In the loud, busy, and welcoming E Pellicci in Bethnal Green, London based photographer Alex Rorison met with Hak Baker for a chat. East London’s hardest working man, Hak, radiates every room he walks into with his beaming smile, booming voice and infectious charm. His praises are sung from every corner of E Pellicci as Alex and Hak sit down to talk about community, music and nostalgia, over an Irish Coffee and a sausage sandwich to soothe the hangovers.
AR: Good to see you again, how was last night?
HB: Yeah good man, just a little step out so the same old really. I’m starting to learn to take myself back home at a good hour and managed to do that last night, so it was all good.
AR: You grew up in East London, what was young Hakeem like?
HB: He was boisterous, always trying to impress. I think some of those attributes still trickle into me now. Very reactionary and spontaneous, but very ambitious. Always out and never at home. Just completely besotted with life.
AR: What was East London like back in the day?
HB: People actually cared about each other, a bit like in here! This is what East London was like, everyone was talking, saying hello, mixing. You know, it was a completely different place. Now it’s so hierarchy based, before it was about love and friends. Front doors were always open and everyone was around each other's houses. Money does most of the talking now, money always talks but now money screams. If you’ve got no money you can’t afford to live around here.
AR: Home was Isle of Dogs, right?
HB: Yeah, it was where all the dockers used to work back in the day; they’d work in the docks and then everyone would go to the pubs. Very working class place, such a mix of people. Now it’s the financial capital of Europe because Canary Wharf is a stone's throw away. That brings a lot of international money, that begets deplacement, the police become the enemy because they don’t want you round there anymore. You feel displaced in your own home, it’s not nice.
My road now is completely different, my neighbours have been and gone. My next door neighbour used to hold the road together. There’s only a few of us left now, it’s slowly fading. It’s hard man. Once we go, no one on the road will talk to each other.
AR: Do you think you’ll be in East London forever, or is there anywhere else you’d wanna live?
HB: Nah, unfortunately not. I will always have a home in East London, but I definitely won’t live here forever. I’d want to go back to Jamaica. I don’t have any time in London, as soon as you’re up it’s like you’re on a stopwatch, by the time you realise it it’s nine o’clock and everyone’s getting pissed.
AR: What were you listening to growing up?
HB: Reggae, R&B, rap. Reggae was always playing in my house, everyday, especially on the weekends and in my mum’s car. It was the main music. I’d go see my dad and he would listen to roots reggae, it was the predominant force. My sister would listen to some pop, some rap, R&B, she’s a bit older than me. But yeah, reggae predominantly.
AR: Do you think that’s influenced your sound now?
HB: Definitely. I love all kinds of music anyway. I used to be a choir boy so even that’s influenced me. When I think about my music, it could be a spin off of reggae because reggae is always talking about looking out for each other, fighting the system, being nice to each other.
AR: You used to do grime didn’t you?
HB: Yeah in Bomb Squad.
AR: How long ago was that?
HB: I was like 13 or 14 when that started. We were in school, but it really helped with the birds and that [laughs].
AR: How have you changed to your new style of music?
HB: It wasn’t a choice really. When we were doing that we were so young, we were just trying to make some money and figure out who we were. Our crew was all friends, and we’re still great friends to this day, everyone was just too wild. So it kinda fell apart, there was no structure.
AR: Do you miss it?
HB: Yeah you can’t compare those days to anything, they were great. More than the music, it was how we used to communicate. Everyone would come from all round, and the MCing was just the icing on the cake; hanging with my mates, seeing all these girls. Sell some weed to some people, make some money, spend it on drinks. It was just the best ever.
AR: Did you always know it would be music that you would be doing?
HB: I knew somehow, even through all my troublesome years, I would come back to it. It was the only thing I ever wanted to do. I never wanna sit in an office, I can’t do anything like that. I always knew, and my friends always knew. It was always going to happen.
AR: What do you think you would be doing now if it wasn’t music?
HB: Some kind of criminal activity. I’m not going to ever work for someone else, I’m not going to end up as someone’s slave, fuck that.
Just then the owner of E Pellicci chimes in;
E Pellicci: Do you mind if I put this young lady on your table?
HB: Yeah of course!
E Pellicci: He’s a lovely singer, you’ll have to Google him - Hak Baker.
Customer: Do you really sing?
Customer: Like for a living?
HB: For a living, yeah.
Customer: What kind of music?
HB: I call it G-Folk, I play guitar and sing but it’s also like SKA, Reggae, very world influenced. I think it’s fucking amazing, have a listen!
AR: How long have you been doing music as Hak Baker?
HB: Got in the studio around 2016, so a good 5 years.
AR: You’ve just released your latest EP, Misled, what was it like working on that?
