Label of the Month: Planet E Communications
Label of the Month: Planet E CommunicationsAugust 16, 2021
Marcus Barnes speaks with Planet E founder Carl Craig to learn the story behind his seminal Detroit label, which turns 30 this year.
When journalists write about Carl Craig, they often describe him as a “second generation” Detroit techno pioneer, which makes it sound a bit like he was late to the party. In fact, the gap between Detroit’s first and second wave is only a few years, and Carl’s historical, cultural, and musical references are completely aligned with the likes of Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson, also known as The Belleville Three. That’s all to say that his techno lineage is deep and nuanced, and important to consider when we turn the lens to his label, Planet E, which turns 30 years old this year.
Three decades is a hell of a long time, especially in the techno world. Navigating the twists and turns of an artist’s career is challenging enough without the additional responsibility of keeping a record label afloat. However, as you’re about to read, there was never any doubt that the label would endure and flourish, driven by Carl’s need for freedom of expression.
When we talk, Carl is sitting in his Berlin hotel room draped in a grey dressing gown, and midway through a week of studio sessions with his old partner in crime, Moritz Von Oswald. They’re working on a collaborative album, which they started way before the pandemic hit. Now, over a year later, they’re creating new material for the project.
Even at the ripe young age of 21, Carl was confident his music was good enough to be released, a confidence he learned from his family. His grandparents, who were ministers in Georgia, often fought just to keep their small church alive by hitting the pavement and convincing parishioners to fill the congregation. His mother too was a determined character: Carl watched as she made it to university later in life, before she eventually became a teacher. With these figures around him, Carl naturally developed an inherent zeal. “I wasn’t gonna let anybody stand in the way of my passion,” he says.
Though he was running the Retroactive label with Damon Booker, Carl still needed an outlet that was solely his own, with no external interference or influence. Planet E is his world — the name inspired by a documentary about the cosmos that used music from Brian Eno’s Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks. The label’s full name, Planet E Communications, is based on the idea that there’s a communication between Earth and space, the man on the moon and the space shuttle. It’s also a nod to Warner Communications, doing that ‘hood thing of adding clout to your business by borrowing from an established corporate identity. But Planet E is anything but corporate. The entire ethos is centred in representing a broad spectrum of music outside the sphere of what many would define as techno, while representing techno from Carl’s perspective.
Like the rest of Detroit’s old guard, Carl got the majority of his musical education from the enigmatic Electrifying Mojo, the DJ and radio host who captivated the imaginations of Motor City’s Black communities in the early eighties. Mojo’s eclectic curation introduced his listeners to a rich, diverse cross section of music and artists, joining the dots between seemingly disparate genres, distilling the funk into four hours that represented Black music and the numerous tributaries that fed into and inspired it.
“Because of how it was presented to me, or how I interpreted it growing up, what made Black music was not only music that was Black or just music that was from the United States,” Carl explains. “What made Black music was that other shit that was funky, too.” By ‘other shit’, he means Gary Numan’s “Cars,” the B-52’s “Mesopotamia” and Kraftwerk’s “Numbers,” among countless others.
“He was playing all this amazing Black music on a Black radio station. But then he was bringing in this other music and we just didn’t care what colour it was, didn’t know what colour,” he adds.
Also critical to the international flavour of Planet E was Carl’s early experiences outside of the US. He lived in London for a while, as electronic music and rave culture was evolving from acid house into jungle and drum & bass. Making connections with pioneers like Mark Moore from S’Express, he became immersed in the culture of that era, which had a lasting impact on his outlook. Carl’s friendship and professional relationship with Berlin pioneer Moritz Von Oswald also emboldened his worldly perspective, and that European link has remained intact ever since.
Planet E Communications embodies the local lineage from Detroit, while keeping its doors wide open to the global community of techno disciples. The second release came from British techno veteran Kirk DeGiorgio under his As One alias, maintaining the musical dialogue between Motor City and Europe that dates back to the very early days of Motown and even further back to the blues.
