This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: John Acquaviva, Fund Manager, DJ and Serial Entrepreneur.
While electronic dance music was underground in the early ‘90s, before the genre broke into the international mainstream, Canadian producers/label owners John Acquaviva and Richie Hawtin were international stars of an emerging electronic music and DJ culture.
In 1989 from Windsor, Ontario, the pair founded one of the world's best-known and influential labels of the era, Plus 8 Records, renowned for its minimal aesthetic in music and design.
Plus 8 tracks includes such groundbreakers as Cybersonik’s “Technarchy,” Kenny Larkin’s “Colony”, Speedy J’s “Pullover”; several cuts by Hawtin under the alias F.U.S.E., including “Substance Abuse” and “Slac” as well as his Plastikman tracks, “Spastik” and “Krakpot,” all of which, along with the label’s innumerable compilations, are revered worldwide by EDM fans.
In 1993, Acquaviva and Hawtin founded Definitive Recordings. After the label's hiatus in the late 1990s, Acquaviva relaunched the imprint in 2005 supported by releases by such DJs and producers as Olivier Giacomotto, Simon Doty, Damon Jee, DJ Tonio, Jan Van Lier and Dan Diamon.
Italy-born Acquaviva has been a DJ for more three decades. As a young kid growing up in London, he loved disco which he played at school dances. He also loved house and techno music, and he began sneaking into clubs before landing a job himself behind the turntables.
More recently Acquaviva was among the first to embrace electronic music’s digital future by investing in, and championing both Final Scratch--a DJ tool created by that allows manipulation, and playback of digital audio sources and using traditional vinyl and turntables--as well as Beatport, the largest dance-music download site in the world which was purchased by SFX Entertainment in 2013 reportedly for slightly more than $50 million.
On a basic level, you are a DJ, right?
At the end of the day, yes. I play other peoples’ records, and I get paid a lot of money. I’m not like a lot of other people who get confused. A lot of DJs, are artists. They make a hit record, and they want to do an album when they shouldn’t be making an album. I have never made an album. I’m not a tortured artist who needs to exercise my creative impulses.
But you have released tracks under different names or as duo projects.
You have recently cut down your DJ club work from 100 to 50 or 60 gigs a year.
I consider that part time.
You re-launched Definitive Recordings in 2005. Now French electronic producer and DJ Olivier Giacomotto is overseeing the label’s activities.
Olivier is. I have passed on the baton. He’s now the A&R ears. He’s so talented. I’m just so busy.
How are you spending your time?
I run a private equity firm. I own a portfolio company. I’m pretty busy as an artist. I sit on boards. We have the most amazing companies including an exceptional company, LANDR, out of Montreal. It’s going to be the Dolby of the internet generation.
[Montreal-based startup LANDR has reportedly acquired $6.2 million in a recent round of funding, including from Warner Music Group, rapper Nas, a private equity firm comprised of electronic music DJs John Acquaviva, Richie Hawtin, Tiga and Pete Tong, as well as Cirque du Soleil co-founder Guy Laliberté which are investing in LANDR and its namesake software: a drag-and-drop engine that masters recorded audio automatically in seconds. Since launching in May 2014, LANDR has mastered 1.2 million tracks. The service is offered either on a track-by-track basis or a monthly subscription with different price points. LANDR has 250,000 subscribers.]
You understand business situations. Is that something you acquired as a DJ and label owner?
Yes, it’s part of my evolution and growth. Rich (Hawtin) and I wanted to be artists, and every time that I spoke about being happy enough to hand off the (business) reins, Rich and I never ultimately trusted them. We spent a great part of our lives managing ourselves with the driving desire that we wanted to be around for a long time. Then we took that long-term vision. We never did (major label) contracts. When we did that one (North American licensing) deal with Virgin Music Canada (in 1996) it was because we wanted to do something in Canada, and they wanted to work with us. They never wanted to own us. (Then head of A&R for Virgin Records Canada) Geoff Kulawick was a great guy, and he understood that.
