In the music industry, it’s undoubtedly knowing the right people at the right time that propels you out of the saturated crowd of Mac and turntable wielding DJs grinding day after day at venue after venue with the hope of being invited to the gig of a lifetime.
Musebox had the pleasure of chatting with the soft spoken DJ Neil Armstrong, a renowned Mixtape DJ, founding father of the DJ Collective, the “5th Platoon” and part of the two time Grammy award nominated band, “Russell Gunn and Ethnomusicology,” about his unconventional path from his 9-5 finance technology job and moon-lighting underground New York City DJ to landing the role of Jay Z’s touring DJ, the NBA’s DJ and Addidas’s brand ambassador.
Musebox: What’s was it like to work with someone like Jay Z as Jay Z’s touring DJ?
DJ Neil Armstrong: Working with someone of Jay Z’s caliber is probably a different experience than working with a small band. He’s an extremely established artist – the biggest hip hop star of hip hop so everything is on an extreme level – flying around in private planes to the type of venues we’re doing.
We’re doing the Glassenbury and Jay Leno’s show and stuff like that. It’s a very specific experience performing in front of large audiences. The smallest would be 5000 and the largest would be Gassenbury, which is over 120,000 people.
It’s just in general a lot of work, a lot of travel. You do a show, you break down, you fly immediately or drive immediately to the next city and do it over again, so it’s a little tiring. It’s not as glamorous as people think it is. Just being able to work with Jay Z on a personal level is I think every good word you use to describe it, and that would be it. It’s amazing, it’s fun, it’s exclusive, you know. It was a great experience.
MB: How personal can you get with Jay Z?
NA: It’s a working relationship. Is he inviting you for coffee afterwards? No. I have to go over the show over with him before the show. He knew me on a first name basis – he didn’t know everybody he works with on a first name basis. You need to equate him more to being Donald Trump than to being a band leader.
I bet you there’s this person that takes out his garbage every day, he doesn’t know his first name with the exception of his personal assistant, all the people in the room he probably doesn’t know who they are. Something like that situation. I do get to work with him but he’s my boss – he’s not my best friend.
MB: Alright, enough of Jay Z. How did you begin your career? Was it something that you did on your off time?
NA: Initially I did it while I was working another job. I actually had a pretty normal life. I had a good living. I worked at Credit-Swisse First Boston or Credit Swisse, the financial institution, and I had a 9-5. I was in finance technology so I was working ten hours a day. Then when I was younger, when I was in college I started DJing and I liked it and I started pursuing it at a certain point where I was doing it full time.
MB: A lot has been said about the difficulty of breaking into the music industry as an Asian musician. How did you establish your career?
NA: There’s Far East Movement and then there’s Chad Hugo of the NERDS, him and Pharrell. There are people but it hasn’t really been as obvious as those two people coming out. I wouldn’t say it’s too difficult.
There’s no contingency for holding people down, but it’s not that easy either when it comes to marketing a band or a group. If you’re trying to use that as a main situation I can imagine it doesn’t appeal to most record labels to be like, “well this is an Asian band.” There’s even been like Smashing Pumpkins – their guitarist was a Japanese guy.
Underlying everything, you can complain about stuff if you want to but I’m definitely of the school of thought like you can’t let certain things be a crutch and you can’t like let it be what you complain about holding you down. You can do whatever you want.
I’m Filipino, American. I’m quiet, I’m not boisterous, I’m not like Kanye, I’m not like the DJs that says his name a hundred times over and over and I got to work with Jay Z. So, what am I going to complain about with what’s holding me down? Nobody. You do what you do. It doesn’t matter. It might be harder, it might be easier, in my case I never cared. All I cared was about what I could do with my abilities and I’ve been lucky because that’s what people have looked at and looked at other aspects of me. I don’t really know if everyone is like that but for me that’s how it has been.
MB: How much luck do you think is involved, because you have to know the right people at the right time right?
NA: Oh yea, definitely. What is it they say? 5% perspiration, 95% inspiration? All those types of things attest to the fact that not everything is about how good you are some stuff is how hard you work and yea, being at the right place at the right time is a huge chunk of your monetary success. It will depend on the right condition happening. Those things are difficult to control. You can’t really go to school for that. You need to just be ready for when those things come. You need to recognize those situations and take them.
MB: Can you give me one example of how you grabbed a gig by meeting a certain person?
