Rocking the Planet with Arthur Barker



There a few people that can lay claim to changing the face of dance music, a feat that requires a forward thinking, creative mind, one that has boundless, inhibited energy and is not afraid to take risks; a trend setter not a follower.

DJ, record producer and entrepreneur Arthur Baker is a true icon of the scene, his early productions forming the backbone for ground breaking 80s electro and rap music which emanated from the streets of New York. Baker’s versatility and clever use of studio equipment has seen him produce and remix a myriad of artists across the musical spectrum including Africa Bambattaa, New Order (he produced Confusion), Mick Jagger and Hall and Oates.

Arthur started off as DJ in the 70s around his native hometown of Boston. Legend has it that he would flip a record across the room if it did not provoke a reaction on the dance floor.

Around this time, he decided producing would give him better outlet to fuel his creative engine. Baker moved to New York at the height of disco fever rubbing shoulders with Larry Levan at the Paradise Garage and latin musician Joe Battaan. However, it was the emergence of rap, breakdancing and graffiti that really caught his attention. One track in particular Trans Europe Express by Kraftwerk became firmly rooted in his memory after hearing it being played around parks and streets in the city. This proved to be a pivotal inspiration for Planet Rock which Arthur produced for Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force. With heavy usage of a Roland 808 drum machine, synthesisers, rap and vocoder type sounds, the track proved to be a seminal piece of music which had a huge impact on the early hip-hop scene.

Arthur followed up his success by contributing music for the 80s hip-hop film Beat Street. His own offering Breakers Revenge went on to become an anthem for the breakdancing crews and is still highly revered to this day.

He was also one of the first producers to use cut and paste sampling techniques, notably under the guise of The Criminal Element Orchestra; Put the Needle on the Record was a classic example of how samples could be blended together in a creative way to produce something unique; the track undoubtedly influenced a generation of bedroom producers. Arthur’s production output continued. During the 90s he remixed a then relatively unknown act called Babylon Zoo. His mix of Spaceman was used on the Levi advertisements to great effect, projecting his name onto a brand new generation of fans in the process.

Arthur decided to part shores with The Big Apple and now resides in London. He has become somewhat of an entrepreneur, opening a chain of restaurants around the city and bringing a slice of New York to the table. His affinity with the 808 has not diminished either as he has been involved with the making of a brand new documentary entitled Planet Rock and the Other Tales of the 808 which explores the legacy of the drum machine.

Arthur, you’ll be premiering your new documentary Planet Rock and the Other Tales of the 808 in Ibiza shortly. Can you tell us more about the film and why you decided to make it?

First off, we are not premiering the film. We have over fifty interviews that we are going through and lots of other stuff left to film. We will be screening a teaser cut for the International Music Summit in Ibiza. The reason we are making the film is that I wanted to document the history of a great piece of gear that really led to the birth of what’s now known as EDM (Electronic Dance Music). The 808.

Kids know this sound and name, it’s checked all over hip-hop and its sounds are used throughout all forms of dance music. In a way, it’s almost mythical. I really want to document the heritage of dance music, but in doing so inform and entertain both the kids and all the old school heads too.

The whole TR Roland line has played such an important part in dance music, what do you think are the reasons behind their longevity?

It’s the sounds that have resonated and appealed to a huge cross-section of music lovers for over 30 years!

What got you into producing music in the first place?

I wanted to make people dance and have a good time, very cliché but true…

You were one of the first, if not the first, producer to use cut and paste (sampling) techniques. Where did the ideas and inspiration come from?

Everything for me came from going out to the club and listening to great DJs, also going out to the parks in NYC and listening to what the kids were grooving to. I wanted to recreate what I was hearing out on vinyl and the technology gave me more control and scope to do that.

What do you think of the current state of electronic music today? How has it changed over the years in your eyes?

Well firstly, there’s so much of it! Anyone with a laptop can make a record, so it’s very democratic. That’s one thing that’s changed. Back in the day you’d need expensive equipment, a studio etc; house music started to change that.

Now within each genre there is a definite arrangement template, a predictable formula that even the most successful guys stick to but in a club, it usually works. We had formulas too but I think experimentation in the early days was more rampant.

Which current artists are you listening to?

I listen when I go out, so last summer it was DC10. I like the deep sound of Hot Creations, taking house and twisting it; I also like the commercial stuff. I was in the studio a few weeks ago at a session that was a collaboration between Nile Rodgers and David Guetta; I introduced them to each other at last year’s IMS. There was also this young kid programming on a laptop, he was a wizard! It turned out to be Avicii! There was truly three generations of dance music in one room! Hanging at other people’s sessions usually sucks, but in this case it was really interesting and the track sounded smoking!

You’ve been back in the studio over the last few years and writing new material. Do you have any releases and collaborations planned this year?

I have a few things kicking around which are pretty timely now that I’d like to get out. One is a cut up of a track I did as North End in 1978! It’s called Can’t Put No Price and Al P from MSTRKRFT hooked the track up a few years ago. The track has a filtered disco vibe but I think after Daft Punk’s Get Lucky, disco is back again!

I have been doing some writing with singer Penny Foster. I also produce music for my wife’s fashion label Felder Felder and that provides lots of extra work; it’s great to have someone who can write toplines over them!

Planet Rock was, and still is a seminal track for many people. What was going through your mind as you wrote it?

I thought it would either be a smash or a total flop. It was just so different! It was also a collaboration of cultures, talents and ideas. Watch the movie for more on that.

What was it like living in New York in early to mid-80s and being a part of the creative hotpot of disco, rap, breakdancing and graffiti? How did these experiences change your outlook as a person/producer?

The culture of NYC from 1979 totally influenced me in making music. You wanted to shine there, if you could make it there, you could make it anywhere! New York – it was really true, back then it was the creative centre of the universe.

As a person, it made me very open to realising greatness could come from anyone and anywhere…

Can you tell us one of your favourite all time seminal records that never leaves your record box?

One of them is Chic’s I Want Your Love. That is the original version, the Dimitri From Paris Remix and the Todd Terjes Re-Edit; I Love the track too much! I actually recut it with Brenda Starr and remixed the Paul Rutherford version too; obviously the original is the greatest. It’s a beautiful song of great emotion and it works well in the clubs, so brings me back to club memories and personal ones too I guess.

You’ve been based in London over the last few years branching out into the restaurant/bar business. Looking back over the years, what achievement are you particularly proud of and why?

I’m proud that I brought soul & comfort food to London. With my bar/restaurant Harlem – unfortunately we were a bit ahead of the curve there. I always thought it could be a chain but sadly it became more of an anchor! Also, Diplo’s first UK gig was in the basement bar. We also launched Kissy Sell Out and Loose Cannons there.

Thanks and respect to Arthur Baker for the interview. Photos by Eileen Feighny

© 2013 Pete Rann