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“I make music that people can listen to when they’re at home or when they want to go out and get fucking righteous together and feel like they belong somewhere.”
Hak Baker is a hard man to get on the other end of a phone. I discovered him back in February when he put out ‘SKINT’, his first single of 2018, and his poetic East London lyricism was stuck in my head for weeks.
Not even a little bit
I’m talking flat of my face geezer
Man, I’m skint
Until my phone rings
I’ll be praying for a saving grace
Fella, I’m skint
His voice is so pure, punctuated on most tracks by simple, acoustic guitar chords. His accent is a strong representation of his London home on the Isle of Dogs, but you don’t have to strain too hard to hear the Caribbean influences. Particularly when he plays live.
His vocals exist somewhere between song, rap and spoken word and his lyrics are filled with references to his upbringing, friends, family, run-ins with the ‘Old Bill’, session come-downs and more intensely personal anecdotes. They grab you in and keep you there until you realise the song is already over and you hadn’t noticed.
March began my quest to chat with Hak in the lead up to his gig at Trinity Ball, it didn’t happen that time around and it would be June until another opportunity, the announcement that he would play Electric Picnic, would give me the chance to annoy him again for an interview. Two days, five missed calls and a few WhatsApps later a cheery and apologetic voice answers me.
Right after “Sorry love” I thought I lost him to a street vendor selling glasses outside his gym, but a quick exchange later and he’s back, sitting in his car on a hot London day ready to give me his full attention.
“You know what it is? I’m just like a busy bee. I’m just bouncing off the walls here, left, right and everywhere, man. If I don’t keep busy I’ll just go crazy thinking about everything, so I gotta.”
Hak Baker is one of those artists who is an undeniable product of where they’re from. There are thousands out there that you’ll struggle to place, but Hak is an East Ender, born and bred. I ask him to tell me what it was like growing up there.
“There were different parts of growing up, I still don’t feel grown up now [laughs].
“East London is a special place. It’s not the same no more but for those that managed to be part of that era where friendship mattered, morals mattered, people mattered, where everyone mattered, where everyone was beautiful and everyone was one and we was all together, struggling together… Now it’s like each for themselves. Who looks the best? Me? I like drinking beer, going crazy. I just want to include everyone and do that with everybody. It’s definitely an East London thing. Definitely.”
I believe that Hak’s sound just flows from him. While he works hard, and the output is considered, it’s not contrived. It’s just him.
“I just tell stories init? Most of the stories happened on Isle of Dogs where I’m from and things probably happened a bit further down the road, a bit more East London or Essex. I’m always going to talk about it and I’m always going to sound like it. Although I’m Caribbean this is where I was born and raised.”
Although his music is very much a product of his upbringing, it’s not exclusive. I can listen to it and relate having never stepped foot on Isle of Dogs, and that’s part of the Hak Baker magic.
He’s had an interesting musical journey. Brought up on a diet of reggae, he joined grime group B.O.M.B. Squad as a young teenager, then a stint in prison lead him to discover the guitar and, self-taught, he went on to take part in Levi’s Music Project headed up by Skepta. Naturally, I wondered what Hak’s fanbase looked like.
“The age spectrum is very wide. I wouldn’t dare call someone 60 old, that’s rude innit? But it’s people of that age who come down [to gigs]. I shot another video the other day and whoever came down [to the set] came down. I know some of those cunts was 17 max, doing whatever they was doing so you know, the spectrum is wide?”
Hak advertised the video shoot on his social media platforms and website hakbaker.com. The page might still be up there and is worth a look as it is a perfect example of his genuine, down to earth nature and desire to include. His Facebook cover photo at the time read, ‘Shooting a vid Thursday 28th June 7-11pm Free Gig as well. Secret Location East London England vs Belgium on The Telly Few Bevvies. Then Dance the Night Away. Free Razzle No Hassle’.
How could you say no to that? Despite this loveliness displayed above, there’s a darkness to Baker. He tells me he’s not a happy person. I get sad listening to his music sometimes. ‘Tom’ is particularly gut twisting with lyrics like:
Spliff in my right hand
My face in the other
Two times a year
I send flowers to your mother.
Hak talks to me about getting upset on stage.
“Even at that gig there last Thursday I was crying. Singing songs and crying. If I’m singing a song and I’m crying, then that’s just what it is, innit? That’s just what it is. I don’t need to deal with that. I’m fine with people seeing that. That doesn’t bother me.
“Writing lyrics like that, yeah man, it’s probably a bit of healing to me because I don’t like to talk to people. I don’t trust anybody. I won’t really talk to anyone, I’ll just say it in riddles in songs where no one quite knows what I’m talking about, but at least I’ve said it out loud. It makes me feel better.”
We move on to a chat about the music currently coming out of the UK. Take RAYE, Mabel, J Hus, Ramz, Stefflon Don, all of whom are well used to a top 10 track these days.
It’s clear that UK urban is really having a second wave of chart success. Hak weighs in.
“Yay and nay. It’s best to go for a splitter on that one with a with a ‘yay’ and ‘nay’. Yay, it’s great. People are making money legitimately. They can stop killing each other, doing whatever we got to do to make money, nobody wants the Old Bill on their back…
“Nay because it’s the same really. It doesn’t excite me in the slightest. It’s like what’s happening in America, all that negativity through their music, the same thing is happening here and really and truly we’re a lot better at lyrics and saying things and being true. We’ve always been like that.”
I wondered aloud about Hak’s unique position within the music industry. He’s undeniable ‘UK. urban’ but he’s not just ‘UK. urban’. In April Rinse FM did a ‘Hak Baker & friends’ show. He then went on a two-month tour supporting Plan B. Last month he opened for The Vaccines and all summer he’s been popping up on the British festival circuit.
He’s carved out an interesting position for himself; there are not many artists who can rap with a guitar, warm up indie rock crowds and keep seven nights of Plan B audiences hyped.
“It’s really nice that the music is being accepted as it is, but I think what I’ve come to realise is that it’s not like a phenomenon or anything like that at all. People like to blow things out of proportion,” he tells me.
“This is nothing new. Black men have been fucking playing guitar and singing for years. This ain’t fucking anything new. It’s just not ‘let’s kill each other’ blah, blah, blah, ‘let’s get signed and make a million grand’. That’s the only thing that’s different.
“It’s just truth and the reason why people like it, I think, is because people always need a bit of truth. It hits home, and people want to probably go back to themselves. Inward. Instead of being outward all the time so I make music that people can listen to when they’re at home or when they want to go out and get fucking righteous together and feel like they belong somewhere. Then people come and listen to this crazy shit or this true music that makes them feel themselves.
“This ain’t nothing new. This ain’t no new fucking genre. This is just me singing on a guitar. What we’ve been doing since we were slaves or in Africa and shit with an instrument. This ain’t new. It’s just maybe, do I dare say brave? But it’s not even brave, it’s just normal. I just talk. I just like to be myself. Everyone knows I went to prison. I didn’t share a cell and I had to find out who I was and I found out. I came back to myself and I’m cool.”
Hak Baker plays Electric Picnic, August 31 – September 2.