Fifteen years ago, Armand Van Helden’s “Witch Doktor” dominated dance scenes around the world, serving as the lead song on the soundtrack into purgatory with its hellish alarms. However, instead of frantic sinners running for cover, excited club goers ran toward the dance floor.
Since then, a string of successes followed: a 1998 Grammy nomination for remixer of the year; remixing for Tori Amos, Britney Spears and Janet Jackson; and tossing out numerous dance joints of his own like “The Funk Phenomena” and the Billboard chart-topping “You Don’t Know Me.”
It’s January 20, 2009 and Armand fails to answer his phone for our 3 p.m. interview. I expect this, as I’ve read he never answers his phone, something he later admits as somewhat factual. After few attempts and a call to his agent, I get through. I imagine his excuse resides with his eyes glued to that morning’s events: President Barack Obama delivering his inaugural speech.
Negative. Passive on the historic moment, he says, “I think presidents are powerful people. They have the power to pass bills, but I think that’s where there power ends.”
Instead of dark eyes fixated on a television screen, they scramble from white walls in the lounge-area of his living space to a window with a view of a skyscraper or two. A Starbuck’s double shot espresso and Naked Juice churn in his stomach on this “cold, but nice day.” He seems spaced when asked general questions that get me general answers:
What’s within your reach or in your pockets? An iPhone and a wallet.
Any resolutions for the New Year? Staying in the flow of the flow.
Where were some places you lived as a child? Turkey. Holland… Italy.
I sense his anxiousness and lasso him in with the meat and potatoes of the interview warping him back to his set at Crobar a month prior. A dramatic six inches barrels in cars outside the venue where inside, his DJ booth towers, God-like, over a sea of “Tic Tac” poppers, orange tans, Armani Exchange and an Armand carbon copy or two.
How did the decision to spin at Crobar, for a recession-busting event on top it all, come about?
An agent does all my stuff. They basically hit me up once a week asking, “Do you wanna spin here? Do you wanna spin there?” They don’t tell me what clubs, just cities. I don’t play the States often and I only play one weekend a month. That’s kinda my average.
Did you find the crowd more or less engaged than in cities elsewhere?
The crowds in Europe tend to confuse me for guys that spin more adult. I play kinda childish. I’m old, but I play like a child. The crowd at Crobar, to me, seemed awesome. I don’t play sets – anything Chicago – like in terms of the history. A lot of people who own up and come out of Chicago represent that groove, and I’m not a great groove DJ, never been. Maybe in my earlier days I was all concerned with playing instrumentals, really groovin’ them out – that’s a very Chicago thing. But I look at dance music in an odd light. It’s probably not healthy, but I always look at it in a rock or hip-hop sensibility. I’m always the enemy of house in a way; I’m always trying to bring those things into house.
Fans always have expectations of their favorite artists. What in turn do you expect of an Armand van Helden fan?
That’s a great question. I’ve watched people in interviews, on TV, and I’ve noticed people saying “my fans.” I don’t use that vocabulary. I don’t use those two words, because I don’t think I have any. I know there are people, because they come up to me and they say their piece, and I appreciate it of course. I just don’t make music to think about them. I’m not saying I’m selfish. I’m just saying I enjoy making music like a painter enjoys painting a picture. My big problem is, I don’t give a fuck! [laughs] I can’t tell you if it’s a positive or a negative.
I kind of understand, but I want to poke a little fun because you sort of contradict yourself. I saw another interview where you discuss your affirmation for hip-hop describing it as similar to being a gay guy in the closet.
I grew up with disco, rock, soft rock. My dad was into jazz and my mom was into soul; but when Planet Rock came out, it was like, “What the fuck is this?” It’s 1982, it’s like going through life and then somebody breaks your virginity with a song – Planet Rock did that. I thought, “Whatever this things is, this is me…I am Planet Rock!” From that day forward, I’ve been hip-hop.
You recently dropped New York: A Mix Odyssey 2. How is it different from the first?
