After More Than Three Decades of DJing, Producing & Gigging, Josh Wink Keeps Making Profound Sounds
“I had to make my son breakfast, and then I noticed that his brand-new bike had a flat tire, and so then I had to walk him to school, and then.…” Josh Wink, mellow-toned as ever despite a hectic morning, is laying out the reasons why he’s ever-so-slightly late for our phone interview. But really, there were no explanations necessary—if anyone’s earned the right to be a bit behind schedule, it’s this beloved clubland vet.
Wink’s been at this game for decades—ever since helping to nurture his native Philadelphia’s rave scene in the late ’80s, his life has been a whirlwind of electronic-dance-music activity. For instance, there’s his label, Ovum Recordings, founded in 1994 with good friend King Britt—over the years, it’s built an unparalleled discography, nearly 300 releases strong, that covers a wider range of house, acid and techno than most any other U.S. imprint you could name. There’s his own, equally varied productions, which includes such beloved ’90s-era mind-blowers as “Higher State of Consciousness” and, working as Size 9, “I’m Ready,” along with more recent groovers like 2013’s tough-as-nails “Balls” and the just-released, acid-jacking “Resist.” Then there’s Profound Sounds, his longtime Sirius XM show that’s been serving up live mixes culled from his live sets since 2010.
Which, of course, leads us to what might be the most important facet of Wink’s career: his years of service as a globe-trotting, party-starting DJ. From sun-kissed festivals to throbbing warehouses, from the sandy shores of Ibiza to the gritty streets of Detroit—he’ll be there in Hart Plaza on May 29 to ply his trade at the Movement festival—he’s been purveying his 303–laced rhythms for longer that many of his peers have been alive. “2017 marks 30 years that I’ve been working in clubs,” he says midway through our conversation. “Damn, I’m old!” But even though he’s just recovering from a busy weekend that saw him zooming from San Francisco’s Halcyon to Arizona’s Phoenix Lights festival to Denver’s Beta Nightclub and back home to family life in Philly, the 47-year-old DJ/producer still exudes a youthful enthusiasm—tempered with the wisdom that a lifetime in dance music can bring.
DJ Times: As someone who’s a member in good standing of America’s house and techno underground, yet who regularly plays on EDM-heavy festival lineups, what’s your take on the current scene? Have you noticed a shift from the mainstream back towards the underground toward the underground in recent years?
Josh Wink: Well, EDM is still what’s there. It’s in movies, it’s in commercials, it’s on the Grammys, it’s everywhere—that just the way it is. I’m not one to say that’s a good thing or a bad thing, and people can make their own choices. All I know is that since I’ve been doing Profound Sounds, people—young people in their early 20s—have been coming to me, telling that they were into EDM, but then they heard my show, saying, “Wow, I never knew about you before, but I was really inspired.” So through my experience, yes, but I don’t really know. I’m not really sure if EDM is a gateway drug.
DJ Times: It sounds as if you’re a bit hopeful, though.
Wink: Sure, but there are a lot of people who are into one thing, and one thing only. They’ll be at a festival and just stay at the main stage, and they don’t really care about what else is going on. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with the partying, and jumping up and down, and singing along with the lyrics to songs that takes place at the main stage. I was raised as a mobile DJ, so I do know the importance of entertainment.
DJ Times: You were quite young when you started in the mobile-DJ business, right?
Wink: I was 13. I was basically an apprentice, not really DJing—except when my boss had to go to the bathroom or something. There were weddings, bar mitzvahs, bas mitzvahs, Sweet-16 parties, school parties, things like that. I learned the ins and outs, and it was fun. I found out that I wanted to be a part of it.
DJ Times: How did you transition from that world to clubland?
Wink:DJ Times: You had pretty wide-ranging taste as a kid!
Wink: Yeah, but it was the new wave and hip hop that really hit me. There were lyrics and drum machines together, which was new at the time. To hear an 808 and a 909 in hip hop was just amazing to me, and all those electronic bands from Europe were, too.
DJ Times: Do you remember which bands you were listening to?
Wink: Oh, there were a lot. Depeche Mode, Section 25, New Order, OMD, Heaven 17—all those bands that were mixing synthesizers and drum machines with guitars and vocals. Then there was house music, which then was coming in from Chicago and New York. I started going to house parties once they started happening, and at the same time I was going to block parties where hip-hop people like Cash Money and Jazzy Jeff would be battling it out. There was a constant progression and development of music at that time.
