Carl Craig Pitchfork Interview

The Detroit electronic music pioneer on the music of his life: doing the robot with Michael Jackson in his youth, trading in Prince and guitars for Kraftwerk and synths as a teen, as well as a frank take on the crumbling legacy of his hometown.

5-10-15-20 features artists talking about the music that made an impact on them throughout their lives, five years at a time. This edition features 44-year-old Detroit techno pioneer Carl Craig. His mix collection Masterpiece came out earlier this year on Ministry of Sound. Listen along to Craig’s selections below with this Spotify playlist.

Jackson 5: “Dancing Machine”

I was born in Detroit. My mom worked as a teacher’s assistant and my father worked at the post office. I’m the youngest person in my family, but I wasn’t too spoiled. We used to have a corner drugstore and a corner record store—you’d go into the drugstore, and then you’d go and get vinyl. I also had a friend who lived across the street. We’d pretend to do the robot, because that was the dance that Michael Jackson did on “Soul Train” when the Jackson 5 performed “Dancing Machine”. It was interesting to see him do the robot thing, because later he came up with the moonwalk, which people thought came from breakdance—but the robot was pretty much a breakdance move before breakdance existed.

The Ohio Players: Honey

This is the age where you start comparing dick sizes and all that shit. I hated school. It was like pulling teeth. Wednesday was pizza day, but the pizza was horrible. I didn’t want to do homework, I wanted to watch cartoons. I liked snowball fights at recess, though.

My mom was trying to get me to listen to Mitch Miller, the kind of stuff that was considered wholesome—”Yellow Rose of Texas” and all of that crap—but I never liked country music. Kool & the Gang were doing heavy James Brown funk at the time, but with some jazz in their sound. Earth, Wind & Firehad hit their stride then, too. The first record I ever bought was the Ohio Players’ Honey, with “Love Rollercoaster” and “Sweet Sticky Thing” on it. The melodies and harmonies are great. It’s jazz-funk, like what Kool & the Gang was doing, but maybe a little better.

Egyptian Lover: “Egypt, Egypt”

I grew up in Detroit with the heroin scene. Crack was becoming very big, too, and drive-bys were popular. It was tough to be 15 and live in Detroit, with all these people are shooting each other. As a young black guy, there’s a possibility of being in the wrong place at the wrong time where you could either end up being in jail or getting shot. Some of the best music was coming out in the early 80s, though—Art of Noise, everything Trevor Hornwas doing, Frankie Goes to Hollywood,Kraftwerk‘s Computer World, “Planet Rock”. Egyptian Lover’s “Egypt, Egypt” was a massive record in Detroit around that time, too. For 10 years, music was going bezerk.

When you’re a whippersnapper, you’re always looking for a problem, but because I went to a religious school, I paid more heed to what was going on around me. I didn’t go to a Catholic school, though—it seems like people who go to Catholic schools are interested in getting into as much dirt as they can, because those schools are so restrictive. My family were Lutherans, so the school that I went to was less psychologically restrictive. I listened to what I was told, and my mom was very protective. I wouldn’t walk into an area where there could be a knife fight. For a while, I was preaching that I was never going to have sex before I was married. Then I saw my first pieces of porn and realized that wasn’t going to happen. [laughs]

“I was learning how to play guitar because I wanted to be Prince, but when I was able to afford my first synthesizer, I threw all that Prince shit out the window.”

My cousin Doug Craig once made a record with Juan Atkins called “Technicolor”, but before that, he was playing drums in bands. One time, I rolled with him to Berry Gordy’s mansion where his band was playing an album release party. That was the first time I felt enthralled by live music—partially because it was Gordy Mansion. From what I understand, it had bowling lanes in the basement and a pool house. Seeing this young band there had a bigger impact on me than seeing something like the Rolling Stones at Wembley.

I always wanted to make music. It was always on the forefront of my mind. I was learning how to play guitar because I wanted to be Prince. I played my first gig when I was 15, at a family reunion in Georgia. The first song, I was a hero. The second song, I was a zero. But when I was able to afford my first synthesizer—no one was ever given a synthesizer—I threw all that Prince shit out the window. I wanted to be Kraftwerk.

Orbital: “Chime”

It was in my DNA that I was going to make music that had quick rhythms and fast cuts. I bought my first synthesizer, a Prophet 600, when I was 18. And when I was 20, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson took me to England. Derrick and I performed as Rhythim Is Rhythim, and that was our first and only time performing together in London. Before we went there, I had met a British woman, so when I got there I hooked up with her for about three months. It was great!

Nineteen eighty-nine was a big time for rave music. There were thousands of people driving to parties in secret fields. What was going on in London wasn’t too far off from what was happening with the whole new wave movement in New York. In the UK you had My Bloody Valentine and Orbital’s “Chime”. That was a huge record. I heard it in a record store. That was the thing, too: You just hung out at record stores to hear music. It was incredible.

I started my own label, Planet E Communications, in 1991 because I got tired of people telling me what I needed to do. I did it myself. Starting a label doesn’t really take a lot. Manufacturing something like blue jeans is a much bigger investment. At that time, there were so many distributors around—if you pressed up 300 to 500 copies of a record, it could sell out real fast. It helped push things forward.

Innerzone Orchestra: “Bug in the Bassbin”

I put out “Throw” in 1994. I played it on acetate at a small club and the floor jumped. That was how it all started. I might’ve played it two or three times that night.

