Ever since he started creeping out of the fantastical urban dystopia of Detroit, Carl Craig has been one of the figures most closely associated with the sound of classic Detroit techno. He came up in the late '80s, shortly after the genre's original pioneers, and his expansive take on the techno sound helped suffuse it with moodiness and soul. (The original Detroit techno pioneers, known collectively as the Belleville Three, were Derrick May, Juan Atkins, and Kevin Saunderson.) In the years since, Craig has developed a preternaturally "musical" sound given to dramatic spells of release and restraint, with warm chords and drum-sounds that suggest as much as they state. Craig himself recently took stock of his career for Sessions, an essential two-disc mix of his own tracks (under his given name, plus aliases like Paperclip People, 69, and Innerzone Orchestra) and remixes for other artists. On the occasion of Sessions' release, The A.V. Club spoke with Craig about the mythology of Detroit techno, Blade Runner, and feeling weird around machines.
The A.V. Club: When do you remember first responding to electronic music as an idea?
Carl Craig: My ear was already tuned into electronic music by being born at the time that I was. There was a lot of Switched-On Bach kind of stuff and strange-sounding things in commercials. When I was a kid, "Popcorn" was on the charts. Then George Clinton with Parliament Funkadelic, all the basslines and Moog synthesizers. And then Prince. By the time I heard "Alleys Of Your Mind," the first Cybotron record, I had already made a conscious decision that I would try to meet Derrick May. He was really the next step. His were modern futuristic sounds, compared to what I'd heard. I always liked synthesizers and was exposed to them for a few years before then, but that was the time when it was like, "Damn, you can really do all this shit by yourself? You don't have to be in a band? You don't have to have a guitar?" What they were doing was just as diverse and interesting and crazy as anything in terms of the structure of a song. Just sounds and rhythms. It was great.
AVC: A lot of the creation story of Detroit techno involves a bigger context of science-fiction books, movies, and comics. Were you into that kind of stuff as a kid?
CC: I wouldn't say that it engulfed my life. I'm not a Trekkie. I still don't know all the Star Wars dialogue. I'm not that kind of cat. I became more of a fiend for comics and sci-fi as I became an adult. I was more interested in The Brady Bunch when I was a kid.
AVC: Was a lot of that stuff around in the air there?
CC: Yeah, definitely. With Jeff Mills, one of the first tracks he did had dialogue from Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan, and it was quite interesting how it was used. If you talked to Derrick May, he was all about philosophy and space-age shit. He's the guy who started turning me onto comics for real. He could sit there for hours and talk about Arkham Asylum and how deep it is. I was into Blade Runner about that time, though, and Brazil. Those other guys had been influenced by science fiction completely, but they are a little older than I am, so they were watching Star Trek when it was coming on at 8 at night.
AVC: Being a little bit younger and hearing Derrick May and Cybotron on the radio, was there a communal sense in Detroit that there was a movement brewing?
CC: Definitely. When A Number Of Names did "Sharivari," everyone knew it was a Detroit record. With Cybotron, everyone knew it was Detroit. There was a consciousness about the music, and when [Derrick May's] "Nude Photo" came out, everybody knew it was from Detroit and cared that it was from Detroit. That was maybe even the most important aspect of it—that it was a local guy who was being very innovative and taking the next step. I remember having discussions with a friend who worked in a record store: We'd stand there for hours talking about how futuristic the 808 was [The Roland TR-808 drum machine. —ed.] and who was better, Derrick May or Kevin Saunderson. These were conversations that were going on in back yards and at schools and basketball courts and record stores—any place where people who were 17 or 18 years old were congregating.
AVC: When you mentioned Derrick May as sort of a techno philosopher, what were the ideas of his that you remember most now?
CC: At the time, he was very spiritual in a futuristic sort of way. If he wasn't Derrick May the producer and DJ, he would have been Reverend Derrick May, because he was so spiritual at the time, and into how the music related to what he felt and what he was doing—how the music can change the world. Derrick is my mentor and like my big brother as well, so there was a lot of teaching there, whether he was doing it on purpose or not.