DJ Times: When did the DJing begin?
Wink: I started doing school parties, and by around ’87 or ’88 I started doing warehouse parties with my friend Blake, who I was a bicycle messenger with. I was playing house, funk, hip hop, soul—we would really mix it up. By later in the ’80s, we were doing more acid-house things; we were getting more involved with the kind of music that was coming out of Chicago and England. But I always wanted to play in a nightclub. I really wanted my name to be on a club flier in Philly. I got a job at a club as a barback when I was 18, washing glasses and stocking beer—but I was always giving tapes to the manager.
DJ Times: What club was this?
Wink: It was a club called Memphis, which isn’t around anymore. It was the alternative club—a place that played an industrial, kind of Wax Trax! sound, along with house music. It had a very mixed clientele. Anyway, I had already taught myself how to beatmix on a pair of belt-driven turntables, and one night the DJ got sick and couldn’t come in, and they let me fill in for him.
DJ Times: Do you remember what you played that night?
Wink: Well, at the time, records would be at the club—the owner would buy music for the DJs, and the records would just be left there. I was so nervous and excited, I don’t really remember exactly what I played, but it was all house and alternative music. I started doing more fill-in gigs, and then Blake heard that there was a DJ named Gigi Meoli who was leaving one of the three after-hour clubs we had in Philadelphia, a really unique place called the Black Banana. It was another mixed place—socially, sexually, every way. It was kind of like Philly’s Studio 54, only in the ’80s. Blake knew the manager, I gave the manager a tape and I got a job there playing Thursday nights. Then they gave me Fridays as well, and then another club opened up and I got a night… that’s when the ball started rolling, around 1989.
DJ Times: And you were still technically underage.
Wink: Yeah, you had to be 21 to go to the clubs, but you could work in places that served liquor starting when you were 18. I didn’t drink anyway.
DJ Times: It wasn’t long after this period that you started producing, right?
Wink: Well, I figured that I’m playing all this music by other people—why not make my own? I had all these ideas that I wanted to get out. But I was going to college at Temple University at the time, and I was a bike messenger, and I was working in nightclubs.
DJ Times: You had a packed schedule.
Wink: I was certainly busy. And around this same time, I also wanted to get my name on some New York fliers as well. My first gig in New York was at Limelight, at the Future Shock party with Lord G, RePete and Damon Wild. I wasn’t really known yet, so the only way I could I could get these gigs was to hire a bus, get 40 people from Philly and bring them up. It was hard.
DJ Times: And expensive, too, I would guess.
Wink: Yes, I would. I charged people something like $25 for the trip and entry into the club. I would just make enough money to cover the bus—but because I was bringing people in, I would get a guest spot at the club. That’s when I realized that if I really wanted to play outside of Philly, I had to make music. That was the only way for people to know your name, by people all over the world buying your records.
DJ Times: What was your very first production?
Wink: That was the E-Culture EP that I did with King Britt, produced in 1989 and released on 1990.
DJ Times: How did you know King?
Wink: We had been friends for just around two years at that point. I met him through Blake as well. Blake was like, “You gotta meet my friend King—he’s the 12-inch buyer for Tower Records, and you guys would really get along.” We just clicked.
DJ Times: That E-Culture record came out on Strictly Rhythm, which was already pretty prestigious by that time. How did you manage to land your very first release on a label like that?
Wink: King had a relationship with [Strictly A&R exec] Gladys Pizarro through his job at Tower. We made the song, he sent it to Gladys, and that was it. It was quite different than the New York house that Strictly was known for, but they always had a good ear for all kinds of music. After that, things started happening—we were able to travel, to DJ other places, to make our own music and to start Ovum Recordings.
DJ Times: You were obviously playing vinyl in those early days, but what DJing methodology do you use now?
Wink: I use Traktor as my digital record box, and I still use CD players, using their pitch control to adjust the tempo—so it’s a bit old-school. I need to be hands-on—I’m not a push-the-button kind of guy. I try not to look at my computer too much; I look at the mixer, the CD players and the crowd. I do have a controller, but I just use that to go through my collection and my loops, and to play with my effects. And I have a USB stick as a back-up, a 128-gigabyte thumb drive, just in case.