At the time, I was making two or three tracks a day while living in an apartment in Detroit with my girlfriend. Some of my best ideas—”Bug in the Bassbin”, “At Les”—I got from living in that apartment. The first person who got “Bug in the Bassbin” was a friend of mine, DJ Dimitri, from Amsterdam—he’s probably a bigger legend in Holland than Tiësto. Then I gave it to Kenny Dixon, who confronted me at a club about it. I never thought anybody in Detroit would get it, so it was surprising.

“I never had to rely on substances as a crutch that I had to depend on to be creative.”

This was around the time that I started drinking. I started making bones, so I was drinking vodka and champagne slammers. I got pushed in pretty far. But I’m happy that I started drinking at 25 because I was able to get past all the B.S. of underage drinking and being so excited to drink at 21. Also, I made a lot of music that people knew me for before I started drinking, so I never thought I had to be completely off my face just to make a record. I never had to rely on substances as a crutch that I had to depend on to be creative.

As far as drugs are concerned, growing up in Detroit meant that I was one of the few people who saw Scarface and actually got the meaning of the story. If I didn’t, I could’ve been making hip-hop and been a lot richer than I am, so I guess it could’ve worked out better. It could’ve worked out worse, too.

The furthest I’ve gone is MDMA, which is right on the edge of being legal right now in some places anyway. The first time I ever took MDMA was right after the first Detroit Electronic Music Festival, because the whole thing was so stressful. I took half a pill, and my ex-wife was so concerned about whether I was going to have a bad trip or not that she was freaking out. By the end of it, I was laying in bed, staring at the ceiling and laughing my ass off. Another time, I seriously freaked some people out—I tried to keep things going but by the end I was in bed with the covers over my head, laughing and watching “Family Guy”.

The Detroit Experiment: The Detroit Experiment

I co-produced The Detroit Experiment record with all of these jazz legends, which had a big impact on me. Around this time, I also got involved with the Detroit Electronic Music Festival. The initial idea that Derrick May and I came up with was brilliant—but I have to point out that everybody in the Detroit music scene had that same brilliant idea. Derrick brought in [promoter Carol Marvin] and then decided he didn’t like her anymore, but he stuck with her anyway. I let her run with it, and she got a huge ego after the first year. She was somebody who had a bunch of previous failures, then succeeded, and went off the deep end because of it. We couldn’t see eye-to-eye about anything. I received what was considered a dismissal, and of course, she ended up losing the festival. Her last year was 2002 and she hasn’t been involved since. Karma comes to catch you and bites you in the ass. She couldn’t control her ego and tried to make it look like I was the one with the ego.

In my life, there’s always been someone trying to manipulate me, whether I like it or not. Ultimately, it’s about paying attention to what’s going on—you have some good times, you have some setbacks. People talk about winning, but you can’t always win. I mean, look at Tiger Woods. That’s just the way life is.

LCD Soundsystem: “Throw”

I started having kids. Being a father is part of my life, and my obligations to my family take from the time I have in the studio. There’s love in that creativity, too, so you have to learn how to give love in an equal way. Sometimes, my music is my wife, and my wife is my mistress. Sometimes I’m like, “I need a break from my music,” so I get home and enjoy the love that I can put into my life.

Around this time, I was just listening to DJ tools and developing my chops in the studio and on the road. I wasn’t paying attention to any one piece of music. I was doing a lot of remixing, and we had some success with tracks, likethe remix of LCD Soundsystem’s “Sound of Silver”. I sat in the studio working on that for days. They did a remake of “Throw”, that’s my favorite song of theirs.

Leon Ware: Musical Massage

I’m getting into this alternative Motown stuff lately. I love when I hear a Motown track that I might’ve forgotten about or that I’ve never heard, and there’s synthesizers on it. You very rarely heard synthesizers in Motown records before Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye, or Willie Hutch’s soundtrack for The Mack. I’m really intrigued by deep, psychedelic soul stuff, like Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, and I’m always going back to stuff that Leon Ware was doing. He did an album called Musical Massage with Diana Ross’ brother that was originally for Marvin Gaye; it got shelved and it came out years later. That’s a great record to come back to.

I became artistic director of the Detroit Electronic Music Festival again, which was cool. It made sense. It had been 10 years and it was sweet to come back. Anybody who had shit to say about what was going on earlier had to shut the fuck up. Everybody wants to have at least one time in their life where they just make people eat shit. That was one of those times. [laughs] I’m a bigger person than that, though; the biggest thing was that we were able to do a really great event celebrating the music and the artists. It was fantastic.

“Whether it’s financially broke or morally broke, Detroit’s been bankrupt for 30 years.”

[Detroit’s bankruptcy filing earlier this year] ain’t nothing new. It’s just on the news now. Everybody who’s gone to the city and seen how fucked up the landscape is knows it’s broke. There’s a vacant lot where every other house would be in most neighborhoods. Politicians just wanted to put Band-Aids on the sore. It really took [corrupt former Detroit mayor] Kwame Kilpatrick to come in and screw up the whole thing.

Detroit is a strong union city and unions did a lot of great things for their employees over the last 60 or 70 years, but you know what? We just can’t afford to be paying all these pensions and healthcare for people whose lifespans are actually longer now than they were when unions were getting people hooked up, when people would retire at 55 and die at 56. Now people are retiring at 55 and dying at 75, 85, 90 years old. You just can’t afford to pay that stuff out if you’re a corporation or a city. It’s not possible. Detroit’s got some serious problems, but before that, Detroit didn’t have enough money and they wouldn’t put enough money into being the type of city that it needed to be. So whether it’s financially broke or morally broke, whatever the fuck it is, Detroit’s been bankrupt for 30 years.