To a UK techno fan, Detroit is as much myth as location. Its history is told with names repeated as incantations: Shari Vari, Electrifying Mojo, Drexciya, Belleville, The Wizard. It seems that the stilled factories and empty blocks exert a magic over our imagination that grows stronger as each year goes by.
To the people who actually live in Detroit, this veneration must seem somewhere between flattering and dumb as a bag of spanners. For years the city felt bankrupt in all but name. And, to rub salt into the wound, in 2013 it was made bankrupt in name as well. Crime has been rampant, city hall has been eying up hawking publicly owned art to meet budget deficits, and infrastructure has all but collapsed.
And yet still the music keeps coming, and the keepers of Detroit’s techno flame remain based in the city, pursuing their ceaseless probing of the future. Despite a hundred predictions of doom, Detroit hasn’t died just yet.
So when Carl Craig announced that he’s running a series of events called Detroit Love, what may seem like an obvious statement in Europe – what’s not to love about Detroit, right? – can appear quite different in a North American context, an affirmation of love for a city to his fellow Americans who have often seen Detroit as less of a place, more of a dry run for Armageddon.
Craig is here to remind America, Europe and the world just what it is that makes Detroit the stuff of legend. In the wake of his Boiler Room Detroit Love broadcast, I got him on the phone to find out a bit about the motivation behind the event series.
IAN MCQUAID: In Europe, in the dance music scene at least, we’ve got this reverence for Detroit. I feel that that impression isn’t really shared by your average American…
CARL CRAIG: There’s a lot of negativity in the media towards Detroit. Sometimes the people here internalise that – it’s hard not to when it’s repeated so regularly on the news. When I was growing up, if you saw a film and the hitman was from Detroit, that was really bad. That was meant to make you shit your pants.
This French photographer came to Detroit and took these amazing, beautiful photos of the cities derelict buildings. He called it Ruins of Detroit. Now Glen Beck – who was so extreme he got thrown off FOX News, which shows you how crazy he was – went on the TV holding up the photos next to some images of Hiroshima and was asking the audience, “which is worse, Hiroshima after the bomb, or Detroit now?” So that’s where people were at.
Even when I’d go to New York people would act like Detroit was this black hole that had nothing but villains and darkness. But then I started thinking, yeah all my favourite characters are villains, and they all wear black, so fuck it, I can get with this! If that’s what they want then that’s what I’ll be.
Who’s your favourite black clad villain? I’m sure I can guess…
Darth Vader! Of course! Ultimate power and ultimate calm. Vader is the shit. But things have changed in how people see Detroit: the films 8 Mile and the Rodriguez film, Searching for Sugarman have had a lot of impact on how people view the place. They’re Academy Award winning films and have shone some light on the city as somewhere that isn’t just desolate.
Robocop was meant to show the Detroit of the future – is it the ultimate Detroit techno movie?
Hahaha Robocop is horrible! The scene in Star Wars when they’re in the bar – that’s the ultimate Detroit techno movie.
It seems that over here “Detroit Love” could be a t-shirt slogan, but in America it’s way more radical of a statement to make.
There’s a show called It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and the lead character in it is this guy Mac. He has a couple of these Detroit t-shirts he wears, and one of them is the name Detroit made up from a pistol. It’s incredible, it’s actually a radical thing for someone to wear a Detroit t-shirt on a mainstream show, and then for it to be made from a gun is genius. I’ve been hunting to get one.
Do you think the American mainstream will ever accept Detroit techno? Does it maybe seem more likely now that EDM has made such inroads…?
We haven’t dumbed it down enough! People working in their office like to hear a hook, a vocal, or some tom toms, and they’re not getting that from techno. You have to be in a very particular place to understand it. It’s also probably too lo-fi. It’s like the difference between [super slick 1980s mainstream blues rockers] The Robert Cray Band and [1930s Mississippi bluesman] Robert Johnson: you’re not going to hear Robert Johnson on the radio because it sounds too raw, too lo-fi, it’ll never have that sheen. Techno was made by people getting a tune down on four-track and being like bam that’s it! Done! We’d take it and get it pressed straight away, same as in Chicago: look at an all-time classic tune like “Spank Spank”, it’s just a vocal sample and some 606 drums, on a four-track and done.
So those days when we would make tracks with simple measures, make tracks fast… well, my process has changed a lot over the years of course, but something like this Unity album I just did with Curtis, Green Velvet – who’s from Chicago of course – was done pretty quickly and pretty efficiently. We didn’t sit there with a four-track, a 606 and a 101, of course not, but we did go in with the purpose of doing things with more immediate focus. And it came out of just meeting, me saying “hey come to Detroit, I got a studio, let’s hang out!”. It was about hanging out, messing around, not knowing we’d come up with as much material as we did – and we’re going to keep making music, that’s the important thing. We had a whole shit-ton of fun.
So take me through who is involved in Detroit Love.
Well the idea is that it’s going to revolve and rotate, so we have dates with myself and Stacey Pullen, we have Omar-S. We had, of course, Kenny Dixon – Moodymann – who’s my favourite. I pretty much would say that our go-to guys are Stacey Pullen and Kenny Dixon. Those are our cats, you know? “Mad” Mike Banks is doing a few with us [Banks played synths over Craig’s Detroit Love set at ADE last year], which is great. I expect Kevin Saunderson, Derrick May and Juan Atkins are going to be involved.
