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Culture

DJ Neil Armstrong: Mr Mixtapes

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DJ Neil Armstrong is all set to touch down in New Delhi.

He shares his name with another famous American but this Neil Armstrong is more well known among hip hoppers. In 2009, hip hop took a giant leap when Jay Z (accompanied by Armstrong as his DJ) became the first hip hop artiste to perform at the inauguration of an American president. Armstrong was born and bred in New York City and grew up listening to the gritty music of the street. When he attended a hip hop event and saw a "Filipino kid whooping ass", he decided that he could do it too.

Acknowledged as the founding father of the DJ Collective the "5th Platoon", he cut his teeth in the early '90s during the era of backpack hip hop and turntabilism. Having played alongside artistes from The Roots, Company Flow and Biz Markie to Kanye West, LL Cool J, Busta Rhymes and Wyclef Jean, the 37-year-old has also been a member of the critically acclaimed two-time Grammy-nominated jazz band - Russell Gunn and Ethnomusicology. Excerpts from an interview.

What was it like to play at the White House?

When I performed for President Barack Obama at the Neighbourhood Ball, it was the first time a hip hop artiste and a DJ were involved in the inauguration. To be a part of that, to perform for that celebration was amazing. I'm a very normal person with normal friends. But suddenly, there was Denzel Washinton and Mariah Carey in front of me. Sting was next to me. Leonardo di Caprio was walking around. It was crazy, pretty overwhelming.

You have a finger in several pies. A DJ collective, Djing for Jay Z, making mixtapes, working with a jazz band. What's the most fulfilling?

Definitely mixtapes (a recording of a list of songs in a certain order). I enjoy travelling with bands and with Jay but my role with Jay was secondary. No one came to see me really. No one really cares who the DJ is on a tour like that. They wanted to see Jay. For me, it doesn't matter. When you start off young and you're used to getting a lot of attention, it becomes difficult when you stop getting attention. That's the problem a lot of young American celebrities suffer from. In my case, it's been the opposite. I've been DJing for 15 years and my success wasn't an overnight story. Dealing with fame and being in the limelight have never really been a problem for me.

Is the mixtape still relevant to hip hop?

Mixtapes help to get your music out and for hip hop, especially, it's a powerful tool. By mixtapes, I also mean downloadable music and it's pretty much the weapon of choice for everyone. Rock or pop artistes don't do mixtapes. They have shows like American Idol or record labels sign you on. The mixtape culture is a very do-it-yourself culture.

Technology has made it easier for youngsters to become DJs.

It's always been a double-edged sword. Earlier, people used typewriters. Now they use computers. I still use turntables but I also use Serrato (a software that allows playback of digital audio files using traditional vinyl turntables or CD players). With music, fortunately, there are no checks and limits. LeBron James (basketball star) is paid the big bucks because he's a great athlete. Not everyone can play like him. But anyone can be a DJ. A celebrity like Lindsay Lohan can pull in people by just putting her name on a flyer. No one knows that she can't DJ. But she's a celebrity and people will come to see her. But technology has made life easier. Ten years ago, I would've had to travel to India with 5 cases of records, today all I need is my hard drive.

Hip hop has come under fire for portraying women in a derogatory manner.

Without a doubt, there are aspects of hip hop that are pretty misogynistic. But I think there's music like that across all genres. There's pop music that can be described as degrading. It's across the board. But when hip hop gets singled out, then there's the backlash. The negative stuff is always more prominent than the good stuff. I grew up with hip hop culture in New York. There is a lot of hip hop that's very conscious. Not too long ago, there was Tupac Shakur. His music is misogynistic too but he was socially conscious.

A lot of pop music is not socially or politically conscious. Underground hip hop is very conscious. But you can't always have music with a message. I grew up in that culture but I never took drugs. A lot of songs talk about such things. Half of Snoop Dogg's catalogue is about smoking weed. I make my own personal choices and that's something that is learnt at home. That's where the blame should go. A lot of the pop stuff is undeniably negative but it's a tag that stays with hip hop, because it's a male-dominated, chauvinistic art form.

How does a DJ spot a hit song?

It's really difficult to figure out. The general rule for a DJ is, you play the song but you also have to learn to keep the crowd happy. You have to research, be prepared for what the crowd listens to. Like I'm coming to India and I have no idea what is played in clubs here. I have to experiment and use my own tastes to test the crowd. As a DJ, your job is to take care of the crowd. I, personally, am a hip hop DJ and don't enjoy a lot of pop music. But if I'm playing for teenagers, they don't want to listen to old music. My job is to take care of them. Sometimes for a little bit of education, you can introduce them to some new music, but the rest of the time you have to make sure that the crowd has a good time. The bottomline is that the party people are in charge, not the DJ.

Tuborg VH1 Hip Hop Hustle featuring DJ Neil Armstrong kicks off at F Bar and Lounge in New Delhi on June 4 from 10 pm.

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