NA: Jay – that’s a fine example. I’ve been making mix tapes for the past ten years and I remember there used to be this girl who used to listen to my mixes and I remember her coming to some of the parties I did –small, not big at this place in downtown. There couldn’t be more than at most maybe a hundred people, maybe there was fifty? I remember her kind of watching me DJ and I got to know her just through the internet. We’d email each other and I’d keep up with what she’s doing and then she happened to start working for Def Jam when Jay was part of it and one day Jay needed to find a new DJ for a coming tour with Mary J Blige and she had been working with him and he asked her, “Well who should I work with?” and she was like, “Well you should work with Neil.” That’s it. That’s how I got the gig.
MB: That’s quite some timing. Did someone have to leave that position for you to fill it out?
NA: Not necessarily. When I started, he started using a band and he needed a different type of DJ to be involved and the DJ who was working with Jay before me for a long ass time was this guy, Green Lantern who was also a mix tape DJ but he didn’t really do band type stuff and that was something that I had in my repertoire of crap that I’ve done. So it wasn’t like someone got fired or left. It was just time. He needed a different type of DJ.
When I stopped doing it, Guru, who is his engineer – he engineered a bunch of stuff – took over. Almost everything Just Blaze had done, Guru is the one who does the engineering. They needed him to be on the tour, so he took the spot and that was that.
MB: So you mentioned that the lifestyle isn’t as glamorous as it’s made out to be. What’s actually behind the facade of glitz and glamour?
NA: It’s not like we’re hanging on a yacht. We land. We go to the hotel room. We try to get some rest. We do rehearsals. We get on stage and for the most part right after, we would go straight back to the hotel to pack our stuff because we would have to leave again to go to the next city. Like that’s it. It’s not like we’re in Paris and hanging out on the Eiffel tower. We’ll be in Paris, hanging out at the club and then we leave. It’s not what people think it is.
MB: What type of gear do you use?
NA: I use Serrato, the Technics 1200. I’m sponsored by Rane so for the most part the TTM-57, the old two channel mixer and I started to delve into using external stuff, but for the most part I use the stuff I’ve mentioned.
MB: Of all the things that you could pursue, why did you choose to be a DJ?
NA: I dunno, it’s the one that called me I guess.
MB: How did your parents react upon finding out about you pursuing the DJ craft? Did they act like the stereotypical strict Asian parents?
NA: Oh yea of course but they didn’t really say anything. By that time, by the time that I had started DJing, I already had a mortgage on my house and they can’t really say anything. As long as I’m paying my mortgage and I’m not asking them for help, they can’t really say anything. I had already been at a point where I had my own life.
MB: Yea when you’re at that point when on TV I don’t think there’s too much to worry about.
NA: Yea, that’s what I’m saying. Do what you want, and when you’re on TV it doesn’t matter.
MB: What type of music do you like to play?
NA: What I’m most happy playing is soul and R&B type of stuff.
MB: How often do you play gigs?
NA: Definitely once a week at least. When I was touring, I’d be out for a month and half to two months. I’m a DJ that mostly does solo stuff so I’ve been lucky. I’d say average once a week. There are times when I’ll be on tour for a week and half to two weeks so I’ve come to a point where I’m sustainable on just gigging once a week and the rest of the time is doing projects at home and just trying to live a normal life for a little bit.
MB: What would you recommend to aspiring DJs?
NA: There are different aspects to DJing but this goes for anything that you do. Learn your craft. DJing is this weird hybrid situation where you don’t have to be really talented in order to be monetarily successful. Say what you want about The Strokes or the Ramones. They’re not crazy musicians, but they can play. They do what they do and on top of that, their marketing but the bases. Hate on Britney Spears but she can dance and she can lip sync and she has the look you know?
DJing – you don’t even have to be a good DJ. Lindsay Lohan can go to a party, say she’s DJing, and she’ll make more money than I ever will in that one shot. But, if you really want to be good at DJing and have some respect about it, learn your craft. If you want to be a good lawyer, be a good lawyer.
Learn your craft, learn everything you can and don’t follow trends. You play what you want to play. For some reason you really like country music and you want to DJ country music, go ahead. That’s your calling, what you want to do. The rest of the world may not see it or understand it, but at least you did it for you.
If everything turns out right, it will work out in your favor anyway because you’ll be the only person playing country music and you’ll be the person who ends up being the house DJ at the country music awards. It’s a huge thing because no one else does it. You have to do what you like and you’ll be fine.
MB: Is there anything in the works for you as a solo DJ?
