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Josh Wink talks about his early DJ days in Philly

Josh Wink

Josh Wink Photo courtesy of the artist

Throughout the ’90s, Josh Wink was one of the U.S. rave circuit’s big draws while still holding onto his place in the more “adult” club-based house world—a rare feat back then.

Wink continues to straddle dance music’s many lines of demarcation, moving from big festivals to smaller clubs with ease. The same applies to genres, from acid (“Higher State of Consciousness,” “Evil Acid”) to disco-fueled house (Size 9’s “I’m Ready”) to blistering techno (“Balls”), and his DJ sets are equally varied and strong. Wink is also a clean-living vegan with one of the most genial personalities in dance music.

I spoke with Wink twice (December 19, 2012, and May 21, 2013) for my book The Underground Is Massive; the following Q&A about his early days as a DJ in Philadelphia combines material from both sessions.

When did you start to DJ?

When I was a teenager in ’83, in conjunction with doing weddings and bar mitzvahs. I was an apprentice for a guy who had a company. His name was Chuck Jacobson and he [owned] Captain Jack’s Mobile DJ Company. I became his apprentice when I was 13. We were friends through camp in the suburbs of Philadelphia, outside in the area called the Poconos. They had an AM radio station at the camp, and I wanted to get involved, become a radio-personality DJ. From there I heard about hip-hop and house mixing when I was 14, 15. I would also go to block parties in Philly and see Jazzy Jeff and Cash Money. I was involved in the early days of that aspect of DJing.

I started then doing school parties, doing house parties, buy the equipment I bought from the mobile DJ company and taught myself how to DJ and bought my own music. I got involved with beat mixing and then I wanted to make my own music. I wanted to work in a nightclub rather than just doing home parties. From being in a nightclub I went, “Why am I playing other people’s music when I have all these ideas?”

I worked for two mobile DJ companies: Captain Jack’s when I was 13, then Silver Sounds. There’s a guy named Paul Evans [there] who I worked for—not necessarily DJing, but learning the business from him: packing a truck, breaking the equipment down on a larger scale, because he did Sweet Sixteen parties and high-school proms. He also did this event called the Matzoh Ball, a gig on Christmas Eve where all the Jewish folk would go and party. I would be there and be enthralled by what Paul was playing, mixing all different kinds of Top 40 to underground house with turntables with a rotary dial to control the pitch. That was probably ’85, ’86, ’87.

Did the Philly disco thing hang over the city at all when you were coming up?

No. I got full appreciation for that when I became a teenager. There was also the backlash—the “disco sucks” movement. When you’re seven years old, you’re limited to the radio. My brother was around, listening to the Grateful Dead and Arlo Guthrie and Bob Dylan. I got the disco when I was a teenager, through DJing, and got to really appreciate Gamble and Huff—but not until then.

Where were you as a DJ by 1989?

I tried to get involved in the nightclub scene in Philadelphia. I was a bike messenger. I became friends with another bike messenger named Blake Tart, who shared the same music tastes as me. He was also a DJ. We became instant brothers from that point. Blake and I threw the first Philly warehouse rave in 1989. We had a squatted warehouse and did a party—me and Blake and another DJ named King Britt. Blake and I would go to Kinko’s or the other printers at the time and printed up flyers and give them out on our bikes when we were delivering packages. We had a huge scene that would come out to these events we did at these warehouses.

Was that crowd there right away?

Yeah. It was such a diverse crowd because we were involved in different scenes—the art scene, the punk rock scene, the hip-hop scene, the college scene—in Philadelphia. We would get to all of them because I would promote at the college campuses. It was not necessarily illegal, but it was not necessarily legal. The European rave scene wasn’t really in the U.S. press yet. There was a bit of a scene here in Philadelphia for that music because of these parties in ’88 called Acid House Wednesdays. Blake used to sneak me into the Bank for these nights—the Bank was the name of the nightclub.

I was bar-backing at this club called Memphis in 1987. I would get into the club because I was a bar-back. That was my only real way to get into nightclubs, to work there. I could get into other clubs because other people knew me from working at these clubs, and they knew I didn’t drink: “Oh cool, it’s Josh, he works at Memphis.”

