Carl Craig interview: Life In A Northern Town

Detroit legend Carl Craig spoke to Marko Kutlesa about his relationship with the UK's club scene, his work with the Synthesizer Ensemble plus upcoming Planet E releases.

Skiddle Staff

Last updated: 27th Jul 2018.
Originally published: 9th May 2018

When Skiddle catch up with Carl Craig over the phone, the iconic producer is in his studio in Detroit. As usual, he's multitasking. We interrupt him while he's putting finishing touches to a re-edit of a Waajeed track 'Mother' that he's planning to release as a limited, single sided 12” for the Detroit Movement festival, an event he's been involved in for several years.

He's also working on future music for his label Planet E which, like his own music, has been a singular and boundary crossing voice in Detroit techno for over 25 years. He's also putting the finishing touches to some Detroit Love events (including its show at Movement.

Having in recent times finished both an orchestral album and having toured with his Synthesizer Ensemble, Detroit Love is his latest project, one intended to shine a light on the electronic music advances made in his home city within a worldwide peak of popularity for the techno genre.

He is talking with Skiddle, however, about another city. Craig has visited Manchester many times as a DJ and is one of several leading industry figures who appear in the Manchester Keeps On Dancing film, which celebrates the continuing relevance of the northern city's music scene. 

As a result, Marko Kutlesa's talk with Carl Craig covers his memories of Manchester and his first experiences in the UK and how these contrast to his contemporary undertakings. Carl Craig plays Audiofarm Festival which takes place between Thursday 30th and Sunday 2nd September.

When was the first time you came to the UK?

1989. I was there in London to play with Derrick May as Rhythm Is Rhythm at the Town & Country Club. 

Being a fan of European and British music before you came, had you imagined what it would be like in London or the UK and how did the reality compare to your expectations?

I didn't really have any preconceived ideas you know, like some people might see Austin Powers and think that it's going to be groovy 60s London. I didn't really know anything much of the London of the 60s and the 70s, the scenes, the fashions and its link to Paris. I knew some of the music from that time, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones. 

But from listening to the 80s stuff, Cabaret Voltaire, Heaven 17, Depeche Mode, I hadn't really taken an idea of what it was going to be like. Maybe I should have paid a little more attention to the Visage records and covers? There was that whole New Romantic movement that Steve Strange had been involved with. I saw some of that the first day I arrived. I really hadn't expected it. 

How did that performance work in regards to what each of your roles were?

We had prepared for that show in Derrick's loft, which was kind of central to everybody who was in the party movement back in Detroit. At the time, that's what you did; come by Derrick's house. So, we were working on the show for quite a while without actually being able to do much.

There was always someone knocking at the door looking for Derrick, because he was a superstar of the underground in Detroit at the time. By the time we were able to put the time and effort into it, it was divvied by what Derrick was running on the sequencer. He had the songs on these little kind of mini discs, they looked like little floppy discs. He had to change disc for each song, so we had to find a way to make it work together.

My role was to tie everything in, so I was running a drum machine. We were both playing textures of sounds on top but the soloing was mainly left to Derrick. I had a sequencer running at the same time as his. But there wasn't anything that was so defined like it would be in a band, like Derrick's the guitar player and I'm the bassist.

How different is that experience compared to the show you've recently been doing with the Synthesizer Ensemble?

Oh, it's quite different because everyone's parts in Synthesizer Ensemble project are very defined. Each synthesizer player has music that's written for their instrument. Nothing crosses over, there's no overlap in the sense of guys playing extra stuff. Their role is more like that of a violinist in an orchestra, they don't veer off from what's written in the music.

For any changes in movement, intonation, things like that, the violinist has to watch the conductor. In Synthesizer Orchestra, Kevin is the soloist of the night, I'm sequencing, adding sound and texture. So, I think we're way more like an orchestra, whereas what Derrick and I were doing was like two guys improvising with sequencers.

