All it took for Carl Craig to fall down a rabbit hole of musical discovery and innovation was a piece of "Popcorn." Not literal popcorn, but the Gershon Kingsley-composed song of the same name. "My first musical memory is probably hearing 'Popcorn' on the Michigan Lottery television show," Craig recalls. "That's what got me interested in making electronic music. It's corny as fuck, but it's an electronic music classic."
Evolving his view of the scope of electronic music was a host of Detroit DJs including the ever-influential Electrifying Mojo and Jeff Mills, who would spin an eclectic tapestry of artists from all over the world. Whether it was Germany's Kraftwerk or Japan's Yellow Magic Orchestra, Craig pursued his education in the music by dutifully buying records and finding the inspiration for his own career.
"I really got the bug because a cousin of mine made a record called Technicolor that became quite a big record here in Detroit," Craig says. "He had some synthesizers at his house, I think it was a Sequential Six-Trak. It was magic to touch this keyboard."
What would follow Carl Craig's initial contact with a synthesizer is one of the most storied careers in electronic music. Taking the native Detroiter around the world and back, Craig's compositions have touched millions, earned Grammy nominations and helped keep the spirit of his hometown intact. Watch our latest Make Your Mark on Carl below and continue reading to discover more about his composition process and penchant for studio experimentation.
How has your writing process changed since the early days?
My composition techniques have changed a lot because I'm able to have better equipment, more equipment, especially with the computer. Using Ableton or Logic, you can shift your style of composing based on what program you use and what plug-ins you use and how your controller works with all of that. In the beginning, if you had one synth, you had to make the most of that one synth. There are tons of tracks I did in the beginning with a Prophet 600 and a four-track and I'd have to try and sync things up if they were arpeggiated or I'd have to play along with it.
Do you miss having those kinds of limitations?
Yeah. That's where part of the problem is... There are companies that come out with a construction kit that's got a 100000 sounds on it and it's like, "How are you gonna are you gonna go through 10,000 kick drums?" when every time you get to a good one, you still have 9000 left.
I still like the concept that you can have a good band with a bass, guitar, drums and a singer, maybe some keyboards or whatever, and I try to take that to heart when I compose. If the bass sound cuts through on the sub-woofer than that's the bass sound I should use. If the kick sounds like it comes through in the speakers then I know that's really where I should keep it and I should cut out all the other 9999 kick drum sounds. From there, I can change the kick drums with some Moog filters, some compression or using some EQ, using it all in tandem or whatever. The experimentation can go a lot further, get hands-on and I can find what I really need as opposed to a kick drum that someone created that will sound like a 100 other peoples' stuff.
Is your creativity more spur of the moment or do you plan on going into the studio with an idea?
Mine is spur of the moment. I have a set-up in my bedroom, which is where I started, and my wife fortunately doesn't kill me for it and it's cool. I got my little computer and stuff. I just kind of go for it. My creative style has never been that I'm going to walk in with a bass line or a synth line because usually it doesn't work out. It sounds better in my head than it does when it plays out. I end up destroying it and coming back to it and making something new.
That was another thing that was great about having an Alesis sequencer, the MMT-8, was that it had such little memory in it that you had to preserve as much as you could. If you had a really bad idea, you just erased it and started over again. Now, you've worked on it for 10 hours and need to save it even though it sucks. You can save it without limit on as many hard drives that you have in your room, come back to it later, think you have something to do for it, put another 10 hours into and you still haven't come up with anything.
What instrument do you start out with when you're working on a project?
It's either keyboard or the drum machine. The drum machine is the worst to start off with. You can get so locked into molding the sound of the drum machine that you don't make any music. You're just making drum beats. With the keyboard, it's great to start off with, especially if it's a synthesizer, because you can develop the sound of whatever you're playing and that sound is as important as the actual notes you're playing.
I like starting that way with a synthesizer, but I do like the concept of triggering or composing notes on the synthesizer, but from the drum machine. Like with a TR-8, which has notes based on a general MIDI, or something like the Korg ESX Electribe that has notes that go right across 1 through 16, but it goes in order of note values. That I find really quite incredible to use that way because you're not looking at C, D♭, D, E♭, E, F, F#, G... You're not looking at it in that way, you're just looking at it like 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. You can do all odd notes, you can do all even notes. It's more like a game.
An album I just finished with Green Velvet that we call Unity, we started it here in Detroit. One of the first ideas, it was a mistake, the drum machine, maybe an MPC or a TR-8 was running and it was plugged into a Mini Moog. The Mini Moog did something really crazy with the filter and it was just like, "OK, let's go," and that made the idea happen.
Is that situation typical in the studio with you? Are you more of an experimenter and tweaker?
Yeah, I'm more of a tweaker than an actual musician.
What does the studio mean to you?
The studio is a laboratory. You have an idea or a hypothesis and you just keep mixing until you actually come up with the formula that works. Sometimes you mix things and it only smokes, other times you mix things and you have that atomic explosion. It's there.
How do you go about buying gear to supply yourself with tools for your music making experiments?
I'm not a stone cold collector that needs to have every Neumann mic that comes from pre-1950. I'm not that kind of guy. I don't need to have Vince Clark's synthesizer or Daniel Miller's 2600 or Prince's LM-1. I'm interested in having gear that I can use.
I do a bit of scouring on the net to find sounds that I haven't heard yet. One of the synths that blew my mind on YouTube was the Omega C.O.D.E. 8, which just has this amazing sound I've been looking for. If I see something that seems interesting to me and everybody's talking shit about it, but I've never had the opportunity to try it, I call up Vintage King and try out this compressor or this EQ. Usually I get it for a little while, really test it out and try it.
Check out some of Carl Craig's latest work from the Unity album with the track "So What," along with a couple of classics from his incredible discography.