Armand Van Helden Talks House History, His New “Masterpiece” Compilation, Being A Hippie, And WMC’s 30th Anniversary
Armand Van Helden is a dance music legend. One of the few DJ/producers that has maintained his success since the early ’90s (notably with the house anthems, “U Don’t Know Me” and “Witch Doktor”) Armand has recruited a new generation of fans by joining forces with Fool’s Gold Records’ A-Trak as the disco-house hybrid Duck Sauce, gaining worldwide acclaim.
Van Helden’s newest offering, Masterpiece, is a sprawling 43-track monster compilation from the Ministry of Sound, which details the artist’s early influences through three themed discs, spanning early house cuts, “yacht rock,” and freestyle dance music.
Before his appearance at WMC’s 30th anniversary in Miami, including a set at the famed SLS Southbeach alongside Nervo, Chuckie, and Tchami, we spoke with Armand about house music’s early history, his latest compilation, authenticity, and the Winter Music Conference.
As a house legend you’ve been involved in the scene since the beginning. With dance music’s recent revitalization and increased popularity, how have things changed since the earlier days?
I was a little too young for the birth of the movement, but I came up with the New York explosion around 1990, 1991. New York just dominated house music. Obviously Chicago was doing its thing, but it couldn’t keep up. I came up from the ashes of that and was regarded as a part of the second-generation house crew of New York. With the amount of change that has happened, it’s hard to grasp the ups and downs of public perception. There was a long time in history where the industry movers and shakers didn’t want to support you at all.
There is a huge difference between the United States and the rest of the world. For the US, you had the disco era, which became super saturated. Eventually, the “disco sucks” thing happened and it became a dead form of music, which eventually mutated into house and exploded across the States and Europe. Then years later, hip-hop blew up and changed the music formula completely. Around 2008, pop stars began to bring house music back into pop and it revitalized itself again, which finally made the higher-up executives notice. Now, the tables have turned and both rock—and even hip-hop, to a degree—have been scrambling to incorporate dance music into their work ever since
Your new Masterpiece compilation is definitely one of the more eclectic releases in the series. The first disc, “The Loft—Boston,” consists of tracks you used to play at your residency there. As one of your first residencies, how was the experience DJing there on a regular basis?
It was a lush dream… When I look back it was an amazing, fun, and dreamy sequence. I’ve deejayed since I was 13, with on-and-off gigs until I got my residency. The Loft was a perfect period of time for the vision that me and the owner shared—it was really unique.
They had a grandfather clause that allowed them to stay open till 6 am; the city of Boston shuts down at two, so it was a no-brainer. I just happened to be lucky got in there at the right time. It was an absolute blast. I didn’t stay there that long though, only for a year and a half. I left while it was still in its prime to go to NYC.
How was your transition from Boston to New York?
I had to start form scratch. If I wasn’t making music, I would have never been a DJ in New York or outside of NY. My original plan was to produce music first, to turn the bookers around for wanting to book me as a DJ, and that’s exactly what happened.
I ended up skipping over New York at first, and started gigging in Europe for a while. My first DJ gig as a producer was actually in Germany. When I came back, club promoters heard rumors of this German/Dutch guy and it just started to take off.
The second disc, to me, is the most interesting and also the most surprising, “Yacht Rock Don’t Stop.” I’ve read that your parents were big fans of the genre. How important was their influence on you growing up in shaping your music taste?
Honestly, I was forced to listen to their music at an early age. They had a huge sound system they used to play their records on in the house. Whether or not I liked the music, I had to hear it every day as a kid. Back then, it wasn’t cool to admit you listened to what your folks liked, and to be honest, I didn’t even recognize that I liked the music at all in that moment. When I became a record collector I rediscovered the genre and realized its sticking power. I had this amazing time in my 20s of rediscovering music in a sense. I think the original term in its heyday was “soft rock.” I found all that stuff to be soul to me. I was really a fan of it as a kid growing up, just unknowingly.
You’ve mentioned that the third disc, “Freestyle Forever,” pays homage to the genre as, “the underrated branch of dance music.” As one of dance music’s lost genres (from the 80s), do you think freestyle gets the respect it deserves in dance culture?
There’s a complexity of what freestyle is and what it isn’t, and it has had that reputation since it was created. What’s interesting about freestyle was that it was huge on the radio in certain markets, but on a national scale it wasn’t. You normally don’t get music on rotation every hour in major markets that wasn’t represented across the nation; it was a weird anomaly in music. The genre came up around the time of house music when Detroit and Chicago were developing their sound—that became the fresh new thing and when that gained traction people looked at freestyle as cheesy. It took one visit to a house club for me to realize this, and within a year of going to clubs I left freestyle completely alone. Then when house blew up, people went into denial that they ever loved the genre. It’s sad people denied it, and to a degree, I did myself. After freestyle died off completely, around 1994, I revisited some Stevie B records and realized how great the music is. I couldn’t deny it any more.
