Interview: Arthur Baker on "Planet Rock," Disco Remixes, and Unreleased Sessions

Arthur Baker (2015). Photo by David Cabrera / Red Bull Content Pool.

Producer, remixer, and DJ, Arthur Baker's life and work is analogous to the story of contemporary dance music itself. From his early days spinning disco records in Boston to his innovative production on landmark tracks like "Planet Rock" and New Order's "Confusion," Baker has been a key figure helping to shape the evolution of music production.

We spoke with Baker by phone at his home in Miami and our conversation touched on everything from hip-hop, disco, and remixing Bruce Springsteen to his unreleased sessions, which feature everyone from Jeff Beck to Four Tet.

Could you start by telling me how you got started in DJing?

I got started DJing really early, in the '70s. I loved Philly and Motown and you know, all this stuff that was going on, from '72 on. The sound of Philadelphia. Back then there were really no discos. It was like sort of the beginning of the whole disco thing. I became friends with DJs in Boston and wanted to DJ and I just started. I went to college in Amherst, Mass. So I went away to college in '73 and I had records. I drove down to New York, to Brooklyn, and I bought a GLI mixer, and I had just regular turntables, no pitch control, you know?

So I had a few turntables and I had a mixer. I became the DJ in my college, which was Hampshire College. So I just started that way. And then I talked myself into a gig at this club called Rashid's, which was, strangely enough, an Egyptian disco in Amherst. Pretty, pretty far out. So I was the DJ there for a while. That was my first gig. And then after that, I moved back to Boston, did a bunch of gigs at places like Sadie's. It was horrible. It was the heyday of disco and every bar and restaurant had a disco in it.

So I had a gig there and then at that point, I decided I wanted to make records. It just inspired me to want to make music. I always thought the Philly and Motown singers didn't write the songs, usually. So I thought, well, I could be a record producer. I can't sing, but I have ideas on how to make songs. Somehow, I had that ego at that age, with no training that I could make records.

I'm curious, a quick sidebar about Philly international. Being from Philly, I'm always fascinated when folks talk about Philly international and those Gamble and Huff songs. What did it feel like as a working DJ at the time, playing those records?

Well, the thing with Gamble and Huff was they were great, with great productions, great lyrics. They took lyrics to the next level. For the most part the thing was messaging the music. We've got a message in the music, which resonated with me because I was very political even then, you know? Growing up with the Vietnam War and everything. And they had great singers. I mean the O'Jays and Teddy Pendergrass and Archie Bell. The reactions would be great. They were like the best records. You can't deny that Philly and Gamble and Huff.

When I talk about production mentors, it's always the two of them and also Norman Whitfield, who I love. But it was Earl Young on the drums and Norman Harris on guitar, Bobby Eli [guitar], and Ronnie Baker on bass. They had MFSB, and then they took it to New York and played on the Salsoul Records.

My first album that I produced was me trying to make a Philly album. [It eventually came out in 1979 under Tom Moulton's T.J.M. moniker and featured vocals from Ron Tyson of The Temptations.] And then Tom Moulton bought it from me because I didn't have enough money to finish it, and then he finished it at Sigma Philly.

T.J.M. - "I Don't Need No Music," produced by Arthur Baker

Around the time when you made that record was he doing the remix stuff at that point?

Yeah. He wasn't producing shit. You know, he was remixing—he's a great remixer and you know, basically to get into the business at that point, you couldn't be a remixer, because the remixes didn't exist other than him. And a few other people started, like John Luongo. But if you were going to get into making records and DJing, strangely, you'd have to start off as a producer—make your own records. No one hired me to do a remix until I had a bunch of hits as a producer. And then I was a remixer, you know?

Moulton was a remixer, the best one, but Casablanca wanted him to do an artist album. He had never produced a record from scratch. He took my record and remixed it and he did a really good job, but all that stuff was cut in Boston. He did some overdubs, a few things, and he kept Larry Wedgeworth's vocals, which I cut.

Tom was like the first remixer and he was the first guy who made a career out of doing remixes that wasn't a DJ. So after that they started hiring DJs to do remixes. 'Cause they figured first you'd get their name on it and they'd get big DJs who had a following, so that would help with other DJs. And then guys like Luongo were really talented, and he was like a mentor to me, and he mixed a few of my first records.

