The iconic „Man-Machine“ Kraftwerk and Techno as a genre share a huge bit of history. Genre-defining artist like Juan Atkins were greatly inspired by Kraftwerk and even to this day, many Techno artists reference them as a huge influence. With the sad passing of founding member Florian Schneider, I‘ve decided to dedicate this episode to one of my favorite bands ever. Let‘s find out what you, as a Techno artist today, can learn from Kraftwerk!
A brief history lesson on Kraftwerk and Techno
Before we jump into the relationship between Kraftwerk and Techno, here‘s a quick recommendation. If you ever want to find out more about this iconic band, I encourage you to read this un-authorized biography: Kraftwerk: Publikation. A biography by David Buckley
One thing that I‘ve always admired about Kraftwerk is that they‘ve never cared about genres. But without intending to do so, the beloved „Robots“ have shaped not only Techno but also Hip Hop, R‘n‘B, and even today‘s Pop- and Rock-music. If you listen closely, you‘re going to find numerous melodic references, samples, and arrangement choices that clearly lead back to Kraftwerk. Whether you like it or not, even Coldplay and Miley Cyrus have used snippets of iconic Kraftwerk songs.
But no other musical relationship can be traced back as easy as the one between Kraftwerk and Techno. Juan Atkins, Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson, and many other early pioneers of Detroit Techno were fascinated by the rigid yet funky grooves and melodies of Kraftwerk. Juan Atkins famously described Techno as „George Clinton and Kraftwerk caught in an elevator with only a sequencer to keep them company.“
From Düsseldorf to Detroit, from Kraftwerk to Techno
“Before I heard ‘The Robots’ I wasn’t really using sequencers and I was playing everything by hand, so it sounded really organic, really flowing, really loose. That really made me research getting into sequencing, to give everything that real tight robotic feel.”
– Juan Atkins in the New York Times
Later on, Kraftwerk and members of the Detroit Techno scene started an interesting artistic relationship and intellectual exchange. Ralf Hütter, a founding member of Kraftwerk (and the only original member still in the band), once said about the Düsseldorf-Detroit „brotherhood“:
“It’s fascinating that this music from two industrial centers of the world, with different cultures and different history, suddenly there’s an inspiration and a flow going back and forth. It’s fantastic. All this positive energy, this feedback coming back to me, is charging our battery, and now we’re full of energy. It keeps my Ralf robot going.”
– Ralf Hütter in the New York Times
This cultural exchange which has influenced Mad Mike Banks and other members of Underground Resistance just as much as contemporary Techno producers had started with a forward-thinking radio-show in Detroit called „Electrifying Mojo“. Back then, radio DJs had a lot of creative freedom and were willing to experiment. It was more about discovering new music than playing the same old top-40 smash hits.
Juan Atkins remembers the first time he heard the music of Kraftwerk on the radio like this:
„Mojo used to play ‘Trans-Europe Express’ and ‘We Are The Robots’ pretty regularly, but the 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.“
– Juan Atkins in an Electronic Beats interview
Even if Kraftwerk and Techno sounds like a love story from both sides, it‘s worth mentioning that Kraftwerk have always kept a certain level of distance to other artists, even in the underground Techno scene. Their holistic concept of music and visual art didn‘t allow for collaborations or deliberate artistic exchange. This is why they famously refused collaboration offers from David Bowie to Michael Jackson (though there are different versions of this story floating around).
What today‘s music producers can learn from Kraftwerk
If this brief history of Kraftwerk and Techno has inspired you to find out more about this fascinating band, I have good news for you. As an artist, music producer, or DJ, you can learn a lot from Kraftwerk. Not only have they deeply committed to pushing the boundaries of music and technology. They have also never compromised on artistic integrity.
I‘m now going to show you the top five things you can learn from Kraftwerk as a modern artist and music producer.
1. Being audacious pays off
Kraftwerk didn‘t have a blueprint. They haven‘t tried to copy another artist, neither musically nor visually. Instead, the members have spent a lot of time researching sounds and playing styles in order to come up with something that was fresh and exciting.
Back in the 70s, there wasn‘t anything like that and people were really excited to hear something so different and unusual. If they had played it safe, Kraftwerk would have ended up as just another late-seventies hippie-rockband.
But instead, Kraftwerk decided to commit to experimentation, trial and error, and brave new concepts. Together with legendary sound engineer Conny Plank, the wanted to re-invent contemporary music by using unconventional recording techniques and cutting-edge synthesis.