“That’s a beautiful thing about music. I gotta give a lot of credit to England for that,” he says. “There was musical bouncing that was happening back and forth between BB King and then Eric Clapton or Muddy Waters and The Rolling Stones. And it comes back [via the Stones] to America and inspires the white boys to make rock & roll with blues influences.”
That continuous exchange forms part of Carl’s sonic identity, which extends into the label’s output. He recalls hanging with Jon Saul Kane (also known as Depth Charge and Octagon Man) in London and asking what speed his classic hit “Goal” should be played, to which Jon replied, “Any speed you like.”
This seemingly innocuous interaction carries a lot more weight when Carl connects it directly to the now-infamous speeding up of his jazz composition “Bug In The Bass Bin.” Drum & bass selector Fabio played it at 45 RPM (instead of 33), and it was instantly transformed into a D&B classic. Smaller forms of musical conversation like this are perhaps only fully understood when the artists themselves reveal their historical context. Speaking with Carl connects these crucial puzzle pieces, and uncovers the multitude of experiences that helped form the label’s current identity. It’s in these stories that the truly nuanced way in which history is written comes to the surface.
Just recently Carl spoke to Electrifying Mojo on the phone for the very first time, and had a revelatory discussion. “I told him one of my favourite one of the records he played that made the biggest impact on me was ‘Frequency 7’ from Visage. And he’s like, ‘Man, Derrick [May] brought me that song.’” Little details add clarity to the bigger picture, giving us a better understanding of the interactions and details of the real story.
Across any lengthy period of time, there will always be moments when running a label while holding down life on the road, finding time to make music, and being a father, husband, friend, brother, and son is almost impossible. But, asked if he ever had a time when he considered calling time on Planet E, Carl’s position is staunch. “Planet E is about my freedom. So I’ve done everything that I could in order to keep that independence,” he says. “I said a long time ago, the reason why I did so many remixes was that it was guerrilla warfare. I do remixes for majors, I do remixes for whoever else, so that I can keep my label running.”
“I would take that money and put it right back into my releases and put it into the day to day operations. Every dollar that I’ve made at some point has been designated, to go into that sphere, Planet E, and my freedom. Everything from DJ money, live performance money, remixes,” he adds.
For Carl, running the label is a selfish endeavour. “You have to have that selfishness to keep your independence,” he states. “I do put out records for people to enjoy. But when I put out other people’s records, I put them out for me to enjoy them first. And then you can enjoy them when I put them out.” The conversation then moves on to the way in which selfishness is often portrayed in a negative light in society. Carl highlights people who profess to be righteous and unselfish, when their behaviour is quite the opposite. Animal instincts and survival at all costs still govern human behaviour, and denying that we possess these traits isn’t seeing the whole picture.
Carl’s ability to cut through the noise and get right to the point is ever present in our chat. Being “real” or unrepentantly honest is simply who he is. On Twitter he uses the screen name RIDE OR DIE, tweeting in an unfiltered manner that some of today’s more image-conscious artists wouldn’t dare. It’s partly due to being an “opinionated Black man from Detroit,” and his “keeping it real” mentality. It’s not for the more sensitive members of Twitter, but it is sincere: you know where you stand and, if you don’t like it, you don’t have to read it.
“Just be real, man. That’s the thing. That’s what I’ve tried to do with the releases that I’ve put out on Planet E. I’ve tried a lot of things,” including hip hop and jazz, he explains, describing the conscious effort he’s made to avoid releasing commercial-sounding music. He’s never chased sales, instead focusing on nurturing a core audience who understands Planet E and appreciates it for what it is, regardless of genre.
“Even though I call it a techno label, I never quite considered it a techno label. That’s because techno, to me, is so broad. Maybe techno is in my head so broad because I’ve done whatever I could to make sure Detroit techno didn’t get typecast,” he explains, referencing the open format framework laid out by Electrifying Mojo.
“So by me putting out jazz records, doing Tres Demented, which was a rock-inspired kind of thing with ‘Shez Satan’, taking these risks was me quietly saying, ‘This uses techno, you just don’t know what the fuck techno is. And I’m going to show you what techno is, but I’m not going to sit around and banging the drum.”
