans talk about that last album James Murphy produced, they kept complaining about all the "jungle/voodoo stuff". Just the slightest shift from Springsteen-style Rock Pomp into something 'other' just throws them off.
no it is absolutely relevant to this discussion.

Facts like Bauhaus being essentially a reggae dub band who used loads of Afro-caribbean and African rhythms, are NEVER, EVER acknowledged by their fans or the press, in their positioning as the whitest of white gods of Goth -- this amounts to racist distortion of cultural identity.

did you guys see this piece on Hipster racism? great stuff. Lester Bangs was great, but i didn't know also in this way:

“since rock ‘n’ roll is bound to stay in your life, you would hope to see it reach some point where it might not add to the cruelty and exploitation already in the world.”
This is stuff that was in the back of my mind during the entire time of my involvement with various subcultures while growing up, but never with such clarity: the racism inherent in Punk and other "rebel" scenes. Rich white kids acting angry was the ultimate cool, while marginalizing the REAL rebellion of people of color. "Alternative" music not acknowledging the black underclass roots of their music, and how there is a fucking boat-load of denial that comes with all this:

"counterculture is predicated on the idea of disenfranchisement, of powerlessness, of being outside the system. This often requires a certain amount of willful self-invention, i.e. disingenuous affectations of poverty and the denial of privilege. Once you’re dug into that situation, being informed that your words and actions DO affect people can feel like a punch in the nose, because it contradicts the foundation of your being."
 

griftert

Well-known member
Yeah, actually I feel like the importance of italo in the emergence of techno is underplayed. Some of the early italo stuff sounds v advanced. But that's maybe another question.

I think it can be interesting to see the whole complex of records as a kind of internationalism which also plays off of a fantasy about other cultures. Inspiration and pastiche both start to come into play to some extent. But I think it's worth noting the internationalism that's implied by this.

Listen to early chicago house record like
And you can hear obvious Gary Numan references with a bit of tounge-in-cheek as well. I'm just trying to point out that the whole development of modern popular dance music was internationalist...
 

trza

Well-known member
Arcade Fire have some kind of Carnival theme that goes from their album and marketing campaign to their live show and music videos. I can't peel my eyes open long enough to watch the video, but I think it has celebrities in Carnival costumes that take off their masks for some kind of dramatic effect set to the music. Another video lifts every graphic input from Black Orpheus/Ofrfeu Negro, itself a French made film with a mixed reception in Brazil. Their marketing campaign ties buying the album to getting "premium ticket access" or something for a live show where fans are asked to arrive in costume. I understand the album has been successful and received Grammy nominations and the live show is selling boatloads of tickets.

Another rock band, from South Africa, Kongos, has an IHeartRadio promo/ad running on stations were they talk about the Kwaito influence of their single Come With Me Now. The song is really awful, and the video is hideous. The only recognizable kwaito element is a stomp stomp stomp bass drum. But at least they acknowledge the African influences in the band logo. Despite the paid promos on the radio, the band and the single are nowhere near where Arcade Fire are.
 

zhao

there are no accidents
Yeah, actually I feel like the importance of italo in the emergence of techno is underplayed. Some of the early italo stuff sounds v advanced. But that's maybe another question.

I think it can be interesting to see the whole complex of records as a kind of internationalism which also plays off of a fantasy about other cultures. Inspiration and pastiche both start to come into play to some extent. But I think it's worth noting the internationalism that's implied by this.

Listen to early chicago house record like
And you can hear obvious Gary Numan references with a bit of tounge-in-cheek as well. I'm just trying to point out that the whole development of modern popular dance music was internationalist...
lets not forget that Italo, early Mute and Depeche Mode, Belgian New Beat, Jean Michelle Jarre, etc., which all influenced Detroit Techno, are all to various degrees, themselves essentially European takes on African American blueprints.

So again, the relativism of "it's all mixed up" and "no one group created Techno" are still all excuses to ignore the central importance of foundational cultural lineage.
 
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Sectionfive

bandwagon house
We were pretty much aware that we were not raised in the Mississippi Delta, or we were not raised in Liverpool. Our generation had come up with a counterpoint to all that.
This is great and super comprehensive.

 

zhao

there are no accidents
in post war West Germany literally EVERYTHING came from America. from the Marshall Plan which entirely funded the reconstruction, to powdered milk, to candy, and of course, music.

In this environment, rebelling against American influence occurred exactly within the context of a saturation of American influence.

To say that Can or Neu! or Kraftwerk did it their way, which was consciously trying to not sound like Afro-American Rock and Roll, can only mean precisely playing Afro-American derived music in a different way.
 

Martin D

Well-known member
found one of the old threads, it wasn't Levon Vincent, but Anthony Shakir who said "all we did was put a black face on kraftwerk", a perfect example of individual artists not being immune from infection by dominant narratives, and reproducing oversimplified, reductionist and simply false claims made by the media about their own work/culture, perpetuating hegemonic positions of power.
LOL
 

zhao

there are no accidents
you think my claims are ridiculous?

Do you think it is rare in history, the instances where artists under value their own work, and it took a critic to recognize greatness?

Do you think it is rare in history, the times where artists don't see the connection of their own work to the lineage of which it ultimately belongs, and it took a curator to discern its historical context?
 

Martin D

Well-known member
you think my claims are ridiculous?
I think I'd love to hear you in the same room as Shake and Mad Mike, I also think you take short "Derrick May" statements to the press out of context and suit them to your own agenda.
 

zhao

there are no accidents
I think I'd love to hear you in the same room as Shake and Mad Mike, I also think you take short "Derrick May" statements to the press out of context and suit them to your own agenda.
I'd love to talk to Shake and Mad Mike about this. We should all have a pow wow together with Tony Harrington, Kirk Degiorgio, and David Toop.

Which of Derrick May's statements have i taken out of context?

and it's not really enough to simply call bullshit in a discussion. What is your own position, Martin?
 
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Martin D

Well-known member
I'd love to talk to Shake and Mad Mike about this. We should all have a pow wow together with Tony Harrington, Kirk Degiorgio, and David Toop.

Which of Derrick May's statements have i taken out of context?

and it's not really enough to simply call bullshit in a discussion. What is your own position, Martin?

You see, I'm not calling bullshit. Not sure how you jumped to that conclusion but you don't have to be so angry all the time and I mean that with respect. Maybe your not angry at all but for some reason that's the way I read it, happy to be wrong.

There's a thing journalist's do in techno, it's called the "Derrick May" question, something that is designed to get a short often controversial quote. I LOL'd because you did actually make me laugh but you're using something shorter than a Tweet to back your agenda, it's kind strange to see when you realise the width of the subject.

I've sat in a room with Shake, Mike and members of Kraftwerk and talked to them about it. It's incredibly complex subject and one that would take a book or two to explain I feel.
 
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