That method of working with more strictly defined roles is not how you were working with Innerzone Orchestra. Do you think it's something you took from your experience of working on the orchestral works?

Yes. The Synthesizer Ensemble is meant to be like a small orchestra. An ensemble. It's not my original background. I come more from the jazz world than I do the orchestral world, even though for a short time in high school I did play as a concert bassist. 

My inspiration came more from people like Miles Davis, Marcus Belgrave, music where you have a lot of space to move around. And that's what Innerzone Orchestra was; a lot of space to move around. We did whatever we felt. Francisco Mora, the drummer, Rodney Whitiker, the bassist, Craig Taborn, the pianist, these were all jazz players. Everyone was given the freedom to speak on their own musical terms.

Taking you back to the Rhythm Is Rhythm show at the Town & Country, how was the performance?

I think we had a day in London and then we had to play the next day. The first set was very loose, maybe too loose for what it was because we were opening up for Inner City. They were a full band so once they came on we got blown out. By the second performance we knew what we were dealing with and we sharpened up, we were able to do a really great performance. 

And how was the audience reaction to you and Inner City?

It was amazing. It was a full house at each show, both days.

How did people respond to the music? Was it comparable to how people responded to it in Detroit?

It was amazing for me to see it, but I didn't really go to a lot of concerts when I was growing up, so that's probably what made it so amazing to me. I was not only at this big concert, I was actually on stage.

Growing up, I'd never been one of those kids who'd go and watch Parliament/Funkadelic live, I'd never seen Prince live. I had never really been to a proper concert that I can remember, so that was the first one.

I'd been to big DJ gigs, Jeff Mills, watching scratch DJs, so I'd seen people respond how they would in a club environment, Music Institute, Shelter and all that was. But being at a concert like this, where there were 3000 people in the audience, that was a big deal for me.

Was there a noticeable difference between going to a UK club compared to going to a club in Detroit?

The first club that I went to in the UK was actually the night before we did the first set. It totally freaked me out. We had nothing like that in Detroit. It was a party called Kinky Gerlinky. It was like a fancy dress party. All the men were wearing dresses.

Coming from Detroit, to me, a room full of men in dresses seemed like some kind of gay transvestite place. They deal with that kind of thing a lot differently in the UK compared to how it was dealt with in America. So, that was my first club experience in the UK. A complete shock to the system.

Did Derrick go there too?

No. I was with Sarah Gregory (vocalist for Allez Allez and also on Carl Craig tracks Crackdown, As Time Goes By Sitting Under A Tree and Wrap Me In Its Arms) and Mark Moore (S'Express) and Baby Ford. I know Mark goes to those kind of things and he finds them very funny. I think they wanted to take me to the craziest thing they could to see if I could handle it. I was just stood out on the stairs ahahaha.

Did you see anything else on that visit?

Yes. I went to Heaven. David Morales was playing. That was where I first heard Technotronic 'Pump Up The Jam'. I'm not sure it had been released quite yet, but he played it. The crowd reaction to it was quite incredible. Back then, the reaction to hearing a record for the first time was way different to what it is now. You cheered for the record, not for the mix or the DJ, you cheered because the record was amazing. I'd heard a lot of stuff but that sounded quite different. It was Belgian, I think.

So, that was London. Do you remember the first time you visited Manchester?

The first time that I can remember was to play for The Electric Chair. I may have played earlier. Sankeys, that was in Manchester, right?

That's right. There used to be a night there called Bugged Out that I thought you might have played before Electric Chair.

Yes. I definitely played some Bugged Out parties. So, I think the first time I came would have been around the time I did 'Throw', around 1993.

What were your initial impressions of the city?

Well, I'd been to Sheffield and Birmingham before that, and of course I'd been living in London, so it felt like an English town to me. It's easier to see now the changes that have been made to the city. It seems like it's quite bustling now, in comparison. A lot of development.

But on first impressions, I didn't really notice that there was anything different to, say, Detroit. Detroit's a blue collar town  and Manchester, Sheffield and Birmingham all felt like that to me.

