Armand Van Helden
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Armand Van Helden

House music doesn't produce characters? Meet Armand Van Helden, maverick musical magpie, the b-boy who loves rock and makes house.

With a French-Lebanese mother and a Dutch-Indonesian father who was in the US Air Force, much of Van Helden's youth was spent moving around to the likes of Holland, Turkey and Italy. Such a cosmopolitan background is reflected in the eclecticism which has long been his trademark. 

Arguably it is also the root of the 'loner / outsider' vibe he has often been tagged with. Despite becoming part of house music's aristocracy, frequently rubbing shoulders with like-minded free spirits such as Norman Cook and Basement Jaxx, it's hard to avoid the impression that AVH is at his happiest when alone in a cramped studio, surrounded by crates of vinyl, sample-hunting and looking for the perfect beat.

That may be a romanticised image, but Van Helden has an air of mystery around him that lends itself to such pontificating (and let's face it, pontification and house music don't go hand in hand that often).

Eventually settling in Boston as a teenager, Van Helden began to exercise his musical passion with the purchase of a drum machine, and before long was picking up dj work around the city. He hooked up with US remix service X-Mix, caught the ever alert ear of Strictly Rhythm's Gladys Pizarro, and following an outing as Deep Creed on Nervous Records, made his Strictly bow in 1993 as Sultans of Swing (it's unclear whether this name was an ironic homage to some 50s jazzers, or MTV's favourite group of South London pub rockers made good).

By this stage in the label's life, it was already known as something of a 'safe haven' for producers, many of whom had suffered at the hands of some of the unscrupulous characters who helped steer the house music label bandwagon in its early years. Thus those who were lucky enough to get a foot in the Strictly door were keen to stay for an extended visit.

Such was the case with Van Helden, who became a regular on the Strictly release schedule, entrusting nearly all his pseudonyms and high volume of releases to this safe pair of hands. A virtual unknown on arrival at the label, a few years later he was one of house music's hottest properties thanks to a welter of releases under act names including Banji Boys, Circle Children, Mole People, Da Mongoloidz and Pirates of the Caribbean (perhaps a revival of the latter might be timely) – not to mention certain remixes. 

1994 proved to be Van Helden's year zero. He began to work up a real head of steam with 'New York Express' by Hardheads. Just as the tribal sound began to make waves on the New York scene, this track hit the spot. Licensed by Pete Tong's FFRR imprint in the UK, it was notable for an extended slow down / speed up segment the like of which hadn't been heard since Lil Louis' 'French Kiss' some five years previously (Fatboy Slim was later to hit paydirt with the trick too). Rumour has it that this part of the track originally clocked in at some 3 minutes long, and Strictly's man in the UK Phil Cheeseman reported back that even the UK's knowledgeable clubbers wouldn't buy that. Hence Armand, for the first and probably last time in his career, compromised and agreed to an edit. 

So the groundwork was done when, in late '94, Strictly unleashed 'Witch Doktor' on an unsuspecting world. A category-defying track, it was one of those releases that not only catapulted Armand into the spotlight, but also showcased the growing diversity within the Strictly roster and sound. He was to release regularly on the label for another three years, central to its unstinting growth through the mid-90s.

This era was the peak of major label remix mania. Score a big club hit, especially one with a dash of true originality, and the mix work soon followed. Hence the likes of New Order, Faithless and Deee-Lite got the Van Helden treatment.

1996 was to be AVH's annus mirabilis, thanks to the impact of what was to become a truly legendary remix. His version of Tori Amos's 'Professional Widow' kept just two lines of the vocal, "honey bring it close to my lips" and "gotta be big", and wrapped them suggestively around a hypnotic, simplistic, strung out funkathon. 

Circulating initially as a promo only mix (alongside versions from MK and Mr Roy – anyone remember them?), it spread by dj word of mouth, and having ruled Ibiza all summer long, it finally got an autumn release as an A side single in its own right, making no. 1 in the UK pop charts.

For Van Helden, it may not have been a big money mix, but its success allowed him to make what he referred to as "crazy bank" as remixer by appointment to rock & pop royalty such as Janet Jackson, Puff Daddy and no less than the Rolling Stones.

However, it was a couple of seemingly less high profile remixes that were to shoot Armand's star even further into the stratosphere. Never one who allowed himself to be constrained by the straitjacket that 'proper house' purists misguidedly revel in, he decided to allow his love of drum'n'bass (or jungle as it was then commonly known) full rein. 

His revamps of 'Sugar Is Sweeter' by CJ Bolland and 'Spin Spin Sugar' by Sneaker Pimps tore up the rulebook even more than 'Professional Widow' had done. Marrying gut-churning junglist-style sub-bass with raw edged house, not only did they rule dancefloors, but they were credited with inventing a genre in 'speed garage' (later dubbed 'UK garage').

The AVH productions & mixes kept coming. His scattergun approach meant there were misses as well as hits and, one suspects, led to consternation in major labels who never knew what the man would deliver – which for Van Helden and his fans was the way it should be.

When he did hit the bullseye, he did it with style. 'Funk Phenomena' (and its alter ego 'Ultrafunkula') further perfected his own funk-drenched blueprint, but in 1999 planet Van Helden was turned on its head again with the international smash hit 'You Don't Know Me' (vocalled by the excellent Duane Harden). Van Helden himself has often dismissed this cut as almost a throwaway, even going so far as to say that anyone who listened at all closely could see it was little more than a pastiche of Daft Punk. He was doing his creation a massive disservice, as in reality it was as sublime a slice of melancholic yet uplifting, string-laden vocal house as you could wish to hear.

These five years of head-spinning success and innovation meant that as the 21st century dawned, Van Helden was in a position to do pretty much as he liked. In truth, that had always been his approach anyway, and therein lay the foundations of both his appeal and his success. Fans loved it, the industry now grudgingly accepted it.

He still hits the charts regularly, as both artist (the Numan-inspired 'Koochy', 'My My My') and remixer to the stars (Britney's 'Toxic', Justin's 'SexyBack', Sugababes' 'Hole in the Head'); he released a compelling, typically genre-straddling mix CD ('New York: a Mix Odyssey'); he even staged a theatrical dj showdown in a boxing ring with Norman Cook, part of an ongoing working relationship with Fatboy and his Southern Fried stable.

There's no doubt that over the years Armand Van Helden has rattled a few cages. If you think that's wrong, then you have simply missed the point. Risking clearing a dancefloor or having an ill-conceived concept album bomb are occupational hazards that AVH has considered well worth taking on his journey.

Has the risk-taking approach paid off? Check the man's musical legacy. Damn right it's paid off. House music doesn't produce characters? Meet Armand Van Helden…



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