Carl Craig: Hot Carl
- Words: Peter Nicholson
"And God says to Bill Gates, 'Bill, that's just a screensaver!' Hahahahaha!" So ends an hour-long conversation with Carl Craig–Detroit techno definer, globe-trotting DJ and, evidently, lover of Internet jokes. Craig is obviously not new to the interview game, but he's far from jaded. He's ready to talk about his new mix for Fabric, what keeps him going after 15 years of innovation...and even "sonic masturbation."
Like his complex, ever-evolving sound, Carl Craig radiates energy. He's never been short of ideas, and though he is most often tagged with the techno moniker, Craig's ideas of techno have blossomed into compositions which encompass jazz (The Detroit Experiment and Innerzone Orchestra), prototype drum & bass ("Bug in the Bassbin") and organic mixes of ambient and breakbeat ("At Les") alongside club anthems like Paperclip People's "Throw." His work is astoundingly diverse–an eclecticism that has made fans of musicians like Marcus Belgrave and Francisco Mora as well as filled dancefloors.
Craig knew from an early age what he wanted to do when he grew up. "It hit me a few years ago," he recalls over the phone from his home in Detroit, where he's just tucked his two children in for the night. "I remember I was riding in the car, sixth grade or something like that, and I said to my mother, 'You know, I really want to be a DJ like [Electrifyin'] Mojo.' And it just hit me one day like 'Wham! Fuck, I am a DJ!'
"It's crazy!" he says with bemused glee.
Craig's rise as a producer definitely was crazy. At 20 he found himself in London with one of the acknowledged fathers of techno, Derrick May, riding a wave of European adulation. May's role as Craig's mentor is well-documented, but it is a mark of the latter's own confident artistic vision that–despite being taken under the wing of such a larger than life figure, touring with him, and even reworking a canonical song like "Strings of Life"–Craig stuck to his own guns and formed his own voice. "One of the things that [Derrick] told me when I was giving him demos was that some of it was good but others were shit," Craig recalls. "So that gave me the desire to prove him wrong, but also the understanding that not everything was good."
There is a restlessness to Craig's work–a refusal to be pigeonholed no matter how loud the praise, but also a constant searching. The man himself is quiet at times, slow to answer and careful to choose his words, but then he'll fly off on a tangent, berating "those damn Red states" or teasing me good-naturedly about San Francisco and "back door entries." Visit the website of Planet-E, the label he founded in 1995–which has released seminal Craig works like More Songs About Food and Revolutionary Art, as well as introduced artists like Recloose–and you're greeted by a grainy, maniacal close-up video of Craig's grinning mug, telling you that "If you want a bit of the old in-out, stay away from sites that Pete Townsend has visited."
"It's always been a major part of my life, cracking jokes and sex and all that stuff," admits Craig. "I think with my family, I was more the crazy cousin or the funny little brother that was always trying to tell jokes to my sister's friends or my brother's girlfriends in order to get the attention that way. I think that a lot of it came into the music because I was doing that more than anything else. I was sitting there, whether it was acting the fool or trying to entertain myself, whatever the situation, sonic masturbation... it just all [got wrapped up together]. Boy, do I miss those days," Craig snickers with an exaggerated (or is it?) nostalgic tone.
Craig is a joker, yet he's a serious artist–and he's ready to party. He's just finished a mix for Fabric, and what's the first track? Maybe a teaser from his new artist album due next year? Or a banging number from a favorite producer like DJ Yoav B? Those cuts are in the new mix, which he worked up using Native Instruments Traktor, but Craig chooses to kick things off with... The Ying Yang Twins?! "I really wanted to use ["Wait"] because it kinda sets a strange mood," says Craig. "It's the idea that I want to fuck you. I think it's quite exciting to me to integrate that, but [it's also exciting] on another level. There's so many influences with what's happening with crunk and with Missy [Elliott] using the Cybotron sample in ["Lose Control"]; [There's always been a] crossover between Detroit techno and hip-hop because [they're both] party music."
In discussing Craig, an artist who has a well-deserved reputation for being intelligent and articulate, it's easy to forget that he makes some amazing party music, and is one of the few legendary DJ/producers who actually delivers, with a guaranteed ability to rock the dancefloor. Like his compositions, Craig's DJ sets blend a hard-hitting, sometimes overwhelming embrace of technology and a worship of the 808 heartbeat with frank and open emotion. He doesn't always find that this human connection comes easily. "It kinda goes between striving for it and it just happening," he muses. "I've always dealt with my music in an improvisational way and I think the way that I mix in the club is how I mix in the studio. I'm able to put enough of myself into it to where it feels more human than just being a cold set of just track after track after track. And also I try to pick a lot of tracks that have a bit more of the human feel to [them]. It's just what comes naturally, even though I'm not playing all batucada tracks," Craig chuckles.
No Rest for the Wicked
One of the highlights of Craig's sets is always Paperclip People's "Throw," a 1994 track whose relentless, rolling bass and hissing hi-hats draw an immediate and massive response. After the huge success when that track was initially released, did Craig want to make more like it? "I think I come across those thoughts more now because I'm on the road DJing and I know that certain tracks work or whatever," says Craig. "[After "Throw"] my attorney was telling me, 'You need to follow that record up! You need to do a new Paperclip People!' And I'm like, 'Nah' want to do something else.' That was always my ideal, and I think that's what helped things not get out of control. Yeah, I could have sat there and tried to make these records over and over again and they could have been all successful or I could have just completely fallen flat on my face."
Instead, Craig has continually trawled the limits of techno, of electronic composition, of music in general. His styles are as numerous as his names: Psyche, 69, Paperclip People, Designer Music, BFC, Tres Demented. His remixes reflect an omnivorous hunger for experimentation, drawn on a grand scale: both his 1994 rework of Tori Amos' "God" and last year's treatment of Beanfield's "Tides" clock in at almost 10 minutes of glorious, grand ambition. Craig introduces a theme, often deceptively simple, and then goes to work, shaping the feel, shifting the texture, and building the song into an elegant, inexorable monolith of sound.
Craig continues to expand his focus, with a list of upcoming projects that would be almost absurd in their scope if he wasn't at the helm. A Kings of Techno compilation with Laurent Garnier for BBE, Demon Days (an ongoing series of parties in Chicago and New York that will also feature visual art by Amsterdam's Parra) and a full-length artist album (about which he is coyly vague) are all due within the next year. "I'm happy with what I've been doing because it's kinda been like a whirlwind–even though it's not a whirlwind like Dirk Diggler or nothing!" laughs Craig. But when asked if his life has its own momentum, if the constant stream of requests for remixes and collaborations and appearances is what keeps him going, he demurs, and turns instead to the music itself. "There is a weird perfectionism that I have. Every time I get on a plane I think, 'Oh shit! I'm still trying to get that sound right! I hope nothing happens...'"
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