Interview: Armand Van Helden
Michaelangelo Matos speaks to the long-serving DJ and producer.
Few dance producers in any style have had the changeability and staying power of Armand Van Helden. Born in 1970, Van Helden grew up primarily in Europe, then hit the states to attend university. Soon he was playing clubs in Boston – and throughout the early ‘90s, shopping demos to New York City house labels such as AV8, Henry Street, Nervous, and Strictly Rhythm, under monikers like Deep Creed, Circle Children, and Banji Boys, as well as his birth name. Van Helden’s production career gained traction after moving to NYC mid-decade, with club hits such as “Witch Doktor” (1994) and “The Funk Phenomena” (1996) burning up floors from Manhattan to Mainhattan.
But many of Van Helden’s biggest tracks in this period were remixes for other artists ranging from Ace of Base’s “Living in Danger“ (1994) to Genaside II’s “Narra Mine“ (1997). Three in particular from 1996 altered the landscape: CJ Bolland’s “Sugar Is Sweeter,” Tori Amos’s “Professional Widow,” and Sneaker Pimps’ “Spin Spin Sugar“ upended house music’s steady-state pulse in favor of ruder rhythmic upsets, particularly their drum & bass-sourced, thumping-upside-your-cranium bass lines. Van Helden became house music’s bass king, as well as one of the most sought after DJs in clubland, a phase that probably climaxed with a head-to-head 1999 gig co-DJing with Fatboy Slim that took place in a boxing ring at Brixton Academy (audio here). That pugilistic role-playing wasn’t exactly new to Van Helden: Long one of dance music’s most frankly opinionated figures, he pledged equal fealty to hip hop, even issuing an album, 1997’s Armand Van Helden Presents Sampleslaya – Enter the Meat Market, of collaborations with A Tribe Called Quest, Lords of the Underground, and Redman & Method Man.
The same year, Van Helden issued 2Future4U, twelve tracks of dance-floor cuts that broke off two more club smashes in “You Don’t Know Me“ (with Duane Harden) and “Flowerz“ (with Roland Clark). Just to prove he couldn’t be put in a box, Van Helden followed it with the grinding Killing Puritans (2000) and the frankly ridiculous Gandhi Khan (2001), the latter featuring the TMI classic “I Can Smell You,” not to mention a title track that spat on trance: “It’s white, too white – Republican Nazi white.” Yet as dance music’s already minuscule U.S. market share shrank, Van Helden thrived, working with his old “nemesis” Norman Cook (a.k.a. Fatboy Slim, whose Southern Fried label issued Van Helden’s 2005 album Nympho) and put out a pair of DJ-mix CDs, New York: A Mix Odyssey, in 2004 and 2008. More recently he’s been working with A-Trak as Duck Sauce; they were nominated for a Best Dance Recording Grammy Award in 2012 for “Barbra Streisand.”
Van Helden recently issued Masterpiece, a three-CD mix of favorites from across the board. RBMA’s Michaelangelo Matos spoke with Van Helden about his life and career, coming up in the Boston scene, and how, precisely, one might categorize trance fans.
Where did you grow up?
My father was in the military. I lived in various bases in the States and in Europe. I was 18 when I moved to Boston, in 1988. I went there for college. I lived in Italy before Boston, and the nightclub scene in Italy was not that remarkable, at least in the area that I lived.
Were you already DJing by the time you got to Boston?
I started DJing when I was thirteen. I had hand-me down equipment from my father, a turntable; I just had to get another turntable and a mixer from cutting grass or allowances. For a 13-year-old back then to have two speakers, an amp, a mixer and two turntable, that was super-rare. When I was 14, I was playing my high school Valentine’s Day dance. I would play hip hop, and most of the older black kids – 17 or 18, the seniors – would be like, “Stop playing that jungle-bunny shit and put on some Janet Jackson. Turn that off and put on some real music.”
Were you hearing much house music in Boston?
Predominantly, the clubs in Boston would play mainstream dance music – freestyle and Eurodance. There was underground gay scenes, but not a lot of people were involved with that. Around 1989 I went to Club M, the premier house club in Boston – a membership-only club near the MIT grounds, in Cambridge, right over the bridge from Boston. It was a super-underground club that went till 4 AM. Boston closed at 2 AM, but this place was membership-based; they didn’t have a liquor license; a raw space, no heat or AC, and a DJ with a very good sound system. My big memory is going there in the dead of Boston winter and steam coming out of the windows. It was real house music. It was, I’d say, 98 percent black – because of the area, predominantly young black folks in college. If you had a membership card you were allowed to bring one non-member, but eventually that non-member would have get a membership.
