Florian Schneider & Tony Allen’s Trans-Global Beat Expressions
Together forever. This moment in history, framed by the world slowing down, quarantine solitude and the passing of one legendary musical figure after another, may dictate Kraftwerk co-founder Florian Schneider and Afrobeat originator Tony Allen’s stories as perpetually intertwined, a postscript to one late-20th-century chapter of collective rhythm making. Subjects now of tragic timing, the two were long-term brothers in magical time-keeping, residents of a world their daddy James Brown broke open, exported globally and then heard beamed into the clubs of black America (especially in New York, Detroit and Chicago), only to go back around the world. The robot from Dusseldorf, Germany, and a four-limbed drummer from Lagos, Nigeria, had been influencing and infiltrating well-stocked DJ crates and hard drives, beat-matched to inform a glorious, dance-minded future for over four decades. Tony and Florian were conduits for funk’s elasticities, the breadth of its sounds and the depth of its lessons, a massive prism.
It starts, as it must, with Brown’s rhythm-first dictum, delivered not merely by his funky drummers but by his entire band. In the midst of the American century’s cultural hegemony, the Godfather’s loud call argued that The Beat had more to say than Western music gave it credit for. And, of course, this conversation begins, as so many about 20th-century musical breakthroughs do, in Western Africa, where the polyphonic body language meted out by the drum was a trusted source of information.
Its local dialects chattered all around Allen. He was as lovingly swamped by the rhythmic diversity of cusp-of-independence Lagos as he was enthralled by the jazz pockets American drum masters like Max Roach and Art Blakey were developing. That’s where Fela Kuti found him upon returning from London in 1964, when they began the highlife jazz group Koola Lobitos, where Brown’s influence was already apparent. The interchange with black America only intensified as Kuti and Allen began to develop Afrobeat with the Africa ’70, the group they started after a late-’60s stint in Los Angeles. Now Brown’s funk was something to build on and re-Africanize. In Allen’s hands and feet, JB’s dominant “one” was less a firm root than a heaving lava flow around which the group, often featuring numerous percussionists, would coalesce for 12-15-minute flights.
Meanwhile, in late-’60s Dusseldorf, Florian Schneider and his Kraftwerk partner Ralf Hütter arrived at Brown’s lessons by a more circuitous though no less globally fascinating route. Before technology became their primary creative foil, the pair were part of a West German art-school milieu, studying the avant-garde compositions of Stockhausen, and under the spell of the Velvet Underground’s proto-punk drones. Yet both sources, it so happened, had already processed funk’s rhythm attack; it’s no surprise that Kraftwerk, alongside other standouts from the Dusseldorf and Cologne wing of the Krautrock scene, especially Can and Neu! (whose drummer, Klaus Dinger, was briefly a member of Kraftwerk), knew their way around a groove. Famed music philosopher Brian Eno once put all these rhythms in shared context, saying, “There were three great beats in the ’70s: Fela Kuti’s [née Tony Allen’s] Afrobeat, James Brown’s funk and Klaus Dinger’s [motorik] beat.” It was natural for Schneider and Hütter to adapt Dinger’s nearly automated drumming to actual machinery — yet they also slowed it down and sensualized its aggression. Seventeen minutes into the full-length version of Kraftwerk’s hit 1974 single “Autobahn,” a motorik drum machine piles on top of the synth-pop and found sounds, and the first inkling of German disco as another branch of JB’s funk begins to take shape.
The following year, Kuti and Allen’s “Expensive Shit” also began to hit American dance floors. It was easy to hear why DJs in the disco underground of the early and mid-1970s championed Afrobeat. For legendary New York selectors like David Mancuso and Larry Levan, who created the multifarious energy in predominantly black, Latino and gay clubs like the Loft and Paradise Garage, these long, funky records fit the cultural diversity of their safe spaces. Allen began answering the DJ’s calls early, most specifically on “Afro-Disco Beat,” originally released in 1977. It was an exchange with New York selectors that would never end; as late as 1998, Nuyorican Soul (house music legends Little Louie Vega and Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez) were refashioning Allen’s Afrobeat for their dance floor.
