“It’s uncharted territory as to how to present an electronic musician on late night television,” says Mason Klein, manager of Hot 100-topping producer Harry “Baauer” Rodrigues. It’s less than 24 hours before Baauer makes his network TV debut on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and they’re holed up in a studio a few blocks away from the Ed Sullivan Theater.
In a room filled with guitars, vintage amps and a drum kit, only the computer emits a sound during rehearsals. Baauer and various others mill about trying to get the performance just right for “Day Ones,” the lurching first single off of his debut album, Aa. During a break, Baauer, wearing a backward purple ball cap and unadorned white sweatshirt, toys with a few chords on a nearby piano. After a few seconds, he looks at possible merch ideas on one computer, then walks to another open laptop to trigger a string sample that gets looped and layered until it’s a snowstorm of sound. Klein gushes about the visuals to come: more than 20 dancers marching in Revolutionary War attire waving giant white flags, fierce Brooklyn MC Leikeli47 front and center draped in her trademark black ski mask. But where will Baauer be?
“I looked at past electronic performances on late shows and a lot of stuff looked weird if you act like you’re performing,” Baauer said. “It’s nonsense to act like you’re performing on an instrument when it’s all just on the computer.” He plans to be as out of sight as possible. By the time “Day Ones” airs on Colbert, the dance platoon is pared down to a squad. For most of the performance, the camera is trained on MC Leikeli47, with Baauer just barely glimpsed in the background, seated in a plush chair next to Colbert’s desk, laptop perched on his knees. After all the attention in the past few years for the Contagion-level meme of “Harlem Shake,” it’s a welcome relief for Rodrigues to be out of sight.
A few days later, Rodrigues, who has lived in Bushwick, Brooklyn for the past three years, is digging for records at Superior Elevation, a cratedigger spot a few blocks from his house. He randomly pulls records: a hot soca compilation, a Bernard Herrmann soundtrack, American gospel family the Clark Sisters, a corny looking zither record that makes him break into a toothy grin. “I’m always trying to find little gems in there to cut up and sample,” he says.
Born in Philadelphia, Rodrigues grew up between London and Connecticut, weaned primarily on his dad’s record collection, which included Steely Dan, Paul Simon and jazz. “I was always in school band, but I did a different instrument every year,” he says. “I could never commit and get good at one. I did saxophone in jazz band, then cello, then clarinet. I did the beginner’s version of everything.” It was only when a classmate passed him a copy of music-making software Reason at the age of 13 that Rodrigues began to dabble in beats, though he labels his early efforts as “pretty bad trance.”
Rodrigues moved to New York City in 2007 to study audio engineering at City College of New York in Harlem. And it was when he began dabbling with hip-hop beats and a whinnying synth sound that he stumbled upon what would become “Harlem Shake,” sprinkling it with vocal samples from reggaeton musician Héctor Delgado and forgotten Philly frat-rap outfit Plastic Little.