July 30, 2004  #540
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ISSUES 500+
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by Don Crispy

On the phone: Carl Craig

Derrick May, Richie Hawtin, Jeff Mills...the parade of Detroit DJs touring Japan is unending. But among the handful of elite artists to emerge out of the city's fertile scene of the late '80s, one stands out as a consistent innovator who has moved perhaps furthest beyond the mechanistic sounds of Detroit techno.

In his last visit to storied Nishi-Azabu club Yellow in September of 2003, for instance, Carl Craig played a diverse set that took in disco, house, techno, breakbeats, and, in particular, jazz. This was no coincidence, as Craig had that spring released Detroit Experiment, an album that saw him working with a slew of jazz legends from Bennie Maupin (who worked with Miles Davis, etc.), to Geri Allen (Ornette Coleman, etc.).

As Craig notes through the crackle of a poor cellphone connection from his car somewhere on a highway between gigs in Prague and Slovakia, the project required a sensitivity to the incredible history of music represented by his cast of jazz greats. But this is typical of the flexible approach Craig has taken to dance music in recent years.

He has toured not only as DJ, but also as one musician in a live band. One of the first DJ/producers to integrate musicians into his live set, Craig says he was hoping to bring his new band, Tres Demented, to Japan for his upcoming tour, but that "it didn't come to fruition due to the technical challenges and clubs being unable to accommodate what we're doing."

Craig's band, which also features a keyboardist and two percussionists, is currently at work on an album based on the Afro-Caribbean rhythms of voodoo, slated for release at the beginning of next year.

While Japan will miss out on a taste of his live band, there will be a "live" aspect to Craig's set, inasmuch as he will be bringing a computer with him that he uses to perform tracks while on tour. "My DJ schedule makes it difficult to find time for production, but now I'm using a computer on stage. I take a dedicated computer on the road, and always have it on in my hotel room, so I can work on compositions anywhere."

Cutting his teeth as apprentice to first-generation Detroit innovator Derrick May, Craig released his first tracks on May's Transmat imprint before launching his own Planet E Communications. Perhaps the key phase in Craig's career came in 1989, when he toured the UK with May's Rhythm Is Rhythm project. British interest in Detroit techno was spurring the country's burgeoning acid house scene, and Craig turned the trip into an extended working holiday, recording a number of tracks in the UK and Belgium.

His early material was typically minimalist Detroit techno, but Craig began to experiment with rougher sounds in the early '90s, and in doing so became an unlikely influence on the budding UK jungle movement. The mid-'90s then saw Craig vault into the upper ranks of superstar DJs, reeling off a string of hits including an epic remix of Tori Amos's "God."

Craig first toured Japan in 1993, and says he has seen some remarkable changes over a decade. "When I first came, people would just watch my hands. They were really quiet. But now everyone is going crazy whooping and hollering. I don't know if it's because of generational change or cultural change, but Japanese are much more responsive."

Already a grizzled dance music veteran at 35, Craig has been shifting from vinyl to CDs as he absorbs the new digital turntable technology emanating out of Japan's equipment makers. But he says that despite the change from analog to digital, the art of DJing won't alter fundamentally.

"DJing hasn't really changed in 20 years, and even in another 20 years I don't think people will want to see a DJ push a button to start a sound file. People didn't like computerized radio stations, and I don't think they will want completely computerized DJing.
"There will be an art form that will be preserved, and that art form will still be within the concept of turntables, whether digital or analog. I think there is still a lifetime of experimentation that can come from the archaic format of a platter and a record. There are still new kids out there doing wondrous things with turntables, and I think there still will be in 20 years."

Carl Carig@Yellow, 8/7, 10pm, ¥4,000. Tel: 03-3479-0690.

credit: Yellow