"I like playing deeper records," says Josh Wink. "But it's just hard sometimes, because people expect me to play bangin' music all the time."
Such expectations are natural: Among dance-clubbers from Rio to Helsinki, this dreadlocked white boy is as famous for his hard-techno sets as fellow Philadelphian Dick Clark is for American Bandstand. But Wink, 29, is hardly a one-trick pony. In addition to helping shape the underground techno scene in America with his groundbreaking early-Nineties deejaying, he's a producer, a remixer (his credits include work with Moby and house diva Rozalla) and the creator of Ovum Recordings, whose 1996 deal with the Columbia imprint represented one of the first attempts by a major label to embrace electronic music. And the 1998 album Herehear shows Wink to be a more complex personality on both a professional and personal scale than did any of his previous platters. So while he can bang with the best of them, he can do plenty more as well.
Wink's first jobs were on the Philadelphia prom-and-wedding circuit in 1983, when he was just thirteen years old. "I wanted to get involved with radio and be a radio DJ," he remembers. "Then a friend of mine who was a DJ at a radio station started a mobile DJ company." The colleague taught young Josh about the business and subsequently helped him strike out on his own. "I bought his equipment in 1985 or 1986 and started, you know, my own little thing--taught myself how to deejay," he says. "The rest of my career is a progression from there." He looks on the era with fondness: "That was a time when it was cool to listen to everything. I played a mixture of everything from hip-hop to new wave to Top 40, whereas nowadays everybody's like, 'I only listen to drum-and-bass. I don't like country or anything else.'"
Dance music entered the equation when Wink's brother introduced him to the Germanic pleasures of Kraftwerk. Later, Wink drifted toward the darker feel of mid-Eighties U.K. electro--an approach that had a strong influence on his mixing. "I got into the industrial electronic sound like Cabaret Voltaire and Skinny Puppy, then English electronic music like Depeche Mode, New Order, Erasure and the Art of Noise." This last act has regathered its original lineup to release its first studio album in over a decade, and Wink, true fan that he is, has already scored a promo copy of the yet-to-be-issued disc.
In the late Eighties, Wink became a frequent visitor to New York. "That's when I heard that whole European techno sound, like Quadrophonia and Joey Beltram," he says. "That was unbelievable--to go to Limelight and hear Charlie Casanova play in front of 2,500 people going crazy." He adds, "I liked the weird-noise techno, which I call European techno, which is very different from American, Detroit techno." While Wink acknowledges the importance of Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson, three Motor City types known for their skillful robot beats, he was most impressed by the Grid, Altern-8 and other British mimics whose unique interpretations of the genre helped fuel a global dance explosion. "Acid house hit me rather hard, and that's what kind of got me into doing my own music," he reveals. "King and I had the same reaction to a lot of that acid and early house music."
The "King" in question is King Britt, a DJ and founder of Sylk 130 who was recently profiled in these pages ("Long Live the King," January 28). The pair met through a mutual friend in 1988, and by the following year, they were musical partners. They experienced their first dance-floor smash with 1990's "Tribal Confusion," a cut credited to E-Culture. Contrary to popular opinion, the moniker does not refer to ecstasy, a drug common at the raves and clubs where "Confusion" reigned: The spiritually centered Wink says he has never tried the substance, noting that he's been a clean-living vegetarian, give or take a few beers, since the early Eighties.
The success of E-Culture helped make Wink an in-demand producer and remixer--and in 1994, he formed Ovum. Britt, who had been on the road with Digable Planets at the time of Ovum's birth, came aboard shortly thereafter, and in 1995, Wink came up with three European chart hits: "Don't Laugh," "I'm Ready," and Wink's trademark dirtball-electro standard, "Higher State of Consciousness." The following year, Ovum hitched itself to Ruffhouse, a Philadelphia-based subsidiary of Columbia that's best known as the home of the Fugees. The pact didn't turn Wink's world upside down; according to him, "My studio is basically the same that it has always been. No state-of-the-art stuff--it's really raw and basic. Every now and then, I get a unique, weird piece of gear, but otherwise it's the same setup I've had since '92 except that I use a more powerful computer." But he acknowledges that dealing with the company hasn't always been easy. "It's weird--the fact that they don't always understand what we do 100 percent. They know how to work a certain kind of music, and I think they're having trials and tribulations dealing with our style. But they're great. They're up for learning, and they're happy with our label and the stuff we're putting out."
