Carl Craig Took Me on a Tour of Detroit’s Most Sacred Techno Landmarks
From Juan Atkin's record label Metroplex to the streets where 80s tailgating parties took place, this is the side of the city that most tourists don't get to see.
Photos by Luis Nieto Dickens
Carl Craig knows everyone there is to know in Detroit. That much was evident on a blazingly hot day this past May, when I found myself tagging along with the 47-year-old DJ and producer for an afternoon. Dressed in torso-hugging black T-shirt—a pair of aviators perched atop his shaved head—Craig had agreed to give me a pretty unprecedented experience: a personal tour of local landmarks that were important to his career and to Detroit's electronic music history.
Craig's roots in the city's techno history run deep, which is probably why every time we got out of the car at one of his chosen destinations, he would find himself surrounded by friends and fans, with whom he'd cheerfully shake hands, or—as was the case when we ran into Underground Resistance co-founder "Mad" Mike Banks at Submerge—duck around the corner for a private, serious-looking conversation.
Few others are better suited to play techno tour guide than Craig, who is considered a seminal figure in Detroit's second-wave of electronic music pioneers, following the Belleville Three. These days, he's in heavy demand outside the city, with a summer touring schedule packed with stops in Ibiza and other European destinations, and a recent performance of his 2010 modular synthesizer album under his No Boundaries alias, Modular Pursuits, at the ARTE Concert Festival in Paris. A compilation for Sven Vath's Cocoon label, as well as remixes for the Pet Shop Boys and Nicole Moudaber's collaborative EP with Skin are also in the works.
But it is in his home city where Craig first made his mark, and remains a local hero. In addition to releasing music from the likes of Kevin Saunderson and Moodymann on his label Planet E, which he started in 1991, Craig also played a crucial role in the creation of Detroit Electronic Music Festival—now called Movement—in 2000. He is still heavily involved with the festival, playing a headlining DJ set at THUMP's own Made In Detroit stage this year.
"Everybody knows everybody, pretty much," explained Craig in his velvety baritone, when I asked him to explain how the intricate ecosystem of Detroit's tight-knit electronic music community works. "The top of the food chain is Derrick [May], Kevin [Saunderson] and Juan [Atkins]. If it wasn't for Juan, Derrick wouldn't have been doing what he was doing. If it wasn't for Derrick introducing Kevin to Juan, Kevin wouldn't be doing what he's doing. And if it wasn't for me meeting Derrick, I wouldn't be doing what I do. It just trickles down like that from the top."
Over the course of that afternoon, Craig took me everywhere from Underground Resistance's endearingly DIY techno museum to Moodymann's mind-boggling Prince palace, to the building where Juan Atkin's record label Metroplex still stands—all while proudly providing a running commentary on the people and history that made each stop special. Some of these pivotal landmarks are still standing; others long gone, remembered only by those who were lucky enough to be there.
I made all my early releases in this building. The bottom [of the building] was Juan [Atkin's record label], Metroplex; up top was [Derrick May's label], Transmat. Derrick still lives there. We're trying to [rename this street] Techno Boulevard; Derrick's been talking about it for the last 30 years, and we brought it up when I was with the Entertainment Commission a few years ago. [It's important for us to do this] for validation. I always say the two major traits of any human are jealousy and greed. We're always jealous that somebody else [is getting validation], when we don't think we have enough. I think even Michael Jordan thought at times he didn't get enough credit.
2. Planet E's apocalyptic 90s headquarters
I started Planet E in this apartment building. I was 22 or 23 years old; I had a girlfriend at the time who lived on the eighth floor. You can see Canada on the other side [of the building], and this was in the early 90s, when people were lighting buildings on fire. It was like Blade Runner. I could see [the fire] while I was making tracks, and helicopters with their search lights looking down the river, trying to find people crossing the border. I love fire. It was great.
3. Pioneering techno club The Majestic
The Majestic was one of the first places I performed as a techno musician. That would have been 1989 or 1990. It was kind of a big venue, maybe 1200 people. There wasn't a very big black crowd at the time for [techno]. For black people, electronic music was [bigger] in the 80s, with [DJ collective] Charivari. But you had a few black DJs, like Blake Baxter here at the Majestic. Blake was a very dark-skinned guy that used to wear skirts, but he was totally straight—he was into fucking goth girls. You can't forget Blake Baxter. There was the Belleville Three— Derrick [May], Juan [Atkins] and Kevin [Saunderson]—and there was Eddie Fowlkes, who was the fourth member that people don't remember. Then there was Blake Baxter, and he was like a protege of Derrick and Kevin.
Do you ever watch Silicon Valley? Well Submerge is the incubator. [Underground Resistance co-founder] "Mad" Mike Banks lets people open up studios in his building, but the thing is they gotta be serious. If they're not serious, he doesn't want to see them. Submerge was a record distribution company for a while, and almost everybody that was making records had a distribution deal with Submerge in the 90s. 430 West, Happy Records... Submerge was really important in helping these labels get off the ground, and they were producing a lot of records then too.
5. Chene Park Amphitheater
This is an amphitheater on the water where Derrick May did an orchestral piece with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. I played there a couple times for Concert of Colors, which was a festival of diversity with African, Lebanese—it's music from all over. Chene Park has been around since the late 70s or early 80s. What's cool about it is when you do performances here, you see Canada, you see people riding up on their boats and watching from the river. [When The Gap Band played here], all the people were pimps and hustlers in their suits. It was crazy.
6. Streets where tailgating parties took place in the 80s
Back in the 80s, this was where the action was. On Fridays and Saturdays in the summertime, you could see cars cruising down the street from Hart Plaza and all the way down to Belle Isle. When they got to Belle Isle, they'd park, open their trunks, and turn up their sound-systems. Some of the girls would be dancing, and the guys were hanging out and smoking. The energy was really incredible. It was like a tailgate. [These parties] were really important for music here in Detroit, because you heard what people were playing on their tape decks—[Parliament] Funkadelic, Kraftwerk, B52's, Cybotron, whatever was hot at the time—especially if you were too young to go to clubs.
7. WGPR and the Electrifying Mojo
[Influential radio DJ The Electrifying] Mojo would play something hot [on WGPR], and regular daytime radio would pick up on it. If Mojo played your song, you were validated. A lot of people were passing the station [on the way to tailgating parties]. Mojo would say something like, "If you're at home, flash your lights. If you're on Jefferson, honk your horns." And you'd hear people honk their horns. It was incredible. He had the pulse of the city for at least ten years.
8. Planet E's current headquarters
I've owned this place for 10 years, we just moved Planet E here. We're at 25 years now. We had a 300-square-foot building that we got rid of, it was around the block from Mike [Banks] and Kevin [Saunderson] but we didn't like the space anymore. Right now, we are working on new distribution deals, and the Versus album, which is a symphonic album, is just about complete. That's a joint project with my label and a label in France called Infiniti. That's the biggest release right now that we're working towards. It has Francesco Tristiano and Mortiz von Oswald on it.
Michelle Lhooq is THUMP's Features Editor. Follow her on Twitter.