You know Armand Van Helden, right? The self-styled ‘bad boy’ of house, the man with a mountain-size ego, the six-pack framed poser with his joke of an Ali G-like pencil beard, the money-hunger remixer who famously cleared the dancefloor at Space, who really wants to make hip-hop, but can’t.
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 complimentary 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 master strokes 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.
Just when it looked like house music’s star had fallen from grace, one of the world’s most sought-after DJs returned in 2004 with a bang. A two year hiatus was over. His mix album, ‘New York: A Mix Odyssey’ on Southern Fried was the first outburst. Fusing Armand’s passion for the rock and house scene of downtown New York, its cut-and-paste party dynamic received a rave reaction. Two huge singles, Hear My Name and My My My followed and left dancefloors and radio stations quivering in their wake.
In 2005, Armand Van Helden releases a new album. The natural next step. Incredibly Nympho is Armand’s first proper artist album for five years. It’s been worth the wait. 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. One listen to this new album, the undeniable feeling is still the same. The same as it ever was. Armand’s music is the sound of someone having FUN. Answering their calling. Enjoying what they do best.
“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.”
So this is the sound of Armand Van Helden in 2007, “Ghettoblaster”, an infectious mixture of old school charm and 20 years of dancefloor nous coming together in one joyous whole. It’s a sound that is instantly recognisable and yet alarmingly different. A sound that is playful and fun. A sound that only a true pioneer could succeed in grasping.
Armand – a true original.
Pic: James Green/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images