Van Helden, Armand
Armand Van Helden
DJ, producer, remixer
New York-based DJ, remixer, and producer Armand Van Helden existed for several years as one of the best-kept secrets in the recording industry. During the early 1990s, he recorded for such labels as Strictly Rhythm, Henry St., Logic, and ZYX, and from there, he climbed the ropes to become one of the most sought-after names in the dance music business. By the late 1990s, following a string of hit remixes and several acclaimed albums, the Grammy-nominated Van Helden boasted an impressive résumé.
Possessing a keen sense for transforming otherwise non-dance oriented songs into dance floor hits, Van Helden has remixed tracks for many top artists including Puff Daddy, the Sneaker Pimps, Janet Jackson, Daft Punk, Tori Amos, the Rolling Stones, Vanessa Williams, and others. Van Helden does not limit his remixing projects to a single style of music; he aptly tackles pop, hip-hop, disco, rock and roll, and speed garage. Another aspect of Van Helden’s work is that he takes a minimalist approach, meaning that he incorporates very little of the original song into the remix. Most often, he uses only the melody and vocal hook, thereby allowing his own creativity to shine with his own added beats, sirens, basslines, and melodies.
A popular figure in Europe, especially in Great Britain, and considered a remixing genius by music journalists, Van Helden blames American radio for dance music’s lack of support in the United States. “In America, the biggest issue—and I’m not afraid to say it, either—the biggest block, the biggest thing that stops what I do and what people like me do is radio,” he stated in a DJ Times interview with Jim Tremayne. “Radio works on some old caveman tactics of music. They have a set way in their game. It’s like totally non-public support. It’s strictly business, strictly business. There is no love for the underdog in radio.” Still, though not caught up in celebrity, Van Helden would like to see his songs top the charts at home. “A pinnacle to me would be to be number one in America. I’m from here. I live here,” he admitted to URB magazine’s Sean Bidder.
Born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1970, the son of a Dutch-Indonesian father and a French-Lebanese mother, Van Helden grew up in a household that in- sisted upon good behavior and traditional values. “People ain’t gonna like it, cause everybody else got family drama, but I come from a good home,” he told Toby Manning for a Jockey Slut interview. “My father had traditional values, that British sense of good manner, of responsibility. My father instilled that in me.” As an adult, Van Helden considers his parents, now living in Arizona, as close friends. He even talked his mother into contributing vocals for a song called “Summertime,” which he plays with great pride, from his 1998 2Future4U album.
During his youth, Van Helden also learned about an array of cultures, an experience that would affect his development as a DJ. He grew up accustomed to moving around between different groups of people. “My dad was in the Air Force, so I lived mostly abroad as a teenager—Italy, Holland, Turkey,” recalled Van Helden to Jim Tremayne in the May 1998 issue of DJ Times.“I remember that when ’Rapper’s Delight’ came out I lived in Turkey and disco was hot. I played that song for a year straight. Then we lived in the States for a year and then, when I moved to Holland, ’Planet Rock’ came out. Nobody knew what hip-hop was in either of those places.”
Inspired by his favorite songs, Van Helden began experimenting with music at an early age using his father’s audio equipment. Later, his dad bought him a Pioneer turntable with pitch control, and at age 13, Van Helden on his own bought another turntable and a cheap mixer with a crossfader. Now set up with the necessary tools, Van Helden commenced his career as a DJ, playing mostly freestyle and hip-hop. At the age of 14 while living in Holland, he landed his first gig at a high school dance. According to Van Helden, “I rocked the house.” Thereafter, a local youth center invited Van Helden to DJ every Friday night. Through his work, he eventually earned enough money to buy his own speakers and other equipment.
From Holland, Van Helden moved with his family to Italy, where he continued to pursue music by hosting his own radio show; the opportunity arose when a United States Air Force serviceman left the station and handed the role over to Van Helden. Some time later, Van Helden went to a club one night with a group of
Born in 1970 in Boston, MA; son of a U.S. Air Force officer. Education: Studied media technology at Bunker Hill Community College, MA.
Started DJing professionally at age 14; took a production job for the remix service X-Mix Productions, 1991; released the hit single “Witch Doctor, “1994; released debut album Old School Junkies, 1996; released 2Future4U on his own Armed Records, Grammy Award nomination for remixer of the year, 1998; released Killing Puritans, 2000. Has remixed songs for artists such as Puff Daddy, the Sneaker Pimps, Janet Jackson, Daft Punk, Tori Amos, the Rolling Stones, and Vanessa Williams.
military men. There he landed another gig after the house DJ did not show up to work. Shuffled to the booth when one of the GIs informed the owner about Van Helden’s skills, he immediately won over the club patrons.
