Baker, Arthur (Contemporary Musicians)
Producer, remixer, and occasional musician Arthur Baker is probably known best to many as the person who put the remix artist to the fore but his influence upon modern popular music extends far beyond that. After creating the pioneering hip-hop single "Planet Rock" with rapper Afrika Bambaataa in the early 1980s, Baker continued to bring new dance artists to light, as well as remixing many already established acts. While behind the scenes work has always remained his forte, Baker orchestrated several albums under several names (Back-beat Disciples, Criminal Element Orchestra) which provide a fair overview of Baker's wide-reaching style. "I'd like to be known as one you can't categorize, "Baker told High Fidelity's Crispin Cioe in 1985. "At first they pegged me as hip-hop, then they pegged me as the king of remixers. If I can bring my sound to a diversity of artists without changing theirs, I'll escape being pigeonholed. Then people will say, "He's different; he's a renegade."
Born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts, Baker was a disc jockey in the 1970s, giving him his first taste of dance music, as well as an interest in production. Admiring the studio techniques of Thom Bell and Kenny Gamble-Leon Huff, two producers who helped create the Philadelphia (or "Philly") soul sound, Baker enrolled in several sound engineering courses in college. Baker soon adapted Gamble & Huff's innovations to his own liking, and produced a minor hit for the Boston act TJM. However, Baker's wife Tina had a sudden career change in 1980, and the two moved to New York City, where Baker's own work would skyrocket.
Unable to sustain a living as a DJ in New York, Baker floundered for a brief period sweeping floors for a record distributor to make ends meet. However, the lively culture of New York nightclubs, most notably the Funhouse in Manhattan, offered Baker a myriad of ideas as well as connections with like-minded fans of dance music. As Baker told Cioe of the Fun house, "[t]he energy there and at the Roxy [Theater] was so intense that you could predict the future just by showing up on a hot night." Indeed, many future dance stars would emerge from the Funhouse, including pop divas Madonna and Lisa Lisa, as well as Baker's protege John "Jellybean" Benitez. Along with Benitez, it was in this setting that Baker met Tom Silverman, president of the cutting-edge dance label Tommy Boy, who in turn introduced him to vocalist and DJ Afrika Bambaataa.
Baker, Bambaataa, and Silverman were all keenly aware of the currents of culturally diverse forms of dance music that melded together in the streets and parties of New York, and were anxious to commit such a marriage of sounds to record, resulting in the outfit Soulsonic Force. Starting with majestic synthesizer lines borrowed from the song "Trans-Europe Express" by the experimental German band Kraftwerk, and then overlaying them with the beats and rap vocals found in urban American dance music, Baker and Bambaataa in 1982 created "Planet Rock," generally acknowledged as a milestone in dance music which put Baker on the map. Although Baker had already released the single "Jazzy Sensation" with Bambaataa, it was "Planet Rock" that hooked the public at large and helped break the race barrier in hip-hop. "I think the important thing about all of this," Baker told Rolling Stone's Debby Miller in regard to the explosion of hip-hop, "is that this is the first meeting of black and white music in a long time that is really making any sense and meaning anything."
Baker followed up the critical and commercial success of the Soulsonic Force singles with a string of other hits, such as "Looking For The Perfect Beat" by Afrika Bambaataa and "Play At Your Own Risk" by Planet Patrol. Initially, Baker's work in what he called urban dance rhythms fared best in the U.K. and on U.S. dance charts, due to what Baker saw as pervasive racism in the American record business. However, by the end of 1983 Baker had become something of a celebrity within dance culture, with his portly, long-maned personage even appearing in the video for "Confusion" by the British synth act New Order, a cut that Baker produced and co-wrote. Word of Baker's talent for making dance records spread, and he was tapped by high profile artists like singer Diana Ross to collaborate. Along with engineer and synth player John Robie, who had played on many of Baker's early pieces, the producer launched the independent dance label Streetwise, and found himself steadily at work in his own Shakedown Studios.
