Arthur Baker is a failed DJ with a DJ's ear for the dancefloor. As a producer, he was the man behind a string of hits, from Soulsonic Force's genre-defining 'Planet Rock' to the space-pop of Rockers Revenge's. Arthur has worked with everyone from Bob Dylan to Tom Tom Club. These days, he's a restaurateur (how co-owns the Elbow Rooms and Harlem in west London) and still a producer extraordinaire.
This is the history of the DJ?
Well, I was never really a DJ. Actually, I was probably one of the worst disc jockeys ever. No, I was. Because if I didn't get a good reaction on a record, I'd just rip it off, break it up and throw it on the dancefloor. And that was before I took drugs.
OK. Well, let’s get started.
Okay, so I was born in Boston, Mass. April 22nd 1955. I grew up in Boston until I moved to New York in 81.
Who were the big Boston DJs at the time?
The big five were Danae [Jacovidis], Jimmy [Stuard], John [Luongo], Cosmo Wyatt and Joey Carvello. I wasn’t really a good DJ, but I was getting into record production. The first record I did was Losing You by the Hearts of Stone. I ended up selling it to Disco One in Canada, which was run by this guy Pat Desserio, who also involved with all of those other groups there like Kebekelektrik’s War Dance etc. I produced it, and John Luongo did a mix and Joey Carvello and Danae had their names on it. That was around 1977/76. Then at that time I started going to NY a lot and I went to the first Billboard Disco Convention. This guy Bill Wardlow, who was supposedly the godfather of disco, he ran it. Jane Brinton was there, James Hamilton was there. I used to go to record companies and blag records even though I wasn’t playing anywhere major. And the people I got into see were people like David Todd who became a really good friend. There was this guy Doug Riddick at Atlantic. I met Richie Kaczor because he was involved in the first disco magazine. Luongo did a magazine in Boston called Nightfall, which I started writing for.
Then I did some records under the name Northend. The first one was Kind Of Life on West End and Luongo mixed that and Jimmy Maynard did the percussion. It was right after the time John mixed This Time Baby [by Jackie Moore]. It was his second mix. I think Danae went in and helped on the mix. And Larry used to play that record. That was probably the first record I made that he played at the Garage. Around 1977 I did all these Philly influenced tracks, then Tom Moulton and his brother Jerry came through because they were both from Boston. They came out on Casablanca as TJM. One of them, I Don’t Need No Music, which was on the Record World chart. That was when I met Brian [Chin] and Nelson George. I met all those guys through going to the disco conventions. Then I made that record Rap-O-Clap-O with Joe Bataan for London. Then London went bust so it went on to Salsoul.
What made you get into production rather than DJing?
Because I was a shit DJ. And I wanted to make music, I didn’t want to play records.
Were you a musician?
No, I just had ideas about what I wanted to do with the music. But you were obviously influenced by DJs, weren’t you?
Yeah, I was a DJ, I just wasn’t a good one. I’d rather make music than play it. Put it this way: I knew the power of the DJ. I was friendly with all the good DJs. I’d go and hang out in other clubs when I wasn’t playing. I’d sit in the booth with Danae or Jimmy Stuard or John Luongo, who was a genius. He could take two records – the thing that became famous with hip hop – two 45s. John would extend intros, but he would just do it on the fly. He’d really mix 12-inch version out of 45s. He was really quick. He used to play at a club called Rhinoceros, which was a black club. The straight clubs were nothing. It was either the black clubs or the gay clubs. Danae played at Champs, Jimmy was playing at... (it was a number I forget the name). You’d go to those clubs and watch. When I to New York David Todd would take me to clubs and introduce me to people. I was at Galaxy 21, he took me there, and he had this record which just seemed endless with all of these cuts in it. It was amazing. It was called Ten Percent. I went up the booth and it was one record. I was like ‘how is he [Walter Gibbons] doing this, he must be so quick’. Then I’d hang out at Scepter. That’s how I met Mel [Cheren]. The other thing was there was a real small group of people, so you could talk your way into seeing people.
It’s still a fairly unique position you were in, because most producers were either musicians already or they were DJs who gradually moved into remixing and production?
Yeah, but I had been a DJ.
But even then going from being a DJ to producing was quite an new idea then though.
Yeah, it was. John Luongo was a DJ who was doing remixes. Jimmy Burgess was a DJ doing remixes. But, see, they were all big name DJs so they were going to get the remixes. I wasn’t going to be able to get a remix. No-one was going to give me a remix. I had to do it from the other way. I had to make my own records and that’s how I got to be able to remix records: by having hits. After I did Planet Rock, IOU and Walking On Sunshine, that’s when I got remixes. Before that, I never remixed a record.
