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by Philip Sherburne

May 4, 2012

The Spawn of Kraftwerk

by Philip Sherburne  |  May 4, 2012

On the occasion of Kraftwerk's eight-night stretch of performances at New York's Museum of Modern Art, billed as a "retrospective" of the electronic music pioneers' work, The New Yorker's Sasha Frere-Jones wrote, "Their old is still our new."

It's not so much that the German band was so far ahead of its time that the rest of us are still catching up -- although that's also true, a little bit. It's more that Kraftwerk's innovations turned out to be self-perpetuating. Ironically, for a group that modeled its very identity on consumer technology -- assuming the form of benign robots that sang about automobiles and pocket calculators -- there was no built-in obsolescence in their product.

There's no better proof of that than the way Kraftwerk's ideas, rhythms and melodies have seeded successive decades of pop, hip-hop and dance music. To employ another technological metaphor, their music has turned out to be something like a computer virus, permeating our systems and subtly scrambling our code.

In his article, Frere-Jones noted how widely this influence has traveled, citing not just Afrika Bambaataa's seminal "Planet Rock," which borrowed from Kraftwerk's "Numbers" and "Trans-Europe Express," but also songs from LCD Soundsystem, Missy Elliott and even Coldplay. (In fact, Missy Elliott's "Lose Control" sampled the Detroit proto-techno outfit Cybotron's "Clear," not Kraftwerk. But it's likely that Cybotron's gurgling arpeggio was itself inspired by Kraftwerk's liquid circuitry -- which only reinforces the idea of their legacy as a kind of virus moving from host to host in constant mutation.)

With some help from the crowd-sourced website Whosampled.com, I decided to trace the path of Kraftwerk's Trojan Horse across the pop landscape of the past couple decades. It's not an exhaustive list -- we'd need days, if not weeks, to get to every song that samples the band -- but it covers plenty of ground, taking in songs from Madlib, New Order, Ladytron, Stereolab, The Chemical Brothers, Beck, P.M. Dawn and more. Some songs sample Kraftwerk's music, while others simply quote melodies from their catalog; you may be surprised to discover traces of the band in otherwise familiar songs for the first time. That's how deeply their code has permeated our own. Jack into their matrix, and hear pop with new ears.

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