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Baauer’s journey from college beatmaker to hip-hop boss

Via Philadelphia, Tokyo, the Middle East and Glasgow, the musician explains how M.I.A. and tribal chanting influenced his explosive debut album

In January this year, Baauer announced his debut album Aa with a live performance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Rapper Leikeli47, looking masked and militant, takes the mic while the song’s synthesized horns and ratatat snares blare over the system. Baauer himself, however, sits on a couch on the side, playing the song off his laptop. “I don’t wanna put up some setup where it looks like I’m performing it live, because I’ve never performed it live,” explains Baauer, the alias of 26-year-old Harry Rodriguez, over the phone from New York City.

Rodriguez’s career took off following the unlikely viral success of his single “Harlem Shake” back in 2012. Since then he’s been travelling the world with his laptop, recording sounds, meeting collaborators like M.I.A., Future, and Korean rap star G-Dragon, collecting the material that would eventually make up Aa. The album’s artwork depicts Rodriguez’s journey from would-be novelty hitmaker to the artist he is today: a tree grows from an upturned motorcycle helmet (a helmet that resembles the one that appeared in the original “Harlem Shake” meme) as digital artefacts spring out of it.

Baauer is the focus of Dazed’s new documentary, which follows him around a wintry New York City, behind the scenes of his Colbert performance, and into a studio session fuelled by psychedelics. Watch it below and learn more of Baauer’s process behind Aa in our Q&A.

What does the album artwork represent to you?

Baauer: The album is like a collage of sounds, all pulled from different kinds of places. We came up with [the image of] this totem that’s also a collage of stuff.

The tree is rising from an upturned motorcycle helmet, which seems like a conscious reference to the “Harlem Shake” videos.

Baauer: That was the artist Jonathan (Zawada)’s idea. That wasn’t intentional on my end. At first I thought back to the “Harlem Shake” video, which always had a helmet involved. I thought that was pretty cool – that maybe it could be a reference to that.

How did your clear your head, artistically, after the success of the song?

Baauer: The whole thing was crazy. It definitely took a good chunk of time to just stop thinking and to start making stuff. It’s hard to pinpoint one thing (that helped), but definitely just little steps — learning new production techniques, or someone showing me some new music. I thought a lot about what to do (next), but overall I’m thankful for the moves I made.

Did you ever worry you might make the wrong move?

Baauer: I had the option to. I would’ve had to work towards it – it wasn’t gonna happen by mistake, if that makes sense. I would have actively had to do (the wrong) thing.

Tell me about of the places you travelled to when recording the album.

Baauer: I did this Red Bull thing (where I travelled the world recording sounds). I went to the UAE and Tokyo. That’s where I got most of the sounds I’m using. I also just travelled for shows and tours and stuff – all over.

Where was particularly inspiring?

Baauer: Going to Japan and the Middle East was big, just (being able to) grab those sounds myself and see where they came from, and meet the people who played the instruments. The guys in the UAE do this chanting thing – they’re in a tribe and they have a traditional chant they do in the mountains. So it all sounds huge, because it reverberates in the mountains. Just watching them do that was insane. When we were planning this Red Bull piece, it was one of the ideas that came up right away. Somebody found a video of these guys performing this chant on YouTube and we were like, “We’ve gotta do it.” They were the inspiration to go to the UAE in the first place.

Did the recording work its way onto the album?

Baauer: The chanting is on there. A lot of them are in there, but maybe just in the background to add to the vibe.

What do you use them for?

Baauer: Everything – even if it means changing something into something completely different, so like turning a bell into a kickdrum or whatever. I’m just trying to use as many samples as possible. Ideally, it would be all samples that I just manipulate in different ways.

Tell us about working with M.I.A. – she's a huge influence, right?

Baauer: Definitely. I got to actually be in the studio with her and work on it, one-on-one. She really is one of my biggest inspirations. It was so cool being able to work with her – and she’s so cool! I started showing her demos and seeing what she was into, (and) she was giving me ideas about sounds, like, ‘Put in a tiger sound’.

In the documentary there's a clip of you preparing for your Colbert appearance. How did you come up with the concept for that?

Baauer: (We were) just thinking about the best way to do an electronic song on a late night show. We just thought, “Let’s just be totally honest and do this on a laptop.” I don’t wanna put up some setup where it looks like I’m performing it live, because I’ve never performed it live. I was lucky enough to have Leikeli 47 there to actually perform the song – and kill it.

Did you have any other rejected ideas?

Baauer: Oh yeah, a bunch. I thought of some crazy shit. I was thinking maybe I’d be on a wire, like in a play when someone flies – like Peter Pan. It was all gonna get fucked up, and I’d be swinging around, smashing stuff on the set. It definitely got nixed at the idea phase.