DJ Neil Armstrong on Playing Stadiums with Jay-Z, and How Time Decides the Classics
It was exactly a decade ago that DJ Neil Armstrong's release Original changed mixtape culture. Telling a story with every song transition and lyric, he demonstrated how DJ mixes can rival artists' albums. Beginning his turntablist career in the early 90s under the direction and influences of DJs like Shortkut, Qbert, and The X-Ecutioners, to name a few, he soon became a founding father of the famous 5th Platoon. Throughout the years, he has worked his way up to being Jay-Z's tour DJ and a global Adidas hip-hop representative. Below, he chats about topics like touring with Jay-Z, the progression of the mixtape, and why 99 percent of people don't make it big. Did we mention he has also spoken at schools like Harvard and USC? See Armstrong demonstrate how a turntable can become an instrument this Friday at SOM.
Conquering the world.
You're known as the mixtape connoisseur. In the 10 years since Original came out, do you think your sound has progressed?
This year I'm going to make another mixtape to commemorate it and do a little touring. Original was my starting point of everything. However, through the years, I've kept the hip-hop aesthetic in my tapes even if I'm playing Latin acid house. Technique-wise, Original set a precedent for me and what people expect of me, but I don't know if I've gotten better or worse (laughs). Once the bar is set, the only way is to go over it.
Most people know you as "Jay-Z's tour DJ." It must have been crazy opening up in stadiums. Was it a huge shock to you?
When I was onstage with Jay, I knew no one was there to see me. I'm was there for a backup. It's kind of like how no one knows the guitarist or who his keyboardist is, but they are amazing musicians. The majority of people are there to see Jay. I was just there for him.
With that being said, the energy of 10,000 people is not just ten times greater than 1000 people, it's exponentially bigger. When you have that many people screaming at you, it's an amazing feeling.
The feeling of hundreds of screaming fans?
Well, I used to always say I could sorta understand if you wanted to make some logic to why music artists turn to drugs or things of that nature. When you get that feeling of being in front of a crowd, it's a massive high that can't be recreated, so a lot of people spend their lives trying to re-create it, and that's how they get into drugs. You can't recreate it; the only way is to be in that situation in front of millions. And it's a difficult thing to maintain for anybody; it's the ebb and flow of being a music artist. One day they love you; the next day they hate you.
Since Adidas also sends you all over the world, what sorts of knowledge do you pick up?
Traveling gives me a worldly view, but it doesn't affect how I spin. Sometimes what you learn is superunexpected. In South Africa, "real hip-hop" is huge, and like every girl there knew all the words to "Ante Up"! It was kind of shocking because I never thought that it was like that there (laughs). You definitely have to adjust yourself.