NA: I’ve been known as a mix tape DJ and that’s what I work on, making these elaborate mixes of all types of different music. I’m sponsored by Adidas so I’ll be doing a bunch of stuff for them for their ad campaigns and doing parties and stuff for them all over the place, like the All-Star game is coming up. A lot of my world exists around doing co-branded events so I do a lot of stuff for the NBA, I do stuff for Addidas and the street wear companies I’m involved in.
MB: On that note, how did you get sponsored? Do companies approach you?
NA: A little bit of both. I knew someone who worked at Addidas and I used to do a little stuff here and there for them. I guess when I became more of a marketable entity, they were like we can have a more synergistic relationship. We could use you for our ads, visa versa – you’ll be in our ad. I got to do a bunch of stuff with Snoop Dog, Daft Punk and it grew to where we were in the Cantina scene from Star Wars, so I got to be on Star Wars. You know, it’s just crazy. Never would I have thought that I’d be in a situation where I’m on screen with Chewbacca and Han Solo and Daft Punk. I got to do that last year. We will be doing a couple more things this year. I’m still going to be spinning out probably as much as possible this year and I’m not really sure what comes after.
MB: Will you be DJing twenty years down the road?
NA: No. I do not want to be DJing twenty years down the road.
MB: What do you think you will be doing?
NA: I don’t know. I really have no idea. Me personally I would not want to unless I was making – I need to be making an extreme amount of money for it to be worth it for me. Twenty years from now, I’ll be over 50 years old. Why would I be in a club?
MB: When I think of it, I wonder what the runway models will be doing when they’re 40 years old.
NA: The smart ones diversify. They become hosts of cooking shows, they come out with a fragrance. I haven’t seen Elizabeth Taylor on TV or in the movies in God knows how long, but she built her brand up and she can still have a fragrance. You diversify your streams of income.
MB: Is that what you’re hoping to do as well?
NA: I hope so. I mean I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. Like, me personally, I’m a worker bee. I’m used to working for my money. I have no problem working for my money and if I can figure out how to apply my skill set to a larger format, I’d love to do that but I don’t know. There’s no clear cut path. It’s not like when you become a lawyer or become a doctor you know. You have options and you have a path. This is all brand new. Who knows what you’re supposed to do.
MB: What types of social networking sites do you use to market yourself?
NA: All of them. All of them. Definitely a component of all that type of stuff like Facebook, Twitter. I don’t see it very often but I use foursquare. Like all the geo-tagging stuff, they’re all powerful tools.
MB: Do you Tweet yourself?
NA: Yea, but my persona, my online persona is my DJ brand. If you look up DJ Neil Armstrong, a bunch of stuff comes up, but if you look up my real name, nothing will come up. I didn’t really do it on purpose, but it just worked out that way.
MB: By using Foursquare don’t you find the fact that others can see where you’re going, unsettling?
NA: Yea, but the short answer to that is that people can see where you’re going anyway and where you’re at on Twitter as well. I personally don’t mind because like I said, I use the internet in a very specific way. I know people who are really private don’t even have Facebook pages or has anything. That’s the only true way to keep it private but the people who are using Twitter and are like, I don’t want to use Foursquare, a lot of their arguments for it start dwindling because as you can figure out, if you tweet that you’re at a concert, you know you’re not at home, so it doesn’t take a genius to figure out.
I think that’s one of the haunts that people have to come over with the geo tagging type websites because it’s a thin line that exists between the internet world and the real world start to truly break down because it’s just that much easier to find in real life. Like stalking. The stalking situation is out of control.
MB: Twitter aside, don’t you think Myspace is dying?
NA: Most people I know don’t check Myspace. It’s not dead, it’s on its way out the door. If you look at Myspace it looks really different from what it used to be. But, they’ve done smart stuff. They set it up so that you can connect through Facebook now. But I don’t really know what’s going to happen with it.
MB: What’s the future of the music industry and promotion?
NA: Me personally, I’m kind of a do it yourselfer and I think there’s a lot of people out there in recent years. I think even something like Justin Bieber who put up videos on Youtube right?
MB: Yea, that’s how he started out.
NA: The internet is already pretty do it yourself thing. That’s all Justin Bieber had to do? Put videos of himself singing? It’s all there for you. The smart person will take all those aspects and turn it into something. I use Twitter, I use stuff like that. I see a lot of possibility with the geo tagging as far as what I do.
I like Foursquare for example. As a DJ, I see that there is power in having a tool like that. If I could get the word out better to the proper core audience which has been happening. Before everyone sent email blasts. I don’t think that’s as powerful. I think there are more powerful tools and nowadays like blogs. The power of blogging is amazing. The internet is a great tool, and you should know how to use it.