Harlem Globetrotter

Words: Brandon Perkins
Photography: Balazs Gardi

To escape the success of “Harlem Shake,” producer Baauer traveled to the ends of the earth in search of sounds forgotten in the digital age.

The quest to find something new is as contemporary as they come, but it’s also a difficult one. Have an idea for Cheetos-based art? There’s already a Tumblr page for that. Want to see what happens when you connect hundreds of nine-volt batteries together? See YouTube. Need some really crazy sounds to put into Ableton Live for your latest remix? There are plenty of websites for doing that. 

Harry Bauer Rodrigues fits into that last category. The Philadelphia-born producer, known as Baauer, scored a hit in 2013 with his sample-laden dance track, Harlem Shake. The song became a viral sensation on YouTube when it was used as a soundtrack to thousands of videos in which ridiculously dressed people broke out in crazy dance moves when the beat dropped.  

This came around the time the music charts underwent a shake-up of their own, factoring in YouTube streaming data in the US chart and helping send Baauer to number one. With his pop crown secured, Baauer is now in search of new sounds, and he’s travelled to remote regions of Japan and the United Arab Emirates to find them.

“This didn’t come from a lack of sounds – not at all,” says Baauer from Los Angeles, where he has set up a second home away from his usual stomping ground of Brooklyn to be closer to the musicians he’s working with for his yet-to-be-titled debut album. “You can find anything you want online. But I wanted to find something that you can’t find on the internet, which is hard.”

From Japan’s ancient Imperial courts to visits with desert tribes on the outskirts of Dubai, Baauer scoured the countryside for unique sounds to inform his tracks. He recorded bubbling sulphur deposits and the swooshing of falcons on the fly, as well as rare traditional instruments made from unusual raw materials.

“I wanted to find sounds that I couldn’t find on the Internet— which is hard.”

“One was a bagpipe that’s made out of a dead goat, like a goat’s body that’s been preserved,” says the 25-year-old, referring to an instrument similar to the gaida found in the Balkans and south-east Europe. “It still has the shape of a goat, which makes it really bizarre. You blow into a tube and it plays like a bagpipe. My friend played it a little bit and he was really good at it.”

 

Baauer’s productions are recognisable by the bass and build he layers into each track. Higher, his Jay-Z-sampling collaboration with New Jersey hip-hop producer Just Blaze, ascends at a dizzying pace before the bottom drops right out, reminding you of the vibrant and very alive nature of modern electronic music. 

Then there’s Harlem Shake. The song’s cumulative YouTube views reached well over a billion in a few months, and there was a peak of more than 4,000 videos uploaded in a single day in February 2013. Experts put the song’s success down to its accessible 15-second build and bass drop  that ends with a convenient death rattle. Its catchiness played to the internet’s short attention span, so did the ease with which people could recreate the original video by a vlogger called Filthy Frank. All that was required was a camera phone, some friends to star in the video and a little editing before uploading. 

baauer

Baauer (far left) and travel companion Nick Hook (far right) with women of the Ainu tribe in Hokkaido, Japan.

Baauer has learned lessons from his viral experience. Harlem Shake may have made him a star, but he barely saw a dime in direct earnings from it. He didn’t make the video that started the phenomenon, and he didn’t clear any of the samples that would have made the song legally legit. But he did get a lot of live bookings. 

“Now I know that you should always clear your samples,” says Baauer. “I was just sitting around my bedroom; I never imagined that the whole thing would happen like that in a million years.” 
Baauer’s sound-finding journey to the ends of the earth was made into a documentary for Red Bull TV. Inspiration from the trip has pushed the way the producer works in directions he didn’t think would be possible. 

“Now, with this Red Bull thing, going out to find new sounds around the world was perfect. They are all my sounds,” he says. “Wherever possible you should use your own recordings. Record yourself saying the sample. 

“It’s a fun little game to make songs only out of these sounds, and I’ve already ended up making three or four,” he says. “I’m using them in other productions, remixes and stuff. They’ve made an amazing palette. I’m like a painter who got a whole new set of colours after using the same ones for years.”

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