Detroit is a city with two faces. One is the home of Motown, the cradle of the car industry, and the heartland of electronic music. It’s a facade it can now barely maintain: the economic reality has grown like a weed over what little the city has left to show for its proud heritage, and it’s only the decay that many people can see. Motown’s glory days are long gone (the name of its sub label, Motown Classics, underscores the point) and is now based in New York.
Meanwhile, the city’s major car companies, GM and Chrysler, escaped extinction in 2008 courtesy of a multi-billion dollar bail-out from the US government. The Motor City declared itself bankrupt in July last year with debts of £18.5bn, the largest city in the US ever to do so. But Detroit’s misery goes far deeper than the numbers – something that is borne out in Julien Temple’s excellent 2010 documentary, “Requiem For Detroit?”.
Temple, who has made films about The Sex Pistols and Glastonbury Festival, traces the boom-and-bust years of Detroit’s economic and social fortunes in the 20th century, from the explosion of the car industry – a modern-day Tower of Babel left unchallenged by workers until it was much too late – and the city’s utter dependance on it, to the devastating race riots of 1943 and 1967, and the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s. House and techno are currencies with which Detroit is still able to trade, and the city itself still supports a stubborn and intensely passionate electronic music scene.
Carl Craig, a producer whose back catalogue stretches back over two decades, is one of the city’s most iconic figures. Running his record label Planet E from his base in Detroit, where he still lives, he is better placed than most to offer his voice on the state of the city. I spoke to him after a screening of Temple’s documentary at the Glasgow Film Festival to discuss the film, growing up in Detroit, and why he’d rather have Satan run things in the Motor City than a popular search engine.
Carl Craig: There was a divide between young and old, and a perception of what Detroit was and what Detroit wasn’t at the time. The national trend was drive-by shootings and crack cocaine, and Detroit was affected in the same way that you would see that portrayed in a movie… that would be in Compton, or in the US inner city. A majority urban death; of a town, an area, whatever.
We had a heroin gang called YBI – Young Boys Incorporated – and that was the big deal at the time. They probably turned to crack cocaine as well when they were selling. This was all stuff that was not only happening in Detroit, but it was touching my neighbourhood as well – and of course, my parents were very nervous about that. I could’ve been affected by it a lot easier if it wasn’t for the overprotective-ness of my parents, but there was also the education aspect of it.
A lot of what we’ve seen here [in Requiem for Detroit?], especially in the early days of Ford (when they increased the wages to $5 a day) was about the unions. They took care of their employees, but unfortunately there wasn’t much education coming in. What you would see there, and from what the men from Goodwill [Industries, an education and employment support programme] were discussing they just had idle time. They would live in those houses, sell drugs, tear out things – half his neighbourhood was destroyed because they had idle time.
It has to do with the education of the people. You could have good parents that go to work and try to do things for you everyday, but when they’re at work and there’s no education coming in to tell you what not to do, the education that you get is…. an impulse. It’s something that you have to get out there, and that impulse unfortunately turns into destruction. It happens everywhere that way when you’re 16, 17 years old, but Detroit has been affected by the uneducated aspect of things in such a way that we walked past and looked at these buildings, walked past and looked at things that were happening, and just ignored them. Ignore them, or try to mind our own business, so that we wouldn’t get hurt or have it immediately affect our own lives.
THUMP: The film suggests this idea of starting again, salvaging what remains of the city’s ruins. As of last year, the Detroit Institute of Arts faced having to sell some of its most iconic pieces – Picasso’s, Rembrandt’s, etc. Would it be so bad if Detroit was to lose prestige assets such as those at the DIA, if it meant being able to start again?
Carl Craig: Well, they’re assets. You hold on to them for as long as you can. One of the guys for Goodwill said that when the art and music programmes were taken away from the school, you had idle time. If you sell off all that, it’s taking away something away that’s important and giving people more idle time than they need. There were these discussion about selling the artwork to maintain the DIA, but there is also now a discussion about selling the artwork in order to pay Detroit’s bills.
It’s a tough scenario, but it makes it even worse because it’s a city that’s willing to sell off whatever it takes – even its culture and its history – just to pay a few bills. We as individuals try to hold on to things a little bit tighter. If you want to hold onto to your legacy or your heritage, you’re not going to sell your grandmother’s wedding ring because your gas bill is due. You’re gonna try and find another way.
THUMP: The automotive industry, because it was obviously so dominant, seems to play a significant part in the stories of many of the residents featured in the documentary. It’s deep in the psyche of the city. What impact did it have on your music and on you personally?
