Credit: Black Box/Tribeca Film Festival
by Selina Lee Featured Film

Desire: The Carl Craig Story — Jean-Cosme Delaloye [Tribeca ’24 Review]

June 19, 2024

To the uninitiated, techno music might feel forbiddingly sterile, lacking the warmth of familiar analog instruments or the collaborative dynamic of bandmates, songwriters, and producers. What’s more, the lone figure of the DJ, sequestered above and away from the dance floor, can seem both intimidatingly aloof and annoyingly self-aggrandizing. However, diehard and casual ravers alike know that the dance floor isn’t where egos are displayed, but where they melt away. In Desire: The Carl Craig Story, director Jean-Cosme Delaloye, who was born in Switzerland and based in Brooklyn, takes the legendary producer and DJ out of the booth, splicing interviews with him, his family, and other electronic music luminaries to chart his pivotal role in creating and expanding the genre known as Detroit techno. 

Born in 1969, Craig came of age as part of the city’s Black middle class with music-loving parents who encouraged his creative outlets. Though Detroit was at the time relatively stable, he was mentored by musicians who experienced their hometown’s tumultuous history firsthand as the once-mighty automobile industry collapsed in the face of economic recession, automation, racial conflict, and white flight to the suburbs. The most famous of these DJs — Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, and Derrick May — were friends, neighbors, collaborators, and kindred spirits. These soon-to-be legends were willing to mentor a newcomer like Craig, who was inspired to make electronic music partly by his day job: a copy shop where industrial printers churned out asynchronous polyrhythms nonstop.

This deep appreciation for all forms and combinations of sound and texture is central to Craig’s artistic ethos. He and his peers were cultural sponges, inhaling and synthesizing everything from Vangelis’ hugely influential Blade Runner soundtrack to Britain’s New Romantic bands to punishing industrial performance artists like Throbbing Gristle. At the same time, the popularity of the Blaxploitation genre, with films like Shaft entering the mainstream, dovetailed with the Black-led Detroit techno scene as it became an established genre in its own right, separate from the house music pumped out by nearby Chicago. This cultural moment fed into visual art as well, and artwork from Craig’s Planet E music label was often steeped with mystical sci-fi and afro-futurist imagery. 

Craig became known for dance music that was more subdued than house or standard techno, but funky and somehow otherworldly; the song for which the film is named, “Desire,” is described by more than one interview subject as exemplary of his ability to “make machines cry.” In this sense, his work easily slots into a lineage that includes artists like John Carpenter and Tangerine Dream. But as his career progressed, Craig wholeheartedly embraced new ideas and thoughtfully integrated existing musical landscapes into his distinct point of view. Jazz became a major touchstone because its freewheeling, improvisational spirit was a way to inject warmth into a genre dominated by synthesizers and drum machines. And in fact, the two genres weren’t so different: Sun Ra Arkestra percussionist and Max Roach disciple Francisco Mora traces jazz and techno fusion back to Sun Ra’s use of the electric piano as early as the 1950s. In 1992, he and Craig collaborated on the 12” Bug in the Bass Bin, showcasing Craig’s ability to blend these complementary genres while successfully pushing their individual limits. The record’s syncopated beats could be played at both 45 and 33 RPM, prompting peers to call him the Miles Davis of techno producers while heavily influencing the genres drum’n’bass and jungle. 

By focusing on Craig’s musical and cultural affinity with American jazz and UK-based producers and DJs who, like Roni Size and Fabio, were also Black, Delaloye makes the bold decision to consciously de-center Berlin, the city that is arguably most synonymous with techno music. The only German musician Delaloye interviewed is Moritz Von Oswald, a composer who collaborated with Craig on a symphony piece rather than anything electronic. In showcasing Craig’s influence on a younger generation of Black and Latino DJs and musicians from around the world, Delaloye is both advocating for Detroit’s place on the cultural map and rewriting some of its past erasure. It’s also refreshing and sobering to hear interview subjects explicitly call out the lack of attention the Detroit scene received when compared to white UK artists like the Chemical Brothers, whose releases were met with far more critical attention and financial success.

The documentary’s third act shifts to one of Craig’s more recent productions, a sound installation mounted at Dia:Beacon and the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. Known for its punishingly austere permanent collection featuring all-white canvases (Robert Ryman), giant crushed cars (John Chamberlain), and larger-than-life corten spirals (Richard Serra), the Dia:Beacon setting was an apt new direction for Craig’s long career. He was still creating music in a cavernous, concrete space, not all that different from the dingy warehouse raves where he got his start. And while this basement happened to be part of a blue-chip art museum, the building itself was a former Nabisco packaging plant. 

Unlike the lush, cinematic melodies of his most approachable work, this piece, titled Party/After-Party, throbs with jarring dissonance. It’s not so much music to dance to as noise to be endured; taken out of context, it’s not unlike an Atticus Ross/Trent Reznor composition. While the music he creates on the dance floor conjures hours of joy and euphoria, Party/After-Party is about loneliness and depletion, the solitude of a post-show hotel room, and a lifetime of tinnitus. Yet the punishing noise belies a certain vulnerability, which the film’s closing scenes bring to the fore. Like so many other Black musicians throughout American history, Craig got his start playing in church — in his case, a one-room shack that his grandmother, Mother Ward, built in her backyard. As a child, Craig would noodle on a dusty organ or guitar, playing to no one but the ancient pews and peeling paint. In a way, every club he’s ever played since, be it in the Swiss Alps or the Chihuahuan Desert, is an extension of that church. Alone in the DJ booth, playing for sold-out crowds at 2:00 AM or empty rooms at sound check, Carl Craig is our shepherd, guiding generations of music lovers toward transcendence.

Published as part of Tribeca Film Festival 2024 — Dispatch 3.