Still major labels have tried to acquire your labels.
When I was talking on (those) deals, I’d go, “You guys want this as a catalog piece just like you are proud of your jazz and classical music (departments). That’s what techno music is (to you). That’s what Rich and I are to you. We are not going to be pop artists. We may have some hits. We are definitely involved in the scene, and we are going to be in the scene, but don’t expect us to change and sell a million records.”
We did sell a lot of records, and we had some hits, but we never made music for the purpose like in this day and age of being hit makers. We didn’t churn out the hits. We churned out the art.
With electronic dance music continuing to be popular, EDM--with its multiple subgenres of house, techno, dub step, and electro—is as mainstream as it gets. Even today’s pop hits have elements you and others pioneered decades ago.
Well, yeah. When we started 25 or 30 years ago, people thought that Kraftwerk was crazy. When I heard their album, “Computer World,” (1981) they sang about numbers, more importantly the pocket calculator, I believed them. Those lyrics are etched on my mind like a tattoo. I don’t have tattoos but musically I have a lot of tattoos on my brain. A computer in your hand? You use samplers? You don’t use real instruments?
Now it’s the other way around. Kids aren’t running to buy guitars. People aren’t running to start a garage band as much anymore. Everyone is DJing. Everyone is expressing themselves musically, and electronically. We can lament the death of virtuosity and musicianship, but I think that a fair analogy is we’ve gone through a period where traditional music, just the playing of instruments and I respect that a lot—I respect virtuosity--but like art, there came a time when the world wanted more than just portraits and landscapes, and art exploded. Music did the same. Our music is like modern art. Some people might now understand that.
How do you look back on some of the iconic recordings you and Richie did in the ‘90s?
I almost never look back. I like to think of myself more of an iconoclast more than an icon. Every time we do something, we move forward. So we are never looking back. But that’s a fair question, and for a guy who doesn’t look back very much, it’s funny because Rich and I have been together for 25 years. We have looked back a few times in our careers, and this being the 25th year....
In 2000, Plus 8 Records honored its past with a three-CD compilation series, tour and concert event.
We did many comps. We did many releases looking back. Someone sent me an article the other day about that as an artist that I have had a lot of numbers ones on Beatport that kind of rejuvenated my career, and the label. But in the ‘90s in the art and almost as an athlete, you just live in that moment. I have almost never stopped except for the last couple of years. I have always done over 100 gigs a year over 20 years. So I often draw analogies to sports. I made it in my late 20s. Rich made it as a teenager. He was always driven.
Early in his career, Rich worked in Detroit clubs as Richie Rich and later used such alias as Circuit Breaker, F.U.S.E., and Robotman.
That’s right (laughing). And, he’s gone full circle. He’s got the blond hair back these days. But he was a bald looking alien in the ‘90s, and I say that lovingly of course. He certainly shows his youthfulness. I’ve aged a bit, but I am still the same character. Luckily, I didn’t have to grow up in public, and be in the spotlight.
With his Plastikman persona, Rich is known world-wide.
Rich is a fantastic artist, and his vision is unparalleled. We wanted to be in the music scene a long time. I like to think of him as the David Bowie of our generation. He’s iconic. He can live in multiple service spheres of influence and ability.
How close are you two today?
Rich and I have grown and outgrown each other. We split up after 10 years, but we went on to be more than ever colleagues. We are together once a month now. We fly out, and meet each other. It’s wonderful. That got us back together more closely in the past few years. We do a lot of business stuff together.
The two of you invested in Final Scratch which followed a line of CD players from Pioneer Elecronics that had allowed analogue control of music from CDs. A game changer
It (the Pioneer CDJ-300) came out at the end of the ‘90s, and it looked like a cash box. I remember buying one and I would hit the pause button, and stutter all the time. I would lose people because I was so enamored with the little stutter button. I would play it, and it was irritating because it didn’t really have that good control.
The DJ culture was based on vinyl records, and now you were changing the essence of what you had been doing.