DJ Times: You’re about to play at Detroit’s Movement festival. Is it safe to assume that the sounds of Detroit played some role in your development?
Wink: Well, I mainly wanted to start making dance music because of the acid-house sound coming out of Chicago—DJ Pierre, Phuture 303, Spanky, Armando, all those guys. But at the same time, I was very much into the Detroit sound, particularly the deeper, more soulful side of Detroit techno. I love early Carl Craig stuff, Eddie Fowlkes, Blake Baxter, Mike Banks. There’s Jeff Mills, of course, and Robert Hood. And the Belleville Three—my music never sounded much like theirs did, but I certainly dug it. Juan [Atkins], Kevin [Saunderson] and Derrick [May] are the guys who really blew it open.
DJ Times: But some of your early tracks—1994’s “Liquid Summer,” for instance—do have at least a hint of Detroit flavor to them.
Wink: Yeah, that kind of soulful feel with strings—that paddy, soulful side of the music that people like Carl and Mike were putting out was an influence, for sure. It was for lots of other people as well, like Laurent Garnier. But there was also an artist named Dominic Woosey, who was in Neutron 9000. Neutron 9000 had an amazing album called The Green House Effect, which King was able to get on green vinyl because he worked at Tower. That was a hugely influential album for us—electronic music with strings and pads.
DJ Times: What else were you into?
Wink: At the same time, I was very influenced by the electro-bass sound from the early ’80s—the kind of music that started with Afrika Bambaataa, but also with Juan Atkins and Rik Davis of Cybotron. And I was also getting tapes of [Chicago’s] Hot Mix 5 mixes—I don’t remember how I got them, but they were big. I still have them in storage somewhere
DJ Times: You were picking up on electronic music from all over, it seems.
Wink: For me, music is universal. I was grabbing whatever I could.
DJ Times: When you play in an iconic electronic-music city like Detroit, do you feel any additional pressure?
Wink: You know, every gig is important to me, and it’s important to give the best performance that I can. Of course, I do look forward to playing in certain cities or in certain clubs because of their importance to me, and I do keep where I’m playing in mind. For instance, I just played Chicago and I played some old-school Chicago stuff—not just the big tracks, but some weird, obscure tracks as well—and people were just bugging out. Or if I play somewhere like Tresor in Berlin—so many artists who are important to me, like Blake Baxter and Rob Hood, have released on their label, and I’ll keep that in mind when I’m there.
DJ Times: You’ll tailor your sets to the gig to some degree?
Wink: I think that comes from my mobile-DJ days. I learned that you need to be someone who not only educates, but also someone who entertains. A lot of DJs forget that: Some will just concentrate on the entertainment access, where it’s all about hype and getting people to pogo, and others will say, “I don’t care if I’m playing only obscure tracks that the crowd doesn’t know.”
DJ Times: Is it easy for you to find that balance?
Wink: Sometimes, but it can be difficult. With some crowds nowadays, all they really want to do is pump their first and jump around, and when you DJ to that kind of crowd, there can be pressure. And it’s hard at a festival, where you might only have an hour, to educate and take people on a journey.
DJ Times: But you still get the opportunity play a lot of long sets as well, right?
Wink: Yes, and I love doing that, and people expect me to keep doing that. But they don’t know exactly what to expect when I do them. I may play a new track from Ben Klock and Marcel Dettmann, and then mix it into a Bohannan track. That’s the beauty of a long set, and that the beauty of DJing—not just playing the top Beatport tracks off a flash drive. I look at what I do as being a musical therapist. I like it when I can take people on journey. I don’t want them looking at their phones—I want them with their eyes closed, getting lost in the fog and not thinking about anything.
DJ Times: Do you have any favorite places to play?
Wink: I do have favorite countries and favorite cities. I like going to Ibiza; I live there two months in the summer. It’s such a unique place.
DJ Times: You bring your family there with you, right?
Wink: That’s correct. I’ll play some gigs while I’m there, but I make sure to take time off to spend with my family, and just be with them by the sea in the mountains—with no clothes on. It’s awesome. I like Portugal, I like Japan, I like Israel, I like Germany, I like Holland, I like New York, I like Miami, I like Chicago.…
DJ Times: You like everywhere!
