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Detroit techno legend Carl Craig discusses his remixing rebirth and DJ roots

Carl Craig. (Photo courtesy of Planet-e.)

Carl Craig. (Photo courtesy of Planet-e.)

One of Detroit techno’s hands-down great producers and DJs, Carl Craig needs little introduction to hardcore dance-music fans.

He’s made a handful of dance music’s all-time classics, from Paperclip People’s “Throw” in 1994, a classic détente between techno’s drive and house’s soul, to his 2006 remix of Delia Gonzales & Gavin Russom’s “Relevee,” a throbbing analog synth workout—and has remained one of the top names on the DJ circuit. (His best known set remains the 1996 official release DJ-Kicks, whose closing track, initially also titled “DJ-Kicks,” would become “At Les,” one of Craig’s signature tunes.) He has continued to push his music’s edges outward, collaborating with numerous musicians in a number of configurations. And of course, he’s a deep Prince head, befitting his appearance at the Entry at Midwest Funk Association, a DJ tribute to the Purple One.

I interviewed Craig over Skype in January 2013 for my book The Underground Is Massive. He generously spoke for nearly two-and-a-half hours. At one point, his cellphone rang; after telling the caller he was mid-interview and he’d return to them as soon as he was done, Craig came back on and said, “There, I just told Kevin Saunderson I’d call him back for you—now feel important.” No kidding. What follows are edited portions of that conversation.

City Pages: After the first couple of Detroit Electronic Music Festivals, you have September 11, you have the big rave crackdown, And I know you’re not somebody who played a lot of raves, but I’m curious if that ate into your livelihood, in any way?

Carl Craig: In the U.S.? No, not at all. The only thing that affected me in the U.S. was that we couldn’t fly, but I don’t even think I had any gigs at that time, cause my son was born on the fourth of September Then seven days later 9/11 happened. I had taken off specifically for his birth, and I don’t remember if I took two months off, or I only took a month off, but I did. I was already basically whatever I was going do was going be based in North America, and it wasn’t that much.

CP: Your son was born September of 2001. Around 2005, 2006 you were doing a lot of great remixes, and your name was everywhere again. After a little bit of a lull, and it seems like that lull might have been connected as well to being a dad.

CC: No, I wouldn’t necessarily say it was being a dad. Its, again, it’s like, there’s chapters in life, there’s movements. How I’ve always related what I do musically as well as my career is like a concept of a book that has, that you build up to a climax and you fall, and you try to have a climax again. It’s like, that’s how I deal with things, like if things feel like they’re not going the way that I really want them to go, then I back off a bit, and then I try to learn some more, and try to build up. Let’s think of it maybe more like Rocky. You go in, you the shit with Apollo Creed, he kicks your ass, you go back, you pump up iron a bit more and then you come back and you defeat Apollo Creed.

CP: Was that maybe to do with the fallout of the second year of the festival? Was that something you felt like you needed to take a step back, reassess, and then come back with?

CC: Yeah, in some cases. I mean, There was so much drama that was involved right after the first session, all into the second year.... But you go through some times that. If they were hard times, they were more insulted-pride times. And then you can really weigh out who you like, who you don’t like, who your friends are, who your friends aren’t, who your true friends are. And sometimes your true friends can also do shit that will fuck with you, but you have to look at the whole picture. It’s like a mutual fund. The ups and downs of the stock market doesn’t mean that you’re not gonna make money at the end of getting your money out of your mutual fund. It’s just investing in the right stock, whether it goes up and down. So you invest in the right friends. You realize which friends you invest in and which friends you don’t. Also, my wife and I split up in 2002. There was a lot happening, working out things, but I was working all during the time of the split: I did the [Congos’] “Congoman” edits. So it was a build up; I’m doing edits, I’m doing various things, and it just so happens to be that while I’m doing these things, I have a couple of really big ass records, and it just really takes it over the top.

CP: Well, 2006 is basically when Web 2.0 starts. That’s a marker for a generational shift as well, because the younger generation caught onto dance music around then. How has your audience changed since then?

CC: It’s always funny to me when people say, “There’s so many young kids out in the audience today.” It’s like, “Man, I’ve been doing this for twenty-how-many years: There’s always young kids. It goes in phases. People get to be twenty-five and they decide that they want to go to wine bars more. They don’t want to spend their money to go to festivals, they want to spend their money to go to clubs.

CP: How did you initially become a DJ? Was it just in the air?

CC: It was. I had started playing music because I love records. When I was a kid I used to carry around records wherever I went. When I would go on vacation down to my grandparents’ house I’d carry records, and my first taste of doing that was playing a couple of records at my family reunion in Georgia. First record I was a hero, and the second record I was a zero, But it still gave me that taste, and I loved scratching, I loved what was happening with that whole movement, early hip-hop and freestyle and electro. But I was a guitar player. That was really my forte before I got a synthesizer.

