Carl Craig: Harbinger of Future Classics and Otherworldly Body Music

“From the beginning I've always had a view of making music that wasn’t temporary, that wasn’t cliquey or trendy… I’ve always focused on making music that was going to be a future classic”

An intuitive innovator, Carl Craig has charted new territories in the styles and sounds of electronic dance music since his forging as a harbinger of second-wave Detroit techno. With a passion for future sounds and timelessly riveting tracks, Craig has continually sought out collaborations with like-minded future creators, drawing from Innersounds’ bubbling basslines to Les Siècles orchestra’s full-bodily-arresting incarnation of Craig’s own club classics, ushering in revitalizing reconceptualizations of body-bumping dance music. Craig continues to push the music and spaces of electronic dance music towards the unheard hits and melodies of the future, redrawing our preconceived architecture of dance music tracks and the venues, peoples, and sounds from which it draws, and inspiring open-minded creation that reciprocally encourages the spaces and communities from which electronic dance music emerged.

This past week, WHRB caught up with Carl Craig before his Open-to-Close show at Boston's Bijiou Nightclub, delving into otherworldly timbres of dance-music-to-orchestra-and-back transductions, and the future of these sounds and spaces.

First, I want to ask about ‘Versus.’ As someone who also thinks in terms of kick-hits rather than bar lines, I very much empathize with the process of translating an electronically conceived piece into notation. How did you go about re-orchestrating and notating your tracks first, for full orchestra, and next, back into electronics for the Versus Synthesizer Ensemble?

Well, what’s important is to always have someone around who knows what they’re doing, so for me that was Francesco Tristano. My background as an electronic musician and producer is really rooted mostly in remix, so I’m the cat where I can take something and make it into a different idea for the dance floor, but when it comes to actually formally making music as far as notating, it’s better for me to have a specialist. So Francesco Tristano, a Juliard-trained concert pianist who’s deeply into techno as both a fan and a composer, I relied on him for his insight and expertise. Versus was specifically a project we did as a collaboration, so I let him run with it, and whenever I felt it wasn’t gonna fly, then I stepped in and said “let’s do something a little different with it” or whatever, but for the most part, I gave him full reign to work his magic. As Versus became a live performance piece for the promotion of the album, it was translating the orchestration back into electronic music. That I did mostly with Kelvin Sholar, who’s a very gifted pianist and synethesist.

So how is the Versus Synthesizer Ensemble set up? What’s the combination of sample-triggered stuff versus melodies lines and hits that are played live?

Well, Versus from the beginning is more of a hybrid project anyways. It was rescored for orchestra. We had some performances in Paris with the same orchestra who’s on the record [Les Siècles Orchestra] as well as myself doing synthesis. From that, we recorded Versus with the Orchestra in the studio. For the most part, I preserved what was done in the studio so the orchestra could take the spotlight and the synthesizers fill in the space. There’s not much that’s happening in the synthesizers with improvisation; that comes more from the concert pianist, which is usually Francesco or Kelvin. There are multi-tracks that I mixed from the album that basically convert it into an Ableton session. There are 4 synthesizers that play an accompaniment to it. So there are some violin parts or brass parts that I’ve deleted in order to let the synthesizer fit into those spaces and broaden it out a bit. And then we have a concert grand on stage, and myself in the background doing whatever I do… But there isn’t sample triggering at all, it’s mainly raw tracks along with synthesizers and concert grand.

It’s interesting to me that these collaborations, at the end of the day, are still superseded by individual composition. But how do you feel actually performing solo versus performing with others? What does collaborative performance mean to you musically, spiritually?

I’ve been able to do these things with Innerzone Orchestra, with Tribe, performances with other musicians as accompaniment to myself. When I get tired of playing solo, I have this dynamic where I can do something else… with Marcus Belgrave when he was alive, or Wendell Harrison, or Francisco Mora (Sun Ra)... it’s a lot of fun to do these things because it gives me that thing I need again to go out and play on my own by exciting me to play differently than what I do live. It’s necessarily refreshing [per se], but it changes my perception of things so that I can move on on the solo level. Most DJs, in order to get that, is what they call back-to-back - one to two songs per DJ. That’s cool and great, but I very much prefer having Wendell Harrison come out on his saxophone and just blow people away with his solos that were on par with what John Coltrane was doing.

Is there a timbre you’re particularly drawn towards? I keep hearing you talk about saxophone…

You know, I actually used to hate sax as a kid. The style of sax, being something where it’s kind of talking to you or growling to you, it’s got this kind of verbal thing for many players (or that was the style for many players from the late 50s to the 60s). But when you go off on a Coltrane or a Marshall Allen thing, they’re just going wild. Ornette Coleman. They’re going beyond what the human concept of sax is, and it becomes otherworldly. I want it to be beyond synthesizer - I don’t want it to go through synthesizer, I want it to become sound-shaping and sound altering. Instead of the key being a note, the key would be a parameter.

When you’re crafting these sound worlds, where do you draw the line and say “alright, enough of sound exploration, it’s time to start locking down the arc of this track?”

Sound-shaping and sound-design I look at as being research and development. Then, when it’s time for me to actually compose, I already have this sonic direction I feel really good about. When I’m composing, if I find myself composing and flip back too much into sound-shaping, I have to come to the realization that at some point I’m just going to get lost, and I should stop doing it that way, or take a break and eat a ham sandwich or something.

How do you see the future of the music that you make and the places that are tied to the music that you make?

