As Hak Baker sways and strums his way through the final notes of fan favourite track ‘Venezuela Riddim’, he’s met with a sea of colour. Flags of Jamaica, Grenada and Venezuela are launched off the stage by Baker’s mate Jack, and waved aloft by the crowd at Brighton’s Komedia as the soulful yet deeply hedonistic track’s refrain “these are the best days of our lives” rings out. In this moment, it’s hard to disagree with that sentiment.
NME meets Baker and his bandmates in The Eagle pub three hours before his Friday headline show at The Great Escape. The self-proclaimed “three island man” — given that he has a Jamaican mother, a Grenadian father and hails from the Isle of Dogs in London — has an instantly recognisable voice: a thick cockney accent laced with the odd splash of Jamaican patois which was a key facet of his 2017 debut EP ‘Misfits’ and his 2020 mixtape ‘Babylon’, over instrumentals which blended acoustic folk guitar with elements of sunny reggae, punk and ska.
While it’s entirely authentic, there’s also a clear sense that Baker’s friendly, street storyteller persona provides him with a vital outlet. “Hak Baker is a sensationalised version of Hakeem, of me,” he ponders, sipping a Guinness. “It’s a channel in which I get to shout and scream, and sing about things that I care about. But it comes with mass altruism, and it comes with the alcoholism, the partying, having too much fun. As I get older, I know that that’s innately what I’m really trying to fall back on: alcoholism is something I’ve used to not go crazy. But, at the same time, Hakeem doesn’t really like Hak Baker. The separation of characters has become an issue. In time, I would love to pull them both closer.”
This “sensationalised” character is present across Baker’s long-awaited debut record, ‘World’s End FM’. Structured as a pirate radio broadcast from the brink of an apocalypse, the 16-track concept album sees him assume the role of a charming yet jaded DJ, packing the gaps between tracks with wide-ranging phone chats with friends and family (including a 16-bar from Kurupt FM’s Allan Mustafa as MC Grindah, and a skit featuring Watford singer-songwriter Connie Constance). The pirate radio format, which stems from the influence Baker took from stations like Deja Vu and Rinse during his school days, facilitates important conversations about mental health, politics and social media addiction.
“People have very short attention spans. I wanted to make something that people won’t forget,” Baker explains. “I know what’s going on, I see what’s going on and I document it, and I talk about it in the most visceral, honest, human way.”
Several tracks on ‘World’s End FM’ sum up this vision. ‘Telephones 4 Eyes’ is an angsty three-minute punk romp decrying surveillance culture and our addiction to our phone screens, while ‘Bricks In The Wall’ is a cathartic, uplifting fightback against the state’s decimation of working-class institutions and opportunities. Its hook cries “all we’ve got is a night now / To better our cause”, reflecting Baker’s knack for creating powerful, moving and decidedly non-corny protest music. How does he do it?
“It’s from my heart, innit!” is his simple response. “I’ve seen a lot of things. I’ve been prison twice, I’ve been mashup, beat up, lock up, seen my mates been hurt, killed… I’m not a corny guy!”
Ultimately, that ability to pen a simple message seems to come pretty naturally to him. “What I’ve developed throughout my time of writing music is a channel, a pathway where I stop thinking when it comes to making music and my subconscious opens out,” he says. “The newest skill now is knowing that I have that skill: I’m allowed to tell myself I’m good at something. Before [that], I wouldn’t dare tell myself I’m any good at something.”
Despite the apocalyptic gloom of ‘World’s End FM’, it’s an album overflowing with love, spirit and unity. But the hope that the planet can heal itself? Not so much. “In order for things to get eventually better, destruction is necessary,” he says. “We need to burn the whole system. Though I live in the western side of the world and I’m a product of westernisation, from slavery to living in London and being a London lad, I’m completely against it. What it’s destroyed and what it won’t take responsibility for is limitless.
“People are suffering, and the powers that be know people are suffering,” he continues. “However, what they do when people are suffering is intensify the suffering: they make things more expensive, more uninhabitable. Our whole existence is money. [They] still dig up the earth, still pollute the sky, even though they have the ability to do otherwise: it’s insanity. Without the lower echelons, which is the base and the foundation, things crumble, so look after that. Bricks in the wall, bruv! Why do they keep taking [them]?”
It’s no surprise that Baker is passionate and animated when discussing the damage done by successive Tory governments to working class people across the UK. His home in the Isle of Dogs has been rapidly transformed by gentrification and urban change, with locals being priced out and plagued by a “loss of values” that has left many feeling alienated.
“It’s not our east London any more,” Baker says. “Because [gentrification] came in such an influx, now what’s there are strangers in our land who refuse to delve into anything that was there before them. Even the mannerisms of ‘hi, how are you?’, chivalry, opening the door: eradicated! This is a place where I felt family and togetherness, a place of patriotism, where we were so proud to be from there. It’s done now, there’s no more love on the streets.”
It’s a state of affairs that has encouraged Baker to continue deepening his ties to Jamaica and Grenada, with the ultimate goal being to give back to the island nations that helped forge him.
“I wanna slow down a bit, enjoy the sun and go to my country that has been left in tatters from foreign politics,” he says. “Go over and teach them what I know, give back to where I come from. When you look out from the coast of the Isle of Dogs, or Jamaica or Grenada, it’s water. It gives you a sense of ownership, because you’re segregated — this is where I’m from, so I must look after this place at all costs.”
Regardless of that strong sense of purpose, it’s clear that the bleak state of the world — en route to disaster thanks to corporate greed, environmental exploitation and the corruption of power — weighs heavy. Baker’s coping mechanism is simple: have a laugh, get pissed, make music and spread love. It’s that message that is guiding ‘World’s End FM’, with Baker’s record store tour seeing him travel around in a Sailor Jerry van showcasing personalised ‘DOOLALLY’ bottles of spiced rum, which will drop on June 29.
At Komedia, Baker’s mantra for life helps create a special and deeply intimate evening. Before the set even begins, Baker chats to his audience and cackles with laughter. After playing recent single ‘Windrush Baby’, he necks his bottle of beer and is quickly handed a new one. Most poignantly, the crowd’s response to old-school anthem ‘Conundrum’ completely overwhelms him, sparking an infectious, beaming smile that stretches across his face.
If the world has to end, Baker is going out in style. But if armageddon does strike, what would he do on that final day? “The simple things are the best things,” he replies. “I’ll go to the pub with all my good friends, we’ll all be together, there’d be 500 of us all together! Mum, dad, friends… and then hopefully I’m in love. I’d spend my last moments with the person that I love.”
Hak Baker’s ‘World’s End FM’ is out now via Hak Attack Records/AWAL Recordings