Wink: Well, I haven’t been to Antarctica.
DJ Times: It’s probably all a bit of a blur to you at this point.
Wink: Yeah. People often ask me questions that I can’t really give the answer that I want. For example, someone might ask, “What was your worst gig?” Or “Do you remember the first time you did this or that?” And I’d blank out, and I’d get a bit concerned, wondering why I couldn’t come up with something witty. But I’ve been traveling internationally for 26 years now, an average of 43 weekends a year. So I’d say, “I really wish I could give you an answer, and I really wish I could say that I did drugs and that’s why I can’t remember things—but it’s really just because I’ve been doing this for so long, that my cup is just too full of life experience to recall all the specifics.” And as I get older, my memory is probably going bad anyway [laughs].
DJ Times: You’ve never had a narrowly defined sound. Obviously, that’s a good thing, but have you ever felt that in this era of hyper-specialization, the fact that you can’t be pigeonholed has been a hindrance at all?
Wink: Maybe. I was talking to Chris Liebing about my frustrations in fitting fully into one scene, as opposed to be accepted by a bunch of scenes—almost like the “jack of all trades, master of none” thing. And he said, “Dude, that’s the best position to be in!” I feel like I’ve always been able to blur the lines between different sounds. I could put out a record, and people like Louie Vega or Tony Humphries would play it, and Laurent Garnier or Sven Väth would also play it.
DJ Times: A great thing…
Wink: Where it became a little frustrating was when I’d be cool with all the New York house guys, and I’d be cool with all the Detroit techno guys, but I never was quite one of them. Maybe it was because I didn’t party or whatever. But I like being the guy that blurs the lines, and I think my longevity speaks for itself.
DJ Times: You may not fit into a specific scene, but do you feel there’s a thread that runs through all the music you make?
Wink: Well, I was playing the opening of the new Space in Brazil in a few years ago, and I had just started to play a track. Yousef was also playing that night, and was hanging with me during my set. During my whole set, he hadn’t asked about a single song, except one. He said, “Josh, I don’t know this track, but I know it’s yours.” This was the “Balls” track. He said, “You do have something distinct that’s your own.” That made me feel really happy, that people can tell when a record is a Josh Wink record.
DJ Times: What do you think that distinct something is, exactly?
Wink: A lot of my music is defined by tension. It’s there whether it’s a slower or a faster track. It can happen when you don’t know if or when build-up is going to happen—it’s like that uncomfortable feeling of climaxing without climaxing. I’ll try to do that in my productions, and also in my DJ sets by doing something like creating extra-long breaks. The tension and intensity are usually there.
DJ Times: “Tension” and “intensity” are two words that could describe your latest record, “Resist.” Given current politics, can we take that title as a call to arms?
Wink: There’s a lot going on in the world, but I don’t really like to get too political. I prefer to let the music speak for itself. With “Resist,” the idea was to kind of say something without saying something, if that makes sense. I’ve been playing it out to great response, which is always a good thing.
DJ Times: It’s pretty much a full-on acid track.
Wink: Yeah, it’s very old-school Chicago, but with contemporary production.
DJ Times: What do you think accounts for the enduring appeal of that bleepy sound?
Wink: I just think it’s sexy. That’s it. People are always like, “Hey, acid house is coming back!” I’m like, “Fuck, it never went anywhere!” It’s maybe getting a little more accessible because there’s now software synths based on the Roland TB-303’s algorithms; there are three or four good emulators out there right now. I use some of them, but I also still use the 303.
DJ Times: It’s an enduring piece…
Wink: Another thing I love about the 303 is that it’s very versatile. It’s not just a lead synth. It can also be in the background as a bassline, for instance. Heaven 17 used the 303 as the bassline on songs like “Let Me Go”; even bands like Orange Juice, which was sort of a punk band from the U.K., used it.
DJ Times: It’s really hard to miss that 303 bassline on an Orange Juice song like “Rip It Up.”
Wink: And those songs are from way before acid house, from back in the early ’80s. The ways that you can morph and tweak that sound… I love it.
DJ Times: Beside the 303, what does your studio consist of nowadays?
