Electro pioneer Arthur Baker is responsible for game-changing hits such as Afrika Bambaataa and Soul Sonic Force’s Planet Rock and Planet Patrol’s Play at Your Own Risk. Now he’s making a documentary exploring the history of the Roland 808. He has interviewed 49 influential artists to get their thoughts on how the drum machine changed dance music – but the most exciting interview from our perspective was when he met Roland founder Ikutaro Kakehashi in Tokyo.
We couldn’t resist flying out to see him for a chat about the project and to take a trip around the Roland Museum. We caught with him for a chat after he met the great man and he told us about New York in the ‘80s, the birth of dance music and, of course, his thoughts on Roland’s classic drum machine.
Can you tell us a bit about your new documentary?
We’ve been working on it for a little over a year. It came about because Luke Bainbridge and I were working on a project focused on songs and clubs from the ‘80s. Because of my connection with Planet Rock, we’d focused on the Planet Rock track as a test on it. Then my co-producer and I had lunch and discussed some stuff, and we decided that it would become an 808 project: “Planet Rock and other tales of the 808”. The history of the 808, its past present and future.
So can you tell us about your interview with Mr Kakehashi?
We had always hoped to get someone from Roland who was involved in the creation of the 808 to be available for an interview. It took a while and yesterday was the culmination of a year of talking and attempting to get it. We got a great interview. We went to the Roland Museum and met Mr K [Mr Kakehashi] and had a great day with him. It was all that we could have hoped for.
In the Roland Museum there’s one of everything Roland ever made? What are your favourites?
There were a few pieces of gear that I had, that I didn’t know had been that early. Things like the 1000. The CR-78. People like Hall and Oats used that. You could mute the kick or the snare so you could mess around with it. There were so many older drum machines too, like the ACE TONE. We were able to plug in a few things and play with them, which probably doesn’t happen all that often.
You used an ACE TONE? Those were the predecessor to the first Roland stuff?
The whole story was really interesting. How he [Mr Kakehashi] left one company and started another. The first company went under – so it was obviously his drive that kept it going… We got lots of information on that but it’ll come out in the documentary.
When you were making Planet Rock, where you aware that it was a game-changing record?
I was just listening to an interview we did with Tom Silverman – President of Tommy Boy Records – and he said he said that when he left the studio that night he didn’t know we had something special. I did. I always said I thought we’d changed history.
My ex-wife tells me I actually came home and said either we’ve made something amazing and it’s going to blow everyone away or everyone will hate it. It’ll either be huge or nothing. Those are the types of records you like to make though. If it doesn’t have the potential to be huge it’s not worth making. Middle of the road isn’t where it’s at.
More than anyone else involved in the record, I saw the potential. Other people brought a lot of stuff to the record but I was the producer. I directed it in a way that I was happy with and it came out exactly how I wanted it to.
Can you take us back to the day the 808 came into the studio?
We didn’t have a drum machine so we had to rent one. We found an ad in the Village Voice that said “Man and Drum Machine.” We found out it was the 808 and he showed up and we showed him what beats to program. He made the basic beats and I did the cowbell and a few of the bits on my own – but it could have been another drum machine.
In the documentary we’ve found a few of the early people who used the 808 didn’t really know what it was so they couldn’t really ask for it. It was a happy accident, that that was the drum machine that came, but when they heard it they knew it was special.
After Planet Rock who were the first people who wanted an 808?
Al-Naafiysh (Hashim), Man Parrish, the New York guys all knew Planet Rock and they all wanted that drum sound. Down the line Miami Bass – that was all based on Planet Rock .
Had Afrika Bambaataa already written his rap when he came to the studio for Planet Rock?
All that was definitely adlib. I wanted to get the vibe of a live performance and Globe had some other rapper in before but they had to really retune it. It was a lot faster than they had expected. When I went in we took it to the tempo of Numbers, not Trans Europe Express [the two Kraftwerk songs sampled on the record] so they had to go back a rephrase their rap so it was a different thing.
What was the vibe like? Just another day in the studio?