It was a change, but it was a progression. As much as we were kings of analogue when we heard about these guys in Holland claiming that you could do the same thing with a turntable connected to a computer what you could do with vinyl with digital files. I was like, “No effing way.” Typical to my MO, I hopped on a plane and went to Amsterdam, and met Mark-Jan Bastian (of the Dutch company N2IT). I said, “Hook it up. I want to touch this thing.” They had a main frame, a turntable attached, and it was probably an 80 millisecond delay. I touched it, and holy shit it changed everything. It was like, “Sell the (vinyl) factory.” My mind was going off. I phoned Rich and I said, “You know what Rich, we are techno, and we should be investing in this.”
[Final Scratch is a DJ tool created by the Dutch company N2IT that allows manipulation, and playback of digital audio sources using traditional vinyl and turntables; deftly crossing the divide between the versatility of digital audio, and the tactile control of vinyl turntable manipulation.]
You once owned 60,000 to 70,000 records stashed in different houses.
I stopped being a collector pretty well when I discovered Final Scratch. Now I have a big house, probably 6,000 or 7,000 square feet. The third floor has swallowed those up. I had custom shelves made, double decked top to bottom, and I made sure that the floor are reinforced.
Technology further changed the music industry in that with downloading on the internet you didn’t have to worry anymore about how to get a box of records to New York. A click of a button, and you could release a track globally.
Well, there’s been a few Gordian knots in our world, and one of them is distribution. I would like to argue with some pride about some of the paradigm-shifting accomplishments that we have had. I think of the turn of the millennium--that was Music 1.0. There were a lot of good and lot of bad things that happened or further regressed with music. But for us, Final Scratch was that real paradigm-shifting technology. That set the tone for what was the second step. A big step. That allowed us to tackle something that used to drive me crazy, distribution. A bunch of guys that I had done parties with in Denver, Brad Roulier, and Jonas Tempel, and Liz Miller, who used to be my driver, and who is at SFX now (as music VP of artists and labels), they had this idea for this company called Beatport. I was like, “Tell me more.”
You and Rich invested in Beatport which launched Jan. 7, 2004
We all went to MIDEM. This was a year after Apple had proved that iTunes was going to be more than viable. Beatport was the iTunes of our world.
Did it surprise you that Beatport grew so dramatically?
Yes and no. I was the last founder standing (when it was purchased by SFX Entertainment in 2013 for slightly more than $50 million reportedly). I was a board director. You will note that I always keep doing the administration or the management (with projects). It is always been me being the oldest, and waking up the earliest and adding and subtracting. I was doing all of the politics of that company.
When I called Rich on Final Scratch, I said, “Give me your money, we are supporting this.” I did the same with Beatport, and there were three DJs that came in. Myself, Rich and a DJ from Chicago, Bad Boy Bill (born William Renkosik). Then I helped put the team together. I got Native Instruments involved because they were the software partner for our Final Scratch technology which, of course, their product Traktor Scratch is the way in that field today. Beatport was the first (major) business opportunity (for us). It was something that Rich and I could never have done. I said to him, “Beatport, if done right will be more than the underground, arms-length control of the things that we like to do. It will be bigger than anything that we would care to have or want to have. This is called business Hawtin. We are how starting to be in the right place at the right time. Invest in this company.” So we did. We did really, really well. I personally sold all my shares (with the SFX buyout). I like finding things on the street. I don’t like being an oil tank.
Beatport became the tribal drum of the EDM community.
Yeah, and a lot of people would look at the charts. Whether to look at the tech and house or the overall charts. There’s your A&R list. I can tell you stories of people trying to game the system, but Beatport nipped it in the bud. It was truly honest. Unlike Billboard which was like, “C’mon, DJs send me some stuff” and everybody, was getting wined and dined. The bigger city guys and radio guys were...I knew all of the guys at the record pools and it was like what are you playing and throwing a friend a bone. But Beatport was great. If you got a song on there, people would call you for a license. It was a no-brainer.
