Arthur Baker: Baker Groove

This week Vibes hops across to the Emerald Isle to hook up with one of the founding fathers of modern dance, the fabulous ARTHUR BAKER

LOOKING MORE like a  wrestler or Hell’s Angel than a legendary dance producer, 41-year-old ARTHUR BAKER is a big guy with an even bigger reputation.

Just back from a yachting holiday in Turkey with Bernard from New Order, he sits in his room in the U2-owned Clarence Hotel in Dublin — escaping the smarm-a-thon of the In The City conference and reflecting on almost 20 years of extreme innovation. After all, this is the man who produced Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force’s electro classic, ‘Planet Rock’. The man who turned New Order on to disco and masterminded Rocker’s Revenge’s ‘Walking On Sunshine’, Freeze’s ‘IOU’ and Will Downing’s ‘Love Supreme’.

Oh yeah, and this is the man who’s worked with Bob Dylan, Al Green, the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen. The same one who discovered New Edition, more or less kicked off the sampling revolution with a track called ‘Put The Needle To The Record’, and on Babylon Zoo’s ‘Spaceman’… well, he came up with an astounding intro, at least. In others words, Baker’s CV stretches to the stars and back.

“Does it feel strange that I’ve been involved in so many different things? Nah,” he says. “If you look at my discography I’ve always done that. When I was young I’d listen to the Jackson Five then Led Zeppelin, trying to work out how to marry the two together.”

In 1982, the mother of all electro records sprang from the very same eclectic mindset. ‘Planet Rock’ combined funk with technology, Kraftwerk melodies (lifted from ‘Trans-Europe Express’) with rapping. Bambaataa and Baker had projected dance into a stunning new phase.

“Everything sounded so tame compared to that record,” he recalls fondly. “We took European electronic sounds and mixed them with what was going on in the Bronx at the time. I knew straight away that we’d made musical history.”

So did the rest of New York. Baker would take white labels of ‘Planet Rock’ into record stores and get offered $200 for them on the spot. When the record emerged on  Tommy Boy it only managed Number 53 in the UK charts, but in terms of influence remains an untouchable Number One.

However, Baker’s the first to acknowledge that it’s not nearly so easy to make such a ground-breaking record today. “We’ve got an overload of musical ideas now,” he states. “‘Planet Rock’ stood out because it was such an unusual blend of sounds, but everyone’s doing that now.”

Having gone through the doldrums for a number of years, he’s back on form at last — reviving his Criminal Element Orchestra project with the disco-ish ‘Go Around’ single on 4th & Broadway and re-launching his Minimal label through Britain’s Dorado imprint.

Clearly smitten with the UK, he spends half of his time here, running a pool hall in Ladbroke Grove (he plans to open a new pool hall/club in  Camden next year), listening to everything from drum’n’bass to jazzy Brithouse.

“Everyone grew up with dance music in the UK,” he says. “People like Noel Gallagher are influenced by acid house whether they know it or not. London’s as exciting now as New York was 15 years ago and the problem in America is that the record industry is completely corrupt; just a load of overpaid f—ers with big egos and no musical history.”

Ask him if he has any regrets and he talks about the collapse of his Streetwise label (who put out the first release by Def Jam founder Rick Rubin), as well as missing out on the chance to sign Mariah Carey and produce Happy Mondays’ first LP.

“Tony Wilson told me I had to come over and see them but I couldn’t,” he sighs. “I was so paranoid of flying at  the time.”

He was out of his mind on cocaine for half of the ’80s, in fact, snorting his reputation clean away.

“It felt like a lifetime, but in truth it was five years of feeling mentally and physically ill,” he remembers grimly. “I didn’t leave my house for months.  I didn’t eat. I just sat there doing lines.

“A lot of people have bad things to say about me because of that period,” he shrugs. “But I was hurting myself more than I was anyone else.”

Free of the dreaded powder now, Baker has seen former proteges like the Beastie Boys and house producers Victor Simonelli and Angel Moraes take a tight grip of the music industry, and once again seeks his own piece of the action. He’s certain that the time’s perfect for him to get back to basics.

“I love making fun records that you can finish in a day,” he grins. “I don’t wanna work with people who are only into things I did 15 years ago. I want to be with people who like what I’m doing now.”

And with that the big man rejoins the industry shindig downstairs, shaking A&R hands, drinking with fellow old-timers from New York’s disco days and even gassing with Tony Wilson.

Mistakes, he’s made a few. But this Baker, he’s still cooking all the same. 

COOLER BAKER — FIVE TOP ARTHUR MOMENTS

1) AFRIKA BAMBAATAA & THE SOUL SONIC FORCE — ‘Planet Rock’
The most important record of the ’80s bar none, with Baker plus Bambaataa adding up to absolute genius. House, electro, techno and hip-hop owe it all to this freaky stunner.

2) ROCKER’S REVENGE — ‘Walking On Sunshine’
Dazzling party music incarnate; an epic, studio trickery-led take on the Eddie Grant hit that still pulverises dance floors some 14 years after its creation.

3) FREEZE — ‘IOU’
Another timeless club tune; pure and simple good-time music, with top chant-along potential thrown in for good measure.

4) NEW ORDER — ‘Confusion’
The Manchester band travel to New York in search of disco spirit and thanks to Baker, find it in no uncertain terms. About as funky and futuristic as British music got in 1983.

5) CRIMINAL ELEMENT ORCHESTRA — ‘Put The Needle To The Record’
Bizarre experiment in cut-up samples; a massive influence on early British dance outfits like M/A/R/R/S, Bomb The Bass and Coldcut.

© Andy CrysellNew Musical Express, 28 September 1996

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