Where did you learn how to make records?
I was a real student of records. Back then, it wasn’t easy. Now you can take a sampler. Back then it was all live. All those records were live. For instance, when I did Happy Days, which is a record that still gets played, that was all live. We had to work five hours to get that drum sound. It was all live musicians. You know: make what you’re able to hear. Everything that people played in clubs was live. It was Philly. I loved Gamble and Huff, so you’d get a musician in and say listen to Earl Young and try and play as good as he does. But I’d write songs. I’d find a keyboard player and go in and write songs together. On Northend, I had these guys Tony Carbone and Russell Presta, who got murdered right after we’d had a couple of records out. He was a drummer. He was a really good DJ too. If he’d have lived he would definitely have done big things. So no-one said you couldn’t do it. No-one gave me money. I had to raise the money to make a record. But the first thing I made came out. The second thing I made Tom Moulton signed and it was an album and even though I only got a credit for arranging and writing it, I produced it. Then he did some strings on it. Then the Northend record Happy Days happened and Larry used to play the shit out of Tee’s Happy. When I moved to New York I met Tee Scott at Better Days and then I had him mix Happy Days. I’d really loved the sound coming out of Better Days. There was this other guy, Andre Booth, who was a keyboard player. He used to play live and he produced This Beat Is Mine. So I got him to play. He played – him and his guitarist Charlie Street – on Happy Days. The next record I did was Jazzy Sensation, which was on Tommy Boy. I moved to New York right after I did Happy Days.
Was that a spur to you moving there?
That and the fact that my wife at the time was a lawyer and she got a job in New York. I’d spent a summer there and after the summer had done Happy Days. I met Shep [Pettibone], I heard some of his stuff on the radio, so I called him up. Jazzy Sensation had already come out by then. But Shep had edited Funky Sensation on Kiss and I really liked what he’d done, so I said, "why don't you come in and add some of those overdubs on to the rap version". So he did that and I think he did a re-edit. That might have been his first credit on a record; maybe his second. After I did that, when I did Walking On Sunshine I brought in Jellybean. So I was going to all the clubs and meeting DJs, but whether they added all that much at that point I’m not really sure. I just wanted to have that connection and input.
How did you come to do Jazzy Sensation?
I had been writing reviews for Dance Music Report which was owned by Tom Silverman and he was starting up a label. The first record he did was Let’s Vote; this guy Eric Murray from Boston had done it and I sent him over to Tom who put it out. Tom said, "we didn’t do that well with that, lets do a record". And I was the only producer that Tom knew. We went into the studio with Andre Booth, Charlie, this bass player. It was basically Andre Booth and his rhythm section. We went in and we were either going to do a Genius Of Love rap version or a rap version of Funky Sensation. But a bunch of people had gone in and done Genius Of Love, so we did Funky Sensation. And that did really well and sold 30,000 records. So Tom says, "Well, you did pretty well on that one. Do you wanna do another?" Bambaataa was with the Jazzy Five and he said, "do another record, but with Bambaataa". And I’d been into Kraftwerk and Bam was into Kraftwerk and we just had the idea of merging the two Kraftwerk songs together.
How much did those two Kraftwerk songs have to do with what Bambaataa was doing?
I used to hear Trans-Europe Express all over the place. In playgrounds, clubs, everywhere. At that time, when I moved to New York, I worked at Cardinal One-Stop. Kind Of Life was out, Happy Days had just come out. When I had lunch at the one-stop I’d sit in the park and there’d be guys with the big beat-box breakdancing. So I’d hear it all over the place. Then Numbers came out. And I used to hang out at a record store in Brooklyn called Music Factory and the guys who later became Rockers Revenge – Donnie and Dwight – worked there and they turned me on to things. I came in and heard Numbers and they said, "Oh man, it’s flyin’ out of the store". So me and Bam decided to mix the two together.
What you were doing was very much like sampling without a sampler.
Was that unique?
Well, people would do cover records. Black music has always had cover records. What I was trying to do was mix in the DJ bits of other records. It was a conscious thing. It was almost like a medley but not really, because you only used little bits of things. Like for Walking On Sunshine I had bits of D Train. I tried to create what a DJ would do with records.
Were you influenced by the Loft and the Garage, because Rockers Revenge sounded like a Peech Boys-style record when it came out and Walking On Sunshine was a big Loft and Garage record for Eddy Grant?
