Local Current Blog

‘He gave us a lot of hope’: Carl Craig talks about Prince’s influence on Detroit and techno

Carl Craig. (photo courtesy the artist)

When it comes to techno music, few, if any, names loom as large as that of Carl Craig. Alongside several peers from his native Detroit, Craig is considered one of techno’s pioneers, but one would be hard-pressed to name an electronic musician of any kind who can match the sheer volume and breadth of Craig’s musical output. His first release came out in 1989, and in the 30 years since then he has put out an impressive library of music that spans the genres of techno, house, jazz, funk, soul, downtempo, and more under his own name as well as under a series of monikers and aliases.

In addition to his own releases, he is an accomplished remixer, working with the likes of LCD Soundsystem, Theo Parrish, Junior Boys, Caribou, and many more. His latest endeavor, called Versus, is a collaboration with a Parisian orchestra and classical pianist in which over a dozen of his classic tracks have been re-arranged and performed by an orchestra. 2017 saw the release of an album featuring these compositions as well as the launch of a tour called Versus Synthesizer Ensemble, which features Craig and his collaborators performing the re-works live in select cities around the world.

While Craig is a musician and DJ first and foremost, he has made a career out of supporting music and artists coming out of Detroit. He was the driving force behind the creation of the Detroit Electronic Music Festival, a festival which still brings thousands of people to Detroit each Memorial Day weekend nearly 20 years later under the name Movement. In 2014, he launched a series of events called Detroit Love, which sees Craig serving as a proselytizer spreading the gospel of Detroit music all over the globe, both through the music he plays and the fellow Detroit DJs he brings with him to share the bills.

After making his Minneapolis debut in 2015 with one of his Detroit Love showcases, Craig returns to Minneapolis tomorrow to play Midwest Funk Association, a Prince tribute at the 7th St Entry. (Full disclosure: I am producing and promoting this event alongside First Avenue.) As I explored last year, Prince had a very strong bond with the city of Detroit — largely thanks to a radio DJ and tastemaker named the Electrifying Mojo — at a time when Craig and his peers were on the cusp of inventing techno music in the early 1980s.

I connected with Craig ahead of the show to ask him what it was like growing up as a Prince fan in Detroit and how the Minneapolis icon has influenced him as an artist.

Do you remember your first experience with Prince?

When I first heard “Soft and Wet” on the radio…so 1978, I think. We used to have this station, WKRQ. I guess you’d call it an alternative pop station, but it was leaning more urban. I remember hearing that song, and then I was at Musicland, or one of those kind of chain stores, with my sister, and she pulled out the For You album. I remember seeing the cover, and seeing the big ‘fro and everything, and her going all googly-eyed. I didn’t put two and two together that that was the same record. Later on, with “Bambi” and “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?”, I knew the music, but I didn’t realize it was by the same guy.

Then when I really got into Prince, I was in my bedroom with a friend of mine and we heard Dirty Mind coming from the basement, where my brother was sleeping. We listened to it through the heat vent, and my friend said, “Yeah, that’s Prince!” So we went down to the stairway of the basement, just listening, almost like listening to Richard Pryor albums that our parents would play in the basement that we weren’t supposed to hear. We’re hearing all these things like “Head,” and in 1981 I was 12, and I think that was really the beginning of my love affair with Prince’s music.

What was it like growing up as a music fan in Detroit when Prince made his debut, with Motown having moved to Los Angeles?

Yeah, I really didn’t care so much about Motown being in Detroit, because I didn’t even really know it was in Detroit until I was six or seven years old, at the Turkey Day Parade, and this is when they had the Motown building on Woodward and I-75, and there was the Motown logo that was on top of the building. I knew the logo; it was something that always stayed in my head. Of course, [I also remember] seeing the record labels from Motown, whether it was the Motown label for Jackson Five’s “Dancing Machine” or the Gordy label for “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” or the Tamla label for Stevie Wonder.

It was those memories I had in relation to Detroit and Motown, but the Electrifying Mojo was the catalyst for me even really knowing about Detroit music that was coming out that was outside of Motown. We had other labels like Inviticus, and there were these disco labels that were coming out, Westbound Records that had Funkadelic, Ohio Players, that kind of stuff…but The Electrifying Mojo was where it all came together. He was playing Cybotron’s “Alleys of Your Mind,” A Number of Names’ “Sharevari,” and these records that we knew came from Detroit. They were being produced by kids, pretty much. Paulie Lesley lived down the street from me when I was a kid, one of the guys from A Number of Names.

How much of an influence would you say Mojo was on the musical tastes of the people of Detroit?

He was the chief tastemaker. He was the general of music in the ’80s, definitely. He dominated the ’80s for Detroit radio. He was the guy, if he sneezed on a record, motherfuckers would still play it. He was that dominant. When he played “Irresistible Bitch,” of course you couldn’t have bitch on there, but the edit was “Irresistible, sistible, I love the way you talk. Irresistible, sistible,” you know, that kind of thing. Then other stations did that edit too, because he made it so hot in Detroit. They were even playing it during drive time.