AVC: How did it factor into your own thinking? There's a lot of post-human fantasy in the mechanical sound of techno, but at the same time, a strong humanistic drive, a soulful sound for a very social music. Do you think about it in those terms?
CC: What I've done is, I've tried to put as much of my self and my spirit in as possible. And in Detroit, whether or not you want to abandon all the roots of Motown and jazz and whatever else, it's still there in our spirits. We hear that stuff all the time. We've heard it from the time we were born all the way up. Parliament-Funkadelic, Prince, all that stuff was major here. And the way those guys used synthesizers was human. The robot funk of George Clinton was played by a real drummer playing like a drum machine. So we took those influences and put it into our music with the pure idea of keeping the funk there and developing something new. You can use the 808, and what is produced around it can inevitably make it feel more human than just an 808 machine by itself. The human aspect that comes from Detroit techno comes from the idea of trying to actually get an 808 to not sound like a typical 808. Lots of tweaks and tricks can get the sound to be more organic, but the idea was not to program it like a drummer, or to replace a drummer. It's programming it to make it an instrument in its own right.
AVC: You mentioned Blade Runner earlier. Do you remember the first time you saw it?
CC: It was on video, when I was a teenager. What was really phenomenal about Blade Runner, other than the visuals—because the storyline was kind of shitty—was the music, which was incredible. Vangelis did an amazing job at bending ideas and capturing moods in what he composed. It's a remarkable soundtrack: I felt it at the time, and I still feel that way now. That Blade Runner influence was big here in Detroit. But for my influences, Scarface is still one of my favorite movies. And Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas has been a big influential movie for me recently.
AVC: How so?
CC: I've always been intrigued by drugs, but never used them. It intrigues me that someone could have those experiences. In some ways, I think the imagery in the movie, I can kind of relate to it musically. I can relate some of what I do musically to what [Hunter S. Thompson's] experiences were. In some cases, I walk into places and I feel like I can relate to him, period. Like, "I'm having a fear-and-loathing experience."
AVC: Do you mean in the process of making music, or hearing it?
CC: Making. Sometimes being a studio can be a completely surreal experience. I'm in here right now, looking at knobs and things, and it's kind of strange. I know it's all mine, and I know what it is and what it does, but it's still a little surreal to me. I think that's what's always fascinating to me. It feels like I'm not quite… I'm here, but it feels like I'm hovering about it in wonderment.
AVC: Do you feel that way as much now as you did in the beginning?
CC: Maybe. I think what is surreal about it is that it's always been my dream, and now it's my reality, but it still feels like a dream. When I started out, I wanted to have all these keyboards and shit, and now I don't have to worry about it any more, because I've got all that power inside my computer. It's kind of freaky. It's great.
AVC: What do you wish people would better understand about the story of Detroit techno? Do you feel the story is missing certain aspects, or misinterpreted in ways?
CC: I don't particularly find it frustrating. My relationship with "Detroit techno" is less as something that dominates my life. With Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson and Juan Atkins… With Derrick, he's really apprehensive about how people respond to it, because he was one of the pioneers of it. I'm not a pioneer of it. I wasn't there in 1985—I came in later. I look at it as being a part of me, but not the main part of me. I also do jazz records and whatever else sounds interesting. I didn't get upset when English guys were trying to sound like they were from Detroit, or the Germans doing it, or techno being taken over by the idea of rave. I'm not so precious about Detroit techno. I'm precious about music.
AVC: In your last press kit, you described yourself at the beginning as a young struggling songwriter. People who don't listen to a lot of electronic music might be surprised to hear "songwriter" in there. Do you still think of the process that way now, as akin to what's more traditionally called songwriting?
CC: Not now. I look at myself as being more of a collage artist. That's inevitably what I was then, but when I was starting out in this thing and nobody had a definitive idea of what was going on with techno, and I was making music in my bedroom and doing demos, I couldn't call myself a producer. That was the only thing I could really connect with what I was doing at the time. When I was learning other instruments, I was trying to write songs: dirty lyrics or, you know, writing key lines, guitar lines, basslines, whatever. In the idea of structured music at the time, you had the beginning, verse, chorus, bridge, whatever. While working with Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson and observing Juan Atkins, it became the way that most music out here nowadays is: more of a James Brown thing, where you just build off the groove. Even though some people don't want to call James Brown a "songwriter," he had to get to the point where people would understand what he was doing as being music.