Another day in the studio didn’t exist then – we were new to it. It was total excitement. In New York that was my third or fourth session ever.
Was it your first job for Tommy Boy?
My first job for Tommy Boy was Jazzy Sensation, which was with Bambaataa also. That was down-tempo and they expected Planet Rock to be like that.
The rappers came and then left the first night. We gave them a cassette and they really wanted something down-tempo. Eventually Globe put it together and made it work for them and they became happier but they weren’t into it from the start.
Why is the 808 still used today?
The sound – both the original sound and what people have done with it since – redefined what low-end is. If you don’t have that now there’s no low end. What is used now is a whole new level of low end. It’s much more open. [You can hear it on] Rick Rubin’s It’s Yours. Because there was nothing else but scratching and drum machine, it gave him the chance to really expand that low end – what we now know as the ‘808 boom’.
Planet Rock had really great low end but it also had a bass line. It was sort of a different 808 sound. When we first mixed it and took it to record shops it blew out speakers. You could only feel it, not really hear it. We had to go back and remaster it.
Herb Powers was a great master, but he’d never mastered an 808. He mastered it on Yamaha speakers, which you really couldn’t hear the 808 on. He probably put it up on his big speakers and it sort of worked there but he never played it on intermediate speakers. We took it to a record shop and blew up the speakers a few times.
You’ve interviewed some amazing artists for the documentary? Tell us who’s involved?
David Guetta. It took so long to get him and he’s a really nice guy. I actually interviewed him. I did a few interviews but Luke [Bainbridge] did a few more, because I didn’t want people to say things because of who I was. Mr K yesterday was great too. Luke’s done a ton so you’d have to ask him. Everyone we’ve interviewed we got really good stuff from. It’ll be like a puzzle now – we’ve got all the parts we just need to piece it together.
Moby said anyone trying to act cool with a drum machine is lying – they’re geeks like me… do you agree?
[Grand Master] Flash, when he played live with the beat box and some sort of drum machine, looked cool. Some people twiddle knobs and they’re not cool and some people do it cool-ly. You can just let a drum machine play, but if you mess with it while it’s playing that can be cool.
Moby also said he likes drum machines because they are just there for you – a drummer might be late?
If you have an amazing drummer and you want that sound then that’s great. Obviously drummers are crazy people but machines breakdown too.
How did you start DJing?
When I went to college in ‘74. I went to Amherst, then Brooklyn GLI and they had mixers there. I went and bought a mixer and started doing my own parties.
Is it true that if the crowd didn’t like a tune you’d snap the record and throw it into the audience?
Yeah – that was in a club called Rasheed’s in ‘75. I wasn’t a good DJ – I wasn’t patient. I used to do the parties at college and people would always dance. Then playing it in a club was a little more formal so it didn’t work as well.
How did your relationship with New Order start?
My friend worked for Factory [records] in New York and he introduced us.
Where you aware of Joy Division at that time?
Not when he first introduced me. Then I did the research and listened to Love Will Tear Us Apart. It wasn’t like I was a Joy Division fan.
Were you a fan when you heard New Order?
Yeah, I thought they were cool. I liked English – you couldn’t call it electro –but I did like Depeche Mode and Yazoo.
I was listening to “Play at your Own Risk” and the Youtube comments show how much people love it. People said: “I remember playing this at a skating rink and getting hyped when it came on” and “Greatest dance music decade ever” – how does that make you feel?
New York was amazing at that time. The people who came to the clubs that played this music didn’t have a lot of money but they loved to have fun. We were creating something new and it was specifically for that crowd. I was producing records to play at the Fun House, Dancetaria and Paradise Garage. I made records for the people. Me and a few other people had it locked in to what was happening. I feel great that they remember it. I don’t mind people being fans of that music. The best music I made was back then. I was locked in to the audience. I love Play at Your Own Risk. It was like redefining Planet Rock, putting a really good song on top of it.
What’s the most outrageous outfit you’ve seen Afrika Bambaataa wear?
