Interview Kelly “K-Fresh” Frazier
Photography Dennis Duijnhouwer
Detroiter Carl Craig continues to be one of world’s most respected producer/DJs. Since he started producing at the end of the ’80s under a myriad of aliases, Craig has created works that have not only influenced the world of techno, but that of soul, hip-hop, drum and bass, and jazz. Craig continues to release his own music and the music of other artists on his labels Planet E and Community Projects. Recent projects include EPs from Vince Watson and Reade Truth as well as remixes of Craig’s “Angel” from Jerome Sydenham. Craig is also one of the most in-demand remixers in the world, having reworked tracks for over 100 acts including LCD Soundsystem, Tori Amos and more recently UNKLE. He even received a Grammy nomination for his remix of Junior Boys’ “Like a Child”.
Craig’s collaborations transcend genres and decades. He recently collaborated with Moritz Von Oswald (Basic Channel/Rhythm & Sound) on “Recomposed”, an album of remixes and remakes for the record label and bastion of classical music Deutsche Grammophon. Craig has also produced a new album from the legendary Detroit jazz collective Tribe featuring Marcus Belgrave, Wendell Harrison, Phil Ranelin and Doug Hammond their first release since the early ’70s (out early this fall on Community Projects). His own music has even been re-interpreted by Parisian orchestra Les Siècles. Last October conductor François-Xavier Roth and pianist/arranger Francesco Tristano interpreted classics such as “At Les”, “Technology” and “Sandstorms”. This piece will also be performed in Milan in September and in NYC and Detroit next year. Simply put, Craig cannot be pigeonholed.
Detroit has always been an industrial city, constantly affected over the years with the demise of the automotive industry. How does electronic music fit into that?
We have always been inspired by the remnants and remaining aspects of the automotive industry. That’s always been really inspirational to me at least. I’m sure to Derrick, Kevin and Juan as well – to be able to see what was the catalyst to the future of industry in the United States. [It] just became something that is more underappreciated than the Leaning Tower of Pisa, than the Coliseum in Rome or than any other historical building or figure in the world. It’s that we’ve come to a point where we accept this shit. We accept the fact that we can go around the block and see houses burned out. People are living in fucked up situations. We beautified Detroit in a sonic way and we’ve promoted Detroit beyond what any of the automotive companies have even attempted to do. They are just here because it’s business for them. It’s our culture. This is our thing.
Detroit electronic music has been one of the best sources of positive promotion for the city globally. However, our own city does not get behind the culture as much as it should. Why is that?
The only reason why we are not there is because of education. The education of what music is now is that music makes a shitload of money. We have been able to survive musically with hip-hop outside of the United States, with techno outside of the United States, with rhythm and blues. For example, when you go to Holland, they understand everything about life. It doesn’t have to be about life in the streets. It doesn’t have to be about life in the factory. I’ll go to Holland and people knew more about what was going on in Michigan than I knew at one point. And we don’t go far enough with the understanding of education. It’s not only in Detroit, but it’s like that in the whole American system that we don’t pay attention to the art aspect of things. If someone does a piece of art, everyone has an opinion of it. Most people in Detroit, when you see something abstract, the concept of abstract art is that it is total junk. That is Detroit. We are a blue collar state so what you want to see as art is a painting of a watercolor landscape that looks like something. It’s the same thing with music. You can’t have a person who might have Ableton running and he’s sawing some wood. It’s some abstract shit. That is not art. That’s construction. Doesn’t matter if it’s on tempo or not – it’s not art. You can take the same thing to London and people will see it as art. Take the same thing to Tokyo and people may even get fanatical about the shit. He could potentially be the biggest genius that Japan has ever fuckin’ seen. Like here, he’s a schmuck, he’s a nobody. It’s really the education aspect of it. Unfortunately, we get stuck in this rut. It’s like ‘What is music?’ Music is some motherfucker singing and dancing. I went to Chicago because a friend of mine said that I really need to see Leonard Cohen. Leonard Cohen is supposed to be the voice of his generation. He’s a poet, he made music and he did whatever. I won’t deny the brilliance of his poetry. Leonard Cohen is about 75 years old. The cool thing I thought about Leonard Cohen was that he was getting on his knees. He’s doing his shtick. His shtick is he’s doing this poetry with people playing music. The poetry was probably cutting through like a sword, like a Ginsu knife. Just the sharpest-ass shit but the music was like karaoke. He had a tight-ass band but no one went outside the lines. It was like paint by numbers. Staying within the lines. That’s how music has become. Not only for 75-year-old people, but it’s like that for a lot of 16-year-old people. I remember I was hanging out with girls that were still in high school when I was 22. I met some girls that were about to graduate and one of them was listening to smooth jazz. That was her shit. She loved Kenny G. What the fuck is a 17-year-old girl giving a fuck about Kenny G? She should be liking the cutting edge shit. This is just that shit we are lost in. Lost in the concept that music has to kind of sound the same.
DJ Dez (Slum Village’s DJ who also produces house music under the name Andres) told me that you two wanted to do a cover of J. Dilla’s “Big Booty Express”, but I think its just him that’s doing it. What is it about that track that you love?
“Big Booty Express” was the ultimate realization of Juan Atkins’ influence on hip-hop. For Dilla to do “Big Booty Express” really puts in a perspective to how creative the brother was and where his background had come from. His background came from the same places my background came from. I was listening to “Alleys of Your Mind” and “Clear” and all that stuff back when the Electrifying Mojo was playing it. It really just makes sense since Dez is a hip-hop kid and I’m a techno kid. To get those things and put them together – and he has his other life as a percussionist – is the ultimate complement. I won’t say tribute – I’ll say complement to where Dilla was when he did that.
If Dilla had more time to do more music like “Big Booty Express”, how would you envision it?
