The dreadlocks may be long gone, but Philadelphia native Josh Wink remains a dynamic force in dance music, with a back catalogue – Don’t Laugh¸ I’m Ready and Higher State of Consciousness to name but a few – that most artists would die for.
Next year marks the 25th anniversary of the formation of his Ovum Recordings label, alongside King Britt, and the label is just about to put out its 300th release, the Wink-penned Aries on Mars.
As part of our ORIGINALS series of interviews, 909originals caught up with the acid house producer to discover the people, sounds and places that helped influence his career.
Q. Growing up in Philadelphia, what drew you to dance music?
For me, it was probably through my love of radio.
It’s a strange story how that got started… when I was 13, I went to a summer camp outside of Philadelphia, and there was a junior counsellor there who was playing practical jokes on people. He told me ‘if your hand is bigger than your face, you have cancer’, or something like that… of course I put my hand on my face to measure it, and when I did that he gave me a slap.
It was all a big joke, but I ended up having a really bad asthma attack as a result and had to be rushed to hospital. After that, the same guy felt so ashamed, and we actually started hanging out and became good friends. As it turned out, he was a radio DJ where the camp was located, and I sort of got into it that way.
Q. Did you have a musical upbringing?
No, I didn’t really grow up with music, but my mom is an artist, and my dad got into sculpture, so I suppose I had an artistic background. When I was very young I had piano lessons and win instrument lessons, but that never really interested me – I wanted to go outside and play football.
I suppose I really caught the bug when I got to hang around at the radio station. That’s when I started going into record stores, and getting into the culture of music – at the time it was mainly electro and hip hop, and a bit of early house music.
I didn’t do the radio thing for very long, plus it didn’t have a very wide radius. But I discovered I loved to play music. The radio station mainly played jazz and adult-oriented rock, but to be honest we could play whatever we wanted.
Q. What was the dance music/clubbing scene like in Philadelphia back then?
There wasn’t much in the way of dance music, but there was a good hip hop scene, and a lot of disco.
Disco had a reputation for being produced in Philadelphia, and I do believe that without disco, we wouldn’t have had house music, or techno, or any other dance music for that matter.
Philadelphia always got lost in the shadow of a place like New York, though; it was a cool scene, but it was a lot smaller. You had hip hop DJs in Philly that to me were more technical and influential than those in New York, but the New York DJs got all the credit because of where they were from.
In terms of going out to listen to electronic music, there were only small nightclubs, block parties and rink parties, but they mainly playing hip hop. funk and soul.
Q. When you started buying house records, did you think ’there’s something missing here in Philadelphia, which I could help create’?
To be honest I was very young at the time – you had to be 21 to get into a nightclub, so the only way I could get in was either by sneaking in or working there. I remember taking a job as a bar back in one place just so I could get into the nightclub, and then I gave the manager some demo tapes… it was like ‘hey, if you ever need a DJ…’
In the late 80s, I was working as a bike courier alongside a friend of mine, who was also a DJ. We became really close and we ended up throwing the first warehouse parties with acid house in Philadelphia; that was about 1988 or 1989.
Q. How did that come about?
We were bike messengers so we used that to help promote the night – every place we went to, we dropped off some flyers. There were a crew of people that were into this kind of music, but didn’t really have a place to go, or were too young to get in to a nightclub, so we wanted to throw this ‘all ages’ kind of event.
There was a squatted warehouse in town, and we knew a couple of the people there. So we brought along our equipment and sound system, and we brought along a couple of DJ friends of ours, one of whom was King Britt – he wasn’t really DJing at the time, but he had a lot of records.
There was also another DJ from Philadelphia called Stefan, who was running the only acid house party in Philadelphia at the time, on Wednesdays. I was also to sneak in there because I was working at another club, I was allowed in as long as I promised I wouldn’t drink. That was a big influence on my actually, those Wednesday nights, listening to acid house.
It was an exciting, but naive time for dance music, not just in Philadelphia but also around the world.
Q. When did you think, ‘this is something I could do for a living’?
I still don’t think of it like that… ha ha! It was just something I had a passion for; I didn’t look at it as a job, I looked at it as a way to pay my rent.