I'm curious, I wanted to ask you about moving from Boston to New York, but stepping ahead a little bit , what about the remix you did for Paul McCartney.

[Laughs] Yeah, I did a remix for the money. I mean, I love Paul McCartney. Who doesn't love The Beatles? But it wasn't like a song that I was in love with. Like when I did "Too Much Blood" for The Stones, I loved the track. I thought, "Wow, I really fucked this up." But you know, with "No More Lonely Nights," it was more like, What am I going to do with this?

The reason why I was going to ask you about the McCartney remix in particular, at that point, you had folks like Tom Moulton who was basically making edits and dubs of records, extending sections, but it seems like you were adding new music.

Oh yeah, definitely.

Where did that come from?

Well, Luongo started it by adding percussion, right? He had this guy, Jimmy Maelen, who was a great percussionist, and John would add percussion and whistles. He did "Blame It on the Boogie" and "Shake Your Body" for the Jacksons. He added all this percussion. He didn't have keyboard players come in and he didn't have bass players come in, and that's where I think I changed the game on that one. I'm not sure who else did it before me. Basically when I started doing mixes on rock records, where you could put a steady kick underneath anything, but if the bass wasn't rocking... to me, people danced to the bass as much as the drum.

I'd say "Big Love" [Fleetwood Mac] was the other one. That was probably the first house remix of a so-called rock record. And with that, obviously I put a piano and put a new bass, drums—kept the song and everything, but you know, made it a house record, but keeping the song. After that, a lot of people started just ripping up the song and, and just... sampling one bit of a vocal. Like the Springsteen record. Once I did three remixes for him, you know? You keep the song and try to make it better for a club. When I was remixing, I was actually re-producing for a dance version.

Fleetwood Mac - "Big Love (Extended Remix)," remixed by Baker

Were you still DJing in the clubs in New York at this one?

I never DJ'd in the clubs in New York. I wasn't a working DJ. I mean, I DJ'd a little in Boston, then I moved to New York. But I didn't really DJ in New York until like 20 years later, literally. I quit back then. You would quit DJing as soon as you can. I mean, even François [Kevorkian], he quit in '83—he stopped DJing for 10 or more years, and Jellybean [Benetiz] too. DJing was where you'd get your start. And then if you could do other things, you would move on from there.

Because then you're making records at that point.

You're making records and you're mixing. I mean, with François, he mixed hundreds of records… he could have mixed a thousand records, I don't know. He mixed a lot. He was great. He's like one of my favorite remixers, and Jellybean, and Shep [Pettibone]. They all stopped DJing, you know? So the guys who were really working, making records, didn't DJ. I wanted to make my own records and then obviously it was easier to get a gig, to do a remix, than getting an album deal or whatever. So that's how that worked out.

OK, so you're making records, you're producing stuff, you're remixing. When did you first become aware of hip-hop?

Around '78 or '79? I was doing a record with Joe Bataan. He had gotten a deal from London records to make a disco record. And it was sort of right after T.J.M. So that came out and I had a friend named Howard Smiley who had worked at TK (Records), but he left and he got a production deal with London. So he knew me and he knew Joe. He said, "You guys get together and make a disco album." So we were going to do a disco album and then London crashed. It was like London from the UK, but the US version went bust or whatever. So basically we had started already and Joe had said, "You gotta meet me, come up to the Bronx."

It was probably the first time I was in the Bronx, other than driving through, going to New York. And he said, "Come, there's guys talking over beats," you know? There weren't even records out yet. This was just in the park. So I get to the park and there's these kids rapping over "Got to Be Real," Cheryl Lynn, or whatever the tracks were at the time. And he goes, "Someone's going to make a million dollars off this shit!" [Laughs.]

I said, "Yeah, you think?" And then we went in the studio and we were still working together. He did the track "Rap-O Clap-O," but then the label went bust and we got to keep our tracks. So he kept his, and he had his come out on Salsoul. So that's where I first heard about rap and Joe put out his record—and then there was Kurtis Blow "The Breaks" and Fatback [Band]—and Tom Silverman at that time, it was probably '80/'81 he came up. He came to me and said, "Listen, I'm starting a label. You want to produce a record for me?" I said sure. 'Cause he knew I had produced records and I'd worked with live musicians, which at that point was the only way you made a record. There were no drum machines or anything that people were using.

