Armand Van Helden is that rare thing – a DJ whose musical directions are genuinely difficult to second guess. He’s been busy of late, adding a sequel to his New York Mix Odyssey for Southern Fried, while having a ‘Best Of’ wrapped up for him, a collection that takes care to examine his importance in the world of the remix as well as the original.
For now, though, we’re talking primarily about Van Helden the DJ, the record spinner who remains capable of exciting and pissing off house heads, sometimes in equal measure. For his second Odyssey compilation, however, he went back to his old love, and he talks in smoky tones of the approach.
“The first one in the series was definitely geared towards rock, while this second one was geared more towards hip hop. With the first one I was looking at pulling stuff together that’s not supposed to go together, putting opposites next to each other, whereas the second one I wanted to be more integrated. If you’re gonna do a part two or a part three in a series I think it’s difficult to do the same thing, and in this case it would have ended up as a strange collage.”
Van Helden is an unhurried interviewee, with some of the sense of brooding that comes across in his pictures, but that sense never makes him difficult to talk to. When I offer the opinion that he rarely seems to do the same thing twice, as in this series, he agrees. “In production and in DJing I have my youthful side, that’s how I like to explain it – I like to keep moving forward. It’s attention deficit disorder to some extent, I just have to keep moving forward. A lot of people develop a sound, and their fans go almost mental if they decide to change it.”
That doesn’t particularly affect the DJ. “My biggest issue is that I almost consider myself as not having one fan. I think if you don’t think you have any fans then it actually becomes easier, as there’s no constraints that you think about before you decide what to do next.”
The focus of the second ‘Odyssey’ is a rich period for hip hop and house, that of the late 1980s when both scenes were still blooming. Van Helden has happy memories of his house music induction. “I remember the nights with Roger Sanchez at Ego Trip, with David Morales at Red Zone and with Louie Vega at several places. These were big, huge clubs at the time, and people tend to look back at the extravagance.” He considers further. “I think there’s no history that tells us the right story. There was a strong hip hop side in New York, and that was a normal thing to be, but when you went to clubs it was house. There were no clubs where you could go to hear rap or hip hop. You went to the clubs to hear house, and even when something like Grandmaster Flash‘s The Message came out you never heard that in the clubs.”
Warming to his task, Van Helden continues. “It took a while for things to fully take hold for me, until about 1992. Then I really fell in love with house music with people like Todd Terry at the Red House and Louie again. I remember thinking, ‘This shit is amazing, the coolest thing ever!’ The people were there for the music and not much else. With house music there was no cocaine, the girls – they’re there, of course. You’d be dancing, making sounds at the DJ, and you’d take a back pack when you went out. If you could picture a mainstream guy introduced to an underground scene, that’s me – and I thought ‘this is what it’s about’.”
“I remember thinking, ‘This shit is amazing, the coolest thing ever!’ – Armand Van Helden’s house music awakening
He reflects next on the antithesis of his love of house music. “I’ve found going to Pacha and that, it’s models and bottles, Dolce & Gabbana, and I was then thinking ‘What the fuck is this?!’ Not because I don’t want to enjoy house music, but I think whatever I experienced at the introduction has done a 180 degree turn.”
Van Helden’s dress bears out his love of hip hop, without indulging into much bling. “My main thing with my style is that you can’t really pinpoint it. In the house scene I dressed hip hop, and now the house DJs in the younger scene look like hip hop artists!”
His second ‘Odyssey’, not to mention the ‘best of’, would seem to be particularly well timed given the current preoccupation with the ‘Summer of Love’, 1988 and all that. He laughs softly. “The weird thing about dance music, and this is a strange one, is that you can basically make one hit and DJ for the rest of your life. You make one classic song and go out and DJ. The house music scene, when they want to remember something they remember it, and once you’ve got into that it’s great. With me I think it’s kind of weird, as I did songs for different scenes – some speed garage, some more NY hip hop. A number of different songs made their mark in those scenes that don’t even talk to each other. They did their thing in the scenes that were around at the time.”
Although people still think of Van Helden as a house DJ, due no doubt to success with You Don’t Know Me and Professional Widow, he agrees that hip hop plays as much of a part in his life. “It does, and I don’t want people to feel distant from me. For a certain part of my life I lived house music, from say 1989 through to 1995 or 1996. That’s a long time ago. It was very different then, I would say. If you got into house music around 1989 there were no white people, and a lot of people don’t even consider old house as straight, either.”
“In the house scene I dressed hip hop, and now the house DJs in the younger scene look like hip hop artists” – Armand Van Helden observes how the fashion tables have turned in house music.
Yet while he has moved around, he has no criticism to direct at DJs staying put in the genre. “No, because if you’re a guy making beats, and your song blows up, you’ve just bought a house and a car, now you have a studio, you’re not gonna want to blow that up, are you? Or how are you going to be able to play music? You can’t blame anyone, I understand the intent. A lot of artists in general are able to pull out a gem.”
Van Helden made a brief visit to these shores in October, DJing at Fabric’s sister club matter. He enjoys his trips across the Atlantic. “London’s probably my second or third favourite city, after New York obviously. I’d actually say it’s the closest thing to New York, it seems to be the cosmopolitan nature. There’s a pretty good ratio of cultures, perhaps not as strong as New York but strong nonetheless. It’s a working city, and they give me the same vibe. I went to a hip hop and R&B club in London, and they played the same set I’d expect to hear back home. Miami, or LA – there you’d hear a different set.”
So how does he prepare for a DJ gig? “I pretty much prepare my sets just before I leave. Younger DJs I know, they blog all day, they blog and they’re freaking out. I’m really happy but I can’t do that any more. I know what it is, it’s raw passion – but I don’t have the passion anymore. The focus? It’s never changed for me, but I think the mix of people’s cultures and styles has changed.”