One of the most influential producers in dance music history, Arthur Baker is known primarily for his pioneering work with artists such as Afrika Bambaataa and New Order. He also assembled the early '80s studio project Rockers Revenge - consisting of Donnie Calvin, Dwight Hawkes and Tina B - responsible for the hits 'Walkin' on Sunshine' and 'The Harder They Come'. As the man behind Crosstown Rebels, Damian Lazarus has launched the careers of Maceo Plex, Art Department and Jamie Jones, and his own DJ career has seen him become undoubtedly one of the biggest names in dance music.
Ahead of their respective sets at Get Lost Miami this weekend - Arthur is playing with Rockers Revenge - the pair found the time to sit down for a thoroughly interesting chat. Read on below...
Arthur Interviews Damian
ARTHUR: We met back in the early 2000s, when we were both involved in the electroclash movement, each promoting two of the better parties of the time. Where do you place electroclash when rating dance music genres and eras? Where did it go and why? Could there be a revival?
DAMIAN: I was doing 21st Century Bodyrockers at Cynthia’s Robotic Bar and you were doing Return to New York at The Great Eastern Hotel. If I remember correctly, we were introduced and shortly after that Trevor Jackson decided he wanted to have a fight with me!! It was strange around that time; there was too many drugs, a lot of highly strung egos and some pretty shallow music; but somehow we managed to make a really vibrant scene out of it. To be honest, when we signed Felix da Housecat’s Silver Screen Shower Scene as the first release on City Rockers, Phil Howells and I had an inkling of what could follow but we didn’t really have a masterplan. That was right at the very beginning of it. I had met Larry Tee at his house in New York and he told me he just made this brand called "Electro Clash”. I didn’t like it at all and I reported back to Phil that under no circumstances were we, at City Rockers, going to be known as an “Electro Clash” label. I think that’s why I started signing some really good techno around that time and that’s also why I called our first compilation Futurism. I’ve heard some “electro clashy” tunes appearing in my inbox recently but I’m not sold on the idea of a revival, of a revival. However, I will always want to listen to Visage 'Fade to Grey'. I think we captured a hedonistic moment for London and New York, it was a time of wild abandonment, cheap music and make up. And it was ridiculously fun!
When and how did the spiritual nature of your music happen?
Well, I’ve always had it there in the background, I’ve been collecting Spiritual Jazz for many years, but in terms of getting in touch with a more spiritual way of DJing I think that started to happen quite recently. I’d been going through a bit of a difficult time at Crosstown a while ago, following a few misunderstandings with some people in the crew and I faced a situation where some guys were not happy with me. To be honest it was all pretty much unfounded and it wasn’t long before everything got repaired, but at that time I was trying to understand how it could have happened and why. I had already been going to Tulum for a few years and I think that I started to understand the magic of that place, and I started to think about my life and my career and my friends and I did this in a very special place, completely in touch with the beauty of the natural world. I then started going to Burning Man and I really began connecting all the dots and realized that sunrises and sunsets and music with real emotion and depth had a mystery and a magic that I felt very comfortable with. I guess I had some kind of revelation around that time and I became a much better DJ, artist and person.
How important are drugs in the scene these days - when making, playing and experiencing music?
To be totally honest with you, they have become far far less important than they were before. I think our “scene”, globally, is at a turning point with drug use. It just doesn’t seem to be as “necessary” as it used to be, and I don’t think this is me just getting older. I’m looking out at the crowd every night I’m DJing and I’m seeing people literally high on the music. I’m so happy that K has taken a back seat in the clubs, that was a very ugly moment for dance music. Don’t get me wrong, it was a great thing to open up some other internal channels and experiment with your mind, but it was never a cool look on the dancefloor. Most of the other “nightlife drugs” don't work and I think people have just given it up a bit, waiting around for someone to introduce something new maybe. I think I will always like to party but but I’m a lot more conscious of what goes in my body these days.
Who are your five favourite DJs and why?
That’s an annoying question, mate. In no order of preference, these are the people that I have actually paid money to go see...
Ricardo Villalobos holds a very special place in my heart. When he is on his game, he is the best in techno. Nobody can touch him. He has a vision for DJing that surpasses mere mortals and he has managed to shock me on many occasions. Years back, on the terrace at Cocoon, my mates and I developed a whole secret code for what he was up to and what he was doing to us. The best set I ever saw from him was at Beat Street in Berlin, not many DJs have literally blown my mind but that night was another story.
The first time I saw Harvey I paid my entrance money on the door at a Sarcastic Disco party in LA and proceeded to have my head blown off. For me he is absolutely one of the best there is and I could dance to his music all day long. His sets at my parties are always really special but I think my favourite one was a few years back at Get Lost Miami when I closed the other three areas and had Harvey play for everyone in the main room for six hours. I have so many lovely memories of hanging with him, we’ve “taken tea” together on the Isle of Wight and we’ve hung at his studio and played together many times... but I’ve never told him what a fanboy I really am. So I guess, now he knows!
