Still Banging That 808: Arthur Baker Talks
Arthur Baker doesn’t stop. 60 years old, and the producer who brought electro to the mainstream, by sprinkling his heavy robot funk on pretty much every major artist under the sun, has as hectic a schedule as ever. We managed to catch him in a villa in Ibiza where he was gearing up for a summer of residencies. He’d just put the finishing touches on a film celebrating the majesty of the Roland 808 – called, simply enough, 808 – and was getting ready to capitalise on the films release with a series of gigs that paid homage to the greatest drum machine known to man, as he quickly informed us…
What are you up to in Ibiza Arthur?
I’m going to be doing some parties with the Martinez Brothers – I’ve been playing sets with them where I’m just playing the 808, and when the 808 kicks in people have been going crazy.
I saw Egyptian Lover recently and he was dropping tracks that were him rapping over nothing but the 808 – it’s amazing that you can play the drum machine alone and people will still love it-
Well the kick is so recognisable, that deep boom. But my favourite sound is the low tom, you can pitch it, you can make basslines with it… I’m running the machine through these filters and delays, and it’s full enough, with the help of a few peddles, to make a song in itself.
So what inspired you to make 808?
It’s such an esoteric story I felt I had to tell it– the fact that they made a few of these machines and then just completely stopped making them after 3 years. They bought it out in 1980 and then replaced it with the 909 in 1983, there wasn’t a period where it was phased out, Roland just pulled them from the market. And of course it’s gone on to become the rock guitar of hip hop.
There must have been so many tracks you wanted to feature in the film-
There’s a soundtrack album coming out for the 808 film – we actually recorded all new tracks. Jamie XX’s is on there, I’ve made an electro track with the Martinez Brothers for it, and Flux Pavillion’s made a new track for it, a kind of electro thing, it’s very strong, people are going to love it.
So has Flux moved on from dubstep?
I’ve been working with Flux on his new album, and he’s done a track with the Soulsonic Brothers that’s really different to anything out there, different to his old stuff, more like up tempo party hip hop. And the track I’ve done with him is like a great pop record, it’s different to his dubstep work, but still with the aggression and the bite, I think it’s going to be big.
And of course you’ve got the Slam Dunk’d track coming out – I heard you first wrote it in the 70s, which means it’s probably gets some sort of record for time between production and release…
Yeah, I first recorded Slam Dunk’d – or at least the song that Slam Dunk’d is sampled from – in 1978 or 79. I made it in the studio in New York, it was recorded with musicians, and then the label I was making it for – London Records – went bust so it didn’t get a release. And for years all I had was this one tape of it, not the masters, so I forgot about it. Then I found the master tape, like 30 years later in my lock up. I listened to it and was like, ‘yeah I should do something with this!’ And this was like 6 years ago. So then I bumped into Al-P from MSTRKRFT and said, ‘yeah I’ve got this tape going on’, and he helped me with it, the label got involved and we gave it to Annie Mac – she played it and this bidding war started – this is about a year ago now. So now here it is. It should finally come out.
I was looking at your discography earlier, and there was only a couple of years between you writing tracks like Slam Dunk’d and remixing artists like Bruce Springsteen – the movement is so rapid and I can’t work out whether these major label stars would have been into what you were doing to their music
With Bruce he really liked what I did. He came down to the studio and it was a really hot day – the AC broke so he went off and got a couple of crates of beer, listened to the first mix and was into it – I read an interview in Rolling Stone where he was saying he really liked what I’d done. But the fans fucking hated it.
I bet they did
I was listening to KROQ a morning after I’d done the mix and it came on the station. Then, after it played the DJ said that was the “controversial” Arthur Baker mix – I was like, ‘I didn’t realise it was controversial!’ and the next caller who phoned up said “someone should kill that guy” (laughs) I mean this was before twitter. I couldn’t even get into an online beef with the caller.
Did any artists just refuse to work with you?
John Mellancamp was the only person who turned a mix down. And U2 – there’s a mix I did for them that never came out of Three Sunrises – but that wasn’t that they didn’t want to work with me. Bono had asked to make sound psychedelic, and we did a really good job on it, I had all these Beach Boys harmonies going on, I really liked it, but I think it was for a film, and the film fell through so it never happened.
Have you still got it?
I’ll have a look around… I might have it somewhere…
And how about New Order – how did it go when you first met? As I remember they had a bit of a rep for being quite ‘difficult’
When I met New Order I didn’t know anything about them, I didn’t know that they were this supposedly moody band from Manchester. They were just straight up guys. I guess they thought I was some flash New York DJ, and I thought they’d be a lot more techy than they were, but we ended up good friends – we still our now. I’m actually making a documentary about New Order now
What, are they actually talking to each other? Hooky as well?
Well they’re not gonna sit in a room together, but y’know, they’ll all be in the film, and we’ll tell the whole story. That’s being worked on now.
Anything else you’ve got coming up?
Other than the Slam Dunk’d No Price, I’m also working on a remix series, taking old rock records and reworking them in an underground club way, we’re starting off with Tom Petty’s I Won’t Back Down…
Arthur, thank you
Slam Dunk'd – No Price should be out later this year. Baker's 808 doc is showing at various music and film festivals through the summer