With a history reaching back to the 70’s Arthur Baker is a musical visionary whose productions over the years has helped changed the musical landscape many times over. From his work on Africa Bambatta’s Planet Rock to his remixes for The Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac and Bruce Springsteen he has helped stretch the boundaries of what can be achieved in the studio bringing an unquestionable cool to some of the biggest artists ever to do it.
From his early disco outings as North End which still sound incredibly fresh today to his work on one of the first ever Cut and Paste Records Criminal Element Orchestra’s “Put The Needle To The Record” and onto his contributions to 80’s groove with classics such as Freeze’s IOU and Rockers Revenge Walkin on Sunshine, he has popped up time and again across a multitude of genres demonstrating what can be achieved in the studio.
Not one to rest on his laurels Arthur is as busy today as he has ever been with a multitude of recent releases on some of the finest labels out there including Midnight Riot, Crosstown Rebels, Snatch! and Black Jukebox.
Now he is back with an absolute monster of a track Powder in the Nose with James Hurr on the mighty Toolroom label. It’s a must-have, peak-time bomb of a track which will do some serious damage on all the right dancefloors across the globe in 2024 and well beyond.
You can grab it here: https://www.beatport.com/release/powder-in-the-nose/4395012
I was lucky enough to grab a quick chat with Arthur about there release and his incredible career, check the interview out below.
It’s a pleasure to speak to you today. Thanks for taking the time to talk to Le Visiteur.
Paint us a picture of where you grew up and how you first got involved in the music scene. Was there lots of music around you in your childhood?
I grew up in Boston, and my first experience with music would have been hearing the cantor and choir in temple. Then my mother loved Broadway singing and Sinatra. My dad couldn’t sing a lick but loved Nat King Cole. And then the Beatles and Motown…
What are your first memories of dabbling with music, and was there a moment of realization when you decided that was the career you wanted to follow?
I loved rock – Led Zeppelin, the Stones, Allman Brothers, Sly… and then Norman Whitfield productions, War, “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” along with Philly International. When soul went disco, I decided that’s what I wanted to make.
What was the music scene like in Boston back then, and what was it that spurred your move to New York at the start of the ’80s?
I grew up on an alternative radio station, WBCN, which played everything – from Miles to the Allman Bros to Joe Simon to Steppenwolf. Also, all the bands would pass through Boston on their way to NYC. My wife Tina got a lawyer job, and the music industry was in NYC.
My first Arthur Baker moment was when I heard the track “North End – Happy Days” on a compilation in the ’90s and loved it, and then delved deeper into your releases from there. It’s been a record I have played many times as a DJ, especially the B-side “Tee’s Happy.” What can you remember about the sessions for that record, and have you been surprised at just how influential it has been across the years?
Me, Tony Carbone, and Russell Presto cut the basic track in Boston at Century Studios, all the drums, bass rhythm guitars, BVs. Maurice Starr played bass and Michael Jonzun guitar, and on BVs were Maurice, Michael, Tina B, and Michelle Wallace. I decided to get Tee Scott to do the remix – he brought in Andre Booth on keys and Charlie Street to play the George Bensonish guitar solo.
I still get the same shivers whenever I hear that guitar solo. I can clearly remember it going down at Right Track Studio. I named it “Tee’s Happy”; he was happy after we finished it that night.
As well as the disco end of the musical spectrum, you are also renowned for your contributions to hip hop. What was your first introduction to hip hop as a genre, and what were your initial impressions?
I saw the birth of rap and hip hop back in ’78, hanging in the park with Joe Bataan, who thought someone would make a million off of it. Luckily, I was part of the people who enjoyed that early success. There’d be no rap music without disco; people shouldn’t forget that. Everyone rapped over disco breaks.
You produced the legendary track “Planet Rock” with Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force, which is now also renowned as one of the progenitors of modern Electro, which re-interpolates two Kraftwerk tracks. Did you realize at the time just how groundbreaking that record would become?
When we made it, I really felt we had made musical history. I think everyone else thought I was high! Which I wasn’t at all making that record.
What were you listening to back then that inspired you to help create some of the first musical strands of electro?
Obviously “Numbers,” Talking Heads, and James Brown.
On the back of the success you had with those tracks, you also found yourself in high demand as a remixer in the ’80s. What do you think made your remixes stand out against what else was going on then, and do you have a standout remix that you did back then which you think still sounds fresh today?
I would try to not trash the song when making a remix. More like doing additional production and making the song more danceable, like if I had been involved in the original production. Hall and Oates had me in on the “Big Bam Boom” album from day one, so that my input would be on the production, not as a remixer per se. I always like playing “Cover Me” by Bruce Springsteen and “Big Love” by Fleetwood Mac out. And the drugged-crazed “Too Much Blood” remix.
Another key record that you produced in the ’80s was Criminal Element Orchestra’s “Put The Needle To The Record”, which was one of the very first cut-‘n’-paste sample records, pre-dating the likes of “Beat Dis” & “Pump Up The Volume”. How did you create that particular record?
