“Kraftwerk in the DJ booth while the Elevator plays electronic funk.” No, not a mincing of the infamous Derrick May quote describing the sound of techno, but rather the way a monumental night in Motor City some 30 years in the making concluded. Last Monday, October 5, following their first performance in Detroit since 1998, the robots were roaming around the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD), taking in the electrifying and exuberant after party as techno’s founding fathers took over the acoustics.
As Kevin Saunderson tells us, “The bringing together of…Detroit techno’s innovators and Germany’s own counterpart had been a dream for us for a long time. Having the three of us on one stage with our German colleagues was truly an experience that will live on in our minds forever…it was a magical night.” If ever there was an affair that saw electronic music’s past meet up with its present and prove its timeless relevance, this was it.
Earlier in the evening, the electronic-pop pioneers had brought their 3D show to Detroit’s Masonic Temple. A 27-song excursion that included two encores, it was one of those nights you knew will go on to live in infamy even while it’s happening. For a clue as to the significance the group holds in the city that spawned techno, one need merely peruse the crowd. A who’s who of DJ royalty sitting eagerly in their seats, Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson, Stacey Pullen, BMG, members of Detroit Techno Militia and Marshall Applewhite are all in attendance, among a plethora of peers and an auditorium of electronic-music-loving adults.
The red curtain lifts, seven-segment green digits flash across the screen and, as soon as those four iconic, stoic figures appear on stage, we are transported to another realm. Wrapped in Kraftwerk’s digital embrace, for two hours we exist outside the limits of space and time, experiencing close encounters of every kind. The visuals giving the feeling of a retro-futurist virtual reality or video game, “when are we” and “where are we” become questions we ask ourselves repeatedly.
There is something incredibly endearing about a room full of grown-ups donning dated cardboard glasses. The techno nerd-child in each of us exposed and out to play, the enthusiastic whoops of middle-aged men can be heard at regular intervals. Where much of contemporary electronic music seems centered on "the drop," each Kraftwerk song coasts along at a steady and constant state of elevation. Unfortunately, the crowd doesn’t follow suit—save for the carefree few who take to the aisles, the room remains seated for the majority of the show. Only during the encore is everyone finally on their feet, but even then they do more standing than dancing.
With their futuristic overtones, Kraftwerk provide one of the few environments in which electronic devices capturing photo and video don’t come off as intrusive or obnoxious. On the contrary, they seem fitting. The small screens glowing something psychedelic from behind our red and blue lenses, they’re an indication of the modern-day melding of man and machine. We are the robots.
We mosey to the very sold-out after party at MOCAD, where Art Payne is spinning a smart and inspired set to start things off. The night's a 101 on the music that has inspired the 313: Payne incorporates Alexander Robotnick’s “Problemes D’Amour,” Kano’s “I’m Ready,” Cybotron’s “Clear,” New Order’s “Blue Monday,” and Derrick May’s “Strings of Life." Dantiez and DaMarii Saunderson take a turn before Mike Grant takes the helm., dropping Telex's “Moskow Diskow,” Channel One's “Technicolour” and Kraftwerk's “Pocket Calculator.” Eddie Fowlkes brings aboard gems like Michael Jackson's “Blame It on the Boogie” and Mihai Popoviciu's bootleg mix of “Transitions.” Techno's originators all on hand, Derrick May follows Kevin Saunderson before Juan Atkins closes it out with still more classics—Giorgio Moroder's “Chase,” Jeff Mills's “The Bells,” and his own “No UFOs.”
Coming full circle, the night ends the same way it began—with Kraftwerk's “Numbers” mixed into “Computer World.” This time, though, the four Germans stand by as spectators. They soak in their own impact in a room filled with reverence for the music's roots, within the city that they told Rolling Stone they feel a “spiritual connection” to. Putting it all in perspective, DJ Art Payne comes over the mic. “Just want to take a second to have Detroit show their appreciation for Kraftwerk. Without them, this whole genre we call techno may not have ever been. They influenced each and every DJ that's ever touched a vinyl record in Detroit,” he acknowledges. We would happily live within the confines of the group's Computer World as long as they would have us. Perhaps we already do.