DJ Neil Armstrong Jumps “In the Mix” (Exclusive Interview)
DJ Neil Armstrong is no newcomer to the scene, and over the years the native New Yorker has propelled his career as a DJ to create quite an impressive musical resume for himself. He has toured with hip-hop elite such as Jay-Z, made a name for himself through his mixtapes, appeared in the industry’s leading publications, and rocked on stages that many young DJ’s dream of (the Letterman Show, Madison Square Garden, the Olympic games, etc.). In an In the Mix interview with DJBooth's Amanda Bassa he spoke about how to market yourself as a DJ, his favorite music-related tech gadget, why he listens to Britney Spears on his iPod, and more.
Amanda Bassa: You’re very multifaceted – mixtapes, clubs, touring with rappers, etc. Which lane of DJing do you enjoy the most?
Neil Armstrong: Doing mixtapes. When I was a tour DJ I played a background role – I didn’t have to be there, people were there to see [Jay-Z]. I was backing him up. When you deejay a party, a good DJ’s job is to take care of the crowd. If people want to hear Britney Spears, that’s what you’re supposed to do. There are instances where you get to deejay and you’ll get a crowd who vibes with you and will let you do whatever you want. You could play Stevie Wonder, classic house, whatever. But you’re not always in that situation. When you do mixtapes you’re in control. If people don’t want to listen to you, they’ll turn it off. If you want to mix Al Green with Alicia Keys, you can do that and no one can say a word. That’s what I end up enjoying the most.
Amanda Bassa: Deejaying seems to be trendy right now, and advancements in technology are only making it more accessible as a craft. How do you feel about this?
Neil Armstrong: It’s a double edge sword. Technology makes good DJ’s better, but also allows your average person to think they’re a DJ, and unfortunately there’s no checks and balances about people making it a career. Lindsay Lohan isn’t a DJ, but because of her celebrity power she can do a gig somewhere, put her name on a flyer, and she’ll probably bring in more people and make more money than I ever will. It’s still an art and there are people who buy vinyl and care about the music. When you have this trendiness it dilutes the art. I’m not the type to complain, like “Serato is killing things.” I’m sponsored by Rane. I like the aspect of technology. For me to spin the way I do, I would have to carry five crates of records with me everywhere I go, which in this day and age would be like two hundred extra dollars in baggage fees. All I need now is a hard drive and a computer and I can rock anywhere in the world. I’m one of the more positive cats, but when people go off about everybody wanting to be a DJ, I don’t doubt them either. I understand their point as well.
Amanda Bassa: How do you approach marketing yourself as a DJ?
Neil Armstrong: Like anything you do with any product, you have to build a brand. Why am I drinking Pepsi rather than Coke? Why should someone hire me as opposed to Rob Swift? Figure out how to build a brand and stick by it so people know what to expect. When I started I was a turntablist, and the guys I looked up to were Roc Raida, Rob Swift, my crewmates in 5th Platoon, etc. Then I started looking at what others were doing, and really liking DJ’s like Spinna, Rich Medina, Bobbito…Look at DJ Spinna. He’s been around for what, twenty years? He may not be a name like DJ AM, but he has longevity and is true to himself. He built up an audience in the house world, and when he came out with the Stevie Wonder vs. Prince stuff he kept a certain level of integrity involved. You wouldn’t expect him to play Waka Flocka. I like that about that genre of DJ’s. They’ve built this brand forever, and ten years from now they’ll still be able to keep that. Ten years from now, though, I don’t know if the people playing Waka Flocka will be able to work anymore unless they realize they have to pick up playing Michael Jackson, some electro, etc. With me, starting as a turntablist, then doing mixtapes and working with Jay-Z? It diversified my brand. People know I’ll play good music. I’ve gotten away with playing Mint Condition at parties, and people will trust me enough to know that I may be playing a slow jam, but I’ll be bringing them on some musical journey. If I’m in the South and they want to hear “No Hands,” I’m also ready to go there.
In New York and Los Angeles there’s a tendency to undermine the role of the DJ in the clubs. In New York, no one really talks about money, but a lot of DJ’s who are spinning at these high-end places are getting shortchanged. They’re not making much money and they’re doing it because it’s like, “If I deejay Pink Elephant, that’s where Beyonce goes, and it will lead to more.” No. You need to build your brand, not build it on Beyonce.
Amanda Bassa: What’s the last music-related tech gadget you acquired, and how do you like it?
Neil Armstrong: Rane has a mixer in particular, the [TTM 57SL], which is actually kind of old in the whole scene of technology, but that’s what I mostly use to do what I do. I’m this weird hybrid. I know cats who use MIDI controllers and other things. I don’t really spin that way so I haven’t extended out to other pieces of hardware. I have messed around with these things called Dicers, which basically pop out your cue points in Serato to these actual pads you can press. It takes a lot of the stuff that’s on the computer and puts it on a separate console. Those types of devices tend to be used more by people who do electronic music, so that’s everything from electro to dubstep to house. I don’t know many Hip Hop DJ’s who mess around with those types of things.
Amanda Bassa: What’s the advantage of rolling with a crew?
Neil Armstrong: It’s the same thing with bboying and graf - you run with your people. I think most real crews start that way. My crew used to practice with each other, battle with the X-Men, and we ended up just forming the crew. In contests we could pull intimidating tactics because there’d be five of us, not just one. People would be weary of acting up. There is this level of camaraderie. But there are other crews that are bigger entities: Heavy Hitters, Big Dawg Pitbulls. There is definitely a business aspect to that. For those guys, affiliation with a crew of that status is a network. The name goes a long way when working with certain clubs. If you’re down with the Pitbulls but the promoter has never heard of you, often the promoter has heard of Big Dawg Pitbulls, so your foot is in the door anyway. That’s why some people would join crews. I don’t know if it’s that way across the board anymore, because we seem to have entered a different era in how people get booked. There are big booking agencies that have taken over. I’m part of an agency. It never hurts to have friends around, so that’s why you’d form a crew.
Amanda Bassa: DJ’s are known as musical tastemakers, so what are some artists you’ve had on repeat lately?
Neil Armstrong: I guess because deejaying has become my job, I tend to listen to really horrible stuff on my spare time. If you heard my iPod you’d be like, “what the hell?” The dumbest music is on my iPod to “cleanse the palate.” There are people I’ll always love to listen to, and I’m always ending up discovering new songs by them, which is crazy. Like Stevie Wonder. Because we end up listening to the same stuff when we have to deejay, I try to find entirely different things to listen to in order to stay sane.
When I’m not listening to horrible stuff, like Kesha and Britney Spears (and I’m not joking! All of this stuff is on my iPod), I’m searching out older music. One time my girlfriend took my iPod to go to the gym, and said she couldn’t even listen to it because it was a horrible mix of crap and acapellas. I know I have a reputation with the people who know my brand, so they think I must be listening to some ill shit. But not really! I can’t deal with Laffy Taffy, but the reason why pop music is called pop is because it’s catchy. You don’t have to think about it, and can just relax.