Afrika Bambaataa + Kraftwerk = Planet Rock, Electrofunk & Techno. Story behind legendary rip-off

Who would know that the roots of techno — yes, the techno that we all like so much and that everyone’s playing now — come from such an interesting thing as electrofunk, invented by Afrika Bambaataa and Arthur Baker in New York and Juan Atkins in Detroit, independently of each other. They both just listened to the same music and got their inspiration for there: German robots Kraftwerk and their Japanese reflection from Yellow Magic Orchestra (Ryuichi Sakamoto in particular).

Techno in the early eighties meant the definition of the sound, it was an epithet. Anyone can create something like this and even call it electrofunk. And in fact this happened. No one knew that techno of this time wasn’t the last metamorphosis of the style; techno as a genre branch was shaped only in the late 1980s and it was at the junction of electrostatic disco, synthpop and boogie. Afrika Bambaataa, who, together with Arthur Baker, a DJ from Boston, created an electrofunk which was similar to techno, was into the same things as Atkins. Bam: “This is [Kraftwerk] the music for the future and for space travels — along with the funk of what was happening with James Brown and Sly Stone and George Clinton. Of course, I was listening to a lot of Yellow Magic Orchestra and Gary Numan, as well as Dick Hyman’s Moog sound, and music from John Carpenter’s Halloween. When you put all that together, then you get electrofunk, which is what we were doing.”

In 1981, the label owner Tommy Boy introduced Baker to Bambaataa who then was a musician and a DJ, leader of the Zulu Nation group, who took away talented boys from the hands of the street and taught them scratching, breakdance, graffiti and rapping — everything that would later become hip-hop. The heavyset Bam enjoyed the glory of the first guy in the Bronx River: he wore fashionable clothes and futuristic cyclops glasses, and on stage he transformed into the father of the hip-hop nation in Samurai armour of the 18th century. Hip-hop then was slow rhyming with slow funk breaks. Bambaataa and Baker dreamt of enriching the sound, and both wanted to engage Kraftwerk into it while remaining in the history. Bam: “I don’t think they even knew how big they were among the black masses back in ’77 when they came out with Trans-Europe Express. When that came out, I thought that was one of the best and weirdest records I ever heard in my life.”

Almost like a family portrait with four brothers in a warm ambience. But don’t believe it — the cold Trans-Europe Express is under the cover. Clockwise: Florian Schneider, Wolfgang Flur, Ralf Hutter, Karl Bartos with a bow tie. Photo: Maurice Seymour

According to one legend, Arthur Baker figured out what the next single should be while having lunch on the terrace or in the park. Trans-Europe Express, even four years later was all around buildings, constantly played in this area. At the same time, Baker went to a music shop for something new — his friends who worked there pointed to the Numbers single, for some reason released only in North America; the yellow 45’ with a throbbing rhythm sold in the Bronx like hotcakes. The musicians were severely limited in time and money: without a decent sampler or drum machine. Baker found an announcement in a newspaper: “TR-808 to rent, Joe.” They gave a twenty to Joe, played Numbers and tried to imitate the rhythm pattern. The tune from Express was played from start to finish by a keyboardist they knew. Baker realised that he could get a lawsuit from Dusseldorf and even asked to write an extra tune instead of the German one, but the owner of the label, after hearing the draft, dispelled doubts: “Oh just use the Kraftwerk melody on it.” Almost all the authors of the greatest hits later acknowledged that they didn’t believe in success, didn’t think about the future of their records; they didn’t hope for anything. Baker claims that he foresaw the future of the single during the first session: “Sweetheart, we’ve just made musical history”. With these words he brought the Planet Rock single home.

Tommy Boy didn’t have an extensive network of distributors, but succeeded by including in the record additional breaks, a cappellas and long instrumental versions, that teenagers in parks and at parties played endlessly, training their bodies and rhymes. Before the Planet Rock single, Arthur Baker studied the musical preferences of young people with interest, who moved with Trans-Europe Express and the new album by Kraftwerk, Computer World — it just came out in May 1981: “Working in a record warehouse, I was really educated as to what people on the streets were buying, and whenever I heard Numbers being played at the ‘Music Factory’ in Brooklyn I saw black guys in their twenties and thirties asking, ‘What’s that beat?’ So I knew that if we used that beat and added an element of the street, it was going to work.”

This was the story about roots of techno. And now about Kraftwerk’s reaction

To say they were furious is to say nothing. “With Planet Rock, in beginning we were very angry, because they didn’t credit the authors, — explains Karl Bartos. — We felt pissed off. If you read a book and you copy something out of it, you do it like a scientist, you have to quote where you took it from, what is the source of it. And there was nothing written down saying that its source was Trans-Europe Express and Numbers.” Maxime Schmitt, who promoted the robots in France, echoes the band’s drummer. “He knew perfectly what he was using, he had not to put the names of the authors and had not declared anything. Maybe he was thinking, ‘Oh, they are German, they will never follow it up’…”

However, according to Arthur Baker, who didn’t sample the tune from Trans-Europe Express and didn’t use the rhythm from Numbers (where would you find a sampler in 1982!) but instead recreated them by using the tools that he had and the rented Roland 808, they managed to reach an agreement with the Germans — quote — “for big money”. Considering that the sales of Planet Rock reached 700 000, the band had something to worry about :)