For over 20 years, Armand Van Helden has been on the cutting of dance music, both breaking down walls between genres and accidentally opening up new ones in the process. Sitting on a beach in Miami a few days after the close of Ultra, our conversation briefly interrupted when a woman decided he would be a good person to ask for weed, the DJ selected and spoke about 15 of his most essential tracks, a list that includes everything from New York house classics like "Witch Doktor" and remixes for Tori Amos and Daft Punk to a couple of the tunes he and A-Trak released as Duck Sauce on last week's Quack LP. By Nick Murray
I moved from Boston in late '93 and "Witch Docktor" came out spring of '94, so I had gotten right to work. I was out almost every night – it was club kids era, you know, but I was more on the fringe – and "Witch Docktor" was maybe the third record I did with those big New York clubs in mind. I needed something that could really fill out a place like Limelight, and "Witch Docktor" was the first time I really succeeded with that.
I didn’t think this would be a big record. It was third song on a three-song EP, and it blew up in UK first then jumped over to California and later Miami. It never caught on in New York – I think it was too different from that Masters at Work New York sound of the moment. I was actually in Amsterdam on tour, and I got to the hotel room and put on a music video countdown while I unpacked – and it was Number One! I couldn’t believe it – I didn’t even know it had a video. And I hated the video! It was just, like, a woman undressing, the most cliché dance video.
We were buddies at the time – that's the easiest way I can put it – and we still are, as far as I'm concerned, we're just out of touch. But yeah, it was such an honor to be able to work with them at any level, and at that time New York was just starting to notice them because of "Around the World." But basically all the material Daft Punk put out before – meaning all the records Thomas [Bangalter] put out on Roulé and Guy-Manuel [de Homem-Christo] on Crydamoure – the United States (and New York in particular) didn't get it yet. It seemed like it took a while even after the first album dropped for it to really get on New York's palette. New York was cliquey in those days – it was just into its own style and Daft Punk was a whole new sound, so it took a while for it to embrace them. "Da Funk" got no play in New York when it came out. It made me and my friends so mad – we thought it was the craziest record.
My initial idea with that was to combine house with drum-and-bass. It sounds more house, but with the architecture where drum-and-bass has a very light intro and then they have the drop. My idea for the remix was to put that architecture into a house song.
This one probably shouldn’t be on the list, but I've always been proud of it because it was my one drum-and-bass record that worked as a drum-and-bass record – two years later I was in the UK and a few pople came up to me like, "Hey that was a good record." New York, at the time, there were are all these walls up. There was no drum-and-bass, or the rave and hardcore kids were completely separate from the house scene. Me and my clique always felt always felt so isolated as the only househeads who were into this kind of stuff. That Monica sample … We didn't have the technology then, so I actually had to play the record and mix that live to tape.
I didn’t know Tori, but before I did the remix Tori contacted me – which was rare – and said she wanted it to be different. My idea when I did that remix was to copy MK's style of chopping the vocal bits and have the melody match the chopped up vocal bits. The melody on that song obviously is just the bassline, so then I took the bassline and just kind of did what MK would do and chopped up Tori Amos's vocals to go over it.
I don't mean to be the bearer of bad news, but remixing isn't usually a glamorous process. Usually it's just going back and forth with people from A&R. Usually the artist doesn't even know who you are. Justin Timblerlake, he might have reached out to me for the "Sexyback" remix. Katy Perry maybe. Oh! You know who did contact me? I had completely forgotten about this: Mick Jagger! His camp – the Rolling Stones camp, I guess – reached out to my camp and said, "Hey can we have Armand remix?" And I said absolutely, then I come to find out that no, Mick Jagger wants to speak to you personally. And then I get the phone call and we talk and Mick just kind of says, "Hey, what's your idea?" I told him that I wanted to make it as funky as possible but also as dancefloor-ready as possible. When the mix came out it did medium, nothing great – I wish it did better, considering that Mick was very involved with it.
Anyways, when the Tori Amos song went to Number One on the pop charts in the UK and various other country, she called me up again just to thank me – she was very sweet – and the she sent a huge basket of cheeses and munchies.
Again, that drum-and-bass bass drop. As I said, I had tried to add that to a house record with "Sugar Is Sweeter," but after that and the Tori Amos remix, I really wanted to push it up a notch with this one.