2. As an artist, you‘re more than your music
More than any other band, Kraftwerk have understood that as an artist, you‘re representing much more than the music. Don‘t get me wrong here, I still believe that the music is the most important aspect of an artist career. But beyond that, you have to carefully choose what you want to stand for as a brand.
Kraftwerk were aware of this very early on in their career. They intentionally presented themselves differently from other artists of their decade. They never tried to compete with anyone, because they didn‘t have to. Their style, musically as well as visually, was unique enough.
It‘s no surprise that founding members Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider met each other in art university. From the very beginning, they had embraced Kraftwerk as a project that was much bigger than just the music aspect. They‘ve followed this path throughout their career, working closely with graphic designer Emil Schult and photographer Peter Boettcher. These collaborations allowed them to control and shape their artist brand in the desired way.
3. Think and create conceptually
Kraftwerk have always relied on strong concepts for their albums, tours, and exhibitions. Whether it‘s the plain clarity of their famous album „Autobahn“ or the glitchy patterns of „Computerworld“. The concepts Of Kraftwerk have always served as a red thread for music and visuals.
The big advantage of thinking conceptually as an artist is that you have a lot of reference points. This helps you find inspiration and connect the individual dots to the bigger picture. The disadvantage of concepts is that they can limit you to a certain degree. You might feel trapped in a concept, wishing you had never imposed it upon your art.
Overall, looking at Kraftwerk‘s catalogue, I‘d say that they have done a fantastic job of using concepts to their advantage. They loosely revolve around certain topics but don‘t feel forced in any way.
One could say that Kraftwerk itself is a concept rather than a band. The idea of the „Man-Machine“ reaches beyond the band members and their fate as mortal human beings.
4. You don‘t need to be an extrovert to be interesting
Upcoming artists often think that they have to be outgoing in order to be interesting. Having the right social media strategy and being constantly present seems to be more important than ever. But think again!
Even if Instagram wasn‘t a thing when Kraftwerk had their breakthrough, there have been other forms of media that they could have used to their advantage. But instead of being on every magazine cover and giving loads of interviews, the „Robots“ weren‘t very interested in publicity.
So guess what happened: The media got even more curious about these weird, secretive German guys. Kraftwerk sometimes even fooled journalists as well as fans, putting robots instead of themselves on stage or letting them pose for pictures.
All of this tells us that it‘s not the loudest voice that gets heard in the public. It‘s the one that has something interesting to say, and sometimes even the one that is more secretive than you would expect.
5. Be futuristic
One of the most annoying things about electronic music, especially Techno these days, is that everybody seems to copy the past instead of producing futuristic music. This whole genre was once based on the idea of futurism.
Kraftwerk have always managed to sound futuristic. Even today, their 3D audiovisual shows feel like the future. This is phenomenal, considering that they‘re playing songs from the last four decades.
I find that today‘s electronic music scene is playing it a bit too safe and has forgotten about futurism. Why can‘t you be the pioneer of tomorrow‘s musical landscape? Be brave and dare to experiment instead of using the same old 303-line on top of an 808 kick.
Putting it into action: Kraftwerk and Techno – what modern music producers can learn
Now that you know why I believe that Kraftwerk are more important than the Beatles and Jimmy Hendrix together (oops, did I say that out loud?), let‘s try to implement some of the things you‘ve learned in this episode. Here are my three action steps to help you get started.
1. Explore ways in your music that are free from preconceptions and boundaries
- Even if you believe that nothing is „truly original“, try to find aspects of your music that aren‘t typical clichés of contemporary electronic music.
- Commit to deliberate experimentation and give yourself the time to explore new techniques and technologies.
- Keep a futuristic perspective in your creation process instead of looking back at what has been done in your genre over and over again.
2. Work with concepts that inspire your music as well as your visual aestetics
- For your next EP, try to work with a concept that nurtures the creative process musically as well as visually.
- Start to collaborate with a talented friend or a professional graphic designer to explore visual enhancements of your musical output.
3. Stop putting yourself under pressure because of social media
- Yes, social media can help you reach an audience and build a following of true fans, but it‘s not the essence of your job as an artist.
- Many successful artists (Kraftwerk is just one example) have had a lot of success by playing against the rules of publicity.
- This doesn‘t mean you don‘t need to think about promoting yourself. But maybe there are clever ways of doing it your way instead of jumping on the bandwagon and trying out the latest Instagram growth-hack.
Alright, that‘s it for this week‘s episode on Kraftwerk and Techno. I hope this was helpful to you! So what do you think about Kraftwerk? Have they influenced you in any way?
Let me know in the comments, I read everything.