Carl Craig is marking the 20th anniversary of his Planet E label with a compilation album, live tour and monthly remixes of classic archive tracks throughout the year.
In this extensive interview, the Detroit icon talks to FACT’s Justin Toland about the origins of his label, overlooked and influential Planet E recordings, the difficulty of finding young producers to carry on the Motor City’s techno lineage, new works and plans for the future.
“It’s always great to go back to the old DAT tapes.”
Planet E is 20 years old this year: What are you doing to mark this milestone for the label?
“Well, we have an LP coming out that’s called 20 Fucking Years. It’s a collection of releases from over the 20 years that Planet E’s been in business. And we’re going to release that next month and we have a slew of remixes to commemorate it as well, because we have friends and fans and family. You know, family’s everyone that has been good over the years and has been supportive, and we just want to show how far that support lays.”
How did you go about selecting which tracks would appear on the compilation? Was it difficult to choose?
“Yeah. I think that because there are restrictions involved, even when you’re doing digital: you don’t want to end up with a hundred tracks, too many tracks for people to go through, so we wanted to offer what we felt was a good representation, that were some of our best tracks, as well as some of our long lost tracks. It was a journey going through it, but for years we’ve been kind of preparing because we’ve been archiving and listening and finding things and rediscovering things. It’s been really great – it’s always great to go back to the old DAT tapes.”
69 – ‘Ladies And Gentlemen’ (1991)
I understand you’re also launching a competition around the vinyl edition of the compilation, or a kind of listener’s poll: can you explain more?
“Well, because there’s so many tracks I feel it’s better to let the fans A&R what they’d like to see on the vinyl in comparison to us just telling you what we’re going to give you on the vinyl, you can actually select. So, from the tracks that we have on digital the people can select what they feel that they are missing on vinyl, what they’ve missed or just what they’d really like to see on the compilation.”
I guess some of the selections are going to be pretty obvious. Are there any particular Planet E tracks that you think have been under-appreciated over the years, that you’d like people to listen to again, or for the first time?
“Well, the ‘Nort Route’ track [by Balil], which is a big favourite of mine. It’s something that defined the label between what my influences are and what friends’ [influences] are. ‘Nort Route’ was on Kirk DeGiorgio’s label as well, and Kirk’s been a great friend of mine for, well, over 20 years. And there are some records like Attias’ ‘Analysis’ which I think kind of went under the radar, but then there are things that probably are a bit more known.
“It’s hard to surprise me.”
You also mentioned this series of remixes. How did you go about selecting which tracks people were going to remix?
“We kind of fielded it to the people that we asked – ‘Hey, what would you like to mix?’, and people gave us an idea of what they had always wanted to touch or thought that they could improve upon. So it wasn’t a situation where I walked in and said: ‘You shall remix this!’ It was more like, ‘Okay, here’s the catalogue, are you interested in doing a mix?’. ‘Yeah, I’ve always wanted to remix Recloose.’ ‘Okay, let’s do it’.”
Has anyone surprised you with what they’ve picked to remix?
“Nah! It’s hard to surprise me.”
There’s also going to be a Planet E tour this year. What’s that going to consist of?
“Again it’s going to consist of friends and family. Artists that are from the label, artists that have done work for the label as remixers, friends. So it’s a gathering of I guess people who have love for the same thing: people who have love for Planet E.”
You’ve already announced dates for February/March, will there be more after that as well?
“Yeah, the whole year, that’s the plan.”
“Planet E started out of my desire to be in control of my own destiny: my own music, my own life.”
Is there anything special planned in terms of the visual side of the show?
“Planet E hasn’t been a very strong visual company. We’ve been great with putting out music that we love but we’ve never jumped on the concept of Planet E television or Planet E videos or Planet E any of that stuff. So I’m now looking for the new young guys that are doing something extra special and extra new, and as I find them we’ll start integrating them.”
If we rewind 20 years for a moment: How did Planet E actually start?
“Planet E started out of my desire to be in control of my own destiny: my own music, my own life. I had stopped recording for Transmat and started another label called Retroactive [with Damon Booker] in order to release music that I liked, that I felt strongly about it as an artist, but then I realised that I didn’t want a partner at all, it was just better for me to work independently, and that’s how I started Planet E.”
“‘E’ could be whatever you wanted it to be – Planet Earth, Planet Eric, Planet Ethernet, whatever.”