“Techno is that attitude in the music that Mojo was playing that influenced me as a kid,” Carl continues. “Techno is that cross section — that mix of music that influenced what we know as Detroit techno. Planet E is my vision of techno.”
On the artist front, the label has welcomed a myriad techno aficionados, including Moritz, Matthew Dear, Stacey Pullen, Moodymann, Niko Marks, DJ Holographic, Recloose, Waajeed and Carl’s many aliases, like Paperclip People, 69, Innerzone Orchestra. Thanks to this varied curation, Carl has maintained a bond between local acts and producers from overseas, newcomers and veterans.
He regales a story about Recloose dropping him a demo tape by slipping it into a sandwich at one of Carl’s favourite spots, Russell Street Deli. He was at the deli with an ex-girlfriend, and they each ordered a sandwich. When they got in the car, he immediately wanted to eat (“In Detroit we do everything in the car”), so she opened the bag and discovered three sandwiches: Ham and cheese, tuna and demo tape on rye. “I was like, ‘Damn, this is fucking ingenious. I had to listen to it that instant and I loved what I heard,” he says, reliving the excitement of the moment.
Detroit veteran Niko Marks, who has released tracks like “Crank Shaft” with Planet E, says working with the label left him feeling inspired ever since. “Releasing on Planet E has opened me up to many opportunities and a much broader audience,” he says, favourably comparing the label to other Detroit outlets like Underground Resistance and Submerge. “Creatively, I became more confident and assured that my sound deserved to be heard by the world. I mean, it says a lot when someone like Carl feels that your musical works qualify for his label. I’ve been thriving off the energy of that thought ever since,” he adds.
DJ Holographic, another Detroit artist, had her first release with the label after self-releasing her debut on Hitchhiker. She also mixed Volume Five of Planet E’s Detroit Love compilation, and her track,”Faith In My Cup,” was among the 18 tracks featured on the release. “This is the first time I’ve actually worked with another label entirely,” she reveals. “And that right there is a fucking miracle itself, to work on such an international label.”
“I believe that Planet E is a label that is meant to be generational,” she continues. “It is a label that’s meant to be passed down generationally, just like the concept of Motown. Motown wasn’t just for like, that time period. It’s supposed to transcend the time period, and connect with their listener’s kids and then their kid’s kids and their kid’s kid’s kids and their kid’s kid’s kid’s kids. For Planet E, I feel like it is the same essence of that.”
She references the future-facing outlook of Carl and his label, and how that fits in with its 30-year lifespan. “I have a good feeling that when Carl started Planet E, he made sure that it was sounds and music that we’d be listening to on a spacecraft and working, doing whatever we need to be doing off this planet and still enjoying some actual music for the mind, music for the spirit,” she says.
Despite Carl’s unwavering commitment to his label, the global pandemic proved to be his most challenging period yet. With no income from touring, he had to dig deep to keep Planet E’s colony alive. He continued to pay his label staff, and went above and beyond to maintain his independence. In the face of such a huge global shift, he remained adamant that the label would be kept afloat. This tenacity and determination goes right back to his roots, that inner fight and refusal to cave in galvanised by his DNA. From his grandparents to his mother, and to Carl himself, there’s an overriding genetic predisposition to refuse to relent, which perhaps goes back even further in his bloodline.
“I took out second mortgages on my houses, government loans, sold equipment… I did everything that was necessary in order to keep this vision alive,” he explains. “I know what Planet E is, and it’s my independence; it’s the voice that’s been there for all these years, and it’s something that really should be preserved. And I’m gonna try to do it until I can’t do it any more.”
Planet E is Carl’s home planet, an amalgamation of Black music, a fusion of Detroit attitude with a pinch of international flavour and the eternally reverential influence of the Electrifying Mojo. 30 years after it first launched, Planet E is still techno.
Marcus Barnes is an author, journalist, copywriter, and tastemaker with over 15 years experience in print and online. Find him on Twitter.