Disciple Of The Beat
Dance music should be about more than 'moaning samples and ecstasy' claims producer Arthur Baker. Simon Trask talks to the man behind 'Planet Rock'.
Arthur Baker has long been a respected and versatile remixer and producer. Now, with the release of his own album, he's stepping into the limelight as an artist.
TO ANYONE WHO KNOWS THEIR DANCE music, Arthur Baker hardly needs an introduction. During the past decade he has established solid credentials both as a remixer and a producer. He first made his mark in the early '80s with a string of influential New York electro records, the most famous of which was Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force's classic 'Planet Rock'. Following this success, a steady stream of hits like Rockers' Revenge's 'Walking on Sunshine', Freez's 'IOU' and New Edition's 'Candy' established his credentials. In the period 1982-84 he worked with New Order, co-writing 'Confusion' and 'Thieves like Us', but also developed his remixing talents beyond the dance realm into the pop mainstream, working on tracks like Cyndi Lauper's 'Girls Just Want to Have Fun' and Bruce Springsteen's 'Born in the USA', 'Cover Me' and 'Dancing in the Dark', as well as with artists as diverse as Hall & Oates, Jennifer Warnes and Bob Dylan. And in the mid'80s he produced the music for the film Brat Street and co-ordinated the Sun City anti-apartheid album.
More recently, on the club dance front he masterminded the Criminal Element Orchestra's 'Put the Needle to the Record' (the track which influenced M/A/R/R/S - Baker also claims that he gave them the idea for using samples after they played him an acetate of the original mix of 'Pump up the Volume') and has produced, played on, and co-written tracks for Wally Jump Junior and the Criminal Elements' '88 album Don't Push Your Luck. And the latest Baker-produced Criminal Element 12', 'When the Funk Hits the Fan', a slice of Minneapolis-influenced funk, has just been released at the time of writing.
Now he's launching himself, under the banner of Arthur Baker and the Backbeat Disciples, as an artist in his own right with an album which he describes as "the culmination of everything I've done in the last ten years". It's an eclectic album which showcases his songwriting and production talents to good effect. Baker has gathered around him a talented group of musicians, singers and composers who act as collaborators rather than mere sidemen. The album also includes guest vocals from the likes of Jimmy Somerville, Martin Fry, Al Green and Andy McCluskey, all vocalists and songwriters who Baker has admired over the years.
While the 13 tracks that make up the album are all in a commercial vein, they cover a variety of dance music styles, but, broadly speaking, marry Baker's twin loves of early-'80s English synthpop (which he refers to as "my heritage") and black dance music of the '70s and '80s. For instance, '2x1' combines a swingbeat rhythm with Scritti Politti-style vocals and harmonies, 'Silly Games' has a Todd Terry-ish NY club feel, 'Mythical Girl' carries distinct echoes of ABC's 'Poison Arrow' (but then it is the track Martin Fry guests on), and 'Paris' sounds like a slowed-down Pet Shop Boys. Yet the album has an underlying unified feel which allows it to transcend any accusations of mere musical pastiche. Baker may be wearing his musical influences on his sleeve, but his obvious love of and respect for those influences shines through.
A SELF-CONFESSED VINYL JUNKIE FROM an early age, Baker first got involved in music through working in record stores in his home town of Boston, Massachusetts when he was a teenager. But although he started DJ'ing when he went to college in the mid-'70s, as he readily admits, he didn't have the right attitude to be a DJ. He never had any patience with club audiences - if they didn't dance to a record he was playing, he'd smash it and throw it out onto the dancefloor.
Musically he had always been into rock 'n' roll, anything from Jefferson Airplane to the Allman Brothers, as well as the more folk), music of people like James Taylor and Tom Rush. But when he returned from college in '77 and started working in a black music record store, he discovered artists like the Jackson Five, Al Green and the Temptations and became hooked on black music. Inspired by the productions of Gamble & Huff, Thom Bell and Norman Whitfield, Baker decided that what he wanted most of all was to become a producer.
"I never had the patience to learn an instrument", he confesses as we sit in the press office at A&M Records in London. It's a sweltering July day and the office refrigerator has almost run out of cold drinks - hardly the ideal situation in which to subject Baker to the rigours of an MT interview. But he's an affable man with a down-to-earth, unpretentious manner which suggests he has known bad times as well as good times - as indeed he has.
"From the time I thought about making records I really wanted to put things together, to produce, to come up with ideas. By the time I started making records I felt it was too late to learn a musical instrument, which wasn't true."