By 1990, I became a promoter in Boston. I was introduced by a roommate to techno, to the early rave music coming from the UK around 1989/1990. It was also mixed with Detroit stuff. So you had the very hard techno thing and then you also had early [UK] hardcore – early jungle/breakbeat. My roommate was also a deep house guy like me; we grew up from Club M. I started a night called the Loft about ‘91. This was a club in the Eighties that played R&B, but when they reopened it they didn’t really know what they were doing. I came in and [on] the first floor I did deep house and I DJed there half the night; upstairs I brought in another promoter, Tom Mellow. He was the first big rave promoter from Boston, so basically the New England area. I taught him how to promote. When I brought him into the Loft, that thing exploded, because it was also exploding across the United States at the same time.
Did you play any raves?
I was going to the raves originally as a fan. I liked the music but I wasn’t a DJ of that sound. Tom Mellow booked me at my first rave. He was like, “The cool thing is to play House.” I was like, “They are not going to go for what I do.” His raves were called the Primary raves- Red, Blue, Yellow. I think it was Frankie Bones and Lenny Dee on the main floor of this big huge warehouse out in the middle of the suburbs of Massachusetts. He put me in a tented-off side room indoors. I played house [to] a couple hundred people. It wasn’t the norm. He was one of the first guys to do house on the side, and that became the norm.
Tom Mellow threw ten or so raves a year in the New England area. In the New England area, you get Providence, Rhode Island, all of Boston, New Hampshire, all the colleges, Hartford, Connecticut, and even Montreal. The Montreal-Boston rave connection was unison: When they’d throw raves in the New England area, [people] would book buses from Montreal to the rave. They would book buses from Amherst, Massachusetts to the rave. It was pretty insane.
Tom was very smart: He bused up the Club Kids, ten or twenty of them. Astral Earl would be there; the Wonder Twins would be there. Those people needed to infect the Boston ravers because the Boston ravers looked like they came out of a Nirvana shoot and they needed to get a little more hipper, and it worked every time. I remember seeing platform Adidas shell toes and suede Puma Clydes, a foot high. We had never seen that in Boston. We freaked out. Literally overnight, everybody in Boston [was] going to cobblers to get their sneakers platformed. [laughs]
When I went to my first rave, the organization involved blew my mind. In hindsight, it was quite randomly thrown together by some kids – but they had people videotaping it, they had smart bars, people selling T-shirts. I had never seen people organizing so much, getting together and making it all work. I remember telling people, “This is the future.” The house people were more of-the-moment clubbers. Nobody was organizing it like the ravers were.
When did you move to New York?
In 1993. I didn’t see my future expanding. A lot of dark things started happening on a personal level, and I had been to New York a number of times by that point. Boston is a great appetizer for New York, but it’s only so big. I had to go. When I came to New York, Gladys Pizarro from Strictly Rhythm was like, “Is there even a scene in Boston?” New Yorkers thought the house music world revolved around them. They had no information about anything north of New York. I came summer of ‘93 and in spring of ‘94 “Witch Doktor” came out. I was like, “I’m Armand Van Helden,” and they were like, “That’s some Dutch dude, he’s not even from here.” So they didn’t know anything about me, let alone let me in their camps.
When I came to New York, I went to Sound Factory Bar – it was an industry night. I would see hanging out: Todd Terry, Kenny Dope, Roger S, MK, you name it. They were like a clique, and there was no access. You would see people trying to get in with them, but I refused to do that because I got a vibe from Kenny Dope. He didn’t like people on their jock. Coming from Boston, I was like, “I’m going to make them come to me.” The first person out of that clique to say something to me was Roger Sanchez. He was like, “You’re that guy. I love that song.” Then Little Louie Vega started playing my records and I met him and then eventually Kenny and then Todd. They’re all cool with me now but it was very hard for anybody outside at any circle, at any level – UK guys, Jersey guys – you just couldn’t break that clique. But you wanted to be in that clique because that was it.
Nobody in New York knew I was a DJ – again, I didn’t pay any dues here. Back in those days you DJed first, then you made beats, then you got a nightclub gig, then a residency, then got offered remixes, then you got tracks out on labels. That was the process. I skipped all of that and went right to making big songs and figure it out from there. [laughs] When “Witch Doktor” hit I got my first booking overseas, for a music conference in Germany, I think Cologne. They called Gladys and said, “We really like that ‘Witch Doktor’ song. Can he DJ?” And, she was like, “I have no idea. I’ll call him up and see.” She hits me up on the phone: “Do you know how to like mix records and at least just get a beat riding?” I said, “Gladys, I can DJ.” She said, “Really?” [laughs] From ‘94 to the late nineties, I toured a lot.
Which studios did you use to record your tracks?
