Clinton Smiley interviews the legendary Carl Craig.
24 Apr 2000
<img src="/images/carlcraig2.jpg" align=right>"Everyone was supposed to call an hour ago."
Not the best start to an interview is it?
'Specially not when you're talking to Saint Carl Craig, patron saint of "Difficult" Interview Subjects
There's plenty of potted histories of Carl's career and achievements, so I won't go too deep into it here. Needless to say, Carl gets . Lot's of.
Born in Detroit 25 or so years ago, Carl developed a love of electronic music (like many living in the Motor City in the early and mid-1980s) via radio shows by the aptly named Electrifying Mojo and everyone's favourite loose cannon deejay, Derrick May.
To cut a long'ish story short, Carl hooked up with Derrick once he'd learnt the basics of production and toured the UK and Europe in 1989 as part of Derrick's live version of Rhythim is Rhythim, Carl having already helped out with the 1989 reissue of the track.
Since then, Carl has dropped three long players. 1997's "More Songs About Food and Revolutionary Art" and 1995's "Landcrusing" as Carl Craig, and the Paperclip People compilation "The Secret Tapes of Doctor Eich". Next month sees the release of his first Innerzone Orchestra LP on Giles Peterson's much respected Talkin' Loud label.
...but it's the singles that we remember and love.
Exhilarating dancefloor moments like "Throw" and "The Climax", mad chillout material like the all-time classic "At Les" and the genre-busting space jazz of "Bug in the Bassbin".
Like I said, Carl gets respect. Lot's of. ...But at the moment I think he'd settle for a warm bed and no nutcase New Zealanders on the phone hassling him in the wee small hours.
"How may interviews you done today?"
"You're the second today and probably the ten-thousandth one of my career."
Ummm, okay then...
"I've never really sought out publicity, it's something that whoever I'm hooking up with tends to organise, record companies or promoters, and I'm like 'Oooookaaay' whenever they come up."
"So when did you begin recording?"
"Seriously probably around 1989, 1987 or 1988."
"I had a look at the sleeve for 'Strings of Life '89' the other day and there's this photo of you and Derrick on the back it. Man, you look real young."
"Uhhh, yeah. That's me. Sitting on Derrick's arm. Yup, that's me (pregnant pause...first of many) The first release I did was song called 'Elements' on a compilation of future techno, whatever you wanna call it, on Virgin." "Okay, so what distinguishes you from your peers in your own mind?"
"Umm, I dunno...I think the whole concept of what I put into the music, my full heart and soul, it's not made to be a commodity, it's an outlet."
"It just happens that it sells and gets played on dancefloors around the world."
"How do you feel about that? Paperclip People is dancefloor-orientated? Innerzone Orchestra is more experimental?" "Innerzone Orchestra is definitely going into the experimental, avant garde realms of electronics and acoustic hybrid music." "Where did you get the idea for 'Bug in the Bassbin' Carl?"
"The idea or the title?"
"I dunno, I never make songs with preconceived ideas. It just comes out, so if I walk in and say 'Okay, I'm making a bassline', then it just totally morphs into something else that I didn't even perceive it to be. I never really have a focus on what the outcome will be."
"Do you feel that you have more or less freedom working as an electronic composer? It's not like you have to sit down with your little acoustic guitar and your pad of paper and write down your lyrics. It's a lot more freeform?"
"Yeah you could say that. What I do is freeform, but I can't say how free it is in comparison to somebody like...umm, Brian Eno or...I think people like Kraftwork probably go in and maybe structure everything concerning their music, that's why it takes them so long to complete it.
Yeah, I am less restricted than the person who sits down with their acoustic guitar, but I think that what I do might be more relevant to what somebody like James Brown does and has done in the past.
Like other musicians that are from that whole blues...umm....mentality. It's like they might go by a formula, like 12 bar blues, but it's still something that has a lot of raw emotional and raw spirit that goes into it, so it's not like...umm...maybe they'll write down the lyrics, but they won't say ' right, this bassline goes by this chart'...kinda like jazz.