That Wink and Britt have flirted with techno, house, R&B, hip-hop, drum-and-bass and more helps explain the confusion of Columbia reps. But three years later, the deal is still holding up, despite the lukewarm reaction to Herehear, Wink's followup to Left Above the Clouds, his 1996 indie full-length. "I think it took a lot out of people, because they expect certain things from me," he says. "They expect all my music to sound like 'Higher State of Consciousness' or 'Don't Laugh.'" He points out that "most of the people who came up and talked to me were positive about Herehear, but the press always want to put in their opinion."
The negativity of many reviews was unfortunate, given that Herehear is a sonic leap forward for Wink. The tracks, which touch upon drum-and-bass, industrial and trance, are more song-based than before, and vocal contributions by Philly poet Ursula Rucker and This Mortal Coil's Caroline Crowley are fascinating. But the weaknesses inherent in "Black Bomb (Jerry in the Bag)," sung by Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor, led to more than a few slaggings, especially in England. "The journalists over there suck," Wink says with out-of-character intensity. "They're all just wannabe artists and DJs who can't get a gig. They don't like people like Trent Reznor, so they say the album sucks because he's on it. It's a no-win situation with those guys."
Unfortunately, such naysayers have a point: The Reznor contribution is every bit as feeble as the tunes he's offered to David Bowie and David Lynch. But the rest of Herehear is outstanding, with the beautiful "Young Again" suggesting prime Alex Reece and the cascading "Hard Hit" sporting a clever arrangement that should come as a surprise to anyone who thinks Wink can't do anything but thump. Wink holds English scribes responsible for refusing to acknowledge such high points and has little nice to say about the scene they cover. "It used be cool there, and I used to go there a lot--like every other week for a year. But the state of clubbing is so commercial now. You hear it on the radio, you see it in every magazine. You fly over there on British Airways, and Judge Jules has a dance-mix show on the programming." Other examples of corporate co-opting, including the sponsorship of Eclipse, a gigantic summer dance festival, by a deodorant manufacturer, and the installation of ATMs at many London clubs, have caused Wink to alter his travel plans. "I like continental Europe now--like Germany and France and Spain," he says.
After spraining his ankle and tearing a tendon, Wink was forced to cancel several dates, including one in Brazil, but he's determined to make his upcoming Denver gig for a couple of reasons. First of all, he loves coming to Colorado. He appeared at one of the state's first big raves, Skylab, and has heard nothing but good things about local crowds from King Britt, who is doing a bi-monthly residency at Boulder's Soma club, and fellow dance legend Richie Hawtin (Plastikman), a recent headliner at Synergy. He's also eager to promote Profound Sounds, Volume One, the first of a series of new mix CDs coming soon on Ovum/Ruffhouse/Columbia. The album, which Wink calls "minimal--a mixture of house and techno," is a return to his signature nightcrawler energy that incorporates deep house and a dash of vocal sampling. "KMart Shopper" and "What's the Time?," in particular, are certain to please devoted fans looking forward to a full-scale Wink tour this summer.
Some observers will see Profound Sounds as a retreat from the composition-heavy, cameo-friendly tunes on Herehear, and Wink doesn't entirely dispute this interpretation. "I'm going to let this do for a while, and then I'm going to get myself home and think about what I'm going to do for the next album. I don't know if it's going to be more song-oriented, like an artist, or more dance- and techno-oriented, just for the nightclubs. I'm not sure what I'm going to do next."
Still, Wink seems eager to move beyond the underground's adolescent-dominated techno-trance milieu. "I'm not alienating anyone, because I started out young, both as a producer and as a DJ," he says. "But when I started, the crowd was late teens and twenties. Then, in the mid-Nineties, it started getting pretty young, with all-ages events and everything. That was cool and everything, but the novelty wore off after a while." His gig of choice remains established venues with a more experienced clientele. "I prefer playing clubs because they're definite, they're bound to happen--and I prefer the over-21 crowd. Then again, there are a lot of people over 21 who have no idea what's going on."
Even when Wink tries to turn back the clock, there's no denying that times have changed. He remains fond of the homemade parties that gave the dance scene its legs, but when he threw a little soiree at the Winter Music Conference in Florida earlier this year, it earned a spread in Spin magazine. Indeed, the lineup was so crowded with big names, including Britt, Pete Moss, David Alvarado and 4hero's Diego, that when house luminary/Basement Jaxx collaborator DJ Sneak offered to do a set, Wink had to turn him down. But Wink managed to enjoy himself anyway. "We did it at this lounge club called the Living Room, and it was awesome--very small and intimate. And there was no hype around it, just really good music. It was a fun party."
Sometimes it's nice to take a break from the bangin'.
Josh Wink. Friday, June 4, Synergy, 3240 Larimer Street, $15-$25, 303-296-9515.
Get the Music Newsletter