VIDEO: Armand Van Helden, "I Want Your Soul"
As Boston goes, the origin stories of superstar DJs are few and far between. One of the biggest, if not the biggest, is the tale of Armand Van Helden, creator of #1 hits (“You Don’t Know Me”), remixer of stars (Tori Amos, Justin Timberlake, Daft Punk, Britney Spears), and former Bunker Hill Community College student. Although the multi-ethnic musicmaker has lived most of his life in New York, he was born in Boston, in 1970, and was instrumental in the rebirth of the Loft nightclub 18 years later. His new Ghettoblaster (Ultra) reflects his formulative years in Kenmore Square, from his early period as a freestyle DJ to the cultural amalgam of the Loft. I reached him in his apartment in New York City to talk about his Boston roots, party girls, and his killer new album.
I love the single you did with Fat Joe (“Touch Your Toes”), and I hear it getting played out more and more. How did you get together with someone like Fat Joe?
Most of the time, I kind of do my street hustle to get artists. But that particular song was shopped to me by my manager. I’ve been a fan of Fat Joe since “Flow Joe.”
There’s a lot of that sound now. Ghettoblaster seems more street-oriented — would you say you’re reaching out to that crowd?
When I finished the album, I didn’t even know what to call it. My intention was to have it as a throwback album. When I start an album, I have to set some ground rules. If I don’t, I turn in a bizarre-sounding album! So this was 1985 to ’93. Urban, not rock. Up-tempo soul music. House music, early Chicago stuff, freestyle, hip-house, and club music: Janet Jackson, Shannon, Madonna even.
When’s the Ghettoblaster world-domination tour?
There’s no tour. I like to make music and then put it out and go back to what I was doing before. But it doesn’t work that way, obviously. People want to see you.
I guess once you get to that point, you’re at the top of a certain game.
It all comes down to what you buy. I don’t buy anything, so I don’t have debt, so I don’t have to work if I don’t want to. The majority of the other people in my field, they don’t have that choice. They buy houses in different countries, they buy expensive cars, they go crazy. I don’t buy anything, so I can afford to do nothing.
You mentioned freestyle — “I Want Your Soul” is another one of my favorites. Where is that sample from?
From around ’85, Siedah Garrett’s “Do You Want It Right Now?” It was actually from a movie called Fast Forward. It was kind of like a dance-school hip-hop, but not hip-hop. Like in [the 1984 film] Breakin’, when they battle in a nightclub, but they’re doing more like, ballet. It’s just, weird.
I gotta go rent that.
Yeah, it’s pretty funny. It’s a sound I was shooting for — it’s soul, but it’s not. It’s not house music. It’s not exactly freestyle, either. It’s what mainstream dance was at the time, but I make it bigger. ’Cause a lot of the sound of that time was flatter than today. With the technology of today, you can make it more lush.
How did The Loft come to be? What was it, in your words, and how did it become such a success?
The Loft was a club that was open 2 to 8 am, where the Hard Rock Café is now. Back then it was a private-membership club. When I came in, they had just reopened it, and I went to the Loft and it was a bunch of old people, there was no youth element. And without youth injection, what do you got? You’re just sustaining a lifestyle.
So how did you get the kids to stay up? What did you do differently?
At the time, 1991, the whole rave thing was taking off — I mean it was taking off, and a good friend of mine, Tom Mello, was doing 15,000 people in some building in Massachusetts with rave DJs, and I was like, “You know, I have two floors at the Loft, you can use the top floor,” and he was like, “Oh word, that’s cool.” And I was like, “Bring all your rave DJs and we’ll make it work.”
So you had rave music on the top floor and more of a deep-house vibe downstairs?
That’s why the Loft became what it was. And the thing that was more silly was the Loft itself. The men’s bathroom was in the back of the house floor, but the women’s bathroom was in the back of the rave room. And I’d watch the ghetto girls come in, and they wouldn’t go pee! They were scared to walk through a bunch of kids with glowsticks and go into the bathroom! Obviously, in a couple months’ time, the floors intermixed. The rave people were probably afraid of the house floor, period! But later the kids from the house floor would go upstairs at 2 or 3 and be buggin’ out to early jungle or drum ’n’ bass. We smashed together two people that didn’t mix.