When going back to the beginnings of hip-hop, electro and even house music, the roads definitely intersect with Arthur Baker. Although the Boston-born artist and production whiz made a significant impact behind the board, his involvement with other forward-thinking personalities allowed several music genres to percolate. Baker was not only well-schooled in all types of music but also able to make each better than just about everyone else. In short, Baker was the producer's producer.
Baker launched his music career as a DJ in Boston. But finding that he didn't have the patience to DJ, he started taking production courses, with his first work landing on vinyl around 1977. Shortly thereafter, Baker became completely immersed in New York's peaking disco scene. With Larry Levan and the famed Paradise Garage as an influence, Baker created a club hit with “Happy Days” under his North End guise. At about the same time, Baker met Latin musician Joe Bataan, who was going crazy about a new form of music in which kids were talking over beats. Excited about this early version of rap, the pair produced one of the first rap records to hit the charts: “Rap-O Clap-O” by Joe Bataan and the Mestizo Band. Had it come out as scheduled (the original label folded before the planned record release), it would have pre-empted Sugarhill Gang's “Rappers Delight.”
After moving to New York in 1980, Baker produced his most famous track, “Planet Rock,” with Afrika Bambaataa and SoulSonic Force. The idea was to create a record that combined the beat from “The Numbers” and the melody from “Trans-Europe Express,” both tracks by Kraftwerk, with a rap thrown on it. The result was a worldwide smash, and it has gone down as one of the most influential tracks in the shaping of modern pop music.
“They didn't have choruses in rap records back then; they would just rap,” Baker says. “I think this was the first rap record that had a chorus, and I think Def Jam really learned this from us. ‘Planet Rock’ definitely became more of a song. The use of drum machines and synthesizers in hip-hop and black music are things that nobody did before we used them.”
By 1983, Baker had started his own Streetwise label, and one of the first deals that he struck was with a young Rick Rubin (who had a friend named Russell Simmons). The first Def Jam record, “It's Yours” by T La Rock and Jazzy Jay, came out via Streetwise. Although Rubin and Simmons went it alone for future releases — including signing Beastie Boys and LL Cool J — Baker did garner his share of success with New Edition, signing the group and acting as executive producer for Candy Girl (1983).
On his own, Baker released a series of influential solo tracks, including “Breaker's Revenge” (for the movie Beat Street) and “Put the Needle to the Record,” the first cut-and-paste sample record. “When I was doing the record, I figured I would probably be busted on it, and it would potentially be the test case for sampling,” Baker explains. “Before this, people had used cuts on record, but nobody had made a record just strictly built around samples.”
Baker spent the remainder of the '80s immersed in remixes and productions. He either produced, wrote, remixed or engineered tracks for the Rolling Stones, Cyndi Lauper, Bob Dylan, David Bowie and New Order, among many others. But among all the work that Baker has done, he is most proud of his work on the antiapartheid album Sun City: Artists United Against Apartheid (EMI, 1985; co-produced with Little Steven Van Zandt). With artists onboard such as Miles Davis, Run-DMC, Lou Reed, Keith Richards and Bono, the project raised more than $1 million to help fight apartheid in South Africa and raise awareness all over the world.
In addition to his work with more mainstream pop and rock acts, Baker also had a mighty influence on house music — the whole concept of dancefloor remixes is owed in part to him. Besides producing house cuts on his own, back in the 1970s, Baker also brought in DJs such as Jellybean Benitez and Shep Pettibone to help him mix records for an appropriate dancefloor vibe. In terms of current dancefloor legends, Baker gave Junior Vasquez his first shot by hiring him as an assistant, and he also took Paul Oakenfold into the studio for the first time.
It's hard to imagine what the past 20 years of music would be like if it weren't for Baker. His studio trickery — including pioneering the use of cut-and-paste sampling, orchestra hits in pop music and stutter editing, not to mention the forward-thinking use of synthesizers and drum machines — brought out the best in new music and inspired legions of today's best producers. Despite being semi-retired, he continues to produce music. He recently released a track with Dave Clarke under the name ABDC called “This Feeling,” and this summer, Baker will release a track with Ash's Tim Wheeler called “Glow” in addition to helping produce Princess Superstar's new album. The legend lives on.