Category: Interviews & Profiles

The Legacy of Planet Rock

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One Friday evening in mid-January, after Arthur Baker finished his warm-up DJ set before New Order took the main stage, he found an old couch backstage at the Fillmore Miami Beach, opened a bottle of Malbec, and griped about the crowd for it not dancing.

“I should have played Planet Rock,” said Baker, as he poured wine into a cup.

Baker had every reason to gripe. A quick peek from my vantage point during his set showed an apathetic audience standing around like zombies on the venue floor.

Baker knows that if there is anything that could have zapped that Miami crowd and raise the historic roof off the place formerly known as the Jackie Gleason Theatre for the Performing Arts, it is Planet Rock, the defining hip hop track that he produced for Tommy Boy Records with Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force almost 40 years ago.

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In 1981, Baker was a 26-year old DJ in Brooklyn, New York with a desire to break into music producing. He began exploring new technologies in sound including the Roland TR-808 drum machine, aka the 808, the first ever Japanese-manufactured electronic music machine to have a documentary film devoted entirely to it.

Baker met Tom Silverman while moonlighting as a writer for a music publication. Silverman was also a DJ and was starting his own dance music label. Baker came on board and produced the first track on Silverman’s Tommy Boy label: Jazzy Sensation with Bambaataa, the former Bronx street gang leader who became a hip-hop pioneer.

The record’s momentum and success (reportedly, 50,000 records were sold) prompted the team to return to the studio. This time, Bambaataa brought in DJ Jazzy Jay and a trio of rappers, Mr. Bigg, Pow Wow, and MC Globe, who called themselves the Soul Sonic Force. Baker managed the vocal hooks.

“We used a recording studio in the Upper East Side called Intergalactic Music Studio,” says Baker, during a recent phone interview. He says it was the same one used by the Beastie Boys (who would go on to record a track inspired by the studio’s name.)

Planet Rock contains futuristic sound elements, including lasers and robotic static, other-worldly analog synth tracks, laid over a hypnotic back beat. But the most iconic sound is the crushing boom of the bass, enhanced by the 808’s technology that Baker mastered.

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Afrika Bambaataa backstage at the Vic Theater, Chicago, Illinois, August 17, 1982. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

When Planet Rock launched into 1982 America, it propelled hip hop into the stratosphere and caused a sonic boom that caught attention. The song peaked at #4 on Billboard’s R&B Charts in July 1982 and crossed over to the more mainstream Hot 100 pop charts, becoming the biggest rap song since Sugarhill Gang’s Rappers Delight three years earlier.

Baker recalls, “We were making a rap record, but we mixed it like a dance record. A lot of it became standard to this day that back then we did experimenting,” says Baker, who went on to work with New Order, Bruce Springsteen, Hall & Oates, Diana Ross, and Mick Jagger.

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Arthur Baker (Photo by Patrik Andersson)

“We basically did a mash-up,” he says, referring to the inspirations he tapped into to mix Planet Rock. At the time, Baker was a fan of the early-techno sound of the German electronic group Kraftwerk. “When I heard Numbers, I thought it would be great to use that beat with the melody of Trans Europe Express.”

Baker says the German band came after the label and eventually got paid for writing and publishing rights.

“Kraftwerk couldn’t come after us for having sampled their record because we didn’t sample their record. None of this stuff was sampled, it was just replayed. We redid everything,” says Baker, who lives in Miami.

“We got away with it because I guess it was an early one. It wasn’t like we hid it,” admits Baker. “We made that record, which blew up.”

Planet Rock was one of the first [12-inch records] that I bought,” recalls longtime Miami house DJ Oscar G. He says one Christmas his wish list to Santa included “a bunch of Arthur Baker records.”

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Oscar G (Photo by Michael Campina)

“That was the beginning of my DJ record collection. Arthur’s stuff was the first stuff in my record box.”

And Planet Rock?

“That’s the one,” he says. “I would sit in my house and listen to this shit over and over and over. I was so blown away by it, not only the original mix, but I loved the dub, the bonus beats, the whole shit. It was so fucking cool.”

“There were definitely records that came out [before] that had that rap element,” says Oscar G, “but Planet Rock was the perfect representation of what I think was happening at that time in the Bronx and New York.”

It has been well-documented that Planet Rock energized an emerging street dancing scene that was breaking out of the abandoned buildings of the South Bronx in the early 80s.

“It’s the ultimate representation of that B-Boy culture that was happening in that moment,” says Oscar G.

“Arthur was able to bottle that movement, he says, “and Planet Rock is that bottle.”

