Updated: May 19, 2020
While the world morns the recent passing of Kraftwerk leader & musician Florian Schneider who left us last week after a short battle with cancer at the age of 73. I am trying not to look at his passing with sadness (there are already enough reasons to be sad at the moment), I prefer to look back & celebrate their achievements & incredible legacy, not only as one of the first band/groups to completely abandon conventional instruments like guitars, acoustic drums (the Kraftwerk members invented their own electronic drumkits), & even the human voice, they were also (without their prior knowledge) an essential key ingredient to possibly the greatest artform of the latter half of the 20th century & one of the most recognisable samples in hip-hop culture on Afrika Bambaataa's Planet Rock single & the birth of the first truly original sounding hip-hop single.
I came pretty late to the Kraftwerk party other than hearing the hit single the Model, in the early '80’s (which I though was a novelty track) & I didn’t hear any of their albums until the mid '90’s when I had already heard a lot of modern techno & dance music, their earlier experimental sound & music sounds too different from the '90’s fare I was used to, plus I was never really sold on their funny robots but not a robots thing! which by that time Daft Punk had already taken it to the next level & did it much better, sorry. I am not going to lump hollow praise on them for all of their outstanding achievements & there are a lot! I am instead going to concentrate on their part in the creation & legacy of Planet Rock.
There had been other Hip-Hop singles before Planet Rock, most famously Rapper’s Delight by the Sugar Hill Gang (not so much a gang as 2 guys found in a pizza shop & one of their friends rapping over a band playing the already famous Good Times by disco sensations Chic) among a few others, but these were still deeply entrenched in the modern idea of how a track should sound & be arranged, However when Bambaataa’s exceptional taste & Arthur Miller’s production skills & an 808got together with the Kraftwerk samples it gave birth to something entirely new, The bastard child of 1000 genres & the first truly original music to emerge from America since the birth of the American blues. Planet rock was released in April 1982, on the newly formed Tommy Boy record label from New York City, the track was created in late 1981 over three sessions at the intergalactic studios (later immortalised by the Beastie Boys on the track of the same name) with Afrika as DJ & producer, Boston Native, New York resident Arthur Bakers as producer & engineer, & multi-instrumentalist John Robie on keys, along the MC’s from Bam’s Soul Sonic Force, & the all-important 808 beat supplied by a gentleman that the guys found in an ad in the Village Voice Newpaper which read Man with drum machine for hire $20. Bambaataa & Miller had previously worked together of the reasonable Jazzy Sensation single which had been a regional hit in a style very similar to Rappers delight which had sold a respectable 60,000 copies in the New York Area. However, for their second collaboration the duo wanted to capture the spirit of the Roxy Club they had been recently frequenting. The Roxy originally opened as a roller disco a few years before & now had morphed into something much cooler as the intersection of where the artistic & affluent upscale Manhattan art scene rubbed shoulders with a mixed race crowd coming from the outer boroughs like Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens, successfully bringing together the musical worlds of disco, punk, new wave & the new big beat sound coming courtesy of new “house” DJ Afrika Bambaataa’s eclectic taste & extensive knowledgeof records & breaks, earning him the title of Master of Records.
