Machine love

Detroit techno legend Carl Craig: Why dance music will save the day
By Tempe Nakiska | Music | 7 May 2019

Techno producer and DJ Carl Craig, wearing a Ministry Of Sound jacket, stands by his record box yawning, Paris, France, 1995. (Photo by Martyn Goodacre/Getty Images)

Tell Carl Craig techno isn’t about raw fucking attitude and he’ll tell you to shut up and listen.

The game-changing second generation Detroit producer is one the most influential names in techno and a fierce advocate for his city, from his essential role in founding the Detroit Electronic Music Festival to his latest project, Detroit Love, a touring DJ collective of some of the biggest talents in the field, old school to new.

Craig grew up absorbing the odyssey of sounds that formed legendary radio DJ The Electrifying Mojo’s show from 1977 to the mid-80s. From Jimi Hendrix to floppy haired soft rocker Peter Frampton, Depeche Mode synth pop to Talking Heads new wave, and ruthless dancefloor belters from Parliament, Prince and Funkadelic, Mojo scratched out notions of genre or ‘black’ and ‘white’ music to serve up pure soul.

Attending his earliest gigs underage, Craig helped his cousin on lights. It was there, deep in Detroit’s 80s underground, that he first-hand witnessed the music of the Belleville Three. Techno’s creators – Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson – three high school friends who grew up confronted by a mass loss of jobs in line with the rise of robotics, had swallowed their community’s growing resentment and spat it out via the musical influence of extraterrestrial funk master George Clinton and German krautrock engineers Kraftwerk. In a basement, messing with sequencers, they took back control of the machine. From Cybotron to Atkins’ early label Metroplex you could hear the Motor City’s assembly lines chug, they were Alvin Toffler’s ‘techno rebels’ embodied.

“In a basement, messing with sequencers, they took back control of the machine.”

Craig was quick to dip his toes in – he released his first music under Derrick May’s label, Transmat, in 1990, before touring the UK. There he got acquainted with the industrial sonic experiments of Throbbing Gristle and UK rave music’s singular take on the breakbeat – a clinical, on-edge combustion that would heavily influence Craig’s own sound. Returning to the US he started his own label, Planet E, and unleashed himself on the world. Drawing from jazz, hip hop and world music, he violently shook up what his forebears had started. You want techno? Hear this.

2016 marks 25 years of Planet E, through which Craig has cruised to the earth-ends of his influences, via aliases including 69, BFC, Innersole Orchestra, Paperclip People, No Boundaries, Tres Demented, C2 and Eich. Today on the phone it’s Carl. Battling jetlag, he’s firing on all cylinders.

Tempe Nakiska: Hello?
Carl Craig: Yeah.

TN: Hey Carl, how are you going?
CC: Good, I just got back from Argentina, jetlag hit me pretty hard yesterday. I was okay in the morning then I cooked breakfast and it laid me out for the whole day.

TN: Was it a Detroit Love thing?
CC: This one was just a Carl Motherfucking Craig thing.

TN: You’ve got a bunch of Detroit Love dates coming up, must be pretty great to get these guys together, influences and friends, what made you start it?
CC: I think Detroit has a lot of talent – guys like Kyle Hall and Omar S, then Delano Smith and Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May… We’ve been doing these Detroit parties in Miami for a long time but we wanted to have a bit more scope, to get together Detroit names with names who may be a little less known, and people who’ve always stood up for and represented Detroit but who may not have been born or even live in Detroit. It’s Detroit represent, Detroit respect, we want to show love to everybody that has been with us throughout the years and give other people the opportunity to come and have this experience.

TN: Techno’s audience is traditionally so much bigger in Europe than it is in America, despite many of its biggest players being from the US, and many Detroit. I was reading an article about Derrick May bringing his symphonic Strings of Life act to America, it spoke about Jeff Mills’ [fellow second generation Detroit techno DJ] success playing with a live orchestra in France and how America may be a struggle. It made me wonder why American DJs still have such a different reception overseas, what’s your take?
CC: [sighs] Wow. The music business is greedy, and the US is greediest. So if there’s not a large enough market for music then it’s just gonna get looked over. When house and techno started happening here in the US, Chicago house was big and Detroit techno was big but a bit more of the underdog in relation to radio outside of Detroit, it seemed like the English were the first to jump on the house bandwagon, then of course the Italians then the French and the Dutch. With dance music, you guys never had a disco sucks movement, so there was no pushback from radio and the industry against disco. You could talk to Nile Rodgers about that one, because he lived it, you know, after they bulldozed all those records, they shot ‘em out of fire canons, they almost destroyed the stadium [on Disco Demolition Night on July 12, 1979, when a radio promotion incited thousands of baseball fans in Chicago, Illinois to storm a White Sox game, exploding crates of disco records on the field].

