rom working with Derrick May on early Transmat recordings, to his own 1989 debut and the launch of his legendary Retroactive imprint, followed by the long-running Planet E, and through hours and hours of music and remixes under a menagerie of pseudonyms (BFC, Psyche, Paperclip People, Innerzone Orchestra, 69, and more), Detroit Techno legend Carl Craig has always done it his way. Craig has incorporated everything from jazz to rock to ambient to salsa into his music, and still maintained an instantly identifiable sound. And despite closing in on two decades at the forefront of electronic dance music, he shows no signs of slowing down or resting on his laurels—his recent output ranks as some of the best of his long and storied career.
Keeping in line with his mercurial musical personality, Craig recently spoke with Stylus Associate Editor Todd Hutlock on a variety of topics, including the nature of influence, art, the Smiths, and the Ying Yang Twins.
There are so many hats that you wear: Artist, producer, DJ, label boss, and more. What is it that gives you the most satisfaction?
Craig: I have a bad habit of getting my hands dirty in every little thing, and I really do enjoy it, but unfortunately, it makes it really hard to put all my attention into one thing. I think, though, that the best thing for me is to just be able to sit around in the studio and mess around with sounds and not even really have a starting idea—just to come up with tracks. I really love that artist/producer side of things. I also really love remixing, and I really love DJing. Being a label boss is great, but only when it doesn’t get too crazy. I think that out of all of the roles I play though, I really like being able to compose and play around with my keyboards and just be in the studio and do funny things.
I think that also is what gives your audience the most satisfaction, obviously. Do you find that you get the most feedback from that, as well?
Craig: Yeah, mostly from doing original productions and remixes. Right now, the “Just Another Day” and “Darkness” singles have done really well for us, as well as the “Tres Demented” 12-inch, and the Theo Parrish remix [of “Falling Up”] is doing really well. It kind of goes across the board, you know? Some people dig one thing, some people don’t, some people dig something else, some people don’t dig that but dig some other thing I did. It just sort of goes around and around, so I can’t worry about it too much. I just really like being creative, and if people dig what I do, it’s cool and I know I’m doing a good job. But if they don’t, well, I still feel like I’m doing a good job because I’m just putting myself into it.
I think your core audience recognizes that about you and loves that. Over the years, you’ve done all these little experiments and used all these pseudonyms—like the Innerzone Orchestra album, or the Paperclip People stuff, or Psyche—and it is all very different, and yet it all still has that identifiable mark of Carl Craig on it. It has that certain sound or noise that will link it all together, but thematically, it is all over the map. Where do you think that diversity comes from?
Craig: I think it is partially my generally restless nature. It’s also because of the influences that I’ve had over the last 35 years or so. I grew up in a time and a place where I believe that music—especially music exposed on the radio—was very diverse. Especially with black music, because there were so many different types of music that people in Detroit were listening to: funk and soul and rock and everything in-between. I mean, I grew up listening to Peter Frampton and that kind of stuff, but I also heard a lot of Prince and George Clinton and Motown and Gil Scott-Heron, all this stuff. I think if I had grown up listening to only, say, classical or something, then I wouldn’t have any interest in what else was going on out there, and it would be the same way if I was only listening to soul or blues or jazz. I really believe that what was available when I was growing up has really instilled that urge to stay diverse and to conjure things from my spirit instead of following trends or trying to do things that fit in.
That’s one of the things I remember reading about you a number of years ago. I remember reading you naming some influences, and you were name-checking things like the Smiths and the B-52s, and other things that you just didn’t see other dance music producers, or black music producers in general, talking about.
Craig: The Smiths were definitely a band that spurred growth in me, because I think that was probably the first music that was presented to me that wasn’t from the radio or a family member or something everyday like that. I heard them at a music camp that I went to when I was a kid, a few hours away from Detroit, near Lansing. It was sort of similar to my ears to the jangly guitars of the B-52s, and although their guitars were more simple than Johnny Marr’s guitars, I could relate to it on that level. The Smiths were probably the first big influence as far as music that I heard outside of Detroit, and that was pretty significant. They really shaped how I listened to other music after that, especially music from England or industrial music or things like that, which were outside of my immediate surroundings.