What do you think about SFX Entertainment’s head Robert Sillerman?
Well Sillerman has done it before hasn’t he? He did a great job of consolidating the rock and roll (concert) business, and he thought he do it again. Bob is a real character. He’s out there. He’s a great eccentric.
You were born in Italy in 1963, and your family immigrated to Canada when you were quite young.
I’m the first of my generation to go to university. I’m working class. My father was in construction, and my mom worked in a factory.
Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, Tom Moulton, Nile Rodgers, Jacques Morali and other prominent disco producers had an immense influence on your generation.
Absolutely. I was a disco kid. Pre-teen, I was just loving disco records and sneaking into the discotheques. So yes we loved disco, even when disco died in the eyes of the media, including after that terrible event in Chicago burning records.
[Disco Demolition Night was a baseball promotion that took place on July 12, 1979, at Comiskey Park in Chicago with local shock jock and anti-disco campaigner Steve Dahl. At the climax of the event, a crate filled with disco records was blown up on the field between games of the twi-night doubleheader between the Chicago White Sox and the Detroit Tigers.]
Those type of events drove dance music underground.
Yeah, and it was better for it. Disco died as a zeitgeist play, and it did sort of jump the shark sort of speak from “Saturday Night Fever” and now the new thing was country with John Travolta doing “Urban Cowboy” (in 1980). Rick Dees had come out with “Disco Duck” (in 1976) and there was disco this and that. All kinds of silly things by the end of the ‘70s. Disco did give punk the opportunity to come and sort of shake things up. However, you can argue how much punk really shook things up because it got swallowed up pretty fast. Punk said “Revolution. Let’s turn it upside down” and they quickly settled into cozy rock and roll position within a few years.
You weren’t a fan of either punk or rock music.
I used to hate rock and roll when I was young. My friends would listen to the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin. I would love disco music. You were always getting marginalized because you were listening to dance music. I had a visceral dislike for rock and roll. Then I came to enjoy it. After enough alcohol, and a lot of the drugs rock and roll is a lot of fun. But then so is techno music. It’s all about good music. I like to play devil’s advocate. But North America being so rock and roll, maybe, it pushed me down deeper to the path that I already loved. But disco I loved way more than rock. I was buying 45s that were disco. I loved Giorgio Moroder.
Still you took guitar lessons.
Yeah. A lot of people always ask me if I ever learned an instrument or ever played music and I’d say, “Well, yeah I studied guitar, but I don’t play.” I never could get any feeling out of guitars. I was always regurgitating my sheet music. I couldn’t strum a riff for the life of me. But as a DJ, I certainly could make collages to use the art analogy. I think that a DJ is an artist in that I would blend other peoples’ records in ways that other people hadn’t heard before.
You began DJing in clubs in both London, Ontario and Detroit?
In the early ‘80s, only London. I became the #1 DJ at my club in town in 1982. A lot of people don’t remember what being a DJ was like in this day of age. DJing was like sports. It was like being the starting quarterback. You never let the backup play unless you were injured or dying. You played every night if you owned a club (in residency). Even if it was a dead night, like a Tuesday, you’d play the reel-to-reel or you’d play someone who wasn’t very talented. So it was very guarded.
Canada was then a very progressive place for DJs.
I had some great mentors in the ‘80s who were from London. Montreal was a great hotbed but a lot of the guys from London went to Toronto. There was Jeff Allan (who was also an announcer at FM rock station Q107) who was the #1 DJ at The Copa (in Toronto). I think his real name is Jeff Galbraith. The #2 DJ there was Joe Bodner. My mentors all worked in Toronto. Jeff Galbraith and Joe Bodner were the top DJs at The Copa, the second biggest club after The Diamond which used to have Jason Steele who went on to become Deko the artist. Jason Steele became a friend, and an artist on the label, but he was the first DJ at the first super club, The Diamond. All these guys were very good mixers, and I was part of that group. I was an up-and-coming guy, but I went to school in London.