Where did the name Planet E Communications come from?
“[adopts preacher’s voice] There were angels that came down and laid their hands upon me and said ‘This is the gospel’! … I was watching a show on television about space travel, about astronauts travelling to the moon. They were talking about the communication between the astronauts and NASA and it got me thinking about the communication between Earth and these astronauts, so by coming up with Planet E it gave anybody the opportunity to say what ‘E’ is, so ‘E’ could be whatever you wanted it to be – Planet Earth, Planet Eric, Planet Ethernet, whatever.
“So, that’s how it happened, but the ‘Communications’ part was because I always liked the concept of seeming bigger than what a company is. Communications was so broad in relation to calling it Planet E Records: Planet E Records, oh, it’s a record company; Planet E Music, oh, it’s a music company; Planet E Productions, oh, it’s a production company. Planet E Communications – it’s a communications company, but communications can be such a broad realm of business, so that’s why I used communications. And also, my favourite label at the time was Warner, who put out so many records that I loved, you know, Funkadelic, B52’s, Sire was on there – there was a lot of great stuff that I grew up with. So obviously, ‘Warner Communications – OK, Planet E Communications’.”
Moodymann ‘Dem Young Sconies’ (1997)
The music industry has changed a lot in the last 20 years, especially in the last five years or so. How do you see the business side developing in the future?
“I really hope that it can develop quite nicely, but now we are in a very tough situation. I don’t know if we’ve reached the bottom yet for the whole industry, but there’s only one future I can see that’s prosperous for the industry, for any industries, any new technologies – and that’s via the Internet. Promotion has changed so much because you can sell tons of product Twittering [sic] stuff and Facebooking things. Then there’s going to be the next thing, and people are trying to get the stuff as free as they can and how do you get people to understand that they should invest in the music in comparison to just not investing in the music?
“I don’t have a firm answer to where I believe the future of this whole thing’s going to be. What is happening is all these major companies that are relying on putting out as bad a music as they can, you can tell that they’re in complete desperation in order to stay in business, by putting out what they think that people want instead of putting out what people need. And there’s not a lot of soul-searching music out there. Hopefully it’ll be more independents, more regular folks that are going to be able to change the perception of how music is and then the business will start to balance itself out…I mean now you can put your music on Soundcloud and Twitter and if it gets bounced to enough people to Twitter it then they get to hear your music and you can go from there and sell some downloads and maybe sell some physical copies or at least get people to come out to your gigs.”
“You can tell that major labels are in complete desperation to stay in business…putting out what they think that people want instead of putting out what people need.”
How important is it to you to continue through Planet E to represent and develop Detroit music, Detroit Techno?
“It’s very important. What I feel that with Planet E it was important to display is that communication between Europe and Asia and America, by not only releasing music from just Detroit but by releasing music from all over the globe that fits with what my idea of the label is. As well as releasing music from Detroit artists we’ve been searching for more new artists from Detroit that come from similar backgrounds as I did that are interested in doing something that’s not typical.
“For a long time here in Detroit we had a major problem in the concept of getting new guys to make techno and house music and electronic music, because none of it’s being played on the radio here. So, getting a new guy to play that music, you have to really hold their hands and bring them into this other world and show them that there’s another world outside of what’s being played on radio. And on the radio it got SO BAD, in the sense that not only were you hearing the same kind of music all day, which was mostly hip-hop-based stuff, but then the music got so stupid, really stupid and that’s the concept that kids start having about music – it’s like you make some music as stupid as possible so you can sell a lot; it’s all about wearing long white tees, throw on a new one every day; you get a Chrysler 300, you pimp it out and you do all these things that are based around what you see in the videos as opposed to making music that touches the soul and the spirit.”
“There’s only one future I can see that’s prosperous for the industry, for any industries, any new technologies – and that’s via the Internet.”
In the 20-year history of Planet-E, which releases are you most proud of?
“All of ’em.”
Is there any track though that stands out for you as something that has changed the way people listen to music?
“I love the controversy that that Moodymann album caused. It’s really quite an interesting scenario how his career has developed and how people still ask him about that first album, about that Silentintroduction album, and I think that’s quite amazing.”
Buildings credit: 5horizonS
Is there anything you would have done differently if you had the last 20 years again?
“I don’t regret anything!”
