“I’m always hailing the community, and I think everyone has a duty to do that,” says east London lyricist Hak Baker, reflecting on an acoustic performance he’s just delivered alongside his trumpet player Sam at Whitechapel Market. We’re sat in the pub opposite the station, London Hospital Tavern, and Hak’s spent the afternoon out in the cold, chatting with fans and playing them a brand new unreleased track, ‘Luvly’.
“‘Luvly’ is about not loving yourself that much, so you can’t accept love from people that wanna give you it,” says Hak. “I’m probably not getting better at accepting love, but I try not to concentrate on it too much. I feel like I’m in a good place in my career and I just want to concentrate on that. I feel happier, I don’t get as sad, my mind is focused… so I think, ultimately, I’m doing better. But I’m not there yet.”
Everything is a journey, after all, and Hak has been on a pretty remarkable one in recent years. If you’d told him a decade ago that he’d cap off a year in which he released his debut album Worlds End FM and completed a solo headline tour he described as “the best days of me life” by helping launch Fender’s new cutting-edge acoustic guitar series, he might’ve raised an eyebrow.
But given Hak’s background, his modelling of a signature-scribbled Highway Series Parlor — a sleek instrument drawing inspiration from Fender’s electric guitar manufacturing history to slim down the thick and bulky shape of the traditional acoustic — is a collaboration that makes total sense.
“I always started with the acoustic guitar, it’s got that folk feel, for sitting down and telling stories,” says Hak. “I like things that are compact and powerful. The body’s smaller, but it’s just like an acoustic; it doesn’t stretch to try and be an electric as well. It allows me to play more freely.”
The east end singer-songwriter’s route into playing guitar was far from typical. He first picked up the instrument behind bars, after winning a prison raffle. He was then given lessons for a while, but when the teacher stopped visiting, things slowed down.
“I feel like I progressed as much as I could progress in prison,” he says. “I knew it was something that had to be externalised once I came out. But when I came out I didn’t really play guitar for four or five years. Eventually, I was going out with a girl and she just asked me, ‘What do you want to do?’. I said ‘I wanna sing tunes’. I didn’t have a bank account or nothing, so she bought me a guitar, and I thought, ‘We’ll, I’ve gotta make use of it now!’”
Long before he dived head-on into the world of acoustic guitar playing and began cultivating the unique sound he defines as “G-Folk”, Hak showed creative promise. At 14, his MC crew BOMB Squad topped the iconic Channel U video charts with cult classic ‘B.O.M.B’, and throughout his adolescence, Hakeem Baker was immersed in the east London pirate radio scene (a grounding he pays tribute to across World’s End FM). Over time, these influences melded with Hak’s acoustic tendencies to create something unique.
“Playing guitar gave me a different avenue to write with,” he reflects. “Before, I’d just MC and rap lyrics over J Dilla beats. But post-prison, this gave me something else I could do; I’d write weird little riffs, record them on my phone, and then sit with them in my headphones, or walk around and see what comes to mind. That’s my number one way of writing.”
This method helped Hak build a sound around his softly plucked acoustic licks, which he supplements with sharp, cheeky, cockney vignettes of everyday life, and a DIY punk energy that fuses these strands together in a surge of anti-establishment anger.
Earlier EPs like 2017’s Misfits and 2020’s Babylon illustrated the singer-songwriter’s knack for documenting society with poignancy and heart; and debut album World’s End FM, which dropped in June, stretched that skill to new levels, painting a portrait of a pirate radio broadcast from the brink of an apocalypse, narrator Hak guiding us through armageddon with ruminations on brotherhood and friendship, surveillance culture, technology, political corruption and going out on the lash.
“I think people took me a lot more seriously after that project,” he says. “It was quite a precise look on the times, and people respected the bigger songs and themes on there. I can talk about things other than just alcoholism or laddism – I don’t think I was [ever] just doing that, but some people would try and put me in such a box. Now I’m in a more respected state, and I feel like I can start to have more fun with music.”
That’s something that hasn’t always been straightforward. It seems odd that an artist whose music is so deeply informed by themes of hedonism, partying, friendship, love, and community spirit – evidenced on warm, evocative tracks like ‘Venezuela Riddim’ or ‘7AM’ – hasn’t yet fully celebrated this year’s landmark release.
“This was the most intense year ever,” he says. “I’m going to Colombia in January for a month, just to relax, see some mates, make some tunes, and have a good break. It’s my celebration and my break, going there. That time’s gonna be for me to compartmentalise and take in what I’ve done.”
I suggest that this upcoming break indicates how music has opened up opportunities that would’ve seemed impossible not that long ago. “One million per cent!” he replies. “I could never take a month away, what kinda madness is that? I still don’t feel like I can take a month away, but I’m gonna milk it. I deserve it.”
The holiday is also symbolic for other reasons, of Hak looking after himself a bit better. “In the winter months, I need to be active first thing in the morning; if I’m indoors mulling about it’s horrible,” he says. “Going gym and boxing is very necessary because it pushes you physically and mentally. You find a second or third wind, and that teaches you not to give in to your weaknesses. It teaches you that fatigue is in your mind.”
Hak’s current health kick is pushing him to some unusual places; sat in the London Hospital Tavern, we both sip pints of water. It’s only midway through our conversation that I learn that he’s consumed nothing else since Sunday, having embarked on a ‘water fast’ that’s seen him go without food for two days now. This detox reflects his broader grappling with alcoholism, and with his tendency to self-medicate with booze.
“I fail still, but you can’t dwell in it,” he says. “I don’t think I’m gonna stop drinking any time now because I do like it, but I need to enjoy it more and not fall into it.
“Hak,” he says in the third-person, of the sensationalised character he tends to view separately, “can put up a fight and have fun. But Hakeem’s gotta lead the show, and that’s final.”
If there’s one thing that helps Baker’s best intentions triumph over that more troubled side, it’s community. His music has consistently encapsulated the importance of solidarity and love between ordinary people, with tracks like ‘Bricks In The Wall’ and ‘Collateral Cause’ marrying creative depth and experimentation with strong, hopeful political protest. It makes sense that his session with La Blogotheque takes place at a location where he feels these community roots firmly.
“I just feel comfortable here,” he says, fresh from gathering a warm reception on the Whitechapel streets, fingerpicking his way through ‘Luvly’ as people shuffle by, inquisitive faces poking through hats and hoods in the late autumn dusk. After he finishes playing, he receives a firm hug from a grinning man who’s been hanging around watching.
“As I’m walking down the street, I see a guy I was in jail with, I see four guys who shouted me like “I like your music”, I see the guy who’s not doing too well on the corner… and he’s part of the community, so you hail him up as well,” says Hak. “It’s always good to be hailed in your area for the things that you’re doing.”