In jazz, you don't have written basslines, the bass is just played within the chord structures and that's kinda how it happens." "Do you see see techno and the way you guys started out back in 1987 or whenever, when Juan started doing stuff, do you see the body of work you've done since as standing outside the tradition of black music, going back to the blues, through Motown, P Funk, hip-hop...?"
"I think the only thing that makes some black music stand apart from other black music is unappreciation of it in America. Apart from that it's straight-up black music."
"Until the mainstream gets a hold of it and starts ripping it off?"
"The mainstream will never get a hold of this music, because it's above their heads in some way. It's only above their heads because they let it be above them. They try and relate it more to European music and don't realise that it comes from the street and has the same origins as hip-hop, soul, the blues and jazz."
"Well how was it feeling that unappreciation in the States, but then going to Europe with Derrick in 1989 when the scene was beginning to really blow up?"
"There's a factor that's being missed here though. There was an appreciation of it in America, but it wasn't as large as we expected it would be. What happened was people could have gone further with it, but I think we all kinda dropped the ball. We thought 'Okay, we can get immediate sales from manufacturing this stuff ourselves on vinyl and selling it to Europe.'
That was going to be our bread and butter. But no one really made that active marketing campaign. None of us really knew how to market it in a way that would be able to compete with the rising force and evolution of what hip-hop became. Then techno just ended up as a whole lot of stereotypes, because we let it happen."
"Do you think Kevin Saunderson ended up getting burnt when he tried to take it to the mainstream with Inner City?"
"I think that...that...umm...for what he was doing, he gave it a good try. It's hard to loose a lot of money, which I'm finding out now. Really doing a full-fledged advertising and marketing scheme and distribution deal as well is hard. Like we (Planet E Communications) use Caroline for distribution, but we're coming into a similar thing now that Kevin saw with the cashflow thing.
Putting out a lot of cash to try to support the product, but his thing was that by putting out numerous pieces of material at the same time...it was his whole way of marketing it to...the people. That kinda flooded the market a bit. What we're doing...we have this distribution deal but we put money into advertising and an actual campaign, without having a structured campaign there as such.
We don't see any of the immediate financial benefits because of this distribution deal. It's hard to pin down an 'area' when your 'area' is America, because you're looking at the whole of America, not just a region like Michigan or New York or LA. Now, after thousands of dollars constantly flowing out of my pocket as well as the company's pocket, it's time to sit down and rethink it and say hey 'Maybe we should just pay attention to Michigan' and don't even worry about the print ads or the bullshit and just make it happen.
What could have happened back in 1989 and 1990 and 1993 and 1994 and whatever was that Derrick, Kevin and Juan, as the friends that they are, could have come together and found a person to market their companies."
"I heard they were gonna hook up with Trevor Horn and his ZTT label at one stage?"
"That was a case of Derrick May trying to reap the benefits of the whole thing, rather than it being a...coalition...that could have been 'Metal Music' or could have been whatever. Something where we all could have reaped the benefits and made a kinda global marketing and distribution etc...something like could have happened when Seventh City came into business, but it didn't."
"You're quite close with Kevin aren't you?"
"Yeah. He's working on a label at the moment, but I mean I'm really close to Derrick also and Kenny Larkin, all four of us (Kev, Ken, Carl & Del Boy) are starting a club in Detroit next year, the name has yet to be...known..."
"Got a venue?"
"Yup. But we're gonna start doing parties at Thanksgiving )November I think) that bring our coalition together, to build up the publicity for the club as well as to build up the strength of us as a force. Hopefully we can do something that we haven't been able to do in the past."
"Okay so , touring down here next month. What tipped you over the edge and made you come out here?"
"I dunno, the opportunity came up and its been nearly three years since I last played Australia, so I decided...why not?"
"Okay, look I just wanna clarify this...you're playing one live gig (in Auckland) and one DJing gig (in Wellington), is that right?"
"Yup, in New Zealand as far as I know that is what it isssssss..."
"Live-wise, how do you run it on stage? We had The Advent here last year running off a laptop..."
"Umm...it is...umm...me running the show off of a...not a laptop...umm...let me give it a fancy word. Umm...a fancy phrase. It's the Master Control Panel..."
"Ooookaaaaay, yup, the MCP...the Master Control Panel of the...of the...Future Regenerator Machine (giggles)."