LTJ Bukem for me is technically the best DJ in the world, watching him back in the '90s was a real inspiration for me. His cutting techniques were sublime and his selection off the hook. I used to watch him and literally dream of being that good. Technically, I'd say EZ, Jeff Mills and Derrick Carter are also up there but I don't think anyone has ever left me in such a state of awe as Bukem did a number of times back in the heyday of drum and bass.
Acid Pauli is one of my favorite DJs for his selection and wide scope of musical knowledge. I also find him brilliant to watch, but that’s probably just a personal thing I have because he doesn’t actually do much behind the decks, but that makes me laugh. He is simply an amazing DJ and a true artist. The first time I saw him play I danced non-stop for eight hours at Bar 25 (this is fully documented on Lazpod #16). We spent some time in the studio together a few years back and neither of us can find what we made which is a shame but I plan to kidnap him again soon.
Gilles Peterson is my last choice, he really helped shape my musical knowledge from a young age. He was never the most proficient “mixer” but he never tried to pretend he was. With him it’s all about the discovery of music and he has such a big heart that the music that he continually finds and introduces you to is always very special. I have so many fond memories of dancing to his sets. I remember vividly the first time I heard Adam F 'Circles', the first time I heard New Rotary Connection 'I am the Black Gold of the Sun' and the first time I heard Portishead... all from Gilles. What an absolute don of music he is.
How difficult is it to play vocals in your sets?
Not hard at all. I love vocals. The trick is to make sure there is not one duff line or moment in the track. That one dodgy moment can ruin everything. So for me the trick is to be 100% absolutely sure that every phrase, every word, every melody is perfect. When I’m trying out new demos from artists I will often go back to them and have them change something if I feel it doesn’t sit well. I’ve got really into writing songs and I’ve written all the songs on the new Ancient Moons record. This summer we have some incredible vocal tracks coming out on Crosstown; we have this killer record by Made by Pete called 'So Long' and this amazing track by Denis Cruz & Leon called 'My Hood' and of course we have your brilliant Rockers Revenge single. There is also something I’m trying to sign right now that if I get it, it’s game over to be honest, this one is just too good so fingers crossed I can get it for the label.
Damian Interviews Arthur
DAMIAN: You moved to NYC in 1981 and within a year you had produced two of the most seminal records of all time. Tell me about the events that led to meeting with Bambaata and then how you came to meet Rockers Revenge in their record shop.
ARTHUR: Thank you. These two records will indelibly be linked together in my mind, both running thru the record shop on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. I met Afrika Bambataa through Tom Silverman, who I had first run into while attending Billboard Disco Forums in NYC during the mid to late '70s. We had our first official pow wow at Tom’s Upper East Side Tommy Boy offices which also doubled as the dance music report offices. Bamb was a pretty quiet guy who really let his music do the talking. (I’d see him spin at the infamous Zulu Nation throwdowns at the Bronx River community center).
Bamb had 3 crews he was working with - the Jazzy Five, Soul Sonic Force and The Cosmic Force. Jazzy 5 were picked to record first (for some reason I don’t recall) and we went into Intergalactic Studios with the rhythm section I had used on Northend's 'Happy Days'. We discussed using either 'Genius of Love' or 'Funky Sensation' as a musical bed, but ended up picking FS since I rightly guessed other rap crews would be jumping on GoL.
Our version was a NYC hit and sold over 50k at the time of release, which gave Tom the confidence (& capital) to move on to Bamb's next act, Soul Sonic Force. So we went back to Intergalactic. Tom had a rough demo which has just recently resurfaced which supports my memory of it not being much like what we came up with. Here’s where Rockers come into the equation - it was at the music factory store in Brooklyn where I first heard the Kraftwerk track 'Numbers'. Before that 'Planet Rock' was going to be more downtempo, but when I heard numbers at Rockers' store and saw people’s response I realized that was definitely the beat for 'Planet Rock.'
It was around that time I met Donnie and Dwight, the store was a 20 minute walk from my apartment so I’d go there every Saturday. I’d bring in whatever I was working on there first, including 'Planet Rock' as soon as I had the acetate. On its first play I was offered a hundred dollars for it on the spot. Another random note - the name of the track 'Play at Your Own Risk' came from a sign of a video game at the store. So when I had the idea to remake 'Walking on Sunshine' I went by the store and casually asked the brothers if they knew anyone who could do a great job singing it. They immediately said they could and proceeded to sing a bit and I was sold.
How long did it take to record 'Walkin’ on Sunshine' and how did it come together?