I can take a record of yours from the early 90s and play it next to something from 2005, and while I’ll hear a similarity there and some trademark elements, I can hear an evolution, as well. Not to knock them, but a lot of dance music producers find their niche and they stick to it and work it to death. You’ve taken all of these interesting little side trips, but still maintained a clear sonic identity.
This leads me to your recent Fabric mix album, which opens with the Ying Yang Twins’ “Wait (The Whisper Song).” It was totally unexpected, but then it makes sense, given that you compiled it and you always seem to think outside the box. But that certainly isn’t the sort of track you picture being on a Carl Craig mix CD either.
Craig: Well, there are other songs I could have opened with that might have been just as shocking. Things like Missy Elliott’s “Lose Control”—which would have been very interesting because of the Cybotron connection—or that track with Beyoncé and Jay-Z, which was for me and some other cats a big track to play. It isn’t all just techno. They are really good grooving pop songs, and they move a crowd, and they would have been great to put in the mix, too. But the Ying Yang Twins, when I first heard it, I thought it was the most innovative record of that type to come out in a long time. I mean, when is the last time you heard a hip-hop track like that where guys are whispering on it? And the next single from that album sampled George Kranz’ “Din Daa Daa,” which was a huge influence on a lot of the Detroit guys. It just goes to show that they had almost the same influences as we have up North, and I hoped that it would expose those influences to kids new to music, so when they started to put things together, they would see a bigger picture. Like a kid that is say, 13 now who is really into crunk might stumble across some Electrifying Mojo mix or something and say, “Oh, they used to play ‘Din Daa Daa’ up in Detroit,” and start to question things and everything will just cross over. Kind of like Kraftwerk—I mean, we thought that only influenced us in Detroit when we were young, but it of course influenced a lot of hip-hop producers and tons of other musicians, too. It’s all about crossing boundaries.
Well, you’ve been around a little while now. Do you hear your influence out there?
Craig: Well, not in hip-hop! [laughs] But yeah, there are some things I can hear it in, but I guess I don’t really notice. I remember a few years ago when everyone was claiming that “Bug In The Bassbin” was a huge influence on drum and bass, man, I really didn’t hear that.
That’s funny, because I remember going back to that original single when I first heard that and saying to myself, “Damn! Maybe I’ve been playing it on the wrong speed all these years or something.”
Craig: I think it is because of the break beat and the way the bass fit in the track, and they way they played together and it just sort of put things in different places and with different tempos. That’s probably what they heard, and what they did off of that is really quite amazing. But that’s the nature of influence—you take what you love and switch it all up and come out with something new and make it their own.
I remember in the wake of that, I thought for sure you would try your hand at drum and bass, and that never really happened. Did you ever really embrace that drum and bass sound?
Craig: I liked what some of the guys were doing: Dillinja, 4 Hero, Goldie, Photek. There is some really great stuff, and some really great producers who came out of it. I think we all got on the same level of thinking, and I can really respect that. But what you mentioned before, some people really just stick with what they know, and on one level, I think that if you can do one thing really well and you just keep at it, that’s fantastic. But as for me, and what I want to do, I really like the idea of going out on a limb with my creativity.
Tell me about The Album Formerly Known As..., which is a remade version of your 1995 album Landcrusing. How did that all come about? Why did you want to remake the album?
Craig: Well, it’s been about 10 years or so, so it felt right to revisit it now. We have the Planet E Classics label, and with that we try to reintroduce past music from the label that I have done over the years that people might not have heard. It was just time.
Landcrusing never got released in North America either.
Craig: No, it didn’t. So we were also making that music available to a new audience that couldn’t get it back then. The album has now been extensively tweaked, so even if you’ve heard the original, you get something new.
What else is happening with Planet E these days?
