Interview: Carl Craig
Photos: Adrienne Thomas
Carl Craig is a pioneer of Detroit techno and the head of the Planet E Communications label. He’s released classic cuts under a variety of aliases including BFC, Paperclip People, 69, and Innerzone Orchestra, returning most recently to his given name for 2017’s Versus, a re-interpretation of tracks from himself and his contemporaries in collaboration with pianist Francesco Tristano and the Les Siècles Orchestra.
How would you describe the dance music scene in Detroit as you were growing up, going out in the early ‘80s?
Well, I wasn’t going out in the early ‘80s, I’m not that old [laughs]. I was in the house at that time! The radio was the main way of getting that kind of culture. There was a DJ called The Electrifying Mojo that was a big influence on most of us, and then Jeff Mills, The Wizard, brought more of the club thing into the home for kids that were my age. And then playing basketball outside, people had mixtapes, like ‘85, ‘86, ‘87, I was hearing music from mixshows from Chicago and local DJs. We were getting the music in the same way that you expect people were getting hip-hop in New York - on the playground, on the streets, on the radio, anywhere they could get it.
Was there a sense that the records were being brought in from somewhere or coming right out of Detroit?
The first time when I knew an electronic music record was coming from Detroit was “Sharevari," from A Number of Names, because they lived in my neighborhood. Once I knew that Cybotron was Detroit, and then Juan [Atkins] and my cousin Doug [Craig] made a song called “Technicolor" that was a big hit in Detroit and was sampled in “Baby Got Back." That’s when I was paying more attention to things coming out of Detroit, ‘84, ‘85.
How would you describe the futurism of that electro-era stuff?
The whole idea of techno was that it was the future of music - what you call electro, we still call techno, Cybotron “Clear" and stuff like that. Newcleus “Jam On It" and “Push the Button," Egyptian Lover, those things were considered more electro to us while Cybotron, when Juan Atkins was involved, was more techno. So what Kraftwerk were doing with their pop music, we saw it as a futuristic thing where they weren’t necessarily playing on the future, they were just playing on the Computer Age. That’s how most electro that came out was playing, on the Computer Age. That was one of the biggest Newcleus records in Detroit, “Computer Age." But when it comes down to actual futurism, it was Cybotron, Derrick [May], Kevin [Saunderson], all the guys that were taking influence from that Blade Runner angle.
Do you think that Computer Age focus allowed for more of a connection between people in Detroit, Germany, the UK, whose day-to-day lives would otherwise differ?
Well, we know that Mark [Ernestus] and Moritz [von Oswald] were operating in the same world, but that’s because we personally knew them. Mark came to Detroit in 1990 to just kind of peep out what was going on, and then Moritz came a bit later. They already had the record store Hard Wax, and then they formed Basic Channel and all that, so we knew where they were coming from. But with what, like, WestBam was doing, we didn’t really see that as the same thing. Maybe WestBam had a hot record, two hot records, but it wasn’t really a movement in the same way that Detroit techno was becoming.
When these other producers would come into town, was there always common philosophical ground?
Detroiters are pretty open to people, especially people who show love to Detroit. So you show love to us, we show love back, and that’s how it works. So with Moritz, he and Mark showed a lot of respect and so we definitely showed respect to them.
What was the Chicago/Detroit dynamic like?
Chicago was really important to us, or at least my early days, because Chicago had music that we considered progressive. They call it house music, but it was a twist on a mix of disco and Italo. We loved that kind of stuff, and as it was coming in it wasn’t pouring into Detroit but it definitely perked our ears. Chicago had dedicated clubs that had gone from disco music and turned into house music, so what Frankie Knuckles was doing with The Warehouse and Ron Hardy at The Music Box, those were mythical places to us. We didn’t get something like that until 1988, I think, when The Music Institute started. So the myth of going to the club in Chicago was just huge - I say “myth," but it wasn’t a myth. We were hearing it talked about in this mythical way, and hearing those mixshow tapes that I was talking about earlier. WBMX was playing all that music that was really hard for us to get. If it wasn’t done in Chicago, a lot of it was done on import and stores weren’t ordering the records because they didn’t know about them. Or if they did order it, a record like “Capricorn" or Alexander Robotnick “Problèmes D'amour," then they were selling them at the equivalent of $50, you know? 1986, ‘85, before Alexander Robotnick had a domestic release, that was $20 for a twelve-inch. That was crazy, twelve-inches were $3.99.
