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. Part two can be found by clicking here.
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.