As an artist, teacher, and musician, Rodney James Baker shaped countless lives, but he did it under the radar: throughout his career he remained fiercely independent, pursuing an idiosyncratic aesthetic that ensured he’d never reach a position of mainstream influence. He recorded his own tracks under the name Rodney Bakerr, but his most widely heard works were probably the house-music rhythm patterns he wrote in 1987 for the Roland Corporation, whose drum machines and synthesizers formed the bedrock of the Chicago sound at the time. Acid-house aficionados know him for his cult label, Rockin’ House, and he had a role in the histories of Chicago new wave and industrial music as well—with his group Strange Circuits, he recorded a 1980 single that could be considered the first Wax Trax! Records release. Baker passed away May 26 at age 70.
Born and raised on Chicago’s south side, Baker was a fan of the blues and of Jimi Hendrix. He learned guitar at an early age (like Hendrix, he played left-handed), and as a teenager he performed R&B in local clubs. After high school, Baker earned full scholarships to the University of Chicago and the School of the Art Institute. He received a BFA from the latter in 1973, studying painting, drawing, and electronic music. Baker appeared in the SAIC exhibition “Screen Prints 1970” alongside Chicago Imagist Ed Paschke and visual and sound artist Leif Brush and studied with electronic-music composer Richard Teitelbaum.
In the late 1970s, Baker was drawn to punk and new wave, soaking up shows at the Cubby Bear, Club 950 Lucky Number, and O’Banion’s. He began playing Chapman Stick in a fusion group called Rain Forest, performing at north-side street festivals. After the band’s drummer left in 1979, Baker formed the synth-heavy trio Strange Circuits, who cut a limited-edition seven-inch for Wax Trax! Records in 1980—well before the 1981 Strike Under record designated WAX 001 in the label’s catalog. Strange Circuits’ “Industrial Living” is a new-wave rocker that hurtles along at 160+ beats per minute, with Baker singing and playing bass and Chapman Stick (lead-guitar style, including a solo) over his own programmed beats.
Strange Circuits toured Europe extensively before disbanding. In his 2008 book Musik im Großen und Ganzen (“Music By and Large”), experimental composer Frieder Butzmann recounts jamming with Baker in West Berlin in 1979. Between 1981 and 1985, Baker lived in Tilburg, Holland, and in Frankfurt, Germany, working as an artist and musician.
Baker returned to the U.S. in 1986, becoming an art instructor at the Chicago Vocational Career Academy (also known as CVS). His students began to bring house music into the classroom, and by the end of the year Baker had decided to start his own label, Rockin’ House. Its early releases—some of which feature CVS students, including Terrence Woodard and Fred Brown—are stripped-down and psychedelic, which Baker always attributed to his love of Hendrix.
When Baker founded Rockin’ House, the house-music market in Chicago was saturated. His label was often overlooked, but to those in the know, it was hugely influential. “To me, Rockin’ House is the perfect archetype of Chicago house underground record labels,” says DJ, producer, and Still Music owner Jerome Derradji. “It’s the completely pioneering sound—young people doing it.”
Baker developed a business relationship with Jeff Islinger, who had a home studio in Evergreen Park. “I had a deal with Rockin’ House guys that they could go there and record any time,” Baker told me in 2011. “At the end of the week, I would go in and listen through all the tapes that everybody left me, and of course pay all the bills. I would go through and select the ones I felt were good enough to do major projects.”
Tyree Cooper was already an established artist with D.J. International’s Underground imprint when he met Baker. “I had three records out, but I wasn’t getting paid for them,” Cooper recalls. Baker offered him a $1,000 advance without asking for a demo. Cooper’s response was, “Yeah, I approve!”
Cooper’s first record for Rockin’ House was 1988’s “Video Crash,” based on a Marshall Jefferson production, an edit of which Lil’ Louis was already circulating without credit. “I always looked at Marshall as a big brother, so I was like, I’m not going to fight nobody for it,” Cooper says. “I’ll take his song back, but I’ll do it my way.”
