Carl Craig is nothing short of legendary, and there’s no question he’s earned that title fair and square. Being in the scene for over 30 years, specifically in the underground electronic scene, has cemented Carl Craig as a household name and leader for those in the house/techno subspheres. A symbol for non-conformity, he’s created a blueprint for how to establish an authentic artistic identity and defines what it looks like to succeed by separating yourself from the herd. Carl has expanded into a well established brand through his art exhibition ventures and more closely to his heart, his label, Planet-E. Celebrating the label’s 30th Anniversary is a huge accolade in his career, as it’s a celebration of 30 years of keeping the underground spirit of electronic alive and well.
SPIN took a moment with the Detroit legend as he dives deep into his musical roots, reminisces on the early stages of his career, celebrates 30 years of Planet-E, and so much more. Be sure to listen to his new track on the CircoLoco Records’ first Compilation album, Monday Dreamin’.
Who is Carl Craig and what do you stand for?
Carl Craig is a brand that has been developed by a very talented and sensitive guy from Detroit, who went from being a shy kid into a blazing techno master.
Tell us about your sound – where does your style originate from and what have been your biggest visual, social, and sonic influences?
My sound comes straight from the underbelly of Detroit. It comes from the influences that are from the godfather, Juan Atkins, and the creators and innovators that are Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May. I am a product of Detroit techno, and of the influences these guys have had on me personally as well as professionally.
Sonically, my influence also comes from Detroit DJ The Electrifying Mojo. He’s been a major inspiration for me since I was a very small child, listening to him after my bedtime and getting funked up by his mix of craft work and Parliament Funkadelic, Jimi Hendrix, and other rock/soul/funk/disco music.
Was there a definitive turning point to your success? When did you realize the magnitude of your impact within the industry/community?
I think that most people within the industry that become prominent have been touched at some point by someone who is famous in their lives. When I was around 10 I met Gladys Knight, and I think that is when I was touched. I didn’t know this is what I wanted to do but by me meeting her, that’s what really sealed my fate and my future.
Then when I went to England for the first time in 1989, I linked up with just about everyone musically that I was interested in on that trip including Mark Moore from S’express, Baby Ford, A Guy Called Gerald, the B-52s, and more. There was no connection between any of us other than I know their music and I love their music. That trip was what really made me, and that’s how I was able to learn how to deal with people that are famous within the business and get a little bit of the shine on me so I could continue on doing my thing.
Talk to us about your journey in becoming a staple name within the electronic industry – being such an innovator with such a distinct vision, did you imagine your career to take the trajectory it has?
When I was a kid, I wanted to be like Electrifying Mojo, who was a radio DJ. I didn’t have any idea of what being a club DJ was until I met Jeff Mills when he was the wizard here in Detroit. I think I was 14 or 15 when I met Jeff and that was something else that I was able to watch.
I have an older brother who was always about not copying and doing things to be unique, and I think that also when you have an older brother, the older brother is always dogging you. He told me, “Man, someone else did that! Do something new,” so that mentality of being unique and about pushing the boundaries of what I do instead of just conforming just stayed with me. I definitely could’ve been a lot more wealthy if I would’ve just followed the trends and copied what other people were doing, but my soul and my spirit won’t let me do that because I’ve been trained not to do that.
In what ways have you pushed yourself beyond existing self-imposed limitations?
My limitations are only based around my abilities, and I push past my disabilities. There’s a lot with electronic music that still needs to be tackled, but I understand that I do have weak points as well as strong points, and that’s part of being able to produce yourself. When you’re producing an artist you try to get them to to focus on their strong points; if you have a guitarist that’s a great rhythm guitarist, for example, you don’t get them to play a solo. You get a soloist to play a solo. Same with a singer—you don’t get singers who are powerful lead singers to do background and harmony. So I always have to look at this in order to progress myself and my abilities. I pay attention to my strong points, but pay equal, if not more attention to where my weak points are and either get better at them or learn to go around them.
Your label, Planet-E is turning 30 this year. Congratulations! – How has this label surpassed your greatest expectations of it? To what do you owe its longevity?
Planet-E being 30 kind of reminds me of the stigma that when you’re a black man and you make it out of your teenage years, you’re going to be good to go and live a longer life. At the time when I was brought up in the 80s, it seemed like the life expectancy of black teens in the press was cut down because of the amount of drive bys and things like that. I was able to make it out of that for a long time, and now it looks like my label has been able to do it too; especially because most labels, in particular indie/house/techno ones, break down after just a couple years. So Planet-E and Carl Craig go hand-in-hand, and we’ve moved together. My career is more than 30 years and my label is 30 years old, so there’s a formula there that’s worked for us both to survive. A big part is that I take risks that other people don’t.