If Dilla did more of that kind of stuff he would have an even bigger influence than he already has. Like doing things with symphonic music, with jazz and with techno but still doing hip-hop. I think he would have been considered the ultimate genius musically. I think he had the capabilities of doing that but unfortunately in hip-hop culture – and this is what I hate about hip-hop culture – is that it is so narrow-minded. There’s a lot of money in doing hip-hop. So if you claim to be hip-hop and you can make some hits, you can make a lot of cash from it. But you have a lot of hip-hop producers that have fallen by the wayside because of the fact that they don’t know how to expand. They don’t know how to take it to another level. I have a lot of respect for ?uestlove because he’s a music guy. He’s not just hip-hop. He’s a real music guy. He knows his history. He can play all the shit. If you put a string ensemble with him, he can adapt. You can tell him what the fuck to do, where to play and where not to play. He’s a conductor. Have you ever seen a conductor really work?
No. Not up close.
That shit is fascinating as hell. You really got to see it. A conductor – and I don’t have the ability to do this shit – but I think ?uest does. He’s the ultimate micromanager. In Paris we did the Steve Reich piece [Ed. note: “Come Out” was written to be performed at a benefit for the retrial of the Harlem Six in 1966] and it comes with a fuckin’ manual. It comes with the samples you’re supposed to use with specific synthesizers. There’s a manual on how you are supposed to perform it. It has diagram of where people are supposed to be on the stage. It’s amazing, what this thing is. This guy is going through pages with 10 sections on a page. He’s paying attention to the violas. He’s paying attention to the bass. He’s paying attention to the guys who are playing specific types of percussion instruments. He’s like, ‘Hold it. Stop it. You fucked up. You are suppose to do this.’ Its not like that guy on the MPC didn’t do some shit right or that guy scratching didn’t do something right. You can hear that shit. This guy is like micromanaging this shit and I think ?uest has that capability to be able to direct people in the right way. If Dilla would have had the opportunity – especially with the downfall of hip-hop right now – that would have spurred him to say ‘Let me try some other shit.’ He would have come through and would have tried some stuff with symphonies because he still has a lot of respect in a lot of different corners. Francesco Tristano, who is a concert pianist who plays at Carnegie Hall, was here recording in the studio with a beautiful D5 Steinway piano. He’s a freak for all this stuff. All this modern music. Dilla, me, Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson. All this stuff. He knows all the Detroit stuff. He knows the history. It’s this guy that is playing at Carnegie Hall. He’s a pianist from Luxembourg and he’s got mad respect for this stuff. If Dilla had lived, he would have had the opportunity to walk through doors that he would have never imagined he would have the potential to go through.
I do see there is a narrow-minded attitude toward electronic music from hip-hop, yet when it goes the other way around it seems like there are a lot of people into electronic music who love hip-hop. Where does that attraction toward hip-hop music come from in the electronic community?
Hip-hop found a way to simplify music to its core but still get masses to enjoy it. With electronic music or club music, it’s been made to be complex, very heady. What hip-hop has done is take the little bit of whatever it wanted or needed to go to the next step and strip it down to its more simple element. My big brother who is nine years older than me said something about that Jim Jones record “We Fly High”. He’s like ‘That’s techno.’ I’m like ‘What the fuck you talking about?’ I listened to it and it sounds like “Planet Rock” slowed down. That’s what a lot of these guys have done. They have took something and they just slowed that shit down and narrowed it down to the basic concept of what it is and rapped on top. That’s the great thing about music. No matter what style it is, it can always inspire people who are looking for it, and some people who are not looking for it. It changes their whole perception of things.
During the beginning of hip-hop, most of the songs sounded like rock or disco records because that’s all the DJs had to mess around with.
(Laughing) But the shit was hot though. Dilla did a thing with Steve Miller Band in it for Slum Village and it wasn’t because it was all that was there. It was because that shit was hot as hell. It doesn’t matter that “Big Beat” was a rock record. That shit was hot as hell. I was listening to Sirius in the car. I go to the ’50s station and listen to stuff. Then the ’60s station and listen to stuff. Then the ’70s station and listen to stuff. They played “Walk This Way”. I remember having Toys in the Attic (Aerosmith [Columbia, 1975]) when I was a kid and I used to be a freak of “Walk This Way”. That shit is still bad as fuckin’ hell right now. Around the same time of all the first classic techno records there were a lot of classic electro hip-hop records dropping, like Man Parrish Boogie’s “Boogie Brown Bronx” or Grandmaster Flash’s “Scorpio”. “Alleys Of Your Mind” and “Cosmic Cars” came out around 1982, which was the same year for “Planet Rock” because Computer World (Kraftwerk [Warner Bros., 1981]) was 1981. Around that same time was when Ice-T did “Reckless”. Newcleus was doing “Jam On It”. It was a budding time. It was a time when people’s ears were in tune with but ready for all that electronic shit that was happening at the same time. That was the future. Blade Runner was out. Robocop was coming out later on. The Terminator was coming out. All that kind of shit. You are seeing this shit and you got this 808 and you are able to come up with all this crazy shit.
(Laughing) It’s like watching Star Wars and then trying to make your own soundtrack to it.
(Laughing) Exactly. That was the case. Rock was influenced by it, too. They were using synthesizers in rock, too. Pink Floyd. All those strange things they were doing. It was all about the times that were coming. The instruments that were happening that really helped to inspire. Brothers were at the point where they just took the machine and they humanized it a lot more, especially by putting lyrics on top and by rapping on top. The cadence of the rap made it where it really ultra-humanized what was going on. Otherwise, it would have just been people thinking it was robot music. If the brothers didn’t take it over and turn it into what it became, people would have taken that shit and put it to the side. It would have been this silent fiction that would have gotten lost from the late ’70s and early ’80s.