Incoming: DJ Neil Armstrong

We talked to former Jay-Z tour DJ Neil Armstrong

Migas has at least one killer date night sorted for you this month: Dinner and a Mixtape, the brainchild of New York DJ Neil Armstrong.

The concept began with music, the consummate turntablist earning his underground reputation churning out street-level mixtapes featuring an eclectic range of styles largely revolving around New York’s native hip-hop roots. His skills behind the decks eventually landed him a stint as Jay-Z’s tour DJ, spinning for the magnate around North America, Europe and Africa.

All that travel ignited in Mr Armstrong a passion for food. In 2013 he launched Dinner and a Mixtape, a twist on the classic dinner-and-a-film date night where he prepares a special mixtape and partners with a foodie-friendly restaurant for a one-off menu. Last May, he celebrated a major career milestone: having a burrito, The Armstrong, named after him for an event in Orange County.

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In Beijing Armstrong is partnering with Migas, who’ll line up a smorgasbord of à la carte items from Buena Onda – a Peruvian pop-up by new 'culinary incubator' Hatchery – along with Latin, Spanish and fusion bites from La Social, Migas, Traitor Zhou’s, Cacha Cacha and Palms LA. Afterwards, he’ll migrate to the Migas rooftop for the post-meal Shift party.

We talked to Neil Armstrong about the art of the mixtape, good eats and good beats.

How did you first get the idea for Dinner and a Mixtape?
Before I got to work as Jay-Z’s tour DJ, my thing was making mixtapes. I got known in particular for a series called Original, which explores the DNA of hip-hop music, weaving back and forth between hip-hop songs and the songs that were sampled to make them. I still make mixtapes to this day, but the musical landscape has changed drastically from when I started in 2001. Back in the day, I could do a mixtape party at a nightclub, and the music matched. Today, however, what I do on my mixtapes is for a more 'sophisticated' crowd. As I’ve gotten older my tastes have changed, and they aren’t really appropriate for the average club night.

In the meantime, over the last six years or so, I’ve become a big-time foodie. Because of all my travels, I’ve had the opportunity to eat some crazy food, by Western standards anyway, like turtle soup and horse sashimi in Japan and rabbit heads in Chengdu. This love of eating spurred an interest in cooking, learning how to turn ingredients into works of culinary art. I’ve been lucky to have learned from some amazing chefs, and of course the Food Network is always on in my house.

Back on the DJ-ing side of things, the mixtapes I was making were no longer appropriate for the club scene, but the music I play is perfect for dinner. People aren’t trying to jump around, they just need something nice to groove to, a soundtrack for the experience. So I reached out to friends who own restaurants and do interesting dishes. Thus was born Dinner and a Mixtape, combining two things I love the most: eats and beats. The food feeds the body, and the music feeds the soul. At least one of the dishes for the night is usually just served that one time, so for a fan of the restaurant it makes it a must-join night. I couple this with a new mixtape that hasn’t been heard yet, so the music is a first-time experience as well.

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What is the vibe of the music you play while people are eating?
Each event is unique because every one has both different food and different music. My mixtapes are all across the musical spectrum, so depending on which event you attend, you will get a completely different vibe. Some of my mixtapes are all rock songs, some are all classic hip-hop, some are electronic music.

Do you do much research on local cuisine before these events or is the pairing more improvisational?Usually my meals are planned with the restaurant, but it really depends from restaurant to restaurant. I’m not quite sure what we will be doing out here at our spot in Beijing. Usually the first time I get to taste the food is the same time that the attendees do!three courses

Where else have you done Dinner and a Mixtape? How does the music change from city to city?
I’ve done these events internationally and all across the US: Toronto, Hong Kong , Manila, New York to LA and seventeen other cities in between. I did one in New Jersey and Brooklyn with Dale Talde of Top Chef fame, and did one at Pot in LA with the chef who started the whole food truck craze, Roy Choi. In Hong Kong we did our event at Ronin with Matt Abergel. The musical component doesn’t shift from location to location, music is a universal language. It doesn’t matter where the actual location of the event is.

Do you have much experience with China or Chinese food?
I’ve been fortunate to have been to China many times, and I’ve had lots of local cuisine and of course love it. Very different from American Chinese.

How have you found new ways to innovate and market 'the mixtape', as it’s gone from an underground to a mainstream phenomenon?
One of the unique ways I do Dinner and a Mixtape is by delivering the music via USB cassette. It keeps that feeling of nostalgia for those who used to make our homemade mixtapes, but updates it for 2016. Every attendee gets to take one home, bringing the experience back with them.

What have been some of your other career highs?
I’ve gotten to perform at Madison Square Garden a bunch of times, that’s probably a personal highlight of mine. DJ-ing at Glastonbury, backing up Jay. I even got to be in a Star Wars commercial with Snoop Dogg and Han Solo. That would be my favourite thing I’ve ever had the opportunity to do.

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