Not only is Carl Craig one of the most prolific electronic producers out of the 313 postcode, but with a discography rooted in techno that has stretched through free-form electronica, modern classical, jazz and beyond, he is proving to be one of the great musical artists of his generation. His Planet E label has charted the majority of his career and pseudonyms, from some of his earliest releases as 69, through to seminal albums like More Songs About Food And Revolutionary Art. It has also played home to exceptional releases from Moodymann, Kenny Larkin, Kevin Saunderson and Recloose. While other producers and labels have come and gone, Carl Craig and Planet E have forged a path ever forward, pushing themselves and their art to uncharted territory. Carl was kind enough to talk to LWE about what makes his twenty year old record label tick, and offered valuable insight into some of his other projects outside of Planet E. He also drafted Monty Luke to compile Talking Shopcast 09, an exclusive mix of Planet E works from the past present and future.
You launched Planet E very early in your career. You were already finding success on labels like Fragile and Transmat. What was the reason for starting your own label?
Carl Craig: Well I already had Retroactive Records before Planet E, but I had a partner in the label and it got to the point where I just didn’t want anyone else having any say in my music. Some artists like to be affirmed by other people’s thoughts about what their music is supposed to be, but I already had a clear idea about what I wanted my music to be so I didn’t need anyone else telling me what needed to be changed or altered because I already felt strong about what I was doing, so I started Planet E.
What was your vision when you started Planet E and has that changed at all over the years?
The vision was for it to be this futuristic music that was kind of in line with the current trend at the time of electronic music coming out, but also a little bit in front of it. Also free-form, too, so it wouldn’t be like — since 808 State had put out Pacific State, that every record we made would sound like Pacific State, you know? Like with 69, it wasn’t necessarily in line with anything directly, it was just part of the overall movement that was happening, but it went on to some other shit. It took influences from what Shut Up and Dance were doing, it took influences from what I was already doing and had been influenced by and threw it all into a melting pot. That was how things like “Bug In The Bassbin” happened and Piece’s “Free Your Mind” and “Free Your Soul” happened. All these kinds of different music that were all pushing forward in a very futuristic direction and not being contained by any walls or this concept of what electronic music or techno should be. It was kind of like rolling the dice in terms of what we’d release next. Whereas you had like Strictly Rhythm saying like, ‘Okay we need a hit for our next record, we’ll release a Masters At Work, or Roger Sanchez, we gotta have a Roger Sanchez record,’ We were more like, ‘Okay Kirk Degiorgio is my boy, he’s got this track from his label, let’s do it.’ It was a friendly thing and because we liked what people did and because it was forward and interesting.
After twenty years of running the same label how do you keep something as prone to trends like an electronic record label fresh?
I think now it’s more important for us to pay attention to our clientèle, because before I was kind of this rogue musician just doing whatever I wanted to do. And listening to our clientèle now, they’re screaming for the rogue musician. [laughs] You know, I still put out music that I like and that I find interesting but because record sales are so low we’re all fighting for the same shit. It’s not like if Aphex Twin releases a record and 15,000-20,000 people buy it, and now you get the new version of Aphex Twin come out and he’s relegated to 500 copies. You know it’s not the same times any more, so you have a lot of labels doing whatever it takes to sell their product. But you know if you’re selling like 500 copies in comparison to being able to sell like, 20,000, then fuck what everybody else is doing because 500 copies ain’t shit, so let’s just put out music that’s fresh and interesting and of the next variety. So May was our Detroit music month and we released Detroit records; you had the Kenny Larkin release; you had the Reference release, you had Urban Tribe and The Oliverwho Factory. And that was a statement that needed to be made, that we make music and we support music from Detroit.
You’ve always looked much further afield than just Detroit or America too.
Yeah, I mean, it’s basically just the stuff that I like. There’s only been the odd, very rare occasion that we’ve released something that I haven’t really been supportive of. Everything comes by me and needs to be something that pleases my ears and falls in line with the label, or something that other people just need to hear.
Artists can build an image of themselves for the public and likewise the public build one up of the artist over time. How did you want to be seen when you were starting out?
I didn’t really have the concept of what people were supposed to imagine. It’s not like I wanted people to see me as the Warhol of techno music or anything. It wasn’t until later anyway that I discovered Miles Davis that some aspects of my artistic character came out a bit more in relation to that. The first step was just to make this music.
One of the things that Planet E has done recently is start distributing some other Detroit labels. What was the reason behind this?
It was more a support thing. DJ Deep and I were talking and this was about the time I had finished mixing the Etienne Jaumet record and he had this Kerri Chandler record and he was telling me that the pre-sales were really low. I just thought, this is Kerri Chandler, that’s kind of bullshit. Why aren’t more copies being pressed, people love this guy. So I just told him, look man I think this should be doing more than it’s doing, if you want to try it on our side I can give you a hand. So he came over with the Ben Klock record and that’s where we started. We had started doing a couple of things with KMS a few years ago with the Elevate History remixes too.
What have been some of the moments of the label that have creatively been some of your moments of big growth and change?
I guess when I started putting out albums from other artists was a big growth, so when we released the Moodymann album and when we released the Recloose album, that was a big growth for us. We had a distribution deal at the time with Caroline and that was a big deal, for me at least. After we did that we found we didn’t really have the infrastructure to be able to handle big releases like that or have a distribution deal like that, so we had to refine what we were doing and pull back. Now we’re kind of pushing forward again. So it’s one of those things of doing what you have to, to stay in business. We grow but then we have to refine, or restrict, and then grow again. But I think for us by putting out other artists, that has been our biggest growth factor. I don’t mean to say this in any way that could be construed as anything else but I made the label based on my own music so it can survive just by me releasing my music, but it starts moving into other dimensions by releasing other artists.