Duane Harden [who sang on the song] is a guy I knew from Boston. He would dance like crazy, and when he really loved a song, he would just start yelling. And he had a great voice, so I got him in the studio and told him to write lyrics about anything except love. When I record vocals, I leave someone alone in the studio and let them be, and I go back later and put their part on the track, kind of like a puzzle. So I came back and this is what he had done – it was his first song ever. I was really into the Bad Boy producers at the time, they way they would loop somewhat obvious samples like Duran Duran, so I saw this record as half Bad Boy and half, like, Stardust.
You can probably divide my career up into two eras: From 1991 to 1998, I was, you know, possessed. Then "U Don’t Know Me" became my second Number One hit, and I was young and at top, and I wanted to make sure I could take it in a little. So 1998-on is my lazy phase.
Roland Clark was the brilliant British vocalist, and I recorded his vocals same way he recorded Harden's but when I went into the booth after 30 minutes, Clark had made a 30 minute song! I let it sit for about a week, and when I finally got to chopping it down I ended up including a breakdown that’s as long as a regular song – that was him just riffing off the top of his head. I couldn't believe it.
One thing that's unique about that song is how it fades out and then kind of jolts you when it starts back in. That was totally accidental – I was playing with filters and by mistake I must have turned the wrong knob, but I liked it and decided to leave it in.
I grew up in the house realm and when you get success in an underground genre (which it was at the time) then your underground following shuns you away, which is fine – it's the norm in any type of music. But the intent of "Necessary Evil" – which is funny, because it's in the title – was to go, "Hey, anybody can do these underground tracks" because they're just so, like, underground and easy to make. Pop, whether people want to admit it or not, is not easy music to make. You have to be quite efficient as a producer to make a great pop song.
I just basically threw up this beat kind of quickly and then I put up a sound effect of a saw sawing wood, and chaos ensues from that point. And that's it.
This one was inspired by The Blueprint – I was really into that sound Kanye West and Just Blaze were making, those sped-up soul samples. I was kind of out of the loop after kicking back after "U Don't Know Me," and I needed to wade in the pool a little bit before I could make "My My My." That music video, Southern Fried had their people handle it, but I liked it a lot – I thought it turned out great.
I love freestyle music – the cornier the better. I don't know if kids know about freestyle, but that's artists like Shannon, Stevie B a little later. Freestyle became a Latin, salsa thing later on but when it started it was black too. With 'I Want Your Soul' I wanted to make a black freestyle, or freestyle-house record.
I made the track and the label sent it to Dizzee, and we were both hip-hop guys, so we connected. And the beat is a rip-off of the song "Mars" by Fake Blood – not in a way where you'd say, "that’s fucked up," but as my inspiration. I never thought I'd get a Number One in, you know, the lazy stage of my career.
This is coming a little later, but 2005 to 2007 especially was such a renaissance for dance music. It was a weird moment for me because everything I'd been about my whole career – breaking down those walls – was finally happening. Like Switch? I love Switch. I would look for everything he put out. Crookers' Kid Cudi remix? Forget it. Mstrkrft. And everyone says it, but it's true: Daft Punk at Coachella made dance music cool for hipsters.
I met A-Trak through Chromeo and [his brother] Dave 1 and we said, "Let's do a track together!" So different from the Nineties when you'd meet a DJ and they'd just stare at you, but we found the "Anyway" sample doing a dig and from there we built that track. The thing is, a lot of the original is being used in that song, which was kind of unique because a lot of people didn't necessarily sample to that degree – it was an oversampling of sampling in that song. But we just liked the vibe of it, we liked the message and it was just one of those records. Duck Sauce is all vibe, energy and naïve-ness, if you want to say.
I never, never, never in a million years thought this would be a hit. We were sort of trying to make fun of electro – what's that LMFAO track where the beat would drop out and a voice would say, like, "I'm in Miami Bitch" and then the beat bounces back in? We had a gap in the track and A-Trak said that there needed to be words there. So I looked in my phone – I have all sorts of notes in there – and the first words I saw were "Neil Diamond." A-Trak said no, so I said "Barbra Streisand" and he said, "Lay It Down." I wanted to say it like a radio announcer.