It was here that the Blondie found her Rapture (name checking Fab 5 Freddy, Bambaataa associate Grandmaster Flash & even trying a little rapping herself), The Clash found their Ghetto Blasters & the inspiration for their hit single This is Radio Clash, It was in this environment that the artists & musicians met & mingled, the scene also launching the careers of such artistic luminaries as Jean-Michell Basquiat, Keith Harring & the afore mention Fab 5 Freddy. Jean-Michell Basquiat would change the world of popular art starting as a street artist & before moving into legit galleries before eventually collaborating with pop art royalty in the form of Andy Warhol & ever growing popularity, until he was stolen from us too soon due to his prodigious drug use, dying of an accidental overdose at the age of 28. Keith Harring, started in a similar fashion as a street artist also gaining entry to the prestigious world of gallery shows, Harring would eventually become one of the leading voices in aids awareness & safe sex campaign of the late 80’s, with his artwork adorning posters & record covers for the aids awareness group red, hot + blue until his untimely death at the age of 31. Fab 5 Freddy who also started as a street artist would go onto become a hugely influential ambassador for hip-hop culture, first with the ground breaking Yo MTV Raps show which aired from 1987 until 1995 & then as a reliable authority on the birth & genesis of Hip-Hop on any respectable documentary on the subject to this day. It was in this spirit that the trio entered the studio to begin work on what would become Planet Rock. The track recorded in 81 had been proceeded by another very important release by another Roxy DJ & veteran of the same block parties as Bam & his Zulu Nation, the Blondie name checked DJ, Grandmaster Flash. Flash had recently released his debut single, the Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel in late 81. which has the distinction of being the first commercially successful single to be made entirely by a DJ using only turntables or the wheels of steel (so nameafter the preferred silver metal turntable platters used by scratch DJ’S, which gave less friction for better scratching), While Rapper’s delight & Jazzy Sensation to some extent had highlighted thegroups rappers in a similar way, (it’s not hard to hear the influence of Delight on the style of Jazzy Sensation). Bambaataa with the additional confidence from his growing reputation & his fellow DJ's quantum leap of sound with Adventures, would take the sound of the street to the studio, this came in the form of twin turntable & samples from four very well-chosen tracks, among them two tracks from Kraftwerk. The tracks used for Planet Rock, Kraftwerk's Autobahn & Numbers, The Mexican by Babe Ruth (also featured on Wheels of Steel) & Orch5 by David Vorhaus plus a track called charmingly Super Sperm by Captain Sky which was used initially but later abandoned in favour of the 808 beats they got for 20 dollars. Of these samples Autobahn is most noticeable in the track used here by the DJ as stabs appearing at 46 seconds into the track & continuing through out. Autobahn was recorded by Kraftwerk for their 1977 album of the same name. Many believe that the second most prominent sample is taken from the track Number’s by the same group's album recently released Computer World, however upon further exploration the sample was in fact rerecorded by Robie & Baker for fear that they would get in trouble with the German group (which they did, more on that later). These 4 (well 3) records in the hands of Bambaataa, along with the musical talents of John Robie, who when asked if he could play like Kraftwerk he audaciously claimed that he could play it better, & the production skills of Baker, which I presume must have included some very clever, very time consuming cut n’ paste technique’s to tidy up the breaks records from Bams turntables & then post production add to this the street smarts & business acumen of fledgling record company owner Tom Silverman, together they would take the new electro funk sound all over the world & plant Planet Rock in the hearts & minds of generations to come. The music recorded in a single session (along the with track for future classic Play At Your Own Risk) with Baker & the poppin’ MC’s, who initially hated the tracks until MC G.L.O.B.E. came to the aid of Afrika & the crew, eventually deciding to rap at half-time as the rapper were struggling to keep up with the double time beat, taking up the extra two sessions to records their raps & finish producing the single. The lyrics are provided by MC G.L.O.B.E. and the rest of the Soul Sonic crew who would eventually christen their style Poppin, on the surface the rhymes seem to be of a very good times nature with lots of verses/chorus about "Party people can y’all get funky", but on repeated closer listening there are some conscious lyrics about their new world view & Bambaataa’s newly formed Zulu Nation, these verses actually predate Grandmaster Flash's - The Message, which is often seen as the first track to use conscious lyrics, taking the rap single from the dance floor to the hearts & heads of the American record buying public & giving birth to the newer conscious rappers that would emerge toward the end of the decade like KRS1, Public Enemy, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest & all who followed in their wake. The third star of the records, after the Master of Records & the actual samples has to be the aforementioned 808 drum machine brought in to take the place of the Linn drum machine the pair had used on Jazzy Sensation & the proposed but now abandoned Super Sperm sample. These incredible machines had been rarely heard at the time of Planet Rock’s release & would go onto shape the sonic landscape for decades to come, the 808 drum machine which was only produced by original manufacturers Roland between 1981 & 1983 would become the go to drum sound from the next few generations of beat makers across almost every genre of music with artist as diverse as Marvin Gaye, Phil Collins, the S.O.S. Band, the Beastie Boys, Ritchie Hawtin’s Plastikman, Goldie’s DnB sounds of the 90’s, Usher’s timeless RnB Classics like Yeah, & also helping launch the careers of artists like Tiga, Omni Trio & the UK’s 808 State as well as playing a part in the creation of House, Techno, Miami Bass, Trap, Trip-Hop & almost every other genre known to man (& some I wish didn’t exist like Booty Bass). Although these machines are long out of production in their original form, there have been some excellent recreations ranging from VST’s & Plug-in’s like Roland TR-808 plug-in available from Roland.com & 808 studio 2 which is available from Pluginboutique.com, to the range of boutique models made by Roland the news TR-08 is very reasonably priced currently under £300 & the newest (most affordable) 808 replica from Behringer in the shape of the RD-8 which retails at a very reasonable £329.00 when compared with an original 808 currently on the market for around £2000 in the United Kingdom.