“I remember the first rap music we heard on the radio was Rappers Delight,” says Andrew Yeomanson aka DJ Le Spam. “But that was more like disco rap. [Planet Rock] was the death of disco rap. It meant that from then on, hip hop could be made electronically, much more cheaply and much more available to different artists, because you didn’t need to have $5,000 to go into a studio and hire a band,” says Yeomanson, who founded the Spam All Stars.

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Andrew Yeomanson (Photo courtesy of Andrew Yeomanson)

“If you didn’t have that range or scale, you can still make music,” he says. “People could create music on a budget, so it made it available to people who were on a street level and maybe only had a few hundred dollars and some verses in their head.”

Yeomanson says in Planet Rock, Baker demonstrates a skill and vision with the different electronic drum machines, including the 808, that would re-define the genre forever.

“Arthur was leading the charge with the gear. He got work and notoriety because he was the guy with these sounds.”

So is Planet Rock that one record that blew up hip hop?

“Yeah, of course, it was,” responds Yeomanson.

“That’s it. That changed everything.”

 

End Note: Efforts to reach Luther Campbell of Miami’s 2 Live Crew for his comments were unsuccessful.

Copyright © 2020 Long Play Miami

 

Nuclear Valdez: Resurrected

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The new music sounds like the old music. And that’s a good thing.

These were the first thoughts that entered my mind upon listening to the opening track off Present From The Past, the latest record release by Miami’s own Nuclear Valdez.

A few weeks ago I learned that the band was releasing this album on vinyl on April 22nd (otherwise known as Record Store Day, the annual celebration of independent record stores that facilitated the revival of vinyl records). Early that morning, I ventured out to my favorite record shop, Sweat Records.

I walked around passing the various genre categories handwritten on white placards on the shelves: indie, hip hop, rock, punk, world, re-issues. But it was at the new-releases section where I held my breath. There it was, Nuclear Valdez’s first album in 26 years(*), enjoying top-shelf status, a little product-placement bonus love by shop owner Lolo Reskin and the rest of the Sweat gang.

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Present From The Past is a compilation of never-released music that Nuclear Valdez wrote and recorded in the late 80s/early 90s.

Listening to the album teleported me back to 1989 when these four local boys, sons of Cuban and Dominican immigrants, landed a record deal with Epic, the label that counted among its artists the likes of Michael Jackson, Cheap Trick, and Sly & The Family Stone.  That same year they released their debut album, I Am I.  Their first cut “Summer” included a music video filmed in Miami that reached MTV daily-play honors for several months. It was that first cut, a political song about repression in Cuba, that established their identity.

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“If you were from Miami and born to Cuban parents, you were a Nuclear Valdez fan,” said a friend the other day when we chatted about the band. The Nukes embodied the angst, emotion, and political expression of the Cuban-American experience.

Growing up Cuban-American, life inside the hyphen that separates the two nationalities wasn’t so level. Musical tastes varied. A lot of the music that I heard as a child was either Cuban or heavily tilted towards the island 90 miles off the coast of Florida. Celia Cruz, Willy Chirino, maybe a few tracks by Miami Sound Machine. It was the music of our grandparents and our parents. But I and others came of age in America, the birth place of rock & roll. The music in our hearts and minds was different, a product of our youth, our environment, our identity, our American identity. Nuclear Valdez was the first to fill the space inside the Cuban-American musical divide with their politically charged, soulful sound, channeling contemporaries like U2, The Fixx, and Midnight Oil.

After their debut album, the band released a second record in 1991 called Dream Another Dream. But the pure, folk-influenced sound changed. They brought in electronic machines and synthesizers. The music seemed excessive, over-sized. I lost a little interest in them and could only hope that a third album would resurrect them. But reportedly they were dropped by Epic after Dream. “It didn’t make sense for them to stay with us or for us to stay with them,” said an Epic representative in a February 1994 article that appeared in the Miami New Times titled “The Local Rock Scene is Dead.” (*)

So what happened? A press release on the band’s website states they got left in the cold by the record company as a result of the emerging grunge scene in Seattle (Epic would go on to sign Pearl Jam and release their iconic album Ten in 1991.).

The press release continues, “Disillusioned, we decided to pack it in, much to the disappointment of our many fans.”

This latest record aptly named Present From The Past chips away at the disillusion, like a gift from an old friend who once abandoned you, and it’s a reminder that this local band once displayed some real chops but more importantly still own their rightful place in Miami’s music history.

Welcome back Nukes.

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Here is the video for “Summer” from 1989.

(*) End Note: A reader rightfully pointed out that in 2001 the Nukes released a third record after Epic but with only three members of the original band.

Copyright © 2017 Long Play Miami