Carl Craig's Hard-Earned Mastery
Also, he can apparently make his face all weird and trippy (photo by Timothy Saccenti
Skimming this year's list of Grammy nominees a few weeks back, I found a pleasant surprise buried near the bottom: Carl Craig's remix of the Junior Boys' "Like a Child," up for Best Remixed Recording, non-classical. When I say that nomination was a surprise, I don't mean it didn't deserve it. The remix is a monster: Detroit techno OG Craig keeping the lost, wide-eyed romanticism of the blissy synthpop original fully intact while welding it to his own spacious but propulsive rippling electro. The only reason I was surprised to see it on the list of nominees was that the Grammy voters love to vote for some godawful shit in widely ignored pop categories like this one. Consider one of the track's competitors: the Beny Benassi Sfaction remix of Public Enemy's "Bring the Noise," which I didn't even know was a thing. Every once in a while, though, Grammy voters get something absolutely right. This award isn't one of the ones that'll make it onto the telecast this year (if there even is a telecast this year, what with the writers' strike and all), but it would be nice to see Craig get some industry love for the massive roll he's been on lately. Every remix Craig has released over the past couple of years has felt like an event. His takes on Faze Action's "In the Trees," Theo Parrish's "Falling Up," and Delia Gonzales & Gavin Russom's "Relevee" all work a sound Craig has spent the better part of two decades developing: evil burbling basslines, spaced-out and unhurried drums, patient and incremental builds. But none of them sound like an artist repeating himself; they all sprawl cinematically in different directions without neglecting their central pulse.
For a legendary figure like Craig to be so on top of his game after so many years is pretty inspiring, and I was surprised and amped to see Sessions, his new double-CD, cross my desk earlier this week. Craig isn't part of Detroit's first wave of techno pioneers, but he did come up under those guys, apprenticing with Derrick May and maintaining connections to plenty of the others. Sessions isn't exactly a greatest-hits set; it focuses too much on his more recent work (including all those remixes I just named) and omits some of his bigger jams, like his house remix of Tori Amos's "God." But it is a sort of look back. Older tracks like "Throw" and "Oscillator" and "Bug in the Bass Bin" make appearances, some in remixed form. Craig mixes it all together continuously, for flow rather than chronology, and the tracks bleed together into a remarkably seamless whole. The newer tracks don't sound like the older ones or anything; when Craig's restrained funk take on "Falling Up" segues into "Oscillator," a skeletal, banging electro track with a Bob James sample that he recorded under his Paperclip People alias in 1991, it's pretty obvious that we're going from a newer track to an older one. But it's never jarring; "Oscillator" might be the rawest track on the collection, but even then Craig was finding room for moody, expansive synths that lent a glacial beauty to what would've otherwise just been a straight-up banger. Sessions might be a pieced-together work, but it feels completely fluid and cohesive. Walking to the laundromat with Sessions on my iPod earlier today, I had to dump my bigass laundry bag on the sidewalk for a few minutes and watch the flock of pigeons circling overhead. For whatever reason, whenever the birds would switch direction midair, they'd do it perfectly in time with the track. They looked like they were dancing. Sessions is that kind of album.
The music Craig makes is basically utilitarian; he's a DJ as well as a producer, and his music is unashamedly dance music, music for moving massive crowds. But he's ambitious, too, and he's long looked for ways to incorporate jazz and funk and disco into his tracks. In the past, his attempts have sometimes felt forced. "Bug in the Bass Bin," which he released as Innerzone Orchestra in 1993, might've been a great leap forward for techno, but I always found its jittery live drums and bleating organs to be awkward and affected, like he'd spent too much time thinking about how he'd pull it off. (Fortunately, it's the last track on Sessions, so it's easy enough to skip.) Over the years, though, he's managed to fully internalize all his experimental tendencies. When a tinkling jazz piano shows up near the end of his "Relevee" remix, it doesn't work against the tidal force of the relentless synth-riff; it just dips in and out of it, lending to its power without overwhelming it. In virtually every genre of music, artists mostly burn out or get distracted or decide to switch directions after a few years. Craig is a rare case: someone who's been tinkering with the same set of ideas forever, figuring out new ways to make them work. Right now, he's better than he's ever been, and Sessions is proof.