I programmed the track with the great Fred Zarr (who went on to record with Madonna on all her Mark Kamins, Jellybean and Reggie Lucas productions) at his home studio in Brooklyn in one session. Fred used his new Oberheim system (as in the group the system). It comprised a sequencer, keyboard and the DMX drum machine.
Little unknown fact - since it was early in Fred’s use of the system we had a bit of technical difficulty in the recording of the track and the synths slipped out of sync a bit by the end, but since I had live musicians Pee Wee Ford (BBQ Band) play live bass and Bashiri Johnson (he played on everything in the 80s-90s) on percussion, they were able to lock in to the slippage and made it all work.
I think we recorded the track and vocals at Intergalactic Studios. The guys nailed the vocals fairly quickly and the “Tina B Tripping on Sunshine” bit was one take. We also cut addition vocals for a few other versions at the same time. The mix was completed at Blank Tape studios with Bob Blank engineering and Jellybean helping out on the mix. We went back to Blank Tapes a few times to remix the follow up part to 'Sunshine Partytime' which lead Bob Blank to reply when asked what he did, “mix 'Walking on Sunshine'!”
You told me once that Larry Levan would play anything you gave him there and then on the spot at Studio 54 or Paradise Garage. What are your favorite recollections of those nights and do you remember the reaction the first time you heard 'Walkin on Sunshine' at a party?
Larry would play my stuff at the Garage the night I’d hand it to him but usually made me wait (don’t make me wait!) till late in his night. I’d leave at 6am and then he’d drop the track - I’d get a call from Bobby Shaw, Warner’s dance promo guy at the time telling me Larry played it just after I left. The track was made with the Garage in mind. I heard the Eddy Grant version there first - so when I finally heard it got played there, it was a pretty amazing feeling to see people going off on it.
Although you made another couple of Rockers Revenge records after that, it didn’t really take off and the band quit music. Tell me about the personalities involved in the band and what that time was like struggling to create a hit record as big as 'Walkin’ on Sunshine'?
Well Donnie and Dwight were total music heads but I don’t think they were struggling in bands before we cut the track. They were businessmen too, they managed the record store and continued to gig after the four tracks we made - 'Walkin’ on Sunshine', 'Harder They Come', 'Battle Cry' and 'Love is On Our Side'. They made a living for the weekend on Streetwise also. Dwight is more of the writer and business guy now and Donnie is a lead singer, but both are very chill. Almost hippies. Tina B (my ex-wife) had quite a other few records out (included being sampled by Norman Cook for his first hit 'Pizza Man’s Tripping on Sunshine' and is now a lawyer in London.
Following all your early success you became one of the hottest producers around, being asked to remix and produce everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Diana Ross, but the record you will probably be best remembered for is 'Blue Monday'. In your opinion how does that New Order record compare to the rest of your body of work?
Well I’ll pop the bubbly on that one. Tony Wilson (RIP) put the word out that I did that record with the band - but I didn’t! I consulted with them on some demos and suggested they do a track that used the bed of something they sent me for a new vocal track and that became 'Blue Monday'. I did however co-write 'Thieves Like Us', co-wrote and produced 'Confusion' and mixed 'Touched By The Hand of God', '1963' & 'Let’s Go (Nothing for Me).'
Tell me how the reforming of Rockers Revenge came around and what is the inside story of the single 'Mission'?
Well we became Facebook friends maybe three or four years ago and I helped them put together TV tracks for a gig they did for Jellybean Benitez. I wrote the music to 'Mission' around five years ago after a late night out in Ibiza and put it away for a while. I ended up playing it at an Art Basel party at the Soho House Dec 14th with Win Butler from Arcade Fire who had brought some Haitian drummers with him. They played live over the track and soon my wife Annette and Tracey Emin were both going mental on the dance floor asking what that track was. So after that I figured I was on to something. I had the vocal chorus from day one - just needed a soulful NYC vocal for it.
I reached out to Bernard Fowler from the Peech Boys, but he was on tour and it didn’t happen. So nothing for a couple more years, haha, and then I reached out to Dwight, who I was Facebook friends with. Once I hit him with it he put down a rough vocal idea. He wrote the verses and incorporated my original chorus. He then recorded with Donny and Adrienne in Atlanta and I worked with Tina B in Miami. I also added live percussion by Oba Frank Lords, who plays on all the Murk stuff. I had it in an unmixed version, which I sent it to you. Took a while to get it listened to, but once you heard it you were sold!
If you could have worked with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be and why?
OK, well dead - Otis Redding backed by Duane Allman and Jimi Hendrix, with Miles Davis playing trumpet. My favorite dead musicians. Living, I would love to get in with Cee Lo Green and Donald Glover, two of the current singers I really rate. Also I always wanted to produce a duet album with Al Green and Bob Dylan, I thought their common love of gospel would be amazing to capture.
Damian Lazarus and Arthur Baker & Rockers Revenge play Get Lost Miami 2018 on 24th March, tickets available here.