For house heads, you’re highly regarded in the scene from your earlier remixes but to newer fans, your name may have become synonymous with Duck Sauce and Fool’s Gold. What’s interesting to me is your ability to consistently be yourself and authentic while still being relevant. How has the crossover been with younger fans discovering your music and seeing you DJ?
I always had this underlying hippie aspect of my personality. When I went to early raves at house clubs there weren’t any classes or niches of people. It was very Afrocentric and Love-generation oriented, everyone was welcome, and nobody looked at you differently—people just came to enjoy the music and dance.
Unfortunately, there’s always going to be a group of people that put walls up. I personally don’t care what’s the cool new trend. I just care about music and dancing in its simplest form. Obviously, some things resonate with me more than others, but I never put anything down. I’m not a critic. I don’t bother people or put any walls up. For example, I was making speed garage earlier on in my career out of the necessity to bring these two dance scenes together. That’s me: I’ve always been that hippie guy. My career’s been fruitful because of that ideal.
Winter Music Conference’s 30th anniversary is definitely a milestone in dance-music culture. You’ve been a supporter of the conference for a while now. As a winter resident of Miami, how have you seen the conference grow in the city?
I was there since the beginning, and everything has really just exploded. There are many interesting facets as to why that is. In the earlier days, people would get amped to go down to Miami. It was really easy and relaxed at one particular hotel. You never had to search around for a taxi or bounce around random places; you saw everything there. It was a really beautiful thing.
When I went in 1993, I was a nobody. I may have had “Witch Doktor” under my belt, but I was still new to the scene. I was seeing all these people I looked up to—Todd Terry, MK, Kenny Dope—I was freaking out. After a couple years the conference gradually grew. The Maxi party started blowing up along with other events, but when the British came, around 1997, it felt like it tripled all in one year and went nuts. From that time on, it’s just been multiplying every year. It’s just been crazy.
For younger artists, how important a role does WMC have in fostering growth and advancement?
Tough to say. The industry’s changed so much. It was pre-Internet before, so I can’t say anything specific, to be honest. What I can say, as general advice to younger artists, is that you need to do everything and anything to make it now. Back in the day, we were magicians as producers. No one understood the process of programming a drum machine. Now 12-year-olds are using Garage Band. You need any and every angle you can find to be successful. If you were the guy on the block that made beats, everyone knew you because people couldn’t figure out what you were doing. The key thing for younger producers is to admit that your music may suck. Unfortunately, younger producers have a hard time admitting that because of social media and having over a thousand Facebook “likes.” If you’re trying to make this career, you need to admit these things, because the market’s so saturated. If you really want to make it, your music needs to make people drop everything and say, “Oh, my God, that’s the new sound.” It needs to be that good.
Are there any acts you’re excited to see at the conference?
Oh gosh, yeah, but I’m an old man. When I see older dudes than me still out partying, that fascinates me. Going out for me is tough. I like early things, something chill. Play ping pong, maybe some pool… I’m an old guy, I like to do old-guy stuff, haha. Some people think because I’m a DJ I’m out all the time, but to be honest with you, I’m really not.
For the festival though, A-Trak and Boys Noize are doing something at Gramps. The owner of Gramps is a friend of mine—I love that place. It’s an art crowd. That’s definitely the one I’m going to. Besides that, there’s the Fool’s Gold thing happening this year that I’ll try to stop by at. Besides that and the gigs I’m playing, that’s it for me.
Speaking of which, I saw you were playing Nervo’s Pool Party at SLS Chuckie and Tchami. How’s your relationship been with those artists in particular? What can we expect from that party?
I know Nervo and Chuckie fairly well. When playing pool parties you tend to play happier stuff than normal, especially when the sun’s out. Because it’s outside, you have to put on a completely different vibe than you would in a nightclub—you tend to play darker stuff there, so it’s nice to see people vibe out during the day to more upbeat stuff.
I saw an old video interview with you from 2007 where you stated, “I’m trying to last longer than Quincy Jones.” You meant it half-jokingly, but your output speaks for itself. In 2015 is this sentiment still true?
Haha! Nah, that was a little braggadocio moment. That was me probably saying I wanted to be revered as a house legend. I don’t necessarily think that plays in as much as it did back then for sure. I still do have a passion for this, but maybe I want to do something completely different for a living. That idea’s been floating around for a while now. When it comes down to it, I think making music, not necessarily going out spinning or doing the press circuit, is something I can do till I die. That’s still fun for me. Hopefully it’s art that can inspire. I don’t think there’s an age limit for that.