From the beginning I've always had a view of making music that wasn’t temporary, that wasn’t cliquey or trendy, so I’ve never purposely made music that was of the time, I’ve always focused on making music that was going to be a future classic instead of making music that was of the now and then someone would forget about it. It was always about tackling the next step. I got that from working with Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson and Juan Atkins - it was always an incentive we tried to put on ourselves. We wanted our music to be something that you could listen to 20, 30 years down the line and say “Wow, what were they thinking?” or “What was I thinking? What was Carl thinking when he made that?” In many cases I achieved that. I’ll hear something and I’ll think “What the heck was I thinking when I made this, this is great!” or a DJ friend of mine, Zip, was playing this Minus Villalobos event in Ibiza, and there was this record that Zip was playing, it was incredible. I walked up to him and said “Zip, what is this record?” and he thought I was out of my mind. He said, “This is you, this is your remix of Gus Gus.” Either it was a track that I forgot about or he played it in a way that was fresh and new, I don’t know what it was, but when I have those situations it’s like, “You know what, I did achieve a goal that I was out to do in the beginning which was to make music that were future classics.

And how do you see the spaces progressing as well? That can be venue spaces or specific cities…

The whole idea of what’s happening with clubs has changed a lot over the last 20-30 years. Having underground parties is really important. Now I don’t know what’s happening with kids that are 18-19 years old (I will soon because my son is 16 so he’ll be going to these kinds of parties and stuff and will be able to tell me what’s underground as far as clubs are concerned). But what’s happening as a major trend in the world, especially in Europe, is that there are a lot more festivals involved. You have Tomorrowland, or 909 festival, or around here, Coachella, or the one where everyone dresses up like furry people, EDC… It’s not how the music has started, it’s commercializing the music and presenting it in a way more like you’re in a rave Disneyworld than it being where the music started, which was warehouses and grubby basements, and gay clubs, and black clubs…where it started. I don’t think a lot of this generation or people who are getting into the business of doing these events even know or realize the history of where it comes from, so really the landscape has changed immensely. I’m happy that there has been a lucrative payday in this for many of my colleagues, and that they can go on a festival circuit throughout the world. Maybe this is something that’s taken on the hairband festival circuit that was happening in the 80s and the 90s and 2000s, but there’s some of that that I really miss from those beginnings [of electronic dance music] - going to Heaven where Ken Collier was playing in Detroit where it seemed like the only place where people could really express themselves, and he was the guy who was helping you to express yourself to the max by giving you these massive doses of musical ecstasy and merging it and transforming it and flipping it and doing whatever was necessary in order for you to get to that high point of your experience.

We’re getting into kind of activist/educational territory at this point… how do you navigate that realm as an artist?

We do these Detroit Love Parties that are actually a perfect way of doing it - getting the people to feel like they’re coming for that reason [of getting back to the music and its roots]. With the Detroit Love Parties, we do them all over the world, but we do set up, play, and leave. As an artist, maybe our Detroit Love Parties can take a page from Mancuso’s book of the Loft. When he started out in the 70s, it became more of a safe haven for people to come. It was like “You’re coming to his house. If there’s something that’s going on outside, stay in the house. Don’t go outside.” There are some stories that I read about police brutality and riots that were going on, but he made it a safe haven for people to come in and stay there. Luckily we don’t have those kinds of problems now, but maybe there’s another way for people to feel like they can just be there and enjoy the music and get a history lesson from the music, but also get body music, get spiritual music - something that makes them feel like they want to help people to come into this world, to find that world that’s not just going to a rave to do whatever they’re doing at Tomorrowland, but to find an alternative to that. Glastonbury actually has a small area for people that want to be at Glastonbury but don’t want to be involved in all the hoobla of seeing Oasis, so they can come to this physical oasis where musically they get something different, and that’s a high point of Glastonbury for many people in the dance music community.

Thank you so much! Honestly in that respect, it’s so good to hear about you taking the music back to its roots in that these spaces the music was created in are for communities who really needed it. There’s a queer party series that I run with one of my best friends where people can dress however they want and assume whatever identity they feel like is actually true to themselves and not get s*** for it like they otherwise would. I’m so thankful for you not only creating that space and allowing for the room to exist in the first place but to try and keep them going.

Well, one last thing - what was important in the 80s when I started going to clubs and stuff - there was an alternative scene of people that were listening to Susie and the Banshees and The Cure and that kind of stuff, but especially in Detroit in the black community, clubs like Taza and Heaven or whatever - they were gay clubs. They didn’t care what you looked like. You came in without being criticized or ostracized. You’d go in, and you’d just do your thing and be the person that you wanted to be. At that time in San Francisco or New York and Detroit and Chicago, the music was really really amazing in gay clubs. But then, there was a shift that happened in the 90s, and the gay clubs went from playing all this heavy music to playing Madonna and all this kind of poppy stuff, and it never went back. The only way that it went darker or heavier was by going into rap and now trap music. So that’s the new underground, that was what became of underground music in the gay community - it flipped over into hard rap and hard trap and that kind of stuff. For electronic music that we know, for techno music, for Chicago House music, it’s out of that range now. It’s not in that range anymore. These festivals have homogenized it, in many cases. A lot of electronic music is just a rehash or regurgitation of a thousand other tracks that were being done. It’s a shame, but I’m sure with your help and other like-minded people, there’s a way to bring this energy and spirit back to clubbing for real solid, spiritual body music.

Huge thanks to Carl and Rosalie of Tailored Communication for being so awesome and down to earth, and helping this interview to come to fruition! Check out Carl Craig's body-bumping DJ set at one of the following live dates, listed here.

Lana Harris DJs/writes/beyond for The Darker Side. The Darker Side has air every Saturday night 10pm-6am and Sunday night 10pm-5am.