Wink: I have a very simple set-up. After my last studio move, a lot of my stuff is still in storage, and I’ve actually been working in the box a lot lately. But I do have two 303s, and I use a [Roland] SH-101. I had some problems with my [Roland] TR-808 and my TR-909, so I haven’t been using them—but I sampled everything from them, and I’ve been using that a lot. If I want to use actual hardware for those sounds, I’ll use the Roland Boutique stuff.
DJ Times: You’re a real Roland acolyte.
Wink: Well, I do mix it up a little bit. And I’ve thought about getting into modular synthesis, but being both a touring artist and a family guy, I don’t think I really have the time to invest in that. It’s hard enough just to come home and make music with what I already know.
DJ Times: Are you still on the road most weekends?
Wink: That’s what DJs do. It’s very different from what a band does. They usually tour with the idea of promoting albums, but DJs just constantly tour without necessarily having anything to promote. It’s a weird position to be in—cool, but weird. But I’m thinking about releasing an album later this year, of stuff that I’ve producing over the past couple of years. It’ll be a mix of acid and house, as it always is [laughs]. Right now, I’m basically just in the process of coming up with names.
DJ Times: What’s the schedule like?
Wink: I really haven’t been touring quite as much lately. I want to continue to enjoy what I do, but I get a little frustrated with every festival having the same lineup, and you just go there and play your set and that’s it. Fans still show up for my sets, so that’s good—but I’d rather be at home with my family, working in my studio.
DJ Times: Are you ever tempted to just give up on the traveling, and concentrate on your home life and your production work?
Wink: Well, the only reason that pretty much all artists make music is to be able to tour. The sales side isn’t a way to make a living; you have to sell tickets. But traveling itself isn’t as glamorous as it used to be. After doing it for 26 years, I can tell you it takes a toll on you. It’s an artificial atmosphere, breathing pressurized air full of people’s farts and burps; there’s jetlag and lack of sleep; and the frustration of dealing with immigration, delays and missed planes. I mean, I love my job—but I dislike my work.
DJ Times: Still, when you’re in the booth and everything is going right, it still must be fun.
Wink: Oh, yeah. When I’m in the middle of playing a long set, I’m a pig in shit. It’s my zone; it’s my meditation; it’s my Zen. I don’t think about anything else except for creating in the present moment. That’s what I live for. What I get paid for is the coming and going – I DJ for free. The time away from home takes its toll, though.
DJ Times: How do you go about balancing work and family life?
Wink: FaceTime and Skype make it easier; I talk with my kid two times a day when I’m on the road. And I made an agreement with my partner that I will only be away for five days, maximum.
DJ Times: No more months-long tours?
Wink: You know, in 26 years of doing this, I’ve never been away from home for more than two weeks. I’m a real weekend warrior. And nowadays, being a dad is very important to me, and I don’t want to be gone for very long.
DJ Times: Does your son understand what you do for a living?
Wink: When he was very young, he wanted to know why I was traveling all the time. My partner and I realized we had to come up with something that he’d understand. So she told him, “Daddy has to leave because he has to go make people happy.” Then when I was leaving to the airport around a month later, he said, “Daddy, can you do me a favor? Can you stay home this weekend and make people sad?”
DJ Times: Aw.…
Wink: Yeah, it definitely gave me a perspective on things.
DJ Times: You said earlier that you carry a thumb drive as back-up. Have you ever had to use it?
Wink: Well, at Phoenix Lights [festival this past April], I managed to forget to bring my hard drive—which has all my music on it—to the site. I’m going on in 20 minutes, and the hotel is 25 minutes away. Felix Da Housecat is on, and I’m rushing to load music onto my USB, and he’s like “Dude, I’m gonna pass out—you gotta take over!” And he just leaves, while I’m still loading stuff up. To win more time, I just start talking on the mike, and I told them what the situation was, finishing with… “But I’m a professional, and though it might not be a 100-percent performance, I’m gonna give you 100-percent effort.” Everybody cheered. Tiga was on after me, but before he went on, I got back on the mic and thanked everyone for understanding, finishing with, “Alright, give it up for Tiga!” I put down the mic, and Tiga says to me, “What is this—a fucking bar mitzvah?” I said, “Well, I did start out doing mobile-DJ work.…”