In pursuance of his aim, Baker took an engineering course in '78 at Intermedia Studios, the first 24-track studio in Boston. His first taste of production work came with a group called The Hearts of Stone ("three pimps from Rhode Island"). The group put up the money for the musicians, Baker persuaded the owner of Intermedia to give them some free studio time, and they produced a disco record called 'Losing You' which eventually came out in Canada.
Having developed a taste for production he went on to record a dance album with money provided by relatives, and sold it to a label owner called Tom Moulton. He was about to learn how slippery the music business can be.
"That was my first experience of getting ripped off, but definitely not my last", he recalls ruefully. "I got no points. He told me he was just going to use the songs and re-record everything, but he ended up using my finished tracks and I just got an arranging credit."
Baker moved to New York in the late '70s. There followed a lull in his career when he couldn't get production or DJ'ing work and had to turn to working for a record wholesalers called Cardinal One Stop on Long Island. Here he swept the floor while his records were on the shelves (but no-one would believe they were his), and eventually worked his way up to become a breaker -someone who takes the records as they come in in bulk and breaks them down according to their list prices. This came to an end when a box of records fell on his head, knocking him unconscious. It was, he realised, time to move on.
For a while he worked as a record salesman, but it was as a result of writing record reviews for Dance Music Report, a monthly magazine published by Tommy Boy Records boss Tom Silverman, that his fortunes took a dramatic turn for the better. Through Silverman he became involved in the burgeoning New York rap scene, met up with Afrika Bambaataa, and together with John Robie formed a production partnership which was responsible for many of the classic electro tracks of the early '80s including 'Planet Rock'.
As many people will be aware, 'Planet Rock' was influenced in particular by two Kraftwerk tracks, 'Numbers' and 'Trans-Europe Express'.
"I was listening to Kraftwerk ever since I'd worked in a record store, because 'Autobahn' was a big record back then", Baker recalls. "And I was going around record stores in New York and people were really into 'Numbers' and 'Trans-Europe Express', so we put the two together. When the track was finished, we knew we had something special. I went home to my wife and said 'We've got a hit'."
'Planet Rock' immortalised Roland's TR808 drum machine, which Baker used because "it was the only drum machine which really sounded like a drum machine". They got their 808 by answering an ad in The Village Voice which read "Roland 808 and programmer: $25 a night". The record was also notable for its use of the Fairlight orchestral hit sample, which subsequently became a much overused device in dance music, while the metallic vocal effect was produced using a Lexicon PCM41 delay unit set to a really short delay.
Yet, as Baker reveals, Kraftwerk weren't the only European influence on the New York electro scene New York ears were just as attuned to British synthpop. The first such record to really influence Baker was the Human League's 'Don't You Want Me, Baby?', which came out in November '81.
"I was totally impressed that the music was all computerised, with a drum machine playing the rhythm parts", he recalls. "This was before 'Planet Rock'. I was also into 'Situation' and 'Don't Go' by Yazoo, and 'The Look of Love' and 'Poison Arrow' by ABC. The Roland drum machine, mournful minor-key melodies, depressing lyrics, threatening lyrics... Those were really the records that inspired all the guys in New York. Our version of that was all the electro stuff, like Planet Patrol's 'Play At Your Own Risk'."
"Four people can use the same sample and one of the records is going to be a hit because of the way that the sample is used."
And what, for Baker, was the most influential aspect of synthpop?
"I think it was the arrangements and the melodies, and the fact that it was synths and not guitar and bass. Vince Clarke is still making great records, basically doing the same thing, which is even more impressive because his songs still sound fresh. He doesn't have to go into trends, he just has this sound that was so ahead of its time it still works now."
DESPITE HIS MANY SUCCESSES IN THE early '80s, Baker's career took a nosedive later in the decade as he struggled with a cocaine addiction. Today, he makes no secret of that period in his life; in fact, he is painfully honest about it.
"In Boston, a friend of mine from high school had an incredible connection, so we were dealing drugs out of the club. Then when I moved to New York I quit cold, and for two years I didn't do anything. Then I was editing a song on the Freez album, and I had to have it done but I was really tired. The engineer said 'Here, try some coke', so I tried it and I felt good. From then on, through the music for the movie Bear Street and the Sun City album, from '85-86, I did tons of coke. Well, it wasn't as much as a lot of people do, but it was enough; all I needed was one line to get fucked up and want to retreat into the woodwork.
"I really lost a lot of ground in my career. In fact, I didn't make another record for about a year. Then at the end of '86 I was working with New Order and I decided I would quit drugs, and that was it. I just said 'Fuck it, I can't do this any more'."
Although he could blame pressures of work as his reason for succumbing to the lure of drugs, Baker is honest enough to admit that "it was just weakness on my part, a way to escape from reality". Nowadays he is emphatic in his condemnation both of drugs and of the people who deal in them.
