Photo: Kylie Hoffman
Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: Baauer Talks 'PLANET'S MAD,' Daft Punk & Shaking The "Harlem Shake"
It's been eight years since Brooklyn-based DJ/producer Baauer found viral fame with his bouncy debut single, "Harlem Shake," released on Diplo's Mad Decent label in 2012. He's followed up with numerous singles and two full-length albums, 2016's Aa and 2020's GRAMMY-nominated PLANET'S MAD.
Yet, as he explains, it's been hard to get past being the "'Harlem Shake' guy."
"To me, it's such a beautiful validation," Baauer, born Harrison Rodrigues, tells GRAMMY.com about PLANET'S MAD's recent nomination for Best Dance/Electronic Album. "It's like, 'Check this out, I made this album and boom, now I'm nominated for a GRAMMY.'"
He also takes us into the fantastical musical and visual world he created for the GRAMMY-nominated project, how Brooklyn influences his sound and his lifelong love of Daft Punk (this interview was conducted before their breakup was announced).
First of all, congrats on your first GRAMMY nomination. How did you find out and what was your reaction?
Some people started texting me, "Congrats!" and I had no idea what was going on. I was like, "Oh wait, something's happening." I asked somebody who texted me, 'What are you talking about?' And they're like, "Oh, the GRAMMY nomination." It was amazing. I freaked out. I was jumping up and down, like, "Woooo!" It was one of those rare moments of pure joy.
That's awesome. And yeah, in a year that felt like a lot of sh*t, I'm sure it has an extra contrast.
Yeah, absolutely. After such a year, and a year putting so much work into the album, and at times feeling like, "Oh man, is anyone even going to listen to this? Or is this just going to fall on deaf ears?" and sometimes feeling a little bit down about the circumstances, it was just very amazing, fantastic—a validation of all that hard work.
What does it mean to you to be nominated for Best Dance/Electronic Album?
Oh, it means so much. It means the world. I've had a journey where I got my main exposure from the meme moment of "Harlem Shake." So I'm always, always working within the context of, "Oh, this is the 'Harlem Shake' guy." I've accepted it. And I'm grateful for it, but it's also something I'm constantly trying to move past and shake, you know what I mean?
How do you feel that your sound and approach to making music has shifted since releasing "Harlem Shake" in 2012, especially being that it was the first single you ever put out?
I feel good that I've never tried to cash in again after that happened. I had the chance to be like, "Okay, let's try to do 'Harlem Shake Two.'" And I just felt like, "Nah, don't do that. Keep trying new stuff, keep experimenting." And a lot of the things didn't work, a lot of experiments didn't work, but I'm proud that I, despite that, just kept trying to do different, new things.
And this album was absolutely one of those too. It's an experiment; it's kind of a risk. And this nomination is just an amazing lesson of a risk that absolutely paid off. It's good to know that sometimes if you roll the dice, you can get a reward.
I want to dive into the album a bit more. Can you take us into the vision behind PLANET'S MAD?
Absolutely. Basically, I wanted to make a new album and create a world for it, almost like making a movie. And so instead of just having a collection of 12 electronic tracks, I used this opportunity to create a world. And that was the basic inspiration for it. From there, it was just a matter of imagining this world and making characters. [Plus], going back to movies and albums that I took in when I was discovering music, and trying to recreate that. Like Daft Punk, Prodigy, The Avalanches and Fatboy Slim—all the albums that sort of created a universe.
Is the movie something that you were thinking about while making the album, or is it something you decided to do after?
I definitely wanted some visual elements from the get-go. But whether or not it was going to be a full movie for the whole thing, I didn't have that in mind until I realized that that was possible a little later on. But visuals are definitely important. For a minute, I was thinking to maybe do a video game too. But that's something that, along the way, turned out to not be possible.
I found these awesome animators, Actual Objects. They were able to create these visuals inside of a video game engine, and they were able to do it so quickly that I realized we could actually make a full little movie here. So, yeah, it was in meeting these animators that that plan and the whole movie came about.
So, the video game didn't happen, but it led to the movie, which is cool.
Yeah, exactly. And it's kind of cool, because, since they built the whole world inside the video game engine, it is actually playable as a game. So that's something that maybe, who knows, down the line, we could still do. This stuff is pretty alien to me, but, as I understand it, with a click of a button, it could become a video game. It's something that's possible.
How did the collaborative process between you and the animators and anyone else involved in the movie go? How did you work with them to create the world in your mind?
I started off with a pretty general storyline. I worked with my brother, who is a writer trying to make it out in Los Angeles right now. He's a great writer, and he's very good at understanding basic story structure. I gave him some movie influences. A big one was The Fifth Element, which has been one of my absolute favorite movies for so long. So, I started off making a basic framework with him.
And I knew I wanted the little alien creature because I love character design. I'm so into Jim Henson, "Sesame Street" and the Muppets. From there, we developed the story. We knew it was going to be about a planet that came into Earth's atmosphere and people on Earth had a reaction to it. They were scared at first, then discovered it was peaceful and everyone became friends.
