Carl Craig takes Detroit everywhere. There are few artists who spend so much time on the road whilst remaining inextricably linked to the home town that shaped them. The paradox speaks volumes of the romance the Motor City exerts on the imagination: Detroit’s major players have never been isolated individuals — they’re more members of an electronic Rosicrucian society, sharing an arcane knowledge and speaking a complex secret language steeped in heritage, yet always racing onwards, upwards.
Craig’s forthcoming 'Masterpiece' compilation is a sprawling cartography of this heritage, a chance to map his inspirations whilst paving the way to techno futures. Over three discs it ranges from the cuts he spins to get you dancing, to what he listens to at home, to the songs embedded in his musical DNA. Unsurprisingly, there are surprises. A DJ known for his far-flung tastes and extended jazz workouts (and no, that’s not ‘jazzy’, but genuine straight-up jazz), he was never going to have spent his life chained to the ticking of a 909 kick. Alongside foundation tracks from forefathers Saunderson and May, there are curve-balls from the likes of David Lynch and Muddy Waters. Uniquely for Craig, there is also a healthy repping of Detroit’s first great dance music powerhouse, which, as the DJ explains over a treacherous Skype connection, was an unplanned bonus...
“What I was surprised by, was one of the easiest places to license tracks from — Motown,” admits Craig. “I was surprised as hell by that! I was like, ‘Oh shoot, Motown, I’ll take three!’ And that was really an important step, because you know I’m from Detroit and I haven’t really talked a lot about the influence that Motown has had. They put out some risky stuff that made it past Berry Gordy — or maybe he just didn’t care by that time — but the stuff that Norman Whitfield did for The Temptations... I mean he was one of the first guys at Motown to integrate the synthesizer into the Motown sound.
Including psychedelic influences into soul music was really a huge risk, and it could have flopped. I don’t know if Norman produced The Supremes' 'Reflections,' but that track has some really weird noises in it. It sounds like they were listening to The Beatles’ 'Tomorrow Never Knows' and decided to integrate it into their music. It’s quite incredible reading about Motown at the time, and seeing what actually got past Gordy and what worked. I don’t talk about the label a lot because it gets too much hype anyway, but it did have a huge impact on me, The Temptations, Marvin Gaye and of course Stevie Wonder, even down to the stuff like Switch, DeBarge and Rick James, this explosion they had in the late '70s and '80s of post disco funk. Even a lot of ballads were incredible, a lot of DeBarge stuff still stands up today.”
Inevitably there were tracks that couldn’t make the cut, and Craig talks about the frustration of trying to get music licensed from major labels — one in particular, Frank Zappa’s wild jazz rock freak-out 'The Torture Never Stops', sticks out for him as a massive influence — aptly, when he tries to encapsulate the craziness of the song, the Skype connection fuzzes out, turning his words into a garble of digital scuzz closer to Zappa’s intentions than mere words could convey. After a few tense minutes spent pleading with the modem, a link is re-established and we move on to discussing the ‘dancefloor’ CD of the collection. “It’s supposed to represent music I use to get the floor in the mood for love,” he laughs. “I wish that there was more new generation Detroit stuff that I could include, but, y’know, I’m still looking out for more of these guys — Kyle Hall’s pretty much the main cat now. Detroit has changed a lot.
When I started getting involved in doing this, my influences were hearing local guys that were on the radio — Derrick May had a mix show, later on Kevin Saunderson had a mix show, Juan Atkins records were getting played in prime time as well as night time, and for techno music it’s just not like that today. It’s not even like that for Detroit rap music, you couldn’t access guys like Dilla when he was alive because he didn’t have a mix show and there was nobody like him who had a mix show. So now you have to go through other measures to meet these guys who are making music in Detroit, and Kyle went through those measures, meeting Omar S and Theo Parrish and all those guys. Omar S was the one who introduced Kyle and me.”
Recently Craig tried to bring his own influence to bear on the situation, setting up the Carl Craig Foundation to encourage kids to hear and create music that reflected Detroit’s vibrant past. He’s hesitant when asked about it, however, deferring that, “the Foundation is a slow situation right now. Because I’m on the road all the time, and because my attention goes to my music and stuff, the foundation needs a head, it needs a CEO. My sister was going to head the Foundation, but unfortunately with family it’s not always the smoothest scenario, so the Foundation is on a bit of a hiatus ‘til we can find someone to push it a bit further. We need someone who can deal with young teenagers, who can influence them into hearing new music and that can make it flourish for years, rather than having one or two hits.”
In many ways there’s never been a better time for Craig to educate the kids of his home — or indeed any — town. As everyone is doubtless tired of hearing, EDM is big business. The public have an appetite for dance music not seen since the golden age of disco, and all around the States teenagers are downloading hacked software and churning out a million shades of rave. Craig, though, has been way too long in the game to get overly excited and isn’t expecting much from the current boom time. “I don’t have a hell of a lot of trust in it. We go through fads so fast here that there’s a lot more that has to be proven to me. There’s kinda an EDM backlash that’s starting to happen, that’s kinda like the disco backlash that happened, so you’ll probably get people coming out and trying to fire MP3s out of a cannon or something. Really, there are only a few artists that are blowing up, playing Vegas, Miami and LA which are pretty much the hot points right now for electronic music. Some of them are playing for like $300,000 per gig, but they’re the big names.
If you go into a store and want a pair of jeans, you’re gonna buy some Acme because you know the name Acme and it’s the hottest thing at the time. People are into buying names and when the names are done they’ll buy into the next thing. It’s a big game.” As for the ‘trickle down’ effect, he remains cynical. “I think the trickle down, of course, it’s happening. But that just means there's a lot more European DJs in the United States.
So what Richie Hawtin did with the Beyond EDM/Kontrol thing was staking his claim. He was saying, 'Yeah I know exactly what’s gonna happen' 'cos we saw this shit happened before, when The Prodigy came over, when the Chemical Brothers came over, that was at the time Moby had his big hit, and they came and they went, and they came again and went again. That’s potentially what could happen this time. But Richie said, 'You know what? Fuck it. I’m gonna let people know what we’re doing'. And he had the very fortunate situation where Deadmau5 really paid him a lot of respect at SXSW with some statements or something on a panel, and that got people to say, 'Let me see who the hell Richie Hawtin is', and they played together, and I’m sure Richie Hawtin devastated and destroyed the man when they did their back-to-back. It’s like Muhammad Ali mentored someone, but when they get in the boxing ring with Muhammad Ali they’re still going to get the shit beat out of them!”
While he may laugh at the idea of Hawtin’s technical genius coming up against Deadmaus’s ‘press spacebar’ brand of DJing, Craig has absolutely no desire to dismiss the current crop of mainstream dance. Getting serious, he warns, “I tell you, we’ve got to be very careful to not start looking like old men. It pisses me off when I see people going, ‘ahh this music ain’t shit, the music we used to listen to was so much better, blah blah blah…’ It just sounds like someone’s dad. Someone who listens to EDM and they really like Skrillex, they don’t want you to diss them. It's the same way as when I was a kid, I didn’t wanna be dissed because I liked the B52s, or Skinny Puppy, or The Cure.” It's this refreshing attitude that's just one of the reasons Carl Craig stands out as a true original.
Carl Craig 'Masterpiece' is out now through Ministry of Sound. Buy on Beatport.