At the time of the first one, I was really getting into the indie rock scene. It was before the whole dance-rock explosion that exists today. With Mix Odyssey 2, I just went back to hip-hop. I put my head where I used to be when I was 19. It was a blast making it. Hip-house was just so great. As they say in hip-hop circles, hip-house is the one they wanna make go away. They don’t like it…well as of now they do, but when I was making it they were saying hip-hop doesn’t want to be associated with gay music, which they consider club music. You know how the old-school hip-hop people are.
It seems there’s this big push-and-pull the way old house heads and old hip-hop heads react to anything new.
It’s weird what happens in music. Every time you think of something completely outlandish, somebody does it in time. It’s like saying in the year 2014, gay rappers are gonna take over and everyone’s gonna be rappin’ about how they got fucked in the ass. We’d be sitting here like, “That’s impossible!” [laughs] But the thing of it is, don’t be surprised.
You also dropped You Don’t Know Me: The Best of Armand Van Helden. Any reason why “Shake That Ass” and “Ski Hard” didn’t make the cut?
Could be a lot of reasons. Maybe “Shake That Ass” didn’t work ’cause it was too in your face; and maybe “Ski Hard” doesn’t work because I let the vocals run too rappy. I put out the songs and they do what they do. If a song goes out the door, guess what? I make another one. If they blow, they blow.
But how do you do this in a way where your initial followers don’t feel alienated in the way, say, Madonna’s earlier fans cringe at the mere incorporation of a hip-hop beat?
I remember I was booked for a daytime party in Miami and it was all this progressive-Euro bullshit. I’m like, “Oh gawd! What the fuck? I didn’t bring any of this kinda music.” Then these dudes come up to me [impersonating an Italian from Queens], “Yo what the fuck? Where’s ‘Witch Doktor’?” I thought, “I understand these people know me from the old school, but do they really think I’m gonna play like I did in 1994?”
Let’s talk Chicago. Chicagoans always want to know how they’re perceived from the outside. What was your view?
My introduction to Chicago, fortunately, was through Sneak. Me and Sneak were boys. Through Sneak, I got a great look on Chicago and in terms of the scene. I was blown away. You gotta think, at this point in time I had a career in House Music. It’s odd to say you have a career in House Music and not go to the motherland, which, as you know, is Chicago. It’s almost like a Muslim going to Mecca; that’s what I felt like comin’ to Chicago.
Bear Who? told us about the Mongoloidz, the brotherhood you both belong to, in this very magazine. Tell us about the Mongoloidz in your own words.
It’s pretty easy. What happened was me and Junior Sanchez were sitting up in my place. In the early days, it was a normal thing for people to like House and hip-hop. Wu-Tang was really the hot thing at the time. I go to Junior Sanchez, “You know, we should make a Wu-Tang of house music.” That’s how it started. The House scene lacked that unity. Junior actually took it to heart. I wasn’t that serious. At that point, whoever Junior liked became a Mongoloid.
Are you still cool with any of the guys?
I’m still in touch with Junior ’cause he’s from Jersey; he’s from this area. I regret till this day that Thomas, from Daft Punk, he goes, “We should take this Mongoloidz thing seriously. We should do a record.” We never did anything with it. I do kinda look back now, like, “That was a mistake.” I just never took it serious. I regret not taking them up on their offer because I think it could have been a magical thing.
It was 15 years ago when “Witch Doktor” dropped. You described the feeling of hearing it on the radio for the first time as being on a whole new level. What would have to occur for you to capture that same feeling?
I had one that happened last week. I did this record with these kids called the Retro Kidz. It’s like a hip-hop record, but kinda dancey too. It’s a bunch of kids with high-top fades; they all look like Kid’N’Play. Last week, it was on the hot spot between #1 and #2 with the vote thing on 106 & Park and I’m in the video and I’m like, “Oh my God! I have to be the oldest man on 106 & Park! This is a great time! The only person that’s near me is like Jay-Z or LL Cool J. This is fuckin’ hilarious.” [Laughs] It was one of those “Witch Doktor” radio moments. It was almost the same.
Interview by David-Anthony Gonzalez