It’s an uncharacteristically chilly afternoon in Miami’s Little River neighborhood. It’s 5:30 pm, and the party has already been going for 12 hours; Damian Lazarus’ legendary 24-hour Miami Music Week gathering Get Lost has just passed its halfway mark, and as the sun begins to set, the collective delirium starts settling in among the revelers.
Get Lost is the kind of party where you might catch a glimpse of Kerri Chandler urgently exiting a taxi to make it to his own set, or find yourself cutting a rug right alongside Eats Everything in a dance circle. It’s a day absolutely brimming with extraordinary happenings, which makes it all the more surprising when the most triumphant moment of the weekend comes courtesy of none other than Arthur Baker.
Stepping to the decks in the outdoor Garden of Eden stage, the Boston-born pioneering DJ and producer only has an hour with the crowd, and he immediately sets to making every second count. Backed with live percussion courtesy of cult Miami music figure Oba Frank Lords, Arthur mixes a set worthy of his psychedelic surroundings, winding through his production history to include everything from Afro-Latin rhythms to the sweet-sounding croons of Al Green. But it isn’t until he’s joined by one of his old outfits, Rockers Revenge, that things truly come alive.
Emerging from backstage to groove directly in front of the DJ booth, the four-piece – including original vocalists Adrienne Johnson, Donnie Calvin and Tina Baker – immediately begin belting their forthcoming Crosstown Rebels release 'On a Mission,' the group’s first new track in over 30 years. 'On a Mission' manages the miracle of at once sounding distinctly new, wearing all the flourishes of modern production techniques on its sleeve, while still sounding like a vintage Arthur Baker joint; overflowing with musical ideas, each introduced one by one, including propulsive percussion, hand claps that hit like lightning and an indelible female vocal hook: “we’re on a mission.”
As onlookers gather and dancers begin singing along to a song they’ve only just learned, whispers begin rising from the dance floor:
“Hey, do you know who this is?”
“Arthur Baker! He’s great, isn’t he?”
“Dude! Amazing! Those live vocals are insane!”
The set’s climax arrives when Rockers Revenge returns to reprise its biggest hit, their 1982 cover of Eddy Grant’s 'Walking on Sunshine'. What was already a sizable mass quadruples in size, as phones are whipped out to capture this once-in-a-lifetime performance, bodies boogie down to the floor, and dance circles involuntarily form en masse. As Rockers pass mics back and forth between their adoring audience, Arthur picks up his rhinestoned three-year-old daughter, who waves to the crowd without missing a beat. It was as joyous an occasion as dance music has ever yielded, and it would’ve been a daunting challenge to find someone not smiling from ear-to-ear that afternoon.
This year's Get Lost performance was the latest remarkable moment in a career that’s been chockfull of them. Arthur Baker’s name and accompanying body of work have been the stuff of legend for some time now: besides crafting some of the most memorable tunes to ever hit the dance floor – just listen to the squelching synth bass on North End’s 'Happy Days' – Baker’s innovations in the studio would go on to alter several musical landscapes.
In addition to shaping electro and permanently binding electronic music and Roland 808 drums with hip-hop on 'Planet Rock', Arthur’s record with the Soulsonic Force, the song’s liberal melding of Kraftwerk’s 'Trans-Europe Express' melody with the beat of Computer World standout 'Numbers' also helped to pioneer the sonic possibilities offered by sampling. It was a technique Arthur would later refine with his Criminal Element Orchestra track 'Put the Needle to the Record', one of the first songs to be constructed almost entirely from samples using the "cut and paste" method.
For as singular as his contributions to pop and dance music have been, Arthur’s more collaborative ventures – whether through his own labels or as a studio producer – have also left their mark. As the label head for Streetwise and Criminal Records, Arthur made a comfortable home for several of his own projects (Rockers Revenge being among them) while making sure to leave enough room for genre-blurring pop acts such as New Edition as well as fiercely adored 80s New York City club hits such as 'The Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight'. On top of his own releases, Arthur also found the time to remix and produce for artists as prominent as Bob Dylan, Fleetwood Mac, the Rolling Stones, and most notably New Order, whose music video for 'Confusion' sees Arthur making his way from the studio and traversing into the heart of New York City’s 80s clubland. Jamie xx memorably sampled one such collaboration, Arthur’s 1983 production for English music group Freeez, 'I.O.U.', for the In Colour single 'Girl'.
As evidenced by his Get Lost gig, Arthur’s lost none of his collaborative spirit in the intervening decades. Since moving to Miami with his wife in 2011 following a stint in London, Arthur has fully immersed himself in the city’s music scene, even though it’s one he’s been acquainted with for much longer.