The idea of Detroit Love isn’t just about Detroit people playing [though]; it’s about having people that have that mutual respect for Detroit. So at another Detroit Love event, we have DJ Deep playing. The one in New York this Friday, Luciano‘s playing with me. That’s the concept of Detroit Love: it’s like a respect from people who are not from Detroit as well as people who are. Oh yeah, we also have Keith Kemp and Chuck Flask playing this Friday. Chuck is one of the main guys over at the Movement festival. So yeah, we have some good shit.
Was it easy to get everyone together? Were you just like, “Yeah, this is it. Detroit Love. Let’s go,” and everyone was like, “Brilliant. We want to do this”?
I don’t deal with that side of things, but I would say yes, it’s easy [laughs]. For press’s sake, yeah, I’ll say it’s easy. Everybody wants to do it.
The other day, I was watching some footage of Jeff Mills from 1983, DJing in Detroit, and it got me wondering if there’s any legendary clubs that you look to as a reference point when you’re doing an event?
I think the club that has the most reputation from Detroit music, at least in my world, was the Music Institute, the first Institute. It was the best spot for going to hear music. They had the best sound system, and it was a members-only thing, and it was really cool. The objective was to bring Paradise Garage and the Warehouse and the Music Box to Detroit.
The club that you saw with Jeff in the video was called Cheeks, and that was the first club I ever went to: I think I was fourteen when I went there. And it was incredible to go there at fourteen. But that was a club that had probably been a disco in the seventies, and it turned into however the music changed, like most clubs did around the world. They start off one way and then they move on to become something else. I think [Detroit veteran] Al Ester said that he was a regular DJ at Cheeks. I think he might have been even more of a regular at Cheeks than Jeff Mills was.
Another club that was really great here was called Heaven, which is where Ken Collier played. That was really quite incredible, but it was raw. It was probably more like the Music Box. But no, we didn’t really say, “Okay, we’re going to try to take the experience of Heaven and re-create it for Detroit Love.” We didn’t do that.
But I guess it’s there in the DNA of what you do now, isn’t it? When I watched the stuff from The New Dance Show and things like that, that always seems incredible to me. Was that something that you were aware of, growing up?
Oh, definitely. But it was called The Scene, up until, I don’t know, ’87 or something, and then it became The New Dance Show. And yeah, definitely, The Scene had almost as much impact as The Electrifying Mojo did. But it just wasn’t spacey like Mojo.
The thing that I do think from The Scene is how important the dancing was. Maybe it’s something that in Europe, in the techno clubs, got lost a little bit. When you’d go to the clubs in Detroit, did everyone have great moves?
Fuck yeah [laughs]. Detroit. It’s proof of what Kenny Dixon does with his Soul Skate. For kids in my generation, before we got all lost in video games and stuff, we were roller skating and we were dancing, and that was it. We were roller skating and dancing, and when video games came in, we still had to go out of the house to play the video games, so the arcade or the roller disco had video games, so you’d go skate and play video games. And it was really important, where I think a lot of that dance aspect of it got lost when people found out that they didn’t have to leave their houses anymore, that they could play games online.
So were you quite a mover, Carl?
I used to be able to roller skate pretty well. I was a pretty good roller skater.
And have you considered strapping them back on?
Oh yeah, I have. When I broke my foot, I couldn’t: I haven’t roller skated since I broke my foot. Last time I roller skated was maybe three years ago.
You’ve had some involvement with social issues in Detroit directly through the Carl Craig Foundation, but that was a short-term project. Do you think about revisiting it?
Yes. It’s always on my mind. The thing about the Foundation that’s really important is that I need to have a really good director, because the amount of time that I have between family and business and travelling and everything, it doesn’t afford me to do enough of the real planning that needs to happen in the foundation. So once I have a director that can really do a great job at fundraising and that’s really into doing foundations correctly, then we can move forward with the foundation.
Do you think that there’s an attitude amongst a lot of the Detroit techno artists that’s maybe a little bit more community-focused than a lot of the other electronic dance community outside of the city?
Yeah, I think we all want to get together. We try to get our people together in on things, in a cooperative. That’s a common thing for Detroiters, and I think that in part is because of Derrick and Kevin and Juan. Derrick’s always the ringleader, in order to get everybody together, and then Kevin knows what the reality of a collaboration really needs to do things, so Kevin is really quite focused on getting people together as well. And for the most part, they have always been interested in getting people outside of their inner circle involved in things. Derrick has always been very open about getting other people from other labels or other, whatever, involved in what’s going on locally. So that’s what I think a lot of it comes from, where I’ve learned from, is from Derrick.
I’m interested, do you have a favourite part of the actual physical structure of Detroit?
For me, the Lafayette Park complex designed by Mies van der Rohe, that’s my favourite. It’s beautiful glass and steel construction, the epitome of the late fifties, early sixties movement that he was doing along with the likes of Le Corbusier. It’s definitely on an international level that has been revered.
And what’s your favourite thing about Detroit?
The gunshots! No I’m joking… I’d say the individualism. Detroit people are happy to do things their own way. And they have this common sense. It’s just a Detroit thing.
Head here to watch Carl Craig’s three hour-marathon at Detroit Love alongside OG techno heavyweight Stacey Pullen.
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