"I think they're a waste of money, and people who deal drugs are total sleaze assholes who just make money off of people's misery. That alone should be enough to make anyone steer clear of drugs, because the people who live off of other people's blood, who make money off of drugs, are just pathetic fucking scumbags. Regardless of how bad it is for you, just the fact that these scum are making money off of people's misery should be enough."
Once Baker had come off drugs he set about writing songs, and, by his own admission, "started to make really good dance records again". His remixes of Living in a Box, Fine Young Cannibals and Fleetwood Mac were influential in that they were the first house remixes of non-house tracks. His more recent remix credits have included artists as diverse as the Tom Tom Club, the Gypsy Kings, Paul Rutherford, Roberta Flack and Debbie Harry.
These days, however, Baker has his sights set firmly on writing and producing his own material, following in the footsteps of the great producer/writers whose music so inspired him in the '70s.
"I have three different ways of writing a song", he elaborates. "The first way is I come up with a groove, maybe a bassline, and I put that down and then either try to come up with a vocal idea for it or give it to someone else to work on. Then sometimes I'll come up with a melody line but no chorus. The way I usually work, though, is with a chorus, a strong hook, and from there I'll go into the studio with someone who's a keyboard player and programmer, so they can operate all the stuff. I write with three different people who each have a different computer and different sequencing software, so I don't really get into using sequencers. I just play in the parts. I'm not a great keyboard player, but I can play enough to play on the record and get my ideas into the sequencer, which is what's important to me. We use sequencing for getting the song structure together, then we put that on tape and work on the melody and the lyrics. I can always come up with a good hook, but finishing the lyrics is the most difficult part of writing a song for me."
Baker's own 48-track SSL studio, Shakedown, situated in New York, has been running commercially for the past five years.
"I love the flexibility that the SSL desk gives you", he says of the centrepiece of his studio. "Sometimes you can rely on it too much, and you lose spontaneity, but I've been using it since they came out, so I feel that I can work with it in a spontaneous way."
Baker's favoured instrument setup is relatively modest, however:
"I have an Akai S900, which I use mostly for drum sounds and a lot of my bass sounds; I have tons of drum samples. Also I use a Yamaha DX7 and DX7II, a MIDImoog, and a Roland D50 and Juno 60 - always the Juno. I haven't got into digital recording yet, simply 'cos I can't afford it at the moment. Also, most of my clients don't want it, and. the ones who do rent it in. When you own a studio you have to think of your overheads. I know a lot of studios that have gone out of business just because they over-extended themselves."
Baker has seen a steady "democratisation" of both technology and techniques over the years since he first began using synths, samplers and drum machines. Nowhere is this more the case than with sampling. A technique that was once limited to professional studios and musicians has now become the preserve of anyone who fancies themselves as a musician. The repercussions for music have been profound.
"Sampling came into dance music when the Emulator 1 came out, which was '81/82. John Robie had one and Unique Recording Studio had one. The first record I used it on was Freez's 'IOU', with sampled vocals. Also I used it on records like The Awesome Foursome's 'Funky Breakdown', which was the first record that really sampled speeches from other records, like there was Smokey Robinson saying 'Come on, is everybody ready?' from 'Going to the Go Go', and for 'Renegades of Funk' we sampled Martin Luther King saying 'I have a dream'; that was seven years ago.
"Today everything sounds so much better, and the technology's so much cheaper that everyone can afford that stuff. It's incredible. Everyone can have a sampler, everyone can have the same technology. It means nothing."
"Clubgoers don't care about the integrity of artists - people who go to clubs just want to dance, but I think there's more to music than that."
So what does one of the original users of sampling think of the contemporary state of the sampling art, now that everyone can, theoretically at least, own a sampler?
"I'm bored with sampling, to be honest. I think nowadays it's often a gimmick for songs that need gimmicks, although I like the way that Teddy Riley uses samples in his songs. The three dance/street songs on my album are the only ones I use samples on, because that music suits samples, but I'm not going to throw in a sample just for the sake of it; a sample's got to make sense within the record."
Is sampling played out, in Baker's view?
"No, it's really about how you do it. Four people can use the same sample and one of the records is going to be a hit because of the way that the sample's used."
NO TECHNOLOGY INTERVIEW WITH Arthur Baker would be complete without a discussion of remixing. As one of the most experienced and respected practitioners of the art, he must have plenty to say on the subject. As it turns out, not only does he have plenty to say about remixing, he also has plenty to say about the current state of dance music - most of it uncomplimentary. But to start with, what about the ethical considerations of remixing?
