This Saturday, the legendary American producer Arthur Baker joins the Night People. Based in London, Arthur was born in Boston where he started DJing in the early 1970’s. After moving to New York in 1981, he became one of the most inspired producers of his time. We are honored to have him back at Le Bain! Arthur will be in the best company with our resident Eli Escobar, Blu Jemz and Lloydski. The three of them grew up in New York with Arthur’s ground-breaking records as the soundtrack. Eli Escobar met Arthur on this way back to Manhattan for a music-passionate Standard Q&A.
Arthur Baker recording with the Soweto gospel choir (Summer 2010).
Eli Escobar: As a kid growing up in New York City in the 1980’s, a lot of my first favorite songs were by artists you produced. The Beat Street soundtrack was huge as well as Freez, Popcorn Love, Planet Rock etc. Besides just being big records on WBLS, they also sounded like nothing that had come out before. The drum programming was really hard and street, and all the instruments seemed to be synthesizers. I’ve said this in interviews I’ve done before but even at such a young age, I remember being acutely aware of how new and exciting this music was and how it seemed to have almost no direct connection to the music my mom liked. When you were making these records, were you aware of this as well? Or is it more of a in hindsight sort of thing?
Arthur Baker: We knew we were creating something new and different. There was really no blueprint. Remember, all the technology was new. All the drum machines were new so we were experimenting and making it up as we went. Obviously we were influenced by what came before us, and in trying to recreate with machines we had many happy accidents and some planned explosions.
Eli: Another thing I really love about those days was how different genres seemed to co-exist in a very natural way. I listened to rap, new wave, electro and whatever else I was exposed to and never really thought twice about it. The Sun City record you did was one of my favorite 12 inches and I don’t think I ever thought it was unusual that all those artists were together on one song. Coming out of the 70’s did it seem exciting to see all these different types of musicians come together?
Arthur: The genres like rap and electro were new and exciting, but a lot of us making the stuff were schooled in rock and soul, so we definitely felt at home merging the barriers. It was incredibly exciting having the opportunity to orchestrate all those diverse artists on the Sun City record, along with the fact that it educated many people on apartheid.
Eli: Plus you get to take credit for a record that featured Joey Ramone AND Eddie Kendricks! Moving on, I’m curious about your earliest records, like North End, Jazzy Sensation and Rap-O Clap-O which have a very different sound than what would become your signature only a year or two later. Way more of a live band feel. Were you playing instruments on those records? What sparked the radical change in sound on records like Funky Soul Makossa and Play At Your Own Risk?
Arthur: I was a disco freak, and my first productions were pure up disco, from the songs you mentioned, to the TJM album, all of which I co-wrote, arranged and produced. They were pre-drum machines and we used live musicians on all of them. The real change came with the dmx and the 808. I continued to use live playing afterwards. I had a theory that acoustic piano and drum machines were the secret combo.
Eli: Speaking of North End, I’m sure you’re aware of the rumor that Madonna stole the melody of Tee’s Happy for Holiday. When Holiday first came out, did you notice the similarities?
Arthur: Well Jellybean played the shit out of Happy Days/Tee’s Happy, but Madonna didn’t write Holiday, it was the guys out of Pure Energy. Curtis Hudson I think. I remember Jellybean asking me whether he should give Madonna the song or cut it himself for his solo album… I don’t remember my advice.
North End Tee’s Happy (produced and arranged by Arthur Baker)
Eli: So of all the clubs you frequented in the 80’s, which was your absolute favorite? I know you made Walking On Sunshine specifically for The Garage. Were any other records of yours tailor made for a specific club or club night?
Arthur: The holy trinity for me was the Funhouse, the Garage and Danceteria but all the electro tracks: Confusion, I.O.U., Play At Your Own Risk, etc. were made specifically for the Funhouse.
Eli: It’s kind of amazing to think of how many different genres of music were spawned from those records. Were you aware at the time, how big records like I Want It To Be Real and Honey To A Bee were in Chicago especially on the Hot Mix 5 radio mixes? I played an old school house party in Chicago last year and the chant version of Renegades of Funk got one of the best response of the night which was sort of a surprise for me.
Arthur: I was aware that I Want It To Be Real was big in Chicago. Then I had Farley come to NYC and work on the John Rocca album. He actually stayed at my place for a month while we worked on the record.
Eli: Farley was the other DJ the night I played in Chicago! He was amazing and told me he had only been to New York once or twice to DJ which I couldn’t believe.
Arthur: He did a great remix of I Want It To Be Real also. Renegades is the least known of the three Soul Sonic tracks, but after the Rage Against The Machine remake, probably the biggest pop hit.
John Rocca I want It To Be Real (Farley’s Hot House Piano)
Eli: Yikes. Thankfully I never heard that version. Moving on, it’s really easy to get into the whole ‘things aren’t what they used to be’ discussion, especially when it comes to New York. Do you see anything going on now in New York that makes you feel excited or interested? How about London?
Arthur: Things aren’t what they use to be, but the food’s way better than back in the day in New York. Some exciting things are going on with restaurants and bars. I like to hang with new schoolers when I’m in NYC so I can see the city through their fresh eyes. Club wise, sorry, it’s pretty over. Back in the day - there I said it - there were twenty rocking big clubs in the city. Now? One or two. I’m talking over a thousand people. It’s just not happening anymore. I dig some of the new groups… I work with friends and Jessica 6, and of course the DFA crew. There’s good stuff out there, just the edge isn’t the same. But that’s ok.
Eli: So when did you become interested in DJing again? I think I read somewhere that you didn’t enjoy it much in the 70’s?
Arthur: I didn’t DJ as soon as I started making records and didn’t start again till New Order asked me to play the Hacienda in the late 80s.
Afrika Bambaataa & Soul Sonic Force Planet Rock (produced by Arthur Baker)
Eli: I actually think that’s really cool because nowadays anyone who produces records also DJ’s. And, you know being good at one doesn’t always result in being good at the other!
Arthur: I started up again when I moved to the UK, around 1995 and have DJed off and on, through all sorts of genres, from break beat to electro to mash up and back to disco. Maybe I’ll play my own shit on Saturday if there’s enough people in the club who remember it. (laughing)
Eli: Ok, one last random question… There’s an obscure rap record by a group called Harmony called Dance To The Drums/No Joke that I really love. Kinda sounds like T La Rock or early LL. What ever happened with that project and do you even remember this song?
Arthur: Sure I remember Harmony… I made a bunch of tracks with them. Maybe I’ll bust out a few on Saturday!