“I’m always busy,” laughs Carl Craig when I ask if he’s been working hard recently.
Looking back, it was a foolish question to ask someone whose ongoing duties and interests include record label boss (his own Planet E Records), remixer, multi-instrumentalist and occasional vocalist. Oh, and one of the most highly regarded and innovative techno producers to step out of Detroit (or anywhere else for that matter) – recording under a staggering host of musical aliases over the years.
But even for a man with as many pie-stained digits as this, Craig has been especially busy of late, organising and rehearsing for a one-off reformation performance of his seminal Innerzone Orchestra project, to take place at this summer’s Get Loaded In The Park festival. With Craig himself on programming duties, he will hold together a full live band and ten-piece string orchestra, displaying Innerzone’s enticing mix of electronica, jazz, twisted soul and freeform improvisation. This promises to be a truly unique live show.
Having created probably the most coherent and original fusion of electronics and jazz in modern times with their only recorded album, ‘Programmed’, Innerzone Orchestra came to be regarded as the ultimate example of what a dance orchestra could achieve. Then again, calling Innerzone a dance orchestra is to simplify things to a horrific degree. What made the group so innovative and influential to countless musicians was the scope of musical bases they covered, all in a single album. The final track of ‘Programmed’ – ‘Bug In The Bassbin’ – also has a bit of a story to tell. Produced by Craig in 1992, and featuring some of the musicians who would later make up Innerzone, ‘Bug In The Bassbin’ effectively signalled the beginning of the Orchestra (though their album wouldn’t be recorded until 1999, seven years later), and is now recognised as having helped to kick-start and nurture the beginnings of the breakbeat and drum and bass scenes.
“I wanted to present something that would be different, musically. I wanted to do something that came from my heart.”/blockquote>
A bold claim for a single track, but give it a spin and you’ll see why. Full of deep bass grooves, shifting synth melodies and a drum break that would inspire/get robbed by countless beat-heads, it sounds like a fresh answer to all the jazzy d‘n’b/instrumental breaks efforts produced over the last decade, and was created years before most of them were even dreamt up.
Even at the time, Craig knew he was making something special: “I had a clue that something was going on, because I wanted to go down that path – when I was making ‘Bug In The Bassbin’, I wanted to present something that would be different, musically. I wanted to do something that came from my heart.” Though its impact was initially confined to the underground upon release, ‘Bug In The Bassbin’ was eventually – inevitably – picked up by DJs, including the likes of 4hero, Goldie and J Majik, all aware of the potential of speeding up the track’s already fascinating syncopated beats – a technique that would be used more than once in the coming years of drum and bass.
A little later still, and the track was picked up by James Lavelle, who would become a key player in various incarnations of the breaks and beats scenes. Lavelle reissued ‘Bug In The Bassbin’ on his Mo’ Wax label – a respected source of trip-hop and hip-hop, with a big audience. The track’s status as a classic – for everyone from beat-hedonists to beard-stroking jazz obsessives – was cemented. And although Craig may have known that he was tapping into something when he created the track, even he didn’t know quite what was to come.
“When I first heard a DJ playing ‘Bug In The Bassbin’, I knew they were playing it faster than normal, but I didn’t really have the concept of how it would inspire people. I knew that I wanted to inspire, but I didn’t have any idea of how it would be an integral part of inspiring guys to make breakbeat or drum and bass or whatever. I mean, breakbeat itself was something that was going on at the time when I made ‘Bug…’, with Shut Up And Dance [UK pioneers of old skool breaks and rave], that kind of stuff. But when people were inspired by ‘Bug…’ to make early drum and bass, I had no clue that would be the case.”
Innerzone Orchestra – Bug In A Bassbin
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And it’s not just drum and bass that wears that mark of Innerzone on its sleeve. As well as hearing its influence in various electronic/instrumental crossovers such as Tom Jenkinson’s Squarepusher and the various dance orchestras undertaken by the likes of Matthew Herbert and Jeff Mills, Innerzone effectively paved the way for most of the ‘nu-jazz’ outfits like The Cinematic Orchestra (who owe more than a passing nod to some of the tracks on ‘Programmed’) and Jaga Jazzist.