"That'll look good in print."
"Let's see what happens (giggles more)."
"So it's Paperclip People live, not Innerzone Orchestra?"
"How's that done?"
"One big long seamless set."
"Do you enjoy the live aspect Carl?"
"Better than DJing."
"You're a producer first and foremost then?"
"NO...I AM AN ARTISTE! (giggling like a nutter)"
"Lovely. You do enjoy DJing though?"
"Oh yeah, I have fun with it. The main problem I have is that it is limiting. I try to make it as unlimited as possible though. The whole Pioneer mixer/CD hook-up, the DJ 500 mixer and the CDJ 700, that really makes it very unlimited in comparison to what it was, because of the whole concept that you can loop phrases and use effects, all that kind of stuff that...umm...was not possible before."
"I'm helping the set up here, so I'll sort that out. A Pioneer mixer and..."
"CD player mixer"
"You play a lot of CDs?"
"Yup. I make...I've made a whole bunch this evening actually. I just do remixes of stuff and burn it right on down to CD to play out."
"Musically then, what else have you been working on recently?"
"Umm, '4 My Peeps', the new Paperclip People single is out mid-September."
"I gotta say here, the last couple of Planet E releases have been awesome, Recloose, Common Factor, Chaz Vincent, the new MoodyMann...they've all been really consistently good. (much popping off and general arse-licking"
"Do you think about dancefloor reaction when you're in the studio making traxx?"
"No. It's like when I'm DJing, I play towards the dancefloor, but I still inevitably play things that are gonna...really inspire me."
"Okay, so anything else on the release schedule in the near future?"
"Yeah, the Innerzone Orchestra album for release on Talkin' Loud next month."
"Wow, Talkin' Loud. Giles Peterson (Talkin' Loud CEO) has always been very appreciative of what you do, same with James Lavelle (Mo' Wax/UNKLE) yeah?"
"Oh yeah, James is a good friend of mine."
"Have you heard the new UNKLE album."
"Yeah, there's some really great traxx on there that are quite interesting. I like that kinda...crazy symphony thing that they did with...I think it was Richard Ashcroft (The Verve) singing on it. That was pretty interesting, so was the track with the guy from Radiohead."
"Other home listening?"
"John Hassell. My wife and I both listen to a lot of hip-hop at home."
"You got married...a year ago? This year?"
"Early this year."
"She's a Brit yeah?"
"You were living in the UK for a while?"
"How did you find that?"
"Interesting. But because I have the company here it was a priority for me to make it back here and make sure things were working out. We had some employee problems, like all companies do, but I had to come back to look after that aspect of my career."
"How do you find the business side of things Carl?"
"Difficult trying to be an artist and a businessman at the same time."
"You don't want to get someone in to do it for you?"
"Yeah, but I don't got $50,000 cash on my right now y'know? If I could find somebody to do it for half that then okay."
"Can I just ask why the MoodyMann album, the recent one 'Mahogany Brown', came out on Peacefrog and not Planet E like 'A Silent Introduction'?"
"(laughing out LOUD) I really have no idea! That was a decision which he (Kenny Dixon Jnr aka MoodyMann) wanted to make, which umm...I think...inevitably I think it was a better umm...decision for him as a career move, because his visibility will broaden as a result. They've already doubled the sales we had for the first album, in like the first month."
"You'd be surprised how many cafes and bars out here play that first LP."
"Yeah? That's really great! We were in New York when I first came out and they were playing it in this restaurant we were having dinner in, I think I was called Galaxy, but it came over the sound system and we were just like 'Oh my god, we have to ask what the deal was' and it turned out it was the chef's personal favourite. So that was cool."
"What's Kenny Dixon Jnr like?"
"He seems intense."
"Well I don't know him but yeah...that's the impression his music, titles and sleeve notes suggest."
"Yeah. He's definitely intense. Kenny is a man that...has his own agenda definitely. I mean he goes for...y'know...whatever he feels at the time...and just do it."
"He played the UK recently, a week after you I think last month."
"Did he? I guess that explains where he went last week then, I dunno."
"Ooookaaay...umm...so tell me, what makes house house and what makes techno techno ?"
