It was love @ first listen.
That’s how DJ Neil Armstrong’s Bittersweeet was for me. It was a beautiful mix of not only the spectrum of songs, from dusties to more recent, but even more, actual DJing skills. The sequencing, precisely placed movie clips that helped frame the tape and segue into other songs. From that point on, Retro & I began on a mad hunt tracking down all of Neil’s tapes, proceeded to post them…and then the man himself emailed us, politely asking us to take them down. Still new to this TSS thing but always one to recognize the knock of opportunity and a chance to cut a deal, I agreed under to pull’em, if he did an interview with us.
I’d never done an interview before.
But I guess you can say it’s now a part of our history, because that was our innagural Smoking Session and a solid friendship was formed with Neil along the way. And I still play both Bittersweeet and WarmFuzz, another of Neil’s classic mixtapes, with religious devotion.
So when my man Sorce-1 from Heavy In The Streets spoke in regards to publishing a previously unpublished interview with Neil on making of the mixtape, it was a no-brainer…
DJ Neil Armstrong’s Bittersweeet mixtape was a groundbreaking release. Broken into seven “chapters”, Bittersweeet takes listeners through the story of a relationship, from love at first sight, to getting down and dirty, all the way to the sadness of breaking up and getting over someone. As it says in the liner notes, it covers “All things pretty, all the things that are ugly, and everything in between. Bitter and Sweeet.”
Beyond being an enjoyable listen, it is arguably the first mix tape to tell a coherent story. It went further then following an idea or style of music; it’s literally an audio storybook. I was lucky enough to get Neil to break down the creative process behind Bittersweeet, his inspirations for making it, and the reactions he’s gotten from different listeners. Respect the skills, as “The All Out King” himself gets candid about his timeless classic.
DJ Sorce-1: Would you say there were any mix tapes that inspired the idea of Bittersweeet, or was it just something you came up with on your own?
DJ Neil Armstrong: Hmmm. Not any mixtapes that I can think of.
DJ Sorce-1: If not mix tapes, then what events or media inspired it?
DJ Neil Armstrong: As far as I know something like that hadn’t been done in mix tapes before, not a full story with other people’s songs. There were definitely movies that inspired Bittersweeet. And some people’s albums are like that. Like Masta Ace’s Disposable Arts, it’s a story. De La Soul is Dead is another one. It has the skits in the middle of each song. I just never heard anyone do it with other people’s music telling a story like the one told on Bittersweeet. It just made sense to make a CD like that. Like 80 percent of music is about love. There is just a lot of source material out there.
DJ Sorce-1: Did you map out songs, or did you just start recording and experimenting and see where it went?
DJ Neil Armstrong: I think I had ideas of what songs I wanted to put on. It involved a lot of micromanagement. There are a few key things that go into doing something like this. The songs content, the speed of the song, and actually, since most of it is R&B, the key of the song. Even if the bpms match up, if the key of the songs is disharmonious, they just don’t sound good together. So it’s just a lot of experimenting, with smart planning.
DJ Sorce-1: What is the hardest part?
DJ Neil Armstrong: The whole process. The whole thing is tough. It’s easy to sit there and be like “Man, this idea I have, it would be so great to hear it on a tape.” But to put in the work to put it togetherâ€¦it tends to be a time consuming process, especially when you are trying to follow a concept. Basically, I think of the CDs like a movie. Each song has to have a reason to be next to the one before it and after it. The CDs have to be logical. I think that’s something that makes the CDs I put together a bit different from other people.
DJ Sorce-1: Do you have a favorite section on Bittersweeet?
DJ Neil Armstrong: I guess the first five minutes. I think it’s a nice part of the CD, and it appeals to a wide audience.
DJ Sorce-1: Putting Stevie Wonder over the “Grindin” beat certainly is a grabber. It’s really effective with the movie dialogue that you chose to layer over the music in the beginning.
DJ Neil Armstrong: It’s emotionally charged because of the subject matter, so it has an immediate impact on people. And the blends on that part of Bittersweeet are pretty interesting and hype so it keeps the mix tape/blend fans happy.
DJ Sorce-1: Overall, is it the CD you’re most happy with? How do you think it was received compared to your other stuff?
DJ Neil Armstrong: I dunno? It seems to somehow be the one that gets the most attention, even commercially speaking. All the other stuff I’ve done, I think has been received pretty much the same. Except for Extraordinary. I think the music selection on that one only appeals to a select group. The other CD’s are more hip-hop oriented.
DJ Sorce-1: In retrospect, is there anything you would change today about Bittersweeet, or are you happy with how it came out?
DJ Neil Armstrong: There are a couple things here and there. Some stuff is off key; I probably would have done a couple more tricks. But it seems to be something people have made parts of their lives. I’ve been told really nice stuff, everything from “It’s gotten me laid,” to “I broke up to that CD,” to “It has helped me through the breakup.” It’s not easy to affect people’s lives profoundly. And the CD seems to have done that for at least a couple of people that I never even met.
DJ Sorce-1: How does that make you feel? Do you put additional pressure on yourself when you make tapes now?
DJ Neil Armstrong: I’m never really satisfied with the products I put out. I’m always worried. But I never made these CDs to make money, although some of it would be nice. I wanted to put out CDs that people would enjoy, so in that respect, I’m happy with how the CD came out. The 5th Platoon, we’ve always been this crew that it seems that no matter what we do, we always gotta prove ourselves. I’m sure a lot of that is self-inflicted, but it always seems like that…and that pressure is something I always deal with. Now that my CDs are a bit more known, yeah, there is a bunch more expectation, and I hate to disappoint.
I feel bad for those movie directors that make a great first film, because no matter what they do for their second film, even if it was a good ass movie, if it’s not better than the first, it gets panned. I feel like that every time I drop a CD, I have to surpass the one before it or get panned. Of course, there is a balance. I realize no matter what I do, it’s impossible to make everyone happy. But believe me, I try my best.
DJ Sorce-1: Your CD’s do seem to have mass appeal. I find it interesting that at sites like Rap Mullet, which are in a lot of ways very “street”, you’ve blown up big time.
DJ Neil Armstrong: Yeah, that shit is strange. But I guess the mix tape fans; they’re still out there. They’re just waiting for some better product to come out.
DJ Sorce-1: I have to ask about the stuff you write on the back of your album covers. It’s really cool. I feel like it adds to the CD. Reading your message is an important part of the experience before listening to it. I really liked the insert on Bittersweeet. It kind of let me know I’m not the only one who’s been so broken up over a girl before.
DJ Neil Armstrong: They’re sort of like liner notes. Like reading the book jacket on a book to see what it’s about. Everyone goes through being broken up over someone else, except for monks and nuns. Well, maybe not. It’s a subject that everyone can relate too. That’s why so much music is written about it, and so much artwork is inspired by it…that dumb ass infinite pursuit of love and booty.
DJ Sorce-1: It’s ridiculous man.
DJ Neil Armstrong: Yup. Even the craziest thugs, they’ll catch feelings and fall apart.
DJ Sorce-1: What kind of lasting impact do you think Bittersweeet will have?
DJ Neil Armstrong: I made it way back in 2002, and people are still interested in it today. Hopefully ten years from people will still be interested in it. I hope that the effect it has had on people’s lives will allow it to continue to have a lasting impact.
DJ Sorce-1: Any last words?
DJ Neil Armstrong: Thanks for the interview, good looking out man.
Listen to a sample of Bittersweeet (Right-click, Save As)