It’s difficult for me to remember the very first time I had ever heard the music of Kraftwerk. It’s mostly because they have been integral to the early development of various forms of hip hop music. From time to time I may have heard samples of Trans-Europe Express or Radio-Activity in the scrappy rap music that was played on my school bus.
As interesting as those songs were, I was never really compelled to seek out Kraftwerk music until Gary Numan raised the profile of electronic music on the pop charts. After Cars, it was becoming easier to find electronic music, although much of it was available as expensive imports.
But while Cars was all over the pop charts, Kraftwerk ironically (or not) was making inroads on the American R&B chart with the song “Numbers”. Like The Yellow Magic Orchestra, Kraftwerk had knocked down the color barrier with airplay on black radio in America. “Numbers” was featured on Soul Train and gave many people their first glimpse of hip hop dancing styles applied to electronic music.
Because of the legacy Kraftwerk music had developed with the fledging hip hop scene, “Numbers” became a natural hit on black radio. Its breakbeat style was perfect for poppers and lockers and would launch the careers of many DJs and rappers. The Detroit techno scene in particular owed some of its beat moxy to four white German guys who looked like plastic robots whenever they made stage appearances.
Numbers came from Kraftwerk’s eight studio album, so its sound was an evolution of the breakthrough style of 1974s Autobahn. That style built around simple keyboard melodies and syncopated rhythms had become the trademark Kraftwerk sound and would last up to their more recent work.
In fact songs like “Computer World”, “Pocket Calculator” and “Home Computer” sounded nearly interchangeable with only vocal phrasing to really separate them. Still, there was nothing else quite like a Kraftwerk song and Computer World is where Kraftwerks career reached its commercial and critical zenith.
Today Kraftwerk music is still being sampled by artists like Jay-Z, adding to the long list that included JJ Fad, Afrika Bambaataa and The Fearless Four. Because the Kraftwerk sound evolved so slowly, it’s possible to listen to Computer World thinking it’s a bit more contemporary than its 1981 release date would suggest. I guess that’s one of the benefits of being before your time and timeless as only Kraftwerk could be.