"Ninety percent of the remixes I do don't involve the artist. I don't have any ethical problems with that. The record company hires me to do a remix, and the record company should talk to the artist. Artists should have a clause in their contract which says they have to OK remixes. I know I do. If the record company likes a remix and I don't, it doesn't come out. Also, we have to agree on who can remix my records. It was something I was aware of, so I felt it was something I might as well try for in the contract."
In Baker's experience, the usual financial arrangement is a fee against royalties; payment of royalties alone is a rare situation, though he says that if it's for a friend and they're short of money, he'll do the remix for free and just pick up a royalty.
Baker doesn't always have a completely free hand in his remixes. Often there are guidelines to follow:
"They'll specifically say that they want a house mix or a Latin hip hop mix, and sometimes the producer or artist will say 'You can use anything on the tape except for this or that'."
Sometimes, though, you just can't please everyone. Baker recalls that when he was asked to remix the Gypsy Kings' 'Bamboleo' the record company told him not to make it too different, then when the group's producer heard the Latin and Club mixes that Baker did he said they were too conservative.
So how does Baker approach a remix?
"Sometimes I just keep the vocal, it really depends on the track. Most tracks I won't go that far, because if I have to replace the whole thing then there's something wrong. There has to be something there that I like, or I wouldn't have taken the job. In most cases I replace the drums and the bassline, and then add other keyboards, but usually keep some of the original keyboard parts.
"I would never do anything that's against the integrity of the artist. I draw the line there, and I think that's why artists with integrity come to me because they know I'm not going to go for the cheap thrill. I have a pretty good background in music, and I can't think of one artist I've remixed whose music I didn't already know. Other remixers probably don't have that approach, but they should.
"With Springsteen's stuff I tried to add parts that he could have had on the record before but just didn't do. That's one of the major points he's made when he's talked about my remixes - that they sound like something he might have done. I wouldn't put Bruce's voice in the Emulator and play around with it. You don't want it to be out of character with the artist; that's really important. Even when I did the Fleetwood Mac house remix it wasn't totally out of character.
"You have to have an understanding of the artist, but some remixers simply don't care about that. They don't have a historical perspective on the artist, they just go ahead and do whatever they want. Which isn't to say that that approach doesn't work. For instance, Steve Hurley and I both did remixes of Roberta Flack's 'Uh uh oh oh'. Even though I changed the song drastically, I kept the basic keyboard and melody and changed the bassline and the drums a little bit. But he totally recut the track, and it just sounds like a Steve Hurley record with Roberta Flack sampled on top; that isn't what I would have thought the record company wanted, but the fact is, that version is the one I hear a lot in clubs."
And what does Baker put this fact down to? His old impatience with club audiences comes to the surface as he explains his viewpoint.
"Clubgoers have no historical sense, and they don't care about the integrity of artists. People who go to clubs just want to dance, but I think there's more to music than that. Music is for dancing, but also when you write a song you're trying to communicate ideas, not just moaning, samples and ecstasy. I think with remixes and with dance music in general today, the only idea that's communicated is 'let's get fucked up and dance'. I was in a club last night and I didn't hear one damned vocal version of anything; it was all dub mixes. When I do a dub mix I still try to keep the essence of the song, and highlight vocal lines that I feel are important. That's why I do dropouts a lot in my mixes. I'll drop out all the music so that you just hear this one voice, 'cos that puts attention onto the lyric. With the guys now you can forget that; they make people dance but they don't make them think. People are in such a hurry to have a good time that they don't even want to hear the words.
"I think people who make dance records nowadays totally pander to the dancefloor. No-one's really doing anything innovative, it's all stale, all the same samples, all the same grooves, hip house music all sounds alike. The rappers are all boring and tired, but people still buy those records."
Harsh words indeed, but there's a lot of truth in what Baker has to say. As dance music crosses over to commercial success and the majors take an ever-increasing piece of the action, so it seems that a new agenda and new priorities are being set for dance music. But surely the music that Baker himself is making is commercially inspired.
What I'm doing is writing songs that I hear in my head, and I hear some commercial songs. But if I was really trying to be commercial I wouldn't have made this record, I would have made a straight dance record, because that's what people know me for and that's what people expect. Instead I did what I wanted to do for myself, because I want to make a record that I can listen to at home, and I can't listen to that sample shit for any more than ten minutes without getting sick of it."
As for the future, Baker is clear where his priorities lie.
"I want to have a No. 1 record, I want to write great songs, and I want to have my songs covered by great singers. I'm going to keep writing songs till I drop. But with producing, who knows? There are lots of guys who have been producing for 20 or 30 years, so as long as there's something that excites me I'll keep on producing. But I'll definitely keep on writing, that much I know."
Interview by Simon Trask
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