The story happened bit by bit. And I think, honestly, that means that there are some holes in it. But from what I can tell, that's how it goes sometimes with telling a story, whether it's in a movie or in a show or whatever. You build it as you go, and sometimes there are little holes in it. But sometimes, it doesn't matter, because you're so enraptured in the world that's created.
And you also released a Blu-ray DVD version of the movie with music video extras, which feels very throwback. What was the inspiration to release a physical version of it?
It was Dominic, who runs LuckyMe, the label [I'm on]. We've done a bunch of really cool videos in the past, and for one reason or another, maybe they didn't all get the big exposure [we wanted]. So he had the idea to compile them for this special edition thing. Making it a Blu-ray is kind of throwback, huh? But it's a pretty recent throwback—Blu-rays aren't from that long ago, but I don't have a Blu-ray player. But yeah, it's a cool physical item to have. It's a little look back and a way to have everything in one space.
Did you have any music DVDs growing up? I have a couple I had that I'm thinking of.
Yeah. I'm curious, which ones did you have?!
In sixth grade, I was really obsessed with Sugar Ray. Specifically, Mark McGrath. It was their Australian tour DVD and I watched it endlessly.
Wow. That's one of my favorite things [to learn about people]. You have that thing, like that DVD, that you watch over and over and over again.
The big one for me was Daft Punk's Interstella 5555. You know, they did like a whole anime film that goes along with their album Discovery, which of course is a huge influence of mine. That's a big one that I had and loved. I'm trying to think if I had any more, like, live ones. I'm not sure if I had any live DVDs. I definitely wanted some.
There are so many different sounds and textures on the album. So, I want to look at one song specifically that I really liked, "Pizzawala." Can you break down the different elements on that track?
It all started with a sample that came from a—speaking of old, now obsolete media—a sample CD. There were these CDs in the '90s and 2000s that had all kinds of samples on it—little vocal chops or drums or whatever. People would use them the way now you download a [sample] pack. On the CD is this guy singing a Middle Eastern-sounding chant. The song was all based around that vocal chant, which was actually also used in a Prodigy song. I only discovered that kind of recently, which is kind of crazy.
Around it, I built these drums and tried to use all kinds of different percussion—any cool percussion that sounded different or interesting to me. And the groove was definitely inspired by Timbaland, who's probably my favorite producer ever. I don't even know how to describe it, but [I created] a bouncy percussion based around this sort of chant sample.
And then around that, I built this melody of bells—[which are] still percussion, but more melodic percussion, like bells and marimbas. And I also put in vocals from an amazing writer. I recorded her on it like a year before, doing ad-libs and stuff. I don't even really know what she's saying. So yeah, an old sample, vocals I recorded and then a bunch of different, crazy percussions I found from all over the internet.
That's really cool. I want to find these boxes of sample CDs.
Yeah. I mean, honestly, it's not the coolest, but I just found it on YouTube. It was called, like, "old sample CDs." Even though it's from a CD, I still found it on the internet.
So when you first used the sample, you didn't realize that Prodigy had also used it?
Yeah. A friend of mine texted me after like, "Hey, did you sample Prodigy for that?" I looked up the song and it was using the same sample. I was like, "Oh my God." It's perfectly possible that they also got it from the same CD. Or maybe somewhere else. It's just a really old sample that's been used a bunch of times.
You've talked a bit about some of your inspirations both visually and musically, but was there an artist that made you want to get into DJing and producing yourself?
Yeah, it's tough. I mean, I mentioned them before, but Daft Punk is definitely one of the biggest. That's like the first CD I ever bought. I was so into them, I loved them so much. I saw them live as many times as I could. So, they'd probably be number one, but there are a million other people along the way that also gave me a boost. Prodigy is definitely another one.
When did you first start listening to Daft Punk?
I was probably 12 or 13. And at that time, there was already a lot to dig into. They had already been putting a lot of stuff out and had a cool history to get into and find new stuff and all that.
How does Brooklyn influence your sound and aesthetic?
Oh, wow, great question. It's tough to say. Throughout my whole musical career, I've always lived here, so I guess it's definitely soaked in, in some way or another, whether I knew it or not. It's more of a subconscious thing, I guess, like the type of music I hear from a car that's passing by.
Maybe it's walking around. It's my favorite thing to do, take random walks where I don't have anywhere to go. I think, in doing that, I soak in all the weird sights and sounds and everything about New York in general. That just seeps in and mixes with everything else and somehow inspires the music.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Philly, then I moved to London until I was 12. Afterward, I moved back to the U.S., to Connecticut, then I moved back to London for one more year. I moved to New York when I was 18. So, I grew up between the U.S. and London. And being in London was huge, that's where electronic music was happening. It was on the radio all the time. That's definitely where I got the love for electronic music.
How will you be celebrating the GRAMMYs?
I'm going to try to get the nicest outfit I can and do it up as best I can!