As Baker's credibility grew throughout the mid-1980s, so did the range of artists that invited him to produce or remix their music. Dance rhythms remained at the helm of his ongoing project as a technical innovator, but his resume of associates began to include artists from numerous backgrounds, including classic rockers like Bruce Springsteen and Jeff Beck, pop singers such as the New Wave inspired Cyndi Lauper, and the reggae group Black Uhuru. In addition, Baker continued to cultivate groups taking their first steps, such as the youthful R&B act New Edition and the group Freeeze, with whom Baker had the hits "Candy Girl" and "IOU," respectively. Whatever the status of the artists at hand, Baker and Robie were known for a high level of spontaneity, imagination, and personal involvement in the recording process. "I hate mixing records," Baker quipped to Miller in regard to his emotional ties with studio work. "I hate finishing a record. It's like watching your kid grow and then sending it out in the world."
In 1985, Baker went out on a professional limb by inaugurating a project to fight the kind of racism within the music industry that he had castigated all along. With the aid of "Little Steven" Van Zandt, an ex-member of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, Baker organized a virtual army of musicians under the banner Artists United Against Apartheid to attack the policy of racial segregation then endorsed by the white South African government. Specifically, Baker and Van Zandt called for musicians to boycott Sun City, a posh South African resort town that catered to rich white audiences. The resulting effort was the benefit single and album Sun City, delivered by many singers who had declined to play in South Africa, many of them already cohorts of Baker such as Bambaataa, Springsteen, the soultinged pop duo Hall and Oates, and singer Will Downing. Baker's intention of including a list of those who had repeatedly played Sun City in the single incited flak from record companies, and like many benefit projects, the release failed to sell to as many people as hoped for. Nevertheless, he saw it as a worthy effort. "We didn't do it to raise dollars," Baker told Billboard in August of 1985. "We were working to raise consciousness and as far as that goes, we were successful. The whole Sun City operation was exposed for the world to see."
For a brief period after Sun City, Baker kept a lower profile, due to the controversy of the Artists United project, as well as to other legal and personal problems Baker's label, Streetwise, had been subjected to a number of lawsuits over rights to the band New Edition, and the label was crushed as a result. In addition, Baker had only just recovered from a heavy drug habit that had compromisedhis creativity. "I was 100 pounds over-weight, taking cocaine every night and a really heavy drinker," Baker told Melody Maker's Alf Billingham several years later. "My experience is that if someone's high on cocaine than everything they say is gonna be a lie. It's either euphoria or depression, that's the truth." After relocating to the more receptive British shores, Baker was ready to re-establish himself.
In 1986, Baker was firmly back on his feet, and set up his new label Criminal Records. In addition, Baker returned to soundtrack production for the first time since the 1984 breakdancing film Beat Street with the successful Pretty in Pink and Something Wild albums. Mixing and production were of course still part of Baker's musical diet, including several hit records with longtime associates New Order, but he began to take seriously an offer extended to him by Epic Records, that of creating an album under his own name. Baker's strong interaction with most of his productions made such a prospect less than a debut in the strictest sense, but a tempting opportunity nonetheless.
It was not until 1989 that Baker's own record, Merge, was realized, after Epic scrapped his initial demo tape and was replaced by A&M as the label of distribution. Hardly a "solo" record, Merge featured a pot pourri of talent collected as the Backbeat Disciples, including 1970s soul legend Al Green, vocalist Martin Fry of the group ABC, and singer Jimmy Sommerville of Bronski Beat and the Communards. With Baker co-writing, producing, and even contributing drum beats to Merges twelve cuts, he maintained a balance that impressed critics and dance fans alike. "Despite the horribly modern graphics and our natural aversion towards superstar collusions, Merge works brilliantly," raved Paul Lester, one of Melody Maker's most visible critics, "a portable compendium of potential monster hits that eschews the stylistic monomania of most dance albums while never succumbing to indecisive eclecticism." As usual, Baker's biggest audience was found in the U.K. and in clubs, and the album did not take off in American pop charts.