“I bought a place here in '92, '93 - back in the wild west phase, I guess,” Arthur recounts. “I actually came down for Winter Music [Conference], saw what was happening [for the first time], and decided to buy an apartment.” Even before he was flying south for the world’s largest gathering of dance music professionals and embarking on misadventures spent meeting the likes of Busy P and Daft Punk, Arthur became infatuated with Miami music following a trip to the city with a high school friend in the early ‘70s. Citing TK Records – the influential Miami label which hosted artists such as Blowfly, KC & the Sunshine Band, Benny Latimore and others – Arthur says the city has always had a rich musical legacy that sometimes gets overlooked.
“A lot of rock records were made here, like [Derek and the Dominos’] ‘Layla,’ The Allman Brothers, all that stuff,” Arthur says. “[The sounds] turned me on to Miami; Miami’s always been a big part of my life, even when I wasn’t living here.”
Given his fondness of Miami’s musical heritage, the local music community has responded to Arthur with open arms in kind. Besides socializing with fellow Miami musical transplants Iggy Pop and Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh, Arthur has made repeated appearances at events such as III Points Music, Art & Technology Festival along with a number of DJ residencies, and most tantalizingly, new collaborations and music inspired directly by his time in the club capital of the southeastern United States.
On a Friday afternoon just weeks before Get Lost, Arthur is going over many of the tracks he’d wind up dropping from the comfort of his new warehouse space. Nestled innocuously in Miami’s burgeoning Little River district, while it may seem unremarkable from the outside, it holds both Arthur’s musical past as well as his future. In addition to a bookshelf and wall lined with vinyl, in the leftmost corner sits the totality of Arthur’s record collection, with anywhere from 200 to 300 cardboard boxes holding 75 records each, totaling out to roughly between 15,000 and 22,500 records. Come this summer, Arthur and Miami entrepreneur Max Pierre are looking to convert the space into a social club where members could utilize Arthur’s records to their own ends with a provided sampler, as well as offer club members a place to store their own record collections.
“The idea is to get use out of your records,” Arthur explains while looking at the array of breakbeat vinyl he has spread across an in-door picnic table. Whether he’s using them in a physical capacity or not, it’s apparent from the sounds emerging from his speakers – ranging from the tribal drums of 'On a Mission' to the Hi-NRG-esque demo track he’s recorded for local artist Luna – that he’s already internalized all of the lessons his records had to offer. Instead, he’s turned his ear to Miami’s nightlife scene and homegrown artists, coming full-circle in a symbiotic relationship he inadvertently began decades ago.
“When I’d come here in the 90s, I’d get off the plane, get in a cab and ‘Play At Your Own Risk’ [by Arthur’s electro group Planet Patrol] or ‘Planet Rock’ would be playing… literally when songs were 10 years old and they were never going to get played in New York or anywhere else, they were still on the top stations here.”
While most people Arthur’s age would move to Miami intent on retiring, he’s instead authoring new chapters of his career and rocking out at Miami Music Week’s most impressive 24-hour party. On top of the upcoming release of 'On a Mission' with Crosstown Rebels and another Rocker’s Revenge track recorded the day after Get Lost, Arthur recently released the tracks 'Into the Groove' and 'Coyo', an Afro House collaboration with Miami house heroes Ralph Falcón and Oscar G, collectively known as Murk. Released on the legendary Nervous Records, 'Coyo' is named after the beloved taco stand in Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood where Murk and Lazaro Casanova, another figurehead in Miami dance music who’s gone on to collaborate with Arthur, mix their weekly Murk Mondays in the Mexican restaurant’s backroom; naturally Arthur is an honorary resident as well, and has been admittedly influenced by the Latin grooves he’s working alongside with.
Along with his recent spate of singles, the prospect of a recurring live act and projects with even more Miami locals – including Comunitē performer Alpha 606 and DJ Le Spam – Arthur is hoping to have an LP of new material out in time for this year’s edition of the Amsterdam Dance Event in October. According to Arthur, he believes as strongly in his new music as he did his original groundbreaking work.
“I still get the buzz when you do a record and you go ‘Wow, this is fucking great. I don't care if anyone gets it, it's great.’ And you know when you feel that way, some people are going to feel that way. A lot of times I feel like some of the new stuff -- if it actually gets the chance to get heard by a lot of people -- it'll be liked by a lot of people. It’s all about how people get to experience it; if you do a track and some deejay who plays in front of 50,000 people in a week gets behind it, then that record will be able to be successful. People got to hear it to like it.”
If his ability to handily outshine his peers at Get Lost was any indication, we believe in it too.
Zach Schlein is a freelance writer based in Miami. Find more of his work here