Because rock and roll was a bastard child, its birthdate is a matter of dispute, but one theory says it was August 5, 1945. Apres la big bomb, le baby boom, whose number grew up with the knowledge of a new beat. The beat never got brutal -- certainly not during the Beat era, when you kept it by snapping your fingers, nor even during the Beatle era -- until mid-'70s disco, when thump-thump-thump-thump was all you got. It had such a good beat, you had to dance to it, or else. By now Linn drums, syndrums, the Fairlight, and the Synclavier have increased the efficiency of the beat by relieving its dependency on human limbs. Even powerhouse drummers like Benny Benjamin, Hal Blaine, and Charlie Watts couldn't compete with the punishing BLAM-puck-puck-puck-BLAM that splinters radio speakers on my block nowadays. But whereas high-tech disco hit a dead end by concentrating too much on the BPM, the drum machine has created a new kind of artistry in the hands of producer-programmers who want something more than an automatic pilot. Looking for the perfect beat, these guys facetiously overplay dance rhythms, mess around with the mechanical pulse like a sadistic heart doc, and in general treat the beat as an overfamiliar text to be deconstructed. I'm talking about the masters here, specifically Arthur Baker, the Roland Barthes of the beatbox.
Baker first made his name producing 12-inch dance singles for Tommy Boy and Streetwise Records, most notably Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock" and "Looking for the Perfect Beat." Since then, he's produced tracks for the
Beat Street soundtrack, his wife Tina B's debut, and the latest Hall & Oates (aptly called
Big Bam Boom), and he just signed with Epic as an artist. Baker isn't exactly a musician -- on the Bambaataa tracks, it seems clear that he manipulates the beatboxes and studio hardware while his collaborator, John Robie, invents the sinister keyboard melodies -- so as a solo act, he frequently adopts the au courant technique of quotation. "Breaker's Revenge," his contribution to
Beat Street, splices a whoop from "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" and a lyric from "Perfect Beat" with the drum program from his production of Face to Face's "Under the Gun." He even makes a joke of his thievery on the latest Baker-Robie rap single; credited to Guru, it's called "Who You Stealing From?" But what's yanked Baker out of the rap pack and made him a big-biz force to reckon with is his work remixing club versions of hit singles for Cyndi Lauper, Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, Hall & Oates, and Diana Ross. Each is a funhouse creation in its own right, but they all share the ridiculously overstated BLAM-BLAM that is Baker's trademark -- subtle as a migraine, elegant as a garbage-can lid, modern as a neutron bomb.
When they first started making disco remixes, the task for producers like John Luongo was simply to insert an instrumental break that would trance out the popperholics on the dancefloor or stretch a good groove that got abbreviated on a radiobound 45. Not for Baker the stasis of metronomic repetition or the disco formula of splicing in a few minutes of unadorned percussion. Arrogant artiste, he doesn't just boost the beat, he takes total license. Remixers are the interior decorators of sound, and unlike that other big cheese "Jellybean" Benitez, who'll respect your color scheme -- no matter how dull or tacky -- and use it to make something pretty and smooth, Baker is more likely to knock down walls, rip up the carpet, and replace your guest room with three identical shower stalls just because he likes linoleum tile.
His "Dancing in the Dark" remix (he's also done "Cover Me" and "Born in the U.S.A.") comes in three models -- radio, blaster, and dub -- that get heavier on syndrums, female vocals, glockenspiel, instrumental dropout, and electronic tape-tricks until the original track is almost unrecognizable. Exactly the way Peter Brook reduced
Carmen to the sensual drift of woodsmoke and oranges and Lee Breuer translated Greek-chorus into church-choir in
Gospel at Colonus, Baker's dub "Dancing" (my favorite) turns something well-known and well-made into a jolting collage, a dream-state drama propelled by obsessive images rather than story or logic. He throws out most of Springsteen's vocal, his conscious voice, so all you hear is the love/lust fixation echoing through his mind -- one verse now goes "Sick of sittin' 'round here, sick of sittin' round here/I needa love, I needa love, I needa love/Come on baby, gimme just one look" -- and the girl-group insipidly chanting "Dancing, dancing in the dark, whoa-oh-oh," as soothing and tormenting as porno pix to a guy yearning for real flesh.
There's definitely something sexy or masturbatory about remixing -- prolonging ecstasy, forestalling climax -- that Baker's production techniques make explicit, particularly on his radical rearrangement of Cyndi Lauper's self-help opus "She Bop." Instead of the album track's thick homogeneous stomp, Baker's chopped-and-channeled version starts with extended inventive foreplay.
He moves the whistling/ heavy-breathing bridge up to the beginning and follows it with a big buildup of digital-delayed "bops," and acoustic guitar break, a whiff
of the song's main hook, then an electronic giggle and an introduction to the organ before launching into the slam-bam main action. And at the end of the second verse, Baker takes Lauper's coy orgasmic punchline and pumps it into a major dramatic event, stopping the track cold except for the tape-tricked vocal stuttering, "Oop-she, oop-she, oop-she [the drums:] BAMBAMBAMBAM Oop, she bop!"
On the long version of Diana Ross's "Swept Away" (which he originally produced with Daryl Hall), Baker wields the digital-delay's repeat mode as electronic G-spot even more extremely. It's almost cruel the way he uses technology to push Ross's already desperate vocal, which gives the lie to the backup chorus chanting, "No, it doesn't matter, it doesn't matter." The terrifying, triumphant electronic explosion he produces from her vocal track on the second chorus captures both the involuntary spasm of sexual climax (it makes Donna Summer sound like an expert pretender) and the angry abandon of a last round in bed with someone you're about to start hating for the rest of your life.
The extravagance of "Swept Away," "She Bop," and other matings of pop-rock and high-tech rap by producers like Trevor Horn (Duck Rock), John Robie (Chaka Khan's "My Love Is Alive"), Liggett and Barbosa (Shannon's "Give Me Tonight"), Arif Mardin (Scritti Politti's "Wood Beez"), and Nile Rodgers ("The Original Sin" by INXS) fills me with an unnameable excitement. Why? When I try to imagine justifying it to people who consider this aggressive, hard-edged blaster spew a public nuisance, I can't. I know it's trash, and I can't help loving it. It's the baby boom's own big bang. It's the only natural music of the nasty, funny, ugly New York street-world around me. It's the sound of a human jungle, of beastly man wrestling a weird machine and winning.
Village Voice, 1985