Tucked away in a quiet corner of the Royal Albert Hall’s Rausing Circle sits the Elgar Room, walls proudly hung with black and white portraits of the myriad American icons to have passed through the building on their way to immortality: Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Nina Simone… As the larger-than-life DJ Carl Craig strolls in to join me and Chineke! founder Chi-chi Nwanoku – with whom he will be performing next month in the main auditorium – I am struck by the sense that it won’t be long until his own portrait hangs on these walls.
Craig, who has released numerous dance-floor classics and remixes under a variety of guises, made his name in the early 90s as part of the second generation of Detroit techno masters. He has since had an incalculable impact on the genre. Although as a teenager he played double bass in his school orchestra (“badly” – he tells me), Craig developed an early passion for techno. The double bass was soon dropped in favour of a synthesiser, and it wasn’t long before Craig had amassed a major following in the UK as well as in the States.
His take on techno has been described by Fact Magazine as “perhaps the most emotive and personal of his Detroit generation”, something often attributed to an expansive set of influences. Craig tells me Aretha Franklin is one of his most important ones, prompting Nwanoku to point to her picture, then to Nina Simone’s. He also credits jazz musicians like Ramsey Lewis and Marcus Belgrave as two of his earliest musical heroes, and cites a deep connection to his Michigan hometown, insisting a close link with your roots is key to authenticity. “We have to represent the music in relation to where it really comes from, which is the inner cities of the US – with a back beat of James Brown!” he tells me. “I came here for the first time in 1989, and could have stayed because this is where I made my career, but I wanted to keep Detroit in me. Because my family was in me, I made my best music.”
It is, however, in this latest collaboration with Chineke! that Craig channels another of his influences: classical music. In the upcoming concert – part of the Royal Albert Hall’s Love Classical season – Craig will be performing tracks from his 2017 album Versus, a techno-orchestral crossover first conceived with the Les Siècles Orchestra and pianist Francesco Tristano back in 2008. The Juilliard-trained, techno-loving Tristano met Craig at a gig in his home country of Luxembourg. Craig hadn’t heard of the young pianist, but when Tristano showed him his piano arrangements of the techno classics The Bells and Strings of Life, Craig was so impressed he suggested they work together on a fusion project. “His renditions were mind-blowing to me – to know that someone would actually do that,” says Craig.
As a genre, techno is no stranger to classical reinterpretation. Since their first days pioneering the sound, many of Detroit techno’s biggest names have performed with orchestras. Jeff Mills, who founded the techno collective Underground Resistance in the late 80s, recorded his album Blue Potential with the Montpelier Philharmonic two years before. Indeed, when Craig first met Tristano, he and Moritz von Oswald – a German techno DJ and classically trained percussionist – had just released ReComposed, that overlaid classic Berlin Philharmonic recordings of Ravel’s Bolero and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition with their own electronics, solidifying Craig’s reputation as an innovator in the electronic scene.
For the new project Craig reenlisted the help of von Oswald (his “spiritual guru”), and the trio set about planning a concert at Paris’ Cité de la Musique. Orchestral parts were written for songs from Craig’s back catalogue like Technology and Landcruising, as well as for a collection of originals composed by himself and Tristano. The concert was a sell-out, and the unlikely pairing received overwhelmingly positive reviews.
When I asked what it meant to perform with an orchestra, Craig admits it was something of a dream come true. “It was that innocence. The feeling that that’s when you’ve really made it – when you have an orchestra doing your music.” So when his agent suggested another collaboration, this time with Chineke!, he jumped at the opportunity, not least because of their agenda in supporting BME music-making at the highest level. “Black orchestra? Black music? This has gotta happen!”, he asserts with a grin. Nwanoku says she was “very pleased to be found”. She sees the concert as an opportunity to shake up the classical world whilst simultaneously keeping in step with the zeitgeist. “More and more orchestras are competing for smaller and smaller audiences”, she tells me, “because they’re not rejuvenating audiences.”
But the new direction is as much about making classical music inclusive as it is about musical experimentation. “I created Chineke! out of necessity, because there’s this gaping hole”, says Nwanoku. “My mother was so intimidated by classical music. She wouldn’t come to concerts in case there was someone who asked her a question afterwards… She was terrified because she thought she didn’t have the language. So at our first concert at the Southbank Centre I had no idea how we’d be received, but as we walked onto the stage the audience for the first time in my career looked like the city I lived in, and I realised that with one hit we had addressed a big issue.” Craig concurs, adding: “It totally made sense to do something with Chineke!, to expand on the logic that there can be black music within this classical world”.
It is strange to think that that first Chineke! concert took place just four years ago. With a regular BBC Proms spot and a number of big-hitting players on their roster – not least royal wedding cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason – Chineke! already feels like an institution here in the UK. And, thanks to Nwanoku’s determination, attitudes towards classical music are changing. “People had been brainwashed into thinking classical music wasn’t for them… I know for a fact that some of those people now return to the Southbank to hear concerts – whether we’re playing or not. So we have moved the dial.”
Her upcoming collaboration with Craig plays an important part in this process – although it won’t be Craig’s first brush with a London concert hall. Last year he performed Versus at the Barbican Centre with a stripped-back team of keyboardists, including Kelvin Sholar, the American jazz pianist and composer who will be taking the place of Tristano at the Albert Hall next month.
When I ask Craig if he’s nervous about performing in such an established venue he is quick to confirm. But something tells me he’ll take the evening well in his stride. The DJ, unlike Nwanoku’s mother, has never felt intimidated by classical snobbery, insisting that every genre – even techno – contains its own elitist sect. “I grew up listening to a lot of jazz,” he explains. “This kind of arrogance that can be had within the classical world is very big in the jazz world too, so it doesn’t scare me. I’ve been in and around enough jazz guys.”
Whether or not London’s more conservative classical listeners will buy into his brand of techno-orchestral fusion, I’ve no doubt his music and infectious enthusiasm will help galvanize a new generation of classical music fans.
As for Chineke!’s future, this concert feels like just another step in Nwanoku’s unremitting campaign for musical inclusion. Her energy is boundless. Amongst various other projects is a potential tie up with Warwick University and a recent collaboration with Stormzy.
“It’s very exciting to think that there’s still more that we can do – things we have to do,” she says passionately. And she’s right. It took the New York Philharmonic 120 years to employ its first black player, and another four years after that to employ its first woman. Only last year did they entertain the notion that women players could wear trousers during main events. If this is Chineke! after just four years, I can’t wait to see where the classical music world will be in ten.