Oh yeah. I tried to make it sound like a Peech Boys record! I’d go to the Garage and I was able to get into the booth because I knew people there. Oh, you know what the other thing was? Larry loved Tee’s Happy. He used to really love the break in Tee’s Happy. He loved Tee’s Happy and then we did a song called It’s Right and Tee’s Right. There was a bass-synth line in Tee’s Happy that he used to call the Pig - boww-boww-b-boww - and he used to love that. He would let me in the booth and I’d hang out with him. We’d talk music. I was obviously influenced by the Peech Boys record. Everyone was influenced by the Peech Boys record. When those handclaps started whipping around the place... And I heard Walking On Sunshine for the first time in the Garage. I mean, you’d go there and he’d always pull out two or three records which would just blow you away. Obviously, the Garage was a major influence. Walking On Sunshine was specifically made for the Paradise Garage.
Did it get played there?
Oh shit, yeah he used to play the fuck out of that. He was playing a lot of my records at that time. Larry was really open. He was playing Imagination. He was playing Level 42. He was playing the Clash. He would play anything, so you knew whatever you did he’d give it a fair listen. His taste was weird though. Sometimes you’d do a record that you’d think he'd love and he’d hate it. Then there’d be this thing that you wouldn’t think anything of and he’d play it. So you couldn’t really promote a record to Larry. He’d do this a lot too: you’d wait for him to play your record. And he wouldn’t play it. Then you’d go home and the next day someone like Bobby Shaw would call and say, "He played it three times after you left!" That happened a lot. Like with Walking and even Planet Rock, which he even used to play.
So you would go into the studio and say I’m going to make a record for this particular club?
Well what I would do is go to a club and then the next day go into the studio all inspired and make a record. Same thing with the Funhouse. IOU, things like that, was definitely a Funhouse record. Confusion was a Funhouse record. You knew those weren’t Larry’s kind of records.
How did you come across Jellybean?
Planet Rock had come out. And Jellybean had a 1/4-inch 15-inch tape machine and Tom Silverman wanted a 7-inch edit of Planet Rock and he didn’t want to pay. So he knew Jellybean had a tape machine so I think that might have been how I met him. We did the edit of Planet Rock at Jellybean’s house. When I did Walking On Sunshine he came in and helped me mix it a bit. That was at Blank Tape studio. It was really funny, because his contribution was hitting the reverb button on the explosions on the snare! For a long time that was his major trick he got from me. He may have done one other mix before that but after that he helped with IOU and he’s on the record for Confusion but I don’t think he ended up being there when we did the final mix. But at that point, Jellybean would play all those records at the Funhouse. Actually Jellybean would play anything Larry would play, plus he could play even more, because he was playing more freestyle and hip hop things. I don’t think Confusion got played at the Garage, but it was definitely a Funhouse record.
You know the footage of you going to the Funhouse with a reel-to-reel tape? What is that?
It’s the Confusion video.
But you did that anyway?
Oh we always did. That’s where we got the idea. I’d tell them [New Order], "we’ll do it, we’ll finish it and we’ll go to the Funhouse so Jellybean can play it right away." People would bring their test pressings, but Jellybean was one of the first people – Larry had one, too – who had a tape machine. I gave him Play At Your Own Risk and that record was number one at the Funhouse six months before it ever came out. When we went in to do Planet Rock we were worried that we’d have problems with Kraftwerk so we did another melody line. Also on Planet Rock I had wanted this D Train/Strikers sounding clavinet part on it. So we had these parts on it and when we went to mix Planet Rock, Tom said, "oh just use the Kraftwerk melody on it." So I said, "Well, listen, there’s another record here. This could be a big record". I thought the clav and the other melody were even hipper than Planet Rock. I had a rough mix of it and Jellybean was playing the instrumental of it. People would freak out. They’d hear the orchestra hit (Planet Rock had been the first with that on I think) and there’d be this other music. But it was the same beat. We knew it would be a hit. I knew these singers from a group called the Ambitions: Bobby Howard, Herb Jackson. I got François in to do a mix, but we didn’t end up using it. He was into his percussion phase. It just didn’t work.
How did you originally meet up with Bam?
Through Silverman. That was how I hooked with Robie, too. There used to be a remix service called Disconet and Robie had had some song on it that Bam liked. I think Bam had had a record on it, too.
Do you remember the first time you say hip hop being played?
Oh yeah. I saw hip hop the first time Joe Bataan brought me up. 1978 or ’77. It was before there had been a record out. He brought me up around 129th Street, because he was from there. And he said, "Check this out! There’s these kids talkin’ over records.". We were gonna go in and make a record. He said, "Someone’s gonna make a million dollars out of this". No, he did, he really did! We went in and used To Be Real and did Rap-O-Clap-O and Jocelyn sang on it and I think that was the first or second record that she sang on. We did a whole album and she did this Sadie Sexy Lady, which is credited to Jocelyn Shaw. Her daughter was about five at the time. Her daughter always used to be at the Garage.