When I went to university, my father was one of the teachers there, and he was always very adamant about the importance of higher education in order to provide for myself later on. But it got to a point where I was making more money than him.
I was in college for four years, and DJing on the side, before getting into production. As I said before, I never really felt that I could make a living from being a DJ, but I saw myself making money from production; becoming an artist. The fact that I could do that, and also do something I loved, was incredible.
I’ve never really looked at what I do as being a profession… it’s just something that I love and I happen to get paid for.
Q. What did you study in college?
I studied communications and sociology. There was a programme called RTF, which stood for ‘radio, television and film’, and that had a musical element to it – I learned about computers and music, and got to do a course in audio engineering. I never knew that would end up translating into what I ended up working at, I just saw it as a way to get extra credits in college.
Q. When you started making music, what sound were you trying to create?
I didn’t think I had a personal ‘sound’, I just wanted to start making music. There was all this acid house coming out of Chicago, from Armando, DJ Pierre, Trax Records, DJ International… these guys were very influential.
I said to myself, ‘this is the kind of music I want to create’. I found myself a 303, and that developed into me developing my own interpretation of the Chicago acid house sound.
Q. Do you remember the first track you made?
The first track I made was in 1989, and was released in 1990 – it was called E Culture, alongside King Britt. That came out on Strictly Rhythm. At the time, we were just noodling around with ideas, we were doing some stuff together and and separately.
I just kept on picking up drum machines, synthesisers and samplers, and started playing around. I was trying to sketch things out, musically.
Q. Some of your early singles were quite varied: Thoughts of a Tranced Love was very trance-sounding, while Meditation Will Manifest, which came out on R&S, was more techno. Were you still trying to determine the ‘Josh Wink sound’?
I was kind of floating in between genres – I was the guy that was doing house music that techno people were in to, and making techno music that house people were in to. I was very open minded, maybe that came from being from a city that respected all kinds of music.
I was working with a few different levels, and had a few bad experiences, and that’s what led to the creation of Ovum Recordings, in 1994, alongside King Britt.
Q. How did the early years go at Ovum?
I remember reading a book by Richard Branson, and he was saying that everybody started out with an idea of how they are going to do something, and they are perhaps very naive about it. There was an element of that with Ovum, but at the same time, I had learned a lot from being in the industry for a few years.
I was already putting out records on labels I respected, like R&S, Strictly Rhythm, Nervous, Kickin – but I wanted to start putting out music that I had control over, rather than having someone else have control over me.
In the beginning, it was very much a learning curve; being able to walk before we could run.
Q. Was there a breakthrough single or release for the label?
It was never really a business-minded label. We were happy just to cover our costs. That’s even more the case now, as things have moved more online. We still release records on Ovum because we want to release records, but the industry has changed a lot.
Back in the 90s, you might be able to sell 15,000 or 20,000 copies of one record, if you were lucky. Nowadays, you might sell 300 records, and have 3,000 downloads.
That said, every record we put out on Ovum was like a new tattoo on our bodies, and we were happy to put out records that we were doing ourselves, as well as from other up-and-coming artists that we believed in.
We stayed independent for four years and then some of our friends at Ruffhouse Records – they had The Fugees and Cypress Hill – got us a distribution deal. That didn’t work out for too long, because we weren’t selling the numbers that they hoped we would sell. After all, we’re not Will Smith. So we went back to carrying the ‘independent’ flag.
The mainstream labels were looking out for Prodigy and Chemical Brothers-type artists that would make the music blow up in America like it did in the rest of the world. But I don’t think that ever really happened.
Q. It’s impressive that you have been able to maintain Ovum Recordings for 25 years. Looking back, is there anything that you would have done differently?
We were very eclectic in what we were doing in the beginning. I had a house and techno album and King Britt had a downtempo, acid jazz type album, and then we had a drum and bass record.
The great thing about it was that there were no rules.
Q. Your career is inexorably linked back to Higher State of Consciousness, which came out in 1995. But before that, a downtempo version was released on a Strictly Rhythm compilation, The Deep And Slow (A Collection Of 12 Chill Out Tracks). How did that happen?
