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 is as contemporary as they come: Find something that doesn’t exist on the Internet. Have an idea for Cheetos-based art? Already a Tumblr page. Want to see what happens when you connect hundreds of 9-volt batteries? Check YouTube, dude. Need some really crazy sounds to put into Ableton Live for your latest remix? There’s plenty of that.

For Baauer—the Philadelphia-born producer trying to escape the traps of a heavy music crown delivered by his “Harlem Shake” success and the viral sensation that ensued—the quest to discover music that doesn’t exist online meant going to remote regions of Japan and the United Arab Emirates.

“Did this come from a lack of sounds? No, I wouldn’t agree with that at all,” Baauer says from his temporary headquarters in Los Angeles. Harry Bauer Rodrigues still claims Brooklyn as home base but is out on the left coast to be closer to the musicians he’s working with for his yet-untitled debut album. “When I was on the Internet looking for shit, you can find anything—anything you want. I wanted to find something that I couldn’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 countrysides for unique sounds to inform his tracks. He recorded bubbling sulfur deposits and the swooshing of falcons on the fly, as well as rare traditional instruments made from the most surprising materials.

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

“It was a bagpipe that’s made out of a dead goat—like a goat’s body that’s been preserved. It still has the shape of a goat, which makes it really bizarre,” Baauer says of the instrument, which is similar to the gaida found in the Balkans and Southeast Europe. “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, which was tight.”

Baauer’s productions are recognizable by the bass and the build he layers into every track. “Higher,” his Jay-Z-sampling co-production with Just Blaze, ascends up M.C. Escher–like stairs at a dizzying pace before letting the bottom drop out in one of those moments that keeps electronic music alive and vibrant.

And then there’s “Harlem Shake.” The song’s cumulative YouTube views number well over a billion, reaching the plateau in a matter of months, which changed the way Billboard calculates its charts. Perhaps the very reason the meme achieved a viral peak of 4,000+ uploaded videos in a single February 2013 day, according to YouTube, was the song’s accessible 15-second build and bass drop—15 seconds of insanity that ended with a convenient death rattle. Its catchiness played to the Internet’s 30-second attention span, just as the video’s setup was easier to re-create than a captioned jpg of a cat. It only required a camera held steady and some friends; editing meant one single cut.

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

Good Morning America may have called, but Baauer barely saw a direct dime in earnings from “Harlem Shake.” He didn’t make the video that started the phenomenon—that was some bros in Australia—and he didn’t clear any of the samples that would have made the song legally legit. Indirectly, of course, its success secured a gig or two for the 25-year-old.

“You should always clear your samples,” Baauer says very succinctly. “I was just sitting around my bedroom; I never imagined that it would happen like that in a million years. Whenever possible now: [Use your own] recordings. Record yourself or someone else saying it. Now, with this Red Bull thing, going out to find new sounds was perfect. These are all my sounds.”

This November, Baauer’s sound- finding journey to the ends of the earth will appear as a documentary on Red Bull TV. Inspiration from the trip pushed the producer’s sensibilities beyond his own expectations. His excitement over these new sounds are palpable both in the music he’s churning out and in his voice as he talks about it.

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

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