Moving back to Boston in his late teens, Van Helden enrolled at Bunker Hill Community College to study media technology. After graduating, he took a legal review job, but quit in 1991 to work on production for the remix service X-Mix Productions, a company founded by his future manager, Neil Pettricone. “I knew what I wanted do, which was produce and make music,” Van Helden said to Tremayne. The aspiring musician, meanwhile, also owned a residence at Boston’s Loft, and soon turned it into one of the most popular nightclubs in the city.
In 1992, after playing a production demo for dance music A&R guru Gladys Pizzaro, Van Helden released his debut single, Deep Creed’s “Stay on My Mind,” for Nervous Records. Later that same year, he released the Sultan of Swing’s “Move It to the Left” for Strictly Rhythm, earning him a moderate club hit. Then, in 1994, Van Helden broke into the international scene with the hard, abrasive “Witch Doctor.” Remixes for the likes of Deee-Lite, Jimmy Somerville, New Order, Deep Forest, and Faithless followed. But not until his remix for the Tori Amos song “Professional Widow” hit the clubs in 1996 did he equal the impact of “Witch Doctor.”
Throughout 1996 and 1997, forward-thinking pop artists consistently sought out Van Helden as the remixer of choice. The Rolling Stones, Janet Jackson, Puff Daddy, the Sneaker Pimps, C.J. Bolland, and Daft Punk all recruited Van Helden for remixing duty. For Van Helden, it remained important that he not trap himself into any one particular genre. “I pretty much figured out that as soon as people can put a finger one you, pretty much lick you up and put you on the envelope, then it’s hard to re-invent yourself, “he explained to Brian F. McCaughey of Insider magazine. “With me, they’ve never been able to do that. Because every time they thought they knew me, I’ve flipped on them. And it pissed them off, but at the same time I made a whole new group of people that are into me, that didn’t like me before.”
Van Helden likewise did not want fans and peers to see him merely as a remixer. Along with the release of his own singles “Cha Cha” and “The Funk Phenomena,” Van Helden released his debut album, Old School Junkies, in 1996. The following year, 1997, saw the release of a Greatest Hits retrospective, as well as a hip-hop album titled Sampleslaya —Enter the Meat-market.The latter fared poorly in terms of sales, primarily because “it was a product of a DJ following hip-hop reverently more than a house producer leading it,” commented Village Voice contributor Hobey Echlin.
Undeterred, Van Helden returned in 1998 with the more diverse 2Future4U.Released on his own Armed Records, the album featured the hit song “U Don’t Know Me.” Also in 1998, Van Helden earned a Grammy Award nomination for remixer of the year. In the spring of 2000, the star DJ released Killing Puritans, the title referring to the constant classifications placed on music by the industry. “The only thing labeling does is make it easier for the journalists and retailers,” said Van Helden, as quoted by Rick Salzer in Billboard.“But I don’t make music for critics. I make music for the consumer. Music isn’t something to think about—it’s to feel. It’s that simple.”
Old School Junkies, Henry Street Music, 1996.
Greatest Hits, Strictly Rhythm, 1997.
Sampleslaya —Enter the Meatmarket, Ruffhouse/Columbia,1997.
2Future4U, Armed/ffrr, 1998.
Killing Puritans, Armed/ffrr, 2000.
Billboard, January 17, 1998; March 7, 1998; February 17, 1999; February 27, 1999.
Boston Globe, October 29, 1999; May 13, 2000.
DJ, November 4, 1998
DJ Times, May 1998; September 1999.
DMC Update, February 1-7, 1999.
Flyer, June 1999.
Jockey Slut, February/March 1999.
Los Angeles Times, March 8, 1998.
Melody Maker, March 20, 1999; April 3, 1999.
Mixmag, February 1999.
Muzik, February 1999.
Rolling Stone, March 5, 1998; August 3, 2000; August 31,2000.
Spin, October 1999.
Time, June 26, 2000.
URB, August 1999.
USA Today, February 24, 1998.
Village Voice, October 24, 2000.
Washington Post, August 22, 1999; June 28, 2000.
All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com(March 9, 2001).
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