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"It's Like An Earthquake Coming": An Interview with Carl Craig

Techno's godfather on the passing of Frankie Knuckles, church raves, and keeping a piece of the past.

The sun should be up any minute now, but Carl Craig doesn't seem to care. In front of him are several hundred people drenched in sweat, throbbing to the rhythm of his tracks. It's late Saturday night, or early Sunday morning, the end of Toronto's Foundry festival. There's a melancholy tinge to the night—it feels like the last night of summer vacation before school starts, and the impending crash following the month-long euphoria rush is on everyone's mind. People are afraid to stop dancing.


Craig ends with Sheila E's "Love Bizarre," a funk duet penned with Prince, one of his idols. Craig has a lot of idols, and because of this his knowledge of music is goddamn encyclopedic. Apparently he has this mystifying power to identify tracks from three decades ago after only hearing half a minute of the kick drum. It's uncanny.

The venue's lights finally turn on, and it's only then that we all realize that the floor is filthy—stomped on lime wedges, empty soft-shelled pill capsules, discarded water bottles. Craig makes his way from the DJ booth across the floor, and I sit down with him in the green room, a coat-check-turned-makeshift-VIP-area. Craig's energy is unwavering behind the decks, but now he looks like he wants to sleep more than anything in the world. He stares me dead in the eyes, as if daring me to waste his time. I gulp, and body humming with energy drinks, begin to speak.

THUMP: So, it's 5:30 in the morning. This kind of all-nighter probably isn't out of character for you.
Carl: Yeah, you do whatever you have to…

Have you developed some kind of routine that helps your body adapt?
I think you inherently end up developing some kind of resistance. That resistance is… y'know—adapting to the environment, adapting to the sound system, adapting to the people, because, by virtue of me being in Toronto, I'm sure there's a certain sound here that's a Toronto sound. I have to adapt to that. But coming from Detroit, or actually being in Europe all the time these days, it's great to see that people were sticking around until the end of the night here.


It wasn't hard. So, your "Somewhere In…" residency takes place in New York on April 12. I know that architecture is something else you're interested in—what makes for a good physical dancing space?
I'm in so many different places that sometimes it's more the motion of the people dancing that makes the space important rather than the venue itself. For instance, imagine throwing a party in a Roman Catholic church versus throwing a party at a storefront church in Detroit, versus throwing a party at some crazy, weird Lutheran church that's circular, or whatever. Sure, those environments are important in a sense, but in each of those venues, it's the people that really make the party. The environment makes people comfortable enough, but the people, if they're not ready, or if they really want the music you're giving them, than that's more important. I mean, the venue for one-offs can be really quite incredible, but I'm moving through so many places every day that it's kind of difficult to really be specific about physical locations.

Speaking of space, you've talked about music's ability to "take you on a journey", which reminds me a lot of Sun Ra, who had a lot of ideas about space, and the different possibilities that could happen there.
I have the same birthday as Sun Ra, actually.

You've also mentioned Parliament Funkadelic's famous quote "free your mind and your ass will follow" as an inspiration. Both George Clinton from Parliament and Sun Ra were afro-futurists—I know their music was pretty influential to you, but have you ever identified with them politically?
I come from maybe a bit more of a conservative background… So George Clinton, of course, was taking a whole shitload of drugs at the time he was talking about all this stuff, and that's just not my background, that's just not me. I'm not sure about Sun Ra, I don't think Sun Ra was on drugs—I think he was just on another plane, on another level. But the aspect of futurism for me, of course, came from the influences of TV and movies, maybe a little less from music. I mean, the music might've been a more subliminal influence, because I grew up listening to Parliament and all the George Clinton stuff—I grew up during the age of New Romanticism, new wave and punk and all that kind of stuff. And I can't overlook the influence of Electrifying Mojo (a hugely influential Michigan disc jockey), but growing up in Detroit, TV had a slight edge over music when it came to imagining possibilities.


It seems like history is important to you as well. You once mentioned that you hold onto all your analogue synths and never sell anything, is that true?
I try not to.

Do you ever worry that preserving analogue sound might become really difficult at some point?
My sound hasn't been only based on analogue, because I came at a time when digital was exploding. I started producing after Fairlight CMI and the Clavier synths, the time of course, when 909s and LinnDrums were happening; which meant this huge proliferation of samples. AKAI S-1000's, all that kind of stuff. So it was a lot of digital synthesis—my first synthesizer was a Prophet, which was an analogue synth keyboard, but the majority of my sound was based around digital sound. And the reality is that the majority of what we know as music these days, as modern music, is digital.

So, I do care about preserving those synths, to an extent. I spent a pretty penny revamping my Prophet 5, which is a beautiful synthesizer, my Pro-One sounds incredible after I had it done, my 101, my 106, Juno 2, all these are really great—the 808, I have Derrick May's 808 in my studio, Mortiz Von Oswald's 909… these are really integral pieces, but what it takes to make music these days isn't just about having a 909. It's about plugin software, the digital synthesis that later on turned into this wholly computerized thing.

And I think that synthesis was more important to me than having a barrage of analogue synthesizers, or a weapon sized arsenal of analogue synthesizers—what's important is that you can get digital synthesis to sound pleasing to the ear.


But still, we're getting to that point where we're getting so used to digital synthesis, that when we hear analogue synthesis, it's still like—"that's incredible"—like, when somebody puts on a piece of vinyl, I don't think it's necessarily about the vinyl, especially in the club. It's about the feedback that happens from the system overloading the cartridge on the turntable. When you hear that feedback, which makes that unmistakable noise, you're like—"oh shit, that's something else." It's like an earthquake coming. You'll never get that with digital, but you can gleam that with analogue, and that I think makes it incredible in comparison to, well, just fucking playing vinyl. It's that interaction, that sub-interaction that sometimes we don't really even pay so much attention to.

One last thing—we lost Frankie Knuckles this week, can we talk about that a bit?
It happens—it's all part of life.

I'm curious about the idea of preserving people's histories after death. How do you feel when it comes to memorializing others like Frankie Knuckles?
I'm really excited that Rolling Stone did such an extensive thing on Frankie Knuckles. Brendan Gillen, I think, wrote about the five most important Frankie Knuckles warehouse tracks; they've been extensive in what they've been doing as far as giving him recognition goes, and I think that's really important. Rolling Stone, SPIN Magazine, all the American music magazines that really didn't give a fuck about Frankie Knuckles when he was alive, it's great that they're doing that now. The Grammys should probably end up doing something because he was a Grammy winner. So… my mom always said to me, "never be worth more dead than you are alive"—but when it comes to music, when it comes to art, in many cases you are worth more dead. And Frankie Knuckles, he's definitely getting a lot more recognition from the mainstream than he ever got when he was at his peak, y'know? I think it's great that this is happening because there will be guys coming up in 10 years that will probably have more respect for Frankie Knuckles than the guys coming up over the last ten years.


You can follow Brendan on twitter: @brendan_a

Bonus: Top 3 Carl Craig Jams of the Night

Joe Smooth, "Promised Land"

Tom Trago, "Use Me Again and Again (Carl Craig Remix)"

Sheila E, "Love Bizarre"

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