The 808 drum machine would in fact become so legendary that it would spawn its own documentary, 2015’s 808 an awesome documentary featuring the story of the 808 machine, many of the hits it helped to create with some excellent interviews with the artists who help create those classics. Perhaps surprisingly upon initial release the single didn’t rock the planet, only getting as far as number 48 in the American top 100 singles, it would be certified Gold in the US in October 1982. The track fared slightly better in the UK finishing the year as the 16th most important track in the UK board sheet music paper NME end of year pole. The single was also critically lauded being called "the most influential black pop record of 1982" by New York paper the Village voice. The track would go on to be one of the building blocks for all of the hip-hop that was to follow, It has currently been sampled in over 400 times by the likes of Public Enemy, Kendrick Lemar, LL Cool J, Mos Deaf, The Roots, Ice Cube, DJ Shadow, Uk duo Coldcut on their Doctorin the House single among many (many) others. Eventually the German group caught wind of the track & threatened legal action until a rather astute Silverman offered them $1 for every single that was sol, which he cleverly just stuck onto the top of the retail price for each 12” taking the price from $4 to $5, easy! In time Bambaataa would go onto be recognised as one of the creators of the genre & an authoritative voice on the hip-hop scene, although he never did repeat the success of Planet Rock quite so originally, he would go onto collaborate with such varied artists as the Sex Pistols & PIL frontman Johnny Lydon (Rotten), the Godfather of Soul himself James Brown before eventually finding mainstream success with his 1999 collaboration with the UK group Leftfield giving the artist his first UK dance chart number 1 single (the single also reached number 7 in the UK national charts). Baker would go onto a very successful career as a producer/remixer working with the likes of New Order (Signed to Tommy Boy in the US), The Pet Shop Boys, as well as a string of successful singles in his own right & as a remixers for the likes of Tina Turners – Whatever you want (for which he also received a co-writer credit). Kraftwerk who were already riding high with the success of the Model single in 82 & the following year with the much-sampled Tour De France single would begin to receive additional exposure off the back of the Planet Rock single & would continue as a group until the end of 87 when they would effectively split until their triumphant comeback at the Tribal Gathering festival in the UK in 1997 when they would be opened up to whole new generation that would keep them going until the present day, their most recent concerts were to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Appollo 11 Moon landing last year.
It will be interesting and I am sure ground breaking to see how the group will continue without their leader Florian Schneider, but with increased capability of modern technology & the group continually increasing the 3D element of their show the future is still open. Our heart & thoughts go out to the surviving members of the group & their families. The world has lost another great musical visionary.
Tristan Brkn Arrw, for New Acid Planet, Ardrishaig, Argyll, Scotland, May 2020.
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Below there are a selection of link which relate to the above article, please note if you purchase any of the items below using the links I will receive a small paid portion for directing you there.
Planet Rock: the Album – Afrika Bambaataa
Autobahn – Kraftwerk
The Rap Year Book: The Most Important Rap Songs from Every Year Since 1979, Discussed, Debated & Deconstructed
Back in The Days – Hip-Hop History photo book
Kraftwerk: Future Music from Germany
The 808 Documentary
Roland TR-08 Rhythm Composer Drum Machine
Behringer Classic Analogue Drum Machine – Rhythm Designer RD8