WMC interview: Carl Craig and the Future of Music

By terry church

I once had a funny conversation with Carl Craig [a] that I just can’t seem to get out of my head.

Perhaps it’s because of its humor, but more accurately, it’s because of its irony.

Whenever I’d see him in Detroit, which could be at a restaurant, at an event, at the radio station where I hosted a show — or even just down the street from it, where his Planet E HQ once resided — I’d grab a few moments to catch up and find out what was coming down the pipe, because inevitably, there was a lot.

During one of these particular conversations (in this case, at a riverside music festival), when the topic of what he’d been doing musically came up, he slyly remarked, “Don’t you ever want to talk about anything else except music?”

Coming from such a musically prolific dude, I couldn’t help but laugh.

Having been a life-long Detroiter until only recently, my ears were able to grab my fair share of attention from some of today’s music masters, whether involved in Motown, techno, rock & roll, jazz, hip hop and even noise.

In a city of greats, it’s difficult for anyone to stand out above the rest — the competition has always been fierce.

Still, every once in a while, someone comes along with such a unique vision that the rest of the community cannot help but take note.

It became apparent right around the early 1990s that Carl Craig, known for an endless list of accomplishments and adventures, would be one of the city’s visionaries.

I suppose you could say that it’s just taken a while for the rest of the world to catch on.

But that’s not to say he hasn’t tried.

If ‘Bug in the Bassbin’ (an alternate version heard here), ‘Throw’ (under the Paperclip People alias), his Planet E imprint, ‘Landcruising’ (heard here in the alternate form of ‘The Album Formerly Known As’) and the straight out of nowhere collaborative project Innerzone Orchestra didn’t get the attention of those that ought to be in the know, it was the sheer audacity of throwing a free festival based around Detroit’s techno heritage that really did it in 2000.

The techno community knew it was young and that all eyes would be watching when DEMF (the Detroit Electronic Music Festival) began – especially with the intense press push by his festival partner at the time – so when it was not only pulled off but with resonating success, it was a feeling as if, if only for a moment, Motown reigned supreme in Detroit.

When things went horribly wrong for Carl upon an embittered split with the original DEMF production organization (now far removed from the current operators of the annual event), the project became the least of his worries, although he always looks back fondly on the experience.

“That is a part of my life that I’d never change. No matter how it ended up, it was all fucking amazing,” he tells Beatportal.

“Even with all the politics and all the bullshit – the typical Detroit politics – I would never change it. It was great.”

In fact, he was spurred on to even more diverse projects, such as working on jazz veteran Herbie Hancock’s offbeat electronic venture ‘Future 2 Future’, released in 2001 (an album with a title bearing curious resemblance to another Detroit techno staple, UR, and the Galaxy 2 Galaxy project).

Carl is currently at the helm of reorganizing a jazz-based outfit that began in the true 1970s free and funky era that goes by the name of Tribe (members include Detroit jazz vets as well as Chicago trombonist Phil Ranelin, who’s recently had a resurgence via the Hefty record label).

“I’m influenced by anything I hear,” Carl Craig says.

Which comes as no great surprise, as a well-informed ear often produces elevated results.

“I like Crunk and all that Southern music with how much low-end they put into the records and how focused it is.

“When you listen to it in the car, it sounds really huge.

“That has an amazing amount of influence on me, as well as listening to house tracks and techno and classical and jazz — all that kind of stuff.”

Carl has also done remixes for Peruvian vocalist Cesaria Evora, quirky New York outfit Brazilian Girls and South African music legend Hugh Masekela, among others.

All the while, putting his unique trademark of electronic funk on only those artists that have suited his fancy.

He not only has a wide perspective, but a keen eye on the movement of music not only at the grass roots level, but also within the commercial realm.

“People who are making hip-hop are trying to come in our direction now,” Craig says.

“There’s a track that’s a house track that I just got in the mail yesterday.

“They’re polishing up hip-hop and techno and putting it into commercial hip-hop.”

It’s this type of non-biased observation that places Carl in a unique position.

But it wasn’t until he put his skills to Junior Boys ‘Like A Child’ did the mainstream public get an extra dosage of the idea of Carl Craig by being nominated in the Best Remix category for the Grammy Awards.

It was when Benny Banassi’s retake of Public Enemy’s ‘Bring the Noise’ took home the award, perhaps, that Carl realized the futility of running up against a truly household name like Public Enemy in a realm that differed greatly from his usual under-stomping-ground.

While surprised to learn of his nomination, Carl knew the odds were stacked against him.

“It’s kind of like when you go into the voting booth and have a hundred different names in front of you and you don’t know where to begin,” Carl comments.

“If P. Diddy were in there, he may have gotten the award because of name recognition.”

Yet while Carl’s name isn’t the household name it merits quite yet, he pushes on.

Just out is his version of ‘Sessions’, a mix CD project put together by !K7 Records that asks the mixing artist to feature his or her favorite cuts produced by the artist.

When it was Carl’s turn, he took some of his classics, unreleased versions of tracks, remixes and hard to get tracks into the double-CD collection, all which flow seamlessly with the assist of a pared down set-up of “a vintage Neve recording console, Serato and two CDJ-1000s”.

When it comes to DJing, Carl often turns to the digital world, but in a time-honored sound-quality kind of way.

Oddly, I had just finished a conversation with legendary New York producer and DJ François K (interview posted on Beatportal next week), and in comparing his approach to digital DJing to that of the Body & Soul master’s, Carl regards his approach as much less complex.

“I usually play from WAV files — not quite the highest level available like I know François does — but definitely WAV files.”

For his recent DJ project, Demon Days, with partner Gamall, he’s even considering a return to vinyl “to make it ultra special”.

It’s this project that is showcased in Miami at the Delano Hotel next week during the annual Winter Music Conference on March 27th 2008.

Although we’re not sure about the status of the inclusion of vinyl, his DJ sets continuously provide a unique landscape, much like his ‘Sessions’ release — perhaps because it consists of only his own selections.

New York’s Cielo is also on his hot list of new activity; a new residency at the renowned club with his Demon Days project has just begun.

Add to that a smattering of new recording projects, such as the one with Moritz Von Oswald of Basic Channel that he refuses to go into detail about (at least for now) — or the project with the classical pianist who holds a penchant for techno, Francesco Tristano, who’s rendered friend and initial mentor into the scene, Derrick May — and it’s clear that there’s no settling this modern mastermind. [Check out a video interview with Tristano on Beatportal.]

I guess my only question is, with such a list of accomplishments, is there time to talk about anything else aside from music?

As we try to squeeze in a bit of small talk, I realize that the answer is still — no matter how hard we try — no.