AVC: After putting together this new retrospective mix, how would say your priorities have changed in your own work over the years? What do you do well now that you didn't before?
CC: My process of making music for a long time was to get the idea out, and once that idea got on the tape, it was done—it didn't matter how it got there. It could be the roughest demo, like "Neurotic Behavior," which was made with a 4-track, a sequencer, and one keyboard, and that became what everyone knows. For a long time, I functioned like that. I didn't care if it sounded like a demo, as long as it had the right feel. I didn't know at the time, until I read Berry Gordy's book about Motown… I can't remember what Marvin Gaye track it was, but Gordy walked in when they were doing the rough track and said, "That's it! Leave it like that." That's what I was happy to get more than anything: that spirit, that impulse, that thing that happens when you first come out with an idea. Now I look at it a little differently. I can be more specific about how I tweak sounds, because I have more equipment now, and more experience. I can get the same vibe, and clean it up. It doesn't have to be the demo. But I still have an issue with spending too long on music. If I'm still working on something a year later, it's probably better that I not work on it any more.
AVC: Do you spend that much time on certain work? Do you mean specific tracks or albums?
CC: Specific tracks. If I'm trying to work a concept like an album and I come to the point where it's not working, then I throw it out and just start from scratch. I've worked out rough ideas and tried to come back to them, and some of the rough ideas work, and some don't. In time, you learn what your threshold is and what you can really do. Some people sit on ideas for quite a long time, and are afraid to throw it out. I've never been that way, where I'm afraid to do something over. If it's really necessary to throw it out, then you have to throw it out. But definitely as time went on, I started to take a little more time and revisit things. Am I being contradictory?
CC: [Laughs.] Just want to make sure, because I felt a Hunter S. Thompson moment coming.
AVC: When you talk about how originally it was that raw demo feeling that was really bracing for you, what in your current more refined stage takes the place of that? What moves in as a substitute?
CC: The remix. With remixes, I'm always on a timeline, so I have to make the ideas move a little quicker. And it's like I'm taking somebody else's idea, which might be a fantastic idea or might not be, and remolding it into something else. But sometimes I don't quite get it done in time, so I give them something that would be like a demo, and then go back and tighten things up and do it again.
AVC: Do you prefer remixing tracks with or without fantastic ideas in the original incarnation?
CC: As a remixer, I have sometimes the option to select what I would like to mix, and it seems that when I pick the one that I like, I don't do as well as when somebody picks a song and I'm forced to deal with it. I think that might be because I find a little more… that I'm closer to the song, so it makes it more difficult to destroy it, if it really needs to be destroyed. If you have to tear down a wall, but you think you should keep the wall the way it is, then when you finally build it up, you realize you shouldn't have torn the wall down. But it's too late.
AVC: What do you find most interesting in dance music at large right now?
CC: What's most interesting to me is that technology has gotten it to the point where sonically, most records are really good. I'm getting demos that sound like finished products. But music-wise, I like what Luciano and Ricardo Villalobos and those guys are doing, because they're taking mood in another way, extending simple ideas and developing them with interesting flavors. Their songs can't be three minutes long—they have to be 10 or 11 minutes long, like they're growing, living, breathing. I'm into things that are rhythmically interesting but simple, with elements that are simple, but each with its purpose, and each one says something.
AVC: Does it feel to you like dance music is becoming increasingly aware of its own history? In so much house and techno now, the drive to do the next thing is going alongside an impulse to consider what's happened and incorporate that.
CC: To perfect the past in some way, yeah. I'm happy with the developments that have been happening in that sense. I feel as though the ideas that have developed more have been in sound design and the relation of sound to the music. The music is very simple: In many cases, what you'll remember as a melody isn't a melody, it's a sound. It's interesting to me, because I like being concrete. I was into all that crazy electronic sound. I was more into that than actual music of the time. The sound of it. And we're at that point again where it's that electronic sound that has the fantasy in it, that has the imagination.