What, this week?! Last week he was wearing a Viking outfit. It was Parliament meets the Village people.
With the rise of bedroom production, do you think analogue production will come back?
I think it’s about time and space. If you have the time and space to have your synthesizer set up in your bedroom I don’t see why you wouldn’t do that. But you’re spoiled by the laptop. If you’re DJ-ing and travelling you can make a song in the airport or on the plane. It’s a hybrid – if you have that and analogue stuff that you can take to audio and chop it up. I was doing that from ’96-97… Some of the old synths obviously sound better than the soft synths but do they sound so good that you give up your ability to travel and make music? No, probably not. You can always replace that bit at the end.
You’ve done a lot of remixing – what was your most successful remix ever?
It depends on what success is? I took a Fleetwood Mac record that the head of Dance at the label didn’t think should be remixed but the head of A&R thought it should. I did it and it became the number one club record in America and it’s been remade with my arrangement. That was Big Love by Fleetwood Mac. Too Much Blood by Rolling Stones is just totally creative and drug crazed. I think my rock mixes – taking rock bands and making remixes – is good. I did three Springsteen songs. I did Born in The USA, Cover Me and Dancing in the Dark. Cover Me, he wouldn’t play that live because he hated the arrangement that he had done. I remixed it and told to think about an arrangement he could use live and he started using elements of my arrangement to play it live.
You had a label called streetwise and you got close to signing the Beastie Boys but didn’t. Why not?
Adam Yauch (MCA) used to work for me at the studio and I heard them and I knew that they were going to be huge. At the time the label was going through some things so I took them to Manhattan Records – a Capital label. My friend was head of A&R there and I said you’ve got to see this band the Beastie Boys. They’re amazing.
They were playing at a pizza shop on a Friday night and they were late going on. My friend wanted to go to the Hamptons and he couldn’t wait. He left and I told him he’d regret it.
You’ve worked with Al Green and Bob Dylan – did you get nervous?
Bob and Al are the two acts I was really big fans of in Junior High and then ten years later I’m going to work with them. I was like 29-30 and it was Bob Dylan. [I remember] going up to a hotel room, the door’s open, no ones there. There are all these room service trays on carts, like either he had a big party or he hadn’t let them in for a week.He came out he had a couple of cassettes and we listened to music. Obviously I was being tested so it wasn’t a calm experience.
What did you listen to?
The songs that ended up working on. Songs from what became Empire Burlesque. He played me a ton of songs. Instead of playing me one song and saying “What would you do with it?” He played me 10 and said “What would you do?” I said: “I’ll listen to one of them a few times and give you some feedback.”
Are you still friends?
If we’re in the same room he’ll say hello. I can’t say we’re super-tight. New Order I would say are really good friends – Barney and Hooky are really good friends. We’ve been friends for 30 years.
What are your wildest anecdotes from New York in the 80s?
It was just a nightly party. We would work all day and all night and then around 1am we’d tip out to the Dancetaria. It was open every night – everyone who was in bands or worked at records labels went there. It was the place.
When it shut at 4am you’d go back to the studio and bring lots people and lots of substances… That’s how we made records. It was high-flying and hard-partying and a lot of fun. Even guys like Nile Rodgers and Alan Vega from Suicide – different people who were making records – we’d all hang out.
What does music mean to you?
Music means less to me now than it used to. I burned out on it. I like writing a song. As a songwriter you always want to do that. There’s always that in my mind, but it’s not where I’m focused. I’m not as passionate [in that area]. I love things I grew up with. I’m a huge soul music and funk fan, and disco probably even more. There are more memories to it. I’d rather listen to the Spinners than Parliament or Blue Magic than Cameo. As far as making music, my focus is somewhere different. I’m making a movie about music and I’m comfortable talking to people who make music.
A lot of music I hear now I don’t like. Some music’s good for the club but not so good for at home. I heard this band called Watch the Duck and I love them and the guy’s got a great voice and the production’s great. But then there’s a lot of other stuff I don’t like. I don’t feel at this point like I want to compete with the kids making dance music. My passion isn’t there. But still, as I said, if you’ve ever made records and had a hit, you go “God I’d love to make another hit record”.