He introduced me to Bambaataa. He said, "There's this guy, Afrika Bambaataa, he has a bunch of groups, he's in the Bronx. Come up." So we went to the Bronx River Center, met Bam. Then the first record I did, there was a group Jazzy Five [Baker would produce their 1982 release "Jazzy Sensation"]. So Bam, he had Soul Sonic Force, Cosmic Force, Jazzy Five, and for some reason he picked Jazzy Five to go in first when we went in the studio.

I had these musicians who I had met through Tee Scott. They were from Queens and it was this guy Andre Booth who was producing and writing, super talented guy. He used to play records over Tee's DJing at Better Days. So, met him, and he had played on my record, "Happy Days," the Northend record. So I've used him with Tee on a remix. So then I said, okay. He had a guitarist, Charlie Street, and the drummer T-Funk. So they had a rhythm section and they were kids, man. They're like 20, 21, 22 maybe. They're around that age.

So they came in and, you know, I just brought a bunch of different records. 'Cause back then rap was... you'd cover a track that was hot. And then, you know, you'd put a rap on it. So at the time, (Tom Tom Club's) "Genius of Love'' was huge, right? So they wanted to do "Genius of Love." But I had a feeling there'd be a lot of different versions of it. So I said, well, how about this record? "Funky Sensation," which has a great beat and Larry Levan's playing it at the (Paradise) Garage. And I think it will work. You're the Jazzy Five, we'll call it "Jazzy Sensation."

So we did that and it did really well. I mean it did 50,000 [copies sold] and that's when Tom and I drove to Philly to the pressing plant there. We used the pressing plant in Philly, and we'd drive down there to get the records. Then me and Tom would bring them to the record shop.

The next group was Soul Sonic Force. And that was the first time we used drum machines, because as I said, that was the tipping point. That was the tipping point when it went from live to machines, between those two records.

Afrika Bambataa & The Soul Sonic Force - "Planet Rock," produced by Arthur Baker and John Robie

And on "Planet Rock" that was a Fairlight?

The Fairlight was the orchestra hit and the claps and the explosion. That was it, there was nothing else. We used the Fairlight for it and an 808, and it was a MicroMoog for the bass. And it was a Prophet-5 for the strings and stuff. John Robie had the Prophet-5 and the MicroMoog.

It was very little equipment and that was it. I mean, it was like two synths, a drum machine, and the Fairlight for effects. And we had like one delay, [Lexicon] PCM 41, to give that metallic sound a bit about his vocals. So we had that but it was cut through in a fucking great Neve board. So that's why it sounded so fat, you know?

I was going to say, I hear that record to this day and that record is about as old as I am. And it still sounds huge. Just physically, the sound competes with contemporary records.

Yeah. Well, it was definitely, it was definitely the start of that. I mean, so many things on that record became sort of standard stuff, and records after that—especially in hip hop records and in dance records—if you go back, there's the obvious, like the orchestra hit, and the bass going right with the kick drum and not a real bassline, because I had the bass play right along with the kick.

So, you know, when we'd take out the kick, it would still feel like the kick was there, but also taking out the snare and having just the kick and the clap, that's on everything. You would take out the snare and have kick and clap. And that sound is still in hip-hop now. I mean, hip-hop without 808 drums is…. you know, it wouldn't exist really. And I'm talking about like pop hip-hop, but through it all. So there are a lot of things in that record that set the stage for what would come afterwards for sure.

I wanted to ask you, I read somewhere that Marley Marl got his start working with you.

Yeah, well, he was Andre's best friend. They worked together. Andre and him were best friends from Queens. And when Andre would work with me, he'd bring Marley, and Marley would just be hanging out. I'll be honest. Like the thing is, you know, Marley and I are still friends. I mean, I haven't seen him in years, but his son looked me up, and then me and Marley went out and had dinner and hung out. It was great. But it was really funny [back then] because he was around, but he was very…. he didn't ask a lot of questions. He was just sort of taking it all in, you know? And Andre was just, you know, he's his keyboard player.

