If you’ve been alive and near a radio in the past 20 years, you know Armand Van Helden’s music.
The American DJ and producer’s 1998 breakout hit You Don’t Know Me is an anthem that samples a devastating set of strings from Carrie Lucas’s disco belter Dance With You”. In 2004, came My My My, and in 2010, Barbra Streisand – Van Helden’s co-production with A-Trak as Duck Sauce, which topped charts everywhere from Poland to Israel to Australia.
Purists might say that mixing the worlds of club and concert hall is a betrayal of their respective forms. Should classically trained musicians who have been studying their craft for decades really be knocking out 4/4 rhythms produced on a drum machine? Is your mate Brad going to start shuffling in the orchestra pit?
But Van Helden, who is playing a one-off show backed by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra this weekend, is more than willing to poke fun at the absurdity of the situation.
“I never considered myself a musician … I can’t play Mary Had a Little Lamb, I can’t play anything,” he says. “Somehow I create music. I do bass lines, I do layers, I do rudimentary chords, [but] I have no idea what I’m doing.”
Van Helden was part of the second wave of house-music producers in the late ’80s who built on the work of Jesse Saunders, Lil’ Louis and Frankie Knuckles and used the newly available affordable synthesisers and the sampling techniques developed by hip-hop DJs to lay the foundations of the genre.
Barbra Streisand is a far cry from Van Helden’s underground beginnings, and he has critically appreciated classics of his own. But the Boston-born producer – who grew up listening to Kiss and Chic in equal measure – unashamedly acknowledges his ambition.
“When I made music I just wanted to make the biggest songs I could make. I wanted to make songs that would be played at a wedding 40 years in the future,” Van Helden tells Broadsheet. “I never had the thought, ‘Ooh, let me make an underground mood song and change art with it’. I never did it for those reasons.”
Most of Van Helden’s earliest interactions with house music happened not at raves or clubs but at the black sororities and fraternities of his college in America.
“I didn’t get shown an ecstasy rave first,” he says. “I got shown a house-music night where people brought backpacks, a change of clothes and filled water bottles up in the sink in the bathroom. They put baby powder down on the floor so dancers could do Michael Jackson spins.”
At the time house music was a niche scene largely happening in underground clubs frequented by predominantly African American and Latin American patrons. The scene was a revelation for the young Van Helden who had started out as a hip-hop DJ.
In the late ’80s Van Helden had a residency at Boston nightclub The Loft. The club stopped serving alcohol at 2am but was allowed to stay open until 6am after the owners took police to court following an illegal raid. Since booze wasn’t served there were no age restrictions on who could enter, meaning kids as young as 16 showed up.
“They were the most dedicated. This thing turned into a cult and … these kids felt changed from this,” Van Helden says. Sixteen year olds still make it into clubs (I did) but now that “cult” is a worldwide phenomenon.
These days major record labels sign young DJs with only a couple of tracks to their names, but this wasn’t always the case.
“It [house music] was pop music in Europe, but it was not pop music in the United States at all,” he says. “Zero, zero, zero. If you went to a record label and said: ‘Hey, I’ve had a number-one record in Germany’ they’d say: ‘That sounds like house music, that’s gay music, we don’t mess with that’,” says Van Helden.
In the years since Van Helden had his first hits, massive festivals attracting hundreds of thousands of people have popped up across the US hosting many genres of electronic dance music under the blanket term EDM. Over one weekend in March, for example, 165,000 people attend Ultra Music Festival in Miami to see Top 40 DJs such as Diplo, Skrillex and Deadmau5; the latter plays inside a giant illuminated cube wearing a glowing mouse head. Stage production is very different now to what it was when a couple of hundred kids were sweating it out in a Boston nightclub. Now, DJs play with classical orchestras. The electronic sounds produced by Van Helden and his contemporaries have seeped into everything from top-40 pop to rap.
While much of dance music’s early romance appears to have been frogmarched out of the club, Van Helden – who splits his time between New York and Miami – is sanguine about its current popularity.
“EDM can be very dubstep-y, there can be trap – even hip-hop now is included in this, so it’s interesting to me,” he says. “It went pop, a lot of it sounds horrible, but I think it’s really cool that all of these musical forms have now combined into this youthful setting where they don’t even care where this music comes from, they just like how it sounds all put together.
With the MSO, Van Helden will be following the lead of his hero James Brown, whose band the JBs were some of the most technically gifted musicians of their era.
“[James Brown] goes: ‘You guys are ‘gonna do this riff for two bars, for five or six minutes’. [The JBs] are like: ‘What? I’m one of the best saxophinists in the world and you just want me to go burrmp every two bars?’
“When I thought of orchestral musicians playing over my work I thought this is kind of the same thing. House music is insanely repetitive and it’s not in an orchestral mindset, but that’s what’s unique about it,” says Van Helden about his show with the MSO.
But despite playing prestige shows with symphony orchestras, two decades of hits and a spot in the pantheon of dance-music greats, Van Helden still just wants to woo the wedding DJ.
“In the US Barbra Streisand is the most Disneyland song I ever made, that’s the one you’re going to hear at a wedding. To me its like, hey, if they can play it, and then play We are Family, if I’m [played] next to Nile Rodgers at a wedding, then I’m ready to retire.”
Broadsheet is a proud media partner of Armand Van Helden and the MSO. They play the Sydney Myer Music Bowl on January 27 supported by Harvey Sutherland. Tickets are available here.
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