What are your top tips for people starting out?
I would say try to finish things. Back in the day you had to finish things. You’d do it in a timely fashion as you only had a certain amount of time. If you were with a small label like Tommy Boy they gave us like eight hours. You had to finish the recording in eight hours. Nowadays everyone has their own studio in their bedroom so they can take all the time in the world. When I was making records where I had to make a decision as I went, those records all did well. The more control I had, where I could take longer, then you don’t make decisions and I’d do tons of passes of mixes and hand boxes of tape to editors and say “now put this together”. Planet Rock we edited as we mixed it. When we came out of there we had the version you will listen to now.
How do you get the best out of bands?
Get ‘em high, get ‘em drunk. Bond with the band. They have to trust you and you have to seduce them and be their shrink. It’s difficult. I didn’t particularly like working with bands; I’d rather just have the track and do it myself. But when you hit it with a collaboration and it’s right, you can come up with great stuff.
Some producers are a great at becoming a member of the band. Like with New Order, I became a member of the band. We’d write the songs together. Then there’s other types who don’t write songs with the band and just motivate them. It’s about being a motivator too. If I had been better at that I would have done it more often. I wasn’t really interested.
I did a lot of records where I didn’t love the band. And that’s another thing that stopped me producing albums – I thought there would be nothing worse than spending hundreds of hours listening to something I didn’t love.
What do you think of today’s dance scene?
I think the historical sense of electronic dance music is lost. Kids in America think it came from Europe. Electronic dance music’s from New York, Chicago and Detroit. Kids don’t even know that. Even the newer DJs don’t go back that far.
One of the reasons I did the 808 thing was to let people know that electronic dance music started in 1981-82 when we did Planet Rock and the other records that quickly followed. I really believe that was the beginning of it. Even Giorgio (Moroder) was using live drums. We haven’t found anything before Planet Rock that uses all electronic drums for a dance record. Soon after that so many other things followed. We were there first but not by much.
I know you’re a food fan – you once said that food was more rock ‘n’ roll that rock ‘n’ roll.
Food is more like rock ‘n’ Roll than rock ‘n’ roll is now. A chef is like a lead singer being locked in a room off stage and being made to sing without the exposure to the audience. They slave away and they don’t get to see people enjoying their food.
Who else would you like to work or collaborate with?
I’m not sure. I love great singers. I Love Cee Lo [Green]. I have a few songs that if Cee Lo sang – or Jesse from Watch the Duck, he has a great voice – I have a few songs that I think would be hits if the right singers sung them. I always wanted to put Bob Dylan and Al Green together for a duet.
How can people survive in the modern music industry?
Well obviously it’s all about live and merchandise. You have to start with a brand. You have to make sponsorship strategic hookups. You have to be more than a band. Marketer, merchandising, brand-awareness and the internet. Most DJS who break really set it up through the internet. With a band you have to go play but there’s so much competition. I can’t give you a secret formula. Basically it seems to me that you give away your music for quite a while and then sell fans T-shirts and gigs.
What would be your advice to your 15-year-old self?
Don’t invest your own money in any project. That would be it.
Can you sum up the 808 in one sentence?
“The urban furnace for modern music.” It defines urban music and electronic music and it’s crossed over to rock and pop and country.
Every sound has a uniqueness to it. You could just add a cowbell or a rimshot and it gives it the flavour of the 808. A lot of people have said the 808’s an instrument. You don’t call it a drum machine. You call it the 808. It has a personality and sound that’s very unique.
For the documentary, we asked guys if they thought there was a time when it wouldn’t resonate and they said no. The history of the 808 and listening to Mr K’s story is really interesting. He knew he could make machines. He didn’t know how to explain it but he could. That he could make that happen is amazing.
A lot of guys who weren’t musicians and had no right to make records, could with the 808, and they made hits. Mr K is really similar to the other people in the movie. He wasn’t making records but he was making tools so we could make the records.