Not many DJs can claim to be half as accomplished as Neil Armstrong (no astronaut jokes, please). The New York hip-hop turntable wizard was hand-picked in 2008 by Jay-Z to be his World Tour DJ, was nominated twice for Grammys as a member of the jazz band Russell Gunn and Ethnomusicology (featuring Branford Marsalis) and even performed at President Obama's Inauguration Ball and the Olympic Games in Beijing. Whew! His talents have also led him to perform alongside hip-hop luminaries including Kanye West, LL Cool J, The Roots, De La Soul and many more, and his mixtapes are legendary, earning raves from magazines such as Rolling Stone, URB and Vibe.
See for yourself what all the hype's about Saturday night at Arkadia inside the Fontainebleau Miami Beach (4441 Collins Ave., Miami Beach). Armstrong talked to Miami.com about the show and his rise to fame.
Have you always been incredibly driven by ambition, or is your success more like good things started happening to you and it just snowballed?
I'm definitely no overnight celebrity, and none of it was "planned." I often get told that I'm living this dream job, but at no point did I ever "dream" about doing what I am doing today. I had normal dreams - become a doctor or lawyer, buy a house with a picket fence, 2.5 kids and a dog. I think it’s been a combo of following my passion and doing what I love, good timing and fate. I've been a fan of hip-hop since the late '80s, and I've been DJing for 15 years now, and there were no shortcuts taken. I cut my teeth in the DJ/turntablist battle scene, built my brand slowly with making unmistakably classic mixtapes, and made sure to partner up with the right people along the way - adidas, Jay-Z, the NBA. etc.
How would you describe your style?
I'm a hip-hop DJ that listens to and plays all types of music, but always with a hip-hop aesthetic. I'm known for playing good music regardless of the genre, an all-out king.
What can we expect from your show, and how long will you spin?
I believe I have a one- or two-hour set, and what I play really depends on the crowd. Part of the DJ set is the interaction between the DJ and the crowd. If the crowd is open, I will play some soul classics, some Stevie Wonder and Jackson 5, but the true job of the DJ is to make sure the party is moving - our job is to take care of the crowd. So if the crowd needs that wocka flocka, or they need that Duck Sauce Barbra Streisand, it's our job to give the people what they want, but with
our own style.
What are your mixtapes like, and how can fans hear them?
I definitely make mixtapes for true music fans, for people who are into elaborate mixing. The music on them ranges, from Alicia Keys and Al Green, to Snoop Dogg and Jay-Z, to Tears for Fears and Led Zeppelin. The best way to describe them is to listen to them, and there are samples up at www.djneilarmstrong.com. I also have a podcast with "unreleased" and live recordings that I've done at www.neilarmstrongpodcast.com. One download that you guys probably would deem a must-have is the one I did for Jay-Z - www.djneilarmstrong.com/DNABP3 The DNA of the Blueprint, something I made to commemorate the last tour I did with Jay, celebrating the music from the three "Blueprint" albums.
How did you hook up with Jay-Z, and how was the experience touring with him?
I started DJing for Jay-Z, backing him up and the Roc Boys band in early 2008, and just stopped doing the tour this March. He was looking for a tour DJ that did work with bands, and that is something that I had done previously as a turntablist. We had a mutual friend named Vashtie Kola, and she basically recommended me to him. One day I get an email from my manager saying that I'm in line to possibly become Jay-Z's tour DJ.That was a Wednesday. By That Friday I flew down to Miami to start rehearsals, and a week later I was onstage with the Roc Boys and Jay in front of 10,000 people. As you can imagine, the experience was amazing. It was definitely a defining major stepping stone in my life as a DJ.
Did you meet Obama at the Inauguration Ball, and what was that whole experience like?
Meeting the President is actually a pretty involved situation. LOTS of security happens to be able to shake that man's hand. Our performing for the event did not allow enough time for that type of clearance to be made, unfortunately. Regardless, I was there - the first DJ, the first hip-hop representative on the one's and two's EVER, to help celebrate the inauguration of a president. The feeling of having that place in history, in the history of hip-hop, in the history of the country and the world is indescribable.
What do you think led you to become so eclectic?
My upbringing. I didn't just listen to hip-hop. My sister listened to what would be called alternative or new wave (The Cure, Depeche Mode, The Clash).
Do you play any musical instruments other than the turntable?
I myself learned how to play a bunch of instruments - violin, guitar, piano, flute - although I can't play any of them anymore. Music and playing music is a big part of being Filipino - in my case, Filipino-American. It's part of our culture, and most of us have pianos in the house, even if we never play them. And growing up in New York City and in a multicultural atmosphere exposed me to so many different aesthetics. All of that led me to just really appreciate music of all sorts.
How often do you get to Miami, and what do you think of the city?
The last time I was in Miami was when I was there for the first time rehearsing with Jay-Z for the Heart of the City tour with Mary J Blige. That was almost 3 years ago. As you can imagine, Miami has a very special place in my heart and career.
DJ Neil Armstrong