Local musician brings Electronic Music Festival to Detroit and, hopefully, into the mainstream

May 1, 2000


Carl Craig is apt to fool you.

Even now, amid the biggest project of his life, the esteemed techno musician carries himself smoothly, bestowing his movements with an almost catlike grace. Watching him glide through his neatly ordered office in Detroit's Wayne State University district, you'd never know his brain is continuously revving like a turbocharged engine.

"He seems like a laid-back dude," says Craig's musical mentor, Derrick May. "But the man is sharp. He's on it."

Two years of work are to culminate for Craig on Memorial Day weekend when the inaugural Detroit Electronic Music Festival kicks off at Hart Plaza on Detroit's riverfront.

Craig is the event's artistic director, using his global reputation and music-biz connections to book acts and coordinate multimedia presentations for the downtown site.

Featuring 50 international artists on four stages, the free event is among the first of its kind in the United States -- there's no Downtown Hoedown or Woodstock for electronic music.

It's certainly the first with substantial civic support, including sanction from the City of Detroit and a budget of more than $500,000 provided by corporate sponsors. For a young musical genre that has struggled to snare mainstream visibility, the Detroit festival is a stamp of validity.

"This goes way beyond your run-of-the-mill neon disco," says Craig. "We want people to be able to stumble onto a new universe with a nucleus at Hart Plaza."

Billing the event as an "unprecedented world party," Craig and other festival organizers have scheduled a news conference today at the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center to announce show details and a musical lineup that includes revered hometown artists Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson and May.

Despite skepticism about the festival's meager promotion and late start -- the city finalized the contract just last week -- organizers are confident that they can attract a weekend crowd of 50,000 to 200,000 people, including many international fans.

Electronic dance festivals are common in Europe, where music listeners a decade ago embraced techno music and its accompanying cyber-culture. Marked by intricate beats, futuristic sounds and minimal vocals, electronic music became the new rock 'n' roll of young Europe, spawning countless hybrids and making stars out of the most innovative creators.

In America, the sound has been slower in taking off. Despite its popularity in clubs, at sporting events and on TV commercials, electronic music has existed primarily as a subculture of the pop world.

Detroit musicians such as Craig and May, who virtually invented techno music in the 1980s, have become exalted figures outside U.S. borders. Their hometown has taken on mythical status, a kind of mecca for fans.

Techno proponents say that's why the city known best for Motown and Bob Seger is the ideal place to celebrate the international electronic music scene.

"To take all these musical strands from across the world and bring them back to one of the originating sources is a smart thing," says author Dan Sicko, whose recent "Techno Rebels" (Billboard Books, $16.95) explores Detroit's electronic music legacy. "If anybody can pull this off," Sicko said, Craig can.

Plugging in the city

In late 1997, Craig and veteran events director Carol Marvin came up with what Craig laughingly calls their "harebrained scheme."

Marvin is president of Pop Culture Media, which since 1994 has helped stage the Detroit International Jazz Festival (formerly the Montreux Detroit Jazz Festival). With skill at landing corporate sponsorships and navigating City Hall's red tape, she had the chops to pitch Detroit's movers and shakers on the daring new concept.

Still, Marvin and Craig faced an uphill battle: Those city leaders who knew anything about the electronic subculture likely associated it with the dark world of raves -- all-night parties often held in illegal locations and saturated with drugs.

The pair prepared a compact disc primer on electronic music and firmly asserted their desire for an upscale crowd that wouldn't cause trouble. "We'll have the type of audience that will be attending" the Detroit International Jazz Festival 10 years from now, says Craig, who adds that unlike rock shows such as Lollapalooza, "there will be no fires, no throwing bottles -- a totally civil event."

The Department of Recreation, which oversees Hart Plaza, was sold.

"We saw this as an excellent activity that draws young people to downtown Detroit," says Phil Talbert, the department's special activities coordinator.

As a fan of electronic dance music -- and aware of Detroit's crucial but unheralded role in the genre's development -- Marvin sees the festival as a chance to splash a cosmopolitan flair onto the city landscape.

"The thing that's so special about this," she says, "is that it truly is a global event being hosted in Detroit."

Detroit's latest music giant

Things have come a long way since the mid-'80s, when Craig was a student at Cooley High School -- "a real ghetto place," he calls it. His eclectic taste in music -- from alternative rock to electro-funk -- had already set him apart from his classmates.

Armed with a synthesizer and cassette deck and energized by the techno sounds he was starting to hear on WJLB-FM (97.9), Craig hunkered down in his parents' basement to begin creating tracks. His homemade tapes soon landed in the hands of May, who was becoming one of techno's leading forces.

"Our music was seen as less of a 'street' music and more of an intellectual music," Craig says. "We've been accused of going over people's heads. But that's not what we tried to do."

Under the tutelage of May, Craig honed his craft. His work has become distinct from the other Detroit producers, weaving jazz, acoustic guitar and disco into the mix. The result: sweeping critical acclaim and a worldwide fan base.

Today he's a globe-trotter. Surrounding his Memorial Day weekend festival are gigs in Malta, Belgium and Australia. "About the only time I get peace of mind is on the plane," he says.

Friends describe Craig as a complicated figure: a stoic guy whose wit is subtle but sharp. A right-brained creative genius and a left-brained business whiz. A cultivated renaissance man who adores his blue-collar hometown.

"He loves Detroit," says May. "For a guy that travels the world and does the things he does, he pretty much could pick anywhere to live his life. But he chooses Detroit. He's sacrificed his young years for his community."

Outside the office of Planet E Records, the label he founded in 1991, Craig parks his green BMW station wagon -- a mark of what friends call his eccentric side.

Those quirky fingerprints will be all over the Detroit Electronic Music Festival. Craig has booked a diverse bill of house, funk and hip-hop music.

First-year jitters

First up, though, is getting folks to the festival. And that has become the pesky question hanging over the proceedings. Busy with work coordinating city departments and mapping production plans, organizers have delayed the festival's announcement several times.

Stacy Osbaum, editorial director with the national electronic-music magazine Urb, is among those watching with cautious enthusiasm.

"We see it as being a potentially landmark event," says Osbaum. "I just hope it turns out as well as it promises to."

Organizers acknowledge they're fighting time. For international visitors, especially, travel deadlines are getting tight. Craig says he's been stopped by fans in Tel Aviv, Israel, and Amsterdam, Netherlands, quizzing him for details.

City officials say they've made a 3-year commitment to the festival. The goal, say all involved, is getting the event off the ground this year, establishing a quality name, and shooting for bigger things in 2001. Marvin says she expects the festival to break even financially this year.

"If this works, it's going to be a really nice beginning to a new cosmopolitan outlook on Detroit," says May, who will jet in from a concert in Copenhagen, Denmark, to perform at Hart Plaza. "It could open the eyes of a lot of black folks in Detroit who don't realize this music has roots here. This holds a lot of value for all of us, but especially Carl. He's putting his name on the line not just locally but internationally."

Contact BRIAN MCCOLLUM at 313-223-4450 or