A Day With Carl Craig, Detroit’s Techno Maestro

Every time techno pioneer Carl Craig DJs, whether it’s a 5 am rave at the Berlin nightclub Panorama Bar or New York’s historic music pantheon Carnegie Hall, where he played for a sold-out crowd in mid-March, he reminds himself: “I will not show off!” Growing up in Detroit in the early ’80s, he was a shy kid who occasionally found the courage to preen, but the girls or his friends always saw through his game. Today, at 52, Craig hasn’t forgotten those “social and mental beating[s]” from his youth. “I’ve never felt comfortable with that DJ as a Jesus-like superstar person,” he says. “I am more interested in the art of putting sounds together, so I am less of a performer but more of an engineer who happens to be all on stage.”

At a Manhattan café a few hours before the Carnegie Hall gig, which Craig played as part of its ongoing Afrofuturism festival, the Grammy-nominated musician was ready for the first post-pandemic reunion with his Synthesize Ensemble, a quartet of keyboard players and the pianist Kelvin Sholar. His return to the DJ booth in August 2020, after nightlife was shut down for a half year, had felt like “delving back into the energy;” a seated 10 pm performance—“an usually early time for me to be on stage,” he says—with his parents and siblings among the audience only doubled the thrill, even as this was likely to be a comparatively muted affair. Unlike his heavy-hitting improvised sets at clubs like London’s Ministry of Sound or Tokyo’s Space Lab Yellow, the concert at the ornate Midtown venue included low-key sheet music compositions played by the keyboard players.

Craig’s techno superstardom began at the abandoned warehouses of an economically dilapidated Detroit over three decades ago. At 18 years old, he bought his first synthesizer with his mother’s money and pieced together other equipment he needed to make electronic music through “begging, borrowing or stealing.” The robotic rhythm of Xerox machines was an influence, as well as the echoes of electrified beats booming across the Motor City’s burgeoning techno scene. Science fiction and futurism heavily occupied his vision—especially the dystopian noir universe in Blade Runner, which was “not different from Detroit with its rainy darkness and tall buildings.” Craig and his mentor Derrick May spent hours surrounded by knotted wires and piles of tools, as well as manga and comics like Arkham Asylumconsuming art about other futures while composing their potential music.

Craig’s grandest node to his futuristic curiosities is perhaps his immersive light, sound, and repercussion installation Party/After-Party, which debuted at the seminal art center Dia Beacon in early 2020. On the physical level, the musician paid homage to minimalist art pioneers such as Dan Flavin and Donal Judd with an immersive subterranean experience of light and energy for museum-goers, rather than clubbers. His dancing green and purple neons and electric tunes left the last summer, but Craig collaborated with Dia for a four-track vinyl release, out this summer. Extending the project onto a more familiar medium gives the artist the freedom to “push the limitations I had while composing for an interior.” The record, which features different mixes of the installation’s original 30-minute composition, furthers Craig’s flirtation with fine art and pushes the parameters of the hypnotic score outside of the physical space.

For Craig, mixing techno tunes in an Afrofuturist program at a typically classical music-leaning institution completes a full cycle: “Techno is Afrofuturism: it’s Black, American, future music.” Genre pioneers like Sun Ra inspire him to further bring science fiction into music. “Ra said, ‘Okay, we are getting off the plantation and going to Saturn for our own kingdom,’” Craig says. The distinction he finds between techno and its predecessor genres is techno’s breakthrough as “a faceless music.” Many musicians, he notes, did not use their actual names before the emergence of Derrick May, Juan Atkins, and Kevin Saunderson who started out as The Belleville Three before branching out as solo artists. Craig compares the early anonymity of techno musicians during their foray into culture in the early 1980s to the Stormtroopers in Star Wars. “We came in like masked warriors during Black music’s commercialization in the mainstream media.”

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