Jay Burnett

Sit back, relax and enjoy another trip with our esteemed columnist. You couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried…

The last few weeks have found me catapulted into modern times, as I’ve been putting together the first ‘Top Ear Dispatches’ podcast with my old friend Jay Burnett. Previously, I’d had little idea what a podcast even was, but apparently they’re a big thing now! It was a blast as Jay and I tried to recall some of those wild times in the 80s when we first met in New York when he was one of the city’s true electronic studio pioneers.

To get the ball rolling, I interviewed Jay in one of the sound rooms at Deco Audio, my local hi-fi emporium in Aylesbury. That night we were also doing a Vinyl On Wednesdays events, which I’ve started in a local wine bar with some old friends. The featured album was ‘Licenced To Ill’, Beastie Boys’ 1986 debut album that thrust them on the world stage. They’ve recently been in the spotlight again thanks to their amazing ‘Beastie Boys Book’, in which Mike Diamond and Adam Horovitz remember their roller-coaster career and, particularly, driving dynamo Adam Yauch, who sadly succumbed to cancer in 2012.

Jay worked on the key Def Jam records that came from the Beasties camp before the debut album – 1984’s ‘Rock Hard’ and 1985’s ‘Drum Machine’. This was at a time when electronic drums were revolutionising hip hop with Afrika Bambaataa And The Soulsonic Force’s ‘Planet Rock’ (which Jay worked on with producer Arthur Baker) and Run-DMC’s ‘Sucker MCs’, the B-side of their 1983 debut 12-inch ‘It’s Like That’, the breakthrough records.

While tracks like Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Rappers Delight’ defined hip hop’s earliest template of rhyming over classic soul grooves played by a studio band, drum machines, notably the Roland TR-808, would create a whole new universe that swiftly went on to define the music.

When Jay and I went to the Beasties’ recent Live And Direct show at London’s Forum (a hilarious, moving and spellbinding production), the pair gleefully highlighted the 808’s distinctive boom that could wreck buildings and rattle a car within an inch of its life.

The 808 is one of the defining sounds on ‘Planet Rock’, conceived and realised at Intergalactic Studios on 82nd Street, which Jay had been instrumental in opening after cutting his teeth at Electric Lady on Eighth Street, working with everyone from Kiss to Joni Mitchell. Arthur Baker was just another client when he booked the studio to record some singles for Tommy Boy. First was ‘Jazzy Sensation’ by The Kryptic Krew featuring Tina B and Afrika Bambaataa (a rap remake of Gwen McCrae’s sublime ‘Funky Sensation’).

Widely eclectic in his tastes, Bambaataa loved Kraftwerk’s ‘Trans-Europe Express’ and, driven by b-boys breaking to its robotic groove in uptown parks, he welded it to the beat that kickstarted electro.

“Bam loved Kraftwerk and wrote the whole song around it,” remembers Jay. “It took about two days to make all the music. It was like, ‘Hmm, this is pretty good’. It just sort of weirdly came together. We kept playing bits of Kraftwerk, John Robie and I played some keyboards and then I did the ‘Rock, rock to the planet rock’ vocals.

“The kids breakdancing to Kraftwerk were Bam and his crew. That was what was so cool about it; it was a real cultural thing. Why would these street kids like some German weirdos? It seemed so bizarre at first. I remember when we’d first finished mixing it. Arthur went to get a dub plate cut and I stayed on. I was in a cab going downtown to Danceteria and KISS FM was on the radio and they were playing it! In those days, that was really cool.”

Photo: Lynn Goldsmith

After ‘Planet Rock’ went on to sell over 600,000 copies and ignite the electro movement, Jay worked with Baker at his Shakedown Studios before the pair eventually fell out. A few blocks away on 21st Street was Danceteria, the groundbreaking multi-floored club where I became a regular in 1983. According to Jay, the sound system there was the best on the planet and Shakedown creations were often test driven in that second floor disco. On the fourth floor was one of the world’s first video lounges, which is where Jay and I think we first met… but probably around four in the morning when things were getting started, so it’s a bit hazy. I know that’s where I met the Beastie Boys, who were usually up to some noisy mischief.

My close friend/lost love, Gabby Glaser of Luscious Jackson was among the Beasties’ earliest supporters. She told me about them before I snapped up their first Def Jam 12-inch, ‘Rock Hard’, which was a remake of ‘Drum Machine’ by MCA & Burzootie, the name bestowed on Jay by Def Jam founder Rick Rubin (“because he didn’t want anybody to know who I was on the record. He felt if he made up the name it sort of belonged to him”).

Ad-Rock is fairly disparaging about ‘Rock Hard’ in the book (“We wanted to be Run-DMC so bad, but listening to it now it sounds like child actors trying desperately to make the words we were saying sound believable”), but there’s no getting away from the primal juggernaut beat built from Jay’s pioneering looping of his own live drums to make a sledgehammer undertow for the riff built on AC/DC’s ‘Back In Black’.

Due to limited sampling technology at that time, Jay had to keep building his beat, eventually over 10 layers going into its monolithic crash (“until it got too stupid”). As Ad-Rock writes, “We had just recorded ‘Rock Hard’, our first rap song, and obviously we didn’t think we were on a par with the Treacherous Three, the Funky 4+1 or the Furious Five, but we had just made a real rap record with Jay Burnett, the same engineer who recorded Soulsonic Force’s ‘Planet Rock’. And that is legitimately legit. This was the real deal.”

‘Drum Machine’ came during a lull in Beasties activity, a variation on Jay’s own version, now a much-sought collectors item on his Jayco label. I grabbed both these records on my weekly sorties to Groove Records in Soho and loved their battering ram power. It rendered the UK’s early drum machine attempts quite puny.

I met the Beasties again when they visited London in 1986 to promote ‘Licenced To Ill’, but that’s another story that may well be visited on future ‘Top Ear Dispatches’. By the time this comes out, the full interview with Jay should be out there, greeting 2019 with a bang and a fish in the bed of cosy hipsterdom. It’s time to start the party again. Happy New Year!

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