What did the idea of going to the club represent to you at that point?
I lucked out at fourteen, fifteen, with my cousin who used to do lights at college icebreakers. That’s when I saw Direct Drive, a DJ team here. That’s when I really saw guys doing amazing scratching, those early experiences in very adult places. I’d watched Jeff Mills play a few times where you could be in the club and be underage as long as you weren’t drinking. For those Chicago clubs, it was more of the energy, the elation from hearing this music. In New York, when Timmy Regisford was doing Shelter, it was very well-known that people would go late Saturdays and say that they were going to church. You were going to church, you were going to have your spirit raised and be enlightened. Timmy didn’t invent that, Frankie invented that. Guys before Frankie Knuckles invented that - I remember Derrick May telling me that when he first heard Ron Hardy playing Lil’ Louis “French Kiss" the people were freaked so far out that they were launching themselves horizontally off poles in the club because of what the music was doing to them. It was touching their souls; it was making them wanna dance so erratic, not like you go to a rave and everybody’s jumpin’ up and down and stuff. The energy level… In Detroit, we just never got that high in the clubs that I was going to.
Did you have any sort of church upbringing?
I went to Lutheran church, we didn’t have people doing somersaults down the aisle of anything like that [laughs]. My grandparents in the South were preachers, but they were never crazy strict on me when I was down there. I did have exposure to their church, but for the most part what was happening every week at my church was closer to what you would get at Catholic churches than what you would get at Baptist church or some type of urban church experience. It’s funny, because one of the experiences I did have with my grandparents was going to a revival. It was this big tent, with everybody getting together to sing and dance, jump around and all that stuff. I think they’re still big in the South, but all a revival is is a big rave. Change the music and give ‘em some neon lights or whatever those things are, you have a rave.
At what point did techno kind of break out of being an underground scene? I’ve seen clips from The New Dance Show and can’t imagine that sort of crossover into public life at the same time as the warehouse party era.
Right, for the kids it felt underground even as it became very mainstream. When The Scene - it was called The Scene before it became The New Dance Show - was on, that was the movement for people that were fifteen and above, that could go to teenage clubs. Records could get broken on there, but I think they played what was hot on the radio. The television station, WGPR, had a radio station as well, so if it was hot on there they were gonna play it on The Scene.
I read that one you started getting into techno, your first goal was all about making a track for Mayday. Process-wise, what did that entail?
I just felt that I was making music for… you have to have a goal, that’s the first thing. And the second thing is that I thought that what I was doing was good, I have to go towards my goal. If I didn’t think it was good, I wouldn’t have pursued it. But you do have people that have delusions of grandeur, and think that everything they do is good, and everyone should love it. Some become stars, some don’t. But I really did feel that what I was doing - I was listening to his radio shows, I was listening to what he was doing, but I wasn’t trying to copy what he did. You have to put your own personality into your music, you don’t want to put out music by somebody that’s just copying you. You can do it out of respect and that’s one thing, but if you’re doing it just to get a label then you might as well just be doing commercials for TV or something. I wasn’t into making music on demand, I was making music that was me, kicking it to whomever I felt would appreciate it.
From a production standpoint, was there a big watershed piece of equipment that changed things for you?
The MPC3000. One of the guys from B.E.F., which had come out of The Human League, made the statement that where the synthesizer went wrong was when they put piano keys on it. And what the MPC was, and the same thing with the SP-1200, were these sampling machines that you could play notes on. They might’ve been designed with the idea that you were gonna do drum sounds, but because you could take these sample clips you could play musical notes. And that’s when what you see with Maschine, Live, all these other machines that have pad inputs, that’s all based on what Roger Linn did with the Linn 9000, what E-mu did with the SP-1200. And without that thinking that goes into it, without putting a note at a root C and then thinking of playing semitones up and down, it made the logic change. A prime example of that is Public Enemy, taking sampling from loops to a collage of sound. That wouldn’t have been possible if you’d thought of every sample as being based on a chromatic scale.
What was behind all of the different aliases that you were using for releases early on?