Yes, they're all former industrial towns that had been in decline. Sankeys Soap, where you might have first played, was in a converted old mill and was surrounded by similar old industrial buildings, some unused at that time, so I wondered if it had resonated with someone such as yourself who came from Detroit?

I don't think anyone had told me it was an old mill until I got in the building. It was a great club, the people were wild. That's what I remember most, how loud and how wild the people were. 

The crowd at Electric Chair also had a reputation for being vocal and wild. Having experienced both of those venues, did you come away with any kind of impression of Manchester's people being different to those in other territories?

There's a lot of energy there. Way more energy than any other place except maybe Glasgow. Glasgow probably has the same amount of energy from the people, it exudes off of them, they're really up for the party. You can still see it at The Warehouse Project in Manchester now. There's just this excitement and energy that comes off the people which is incredible. 

Having seen some of the late 80s dance music explosion in the UK and followed it through the early 90s, could you have imagined then that this wild response to the music would eventually filter back to the US and you'd end up with all these big rave and festival events, such as Movement in Detroit?

We always had the thought that America was going to be ass backward when it came to electronic music. That's why there was a certain effort to grab on to where the music did take hold. In the US we did have big records like 'Good Life' and 'Big Fun' from Inner City. House techno records. But then it would die out.

It was almost like the guitar and synthesizer couldn't coexist in the US music industry. It was always in and out. I'm happy about the growth of rap music, because hip hop kept electronic music at the forefront of American culture, it's just that nobody realised that was electronic music. 

Movement was something that everybody in Detroit wanted. We'd been dying to have something like this. With Electric Daisy, Coachella, Lollapalooza, these really big events, luckily they are also playing their part in keeping electronic music at the forefront, whether that be the big EDM acts or someone like Kenny Dixon, Kyle Hall and myself playing Coachella the other week. I didn't really expect to see this happen, but it's great that it is. 

There is a link between Manchester Keeps Dancing, Detroit's Movement festival and your current Detroit Love project in that they are all about home town pride, protecting and enshrining a city's musical heritage and laying foundations for the future. Why is it important to do that?

You gotta have pride for your own first. That's why we do Detroit Love. It's about cluing people into what we've been doing that's great. Manchester has a rich musical heritage as well whether it be the Factory scene, Joy Division and New Order, to the scene around The Hacienda and Happy Mondays to Oasis. There's a lot of great stuff.

But we're proud of our movement too, that why we do Movement and Detroit Love. I'm sure there are Manchester collectives who do that for their own, not just a film like Manchester Keeps Dancing. 

What we try to do with Detroit Love that makes it unique is we not only have Detroit artists, we also have artists that are influenced by Detroit. So, in that way, it puts things into perspective for some sections of the audience who may not have been aware that techno came from black guys from Detroit.

So, we have people like Luciano playing and we hope that in doing that, people will get it. Sometimes you need something that lets you understand and connect with what the music has been, why it has done this thing. That example is one of race, but it could just as well be a case of informing someone who didn't know that what they were listening to actually was techno, like, say, something by Theo Parrish. But if you place it next to something by Mad Mike/Underground Resistance, it might suddenly make sense that this is techno. 

What have you got forthcoming with the Detroit Love project? 

We have a Detroit Love album coming up which will be mixed by Stacey Pullen. That will be coming out around the time of Movement. We're doing a Detroit Love party with Luciano as part of the festival as well. We have our own stag and it's going to be Luciano, Kenny Dixon and myself. We're also going to be putting on Al Ester, who is someone I used to dance with back at The Music Institute. He's one of the best DJs in the area, he's amazing.

What is coming up on Planet E?

We have Erudition, which is Jon Dixon featuring Marcus Belgrave. That comes out soon. We have this Tom Flynn record that we're doing, which I think is amazing. It's electronic music with piano. Moritz von Oswald and I have been working on some music for a while so we're looking forward to putting out some of that soon.

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