[The Copa made its mark as one of the largest and busiest nightclubs to emerge in the 1980s in Toronto. Opened in 1984 and running to 1992, the Yorkville venue was owned by the Chrysalis Group which operated the trendy restaurants Bemelmans and the Bellair Café, nearby. The Copa attracted a hip crowd which knew music. The venue also hosted appearances by Fela Kuti, Herbie Hancock, Berlin, Chaka Khan, Beastie Boys, A Flock of Seagulls, X, Erasure, Ministry. Burning Spear, Dennis Brown and Freddie McGregor.]
I remember that Jeff and Joe were making $2,000 and $3,000 a week. So in the back of my mind, being good with numbers, I’m like, “DJing is not cool? These guys are making $2,000 a week. Shit, I can make $100,000 a year. This is really good money.” I have a good education. I could have worked in a bank. I thought, “If I can make $100,000 a year working at night partying, and doing the things that I love there’s something here.” So that was always in the back of my mind.
Were you aware of such legendary Toronto DJ/remixers as Wally MacDonald, Greg Howlett, Gord McMillan, or Don Bell?
Don, yes. I remember meeting him. I was always DJing so I didn’t go to Toronto that often. I was always working. It was the odd time that I would go out to a concert. The Copa would have bands. I saw a lot of bands there.
The Toronto DJ scene was very insular in those days.
We would go to Detroit, and I would be like, “Wow, people here like the same music,” and we found common ground. All of a sudden, instant friends. We’d go to Toronto, and visit the (record) shops, and I was being told what was cool. “Have you heard this? This is what is cool in Toronto.” Really? We were always told that in Chicago. We were even told that in Detroit. But Toronto would tell us what was happening in Detroit. They didn’t realize how connected I was to Detroit. I usually go very low-key into the shops because I just want to connect with someone over music. Toronto would always tell us what the world was about. It wasn’t one person. It was umpteen people would tell us about a world that we just see it. We never clicked with Toronto. That’s okay because it pushed up to be more global.
Detroit was kind of the new Mecca of techno.
When I went to Detroit, it was like “Holy shit. These guys are playing the music that I know and I loved and stuff that I hadn’t heard before. I found the shops so I could buy those records. There was a store on West Seven Mile Road called Buy-Rite Music, and they had records. I would go there almost weekly to get records and hang out and meet people.
Meanwhile, the clubbing scene overall was undergoing dramatic changes.
As the ‘80s played out, the bastion of clubbing and dancing was far different at the end of the decade than when it started. With AIDS coming around, and all of the great progressive jocks, so many were dying off. Even the local guys in town that I was friends with. We would always just love music. Whether it was a diva anthem to cutting edge electro pop, whether it was New Order or Bobby O (Orlando). There was a lot of overlap in our world. At the end of it kind of went a different way. Luckily, globally DJing really was catching on. It wasn’t just the disco nightclub. The nightclubs were thriving everywhere.
Then techno blew up from New York, Detroit, and Chicago with pioneering trendsetters like Frankie Knuckles, Juan Atkins, Derrick May and others.
Yeah, but they were cutting their teeth and chops in the mid-‘80s. So when disco died at the end of the ‘70s, the club never died. The really good clubs. The gay clubs were really carrying the banner. When I was young, before I got the job at the main club, I would do afterhours at the gay clubs where they would do a real kind of mix night. The progressive people mixed with the gay crowd because everybody was super open-minded.
Meanwhile, people were taking over these big factories and throwing raves.
Oh yeah. I had a foot in both worlds because some of my friends who DJed in the ‘70s and maintained their great club residencies in the ‘80s, they were making good money. At the end of ‘80s though, the old guys were getting pretty tired. Just like the big leagues. These guys had been playing for 10 or 15 years. They were getting tired. Young kids, half of me was being that I was always wanting to play new music. A lot of my friends who were progressive passed away. Certainly in the gay scene. A lot of my friends were cozy in their big clubs. I wanted to play new music, and they were like, “Nah nah. You know the hits. Play it safe. It’s a big club. You don’t understand the business” or whatever, and I was just doing my thing.
