A Conversation with DJ Neil Armstrong
In addition to his impressive resume that includes touring as a DJ and mixing for major hip-hop acts like De La Soul, The Roots and Kanye West, DJ Neil Armstrong has been keeping busy with carving out his own platform and distinctive niche through the sounds he’s grown to love. Hypebeast recently had a chance to sit down with Armstrong to get his unique take on his musical diversity, how he sets up a mix, his experiences with Jay-Z, and also the importance of staying grounded when fame comes knocking. In a way that few his senior have been able to accomplish, DJ Neil Armstrong has managed to maintain the integrity of his craft while simultaneously co-creating with some of the biggest acts both past and present in the industry; all the while keeping humility and innovation at the forefront of his growth.
Turntablism… is my roots, but in the last five years it has kind of gone the way of jazz, its popularity peaking around 2005. There are still diehard fans and practitioners of the art form, and I am one of them. When I need to relax, I’ll just put on a record and scratch and beat-juggle.
Growing up on hip-hop… in the golden area (’88-’92) in NYC was the single greatest factor in creating all that I am — besides my parents and church. I’m sure that I’d be a completely different person without that force influencing me. Back then it used have such a bad reputation as a terrible part of American culture, but because of hip-hop, I’ve literally traveled the world, performed for the inauguration of a U.S. President, and have made a living by making other people dance. No degree in the world would have allowed me to have that.
Diversity in what I listen to… was not my choice. I truly believe music chooses you. New Wave because of my sister who loved Depeche Mode and The Smiths. Freestyle and house because my first girlfriend was Puerto Rican, and hip-hop cause it’s in my blood. My parents also forced me to play the violin and piano from as long as I can remember; so literally in my case it really wasn’t my choice, my parents would have grounded me (Asian kid problems).
My approach to mixes… is half emotion and half scientific method. I received a degree in chemical engineering a lifetime ago, and we had the “scientific method” of solving problems ingrained in our brains. So I think somewhat unconsciously I treat making a mixtape like solving a problem, or putting together a puzzle that has no picture on it until I actually put it all together.
Preparation for live performances… I would think most people would find pretty funny. When I was working for Jay, nine times out of 10 I would be sleeping behind the stage behind my turntables while Mary J. Blige or N.E.R.D was performing. Literally, I would take a nap to make sure I didn’t oversleep and miss the show. Otherwise I was getting last-minute instructions from Mr. Carter himself… When I DJ for parties, I make sure to get there about an hour early to see what the crowd is reacting to with the opening DJ.
My experience with Jay-Z… was, as you can imagine, pretty amazing. Dizzying highs and stressful lows. Touring life is not for the weak. I actually got really physically sick on my last tour with him. For all of the negatives though, I wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything. Jay-Z will undoubtedly go down as the “Elvis of hip-hop,” and to say that I got to be the DJ for that MC at one point in my life is crazy.
Some of the people I highly respect… are my manager Sky Gellatly, who does a whole bunch of stuff and still somehow has time to handle my accounting. Also, all my “industry” friends who have taken the next step and have started the next generation of forward thinkers by having little wee ones; my father who I have to assume I get my soft-spoken, calm demeanor from; and my grandma who is like 90-something and is as feisty as ever.
Staying grounded… is important for longevity and one of the things that a lot of people forget the importance of. I think it’s a function of age of having the experience and knowledge that fame and money in this industry come and go in a blink of an eye. The moment you start believing your own “bullshit” is usually when you’re done. So stay grounded, stay humble and remember the reason why you do what you do in the first place.
In this industry it’s easy to… stay young forever. I DJed with Grand Master Flash in Amsterdam. He looks and acts like he’s 28. Same with Little Louie Vega. HA! You thought I was gonna say something like “it’s easy to get jaded” or something negative. See how I flipped that?
The New York Knicks… are a tough team to be a fan of. They’re like a terrible ex-girlfriend that breaks your heart and lures you back in with hopes of a better tomorrow. But, I was born and raised in NYC, and I’m a proud sucker and a fan for life, but when we be losing, I just don’t yell it out as loud (whispers… “go Knicks!”).