Music News

Wink, Wink

"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."