Craig: There are some new ideas for 2007. There’s an album that I’ve been working on that hopefully will be ready to go by springtime. I can’t really say what I’m going to call it yet—Carl Craig or 69 or what. There’s still a few bugs I need to work out before I can decide how I want to present it to the world. As far as new artists, I have some ideas. A few years back, we went through the whole thing where we ran Planet E like a “proper label” if you want to call it that, with a large roster of artists, and we just had to scale back. It was great music that we were putting out, but unfortunately, if we had kept it up like that, we would have been run out of business a long time ago. So now we are just focusing on my music and trying to keep things simple. That way when it comes time to introduce other artists again, we’ll be around to do it. It’s good when you can identify these problems before they get serious. It’s one of the great things about being an artist with your own label, because if you need to buckle down to save it, you can do that by your own means. You don’t have to rely on other people’s music to keep things going. A lot of the music industry over the years has been other people benefiting from the hard work and sweat that goes into the music without doing anything. But it’s difficult for an artist to stay objective, as well. I’ve been fortunate because I had experience with Transmat and Derrick, and the Retroactive label before I started Planet E. I can’t necessarily say I know a hit when I hear it, but I know what I feel is good and what is bad, and it taught me how to be a better producer, and a better label boss. It taught me how to survive.
What about your experiences with larger labels? The Innerzone Orchestra album came out through Astralwerks, and Landcruising was released on a Warner Bros. subsidiary. Is that something you might want to return to some day?
Craig: Working with major labels was my goal when I first started because I was an imprint junkie. I would just sit down and look at record covers for hours, or watch the labels spin on my turntable. My goal was to one day be on Warner Bros. because I loved that classic Warner Bros. shield, and that old label with the picture of Hollywood Boulevard and all of the palm trees. That was always big for me. I mean, the B-52s were there, Prince was there, they had the cool sub-label in Sire, where there was Talking Heads and Yazoo and the Smiths, and it was all on there. So I grew up thinking it was the greatest label ever. So when it came time for me to work with majors, I had to learn the lesson, that even thought I was into the label and its music, it was still a machine, a factory. The people that work for the label are there because it is a job. On top of that, I was dealing with the UK end, and the ideas are different there. They weren’t really interested in electronic music because it wasn’t a moneymaker for them. When I would remix things for other labels or things like that and taking that major-label money, I looked at it as guerilla warfare. I was stocking up on my weapons of choice to help me run Planet E. It all made me want to keep my own identity and my own label together even more.
It wasn’t major politics or anything, but I got a really quick and easy lesson with Landcruising. It was coming out at the same time as the Outhere Brothers album, and their album had huge hype behind them because all these mothers were trying to get them banned in the UK. So everything else that wasn’t R.E.M. or Madonna just went to the back of the Warner Bros. bus. The way that they handled my record made me realize that most people at majors know how to work pop records, but that was it. I had made “Throw,” which was big in clubs at the time, and “The Climax” was coming out, and they tried to hype my album as being made by this new boy wonder or whatever, instead of it just being music. They had to have that angle to sell it: it’s like trying to sell a car based on the specs. Like, “This one has a V-8, 5-liter engine, and this one has a V-6 with an 8-liter engine, but I think you really want this one with the V-12 with the 6-liter engine it, and this is the greatest because everyone is freaking out when they drive it,” and blah blah blah. And how do you know which car is right for you? You go out and drive it. They just never got that.
You’ve been doing this for 17 years or so now, and you’ve accomplished some things. If you stopped tomorrow, would you be able to look back and say you are satisfied?
Craig: There’s always something in hindsight, and I think I’ve learned not to regret anything. If something didn’t work on one record, then I might try it on something else, but I would never think I wanted to change something. Much of the stuff that I’ve done, I really love the mood that I captured, but I realize that the mood was then. Honestly, I don’t feel like I know enough yet. Usually I try to move forward and not look back on the past, and one day, I’m not going to be able to move any more. Then I’ll look back at the good old days, when I’m 75 in the bed waiting to die.
It’s like a shark: it always has to be moving forward, or it will die.
Craig: Well, you know, coming from Detroit... [laughs] Detroit Techno was always about futuristic music, building models for the future. If you look at Juan Atkins’ stuff and the futuristic aspect of that, for instance. When I was working with Derrick, we were always trying to build a better model, all the time. That’s one of the reasons why he hasn’t made records in a little while—he hasn’t figured out how to improve on his original model. For me, it is not only about making a better model, but about making a new model, one that can stand the test of time and be inspirational.
So you’re satisfied then.
Craig: Yeah, for now. We’ll see what happens with this next record.
Carl Craig’s Fabric 25 mix is out now on Fabric. The Album Formerly Known As... and the “Darkness”/“Angel” 12-inch are out now on Planet E. For more on Carl Craig and the Detroit sound, be sure to check out Night Drive: A Bluffer’s Guide to Detroit Techno.