Funhouse was a really straight club too wasn't it, so it was more accepting of hip hop freestyle and the like.
Well it was a street club. It was the only mixed straight club.
You mean racially mixed?
Yeah. I remember sometimes black kids having a problem getting in and we’d have to go out and help them get in. It was a Mafia club. Looking back now Jellybean never struck me as being into the drug thing as much as others. He wasn’t as druggy. He did drugs. But he was more motivated by money. He was always a little businessman. Always.
He must have been the first DJ to get a solo deal.
Yeah. But he got that because of Madonna. Definitely. Because she was going to sing Sidewalk Talk and she only ended up doing backgrounds. He had done Madonna’s record. He had done Holiday. But he was a really great DJ.
What made him good?
He really mixed well. He mixed between records really well. I mean, Larry wasn’t a great mixer between records. He’d let a record end and he’d throw another one on. But Jellybean could really mix. And he just picked the right records… like Slang Teacher.
Wide Boy Awake?
Yeah. He’d play records like Was Dog A Doughtnut, The Mexican. He came from a hip hop mentality were he’d play things that weren’t supposed to be played. But Larry would do that, too. He would play Rapper’s Delight. He played that when it first came out. He played that five times a night. Jellybean had a very commercial sensibility when he made his own records. He didn’t make earth-breaking records or mixes.
Can we take you back to Bambaataa. How much was he involved and how much was he just an inspiration?
More of an inspiration really. When we did Planet Rock he brought Captain Sky’s Super Sperm. He said: "This beat here. Let’s use that". So we had that break in Planet Rock. He definitely had influence. But he didn’t know about the studio.
When did you record it?
I think 1981, maybe. I’m not sure. It was probably 1980. We didn’t have it that long before it was on record. Because I remember going to For The Record or one of the record pool parties at Christmas and I put on the acetate and people went mad. Then it came out a little after that. I know it was a big hit in the summer.
How quick was it to make?
It was pretty quick to make because we didn’t have much money. We’d get downtime – night time – sessions. The guy who owned the studio gave us a deal. Maybe it was three all night sessions. We did all the music in one session and a bit of the rap. Then we did the rap. Then we mixed it.
Were you aware it was a historic record?
I knew before we even mixed it. I knew before there was even a rap on it. I went home the night we cut the track and brought the tape home and I said to my wife at the time, "We’ve just made musical history". Oh, I knew.
Did you feel that you were documenting or transferring that live hip hop feel on to record?
I don’t think I did that. I think Def Jam did. I missed out a bit on that. When we did Beat Street, we started having Jazzy Jay doing cuts live. On Breaker’s Revenge I did all the cuts on that but I don’t think that came out till ’83 or ’84. After Planet Rock came out everyone was doing that. And me and my programmer John Robie didn’t want to do another one like that. As a matter of fact, when we did Looking For The Perfect Beat, which took forever to do, I came up with the concept of looking for the perfect beat and beat this. It was almost a taunt at Sylvia [Robinson] because there was definitely competition between us and Sugarhill. So when it went ‘beat dis’ and we threw one beat on. It was like a challenge. It was really adventurous. I didn’t wanna do a typical rap record. After that I didn’t wanna do, like, a cover record which is why Looking For The Perfect Beat took so long and why it was very different. Then Renegades Of Funk took a long time too. That was probably the first one we used samples on. We had James Brown and Martin Luther King.
What was your first experience with a sampler?
Well, it was either that one or another one called... After Planet Rock I did Funky Soul Makossa which was a cover of Soul Makossa with Nairobi and the Awesome Foursome. The first one was the Emulator 1 first time I heard that was at Unique. They had an Emulator 1 with lots of samples, like Three Stooges, Tarzan, stupid vocal things.
What was it like?
It was a keyboard. The first sampler I used was the orchestra hit on Planet Rock. That was a sample from a Fairlight. Then when we did IOU.
So you had access to a Fairlight when you did Planet rock?
Yeah. But all we used was the explosion and the orchestra hit. They were a $100,000 of useless space thing.
They just had pre-programmed sounds in them?
