The top boy of G-folk on his first, worst, biggest and weirdest gigs
Hak Baker looks tired. As he dials into our call, the top boy of G-folk – a punky storytelling style he refracts through the lens of an east London upbringing and Caribbean heritage – is in the middle of an unstifled yawn that feels bone-weary. It’s not surprising. He was up the night before shooting a video, and has rarely stopped for breath in a year that’s taken him from small club shows to Glastonbury’s Other Stage, via the release of his acclaimed debut album, Worlds End FM, and support slots with Pete Doherty and Jamie T, he kicks off a tour of Germany.
“It’s a great opportunity we’ve got here so there’s not a lot of time to sleep,” laughs Baker when I point out the benefits of power napping. “That comes later in life, man. What the f*ck do I want to slow down for?” Instead he shakes himself upright and recaptures a little of that restless energy powering his debut album – a record presented as a pirate radio broadcast that hustles and bustles its way through ska, reggae, punk, folk, grime, dancehall, and hip hop.
Baker’s songs span messy nights out, messy home lives, messy mental health, and a messed-up Britain, picking apart the effects of gentrification, class structures and cultural displacement. After “growing up rough”, and getting into quite a bit of trouble, Baker is, by the glint in his eye, doing exactly what he thinks he was always supposed to be doing: speaking his truths to the people who need to hear them – people just like him. And it’s live, on stage, where the magic really happens. “I just want to preach what’s real, man: people power, togetherness, sadness, happiness… and no sleep.”
The one that made you want to play music
Kings of Leon. Seeing them perform and the emotion emitted from ‘Use Somebody’… I was like, why does this bring me to tears? I don’t understand. And it would bring me to tears because I generally felt pretty useless as a youth, especially at that time when I was living in a flat with five other lads with toilet water coming through the floorboards. Even when I was incarcerated I used to think about Only By The Night, that album. That’s when I first picked up the guitar, in jail; I used to think about Kings Of Leon a lot. I’m going to listen to them when I come off here, actually.”
What was life like in prison?
There’s a lot of loss and obviously you’re incarcerated, but you’d be surprised how much fun young tearaways can create to get by each day. Especially if you’re a lad, all you want to do is laugh and escape. My mates would come into my cell and ask, “What can you play? What have you learnt?” I was like, “Dunno, I can do this” and then pluck something. I used to play ‘Redemption Song’ and try other Bob Marley songs. I didn’t really have a lot to show off there, just ambition.
Do you see yourself as a folk singer?
All music is folk song and blues, really. Just speaking of the times and speaking of courage and love and whatnot. When I first met Pete Doherty, the first thing he went was, “Oh, you’ve got some demons, you have. You’re a troubadour, you’re singing your truths.” Being on stage is the only place where I can completely let go and be myself – cry, holler, scream, sing, communicate with people. Just to find that level playing field with people is my favourite thing to do, you know? I like to eradicate hierarchy and I feel that’s what I get singing my songs. I’m just being very honest and people are attracted to honesty, even if it hurts them.
In school. We had this rap group, Bomb Squad, and we’d do live PAs at youth clubs and stuff in Essex. It’s just great to evoke feelings of excitement and fun, that’s what we were doing back then. But my first show as Hak Baker was terrible. Trying to get people to listen to me. Asking them to be quiet, which didn’t go down too well. I just had to keep going and going, doing these little shows. Just turn up with my guitar at shitholes – talent shows, pubs – and get people to listen. I’d sing outside and busk. Just sit on the floor and play.
Did it take a while for people to get what you were doing?
Because I speak thick cockney don’t I, mixed with patois as well. A dialect of two, but quite similar in a weird way. But yeah, it took a while. I did these courses. One with Levi’s, which I fibbed my way on to because I was too old, and that kind of gave me my break really because it had a big reach, Skepta was aligned with it and we did some shows. He retweeted what I was doing and I kind of managed to drop my first single as I was coming off that course.
Probably the Other Stage at Glastonbury, or the Jamie T gig at Finsbury Park in June. That was bloody amazing. It never scares me. I’ve been through a lot harder sh*t than going on stage to sing folk music. I’ve been judged by three people who’ve taken away my liberty, so why would singing to people I don’t know scare me, you know? Taking the longer route, which I have, is encouraging because you see things grow, and you grow with them, so it doesn’t bewilder you when you finally get there. And once I’m up there with the people, I immediately feel cool because I know I’m just one of them.
Your live shows seem like a much-needed release for a lot of people…
I’m very empathetic, and I hate it sometimes. I can feel pain from miles away. I feel my own pain and I try to mediate it and find out where it derives from. From what I’ve been through, and coming out the other side, I feel like it’s my job to talk to the lads and let them know they’re not on their own, and it’s alright, we’re all in it together. And not just lads, you know? I’m just speaking up for us and our generation and the pressure we’re under.
The 100 Club. I was the worst drunk I’ve ever been. It was wild. People was flying across the stage, climbing on top of each other. They had to shut it down. It was absolutely crazy. In my defence, I didn’t go on till 10, and they had me there from 3pm and there was this gentleman who kept on offering beer, continually, and I was like, give it to me. I realised I shouldn’t get that intoxicated before a gig. There’s been loads of bad gigs, man, especially those corporate gigs when you’re performing to wankers where the music doesn’t resonate with them.
I’m a weirdo myself, so when I get put on a weird bill I’m like, hey! I remember I was in Brighton at the Great Escape. Me and my mate Jack was just playing catch and diving over chairs and doing somersaults in this big old room with other bands. I remember Yellow Days was there and was staring at us, like, who are these nutters? There’s no such thing as weird in my book.
(Main photo by Lorne Thomson/Redferns)