If you were compiling a list of quintessential New York songs, Afrika Bambaataa's game-changing tune would have to be among them. “Planet Rock” was so influential that it’s almost impossible to imagine entire genres of music without it. In his 2007 Academy lecture, producer Arthur Baker broke down how it all came together.
I was working for Tom Silverman, who decided to do a label, which he called Tommy Boy. (That says something about him, I guess.) I was the only producer he actually knew personally, so he said, “Do you wanna go in and do a record for me?” Tom had this guy Afrika Bambaataa who had like three groups: Cosmic Force, Jazzy 5, Soulsonic Force. Jazzy 5 was the most together at the time, so we went in and [made something] called “Jazzy Sensation.” That sold like 50,000 records.
So after “Jazzy Sensation” was successful, we decided we’d go in again. And Tom said Soulsonic Force is next up. I had been listening to a lot of Kraftwerk at the time. There was a record shop in Brooklyn called Music Factory run by these two brothers, Donnie and Dwight. I used to go down there and hang out on Saturday and just see what was selling. They played me “Numbers,” and I thought the beat was ridiculous. When people were in the record shop and it came on it was just a whole other thing.
At the time “Trans Europe Express” [came out] I was also working at Carden distributors, sweeping the floor. So I was making records that sold 40,000 copies and I was sweeping the floor. It was right near the projects, and we’d go sit on our lunch break and always hear “Trans Europe Express.” You’d always hear the handclaps, the melody. It was really surreal, sitting in the housing projects and hearing that reverberating off the buildings.
I thought that the beat on “Trans Europe Express” was too slow. We hooked the two of them up, and Bam said that he was into this record “Super Sporm” by Captain Sky. So we went in the studio with these ideas, and we decided we needed a drum machine. This wasn’t going to be a record that would have a live drummer on it. We were trying to emulate the sound of Kraftwerk, the electronic drum sound. So we listened to different drum machines and we heard the 808 and we said, “That’s it!”
Basically, no one at that time had an 808. This is a true story: we saw an ad in the Village Voice that said, “Man with drum machine, 20 dollars a session.” [laughs] So we called him up and said, “Come on in.” The programmer of the drum machine, he had no idea what the fuck we were doing. “You want me to do what?” We played him Kraftwerk, and we showed him what to program. It was all through a Neve, which is an amazing [mixing] board. We went in there: me, Bam, John Robie.
John had a Micromoog and a Prophet-5. This was the first time we’d got to use a polyphonic synth, because I was always using the Moogs. Strangely enough there was also a Fairlight there. You can probably do what the Fairlight did on a $1,000 computer now. Back then the Fairlight was probably worth over $100,000 or more. It was taking up a lot of space, but it had a few sounds in it, one being this sort of explosion sound, which we used in the break, and the orchestra, the infamous orchestra.
We wanted to make a record that people into Talking Heads and people into Sugarhill Gang would play.
Robie could play. You’d tell him to play something and he’d play it and add something to it. He was really, really good. So we went in and the first night, there were no rappers in the house that night. Bam was there, but none of the group was there. It took us like eight hours, and I took the thing home – I was living in Brooklyn at the time – and I put it on, and I said to my wife at the time, “We’ve made musical history.” I mean, I knew. There was no rap, it wasn’t finished. But just listening back...
When we went in the studio I wanted to make something that was going to be “uptown” and “downtown.” From day one that was the idea. It isn’t like we lucked into that, we were going for that. We wanted to make a record that people into Talking Heads would play, and that people into Sugarhill Gang would play. That had a lot to do with Bam, because Bam was open to that. If he had said “no,” we wouldn’t have done it for that record. He was open to that because he was DJing downtown and uptown. He was the first guy to really be able to cross those boundaries. Kool Herc was playing uptown, but you wouldn’t see him playing downtown at Danceteria.
When the rappers came, they hated it. Not even hated it. They despised it. They didn’t get it at all. They wanted something that sounded like what was on the R&B chart. They wanted “Jazzy Sensation.” “Yo man, why do you do this for [Jazzy 5] and that for us?” Just really pissed off. Mr. Biggs was like, “Nah, man, we’re not going to rap on that!” So basically, we had to convince them.
The whole theme of “Planet Rock,” I think probably G.L.O.B.E had the verses. I think my input into that, which I think was very different, was that we needed a chorus. I think that was probably the first rap record that had its own individual new chorus. In “Rapper’s Delight” there was no chorus. There was a hook line, in “The Breaks.” (“These are the breaks.”) But I said let’s make it so it’s a real song. Having the cities in it was like James Brown. He’d always have: “Yo Atlanta, Detroit,” whatever, so we took it international: “Berlin, Lebanon…”
G.L.O.B.E was the genius of the rappers, he was the guy. He didn’t want to be a rapper, he wanted to be an “MC popper.” That was what he was calling his style, it was MC popping. Run DMC on “It’s Like That” were totally influenced by that, the sort of half-time thing. Instead of being on the beat, being off the beat. That was very different at the time.
We had a feeling we’d get in trouble with Kraftwerk over the “Trans Europe Express” melody, and they were angry to say the least. They went to Tommy Boy and Tom gave them a dollar a record. BUT he raised the list price of the record, over a dollar a record. So basically it didn’t cost him anything. All you guys who bought it paid Kraftwerk. It was a $5.98 list 12-inch, as opposed to a $4.98. But by the time he did that, the record was so hot, people just went for it.
The drummer from Kraftwerk has written a book, and he doesn’t have nice things to say. But what’s very weird is, he’s saying, “Oh, they sampled this.” Obviously, there wasn’t sampling back then. We borrowed the melody, which we ended up paying more for than if we had sampled it now. Now, you’d get half the pub[lishing] or whatever. It wouldn’t be a dollar a record, that’s for sure. But, I mean, he’s the guy who got fired out of Kraftwerk. So I don’t know. Maybe they fired him because he was a jerk. He’s a drummer, so you know [laughs] in an electro band… not much use for him. [laughs]