The legendary MC and Public Enemy honcho Chuck D once hailed hip-hop as “CNN of the ghetto”, underlining in dark red it’s place in popular culture as more than just an artform. Born in the Bronx in the ’70s, it has since evolved and spread immensely in creation and in consumption – but before the Insta-drop mode afforded by the Internet and services like SoundCloud, mixtapes were hip-hop’s primary delivery system. In this arena, DJ Neil Armstrong, has earned a rep as one of its foremost ambassadors. Born and bred in New York City, he’s toured with Jay Z and performed at former POTUS Barack Obama’s inauguration, amidst many other highlights in a storied career. Recently bringing his multisensory ‘Dinner & A Mixtape’ concept to our shores, we caught up with Armstrong to discuss how mixtapes fit into the modern artistic, social and political landscape, and how hip-hop has since spilled over and out of its birthplace.
You’ve been to Singapore a couple of times. Does it shock you how much it changes every time you come back?
A couple of years back, I wanted local food and was brought to eat prawns from a hawker. This time, I want local food and I’m brought to Grain Traders. I’m intrigued by that Western influence.
Since you’re from New York, the birthplace of hip-hop, how have you seen the city change through gentrification on such a large scale?
Parts of Brooklyn that used to be entirely black look like an episode out of Girls! The whole fabric of these neighbourhoods got ripped out. There’s an income gap to begin with, and with more rich people moving in, there’s definitely that price increase that further displaces minorities. Another thing: New York used to be really gritty, and the grit is what made the music. Times Square used to be our red-light district, but now you go to there to watch The Lion King. I think there’s a direct correlation between New York being less gritty and the way hip-hop coming from there is so different now. I love a city that’s safer, but before when you said that I was from New York – that meant something. Now, if a kid told me he was from New York, I’d go, “Which era?” If he says from the 2000s, I’d be like, “So? What, you tough?”.
The one thing the ‘gatekeepers’ of New York hip-hop agree on is that there isn’t a New York sound anymore. Thoughts?
It’s undeniable that the music’s coming from other places. Bryson Tiller’s from Kentucky and Tory Lanez is from Canada. Although New York is the home of hip-hop, the nature of music is that it’ll evolve. I can’t really disagree with that statement, but it’s nobody’s fault. I just think it’s unfortunate now that there’s such a disconnect between the old and the new.
“New York used to be really gritty, and the grit is what made the music. Times Square used to be our red-light district, but now you go there to watch The Lion King.“
You grew up at a time when hip-hop had to have a message. Do you think rappers should continue to be political?
They certainly have every right to express their viewpoints. Hip-hop used to be very anti-establishment, and it does still speak, whether positively or negatively. That is what America is supposed to be about: freedom of expression – but, honestly, it used to really be the voice of streets. That hasn’t been the case for a while.
One of the biggest developments in hip-hop was when Jay Z headlined Glastonbury in 2008, and you were a part of that moment. What was it like?
Noel Gallagher wasn’t happy with that, but I can understand. One of the things Jay wanted to show was that hip-hop isn’t a fad, that it’s not fake music, and that as hip-hop artists, we deserve to be on-stage. Other than that, it was one of the most memorable things that I ever got to do. The crowd was a sea of 120,000 people throwing energy back at us.
What was Jay Z like to work with?
Cool. Easygoing. Like what hip-hop was before. Sometimes, we’d just jump on stage together without much rehearsal and just rock out. He wasn’t going to strip clubs or acting crazy; touring wasn’t like that. We’d do the show then break out.
What’s the one thing you would say to people who are unaware of the importance of mixtapes?
Kid Capri putting a hip-hop beat under “Something in the Way (You Make Me Feel) by Stephanie Mills was a defining moment for current R&B. It’s why Mary J. Blige’s songs came out the way they did, as opposed to still sounding like “Candy Girl”. 50 Cent’s whole career came out of mixtape culture. Pre-Internet, mixtapes would get bootlegged so you could buy them at a gasoline station or a spot in the Bronx. It’s how music got proliferated. Looking forward, the culture may not exist for long, because people only do things with incentive, and usually that incentive is money. But you can’t make money out of mixtapes anymore.
I’m lucky because I’ve found a way to manoeuver the current climate by joining my love of food with that of music, through Dinner & A Mixtape.I want parents to take their kids out to my events, and over dinner be like, “That’s my song coming on! I haven’t heard this in years!”, and share it. That’s what I’m trying to do: provide a space to listen to music in a public forum, let them vibe out with their friends and reminisce about different times.