What does the world sound like? Aa, the debut album of “Harlem Shake” prodigy Harry “Baauer” Rodrigues, attempts to offer an answer. Over its 13 tracks, Rodrigues sketches a sonic map of the globe using field recordings, genre-agnostic bass-heavy beats, and vocalists from the four corners of the Earth, including grime prodigy Novelist from London, Brooklyn masked rapper Leikeli47, hip-hop royals Pusha T and Future, and K-pop wunderkind G-Dragon. M.I.A. also makes an appearance, which seems fitting since her work has often been preoccupied with making the global feel local. “She was a huge influence when I was younger,” Rodrigues says when we meet at The FADER's Manhattan office. “I think she’s so sick.”
Rodrigues was born in Philadelphia of Portuguese and Jewish heritage, and he grew up between Germany, London, and Connecticut before moving to New York for college. He’s a child of the 2000s, tuned into the world through the internet, absorbing sounds and ideas before regurgitating them through digital software. Rodrigues didn't take music all that seriously until, in the early 2010s, the homemade instrumentals and remixes he posted online began to attract attention. As digital creations engendered human reactions, a hobby morphed into a profession.
In May 2012, Rodrigues released “Harlem Shake” as a two-track digital single through Mad Decent sub-label Jeffree’s, seeding an online video meme that would take over the world and, in Feburary 2013, land him on top of the revamped Billboard Hot 100, which factored in YouTube streaming data for the first time. Still, it was his burgeoning relationship with Scottish collective LuckyMe that would prove most creatively fruitful. In the autumn of 2012, he debuted on the label with the Dum Dum EP, followed two years later by ß, which also drew on far-flung global sounds and featured contributions from AlunaGeorge and Rae Sremmurd.
In late January, Baauer, now 26, appeared alongside Leikeli47 on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert for a live performance of their collaboration, “Day Ones,” that doubled as his new album’s official announcement. After the normal presentation of the musical guest by Colbert, the camera panned past the makeshift stage over to the guest couch, where Rodrigues sat at his laptop, headphones over his cap. As the song’s menacing horns rolled in, the camera shifted once more as Leikeli47 emerged into a red fog, just moments after LuckyMe’s trademark eye logo flashed on the backing screen.
Aa, named after the second and third letters in Rodrigues’ stage name, documents the past three years of the young producer’s life and his relationship with the world. It’s an ambitious debut, reflecting Rodrigues’ global inspirations, his proclivity for catchy club anthems, and the ambitions of his label, which consistently maintains a subtle presence that amplifies the artist rather than distract from them. With Rodrigues’ post-“Harlem Shake” star power and its carefully chosen lineup of guests, Aa, out March 18, is one of LuckyMe’s highest profile releases to date.
I thought your performance on The Late Show was interesting. How did the idea to have you sit at the couch come about?
Dom [Flannigan, from LuckyMe] and I were talking about how to do it best. It’s so tricky to do a performance of an electronic song so we thought, ‘let’s just keep it real.’ I make my music with a laptop, so let’s just put me there with a laptop, and then put some more theatrical stuff around it.
This album has been a few years in the making, right?
At least two, maybe even three. All the tracks span from the last three years. [New York producer] Nick Hook and I went to record some sounds for it about two years ago, thanks to Red Bull. I can’t remember how the initial connection with Red Bull came up, but I wanted to do something related to collecting sounds from around the world and I think Red Bull wanted something for their TV channel. My manager, Mason, and I went to them with a proposal. I’m really into samples and exotic sounds so I thought it’d be a cool idea, and they were really into it.
Field recordings and found sounds tend to be associated with a specific part of the music world, one that can be quite nerdy. Yet, their use in popular music is more prevalent than people might realize. A few years ago, Machinedrum pointed out that he uses them regularly to help fill the audio spectrum on his tracks. How did you approach blending those recordings with your productions?
I’d say my approach is similar to what Machinedrum described. Because the music I make is electronic, the recordings were a way to make it feel organic, however I could. Filling up the spectrum is a great way of putting it. Adding natural sounds to this digitally created music makes it feel real in some way.
What was the favorite sound you recorded?
There’s a tribe in the United Arab Emirates who do this chant. It was amazing. Twenty guys just singing all together. It sounds crazy.
The album is and feels very broad and global, from the guests to the styles. Where did that come from?
That’s what feels exciting to me. I think moving around a lot as a kid and traveling also had an influence. Having access to the internet growing up as a teenager, that really opened me up to so many different styles of music.
What’s the last musical thing you came across that excited you?
My friend showed me this South African stuff. I forget the artist’s name. It was sick. It sounded like club music…
Was it Gqom?
Yes, I think so. It was on a Boiler Room mix, and the style of the DJ set was dope. Super raw. It reminded me a lot of Jersey club, but from another dimension.
How did you connect with the different vocalists?
Some, like Tirzah, TT the Artist, and Novelist, were artists I discovered or was already a fan of. Their stuff is great, I love it, and so I wanted to make a connection happen. Others were more opportunity based, so it was a case of ‘let’s go for it.’
I’m assuming the latter applies to the bigger names on the album?
Yeah. I did something for Pusha’s album so that wasn’t too hard. Future happened thanks to Pusha, I used that as a slingshot to get him. M.I.A. was a dream idea. And we managed to do it through different people, we reached her and she was down. Most of the collaborations were long distance, but I worked with Tirzah and M.I.A. in London, where I spent a chunk of time visiting Dom and working on the record. MIA was super chill and open to new ideas.
Why did it matter to have her on there?
Just her influence on me. The way I used the field recordings from around the world on this album, in a sense that’s her influence.
How did you first meet LuckyMe?
I guess… [pauses] on the internet.
I would have been disappointed if that hadn’t been the answer.
It’s classic really. I can’t remember when and where though. It wasn’t MySpace—it was later. It arose from the track “Dum Dum,” which was one of the first things I put online. Dom wanted to release it and I think that was because Rustie had played “Dum Dum” and “Harlem Shake” in his Essential Mix. That helped put things into motion. We met properly when I did my first European tour. I had a show in Glasgow; it was the release party for the Dum Dum EP. It was at Chamber 69, which I think doesn’t exist anymore. That remains one of the sickest shows I’ve ever done—a favorite memory.
With this album being more of a document of the past few years, what is next?
I want to make instrumentals for pop music—weird pop music. And I want to start working on another album. These tracks already feel so old to me, I feel like I’ve leveled-up production wise, so I want to showcase that.
Why was LuckyMe the right home for Aa?
My main influences were Rustie and Hudson Mohawke back when I was making some of my first tracks. I heard them online, I think through a friend recommending them. I’d heard HudMo’s name but never really checked his work until the early 2010s. Same with Rustie. Glass Swords really blew me away. I wanted to make the same stuff. There was LuckyMe’s whole aesthetic too. Everything was big, bold, and chunky, and then they had the eye in the middle. When we started talking about releasing Dum Dum, the conversation immediately turned to etching a brain on the other side of the vinyl, and that was crazy to me. I wanted to fuck with that. To this day we still bounce ideas with each other and I’m so excited about what comes out of those discussions.
How did you start working with Jonathan Zawada, the artist who did the cover for the album (pictured above)?
Dom suggested him. I loved it. We began working together on the ß EP. He’s based out of Australia. For the Aa cover, we bounced ideas around between the three of us, coming up with a central core idea for the album, and then seeing how we could turn that into an image. That core idea was nature, keeping things natural. Also melding nature with the internet, like a meeting point between those two things.