Yeah, there was a really hard to programme sequence. It would take forever. On Planet Rock we didn’t have an 808 and I wanted to use one, and there was an ad in the Village Voice: ‘Man with drum machine $20 a session’. I don’t even remember the guy’s name or anything. So I got him for $20 and said: ‘Programme this’. But the first time we ever used an Emulator to really make a difference in a song was on IOU when we had that solo; [mimics the solo] Jellybean was saying "You should do AEIOU". That was the first time we did that. Then after that everyone used the Emulator on those stupid voices. For three years there were the orchestra hits, the 808 and the Emulator. Then later on it was the multiple edits...
Well what was the difference between the rock remixes and dance productions you did?
All my dance productions starting 1980 to ’81 were all programmed. And all my remixes, until much later, were played live so it was really different. They’d want you to do what you did, but the technology wasn’t really there to do it, you know? So basically, what we would... There was the technology to put a click track. You’d have to use the snare and the kick from the live track and you’d have to trigger the click from that. Chris Lord-Alge was really good at that because he was a drummer. He'd do a click track. But it was really imprecise, because the drumming was all over the place. So you’d try to make a click that went all over the place but that the sequence could follow. For instance, the Emulator had an internal trigger, so at least you could trigger their snare off the Emulator. So Chris did a lot of that. He did Dancing In The Dark, he did Swept Away Diana Ross. He was the engineer on a lot of that stuff. I think Dancing In the Dark might have had a drum machine. That was really tight. But a lot of my other remixes, like Too Much Blood, which people still play, I’d just change the bassline. Because my theory always was that if you had a really groovy bassline the drums don't have to be a straight kick, because people dance to the bassline. So when I did Living In A Box, which was one of my first big remixes here, and also Fine Young Cannibals’ Ever Falling In Love, I would change the bassline for like a Norman Whitfield bass approach. Then the band would call up: "You didn’t make the chord changes; you didn’t do this and you didn’t do that". And I’d go: "Well, listen to Norman Whitfield. His basslines never change". I remember Lindsay Buckingham calling me back after I did Family Man, being all upset, and Big Love. How I would start is redoing the bass live. I had this bass player, Brian Rock, (he was in this group Mojo Niya signed to Streetwise) and he would play dubby bass, like on Too Much Blood and Cover Me. Then I’d have Bashiri Johnson come in and do percussion. Then, if I could, I’d somehow play the kick drum in. Chris usually did pretty well on that. But the technology was not really there to sync it up.
How time consuming was this? How long did it take to do Too Much Blood for example?
The edits would take so long. And I was so coked out of my brain. So between me being coked up and my engineer being coked up, we’d spend three days on the mix. Take 20 reels – I had 20 reels of Too Much Blood – and we’d go into the editing suite and there’d be so much the Rascals would just look at it and say, "What the fuck are you doin’ to us, man?" It would take weeks. Junior used to edit for me. Juan Cato used to edit for me. Benji Candelario. Cevin Fisher. Victor Simonelli. Lenny Dee. These were all editors that worked at Shakedown.
In general how do you think the DJs' sensibility affected the way records were made?
Well, I mean if you’re making dance records you want DJs to play ’em. A lot of record producers didn’t realise that so they’d have to get DJs to go and remix them. I would get DJs to go in and remix it with me, but I never gave the track to a DJ because I knew what I wanted. I wanted it to be credible with the DJs, so I knew having a DJ’s name on it would help. But also because the DJ could also add a little something. And that could make the difference. When I was really hitting, I don't think any of the records were made in the mix. They were made in the conception. So do you think the DJs affected the conception then?
Oh yes, definitely. If I hadn’t been a DJ I wouldn’t have known what to listen for.
Were you consciously taking ideas from dub?
No. I was taking ideas from the Garage. I can’t say I was into dub. I like dub, but I’m not going to say I was listening to dub. I know François said he did but he was more international.
Where did you get the ideas for using decay, reverb etc.?
Well, from Norman Whitfield. Rare Earth records. They always had these wild delays. Rock records used to use a lot of delays. I'm Losing You [a Rare Earth and Temptations song]. It wasn’t new. I don’t think even Jamaicans came up with it. It was on R&B records. Motown records. But Rare Earth records specifically. But it was going to the Garage. I’m not going to deny that. Larry would use delays on the handclaps, everyone would go wild and I’d say "Hey, sounds good to me!".
How much influence have DJs and dance music had on popular music?
I think it’s limited to dance music in a way.
But what about rock groups using loops and samples?
Eeeeiwwh, yeah I suppose you could say that. Maybe in the last five years or ten years. To the extent that DJs have influenced dance music and now dance music is influencing rock music then I guess, yeah, DJs are influencing rock music. Then there’d be DJs like Tim Simenon and Nellee Hooper who’ve gone on to produce rock groups.
Interviewed by Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton in London, 25.1.99