If Afrobeat was a specialty side dish for DJs in-the-know, Kraftwerk was a main course on dance culture’s menu for the next decade-plus. Yes, Studio 54 was enthralled with “Trans-Europe Express” and “Metal on Metal” (and “The Model” even became a hit single in 1981-’82), but Schneider and Hütter’s robotic funk also escaped the turntables of popular white discos to the clubs of black America that lay in its DNA. A new future beckoned. In New York’s the Bronx, hip-hop and electro was being ushered in by, among others, Afrika Bambaataa, who put Kraftwerk’s funk directly to use by making it the bones of “Planet Rock.” In Detroit, under the name Cybotron, the young futurist Juan Atkins and his partner Richard “3070” Davis created their own take on electro (“Clear”) and robotic funk (“Cosmic Cars”), sowing the seeds for the city’s globally influential techno music, clearly under Kraftwerk’s spell. Shortly thereafter, in Chicago, young Larry Heard took these sounds and, under the name Mr. Fingers, made “Mystery of Love,” an offering for a new local genre called house music. (It was named after a club, the Warehouse, where a New York expat DJ named Frankie Knuckles was DJing weekly.) Within five years, Schneider and Hütter’s reimagining of James Brown was a foundation for the next two decades of dance music.
Florian Schneider’s beat carried transcendence (or dread) on notions of precision and metronomy, a synthetic outline of a sharply cut future anyone could imagine themselves entering; Tony Allen’s forward propulsion presented an opportunity for funky ascendance through models of continuous adaptability and endless variety. The audience for both never subsided partly because the shared central tenet of their music — the idea of global humanity as an interconnected web — also happens to be at the heart of dance music’s finest ethics. And that of its best DJs.
There was a clear separation between how the two worked over the past 30 years: Allen, the world-class drummer, played and recorded with everyone he could, while Schneider, a meticulous composer and studio technologist, last released new music in 2003 and quit Kraftwerk in 2008. Still, the aura of both men’s work never dated because artists and audiences could always find new experiences of rhythm in it — as though both beats accessed something timeless and universal.
It is curious, for instance, that two of the finest Kraftwerk-related projects of the 21st century saw the music of “the robots” interpreted in hyper-local folk-dance styles. Señor Coconut’s El Baile Alemán saw the German-Chilean producer Uwe Schmidt record an album of Kraftwerk covers that utilize the musical traditions of Latin America — cumbias, merengues and cha-cha-chas. And on last year’s Pan-Machine, by London’s British-Trinidadian institution Ebony Steel Band, Kraftwerk hits are reimagined as melodic mirages, and the connections between synthesizers and steel drums emphasize the flexibility of the machine beats. In both cases it is easy to imagine James Brown inspiring these same cross-cultural embraces.
Allen, on the other hand, has spent the last decade pushing his beat in as many directions as he had ideas — working on his own Afrobeat records, on global-jazz records and on collaborations with musicians as disparate as legendary South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, Finnish electronic producer/jazz-funk multi-instrumentalist Jimi Tenor, Malian folk singer Fatoumata Diawara and German/Dutch/Nigerian rapper Megaloh, to name just a few. The strategy dovetailed with what Allen told New York public radio DJ John Schaefer in 2011: “I see many, many ways of delivering this beat. This beat is not really popular enough for me, really popular, as reggae or whatever, funk or other things. … [T]o me, I still look at it as the beginning of it; it’s not fully everywhere yet.”
If there was one musical space where Allen had been concentrating more than any other, it was the musical communities where, like Kraftwerk, his legend status never waned: among the DJs and rhythm producers of black America. Some of his finest recent music had been undertaken with the legendary Detroit futurist Jeff Mills (a 2018 album, Tomorrow Comes the Harvest); with Detroit’s house universalist Theo Parrish (a 2013 single, “Day Like This”/“Feel Loved”); and on a 2008 compilation called Lagos Shake: A Tony Allen Chop Up, where the latitude of love that Tony Allen inspires could be properly felt.
In 2018, Allen even handed his classic track “Asiko” to the eccentric Chilean producer Ricardo Villalobos, whose work in combining techno with dub echoes and reverb, and layering these with chance percussive micro-rhythms, has labeled him a genius and a charlatan. The 29-minute “Asiko (In a Silent Mix)” is a rhythmic fantasia, one in which James Brown’s dominant beat is both a complete afterthought (it is, in some ways, a drum circle) and yet the root of the whole affair. The prism refracts the rhythm, mysterious and lovely.
Piotr Orlov was born in Leningrad and is based in Brooklyn. His music writing has appeared in the Village Voice, Arthur, Love Injection, Stop Smiling and other independent publications. Others too.
Images, from left: Florian Schneider in 1978; photo by Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis/VCG via Getty. Tony Allen in 2006; photo by Maurits Sillem/Getty.
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