And the first Marley record that came out was that Dimples D thing ["Sucker DJs"]. So that was his first production, him and Andre, that I put out. So I was looking for young talented producers and stuff. Like Rick [Rubin], the first Def jam record [Jazzy Jay and T La Rock's "It's Yours"], I put out before he even knew Russell.

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Could you tell me a little bit about how that came about?

I was friends with Jazzy, right? And Jazzy was down with Bam. I remember, I signed it. Rick came in and played it for me. And I thought, I actually thought, That record is going to change rap. That's why I wanted to put it out, because it was the first time that it felt like a live performance. "Planet Rock" did too, because we did have the crowd [noise]. And Rick, he definitely got a lot of the ideas from "Planet Rock" 'cause of the crowd response and the atmosphere and all that.

We had a chorus [on "Planet Rock"] and then "It's Yours" had a chorus. And Rick has said in interviews that "Planet Rock" influenced him... the idea of having the chorus in a rap record. So Rick came and he was starting his label and he was like, "I have to have the sleeve. I have to have my logo." I wanted to start it like a hip-hop label or a B label, because we were putting a lot of things on Streetwise.

So I started Partytime, and it was going to be more like party records. And I thought this would be great for the first Partytime. And he was like, "No, no, it's gotta be Def jam. And it's got to have the sleeve." So I love the record so much. And I was like, "Cool." We pressed up like 30,000 sleeves and, and like within fucking days they were all sold out. So we had to start putting them out without sleeves. And he was pissed off because we got to have that.

So we had more pressed up, but he was, you know, he's 19 man. And he thought he knew everything, and he did know a lot. Basically we didn't fall out, but it was more like, he went with Russell because Russell was managing Run-DMC. So it was like that impressed him more than anything else. Like he'd be down with them. So yeah. But, yeah, the record—I had nothing to do with making it, but I did hear it and said, "I want to sign it." And that was, that was enough at that point, you know?

What is music-making like for you these days? Are you working on anything that you're really excited about?

Yeah, I've just finished an album with Rockers Revenge. So it's literally their debut album. They never had an album when they were out in the '80s, so, I've done that and I've directed and produced a documentary on their lives. So that's going really well. And with that, I just use Logic, Logic 9, and I wrote everything in Logic. And then for this album, I've gone back to Fred Zarr, who played on all the Madonna and stuff. Also he played on [Rockers Revenge's] "Walking on Sunshine" and a few other of my records. So I've gone back to him and he really put a lot of live keys on it. This guy Andre Carriere, who I used back in the '70s, I've got him playing guitar on it. And Bashiri Johnson plays percussion on one track.

I'm using live percussion, and there's a guy down here [in Miami] called Oba Frank Lords, who's a Cuban percussionist. I use him on a lot of my stuff. So I'm making a lot, I mean, I've done the album. The album is pretty much done. It's all mixed. I had it mixed in the UK. Living in Miami, a lot of it's really percussive, Latin stuff, Salsa dance records.

What else am I doing? I'm going back to like two albums that never came out, like one in '86 and '87, which was more rock, really '80s. It was supposed to be on Epic. People who I was working with at the time, I'd have them come in and do something on the record.

So I have a Jeff Beck track—that's amazing. Will Downing sings out a few of them, but, you know, it's more real '80s rock sound, you know, like big Foreigner drums and Phil Collins-sounding drums, but you know, the engineers on it [are] Frank Filipetti, Chris Lord-Alge, Tom Lord-Alge, so the thing sounds amazing. So I've been working on that, just listening to it.

But then I also did an album in London when I moved there. I worked with guys like Kieran Hebden, who's Four Tet now, but at the time he had a band called Fridge, the guys from Mogwai, Hooky [Peter Hook] from New Order, and Mani from Stone Roses. So it's really sort of punky. It's super, super cool, [like] Alabama 3, Alan Vega [of Suicide]. So it's a different vibe. So that one I'm actually going back to the stems and stuff and sort of organizing it. So I'm making music every day. I mean, literally I wake up, go in my room, and work on music, you know? It's just about trying to get things finished and out.

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