From Gilles Peterson to Andrew Weatherall and most recently drum 'n' bass icon Goldie, Ministry of Sound's famed Masterpiece series has classically featured some of dance music's most respected luminaries gracing our eardrums with their own expertly curated three-disc mix compilation. For most, Masterpiece is a meticulously orchestrated spotlight into a DJs mind, a place where the breadth of their record crates is put to the test and poured over the course of three CDs to mirror their musical identity. For Boston-bred house music innovator Armand Van Helden, however, Masterpiece was a chance to do something very different, very nostalgic, and very special.
"[Masterpiece] is a series where everyone does an eclectic mix of these amazing records that not a lot of people know about generally, they show the public what they listen to at home. It's usually an intimate journey," Van Helden tells THUMP from his Winter residence in Miami. "I can be that guy, but with this thing, I asked if I could do something different."
Instead of choosing to portray a musical snapshot of his own storied career, Helden went a different route, presenting three themed mixes: The Loft—Boston, Yacht Rock Don't Stop, and Freestyle Forever.
Armand in 'The Loft—Boston' mode.
The comp's first disc The Loft – Boston is a nod to one of Armand's hometown havens, a place that was instrumental in his progression as a DJ—the early Boston house venue The Loft. "It's kind of about the 'idea' of The Loft," Helden says. "I want people to feel like they stepped in a time machine." For the 44-year old DJ and producer revered for hit tracks like "You Don't Know Me," The Loft was the first true place where he could spread his wings as a selector, and where he saw the true potential of dance music culture as a unifying force—it's not surprising he devoted a whole third of his compilation to the venue.
"I remember the reaction to the tracks, Robin S. "Show Me Love," and Goodmen's "Give It Up," The Loft would explode to that record," says Van Helden, further noting The Loft's power as a unifier for two very segregated scenes in dance music at the time – the deep house and the rave/techno crowds. "These two communities didn't interact, you could draw a line between them, so that space really brought those two communities together, it forced them to exist with each other." "It was a beautiful thing," van Helden explains.
Van Helden forayed even further out of convention in devoting the second mix in the series a sound equated with backyard BBQs, the late 1970s, and your balding uncle Ted—the slick brand of soft grooves native to Southern California known as Yacht Rock. "I've been into Yacht Rock comps for quite a bit now, but I've never mixed them, I wanted to make it so it wouldn't stop, I thought it would be funny," he jokes.
Not quite as funny, though, was the process of clearing tracks from the likes of Boz Scaggs, Toto, Kenny Loggins, and the Doobie Brothers. For many of the older artists he chose to include, the thought of ending their songs halfway to lead into another track (I.E, a mix) was confusing. "They don't go for this stuff, they don't like their songs touched man," laughs Helden. Many a time, Helden was only given the permission to mix in one to two bars of these older, prized productions: "Somehow Ministry of Sound conceived these people to agree to two bars of their songs to be mixed, a four count, that's crazy, it's not really mixing but I did the best I could," he laughs.
Van Helden's selections even turn towards the oft-forgotten era of Freestyle, a flash-in-the-pan soul-focused genre that broke artists like Lisa Lisa and Stevie B, the latter artist of which Helden described dressing up as for lithograms intended to go along with each side release (see above). "I wanted to make sure it was fun for me," he said. While some would choose to merely highlight a track or two from such an obscure movement, Helden gives the sound an entire disc. By the end of the section, not only are you hungry for more, but you may find yourself hitting Google in attempts to unearth more gems and IDs from the sound.
Helden doesn't shy away from the fact that his Masterpiece compilation certainly goes against the grain, and at times, pokes fun at the sector of compilations as a whole, presenting it as three very different sounds, that are more intended to standalone, versus being consumed as one musical message. "In the modern era not many people digest full CDs in general, I think they'll be more forced to digest it as a mix product if it was separate, so in a sense I'm tricking the kids," he says. "Maybe after all is said a done somebody finds it six months later and goes 'What's this Freestyle mix?,' and you're forced to play the whole thing.
"I'm still sneaking in the old-school element where I'm forcing them to read the whole book," he says.
Pre-order Masterpiece - Armand Van Helden on iTunes ahead of its Feb. 15th release.
Armand van Helden is on Soundcloud
David's dad really loves Boz Scaggs. @DLGarber