How important a figure was Prince on Mojo’s radio show?

He was huge. He was huge because Prince, from what we knew didn’t do interviews, but he did one with Mojo, and that was a big deal for us. Michael Jackson wasn’t calling in to the show. Michael Jackson was definitely a heavyweight, but Prince was the guy who co-signed the Electrifying Mojo and his show, more than what we already knew.

I think Mojo’s radio career was probably made mostly from playing these competition segments, so Prince versus Michael Jackson, Rick James versus Prince, that kind of stuff. We all sat waiting for the show to come on so we could hear these things. He was playing great new music, great electronic music, like Kraftwerk, and then the music that was inspired by Kraftwerk like Afrika Bambaataa, Model 500, Nucleus, and that kind of stuff. We waited by the radio for these Prince versus Michael Jackson shows, but he was playing all this other stuff that was very influential to us.

What are some of your favorite Prince songs, and what makes them your favorites?

“17 Days” is a big one for me. That’s like, when I really need to get hyped before a gig, I’ll play “17 Days” and just dance around the room, so that can get my energy up before I go out and do a live set, or sometimes when I really want to pump up my adrenaline before I DJ.

“Automatic” is incredible. It’s a work, a movement basically. The arrangement on it, the voices and sounds, the synthesizer is just unbelievable.

“International Lover” is Prince doing ballads. I think up until the day he stopped recording, I loved his ballads most. When I wasn’t as big a fan of Prince anymore, it was Lovesexy. Sign O’ The Times was the last great Prince album. But everything he did after Sign O’ The Times, when he’d do these ballads, they were always the best, they killed everybody’s ballads. If he would have lived he probably would have been able to just do ballads in his sets, do like Frank Sinatra, half out of his mind, but people love to hear those ballads.

“When Doves Cry”. I heard it in the grocery store the other day and I almost started crying, because it grabs that emotion from me. I have really fond memories hearing that the first time on the Electrifying Mojo’s show, and Mojo would build up the anticipation by just playing the intro over and over again, he had an edit. The intro probably played for about three minutes before the beat and the voice came in. It was incredible.

How has Prince influenced you as a musician?

Prince was really probably the reason I picked up a guitar. He was a virtuoso of guitar and I don’t think I’ll ever get to the point of being as excellent as he was as guitarist. I loved all the stuff he did in the early days, we loved the fact that he played every instrument himself, but when he did that solo on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, I think that was game over for the whole world. Threw his guitar in the air and it never came down. I will never be able to touch that. He was the baddest-ass guitarist out there, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Eddie Van Halen be as seductive and sexy and making that guitar weep.

There is a famous Derrick May quote that describes techno music as essentially being a combination of Kraftwerk and George Clinton, but I’ve heard you say in an interview that Prince was your biggest influence outside of Kraftwerk. Can you put your finger on why Prince influenced you more than the Detroit-based Clinton?

Prince was a bigger influence on me than George Clinton because of the guitar connection. If [George Clinton] would have still been doing Maggot Brain, that kind of stuff, then I would have been on it more. I love Funkadelic, I love Parliament, I love “Atomic Dog,” I love Parlet, Bootsy, and all that stuff he was doing, but the synthesizer work wasn’t as dominant as the synthesizer work of Prince.

Of course, Kraftwerk was all synthesizer, when they did Computer World, that album was as big a deal for me as when Dirty Mind came out or Controversy came out. That record still lives, actually probably a lot longer than those early Prince records have been able to live in my world. Prince was girls, guitar, and the synthesizers and drum machines, and Kraftwerk was synthesizers and imagination that went into the sounds.

How important a figure would you say Prince is in terms of his impact on music coming out of Detroit over the past four decades?

Absolutely humongous. I think he was even influential in the rap world — if J Dilla was still alive, I’m sure he’d tell you that he had been influenced by him. Prince was a bad motherf—er. He gave us a lot of hope. He was the guy who made it so you didn’t have to dress up in a sequined suit in order to be in a band. That’s kind of how it ended up being for a lot of people here in Detroit.

I read a quote of yours that said “I consider funk electronic music.” Can you elaborate on that?

It is. Was it funk is electronic music or funk is techno? Cause techno is a way of thinking. It’s like a way of life kind of thing. Funk is the same thing, but you can have a real techno mentality that goes into the music. Like “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” that’s a techno record to me. Much of Stevie Wonder’s stuff was techno records to me. That’s a big deal, I like to say that because it gets people to the think outside of the names, people kind of compartmentalize everything.

Listen to our new stream Purple Current for music by Prince, his influences, and musicians who are carrying his legacy forward.