There were three after-hours clubs in Philadelphia: Strand, Revival, and the Black Banana. Blake [told me], “There’s an opening at the Black Banana. Give them a tape.” I gave the guys a tape and they hired me for Thursday night. I was 19 years old and doing the Thursday night party, regularly in Philadelphia, once a week, from 9:30 in the evening till 4 [a.m.], for $75 a night at this members-only, exclusive club in 1989.

We did these warehouse parties at this place called Killtime. It was a squat warehouse. We weren’t living there. There were punk rock shows there. Blake was friends with a couple people that lived there. We rented it out. We got the door benefit from it. Blake and I were very into getting The Face and iD magazine, NME. We knew about the Summer of Love [the British acid house explosion of 1988]. We were looking to a place to go where we didn’t have to deal with doormen, and where we could stay open as late as possible. [The first one] was amazing. You couldn’t let any more people in—I think we did 800 people in a warehouse. You couldn’t move. It’s amazing how we got the word out there and people just came. I remember the floor [laughs] looked like it was going to cave in. People were dancing and the beats were pulsing as the floor was pulsing up and down with it. It was such a great feeling.

Were you on a second or third floor?

There were two floors? The downstairs was—half the building—was open, because the roof caved in—a while [before], not that night. It was an open roof. There were a couple kegs in there, where people could go out and smoke and hang out in the coolness of the air. There was a social area downstairs, which became wall-to-wall people. There was a staircase to get upstairs where the music was.

It was just basically me and Blake in the beginning. Then King [Britt] worked at Tower Records. He knew a lot of people. We brought him in as an afterthought. He didn’t really know how to DJ then. But he always had great taste in music. When we lived together in ’89-’90, I taught him how to mix. King and I started doing our own parties together while Blake was doing other things. I was already working at the Black Banana. Then I worked at another club, because they knew I was at the Banana. So I became a club DJ that would do these warehouse parties on the side. It’s a little less work, DJing in a club.

When do you start to play outside of Philly?

That’s really when the production came about, when I started releasing more music. Local DJs don’t really get known outside their own market unless they’re from a really big city. If you’re a New York DJ, you don’t have to make music—you’re just a New York DJ who plays at the Limelight or Palladium or Red Zone. You can travel everywhere because of that. As soon as my productions started coming out, people started trying to get in touch with me in Philly. I became friends through production with people at the Limelight—Lord Michael, DJ Repete, Damon Wild, Miss Moneypenny, who was doing [the zine] Brand X.

I used to want to come up to New York to hear Repete and Charlie Casanova to do their Future Shock Fridays. I’d talk to those guys and we worked it out: “Why don’t you do a rave bus? You could play up in New York with us, and bring people up.” That’s how I really started playing more often at the Limelight in New York—I would hire a Greyhound bus for a night trip, and people would come up. I think it was $20—you would get round-trip from Philly to New York, entry at the club. And they’d go back down.

Did you charter this?

Yes. I got everybody’s name. I would write their names and phone numbers down and call and see if they were interested in coming. They would call me. I would get a deposit of $10. People would show up at this one location. Everybody would leave their car and get on the bus. I’d make sure the guys up in New York knew everything was fine, and then we’d walk them all into the club. That’s one of the ways they would get 20 people or more from Philadelphia, guaranteed, when I would play with them. It was lucrative for them, it was a cool thing for me to do, plus I was able to DJ at the legendary Limelight. This was even before Chinatown buses were around. I’d just look in the Yellow Pages for bus companies and get rates for just that night: “How much for a bus for 9 o’clock until 7 o’clock in the morning?”

I’m curious what you see as the differences between old DJ mixtapes and, now, doing mixes for podcasts.

If I’m in control of what I do I think it is fine. With a mixtape, you had something tangible. You had a tape. Back in the day, there was something about making or giving a mixed tape, plus you had something. You had something to hold. You drew on it, you wrote the songs on it. Nowadays, it is very impersonal. But you can have instant access to all of your music.

[Mixtapes were] a labor of love. People release music to be able to travel. I would love to be able to do it the other way around. I’d like to stay put and make music and make a living. I have no problems with getting stuff for free but I think that if people get so many things for free, every now and then it is okay to put money back into the hands of the people they appreciate. I’m still conscious of wanting to do my art. We are trying to release timeless music instead of trendy music.

Josh Wink
With: Christian James, Jake Pawlik
Where: Rev Ultra Lounge
When: 10 p.m. Fri. Feb. 9
Tickets: 21+; $20; more info here