Despite the commercial floundering of Merge, the album's kaleidoscopic appetite helped a wide range of acts to continue to solicit Baker's recording mastery in the 1990s. As Baker told Billboard's David Nathan, "I didn't want to make a gimmicky album. It would have been easy just to do a house oriented album but I wanted to stay true to myself. Although a lot of industry people have seen me as being simply dance oriented, I've always had more diverse tastes." Nevertheless, dance mixes remained to be seen as Baker's specialty and veterans like ex-Blondie chanteuse Debby Harry and chameleonic singer David Bowie were among the many who put Baker at the helm of their club-oriented releases.
By the time Baker assembled a new incarnation of the Backbeat Disciples in 1992, dance music had begun to grasp a toe-hold in the American mainstream market, partially helped by the barrier-breaking trend of the socalled "alternative" market, and few could deny Baker's influence in the growth of such popularity. However, upon the release of Give In To The Rhythm, the second Disciples album, some critics felt that Baker had fallen behind, and lacked the freshness offered by his younger dance contemporaries. "It would be unremarkable and inoffensive if it wasn't so presumptuous," Melody Maker's David Bennun wrote of the album in February of 1992. "The clubs where you're likely to hear this kind of glossed-over neo-house all night exist only in TV dramas about divorcees made by clueless directors who once heard a [1970s disco singer] Donna Summer record."
Despite such biting criticism, Baker was forgiven in most quarters, although the lack of hits on both Back-beat Disciples records created the general impression that Baker was at his height interpreting the music of others. By the mid-1990s, the legacy of Baker's contributions to hip hop and dance music over the previous decade began to surface on a slew of compilation albums such as the series Club Classics and Old School Jams. In the meantime, Baker continued to sponsor unknown acts such as Nation of Abel and Brooklyn Funk Essentials, as well as dabbling with his own side project Criminal Element Orchestra, proving that he was still willing to take chances in the creation of vital new music. "Of course, it would be nice to sit on a perch and enjoy all of the riches in life," Baker mused to Billboards Larry Flick in 1994. "But so many people in the business have a short memory. You've got to keep on pushing and hustling. It can be a real drag sometimes, but if you really love what you're doing, it's worth the work. And at this point, I still really love what I do."
As producer or remixer
(Soulsonic Force), "Planet Rock," Streetwise, 1982.
(Afrika Bambaataa), "Looking For The Perfect Beat," Street-wise, 1983.
(Planet Patrol), "Play At Your Own Risk," Streetwise, 1983.
(New Edition), "Candy Girl," Streetwise (original release), 1983.
(New Order), "Confusion," Factory/Qwest, 1983.
(Cyndi Lauper), "Girls Just Want To Have Fun," Portrait, 1984.
(Bruce Springsteen), "Dancin In The Dark," Columbia, 1985.
(Artists United Against Apartheid), "Sun City," Manhattan, 1985.
(Black Uhuru), "Brutal," 1986.
(New Order), "Blue Monday 1988," Factory/Qwest, 1988.
(David Bowie), "Fame 90," RCA, 1990.
(Pet Shop Boys), "Paninaro "95," EMI, 1995.
(Criminal Element Orchestra), "Go Around," Fourth & Broadway, 1996.
(Secret Knowledge), "Kris Needs Must!," 1997.
Arthur Baker and The Backbeat Disciples
Merge, A&M, 1989.
Give In To The Rhythm, RCA, 1992.
Billboard, July 27, 1985; August 24, 1985; August 16, 1986; November 18, 1989; March 27, 1993; July 9, 1994.
High Fidelity, April 1985.
Melody Maker, March 26, 1988; Augusto, 1989; August 26, 1989; February 29, 1992; March 7, 1992; October 19, 1996.
Musician, May 1985.
Rolling Stone, October 13, 1983.
Village Voice, January 25, 1983; January 1, 1985.