I had a drum track that Keith Le Blanc had cut. I went out to a club called The Red Parrot where I heard a DJ named Gail Sky King play a bootleg that I loved. I had her come in and spin the bassline from the record under the drum drums. Then I had David Cole – C&C Music Factory mastermind – come in and play a bunch of samples. I wanted to be the sampling test case, so I threw on well-known samples. Then I used a vocal from a track I had written with MCA. Unfortunately, I gave a test pressing to someone who ended up sampling the vocal and using it on their own track…
Your work with New Order, with whom you co-wrote “Confusion” and “Thieves Like Us”, helped them break the US market when it charted at number 5 in the Billboard dance chart. What were they like to work with back then?
They thought I was a flash producer, and I thought they were a flash band. We both were wrong to an extent, but we made some cool music together and stayed lifelong friends.
And what can you remember about recording the video for that track, which you feature heavily in and which really captures the zeitgeist of that particular time?
I remember I was fairly stoned at the time. But super happy that we captured the vibe at The Funhouse. It’s one of the only examples of the NYC clubs at that time.
I noticed on your Facebook that you did a session with Peter Hook a few years back that has never seen the light of day. Are there any plans to dust it off and get it out there?
I’d like to. I have so much random unreleased music I’d love to see the light of day. I have plans to do something with some of that music in tandem with the publication of my memoirs.
A recent track of yours which really resonated with our readers was “Reachin'” with Minnie Gardner on Midnight Riot. It felt like you were revisiting your own musical roots on that one. Do you have any more disco anthems in the pipeline for us?
I have a few coming out – one as Slam Dunk’d and also a North End 12 inch including unreleased tracks remixed by Dave Lee on Z Records.
Please can you give us four tracks from across your discography which you would say are quintessentially Arthur Baker, which have been key in cementing your musical direction and also your wider recognition?
This one was very important because we were able to help make a political change through music, and the music was really fucking good.
“Message Is Love”
Writing a song that my singing idol Al Green sang.
because it made everything else possible.
Because it was fun and my daughter – who is 9 – loves to sing it.
Your career has been quite incredible. If you had to pick just one, though, what would you say is your proudest moment?
Your latest release is “Powder in the Nose,” which you produced with James Hurr and which is out now on Toolroom Records. It’s safe to say it’s going to be another huge record for you. Please can you give us a little background about that record?
I was working with a great rap duo called SKAM. We did an entire album which MCA almost signed. They were from Jersey and had a great vibe. I sent James – who I had worked with over the last 5 years on my ongoing Rockers Revenge album – some vocals, and he took it from there. He killed it.
You have now not only been in the game for more than four decades, during which time you have repeatedly reinvented both your own sound and been instrumental in helping change the whole musical landscape around you. What do you think has been the secret to your career longevity, success, and ability to repeatedly influence and inspire those around you?
I try not to take it all too seriously and try to stay open to the up-and-coming talent. Sometimes the results are great and sometimes shit, but it’s always interesting. And I’m not afraid to Shazam when I’m out in a club!
You will have seen an incredible amount of change in the industry during your career. Do you think what it takes to be a successful artist has changed a lot, or do the fundamentals remain the same?
Fundamentals stay the same musically, but you need a great team around you who know how to manipulate social media, etc., to compete.
Please can you describe your production setup for us currently and what is the one piece of equipment or plugin that you couldn’t live without?
I use my MacBook Pro (mid 2009) with Logic 9. I’m just getting Flex right. I also have a few great musicians I use in Miami where I live.
What are your three essential tips for producers who are trying to make a name for themselves in the electronic scene today?
Watch what James Hurr and Mark Knight are doing! Haha. Do a lot of listening to old stuff and new. Get a good sounding board – friend, manager, etc., and don’t be afraid to test your shit out in da club! Baptism by fire.
I’ve really enjoyed your Dance Masters series, which so far has featured your own release and also editions dedicated to Shep Pettibone and John Luongo. It feels like a bit of a labor of love. What sparked the series, and why out of everyone you have worked with, did you choose Shep Pettibone and John Luongo to kick the series off, and can we expect more editions down the line?
I had this idea over 10 years ago and tried to sell it to the Sony Legacy label; they didn’t get it, luckily Demon did. Wayne Dickinson and I want to give tribute to the earlier generation of remixers, and these comps hopefully go a bit of the way to do that.
You are currently working on your memoirs. While you have been working on it, has it re-ignited any projects that had been put on the back burner?
I’m going to try to get my unreleased music I write about in the book out for the people! It made me realize how much time I’ve spent on things that have never seen the light of day, and that’s sad, so I want to throw it on out there.
You have also started a new radio show called Baker’s Revenge. What can you tell us about the vibe of the show, and where can my readers listen in?
You need to be a subscriber of Sirius XM in the USA (as of now). I play lots of unreleased remixes and sleeper tracks that didn’t get the attention they deserved when they were released, along with tracks that influenced me, Miami music moments – (tracks that were produced in Miami), and lots of crazy stories, that will also be in my memoirs, which will be out in 2025!
And finally, what else can we expect from Arthur Baker in 2024?
A new live salsa/rhumba album I’ve made with the artist Jose Parla and his friend Ivan Moreno. Hopefully the release of my Rockers Revenge album and documentary. And random 12s including a track with the great Ali Love. The ultimate breakdance compilation album in time for the Olympics, which feature breakdancing this summer. Beat Street 40 celebrations… and news on a Broadway musical.
Thanks again for joining us today, Arthur, and good luck with “Powder in the Nose.”
For more info on Arthur Baker & Toolroom please check:
Love this? Check out our interview with 80’s Arthur Baker collaborator Tina B HERE