I’ve never used professional studios. The only time I did was on my very first release in ‘91, when Gladys Pizarro from Strictly Rhythm had heard my demo and was like, “You should come to New York and we’ll mix it at the studio we usually work out of and then we’ll release it.” I’ve always been the guy at home making the beats from start to finish. The only thing that I don’t do is mastering. I never learned keyboards, I don’t know how to play piano, but I play everything. If everything is just one note or two notes, you can make ten songs a day. The form of music I was making was meant to be primal, intuitive. That’s my connection with house music. It’s a very felt thing.
Tell me about the “Professional Widow” remix. Did Tori Amos or her people approach you, or were you already working with Atlantic Records at that point?
By the time I had got the Tori Amos offer I had already had a number of remixes passed me, so my manager Neil Patrick Combs developed a personal relationship with the dance A&R [people] at most of the majors. This guy named Johnny D did Henry Street Records, which put out the Bucketheads’ [“The Bomb!”] and [Van Helden’s] “Funk Phenomenon,” so he was considered a friend. He would usually offer [big-name remixes] to his first dibs, which were Kenny Dope and Louie Vega, obviously, but he offered it to me because Tori Amos said, “Fine, I just want it to be different. I don’t want it to sound like everything else.” So he said, “Oh, Armand does weird stuff.” [laughs]
I hate to make it unglamorous, but I didn’t care or listen to the song. I was like, “What did they offer?” At that time it was like $10,000, and that was a little below what I was making back then for a remix, but I had the time. My manager and I invented this thing with a remix that we called “No recall” – in other words, whatever I’d turn in, [the label was obligated to] put out. They were like, “You guys are fucking crazy. That is not how this works.” The A&Rs would hire you for radio points. Mariah Carey is already big; the whole point of remixing her is to get points in another market. We stuck to our guns on this, and it worked for us.
Did you play the bassline on the “Professional Widow” remix?
Not that one – the bassline was from the parts that were sent to me. “Professional Widow,” the original song, is a slow, really not moving song. It’s nothing like the dance remix. It was me going through the parts on DAT and fast forwarding to the bass, taking one little part and thinking, “Oh, that’s cool.” So three-and-a-half minutes in off the bass stem, I just grabbed one little bar. Some producers start jumping around on the studio couch: “This is a hit.” I’ve never once in my life done that, because I don’t know what I’m doing. It’s almost like a pirate to a degree.
How about on your mix of Sneaker Pimps’ “Spin Spin Sugar”?
I played that bassline. That’s a full original. All of the music in there except for a rhythm guitar section – that’s from their parts, but the rest is me.
When did you start becoming aware of the English speed garage tracks that were utilizing your swamping basslines?
There was no scene pre-CJ Bolland’s “Sugar Is Sweeter” [remix]. I basically made a deeper mix. If you listen most house music at the time, it usually had some percussion that propelled it if the kick was pulled out. In the early rave days, listening to jungle, drum & bass, hardcore, they would do those stops and the ambient thing, with no beats. Tori Amos’ “Professional Widow” is a perverted CJ Bolland. The only difference in that was that I made the bass very strong on [“Sugar Is Sweeter”], like all the drum & bass records I was into. The reason I even called it “[Armand’s] Drum & Bass Mix” is because I was imitating the drum & bass guys. It came back around to the UK, and they started a whole scene up from it. To be honest, I didn’t experience that whole speed garage scene; I just wasn’t there.
Also during that period you made the Sampleslaya album, which was more hip hop.
That was a big left turn, mistake or not mistake, at that time in my career. Everybody was like, “You just did a big boo-boo. You should stick to what people know you for.” That’s what I was feeling at the moment and I just moved forward on it.
In 1999, you released 2Future4U which was probably the album people were expecting instead of Sampleslaya. One thing that intrigues me is that 2Future has a lot of big club hits; you could have easily licensed it to a major label in America, especially then. Yet you released it on your own label. Did you think you could just do it better on your own?
It actually came out through FFRR in the UK. Our whole intention was to deliver to FFRR; we had that set up before I started making the first beat on that record. But the States was open. In that timeframe, the UK dominated in terms of the world outlook on the scene. They were like the MTV of dance music: If the UK like it, that’s what’s cool, especially in the late nineties. The States we never considered that important, because in those days, just to be blunt, there wasn’t any good labels to put it on. They were all indies and people that rob you. They don’t have enough on the roster to have the meat to be professional. They were kind of ghetto and they would probably rip you off, and it was scary. So we started our own imprint, Armed Records, to put that out.
I want to ask about “Flowerz,” which is my favorite track of yours.