CP: Derrick May was an early mentor of yours. Did his DJing affect the way you conceived of playing?

CC: Yes. Derrick’s style comes a lot from Ron Hardy from Chicago, and it’s a very frantic style. At that time it was a lot different than what he is now, but it was like a man with octopus tentacles. What he was able to do, and it was in the Chicago style, was that he was play records and he had a 909 [drum machine] programed. And also with the reel-to-reel tape deck: That was common in Chicago, to play reel-to-reel and turntables and maybe a pitched cassette deck, but I dunno how many people were doing it with 909. I think that after I actually started doing it, I knew I couldn’t achieve those levels. I probably adopted more of a New York way of DJing, than I did a way that was like Derrick.

CP: What do you mean by the “New York style of DJing”?

CC: More of a patient way of playing, letting the music develop itself, mixing in relation to the mix of the beat, making something really interesting in comparison to doing a backspin. New York house, I should say, in comparison to New York hip-hop. But no real trickery to it, just paying more attention to the sonics than attention to the juggling.

CP: Do you think Chicago DJing has a different aspect then that or the Detroit style?

CC: Definitely. It’s all about the timing with every style, and in Detroit we force things, so we force music in order to make it into something. So it’s a very creative way of playing but it can be like two singers competing, singing on top each other. Somebody’s going to dominate, and that’s how we kind of DJ. In New York, its timing too, but they let the music breathe a lot more—like when you’re appreciating wine or something. A lot of Salsoul records had these [extended] intros, and you played based on intros and you mixed based on breaks.

Chicago DJing is another beast. In Chicago they’ll play kind of the same disco records that the New York guys will play, but it’s almost like you don’t even know that it’s the same freakin’ record. It didn’t matter if you were black kid or white kid or Latino kid, they all played with this kind of thing I just could never put my finger on it. People in Chicago are so fucking funky.

[In Detroit], we were never those eleven o’clock in the morning cats, where you start playing at eleven and you finish at eleven, or you start playing at twelve and you finish at twelve or whatever. We were never the stamina DJs in Detroit.

CP: Where the Chicago DJs more the stamina DJs?

CC: Yeah. Ron Hardy, his night was his night so he’d just play. And I don’t know how long he’d play, but he’d play the whole night. Derrick wouldn’t play the whole night at the Music Institute [where May was resident from 1987-89]. Derrick would start at two and end at five, or start at three and end at six.

CP: Were you paying attention to DJs from outside Detroit at that point?

CC: My sister’s boyfriend when I was in ninth grade, I think, was from Hammond, Indiana, just outside Chicago, so he had mixtapes from WBMX. I think the stations that were doing mixes at that time in the United States was probably ’BMX and [New York’s W]BLS, the only stations that were really doing heavy mixes all day long. And ’BMX, they’d have tapes of Mike “Hitman” Wilson, Steve Hurly and Farley “Jackmaster” Funk. Maybe Bad Boy Bill—and this was when Bad Boy Bill was actually good, not when he’s bland. ’BMX was the shit. When I was able to travel to Chicago, I went because of WBMX. And then I went to go see DJs cause of that.

CP: By the way, why did you get kicked out of Cass College?

CC: I probably wasn’t supposed to go to Cass anyway. I was never very good at school, or never really interested in it, and I got in there based on a curve. I had a friend whose dad worked in the school board, so they got me in there. And I just didn’t go to school. I played Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. There was a place called on Griswald that was an arcade and a record store. And I would go, and listen to records and looks at records, and play video games. And that was of extreme importance to who I am. I was probably even training myself to become a DJ because it’s like video games.

CP: You went to London with Derrick for the first time, right?

CC: I went in 1989 to London to perform with Derrick live as Rhythim Is Rhythim. It was just us two; we were the opening act for Inner City, and, of course, Inner City in 1989, they were the shit. They were King and Queen. [Inner City had three Top 10 UK singles in 1988-89.] That was at the Town & Country club in London. It hasn’t been Town & Country in years—it’s gone through maybe about three or four different names since then—but a really important place in Kentish Town.

The Town & Country club [was] jam packed full. Because I used to play in bands, it didn’t bother me to much that there were a lot of people. Derrick, he was nervous because he’d never played as a musician in front of anybody—always did it in either the privacy of his own home, or, if people were over, he’d act kinda crazy and make jokes out of it. So it was like really a big thing for him on the second night. I think there’s something on YouTube of me and him playing together: That second night, that was when the Cindy Brady red-light-on-the-camera thing [happened]. That’s when he was over that. [laughs]

Midwest Funk Association
With: Carl Craig, Waajeed, DJ Nola, Focus
Where: 7th St. Entry
When: 8 p.m. Sat. Apr. 21
Tickets: $35/$40; more info here