How did it work out for you being more progressive?
My busiest night was Monday night when I would have people lined up out on the street. In the capacity of 300, we would turn over 800 people on a Monday. The only night our club charged a cover in the ‘80s. I was playing new music, and there were a lot of other young people who wanted to play new music other than a Monday night at a club or a Tuesday. A lot of those scenes were happening in those small nightclubs. But, yeah, people started going to warehouses because the old guys weren’t giving the young guys a chance. Remember that it used to be like being the quarterback. The old guys, especially if there was a talented kid, were not going to let the young kid play different music or impress people on a weekend. So these kids started doing parties in warehouses. I always made a lot of money. So a part of me I was like, “Screw the warehouse gig. I want to make my couple thousand dollars or my $500 at a club.” But the music that I loved was that music. I was kind of torn. Certainly when we started making records, I turned down a lot of gigs and Rich took them because I was making a lot of money.
Of course, more progressive venues like Music Institute and The Shelter had cropped up in Detroit by then.
Of course, they are more romantic as time passes by. But they were very important and nurturing places. The Music Institute was a tiny room. These clubs weren’t going off like Toronto or Montreal.
The Music Institute wasn’t around long, but The Shelter was
The Shelter was around many years because it was in the basement of St. Andrew’s Hall. Amir Daiza (who also had a club on Broadway called the Asylum) was the local rock promoter. He was ultimately bought out by SFX in 2000 when they consolidated the live venue scene. He’s a local mogul, and he’s still around. We are still all friends.
You and Rich were running with Derrick May, Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, and Kenny Larkin in those days.
Rich was good friends with Derrick. They both have a lot of similarities. They can both be very precocious, very charming, and very much divas. But that’s the glamor that oozes out to people when they first see them. Rich is a lot like Derrick. Derrick was a pretty glamorous DJ for sure. Very quick personality to boot. Juan Atkins was more withdrawn than the others. Kevin had already made it. Kevin was iconic to us because he was someone from the area who had made what we would like to think millions of dollars. Kevin had a giant hit (“Good Life”). So anything Detroit Techno ’88 or ’89 was giant.
Did you meet Richie at The Shelter in Detroit?
Yeah. I met Rich. He was playing, and there was quite a vibe to his night. Just the rawness of Detroit. We went clubbing with Karl Kowalski. That’s why he always gets credit. Karl worked at Dr. Disc which was a small music chain through Southern Ontario.
You worked at Dr. Disc Records too.
That’s right. I was in charge of the dance area. I worked there for cheap records. It was run by the Atlin family. Syd Atlin was probably one of my first and only business mentors. He was a very eccentric gentleman who died too soon. But I learned a lot from Syd at least in how to be a character.
What clicked between you and Rich? What was the spark?
The spark that I had with so many other friends. That we love music. It was, “I love how you play it. You’ve got your own unique personality. And this is how I play it and I’ve got some equipment.” So with Rich there was more than one spark. “Man, I like that song too.” It was, “Man, I’ve got some gear and I kind of know how to use it a little bit.” And Rich was like, “Well, I’ve got a few pieces and I’m figuring out how to use it. Let’s do something more than just play a few records.” I was like, “hell, yeah.”
You had a 16-track midi studio.
I had an Akai MG 1212. A cute little piece. It was marketed as an affordable multi-task home recorder.
I bet your sampler was the Akai S900 Synth Explorer.
That would be the first one. Also a Yamaha SPX 90 for reverb that also had a half-second sampler.
A whole half-second sample.....