It was on Deep and Slow, and then the label wanted me to follow up with a club version. That’s how the single came about.
1995 was a pretty crazy year for me, I had Higher State, Don’t Laugh and I’m Ready, which all came out in pretty much the same year.
Q. Did you have any idea of how big Higher States of Consciousness was going to be?
No, I never thought it would be that big. I suppose one of the positive things it had going for it was that it came out on Strictly Rhythm, which was a very popular label at the time. It was pretty wild when people like DJ Rap, Sven Vath, Marusha and Carl Cox started getting into it… it was like a ‘perfect storm’ kind of situation.
I got to go to the Love Parade a couple of times, in 1995, 1996, and hearing Higher State, Don’t Laugh and I’m Ready played all the time was a pretty amazing experience.
Q. That was an interesting time for dance music, things started to get a bit more genre-based after that?
There is a sense that when electronic dance music started, it was comparable with the disco movement in the 1970s and 1980s; all these styles coming together, and the people all dancing to different types of rhythms, all together under one roof.
And then, as you stated, it became about genres. You had these ‘genre police’; if you were playing techno, it had to be in a techno club, and if you were playing drum and bass, it had to be in a drum and bass club. It became very opinionated… that sense of open-mindedness got lost at some point in time.
Q. Fast forward to the present day, and dance music has turned into a massive, EDM-led industry. Is that something you could have seen anticipated when you started out?
I could never have foreseen it being of this magnitude… even when you watch a McDonald’s ad these days, it has EDM music in the background.
It’s got to this sort of level now that you need to be proactive, and get out there and look for the stuff that makes you happy, the stuff that keeps you going in the direction you want to go.
Q. Do you think that the EDM scene is in need of a ‘punk’ movement, a sort of ‘back to basics’ approach?
To be honest, I don’t know what that would look like. There are enough artists out there that are playing non-conformist music; everyone is pushing their own style. There’s an underground scene, and an overground scene, and it’s been that way for a while.
Of course, when we were starting out, there was a beauty in it, because the people that were involved had to be really passionate about it. You had to be part of a community, you needed to go to the record stores, and invest time and money. Nowadays, it’s based more on technology, and it’s instantaneous.
The culture has grown and grown, and the arrival of social media has turned it into this sort of wild beast. There’s beauty in that, but there’s the opposite as well.
— josh wink (@joshwink1) April 19, 2018
Q. It’s also easier to make dance music now than it ever was; do you still use your old equipment, or are you producing mainly through your computer these days?
I do a mixture of both. I’m a firm believer in doing my own thing, I’m not going to go one way because someone tells me I should.
You can give a person a pencil, and everybody will do something different with it – someone might write a poem, someone might draw a picture, someone might snap it in two. Everybody is different, and that’s the beauty of art. Regardless of what style it is, everybody does something different.
The challenge today is, there’s just so much music out there. You have to really pay attention to determine what you don’t like and what you do like – use your filters – and define who you are through music.
In terms of making music, there’s no set formula. There are lots of kids out there making music that have no idea about music notation or theory, and they’ve come up with something amazing.
It’s the same with being a writer. You don’t have to know the classics to be able to express yourself through writing. Of course, it helps to know where you are and where you came from – the whole ‘knowledge is power’ kind of thing – but you should be also able to do things uniquely and differently, without always having the pressure to feel like you need to know everything.
The further you go on the journey, the more you become a more well rounded individual. I’ve grown up with different kinds of music, and that’s helped shape the way I am. But someone might have no idea about acid house or the early years of dance music, and come up with something incredible. It’s all subjective.
Q. Things are cyclical as well, music that came out years ago can suddenly sound fresh.
We found that with 20 to 20 actually [Josh Wink album originally released in 2002], when we re-released it this year.
When people heard it this year, they were saying it sounds a lot like much of the contemporary techno music that’s out there at the moment. It’s pretty cool to have an album that still sound so fresh and invigorating after 17 years.
Q. Lastly, the 300th release on Ovum is just about to be released, Aries in Mars. But for me, release number 303 is more important! Any ideas for that one?
Oh shit, yeah! Thanks for bringing that to my attention. It’s going to have to be awesome.