At first, Cooper’s record (which included Marshall’s initials on the label) was more popular on the east coast than in Chicago. In fact, it was promptly bootlegged as “Acid Crash” by a distributor in New Jersey. “I never made much money from that, because it was bootlegged so badly,” Baker told me. Rockin’ House pressed only 2,000 copies of “Video Crash,” but between the bootlegs and imitators, it became the label’s most famous release. It also inspired Mike Dunn’s “Magic Feet,” which became even more widely known after its Dutch reissue in 1992.
Cooper went on to record two other singles with Rockin’ House: 1988’s “Muzik” (with his sister Myoshi Morris) and 1994’s “The Dreams” EP (inspired by The Ren & Stimpy Show). Cooper’s cousin Sean “Smiley” Williams provided mixes for several of the label’s other singles. “Rodney Baker’s label was very raw,” Cooper says. “It was exactly what was being made on the street.”
In 1987, Baker provided the first printed house-music drum patterns for the Roland Drum Machine Rhythm Dictionary after striking up a conversation with company reps at the National Association of Music Merchants Show (NAMM). Variations of these TR-808 and TR-909 beats appeared on records worldwide, though likely only a tiny fraction of the people who heard them ever learned Baker was their author.
Between 1989 and 1993, Baker released a half-dozen EPs under his own name on Rockin’ House, but he had difficulty finding European distribution. The label faced increased competition from European producers and a dwindling American market that made its domestic distribution deals less important, and Baker wound it down in the mid-90s.
One of Baker’s commercial art students, Brandon Fails, is now a graphic designer, photographer, and fashion designer. After Baker’s passing, he created a Facebook group where former students could reminisce. Baker had a knack for finding scholarships for his students, which they appreciated even if they didn’t always understand his musical side—some of them remember him playing smooth jazz in class every day. “Imagine being in a high school in the mid-90s when hip-hop was at a certain pinnacle, and you get flooded with Boney James,” Fails says, laughing. “We didn’t value it as much then.”
At the time, many of Baker’s students dreamed of becoming rap stars, and Baker brought some of his own house beats into the classroom. “We had no idea that he was playing music from a genre he helped start, and we didn’t get it,” Fails admits. Years later Fails came to appreciate Baker’s influence on Chicago dance music, and he was shocked to learn that his former teacher had built an international following.
In the late 2000s, several of Baker’s students introduced him to juke and footwork. One of them, Eddie Martin, was a member of FootworKINGz, a dance team that appeared on America’s Got Talent in 2009 and MTV’s America’s Best Dance Crew in 2011.
Inspired by these musical developments, Baker began looking for new artists. Around 2006 he met Talmadge Sansom, aka DJ Lil’Tal, at a record store called Chicago’s Hip-Hop Music Lab on the southwest side. “I guess he was just searching for the new sound of Chicago, which was the juke era at the time,” Sansom recalls. “He was trying to find out who artists was and who people were coming in to buy.” After hearing one of Sansom’s mixtapes, Baker licensed the individual tracks—though he didn’t release the material on vinyl until 2014, when he put out a 12-inch called Juke Tracks with eight of them.
Over the years, Baker periodically called Sansom or met with him to hear his latest output. “He bought club-style tracks, jacking house, ghetto, and juke,” says Sansom. “It was just whatever caught his ear.”
In the early 2010s, Baker tried to revive the Rockin’ House label. Working pro bono, Jerome Derradji helped him collect advances and royalties from European labels that were reissuing or licensing Rockin’ House material. Baker resisted authorizing a label compilation, though, because he thought it would lead people to think of Rockin’ House as a thing of the past.
Baker eventually retired from teaching, but he kept up with his musical pursuits. Between 2017 and 2019, he repeatedly toured the UK with a solo incarnation of Strange Circuits. Just this past January, he began releasing music on Bandcamp. Baker’s work crossed many genres—most notably new wave, industrial, and raw, edgy acid house. He was continually experimenting and searching for success, and he inspired his students and the artists on his label to do the same.
“House people should always be stretching the form of the art as far as they can, and with new boundaries,” Baker told me. “In Rockin’ House, I always felt that you’re leaving history behind, so you always want to take it to the highest cultural level that you can take it.” v