I had come up with that loop, and it was sitting on DAT – a ten-minute thing, filtering up and down and messing with it, dropping beats and putting beats back in, just a groove I had made. Roland Clark had been up to my place a couple times, and I made the track and three days later I was like, “Roland, you should sing over this.” I said I needed it very quickly – it was one of the last songs I made on that album – and he brought it back to me the next day with the vocals. He just sang freeform; there’s some verses in it; some don’t even rhyme. So I had to go through and do a serious edit job to build it into a song. But he intuitively channeled that record. He did do the hook in terms of those stacks where he knew that Flowers was a thing, and they’re insanely beautiful. The rest of that song I didn’t know really how to piece together, and that was the real work of that song, but everything else on that song was super easy.
In the original version he gave you, where is the spoken part?
In the middle. All of that is just him bugging out. He’s like that. He literally can just get on a record and get into some sort of channeling zone and go off like that. That’s his talent; not many people can do that. That’s a one-take [performance], by the way. You can tell in the flow of it there’s no edit in there. That changes up the feel.
It seems like Killing Puritans kicked against what you had done before.
It was where I was at mentally at the time, whether it was psychotic or not. [laughs] 2Future4U, by the way, wasn’t a big album. People just went to “You Don’t Know Me” and maybe “Flowerz” and then called it a day. It wasn’t like I turned in a Daft Punk Discovery album; it wasn’t a big deal. Some people, because I did such crazy things on Killing Puritans, they thought that, number one, I was losing my mind, and number two, I must have made this to shit all over my record deal, so I could get out. Really, neither was the case.
How about on the next album, Gandhi Khan, where you call trance “Republican Nazi white”?
Yeah. [laughs] Steve Aoki wants to re-release Ghandi Khan. Every time I see him he’s like, “When do I get Ghandi Khan?” If anybody wants to find reason or logic in an artist that can do “You Don’t Know Me” or “Flowerz,” which are standard happy good-feeling up vibes, and then does a rap where they call trance Nazi music . . . Just think of Kanye West. He does everything that everybody doesn’t want him to do, every time. It’s not on purpose, and it’s hard for the public to understand this. When you make a song that is number one in the United States or Europe or whatever, there’s a moment when you exhale and say, “OK, I actually can make music for a living.” When that happens, you tend to get into a weird artist mode, where you get fairly abstract, because you’ve achieved that now, and now you can be super weirdo.
Did any trance people get in your face about that song?
No. Trance people weren’t that type, at least back then. I was quite a shit-talker back then – I wasn’t overboard with it but if you put it in a song, then obviously it’s for all time. In dance music it was all undercover and behind the scenes. There are plenty of shit talkers in dance music, but they didn’t present it with a rap attitude. I did have a rap attitude, there’s no question about it. I grew up hip hop. Hip hop existed to me as a bridge-building music. “Planet Rock,” the German Kraftwerk with the Bronx, that’s a bridge and a half right there.
I saw trance when it was in its early height only as a purist thing, and again my ideology was simply must break purism. Killing Puritans: that title has meaning to me. By the way, MTV Germany pretty much banned me from that point. They were like, “You are just a house dude. Shut up.” As you get older the fire in you burns out to a degree and you have a live-and-let-live attitude. In other words, if there is a bunch of trance-loving Nazis out there, let them have their fun. The wisdom in age kicks in.
You’re still calling them Nazis, though.
Let’s replace it with “sheep.” Sheep’s a good word.
When did you start working with A-Trak?
We met in 2008, and our first Duck Sauce song was 2009.
That’s right around when the tide began to turn for dance music commercially in the U.S.
I was just talking to a few DJs, and they all know the cash cow that America is. On the concert circuit, it seems like it happened overnight – like, how did we get here? But I think in a way, [U.S promoters] modeled after the Europeans. You bring in the big sponsors. You make it pro. If you would have asked me back in 2008 if that would be the future, I would have laughed. I give one person the biggest credit to this explosion – it’s super-mainstream but it doesn’t matter: David Guetta, period. Again, the bridge-building aspect [is] what I always aspired to do.
But in a way, mixing house and hip hop to big commercial success – you did that in England when you worked with Dizzee Rascal.
Yeah, but that’s a UK thing. That’s one country. They worked with the right artists at the right time with the right sound, and everything just congealed and lit the American radio airwaves on fire. I have never in my whole life heard this amount of dance music. [laughs] The only time I remember being slightly at this stage is when we had [Corona’s] “The Rhythm of the Night,” or [Haddaway’s] “What is Love,” or Crystal Waters, but it was cheesy – beyond cheesy. With David Guetta and the Akon stuff, it’s getting played in the rap clubs. House and hip hop were always separate; David Guetta, Calvin Harris, Afrojack – they blew the doors off. Remember what I said about just a lot of white people following trance? I’m booked at these festivals, and I go see Armin Van Buuren and Tiesto and it ain’t all white people anymore. It’s an insanely beautiful mix of people. I don’t want to dance to it, but I’m seeing 25,000 people and it ain’t all white. So I’m all smiles.