You know Armand Van Helden, right? The same Armand Van Helden that doesn’t own a flat, or a car, who chooses to walk around his adopted home of New York, rather than chug about in a chrome-plated SUV. The homeboy who was championing the raw, energetic, fun sound of hip-house long before it became a fashion accessory. The straight-talking, no-nonsense trainspotter who still spends hours thumbing through thrift stores in search of tunes to sample, the music fan that owns thousands of rock records. You what?
“I love classic rock,” says the 33-year old producer. “I love digging in the crates. If you’re going to make music then you’ve got to know music. But I won’t pay more than a dollar for the classics. That’s my whole thing – it’s about the digging aspect, the challenge – the fun of it. The Steve Millar Band, Led Zeppelin, Blondie… I could go on about my favourite rock music all day long. If you’re a house head, true at heart, and you don’t like the White Stripes then you’re out of your head. The groove, the bass… it is house music. Now, rock’s fun again, and it’s making the club scene fun. I think we’re going to find a balance between house and rock.”
Yes, Armand’s been less than complementary about dance music in the past. Yes, he’s sometimes indulged in his own fantasies and come up short with underwhelming house and hip-hop ‘concept’ albums. Yes, he pissed off several hundred European clubbers in Ibiza. And, yes, he has been – as he admits – “cheap” at times.
“I can be blunt and aggressive,” he concedes. “I don’t have a lot of sarcasm in my conversation. I’m not all ‘Mr Funny’. In fact, I’m always dead to the point. But that’s because I have a deep love of what I do and I’m not playing games.”
And yet beyond the misconceptions rest the tunes themselves, a lasting legacy of house music masterstrokes that are so brazen they virtually slap you in the chops and command you to swing your hips and shuffle your feet.
And they stretch back virtually as far as his career itself.
A b-boy at heart, Armand’s move toward house was geared by both an open admiration for Todd Terry’s aggressive cut-and-paste dynamics and a passion for the late 80s hip-house of the Jungle Brothers, Tyree and Fast Eddie.
“One of the good aspects of hip-house was that it was lyrical,” he says now. “It had a great impact on people. Those records are still memorable now.”
After spending his childhood at army bases in Europe before settling in Boston, it was hip-house’s mix and match ethos that provided the basis for the tough, sample-heavy cuts with the city’s X-Mix Productions outfit that first drew attention his way. By 1992 he had become both promoter and DJ for the after-hours Loft club and made his solo debut – ‘Stay On My Mind/The Anthem’ – for New York’s Nervous records.
It wasn’t long before the call came from the then-dominant Strictly Rhythm stable, via whom Armand soon built up a rock-solid fan base with both English and American DJs, thanks to a stream of tuff club cuts – including 1994’s ‘Witchdoktor’ EP – that amplified tribal house’s template and sounded devastating on the dancefloor of the best club in world, the Sound Factory.
Then came the Armand basslines. You know, the ones that fused jungle’s colossal sub-bass with razor-edged, steel-rimmed beats and virtually commanded your arse to kindly make its way to the dancefloor: Tory Amos’ ‘Professional Widow’ (a UK number 1 back in 1996), Sneaker Pimps’ Spin Spin Sugar’, CJ Bolland’s ‘Sugar Is Sweeter’ and Nu Yorican Soul’s ‘It’s Alright, I Feel It!’
“I have attention deficit syndrome,” he laughs, by way of explanation. “I get bored quick.”
In a sea of ‘faceless’ artists, Armand floated adrift by a mile, and the UK’s dance music media promoted him as a superstar. FFRR signed him up, thinking they’d found a new wallet lining. Expectations were raised. But while Armand embraced the attention behind the scenes he continued to do what he’d always done, “make beats”.
In 1999, one of them – ‘You Don’t Know Me’ – reached number 1 in the British pop charts. A top-drawer house album – ‘2 Future 4 U’ – followed, with Armand continuing to mix –up styles. He continued to dent the UK charts too, with club crossover hits like ‘Flowerz’, ‘Koochy’ (a top 5 hit in 2000) and ‘Why Can’t You Free Some Time?’ While as a remixer, Armand turned tricks for a string of platinum-selling artists, including Puffy, Janet and the Stones.
Now, as house music’s star has supposedly fallen from grace, one of the world’s most sought-after DJs is hitting back with three new tunes, and a mix album that fuses his joint passions for rock and house, for Southern Fried.
“I have been away,” he chuckles. “But I’ve been enjoying myself. For me, I worked hard in the past and I wanted to enjoy the fruits of my labour. Everybody has their run, as they say, and I had my run…I was fortunate. I accept that times have changed. I’m not trying to match that again.”
Times may have changed, but it seems Armand’s instinctual knack for soaking up various musical influences and spitting them out again in the form of an undeniably gut-wrenching killer track hasn’t.
“Before I go make a song I listen to some old records,” he says. “Sometimes I don’t even know who the artist is. Sometimes the cover just looks good: y’know, with the dudes with the skinny leather ties – you just know that gotta’ be some good ‘80s shit.”
Hear My Name’, one of those killer new tracks, sounds like Armand’s roped Blondie and Cocteau Twins singer Liz Fraser (“good ‘80s shit”) into getting together for a glorious one-off house music hoedown. In fact, it’s two girls – who call themselves Spalding Rockwell – that Armand found singing in a local New York bar. “Nicole and Emile are into the whole electro-punk thing,” he says, ever detached from scenes. “They can do the Peaches thing and then some straight punk shit.”
“I just do what I feel,” he reasons. “Honestly, when I wake up – in the afternoon usually – I love to make music in my studio. That is the number one thing in my life. Everything else is secondary. I love to lay down whatever is in my head – to get whatever is in my head out there into the public eye.”
New York City based Grammy Award nominated DJ/Producer/Remixer
Produced multiple top 40 hits on the UK pop charts including “U Don’t Know Me” (UK pop charts #1), Dizzee Rascal & Armand Van Helden “Bonkers” (UK pop charts #1), Duck Sauce “Barbra Streisand” (UK pop charts #3), “Koochy” (UK pop charts #4), “My My My” (UK pop charts #12), Armand Van Helden & A-Trak Present Duck Sauce “aNYway”, “I Want Your Soul”, “NYC Beat”, “Flowerz”, “Hear My Name”, “Why Can’t You Free Some Time?”, “Ultrafunkula”, “Witch Doctor”, and “Funk Phenomena”
Produced full length artist albums ‘Enter The Meatmarket’, ‘2 Future 4 U’, ‘Killing Puritans’, ‘Gandhi Khan’, ‘Nympho’, and ‘Ghettoblaster’
Remixed platinum artists including Rolling Stones, Katy Perry, P. Diddy, Janet Jackson, Britney Spears, and Tori Amos (UK pop charts #1)
One half of the duo Duck Sauce with fellow DJ/producer A-Trak