You also recently paired up with CircoLoco Records/Rockstar Games – What about CircoLoco captivated you to collaborate with them?
My experience with CircoLoco has to do with the club in Ibiza at DC-10. CircoLoco Records knew my relationship with CircoLoco the club night has lasted over a decade, so it made sense for me to be involved in this compilation. I was asked before the label plans were finalized to make or submit tracks for CircoLoco to use with the idea of doing a compilation. That idea has since developed into the label. CircoLoco as a brand is always pushing forward, and it really makes sense for me to have my music released on this compilation and single because their ethos and mine are pretty similar.
It’s no question you’re considered a true leader in the scene – What are your sentiments regarding that title and what does being a leader signify to you?
My leadership is based around what I do. Actions speak louder than words, and my actions have written my story and my career. I take chances that others who like what I do are ready to use as a template for their adventures in music and sound, as well as a template for how to develop their own careers.
You’ve been reaching new heights and expanding as a visionary – Tell us about your upcoming immersive sound installation, Dia:Beacon.
Dia came to me to be involved and [initially] do another project that was quite different from where we are with Party/After-Party. This project morphed into Party/After-Party and it took about five years of talking over and developing before it came to fruition. The exhibit brings my global experiences as a traveling DJ and performer into the basement of Beacon (Dia Beacon). Influential parts of my journey— from playing with great sound systems in Japan, to bad sound systems in Detroit, huge warehouses in LA or super clubs in the UK, the Panorama Bar—came together into this parcel that is Party/After-Party.
The music is designed to fit the experience of being in a club, which is the party part. The after-party part recalls my experiences after the music has stopped, like dealing with issues like tinnitus and loneliness that can happen after you finish playing for 1000 to 2000 people. I want to take you on a tour of me and what’s inside of my head, and I think these experiences are what makes the piece so interesting to others.
An inevitable part of creating any artistic project is the transformation you undergo. Oftentimes, we exit the process with more wisdom of how we perceive the world around us – How has the process of creating this exhibition expanded your perception of music, life, and yourself?
I think that the expansion as far as it’s concerned is maybe a technological one—because there are sounds flying over your head, there are whispers coming from other parts of the room, and there’s a bit of technology with Maximus P that goes into the project. Me designing sound for an art installation has always been within me; it was just a process to make it superior, which is what I wanted to pay more attention to.
As we’re integrating ourselves back into an open world, do you have any other exciting ventures besides music you have your sights set on?
I don’t really like to talk about my ideas too much, because I feel that if I talk about things too much it doesnt happen, so it’s just better for me to be chill about what’s unfolding. The core plan is to still make music, and also to do further art installations.
What’s most important is that during this time of the pandemic I actually had a lot of time to rest, and I had a lot of time to chill. It definitely hasn’t been the most creative for me, but it definitely has been a nice vacation from the last 30 years of traveling that I’ve done since 1989 when I first traveled to the UK to play gigs.
Is there anything on the horizon that you can share with us?
We are celebrating Planet-E this year by releasing what we call Planet-E Breaks, which is a collection of some of Planet-E’s finest moments that we’ll put in 7” format. We also have a release from DJ Minx that’s been remixed by Honey Dijon coming up very soon. We have an album coming out as well from Francisco Mora Catlett, who is one of my mentors and a great jazz musician, and we’ll be formally releasing the Marcus Belgrave Gemini album with outtakes. Gemini is something that we released as a very limited edition release in 2019 and the initial release was 180 gram vinyl which is the highest quality we could muster from the Detroit plant that we use—which is Third Man Records that’s owned by Jack White the White Stripes.
What do you wish for the future of electronic music? In what ways would you like to see it evolve?
Music is evolving in such a way that everyone wants to make a hit, fly on private jets, drive around in Ferraris, and stuff like that. No matter how much I love that, the unfortunate reality is that the music suffers from it. Electronic music has gotten too commercial and has seeped into the world of what people like to call “Business Techno.” There are some really talented people out there making records, and I just feel bad because of the amount of underground clubs that are not around to show them off in. It used to be a big thing to go to underground or gay clubs to get the experience and feel the music, but the world of festivals and such has unfortunately cut out a lot of the life that was possible with these underground clubs. This paired with gentrification has pretty much killed the underground. People online talk about the underground, but they’ve never truly experienced it.
Electronic music still needs to have underground real life experiences; it doesn’t need to have what you would think of as “social media underground,” because it doesn’t make any sense. So I look forward to a new breed of musicians and producers that really pay attention to the underground in the same way that people try to get a hit.
Any last words for the SPIN-verse?
Free your mind with Carl Craig’s SET below! Want more SETS? Head over to SPIN TV to keep up with all the latest and greatest DJ/producers breaking the electronic charts.