Though the project has seen a number of musicians pass through its ranks (including minimal techno stalwart Richie Hawtin and Detroit bass-playing legend Paul Randolph, who both contributed to tracks on ‘Programmed’), Innerzone’s appearance at the Get Loaded festival will feature – as well as Craig himself – several original members of the project, including Craig’s long-time collaborator, experimental pianist Francesco Tristano, and Wendell Harrison, both of whom receive the highest praise from Craig.
“Francisco is an original member and integral piece of the puzzle. Wendell Harrison; I call him the snake charmer because he plays that sax and that clarinet in a way that is still so entrancing, and his solos… They’re events in their own right. Their solos are very important to the reaction of the people and that’s how it’s a lot different to what I do as a DJ. As a DJ you can play a song, and the song will work and the improvisation that you’ll do will be based around filtering and looping, or the way the next song is mixed in – things like that – in order to get the crowd to respond. But it’s a different way, and maybe not as entrancing as what happens with a pro soloing, like Wendall Harrison.”
And if you think that soloing clarinets have no place locking horns with electronica, well, you’re wrong. Part of Innerzone’s beauty comes from its wide range of styles and the musicians’ ability to blend together these conflicting elements, creating something intricate yet accessible – be it Craig’s Detroit techno roots, to hip-hop to percussive world rhythms to future funk to a strong jazz element that characterises the whole album – everything here is crafted by the finest names in the modern business. Fittingly, listening to ‘Programmed’ also brings to mind some of the great names in modern jazz, particularly the pioneers of improv-based free jazz: ‘Bitches Brew’-era Miles Davis, the later years of John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock (whose sublime ‘Sextant’ album is particularly reminiscent during parts of ‘Programmed’), and the mighty Sun Ra, with his untouchable, other-worldy ‘Arkestra’ and penchant for improvised electronics. Fittingly, one of Innerzone’s original line-up, percussionist Francisco Mora, played in the late, great Sun Ra’s band of eccentric geniuses.
“Innerzone was an avenue for making music that is avant-garde.”
By now, it seems clear that despite frequent glitchy electronics, Innerzone is a very different machine to the techno background with which many will associate Carl Craig. But then again, Craig has always been an innovator in whatever musical direction he pursues. Much of the reason he became so highly regarded was his willingness to explore other musical dimensions through his electronic work, refusing to stick to the traditional techno parameters, embracing the range of musical influences that being of Detroit’s ‘second generation’ offered. It seems that Innerzone was the perfect channel to fully explore these elements: “Innerzone, for me, was an avenue for making music that is avant-garde; a way of dealing with my inspirations from jazz. It’s an opportunity to play music that’s different to what I do as a DJ. When I’m playing on my own as a DJ, it’s focused on what I do and how I get people to respond, based on the music I play, whereas with Innerzone, it’s a collective, and people’s responses are based on the musicians and how they play.”
With credentials for Craig and Innerzone overflowing from every conceivable direction, I’m curious as to whether it may be a tad strange to perform at Get Loaded In The Park, surrounded by artists whose musical careers may have been kick-started by both his solo work and Innerzone’s album: “Nah, it’s never strange, man; we just do what we do. I’ve been as influenced as much by them as they have might been influenced by me.” Doubtful, Carl, but it’s good of you to say so.
But one thing about the upcoming live show is certain: a horrific amount of preparation is required to perform something as intricate as ‘Programmed’ (as well as some of Craig’s solo tracks), with as many musicians as will be on stage. In particular, the ten-piece string orchestra that will accompany Innerzone – though doubtlessly fantastic on the night – will provide more than enough to keep Craig as busy as ever in the run-up to the festival: “Yeah, the string arrangements are probably the most difficult part because they have to be written without the string players themselves, and then everything that needs to be fixed has to be fixed on the spot. I can’t say it’s going to be an easy thing to do, but we’ll work on perfection during rehearsal, and I’m sure the performance will be wonderful.”
To be honest, it could hardly be anything else.
Words by Tristan Parker