You’ve always been known as an innovator, someone who doesn’t just work with people from the electronic dance scene – you’ve remixed Hugh Masakela and Cesaria Evora, you’ve done Re:Composed. When someone suggests a collaboration or a remix, what are your criteria for whether you say yes or no?
“It depends on whether or not there is something that I feel I can use or manipulate. It’s hard to work on something that’s uninspiring, so if it’s something that I’m not inspired by then I can’t do the work. If it’s something that I feel as though I can’t build upon then I won’t do a mix. Sometimes you get songs that come in and people ask you to do a mix and I listen to it and it’s like ‘This song does not need to be remixed, why are you asking me to remix this song when the song’s right as it is?’ A lot of people get upset when I tell them that because they really want it remixed! ‘No, it doesn’t need to be remixed, go on, you know!’
“With Cesaria Evora and Hugh Masakela, these songs are amazing pieces of history, the Tony Allen one I did as well: these pieces that are quite fantastic. I don’t necessarily think that those need to be remixed either, but I like to put my two cents in. Because Cesaria Evora is not electronic music it was a lot of fun to take pieces and just build upon [them]. The same thing with the Tony Allen track, it kind of remixed itself you know, and I really, really love that.”
“My concept of working with people now is having a great dinner, sitting around and talking shit, learning from ’em.”
Is there anyone out there you’d love to work with whom you never have?
“No. My concept of working with people now is having a great dinner, sitting around and talking shit, learning from ’em. Learning techniques, so we talk about techniques or whatever, but, no.
“Quincy Jones released a book a couple of months ago where he describes his production techniques. Part of his production technique is that he goes into this kind of in between sleep state and he falls into the music and hears the music in almost another dimension. I think that’s quite amazing in relation [to what I do] because sometimes my best work is done when I’m the most tired and I find a second or third wind and I just really go for it.
“In reference to how he works, I don’t know if it would be something that I would want to be in the throes of working with him in relation to that. I would rather just sit there and watch him and understand how he came up with the stuff instead of collaborating. And also this is a man who has so much history, he has history of scoring films and doing arrangements for Duke Ellington and Count Basie and Frank Sinatra. He has so much history; I have so much work ahead of me in order to catch up to that guy.”
Paperclip People ‘4 My Peepz (Shot)’ (1998)
Are you going to use some of those techniques on your next recordings? When are you going to have another Carl Craig album out?
“I’m working towards some music now – I’m in the studio. Right now my head is really into developing a sound that I feel is the next step of what I do. I’ve got a really fantastic studio, but not enough time in Detroit because I tour so much, so I’ve taken off the last two months, part of December and all this month and then next month when I’m not travelling outside the United States and I’m staying at home in the studio for the most part. You know this is the time when I’m really working towards making the material – I’m developing new sounds…Actually I’m kind of retraining myself how to engineer records, because I just turned knobs and whatever sounded good happened and that’s just the way it goes, but sometimes you just get to a wall and I want to take this to the next level – what am I doing right, what am I doing wrong? What am I doing wrong that is right? Just making mental notes and trying whatever’s possible.
“I was having a talk with Francois K a couple of months ago, whatever. We were discussing how now with the fact that everybody can do everything with a computer, even mix songs, you don’t even have to mix it outside the computer, there’s all these songs, all this music that sounds like it could have been in a million dollar studio, but they are doing it in Ableton or Logic or ProTools or whatever with a minimal investment. You know I’m still an analogue boy, I like to make music through my console and use outboard effects and EQs, so it’s about getting the best out of my analogue gear so that it’s as perfect as I can get it, which won’t be as perfect as what a computer can do, but as perfect as I can get it.”
“I want to take this to the next level – what am I doing right, what am I doing wrong? What am I doing wrong that is right?”
How are you feeling about the stuff you’ve been recording? Are you surprising yourself?
“Yeah, but I’m testing outside of the studio as well, so I have to take it home, or take a listen to it and get an idea of how it sounds in other situations. But you know, some things like the Theo Parrish remix that I did, I mean I just pulled up and that shit sounds great to me! It hits everything, every frequency range that I really wanted it to hit, and it has a lot of impact from the beginning. It really grabs you from the top. Sometimes it’s harder to compete with your own productions than it is to compete with other people’s productions.”
Is there anything else you want to say?
“Er…[puts on preacher voice again] The angels came from above and they touched me and they told me that I should call my company Planet E [laughs].”