Yeah. That’s why house music is like a half-second when you sample house. One syllable words basically. They were heavily skewed to house or jack. Maybe on a side note, it’s interesting that I was already calling myself with my last name with J as an initial. So I was calling myself J. Acquaviva. I natural drifted to playing music at Plus 8. The music at the times was in the teens (BPM or beats per minute). This was the time of Soul II Soul. So a big club was playing music 100 BPM plus or minus. At one point in the night you would play some dance music in the teens because the clubbers were older, but they didn’t want to really move. Whereas when we were playing music for young people, even the great records were in teens. So when you played these records for three or six months you start pitching them up because just like younger kids with metal or thrash they just have to have a higher BPM. So we were pushing 130.
Didn’t Plus 8 run parties at different locations in Detroit?
We did parties all over the place. Rich was always in charge of those. We did a whole series. We did a whole series with the word Jack. Jack’s Back, and Jack-O-Lantern for Halloween once. That was a good one. Then we did a whole series of Hard, Harder and Hardest and then Heaven and Hell because how do you top hardest. Jeff Mills (radio rival to the Electricfying Mojo) would come and play at a lot of our parties. Jeff was a legend too. He used to do a show called “The Wizard.” And he would play all this music at Plus 8.
The original contact on the Plus 8 recordings listed your mom and dad’s phone. Were you were still living at home?
You lived at home until you got married?
Pretty much. To 29 or 30. So the number was my parents’ place. I put in their number. Then I put a fax number on some white labels. I started using Dr. Disk’s fax while I worked there. I worked at the record shop almost as my office. I used their fax machine. So we sent out these message in a bottles. As we slowly got out in the world and traveled a bit and bought records with us, we met people that were people like us. We knew for sure that there would be other people like us because of the records being made.
It was just amazing to be in an area not with a ton of people but there was a significant group making music. Kevin and Derrick had proven that you could make music. It was a like a message in a bottle. You make a record and you have a contact and someone would call you. It happened to us too.
Rich, Kenny Larkin and I went to the New Music Seminar (in 1990) with our first two records. The first record was “States Of Mind” (under the name Elements of Tone) which was Rich and I. We shared credits. The second record was Kenny with “We Shall Overcome.” I did all of the engineering. I wanted to be known as a producer so I gave him the full artist credit.
You go off to the New Music Seminar. Disco has been dead for a decade and here you are mixing dance with electronic sounds. How were you received? What did people think of you?
Oh, we were freaks. But there were a whole bunch of young freaks running around. One of the panelists was Daniel Miller who came to factor large in our lives as a friend, mentor and partner. Daniel Miller (British music producer and founder of Mute Records) was a freak. But he was a pretty powerful freak because in the ‘80s there was a band that was just about to break bigger than anyone could ever dream called Depeche Mode. I remember Daniel’s speech. He spoke, and he inspired us. We met Joey Beltram (best known for his pioneering recordings "Energy Flash" and "Mentasm") who is one of those young wave of guys. We met a lot of Belgian and German guys. But there are some years where there’s just a certain zeitgeist and cohort to attend. In 1990 there was just a whole lot of people flocking to New York because they wanted to do something.
Three years later there’s a 6-date rave-styled American tour Rave New World with Moby and Prodigy. Hello mainstream America.
That was the first tour. That was Prodigy’s first tour. Rich and I were the glue there. Cybersonik (with Richie and I) was represented there.
You couldn’t take Cybersonik’s third member on the tour with you because you couldn’t afford him.
That was Dan Bell from St. Catherine’s who had also gravitated to Detroit. Yes, he was the third member.
In 2013 Gary Richards, founder and CEO of HARD Events, told Larry LeBlanc in his CelebrityAccess profile that, “One of the first records that I bought on vinyl was “Techarchy” by Cybersonik in 1990 on Plus 8 Records. It’s an awesome record that I still play sometimes.”]
Your roommate on that tour was Moby?
Oh my Gawd. There’s a lot of stuff I could tell you about Moby. I could tell you some great anecdotes of Moby off the record.
His career was just start taking off, and electronic music was emerging as a commercial force.
