Planet Rock producer Arthur Baker hits the decks in Hong Kong
The electro, house and hip hop pioneer and superstar mentor is coming to town so don’t miss the chance to catch him in action
Few people can claim to have had such a profound influence on the direction of modern music as Arthur Baker. A 1980s pioneer of electro music, producer, songwriter, remixer and DJ, Baker has been critical to the development of the two most influential musical genres of the past few decades, hip hop and house, and has stayed at the leading edge of production, remixing and genre cross-pollination for decades.
A user of sampling before there were machines to do it for you and a remixer before remixes were a thing, using analogue means up to and including hiring musicians to duplicate sounds, he is possibly best known for 1982’s Planet Rock by Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force.
A dazzlingly innovative sound collage, it set the melody to Kraftwerk’s Trans Europe Express to a breakbeat generated by the famously otherworldly sounding Roland TR-808 drum machine – a machine about which Baker has been working on a documentary film, to be released shortly, featuring contributions from Pharrell Williams, Richie Hawtin, Hank Shocklee and Felix Da Housecat.
Planet Rock pretty much created electro, invented sampling and paved the way for hip hop to go electronic, revolutionising the genre in the same way that Italian producer Giorgio Moroder had done with disco a few years earlier. Baker says he knew at the time that he was onto something special.
“I definitely said while we were making it to my wife at the time, that we’d made musical history and it was either going to be huge smash or nothing at all. The rappers hated it – they thought after that they’d never get to make another record.”
Baker is about to head to Hong Kong for DJ gigs at Studio in Central on March 19 and to provide the musical accompaniment at the private party for Tracey Emin’s exhibition at this year’s Art Basel Hong Kong; he’s friends with Emin and has spun regularly at her events and birthday parties over the years.
“I play the music Tracey likes,” he says (mostly Motown, punk and disco). “It’s a very retro set. It’s like playing a really cool wedding. But while I was there I wanted to do at least one club gig; the art crowd are not very underground.”
Originally from Boston, Baker lived in New York for many years, then London and now Miami. He started DJing in the early ’70s, mainly playing soul, then moved into production, initially on disco records. He was in New York at the birth of hip hop, and had his life-changing moment with Planet Rock. He also worked on other seminal electro records including Planet Patrol’s Play at Your Own Risk, Rockers Revenge’s Walking on Sunshine and Criminal Element Orchestra’s Put the Needle to the Record.
As a songwriter, producer and remixer he’s worked with Al Green, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Cyndi Lauper, Pet Shop Boys, Hall & Oates and New Order, who he allegedly persuaded to transform a short instrumental into Blue Monday (he denies it), and for whom he produced Confusion and Thieves Like Us. Along the way he has mentored everyone from the Beastie Boys’ Adam Yauch (aka MCA) to Paul Oakenfold to Junior Vasquez to a pair of young producers and businessmen Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin, who went on to found Def Jam and rule hip hop during its golden era.
Baker has visited Hong Kong three times, the first was 14 years ago in the company of long-term collaborators New Order; he will miss the chance to DJ at the band’s forthcoming gig in Miami because of his Hong Kong trip. He remains friends with the remaining members of the band and with estranged bassist Peter Hook, and says he recently thought he had the chance to effect a possible reconciliation between them – perhaps not surprisingly, given the apparent degree of mutual antipathy, it fell through.
Baker has been in greater demand as a DJ in recent years. He had pretty much given up DJing until he started to get offers of gigs in the ’90s when he hosted a show on British alternative-music radio station Xfm, now called Radio X. The DJing really picked up again in the early-mid 2000s when he started working extensively with the likes of LCD Soundsystem, 2manydjs and Erol Alkan, and was swept along in the whole electroclash kerfuffle.
He’s always been harsh on himself as a DJ, once described himself in an interview as a “shit DJ”, and he’s well known for the story of how, when he started out DJing in the early ’70s, he would rip records that failed to get a response from the crowd off the turntable and throw them onto the dance floor (“I was angry that people didn’t like the music I played,” he says). His opinion of his skills has only mellowed slightly.
“I’m still a shit DJ,” he says. “Occasionally I’m a great DJ – technically I’m a lot better than I used to be – but you need great focus and you can’t get bored easily. I’ll get angry with myself: I’ll lose focus and then realise I’ve only been playing for 45 minutes. The more prepared, the more anal you are with DJing, the better, like writing lists and checking stuff off – which I never do.”
But says that he had to be a DJ in order to understand and be able to make the sort of records that people want to dance to, once commenting that he’d never made a great dance record that wasn’t the result of having been in a club the night before. Unfortunately, he says, “My back catalogue is not really focused on the sort of music I can play. Old electro doesn’t really get people to dance.” Fortunately, he adds, he makes an exception for Planet Rock.
Arthur Baker, March 19, 11pm, Studio, 1/F On Hing Building, 1 On Hing Terrace, Central, free (RVSP at ArthurBaker.pelago.events)