This is the second installment of 5 Magazine’s DJ Masters series, featuring interviews & companion mixes from influential and legendary figures whose contributions were crucial to the development of the North American House Music scene.
The first installment featured a mix & interview with DJ Dan.
For Volume #2, we honor Mr. John Acquaviva.
John co-founded Plus 8 Records with Richie Hawtin, as well as his current label (now entering its third decade), Definitive Recordings. Oh, and some years later, he was involved in an obscure start-up website called Beatport.
But for those (like me) who got into electronic music during the early 1990s and the “second wave”, John’s presence on a flyer was evidence that genuine, funky House Music wouldn’t be ignored.
Our interview with John (by Terry Matthew) begins below the mix. We hope you enjoy.
Thanks for taking the time for the interview, John. Now I’ve seen it written that you started DJing around 1980. I don’t think I’ve ever interviewed someone who was DJing around that time somewhere OTHER than in New York or Chicago. Where I lived, dance music was still very much a “minority” sort of music – the fans were a rainbow, of course, but mostly black, or latino, or gay, and sometimes more than one of the above. Was it that way for your local scene?
I have always been a fan and long time friend of Derrick Carter and I remember him saying how he would play at house parties and or school parties from a young age. It was always in my blood and I would buy and play 45s at my school dances – mostly soul, funk but the odd rock tune with a booty shaking groove. There were always people wanting rock and pop, but I would keep parties full of danceable stuff.
I became the backup DJ to the main disco around 1980 then the main DJ in 1982. Although it was the best disco, around 1980, dance music was at an all time low… at least “cool”-wise. So the people who would go to clubs were really into the sounds and it was really special. In fact the best clubs were the gay clubs. I would do the one “MIXED” night where all sorts of people who just loved new music and dancing all night would come together. So basically, much like your experience… it was really that way for just about all the North American scene.
When you were starting out, DJs weren’t making records, really, and you waited a LONG time before releasing your first track. Obviously the situation with production is different today. When did you get the confidence that the tracks you made were as good, or better, as the tracks you played? (or was it just a matter of not having the gear or knowledge?)
Being an old school DJ, I loved and really took great effort to know about the music. In fact, I still admit that I am really good at selecting music and know the best time and place to play music from other artists, which is something most DJs don’t understand today (many approach it like a concert and only play their own music).
By the end of the ’80s that started to change. Much like society, if you were going to make it you had to do a bit of everything to get attention in your field. Combined with the democratization of technology – especially samplers, synths and drum machines – there was an explosion of dance music, notably in Chicago and Detroit. I was playing that music and it spoke to me and drew me to Detroit (which was just a couple hours drive). I ended up meeting Richie Hawtin, and most importantly really start to make music and become part of that global DJ/producer scene.
The first couple of efforts we released were received and sold very well, but it was with our 3rd record, Technarchy, that I felt we were on par with the rest of the world. I remember getting the test pressing and both Rich and I said, “This sounds fat, and if it was from someone else, I would buy and play the shit out of it.” Clearly, we were right and onto something 😉
Your career has straddled a number of different eras – you were active during the 1st wave of House Music & Techno, and a driving force in the 2nd wave, which for me at least was characterized by the rave scene. Do you remember, as someone that had been into the music for a number of years by then, first hearing about “raves”?
Yes… late ’80s. And this is the ironic thing actually. I was a very successful club DJ, though younger than most club jocks because many went back to the ’70s. So the dance music of the ’80s in clubs was great, but a lot was getting safe by the end. Hip Hop had exploded, but it was never really a club thing. Most older DJs played easy dance music on the weekends.
Luckily I played new music and had a big night running for 8 years from ’82 to ’90. This kept me on top of things and pushing the parameters. The House we were playing and the Techno we started to make was not appealing the the older crowds and most club jocks were not playing it, so young people and DJs started playing and meeting in warehouses to get their groove on.
Being an established club DJ making very good money even then, I did not jump onto the rave scene as I had to play every night and was able to get my fill on Mondays (my club was licensed for 350, and in the peak of acid house around 1988 to ’89 we were turning over more than 700 people on a Monday night, so it was a pretty big deal in town). The young DJs and people were doing small parties, making some money and it was all about the passion first and foremost. I ultimately ended my weekend gigs so that i could travel to parties. And in early ’90s, I took a step back from being a regular club jock to eventually step forward and climb what turned out to be a bigger mountain of fun and success.
Looking back on it, I think Plus 8 had the first sort of “branded EDM” tour in American history back in 1995 with “FUK”. Prior to that, multi-city events were sort of like rock tours – artists play in a club, move on to the next city, etc. It was kind of a watershed for people like me, expanding our consciousness that this wasn’t just a Chicago thing or a “rustbelt” thing but a worldwide thing. Do you have anything about the “midwest rave” days and that era of your career that you’re especially proud of, looking back today?
You nailed it with FUK. Most parties got busted – in fact, Richie got busted trying to come into Detroit for the Brooklyn party. At the time never was it so fun, so illegal, so risky and so fresh.
The Midwest has been the heart and soul for so much music and so many scenes. I think that history will remember this particular one well. I certainly do…
A few years ago, you restarted Definitive. What lead you to think that it was time to start it back up again?
After so much history, the past dozen years has been sort of a new and invigorating chapter. Taking some flack, I was part of the paradigm shift from analog to digital. I was tired of so many dysfunctional ways of making music and trying to sell it. But when the digital natives started to lead the charge, i wanted to be part of it. I wanted people to get a small taste of history but also be part of current scene. I think we did and are doing that nicely.
How has your approach toward A&R changed in the two “eras” of Definitive? Back in the day one really did have to hit the street to find tracks (for instance, I don’t think many people in North America heard of Ian Pooley before you released Roller Skate Disco). Today, I assume you have an inbox, and that said inbox is flooded with demos every morning.
A&R has most definitely changed. Then people would send cassettes and you could not instant message them, so an EP that was an international effort was done with the odd phone call, fax and a lot of hopes and prayers.
Now anyone can spam their music to umpteen labels and the label needs to be quick to listen and pick up tunes. There is a downside though… as so many people send a lot of average work and it is like finding a needle in a haystack. So it’s easier in some ways, but way more draining in others.
Olivier Giacomotto was signed “exclusively” to your label some years ago. Is that still the case, and what was it that made you lock this guy down?
He is one of the greatest engineers I have ever worked with and been around. We did not lock him down but rather Olivier and I agreed to work first and foremost with each other. He has worked with many people since – UMEK being a great example as he is both good friend as well as a fan of Oli and the label.
I tell a lot of artists to really have a home then work with one or two other labels and or artists to stay focused. Some release too much and are too promiscuous in their musical relationships. It waters them down I think.
Can you tell me about “Let It Go”? Where did the idea originate, and how did three people collaborate to make something that sounds really tight like this?
We love Dan Diamond’s lyrics…
We are not really into the EDM scene. It has taken over in many parts, but for me it’s like saying, “I’m going to eat at the best restaurant in the world: McDonalds.” For me, for us, biggest does not mean the best.
So “Let It Go” is about the love and respect of a lifestyle. The lyrics say it all really.
And the video is actually not a bunch of people raving with glamorous FX and stuff, but just grooving at the local club with friends and music and having a real time.
Thanks for the questions and see you in a few weeks!