I’m a Gemini, so if you want to get a better idea of that, there’s a biography of Sun Ra called Space Is The Place. There’s this thing about Sun Ra that he’d call himself different things, which had to do with him being a Gemini but also had to do with the black experience in the United States, with the concept of shedding your adopted name and making a new name for yourself. When I first started doing music, I was doing music under aliases as demos. There was nothing like “I’m not gonna do a Carl Craig record because I’m bored of doing Carl Craig records," I was still just sending Derrick May demo tapes. It gave me the ability to kind of spread out. It’s not like now - I don’t know if you ever watch this TV show American Dad!, there’s a character called Roger The Alien. He puts on a wig and he’s a different person. That’s the same thing musically for me, where doing an alias made me into a different person. 69 was a different person than Paperclip People was, than Innerzone Orchestra was.
Did that appeal to you at all from like a performative, theatrical angle?
I’m not much of an actor, so unfortunately no [laughs]. When I’m up there, I know it’s all me - in some ways, I wish that I would have thought of it in an acting sense a long time ago. You know, Paperclip People comes up there and there’s a bunch of minions running around the stage.
Do you think that the expectations or role have shifted since you were starting up?
Yeah, of course. The DJ, for a long time, has been used and abused. The DJ wasn’t considered a real musician because they were playing somebody else’s music; it wasn’t until DJs showed that they could improvise - whether by scratching, with Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa, or by how you put the set together in the moment like Larry Levan - that the position started to gain respect. And still, in some places, you hear about in Russia somebody plays a song that they don’t like and there’s gonna be trouble [laughs].
Did you run into that same sort of resistance with your productions ever? You know, “this isn’t music because it’s sample-based or because it’s not using live drums" or something like that?
I remember specifically that I was told that DJs weren’t going to play my music without a four bar count-in of a kick drum to make it easy. I just told them to fuck off and did my own thing. Even still, I call up radio stations and tell them I have a record from Planet E - “Planet E, what the hell is Planet E?" - click, I don’t need to give you this record [laughs]. I’ve never been the greatest salesman, I can’t sit there hammering a small fortune out of Buttfuck, Ohio.
You tweeted a video the other day referencing the imagery of Detroit techno - the heavy, I guess, industrial decay meeting the whole sci-fi world atop it. Were you thinking of that as reality vs. escape, or -
See, you’re seeing it as decay, but that’s an area that’s really not decayed at all. You’re only seeing that because it was foggy, and there was the steam coming from the ground. Your imagination ran wild a little bit, but that was Gotham. If you’re watching Batman and you see him driving through the streets of Gotham, you’re not thinking decay; you’re thinking oh, shit, that’s Gotham! That’s the part of town that’s Gotham for us. Especially for people that don’t live in the US, they don’t see steam coming out of the ground, you know? But this was the landscape for me when I made Landcruising - I’d drive around listening to music that I made to make sure the mixes were right. Then that music is what you get.
What was it like living in Detroit at that point?
We had so many families that were moving out, not just what’s called white flight but everybody leaving. You had Young Boys Incorporated, the big heroin gang, the crack scene that was starting to turn on. We had recession, people out of work, houses getting burned down. Devil’s Night, burning down garages, that was started by mobsters trying to get insurance money for the buildings. What really fucked Detroit up more than anything was these guys starting the trend and kids just going with it, because every year it got worse and worse. So we were living in that kind of space into the ‘90s. I was making music at a girlfriend’s house that overlooked Canada and we could see a warehouse on fire. It was a big visual influence on me, that stayed for a long time.
You’ve gotten involved in a lot of initiatives to celebrate and preserve the city’s musical legacy - what do you see as the biggest threats to that heritage?
I think the only threats to the heritage are people that don’t respect the heritage. With new people coming in, Detroit is going through a bit of gentrification; Detroiters can be ignorant to what has come from Detroit. People know about techno, but they don’t know about it like they know Motown. With a lot of techno, people don’t realize that it started from the urban experience. It was influenced by the Germans, by the English, by a lot of music that came from around the world, but techno comes from Detroit. Juan Atkins was the one that called it that, what Derrick and Kevin were making was techno before they called it techno. People coming in and trying to change that history, or not paying respect to it. People come down to Movement Festival, it’s very important that they know all the history. You can go there and dance to whatever’s out there, be mindless about it, but if you’re into something then you should know the history of it. So that’s the threat: people not realizing that techno is as black and as American as the blues is.