Few individuals have played as significant a role in the development of the modern DJ as John Acquaviva.
As well as establishing seminal labels such as Plus 8 Recordings and Definitive in the 1990s (alongside Richie Hawtin, his long-term business partner), the Italian-Canadian went on to play a crucial role in the development of Final Scratch – a technology since developed further by Rane Serato and Native Instruments’ Traktor – as well as being a founding member of Beatport.
More recently, Acquaviva has headed up Plus 8 Equity Partners, a venture capital firm to support emerging music technology firms. Somehow, he’s also found the time to be a jobbing DJ as well (at least until the pandemic struck), with a seven-hour back to back with Mute Records’ Daniel Miller back in 2016 at the top of our wishlist should time travel be invented anytime soon.
As part of our ORIGINALS series of interviews, we caught up with him.
Hi John, thanks for talking to us. Let’s begin at the beginning – you were born in Italy, and then your family moved to Canada?
My upbringing was bleak by today’s standards and very frugal, as the lives of many immigrants tend to be.
We came from the South of Italy, and there was and still is very little room for opportunity for parents and normal families. When I was four years old, I moved to Thunder Bay in Northern Ontario, and then a year later to London, Ontario, where I grew up.
When I was young, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be, but it turned out that I was good in school, so I vacillated around whatever an education could provide for me – most likely in maths. Although I loved history, I had already realised that it would be a challenge to make a living from it, perhaps.
How did you first fall in love with music?
Buying records in the 70s – each one was a boost of energy and inspiration.
One of the first and only jobs I had was as a porter at the Ramada Inn Hotel. They had a disco that would have live bands play when they were coming through from Detroit to Toronto and Montreal.
One of the highlights was when Kool and the Gang came, and when I finally saw and experienced the energy of disco and these bands, I was hooked.
I was also able to have access to Technics 1200, which really allowed what was a lifelong hobby of DJing at school parties to blossom.
So you got into DJing at quite an early stage, then? What was the club scene like back then?
DJing was always a love of mine. I would bring the records I owned to all my school parties and then just kept playing music at any events I could – school, and then house parties.
The club scene was incredible and I was able to experience it as a teenager at the end of the 70s thanks to my job at the hotel. Then, being friends with the DJs, I was able to sneak into the other discos… even though I was underage.
With my DJ success, I bought a studio and started working on music.
You ran a short-lived label called Flavor Records in the late 80s, which put out music by local hip hop artists?
In the mid 80s, I was still playing a lot of soul and funk, which then started to become hip hop. So I worked a lot in this area.
Before going to Detroit, I was hanging in Buffalo and met lots of artists and recorded lots of them, including Scott Down.
What were the circumstances that led you to meet Richie Hawtin?
Back in 1989 I was playing a lot of techno, and one day I decided to drive to Buffalo. It was the same distance as Detroit, so I just drove the other way and went shopping for the records I loved. I hoped to meet people along the way.
Do you remember the conversation that led to the creation of Plus 8 Recordings in 1990?
I was already using the name ‘J’Acquaviva+8’ in my hip-hop focused days. We were also playing our records fast – I was playing at +8, much to my pleasure when i finally heard the ‘Wizard’ – Jeff Mills – play. So, what better way to push the parameters of techno and electronic music than to name the label Plus 8, which was the way to push the Technics 1200 to its limit.
The intention was to be part of the techno wave coming out of Detroit. Eventually we took a more global perspective when we added artists like Speedy J from Rotterdam and Ken Ishii from Japan.
With the LP ‘From Our Minds to Yours’, which we released in 1991, we really wanted to make a statement.
You followed up Plus 8 with the launch of the Probe and Definitive soon afterwards? Why did you decide to launch these additional labels? Do you think you took too much on?
At the core, it was to show we were more than one dimensional. Music is like food… you need a well balanced diet.
I’m proud to say we dropped none of the balls we juggled.
You’re closely associated with the development of Final Scratch, which kick started a revolution in how DJs perform even to this day. When did you discover that?
There was a buzz about this idea in the late 90s, so I tracked it down. Once i touched the initial prototype, I was sold on the future – even though I owned a pressing plant for vinyl.
What role did you play in the creation of Beatport?
I was a founder and brought together the international parts as well, such as inviting Native Instruments and of course Richie Hawtin to the table.
Why did you decide to launch Plus 8 Equity Partners – what was the thinking behind that project, and how has it evolved?
It’s the natural evolution of all that we have done and also the times we live in. Music has a thriving ecosystem and we are here to invest and continue to grow it.
What sort of dance/electronic music industry will emerge once the pandemic has subsided, do you think?
It’s hard to predict or elaborate as we are so deep into so many things… many of which are top secret! 🙂
[Thanks to John for talking to us. More information on his current projects can be found at john-acquaviva.com, while information about Plus 8 Equity Partners can be found at plus8equity.com. Photos by Sven Marquardt]