One thing we sometimes forget about Baauer is that he started off with his sights on being a rap producer.
The nuances of his monster breakout hit ‘Harlem Shake’ weren’t just that they pulled from the trap EDM trend. The song’s sample of obscure Philly rap group Plastic Little’s ‘Miller Time’ was a detail that someone would only add to their music if they were interested in actual rap, not becoming a viral sensation.
Born Harry Rodrigues, the producer has just released his long-awaited debut album Aa, which feels more like an old school DJ Clue or Funkmaster Flex compilation than just another EDM album – albeit with his electronic influences painted across it — thanks to contributions from artists like Future, Pusha T and K-pop luminary G-Dragon.
This was one of the biggest questions about Aa before it was released: would it be indebted to the genre that got him here in the first place? Despite having never mentioned G-Dep’s ‘Special Delivery’, where the Harlem Shake first broke out, when he was in the crosshairs of criticism for both appropriation of trap and not necessarily citing his source material, Baauer’s actions have proved his worth. His most notable follow-up was a collaboration with Just Blaze featuring Jay Z, one of the slickest co-signs for an up-and-comer, which put an extra stamp of validation on his commitment to making authentic rap music.
While Aa will benefit from the popularity of 2015 releases like Jamie xx’s In Colour, the featured names on Baauer’s debut read much more like a nerd’s wishlist than a grab for blog popularity. And the results are well-studied. ‘Day Ones’ features Novelist and anonymous Brooklyn upstart Leikeli47, and as Americans embark on yet another wave of fascination with grime, Baauer has sewn together the fabrics that make both the UK genre and the menace of New York the fitting bedfellows other fusion tracks have yet to truly accomplish.
The same goes for his work with G-Dragon on ‘Temple’, which also features M.I.A. She has always been known for the textbook-like global sound of her work, while K-pop is a high-octane hodgepodge of pop, R&B, soft rock and rap with its own flavor. Again, Baauer is able to link these two artists together in a way that is seamless and respectful, but still sounds his own. And he does all of this out of his own studio — or producer Nick Hook’s, whom Baauer met while interning at Trouble and Bass pre-‘Harlem Shake’ — and often while watching Netflix.
Baauer talked to FACT about breaking out of the ‘Harlem Shake’ box, what the viral hit’s popularity meant to him, how to produce while watching a sitcom, and his unexpected dream collaborator.
This is your first major piece of work in years and your first solo album — what message are you hoping to get across to listeners?
There’s no particular message. I guess just want people enjoy it. That’s my base expectation. Maybe people will see more of a complete picture of the type of shit I make.
I was looking back at questions from an interview we did together four years ago, and it reminded me that before ‘Harlem Shake’ crossed over, you were really trying to be a rap producer. Do you think that perception of you got buried underneath the virality of that track?
Maybe it did. I’m not sure. I’m trying to do more producing for rappers and stuff like that.
To some extent, Aa is a rap album.
Hopefully that’s one thing that this album achieves — to show people, again, that I can make rap.
I would imagine your life changed pretty drastically after —
Can you tell me a little bit about it?
I travel more, but when I come back [to Brooklyn], it’s the same.
But as far as career trajectories go — you went from someone who was put on the radar of dance music fans because of your connection to LuckyMe to someone world famous because of a viral video trend. I know you’ve said that the second reception to ‘Harlem Shake’ bummed you a little bit.
It was kind of always out of context, but in general, it was really priceless, career-wise. So like, I’m always gonna be proud of the result of it.
Did you ever want to say to people, “you know the Harlem Shake was a real dance, right?” Did you ever feel that impulse?
I didn’t,‘cos I was always on the receiving end of the hate. It was always my name attached to it.
It’s pretty remarkable that the hugeness of it changed the chart, with Billboard and Nielsen starting to count YouTube streams towards chart position. Did those YouTube streams benefit you financially, directly?
Money directly? No. But I’d say second- and third-hand through the exposure, yeah.
But it has led to the ability to make something really huge for Aa. When did you start recording it?
Over [the past] three years. If you just put out singles, there’s a lot of time you want to make it like, a hard dance or whatever record, but if you put an album that can fit in some more like, interlude-y things, whatever, yeah. The oldest one’s probably three years old. And the newest one’s probably from two months before I finished the whole thing.
You didn’t feel any urgency to put something out right away?
I always did, but nothing felt good, nothing felt right. I was always looking for something that felt new and exciting. And I was having trouble finding something that had that real excitement, you know.
But when you time it right, you get people like Future and M.I.A. on your record. I am curious, though, how you linked up with someone like TT the Artist.
I’ve always loved Baltimore club, and she had a couple tracks that I liked a lot that I was playing out. And then I linked up with her, and that’s how that came about. That was cool. That was someone who I got to talk to a lot about the whole thing, and talk it through, you know. Meanwhile someone like Future, I’m not gonna be able to chat [with him]. But sometimes it can be cool when [a collaboration is] over the internet. It adds some kind of mysterious element to it.
“I’ve never made music in seclusion. It’s always been with YouTube or Netflix playing”
You said you’ve been working on this for three years, so you must be constantly producing. Are there other things you like to do?
Travel, when I’m doing shows, and that’s honestly pretty much it.
So you just work? You don’t, like, watch Netflix or anything?
I definitely like Netflix and staying inside making music more than going out and getting drunk and all that shit.
That must be difficult in your line of work.
Any urge to do that is taken care of already, that’s taken care of on tour. So when I’m home, I don’t feel any desire to do anything like that. For me that’s the job, which is great, but when it’s not time for that, I go home and just chill.
Do you have go-tos on Netflix, or do you switch it up?
Honestly, The Office will always be my [thing]. I’ve rewatched it, I can’t even count the times. I’ve watched it so many times. But it’s so good, you have to keep watching it. I always go back to it. I’m sure 99 per cent of anyone is constantly watching Netflix. I’ve always gone to sleep watching Netflix. You know? Unless it’s impossible, if there’s no internet or something, in which case that’s scary.
But if you go in the wilderness then you don’t have a choice.
I’ve been thinking about that for a long time. Going to the wilderness [and] being disconnected. I feel like that’s good, that’s a cool thing. Like Bon Iver.
So you’d want to go into seclusion to make music?
I’ve never made music in that environment, you know. It’s always been with like, YouTube also playing. I’ve always been making music as I’m watching Netflix, too.
That’s not distracting?
I guess it’s kind of like making music with a bunch of people in the studio [with you]. Kind of talking, like a little light murmur, maybe it helps in some weird way… Maybe it’s a different style that makes it more like, stream of consciousness, you know?
Going forward, who are some people you would like to have in the studio with you? Who are your bucket list collaborators?
I was just listening to a bunch of Enya and she’s probably number one now. I always knew the songs [on the radio], but I really gave it a good listen the other night and I was like wow, this is sick. I don’t know, it’s just like the weird spacey, synthy, whatever. [And] Missy Elliott. That’s a goal, always.