Carl Craig: The car industry really didn’t have a lot of impact on my music. The impact the car industry’s going to have on me, in the same way it does for most people in Detroit, is because it’s just so strong. It’s ingrained in our culture, in our psyche, in everything. You could talk to just about anyone about the latest model of a Ford, or General Motors. You could say something about a 2014 Cadillac Escalade, and probably anyone on the street could tell you what’s in that Escalade. We’re really more educated maybe about this frivolous bullshit that comes with individual interests concerning it.
I made a record called ‘Landcruising’ that was just about me driving around in Detroit, because that’s how you get around in Detroit. The bus system is really bad. At one point, it became dangerous. We don’t have any subways, we don’t have trams, we don’t have any other way of getting around Detroit other than driving cars. The funniest thing to me is to see that we have weather that’s -10, -15C in Detroit, with ice on the streets and people riding bikes. A car for us is like wearing a suit of armour. Not only that you show off, but it is necessary.
THUMP: The film mentions Packard, a club at which Richie Hawtin was closely tied to. Did you have much to do with the Packard, or other Detroit parties like the Music Institute? What were those parties like, and how did the Music Institute differ from other parties, including Packard, at the time?
Carl Craig: The parties at the Music Institute came before the parties at the Packard Plant. I came in as a spectator, as a music lover for the Music Institute after it had started. That was Derrick May, George Baker, and Alton Miller that were involved in that. The Music Institute was my music education. It was the closest thing to having a Paradise Garage or a Music Box in Detroit. The Packard was also the result of the Music Institute not being around anymore. It moved a couple of doors down, but it was never the same.
Now, it wasn’t a club in there. Like, that building you saw with the ceiling falling out and everything – people used to party in there! There was never a legal scenario – or if it was legal, it wasn’t an established situation, like walking into the door at Arches or Sub Club or whatever. It really was walking into a warehouse, setting up some speakers, and telling all your friends to come out. Sometimes you’d have 100 people in there, other times you might have 1,000. It really depended on how the wind blew.
THUMP: Detroit has always had a rich source of talented house and techno producers; Kyle Hall, MGUN and Jay Daniel are just three names that come to mind, and there are probably others that I’m not mentioning. Their music is very idiosyncratic, and very different to what you’d think of as a classic Detroit sound. Is there much dialogue between guys like yourselves, and this new generation of artists? Also, how does being an artist from Detroit in 2014 differ from being one in 1994?
Carl Craig: Well, with Kyle and Jay, I’m really proud of those guys, because they’re doing something really rootsy. It’s from the city. They’re paying attention. They’re taking something from their mentors, like Omar S and Theo Parrish, and they’re flipping it with what they’ve listened to, with whatever’s on the radio. They’re adding this extra texture to Detroit music that I think is really needed.
When I started making music – I think my first record was in 1989 [the No More Words EP, actually released in 1991] – my objective was to get the fuck out of Detroit! I wanted to see the world. I wanted to drive on Autobahn! We were so into Kraftwerk, and we were so into Prince, [but] we didn’t want to go to Minneapolis. We wanted to go to Germany, and experience everything that Kraftwerk had been about. I don’t think those guys have the same connection with that aspect. Kraftwerk’s music is probably adapted more from faceless music that had no lyrics that we were making that influenced us, which in turn we influenced. That cycle just kept going; over and over and over again.
THUMP: There was an Internet post that I read hypothesising the idea of Google buying Detroit. The theory goes that Google has the resources and the finances to, in theory, put such a deal together. In the short term, it would likely alleviate a lot of burdens the city shoulders at present, but the effects of such a purchase in the long-term are harder to predict. Is a big company coming in to buy Detroit exactly what it needs, or just the opposite?
Carl Craig: We like that idea in the sense of entertainment, in the sense of this kind of sci-fi vision. We like the idea that a corporation would actually walk in and take over a city, build cyborgs and all this other stuff. A lot of our music was related to this imagery. We were watching Blade Runner and all this stuff in the 80s, early 90s, and it was influencing our music, but the idea of a major corporation coming in and running a city is just that first step – maybe – into what we’re afraid of. Of a major corporation running the country.
America is run by many corporations, but just imagine if it was just one. That would maybe make something that’s fantastic for the architecture, for the facade of the city, but in reality, and over time, it would almost be like if Satan himself came in and decided to take over Detroit. That would probably even be better, ha. At least we’d have parties.