Arthur Baker is currently putting together a well timed documentary about the Roland TR-808 Drum Machine, a piece of equipment that sits snugly alongside him in the history of dance music, at the point of an explosion. Together, man and machine helped shape Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force’s “Planet Rock”, creating electro-funk, re-fuelling the partygoers of New York and influencing countless other musicians and movements. Baker’s career as a DJ, remixer and producer spans more than 30 years and is full of significant innovations and collaborations, giving him a unique vantage point on the history and future of commercial and underground dance.
MEG WOOF I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but there’s an episode from an old British TV series called “The Tube” about New York clubbing in ’83, ’84 that has found its way online, during which Jools Holland interviews you in the Roxy…
ARTHUR BAKER Yeah, I didn’t remember it until I saw it. It was pretty odd to see that after all these years.
MW During the discussion you said you were more interested in how your tracks sounded in a club than anywhere else. Is that a statement you still stand by?
AB Well yeah, and if you have the chance to test out your tracks while you’re making them, you should. I had a great opportunity to do so because Jellybean Benitez played at the Fun House, which was literally 10 blocks away from where my studio was, so I would go to the studio, do a mix, bring it to him and he’d throw it on.
MW In an interview I heard with DJ Harvey, he said that in New York during those times he could go a whole night without looking up at the DJ or asking who was on. It was more about the space and the tracks that were playing and less about the DJ as a celebrity.
AB Here’s the thing, they were celebrities – I mean, not like now. But the interesting thing is that DJs didn’t tour or travel. During the early ’80s, guys like Larry Levan had their weekly residencies at their club and that was it, no one would fly and play. I imagine DJs didn’t start to get flown around until the mid ’80s. And I know even after that guys like Larry and Junior Vasquez didn’t want to travel because they were afraid someone would steal their jobs. Like if they missed one weekend, some other DJ would come in and take their slot.
MW How do you think “the club” has changed in the past 30 years?
AB In New York from the late ’70s through to the ’80s there were so many big clubs and large spaces – they were incredible. Right now there are probably one or two big clubs in New York, but they don’t play underground music. I’m talking about 2000 plus capacities. I could do a tour of clubs on a weekend, all within 20 or 30 blocks, and there would be 2,500 people in each, if not more, and there would be like 10 clubs. I mean, you could reach 30,000 people pretty easily on a weekend night, and that’s just in Manhattan. Then you’d go to Brooklyn and Queens, New Jersey… So I think the club scene – big clubs where you can enjoy that moment with thousands of people dancing – it’s sort of moved out from where the real estate’s too expensive.
MW In the early 2000s you launched the club night Return To New York. What did you hope to achieve throwing these parties?
AB When I started those nights I was sort of trying to capture that essence of Danceteria and Fun House and Paradise Garage. Places like that played everything. There were so few records coming out that you would want to play, you were just looking for anything that would work. The music was non-denominational in Danceteria, Fun House and Garage, but I would say maybe 70 per cent of the songs that were played in one would be played in the other, maybe 30 per cent weren’t. Larry wouldn’t play Latin hip hop or freestyle, but other than that he’d play pretty much everything Jellybean played. All these people coming from different places would be playing the same records. Now there are so many records, you can go to five different clubs and never hear the same record.
MW Saying that, you can also run the risk of going to a club and feeling as if you’ve heard the same record over and over. Do you think those restrictions made your set and taste more eclectic and well rounded?
AB That’s totally true, back then you just wanted anything with a good beat. Nowadays there’s such an overflow, there’s no quality control: everyone’s a label, everyone’s a producer.
MW How interested and involved are you in current dance music?
AB Well, I’m talking about what’s happening now in the documentary. I have my favourites, such as Julio Bashmore and stuff on Hot Creations. With some of the newer dubstep stuff, I like the production; I wouldn’t necessarily listen to it at home, but I appreciate the talent that goes into it. And there’s trap too – any genre that connects to the 808 story is interesting to me.
MW What was it that first attracted you to the 808?
AB We were making “Planet Rock” and we needed a drum machine. I saw an ad in the Village Voice – “Man with a Drum Machine” – and it was an 808. It’s funny, you find a lot of people in this documentary used it the first time just because it was there. But they were open to using it, that’s the thing: a lot of people didn’t want that sound, because it doesn’t sound enough like drums. We’re going to market the movie as the story of the first wave of electronic dance music, which is what it is. “Planet Rock” was the first record we made with a drum machine; everything else had been with full bands. So 1981-82 was when people started to make electronic dance music. I mean, there was electronic music, but it wasn’t specifically dance.
MW It’s interesting to trace back how technological advances and the introduction of new instruments have moulded and shifted the shape of music. As someone who has predicted and directed changes in the past, are you able to see what’s next?
AB I think what’s next is already here. I mean, how much more portable can technology become? How much more control can you have? You can do more things with your phone than you could in the ’80s with a million dollars’ worth of equipment. I think now we have to focus on [physical] collaboration, people bringing different elements. Some of the best records I made were collaborations, working with a group of people. Now so much of music is made on your laptop, in your headphones. I think there’s a chance of something more interesting happening when you have a few different people working on it, people coming from different places.
MW What do you think about the recent resurgence of and corporate interest in dance music in the US?
AB People say that – that dance music in America has never been successful – and then you look back at Norman Cook sales, The Chemical Brothers, Moby, Prodigy. People have such short memories: those records sold. Maybe in the last 10 years there haven’t been many big records, but it just seems like company policy to say dance music was never big in America. Well, of course it was, disco was huge. Saturday Night Fever: 25 million records. The bottom line now is that people are throwing hundreds of thousands of dollars at DJs, and now it’s in Vegas and there are festivals. Also, this time the reason it’s got big is the clashing of two different cultures. David Guetta and Calvin Harris use big vocalists who aren’t the ones you would expect. I think the reason dance music has exploded in America is that it’s swallowed up hip hop or RnB. The people making the records have brought along fans who were into Rihanna, or Usher, or whoever. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. The only thing that bothers me, and hopefully the 808 movie will go some way in sorting that out, is making sure there’s a sense of history, of where it actually came from. It didn’t just happen. §
Baker’s documentary is due for release in spring 2014.