When you describe the times, it sounds frivolous and innocent in a way that would have made our faces hot with shame then. So let’s do it: In the times of “Electronica,” one wore a square camouflage backpack, the first on the block with a specified pocket for a mobile phone (likely Nokia), some new-school throwback Sauconys or Pumas, and spouted endless nanogenres. Balearic, breakbeat, broken beat, downtempo, nu jazz, acid jazz, illbient, gabba, happy house, the list cascaded forever. (You said these words, out of your mouth!) One read with interest about “consumer culture,” and embraced full fandom of a magazine called *Wallpaper. God help me, I had a column in the local paper that was about… shopping.
It was in this milieu that, over two decades ago, many people all over the globe fell in love with the music of a group called Kruder & Dorfmeister. It was music nothing like anyone had ever heard before; soon, though, it was what you heard everywhere you went. It had an ancient, Miles Davis-like mystery to it, but it was also so very much of the moment — in its rhythms, in its sonics — that it felt like it was pulling you into the future. Whereas jazz and rock and soul were products of human emotion, this was music that was proudly, emphatically designed. It was music as design. It went with all of the stuff in your house.
But it had to be a very certain kind of house. (Welcome to Death By Modernism. We’re the website that helps you have that house.)
To put it in the roughest terms, Kruder & Dorfmeister made jazz with computers. To put it in historical context, Kruder & Dorfmeister made jazz with computers that probably weren’t even powerful enough to reliably stream whatever was the last thing you streamt. The very name sounded like an architectural firm. It still does. They looked like one, too. A really, really stoned one. The cover of their debut release, G-Stoned, featured Peter Kruder & Richard Dorfmeister in a glorious homage to Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends, and it was a really great tip-off: In the same way that Bookends was an experiment in collage against the outer reaches of popular forms like folk and jazz, G-Stoned took this new take on electronic music and paired it with big jazz moods and movie-soundtrack panache. The cover also, in a sea of trip-hop-and-whatnot records coming out at the time, offered a clue as to what was different about these guys: They were nerds. Band nerds, even. One of them even played flute.
“High Noon” off that record provides a template for what Kruder & Dorfmeister would be doing at top form. It builds an insistent beat out of drum machine and brushed drums together, one fusing into another seamlessly. Before you know it, there’s a hook snatched from Rodgers & Hart’s “Blue Moon,” except it’s… off. The bass gives way after a while to an out-of-nowhere (especially for 1995) guitar solo in the style of George Benson; later, there's a harmonica that must have gotten lost somewhere after that left turn in Albuquerque. Meanwhile, and throughout, there is endless space, and I cannot say why, but I have always had it in my head that they specifically wanted to evoke moonlight in the desert. And somehow, this is how they did it.
God, I loved it. And I was by no means the only one. By the time The K&D Sessions came out, in 1998, Kruder & Dorfmeister were a low-key global sensation, selling in the millions. They were everywhere and nowhere at once. I don’t know if I ever read a single magazine article about them, but just the same, record stores couldn’t get copies of the album in fast enough. In its music-as-design-ness, The K&D Sessions didn’t have any hits; each track is there equally to service a larger overall mood. But even that was by design: It didn’t have any hits because it was made entirely of the lost tracks from the back end of a dozen other people’s singles. But to this day, on walks, in the bath, and anywhere ear worms do play, “Bug Powder Dust” by Bomb The Bass visits me regularly:
I always hit the tape with a rough road style
You heard the psychedelic and ya came from miles
Keep my rhymes thick like a Danish brew
So you could call me black and tan when I'm a wreckin' a crew
It was the biggest best new coolest thing that had ever happened. It worked miracles. It even cured my rockism. And then, it went away.
Electronica, the very concept of this one market-preferred term so very vast as to contain an entire cosmos of strongheaded subgenres, has in large part not aged well for two reasons. One is that it wasn’t meant to: Like early hip-hop and reggae, it was single-based and most artists were usually regarded as only being as good as their last hit. The other reason is that, when you get down to it, a lot of this stuff followed a simple formula that turns out to be toxic:
x = beats from a computer + cultural appropriation
Within this nothingburger of a genre name, electronica contained Kruder & Dorfmeister, who so elegantly evoked the sensuality of being totally fucking baked, at the same time as it did, oh, I dunno, The Wiseguys and Fatboy Slim, whose music made the sounds Mountain Dew would make if a soda could make music. On these records, which if I’m honest I loved just as much or even more, you could hear the samples a lot more clearly, you could see the purse getting snatched. And if it wasn’t a lost pillar of the early hip-hop temple that was being pillaged, it was, say, the incorporation of Indian tabla music into every synthetic tempo imaginable. We made Moby a star, for the love of crimony. What were we thinking?
We weren’t. It’s tempting to say that every generation dabbles at some point with “music as design,” but maybe not: Maybe this was a thought that we found interesting or flattering mainly in the late 20th century, beginning with Kraftwerk or Brian Eno. Maybe (not maybe, definitely) it was the product of market forces. These records, this music, came about because the market wanted it: For creators and audiences alike, we engaged with electronica because it was novel. It thrilled us because it intimated that very, very soon, everything was going to be different.
Arguably, today, all music is design — GarageBand and the like have focused the process of recording, editing and mixing into an almost game-ified push-and-pull of waveforms. The same people who make Photoshop now throw in an audio production app with the price of your subscription.
In time, and especially in their absence, Kruder & Dorfmeister’s style of music was taken over by a series of awful cliches that weren’t even about their music. You heard it (you still hear it) in restaurants that were trying too hard, and not even getting close to a vibe. You heard it as a soundtrack to that restaurant’s website, when soundtracks on websites were a thing. You heard it in even paler imitation on made-for-TV movies and the commercials they played during those movies and even in the video games you played when you got tired of the commercials. Today, these awful Russian disco cliches, this louche, Drakkar-Noir vibe is survived by the last resting place of that cliche: Your late-night Lyft ride home.
All of that has always struck me as very sad. All music, really, is a “lifestyle accessory,” but when the term got applied to K&D, it was always in the pejorative. That was never their fault. Pull up G-Stoned or The K&D Sessions today and you’ll hear two things that a lot of 1998 just didn’t have: Soul, and swing. It was music as design, yes, but how it was designed turned out to be the thing that mattered most.