UPDATE: Services for Rodney Baker are being held on Saturday, June 12 at 2:00 pm at Cage Memorial Chapel, 7651 S. Jeffery Blvd in Chicago.
Rodney Baker — unsung hero of Chicago house and pioneer of electronic music — has died, 5 Mag can report today.
Baker — who doubled the R in his last name to “Rodney Bakerr” for his musical compositions — passed away after a heart attack.
According to a family member, services are pending.
Rodney Baker was best known in the house music scene as the founder of Rockin’ House Records. Formed in 1986, Rockin’ House would release, on average, about one record a year for the next 30+ years. But that compact catalog was one of the crown jewels in the Chicago house music scene, with records from some of Chicago’s greatest producers including including Tyree Cooper (Video Crash, 1988; The Dreams, 1993) and E-Smoove (The Eric Miller EP).
“My first meeting with Rodney Baker was through a good friend who’s no longer with us either, his name was Armon ‘Professor Funk’ Ransom,” Tyree Cooper told us. “It was kinda at the beginning of my production career and I was already wanting to leave DJ International Records because I didn’t get paid for ‘I Fear The Night.’
“When I met Rodney, he seemed like a guy who knew what young black men were listening to on the Southside of Chicago at those House parties. When he said that he had heard of me and wanted a track from me, you can imagine how geeked I was all because he said that he loves my production.”
As head of A&R, Baker had a preternatural gift for scouting out the best work from producers who were relatively unknown. Fred Brown’s cult classic “House Whop” appeared on Rockin’ House Records in 1987; he had one other release in the same year and has never been heard from again.
I asked about Fred Brown and some of the other outré figures that appeared on Rockin’ House when I interviewed Rodney Baker in 2015. He never claimed credit for their work and I don’t think he ever would, but when I found out Rodney was a teacher, a lot of it made sense. Baker was a teacher at Chicago Vocational School (CVS) and the Art Institute. It was a former student and DJ who informed Noble Square owner Ricardo Miranda about Baker’s passing, who in turn passed the news on to me this morning. Many of those former students have posted their memories of Baker on his Facebook profile. It’s easy to see that like with music producers, Rodney Baker helped his students bring out their best selves.
Baker’s fame spread beyond Chicago when he was hired by Roland USA’s president to write the first original house music patterns for the TR 808, 909 and TR series drum machines for Roland, published in the Roland Rhythm Guide and Roland Users Group magazine. Baker was fascinated with the electronic machines of the era, particularly but not exclusively with the 303 which appeared on most of the early Rockin’ House records.
“You had to sit down with this piece of equipment,” he said, “and really think about how to put your soul into that machine. That’s what House Music is about: how to put your soul, your personality, into conquering the ghost in that machine. And later when it’s played over big speakers, other people feel something from what you put into that mechanical device. There’s an art to that.”
Baker was blessed with the knowledge of a scholar, the wisdom of a folklorist and the patience of a teacher. He ran his affairs with an integrity that was and still is rare in the music business. Rockin’ House’s most popular release was almost certainly Tyree Cooper’s “Video Crash,” another installment in one of Chicago’s longest-running sagas around a track.
“I borrowed Liddell Townsell’s 909 drum machine and a keyboard from Armon Ransom and proceeded to work on ‘Video Crash,'” Tyree Cooper remembers. “I know he had no idea what I was doing as far as that track goes, because I was calling myself protecting my big brother Marshall Jefferson. See, Lil Louis was about to release the edit he did on ‘Video Clash.’ And Mike Dunn and I wanted to do our own version of that track, so we did.
“Now what’s funny is that Rodney put a considerable amount of money into releasing that track, only to get bootlegged by this distributor named Jeffery Collins at Vista Sounds out of New Jersey. And later on throughout the decades that song has been named wrong. If you’re from the East Coast you know that song as ‘Acid Crash’ and Chicago knows it as ‘Video Crash.’
“Nevertheless Rodney allowed me to release a few more song on the label. He also allowed me to be in control of the remixer I could use so I had my lil cousin Sean ‘Smiley’ Williams, Mike Dunn, and Hugo H. to remix some of my recordings on the label.”
If you talk to Chicago veterans of the scene, there are always two classic house label owners you’ll never hear a bad word about — Ray Barney from Dance Mania and Rodney Baker. Rockin’ House was never a vehicle or a brand for either of them. For Baker at least, Rockin’ House was an obligation. “There’s a simple adage: you never get out of the record business,” Rodney told me on a Saturday afternoon in August 2015. “I tried. Then some guy in Scotland wants that RH005 record, and if you don’t put it out, you know the bootleggers will. Every year there’s a record from 10 or 15 years ago subject to a resurgence of interest, and record after record keeps floating back to the surface.”
It’s a testament to the kind of person Rodney Baker was that we can go this far in a tribute to a musician before mentioning his own music. That music, however, is far from an afterthought, and house music as a genre doesn’t even cover it. Rodney told me he saw Jimi Hendrix play live when he was young, and he was an early proponent of putting live instruments in otherwise completely machine-driven Chicago house tracks. In the last few years he toured several countries as “Strange Circuits” — originally a legendary industrial band (with Virginia Cram and future Ministry drummer Stephen George) whose Industrial Living 7″ (1980), officially the first record released by the Chicago record store that would become better known as a label called Wax Trax!
But when it does come back to house, Rodney was a phenomenal producer. “Love Is Happiness” (released under the alias “Jaquarius”) is widely considered one of the greatest acid tracks of all time. Some of his best records were never released or released much later. With The Lost Tracks, one of the best acid records of 2013 was actually made twenty years earlier — tracks that pushed acid further than anyone were shelved for decades. Rockin’ House’s vaults and Rodney’s personal vaults are a thing of legend.
“He had a great heart for young black men and all young men,” Tyree says. “He just wanted them to do better than what was reported in the news about our community.”
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