"Who cares? It's all music man. Why pidgeon-hole someone to Detroit as well?"
"Does that piss you off?"
"Yup, Pisses me off like a mutha-fucker."
"Oooookaaay...so what do you do to relax Carl?"
"Make music and sleep. Drink beer."
"You like the travelling aspect?"
"Oh yeah. It's nice seeing new people and new places, as well as the old faces and places that I've known over the years."
"So what's on the cards for the rest of 1998?"
"The Paperclip People single next week, a new Anton Miller single, another Common Factor single, a new compilation called...I have no idea what it's gonna be called actually, but we're putting that together, a new artist called Jason Hogan, hopefully a new release from Recloose for the beginning of the year...umm...a new Chaz Vincent in the new year. Finish the Innerzone Orchestra album, work on a tour for next year for Innerzone Orchestra."
"Okay, I guess that about wraps it up. One last thing...what's you favourite dancefloor track at the moment? What gets the floor moving for you?"
"Umm...don't ask me that! (laughing)..."
"You're gonna say Stardust aren't you?"
"(disgusted) Hell no. Fuck that! It's this edit that I did of Liquid Liquid and 'Once in a Lifetime' by Talking Heads. I love it."
"Thanks for that. What are you doing right now?"
"Finishing a remix for Inner City and doing some accounts."
CARL CRAIG, one of the founding fathers of modern dance music, tours New Zealand this week. He talks to MIKE HOULAHAN of NZPA.
Wellington, Oct 4 - As a teenager growing up in Detroit, Carl Craig owned a guitar and wanted nothing more than to be the next Prince. These days Craig owns roomfuls of electronic instruments and is hailed worldwide as one of the founding fathers of techno dance music. Not for him any claims that techno is soulless, metallic, unemotional music.
"I`m here to make a difference through music" he says.
"It can be full-on dancefloor music, it can be great jazz, so long as it makes an emotional connection with you. The only thing that restricts you is your imagination".
There have been few boundaries on Craig`s musical visions. In the early 80s he learned how to operate a mixing desk by making his own, primitive techno remixes of tracks by alternative bands like Bauhaus and Dead Or Alive.
House music was beginning to evolve in Detroit, and Craig soon hooked up with another local producer/DJ Derrick May, with whom he toured to Europe to spread the new musical gospel. Its now a sound heard all over the world. Carl Craig has developed a myriad alter-egos for his music, each of them with their own distinctive style and personality.
Although he is Paperclip People, 69, Psyche and the Innerzone Orchestra - as well as releasing albums under his own name - each of those recording identities are extremely different, varying from techno to jazz, house to ambient, and vocal to instrumental.
"They`re each a distinct way of thinking about music, and when I want to explore in those directions, thats where I go" Craig says.
"Its good because you don`t get caught up in the record company thing where you can only put out a certain record at a certain time because you want to catch the right magazines or something like that. Its just music, you should be able to enjoy it.
"I put out a Carl Craig album last year, and depending on how much time I actually get to just be myself, I might do another one soon. I`ve just released a new Paperclip People album, and I`m really looking forward to my next Innerzone Orchestra album, because I think thats going to break down a lot of barriers between electronic music and the rest of the world".
Quite apart from his prolific recorded output, Craig is also an in-demand producer for his remixing skills. As well as tweaking and tuning works by other dance music artists, Craig has been the producer of choice for artists such as Tori Amos when it comes to translating their music to a nightclub setting.
Craig`s huge reputation means he is much sought-after, and he says it has made him very choosy in which artists he decides to work with. "I try to have a concept, like I did with the Tori Amos song, for which I kept as incognito as possible, and made it a new vision of her track and not a Carl Craig track" Craig says.
"There`s a lot of people out there who just want to pay you $50,000, $100,000, whatever, just for your name, and don`t want your brilliant ideas or concepts. I`m not interested in working with that bottom of the barrel type stuff".
Carl Craig travels to Wellington, where he will DJ at StudioNine on Saturday October 24th.
"When I DJ I try and keep my sets as accessible as possible" Craig says. "The party people and the club people know what you`re about, but I like to try and penetrate the mind of the unwilling subject. I want to share this music with people, show what we do and open up their minds".