It must be hard balancing something you are so passionate about with something that is a commercial enterprise.
Yeah, but I mean for me it’s very important to release something I believe in whether I think it will sell well or not, because for me it is about the importance of the music. Because you have a lot of labels that just put out music that is the same old same old and they kind of go out of business or fade into the background. You have labels that were dominant for a year because their sound was dominant and the next year they’re gone. With Planet E, my influences have been so many. When I was a kid I would look at labels like Warner Brothers who had Funkadelic, B52’s and their offshoots like Sire who had Talking Heads and all this kind of music that was different and was all hot. Casablanca, they had Donna Summer and Parliament, even KISS was on that label, not that I was into them. But having such a broad range of music, that’s how I wanted Planet E to be seen as well, the same way I saw these labels as a ten year old kid.
You were involved in the DEMF again this year after a very lengthy break. How was that for you?
It was good. I mean I was in there as a consultant really. I couldn’t walk in to the situation and say, ‘Hey, I’m the creative director this is how it’s going to be.’ These guys have been doing the festival for the past four years so I’m not going to walk in and push them around. I just gave them suggestions where they asked for them. I wasn’t going to be this big ego walking in after ten years and thinking I was going to run things, it just wasn’t going to happen.
But it was an enjoyable experience for you?
Yeah it was cool, I mean I got to do my thing and focus on the label without having to worry about any small, petty bullshit that can be involved in doing these things. When I did it ten years ago there were just all these things you had to deal with, so many people you have to make happy, whether it’s the artists talking shit in the background or the audience not happy with the way things are done, or maybe the contracts saying that you need a hundred red M&M’s in a clear glass fish bowl or something like that. So all that stuff I didn’t have to deal with, which was great. I mean, I’m a fucking artist as well so I don’t want to have to deal with all of that making sure someone’s back is being rubbed, I want my back rubbed. [laughs]
At the festival you presented a seminar in conjunction with the Detroit School of Arts and the Carl Craig Foundation. Tell us about the foundation.
You know everything I do now, I’ve come to realize I relate back to my teen years or as a pre-teen and how I heard music and how I was influenced, all the things I loved about being a teenager. It’s all hindsight, and I realize I can’t go back and give myself advice about how to talk to some girl, but I can help out teenagers now with some of the music stuff. Back in the second year of the festival I went back to my old high school with the help of this DJ called Magic Mike who was on the public school radio station. So I went back there with Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson because I wanted to make sure that the kids who went to the school that I went to understood that when you have a dream and you follow it you can end up being wherever you want to be. And I was in this situation at the time where I was very happy with what I’d done with being able to travel the world and do my music. And for them to also see Derrick and Kevin and see what we’d been able to do and the different sides of the music industry, it was very new for them.
I mean in 1978 when my parents drove me across the country and I took this little orange skateboard with me, I never for a moment thought that that skateboard could be a way to end up living in mansions and driving Lamborghini’s. It would never have dawned on me, but if someone had come to my school and told me all this, it would have been a real eye-opener for me. So that’s what I want to do with the foundation, to show people that you can really make a great living out of doing something that you love doing. It’s also to show these kids that there is a lot of music outside of what they hear on the radio, because the radio is still really bad, so it’s important to let the kids know what else is out there. So with the foundation, I’m a commissioner on the Detroit Entertainment Commission along with Dr. Cotton from the Detroit School of Arts and one of the other things that I wanted to do with the foundation was to educate as well as fund raise and tie-in with other foundations. There was a viewing from “Suite For Ma Dukes,” which was the 60 piece orchestra movement that was done of all of J. Dilla’s music. So I brought Dilla’s mother in to speak to the commission about Dilla’s music, so that they would understand who he was.
We also decided to do something at the DSA where we could show the kids the professional aspects of the industry. They already have good equipment there and good teachers, but what we did was bring established engineers and studio owners and get them to talk with the kids about how they use Pro-Tools and things like that. So Derrick and Kevin came in and the Paxahau guys came, Mr. Porter who produces for Dr. Dre and Eminem and on the last day Francisco Tristano. It was really good for the kids, but equally for the people who came in, as a lot of them didn’t know about the Detroit School of Arts either.
Download: Talking Shopcast 09: Monty Luke (60:49)
01. Paul Woolford, “Achilles” (promo edit) [Planet E*]
02. Franck Roger, “Re-Scape” [Guilty Pleasures]
03. Agent X, “Driftin” [Planet E]
04. Kirk Degiorgio, “Vesuvio” [Planet E]
05. Quadrant, Hyperprism (edit) [Planet E]
06. Psycatron ft. Blake Baxter, “She Is Music” (promo edit) [Guilty Pleasures*]
07. Newworldaquarium, “Trespassers” [Planet E]
08. Reference, “Best Night in Detroit” [Planet E]
09. The Oliverwho Factory, “Nightlights” (C2 Bonus Beats) [Planet E]
10. Monty Luke, “Art, Love & War” (C2 Version) [Planet E]
11. Paperclip People, “Slam Dance” [Planet E]
12. Paperclip People, “Clear and Present” [Planet E]
* denotes tracks which, as of the time of publishing, are unreleased