John Acquaviva is an Italian born DJ, producer and music entrepreneur from Canada. John is a true pioneer and physical proof of Acid House’s dream, he now tours the world, runs a massively successful label called Definitive Records – celebrating its 30th year in existence, started Plus 8 records with Richie Hawtin in 1990 and was also involved in a radical new start up website idea for online music sales which we know today as Beatport! John began DJing way back in 1980 playing disco and new wave in gay clubs, but it was the music coming from Chicago and Detroit that really enthused John and it was through their shared love of the music that he met and began to work with Richie Hawtin. So with all that history behind him, This is Progressive caught up with Canada’s other superstar DJ(!) to talk A&R in the modern age, his take on dance cultures development and those fateful early days of Dance.
Hi John, We’ve all grown up with your labels and influence on electronic dance music so its a massive honour to chat with you. Thanks for sparing the time. Hows 2013 treated you?
Thanks for the kind words and right back at you with the offer to chat, catch up and air some thoughts and comments on my end.
2013 has been very good overall for me with lots of goings on, old and new.
Tell us all about the early days for you.. You started touring with Richie in ’89, Plus 8 came along in 1990 and life was never the same. How did you get into dance music? Were your parents musical themselves?
My parents were not musical in the sense of playing instruments, but they had a collection of 45’s and a portable record player which was a big influence on me simply with choosing and playing records. I was always a DJ, selecting records for school parties as early as I can remember. Then in high school doing parties on weekends then getting the number 2/back up DJ at the best disco in town, which I then became the cities number 1 DJ at 19, all while going to school until I finished my university.
Who were your musical heroes growing up and did they influence how you began to make music?
Early disco records and pioneers such as Giorgio Moroder, Kraftwerk/YMO. Then, at the end of the 70’s while punk was happening….which was a lot of fun, I got into the first electro artists such as Gary Numan, Ultravox, Depeche Mode and so many more…
What was the North American scene like back in the early days? I know you DJed the gay scene for a while, did you spend much time travelling over to Detroit and Chicago for music?
Early days were great in a nostalgic underground sense, only people who loved dance music were into it so many bonds were formed. When I travelled, I went first to Toronto and Montreal; only in my late teens did I start to go to Detroit and Buffalo. First time in Chicago was 91 or 92 when I met Derrick Carter and Mark Farina at Gramophone!
Plus 8 records began in around 1990. What was the concept of the label in the beginning? How did you and Richie delegate workloads?
Pushing the limits of club sound and energy. Embracing the future and all to do with technology. Rich and I just did whatever we needed to do to stay afloat and move ahead.
Plus 8 became a vanguard of taste for many. What was the A&R process like then and do you think if you started the label now, it would become as successful as it did?
Rich and I from the first days wanted to be involved at the international level for a long time. We wanted to show the world our originality and develop a philosophy to stick around, part of that was learning to stand by your beliefs. Some people have hits and then just try to copy what works, we always tried to change. The best demos for us were original material not copy cat productions, which is what many people did and still do to this day.
If you were to give some advice to budding producers sending out demos what would it be?
Know yourself and stick to it, don’t be afraid to be original, don’t be desperate and imitate.
1995 marked the year of the first real label tour in Dance Music – FUK. It opened up dance music into a brandable commodity and really changed the script in North America. Previously raves were local affairs, mostly totally illegal and risky for all concerned but the FUK tour changed that. Looking back on that tour, what were the highlights and what were the low points?
Highlights was packed sold out warehouses….the biggest and best Rich and I ever did. Low point was the weekend of the Oklahoma bombing we had a show in New York at the Brolly Bridge but Richie got busted at the border for not having work papers. super low point, in fact also one of the highest points was me covering for Rich and pulling off an all time set.
I recently read an article of yours about lavish DJ riders. These are the requests of the DJ and his entourage for food, drink and comforts which is separate from the equipment or technical rider. I found it very interesting and as a DJ and promoter myself I’ve seen some pretty crazy things. How do you approach them yourself?
As someone who just wants respect I list a few things within reason, if a promoter cant get them and asks ….I am fine with it. Just a formality for me and I have never not played or flipped out that my brand of drink was not there. This is the ‘canary in a coal mine’ for if an artists or manager begins to lose the plot.
Do you think the art of DJing has changed now because of the use of computers? Was it something that was inevitable and how do you feel the role of the DJ has changed?
It was inevitable. I come for the golden era and am happy I did. But it will never be the same as now you don’t have to take months and years to learn how to mix with your hands on a turntable. This is mostly for the better, but a true DJ needs time to learn about crowds and rooms either way. Most young guys just play a track then another track, there is no story, just stop and start…all in sync!
With the advent of technology, the way we consume music has changed. Gone are the days of avid music fans spending hours in the record store finding ‘that tune’ while our partners tut and look bored beside us. Whether thats a good thing or bad, do you think that the kids these days have the same understanding of the history of dance music that we did? And to that end do you think the future for the scene is assured?
Good question and I think it is a little bit bad. We all move forward, but I alluded to taking time and basically paying your dues as a DJ and a fan…but these days, the word consumer is more apt, when things are too easy, there tends to be a lower appreciation. So it will evolve. I do believe the underground people will do it from the heart and mind , thus putting more effort and attention. This tends to be the way for all things, be it food, culture….if you really care and want the best, you must take time and the appreciation comes from that.
How do you feel about DJs using their social media outlets to vent their feelings? Should these be used for business only, or does showing that human side actually increase your fan base?
Social media is a bit much in that it is all too sunny and positive. Almost everyone is always at their best and things are always ‘awesome’. So it can be saccharine and easy to slag. That said, even before social media, if I had a gripe or had nothing positive to say, I kept it to myself. These days, I also don’t go on and on blathering about how awesome everything is. Just try to stay level.
Lots of people moan about the classifications of tracks in online stores such as Beatport, what is the process behind the tracks reaching the shelves as it were? Is there scope for increasing the genres for instance creating a club house or ‘EDM’ sub category within progressive house?
I don’t know and its frustrating for me as well. I miss the curation of a great buyer in a great record shop.
Acid House has now been alive and kicking for 30 years, many never thought it would get this far. I remember reading articles in DJ Mag as early as the mid 90s saying House music was dead. What has been the defining memory of the last 30 years?
Hard to say as i feel we are still defining it and taking it forward…
Finally, whats 2014 got in store for you?
Lots! Of note….SUBPAC…the greatest idea I have come across to date. I will be busy working with this to take it to the next level!
Big hugs and best to all for 2014!
01// Sound Stream – Love Jam (Maceo Plex Remix)
02// Frankie Dep – The Tattoo I Wanted (Danny Serrano Remix)
03// Kaiser Souzai – Rusty (Dayowl Remix)
04// Mono Dos – Smack
05// Kaiser Souzai – Foggy
06// Re.You – Anyway (Rampa Remix)
07// K C Flight – Voices (Original Dub Mix)
08// Abel The Kid – Zumba Socks
09// Tiga vs Audion – Let’s Go Dancing
10// John Acquaviva, Simon Doty – Say What