TN: Yeah it was crazy, like a riot.
CC: I mean, it was like the American Revolution was happening… but yeah, you didn’t have that in Europe. Also, music education has always been more prevalent in Europe than in the US. In our school programs music education is one of the first things to get cut. So for there to be this new interest in techno or house music in the US has a lot to do with the festivals that are happening in the US. Mainly, Movement [Detroit Electronic Music Festival], it was a starting point for showing what was happening in Detroit music and bringing people music that was on a realer level. You know, when I was involved in the first two years of the DEMF [in 2000 and 2001] there was nothing else happening in the United States like what was going on in Detroit. It put a spotlight on that music. The other thing is that EDM has become so massive, it’s opened up ears and minds to other types of music from around the world.

Techno producer and DJ Carl Craig, wearing a Ministry Of Sound jacket, stands by his record box yawning, Paris, France, 1995. (Photo by Martyn Goodacre/Getty Images)

TN: You yourself have explored the classical-electronic mix pretty extensively, mixing those two genres live with Francesco Tristano and on record with Moritz von Oswald. What’s so fascinating about the combination of human and machine?
CC: The experimental works of John Cage and Steve Reich are a big influence, using tape loops and things like that, it’s within the same realm of using a CR-78 or an echo drum machine, something that sounds very percussive and synthetic at the same time. It wasn’t ever like, ‘Okay this is what you’ve got to listen to’, we’ve been very good at spreading our horizons in listening to things that are different and diverse. In relation to playing rock and funk and disco and electronic music I always defer to the boss, the God – The Electrifying Mojo. He would always start off his shows playing this John Williams composition from Star Wars, probably twenty minutes of it, the thing was that at the time it just didn’t seem like there were any limits. On FM radio you played the whole side of an album, but he’d start off with his space age, spiritual monologue and then right after that he’d come out with Mothership Connection or something, and if you listen to Mothership Connection [by George Clinton’s funk band, Parliament] there’s a drummer playing over the top of a drum machine! [laughs] So, then there’s Bernie Worrell doing all his classical stuff, Herbie Hancock who comes from a classical background did all this electronic music in the 70s like Nobu, and Rocket, this classical guy turned jazz turned electronic musician.

TN: Then the likes of Kraftwerk, too…
CC: Yeah, who were classical guys.

TN: So growing up in Detroit in the 80s what would you say were your earliest introductions to electronic music?
CC: Of course, George Clinton, all the electronic stuff he did. It had such an influence on us but it seemed like it had way more of an impact on what was going on over in LA, we were hitting that robo- funk stuff, we were on this Kraftwerk tip, Yazoo, which was Vince Clarke [Depeche Mode] and Alison Moyet, and we were definitely listening to disco, rock like Peter Frampton and Steve Miller Band. If you listen to a Kenny Dixon set you’ll hear about 50 percent of the music that we were listening to at the time…

TN: It ties back to what you did with the Detroit Experiment, that jazz/electronic mix.
CC: And we had a great jazz station then as well, called WJZZ, it was considered quite strong in the 70s, I’d sit in the back seat of my car listening to Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock and Donald Byrd, another Detroit legend, and Marcus Belgrave. Then later, the whole Tribe movement [the legendary Detroit jazz collective, whose work Craig has sampled in his own music]… it might not have got as much airplay but it was still there.

TN: Did that mixed bag of early influences have a say in how important remixing is to you?
CC: Mmm, I would say that there was that influence, there was that thing of having diversity, listening to things that aren’t set within a particular style of music. I love most music, I’ll never say all music, but most and of course remixing has given me the opportunity to experience and experiment with music outside the box of what you might think someone from Detroit does.