Yeah. I remember Moby’s agent (and co-manager) Marci Weber (of MCT Management) was hustling Rich and I to sign up. That she could make us a star. Rich and I, and a lot of electronic people, and I don’t think it was always by design, have kept independent. I had a friend of mine who was given a (recording) offer as things were exploding. He was offered a $300,000 advance with an offer. We were starting to make that ourselves. I was like, “Dude why would you take $300,000 because the royalties that you are going to get if you are getting 15% you have to sell $2 million sales to get $300,000 royalties and your expenses come out of your royalties? Isn’t it better to make a few hundred thousand dollars gross and pay your own expenses? Nobody ever gave Rich and I enough money to sign our souls over to the devil.
At the start of any music scene there’s the apprehension that the scene could blow up and become too big. We are seeing that now with EDM which has shifted from its early underground warehouse roots to the big festival main stages with DJs that have become global celebrities.
Hasn’t a lot of it jumped the shark so to speak?
The same thing was happening back in the day.
Rich and I thought hard and long when we had a big success. We didn’t remix Speedy J’s “Pullover” until maybe six or 8 years after the fact. We were really looking at it as if we made a piece of art.
You made a considerable amount of money on that record.
We made shitloads of money on that record. It was probably one of the top 3 or 5 selling records for us. We all paid off our first houses, and bought a car. Speedy, Rich and myself. We went to New York to the New Music Seminar with two white labels and suddenly people started calling us, and ordering these records. It really was like we left a bunch of messages in the bottle and some people bought them and more people are calling, “We want to buy 500. We want to buy 1,000. We want to buy 300. I was like “Holy shit. This is unreal.”
Then we came out with the white label, and we put on (the label slogan) “The Future Sound of Detroit.” We wanted to distance ourselves from Kevin, Juan and Derrick. Now a lot of people will give Rich and I credit for being the first movers in Detroit. We resonated and we have remained, perhaps, stronger than some of the others but early on in our bios, I would honestly and correctly say that we were the second wave of techno Detroit.
That is true.
Which is totally fair. I have always said that we were part of the second wave. The second wave was a pretty big wave other than Kevin having had the giant hit with “Good Life” which is just one of those all-time big songs.
As well as producing and DJing, you were running the label as well.
That I was in the early ‘90s when I stepped back. I was totally burned out as a DJ. I had worked 8 years almost every night. I had done my Malcolm Gladwell. I had put in my 10,000 hours.
[In the 2008 book “Outliers,” author Malcolm Gladwell said that it takes roughly ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field.]
By the end of the ‘90s on a business level Rich and I had pretty well vertically integrated our company. We had our own pressing plant that we moved to Toronto. We cheekily called it Acme Vinyl Pressing. I was a big fan of Roadrunner and Coyote and, in truth, acme does mean the best.
You weren’t living in Toronto.
No I was driving back and forth between here and Markham, Ontario (outside Toronto). I was managing probably about 30 people. We had a warehouse in Detroit that we shared with Record Time (one of Detroit’s most beloved record shops, which closed in 2011). I was still DJing a lot. Mostly having a lot of stress making widgets. Though it important because we owned a wonderful niche in the analogue world. Then because of who we are we were lighting rods, early ones, but after a decade with the critical and commercial acclaim that we had people were coming to us all of the time.
Being in the right place at the right time.
We were in the right place at the right time. I don’t know how I would have lived 100 years ago because I would have to take a boat to travel the world and it would taken me two years. Today I can go to Europe three times a month, and then do shows in South America, and meet all the people. So you zoom up and you zoom down and you meet the people that you want to meet.
Any final comments?
I will close with that I was a DJ, and I always did it because I loved it when it was never cool to be a DJ. Now I love finding, nurturing, investing in, and building companies just like we were building music. And I’m still doing music as sort of a hobby. I love being a contrarian, marching to my own rhythm. Now that we are doing all these deals, I realized as I was going out and meeting people that I was still clubbing. But I enjoy it more when I am DJing at the club.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record.
To learn more about Larry LeBlanc and to see some nifty historical photos check out:
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