HB: That was as we were coming out of lockdown, I didn’t really know what it was going to be. At that point I was very reminiscent, I think everyone was. I wrote it with the idea of closing a chapter, of this infatuation of being a juvenile that me and my mates suffer from. We always talk about our young days because we had a fucking rooting tooting childhood, it was wild. Like what you used to see on telly, a coming of age film. If someone followed us with a camera we would all be millionaires. Honestly, the things that we used to do.
So I knew it was going to be something that looks back in time. I had started working with some new producers at that time as well. Everything was just fresh. The sound was fresh, I felt fresh, free, and I felt like I needed to tie up all those loose ends and move on with life. Go forward.
AR: What’s it like when you release music? Are you nervous?
HB: Yeah, but at the same time you just got to get it out. Sometimes, enough's enough.
AR: Are you quite a perfectionist?
HB: 1 million percent. I don’t see the point in not being perfectionist. You got to get it right.
Hak wears jumper FRED PERRY
AR: Your sound is really unique, you often have such upbeat music but then the lyrics are so raw. Seems like storytelling is a big part of your music, does the music need to come from a personal place ?
HB: Yeah, always from a personal place. It’s always what I’ve seen, consequences I’ve suffered, always personal.
AR: What are your inspirations outside of music?
HB: It’s life. That’s why it was so tough in lockdown. I’m always looking for something to talk about. I’ve been walking without my headphones, so I don’t miss things. Even if it’s just a sentence someone says, you could make a whole song of that.
AR: When I last saw you, we spoke about Thirsty Thursdays. Are you still doing that?
HB: Absolutely! It’s a free night, you come in and get a free beer. There’s no other place on the planet where you get a free beer. It’s all about nostalgia. The artwork is all like 8-bit, we put a Playstation and Nintendo out so people can just chill out and chat. We bake cakes, like the ones from school with the hundreds and thousands, and caramel tarts, and just scatter them around.
New artists, and anyone who wants somewhere to play, we give them a stage. If people want to DJ then they can DJ. And then we get someone quite well known to take us to the end of the night.
AR: Do you ever play?
HB: I’ve been told off too much for playing. My agent tells me off for doing free gigs.
AR: Do you think this goes back to your childhood, making this community led night?
HB: Of course, I just want people to come somewhere that’s not going to cost them an arm and a leg. Somewhere with no judgement.
AR: There was another night you mentioned, at The Social in central - what's that about?
HB: That one is about artists of colour that are doing alternative music, music we’re not typically seen to be doing. Everyone wants to put you in a box, and figure out how to market you, and most don’t want to take the gamble on you. So we wanted to start our own movement where people can come and listen to music and have a good time. That night is called Bricks In The Wall. So after we do that in Roundhouse, we’re going to do it in The Social every 2 months.
AR: Have you got a favourite track you’ve made?
HB: Wonderland, it was the life that I was living for a long long time. I used to love it. Every weekend without fail, for a good three or four years, me and my mates would just get drunk for days. Go to the rave, back to the flat, off to another rave, then off to another flat and just continue. It was like a wonderland, we would just float through. Whatever was going on in your life, just didn’t matter, it was just this bubble of amazing people. Wonderland man.
AR: I was watching your video for Irrelevant Elephant this morning, how was it working on that video?
HB: We drew the elephant first, so we knew what it was going to look like, which really helped because it’s so big and intrusive. I’d only had like an hour and a half of sleep, which helped because it’s such a slow video.
AR: Are you quite hands on when it comes to music videos?
HB: Hands on with everything, that’s my problem, just everything. I don’t want to be misrepresented, I’m very very very conscious of how I’m being perceived.
AR: What about the production part of your music?
HB: Exactly the same, always in the room. Lately I’ve been working with instrumentalists, and I felt a bit weird as I wasn’t as involved. But we got some great tunes.
AR: All the projects you’ve put out are EPs, how will you approach doing an album differently?
HB: It’s going to be super themed, interludes and interesting things around it. Going to take the songs to a different level. We’ve done well now, Misled was the start of taking it to the next level, but the album is going to be much higher.
AR: Is that more pressure?
HB: Yeah, but I’m tired of not being recognised for what I do. You’ve got to get to a point where you talk about yourself in a good light, and I’m really good at what I do and everything that goes with it, like the nights we spoke about. This is the piece of work that’s going to get me the recognition that I deserve.
AR: What’s next then?
HB: I want to go travelling. A man with a guitar, I can go anywhere. Start in South America and see what happens.
AR: Any plans for touring next year?
HB: We’re aiming to put out songs from the album from May, and then tour the album in 2022/2023. We’ve done a lot of shows in Europe in the past and I really want to go back to Ireland, get some Guinness straight from the source.
AR: Favourite venue you’ve played?
HB: Round the corner from here, at the Bethnal Green Working Mens Club. I did a show there two or three years ago for the Misfits tour. We had been all around the country, around Europe, and then came back to London and did two nights there. It was unbelievable, what they gave me back was unparalleled to anywhere else we played. That was my first realisation that we might be able to do this.
AR: And finally, what’s your favourite F Word?
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