“It was the perfect scene, when you went to a party you really danced your ass off, it was about the music, it was about people really dancing and the music really pumping, it was our version of what the Music Box in Chicago was.”

TN: I was watching the documentary, Techno City, about the first ever Movement festival, it was talking about the geographic and social boundaries of Detroit and how they helped shape the music coming out of there. Everyone’s talking about gentrification in Detroit at the moment, do you think those divides will always be there? Is it shifting?
CC: Detroit has been a black city for as long as I can remember. If Detroit didn’t have the exodus that it had more than 40 years ago, if it didn’t have the fight and struggle that had to happen, I think that it could be a lot more difficult for there to be a possibility of diversification in the culture. You look at a city like Chicago or Boston, where it can happen on a racial level, but you don’t really see it in Detroit, where for the most part the old guard, those people are not ever going to move back to Detroit, it’s gonna be their kids and grandkids that will move back, and those people have been raised on Kanye and Taylor Swift, you know? There’s diversity, they’re being exposed to things that will make it easier to adapt with new culture, the people moving to Detroit are not the kind of people who are my age or older who ignored ‘black’ music, or on the other side who ignored ‘white’ music, I think Detroit is likely going to be a culturally progressive city as it starts to move forward, and in some cases, gentrify. But I don’t think it’s ever going to gentrify in the same way that they’ve been able to gentrify, say, Harlem.

TN: What was the feeling in Detroit when you started listening to techno, getting to know what the Belleville Three were up to, was it positive?
CC: Oh yeah, definitely. Before I was able to go to clubs myself I had been doing some gigs with my cousin, assisting him as the light man, I was able to see early aspects of the music that was happening at the time. By the time I started going to the Detroit Music Institute in 1988, there was such an amazing feeling about the music, it was a movement that happened at the right time and it felt good to me, it was something I was looking for and that my mind and my heart and soul were open to. It was the perfect scene, when you went to a party you really danced your ass off, it was about the music, it was about people really dancing and the music really pumping, it was our version of what the Music Box in Chicago was.

TN: What’s the feeling there today? There’s word that Dimitri Hegemann [German nightclub owner who owns Berlin’s Tresor, one of the biggest night clubs in the world] is looking to open a club in an abandoned auto factory…
CC: It still has a long way to go. I think that the American vision of what constitutes a club… [pauses] I think the people who open new clubs need to travel more. That’s the good thing about someone like Dmitri’s plans; he’s someone coming from the outside, who has travelled and seen things. You need to elevate the crowd to go, ‘Wow this is something really special,’ instead of ‘I’m going to walk into a bar and drink.’ In America you go to a club to drink, really, and pick up girls, there’s not that thing of it being this place of entertainment and this higher power of music. A friend of mine has a small place in Detroit which is great, somewhere you go to hear the best music and it’s that warm feeling, you know.

TN: What do you think about the impact of the internet on electronic music?
CC: I think the internet has helped electronic music come into people’s households a lot more easily in the US, much of that music isn’t played on the radio, you have of course the EDM influence and Chris Brown’s influence and Katy Perry and pop acts but the internet has given people the possibility of getting turned onto something by just surfing the net. Flicking through random videos and going, ‘Nah, nah, oh this is good!’ and reading about it like, ‘Oh, this guy was influenced by this guy and this guy’ and that’s how they might end up at Carl Craig, I think that’s great.

TN: What’s the future for techno? Is there room for someone to come in and set the pace for the next generation of producers?
CC: What was most intriguing and amazing about techno for me is that it always progressed. Even though people might not have said that they were influenced by particular styles they always have been, and that’s the Detroit way. I can feel influences that happen outside of rock with Jack White, I can feel it outside of hip hop with Eminem, and definitely when J Dilla was alive he was doing all kinds of stuff that was across the board, he was doing hip hop that would take influences from whatever he needed to in order to make the track work, and that’s what’s so special about techno, and especially techno that comes from Detroit, this tradition of making music that has this attitude. Some of The Temptations records, from Motown, those were techno records to me because the attitude was there. That’s the attitude we adopted and that we put into our music today.

Interview taken from HERO 14: Detroit Rising

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