By Michael Ohlsson
It’s 1987 in my family’s suburban California home. I’ve just started high school. I’m in my bedroom making a mix tape. I’m trying to mix Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” with Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express” (the original song that is sampled in Planet Rock). In the room next to mine, my little punk sister is listening to crap my hip hop friends and I make fun of, like the Sex Pistols and Violent Femmes. One day she tried to get me into Joy Division, and I just laughed — “How can you listen to that depressing junk!?”
She knocks on the door and messes up my mix.
“Michael, you’ve got to hear this new tape I got. You see, the singer from Joy Division died and they started a new band called New Order. I think you’ll like it.”
New Order’s Substance album became our common ground. It was the gateway. Through it, I soon became a fan of Joy Division, and my sister got into Kraftwerk.
We didn’t know at the time, but we owed this truce to the legendary producer, Arthur Baker. As we found out later, Baker had produced the tracks by both Afrika Bambaataa and New Order.
In the early ’80s, Baker was one of the visionary producers trying to mix “black” and “white” music, European synth music with New York street sounds. There had been several attempts, on both sides of the Atlantic, but Baker’s productions were the ones that made it into the mainstream conscience, and have stood the test of time. In fact, New Order’s “Blue Monday” became the best selling 12” single of all time (Baker denies production credit on Blue Monday, but it’s pretty clear he’s largely responsible).
The best document of Baker’s input is the music video of New Order’s song “Confusion.” It’s got raw footage of the band and Baker in the studio, and as soon as they finish the final cut, they grab the actual master tape and head down to the night club. Baker loads the tape on the reel machine, it goes straight into the DJ’s mix, the crowd loves it. The kids who started pasty-faced goth music are now rocking a disco in New York City … with Baker’s help, of course.
Arthur Baker will appear for the first time in Shanghai, at BonBon this Friday, January 18.
Here’s an exclusive interview with Shanghaiist:
What do you think of the term “electroclash”?
Developed by my friend Larry Tee in early 2000’s to give a new brand name to a somewhat older genre. Did no favors to the music and became somewhat of a joke because of the commercial failure of most of the acts who were described as electroclash — i.e. Fischerspooner, WIT, etc. The Scissor Sisters did however transcend the name and the sound to become the biggest act of the original electroclash.
Do you see it as a natural progression from the late ’90s, or is it retro?
Well, new electro is a natural progression from the late ’90s, but also from the early ’80s — groups such as Depeche Mode and New Order, along with early Detroit and New York electro are still the most influential sounds within electro now.
With all the new production software out there now, like Reason and Ableton, it’s become much easier to produce music. Do you think this is a positive trend? What are the drawbacks? Do you still use any old school tricks when you produce?
It’s much easier to make dance music now, what with plug-ins, laptops, and headphone-based music. But on the other hand, it’s much more competitive, more people are doing it at a professional level and there is less of a market for sales. It’s more like DJs making their own unique stuff for themselves and their friends to play. Everyone uses the old tricks and they are much easier to control. Look at Timbaland and Kanye. They are both doing old school electro ’80s and ’90s style for their biggest hits.
Bob Dylan recently lambasted all modern music production as being “too noisy.” How would you respond to that?
The world’s a noisier place — why shouldn’t music be infected by it. He’s right, but there’s room for noise and for quiet music. Velvet Underground did both, as did Dylan back in the day. Remember when he went electric?
Looking back at the last couple decades of music and now — have any developments or trends surprised you? (For example, I thought drum and bass would be a brief trend, but it’s still going strong … on the other hand I thought bands like Jesus Jones were going to own the future, but they vanished.) For another example, I’ll quote you from an interview you did in 1983, “I remember being told ‘Someone’s gonna make a fortune out of this rap thing’ and thinking ‘no way’.”
You can never predict what will last; well, the few who can are usually hedge fund managers! When you look at genres within music as separate villages, there are always going to be people to populate any of them. Kids always want to be different, but also want to belong to something that they think they have either created or discovered. The commerciality is what is difficult to predict.
What do you think of the practice of rating DJs like race-horses or college football teams?
Well, most people who vote in those polls wear fluffy bras and furry boots, or are DJ agents trying to hype their clients. The best DJs I know are kids who don’t buy those mags anyway.
You’re coming to China for the first time. What do you expect? Are you ready to eat dog meat?
Well, I was in Beijing in 1999 for two weeks as a tourist — never knowingly ate dog meat, but did try on a dog hair jacket. I expect to consume lots of great food; it’s my favorite food since I was a kid in Boston. I expect that it’s changed a lot since 1999, I spent New Years Day in Beijing and it was pretty surreal for me.
Most of the clubbers here are well under 30 years old, and they’ve never heard “Blue Monday,” how will you play for them?
Never know till I get to the club. My friends have told me conflicting comments on what the kids like over there.
How are things at your London restaurant Harlem?
Still open and doing business. I’m more interested in writing film scripts these days!
DJ Arthur Baker at BonBon, “Return to New York,” Friday, January 18. Entry: Male 120RMB, Female 80RMB, After 2 am 80RMB. Open bar 8:30pm – 4 am. 2F Yunhai Tower, 1329 Huaihai Zhong Lu, near Baoqing Lu.