An interview with veteran DJ, Rich Medina
DJ, Producer and all around renaissance man, DJ Rich Medina (Richard Medina) has been rocking crowds from NYC to Japan with his unique blend of hip-hop, house, Afrobeat, funk and soul for nearly twenty years. His parties in Philadelphia and NYC are legendary. He's performed and collaborated with several chart toping artists including: Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, The Roots, Roy Ayers, Antibalas and Fema Kuti. But perhaps, his greatest contribution to music is introducing a new generation of people to Afrobeat music with his Jump N Funk dance parties. Jump N Funk, created by Rich in 2001, celebrates the life and music of legendary Fela Kuti. The Washington Informer caught up with Rich ahead of his set at the Eighteenth Street Lounge (ESL) to discuss his 30,000 + record collection, his time on "Smirnoff's Master of the Mix", being a father and everything else in between. Attention all DJ's: If you're looking for that one record and you just can't seem to find anywhere, Rich probably has it.
Washington Informer: For the people, who may not know you, please introduce yourself.
Rich Medina: Peace everybody. This is Rich Medina.
Washington Informer: You've said that you come from a family of collectors. Who or what inspired you when you first got started?
Rich Medina: Honestly, my real direct DJ inspiration was my older sister's first husband. My sister is 18 years older than me; her first husband was the local, around the way, Elks club, VFW DJ. He would go play parties on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at the Elks Club. I was born into watching somebody gather records, practicing DJing and getting themselves together for a set.
Washington Informer: How influential has Fela Kuti been for you and what inspired the Jump N Funk party?
Rich Medina: Fela has influenced me tremendously. Fela gave me a brand new lens on the notion of being pro-black. The vast majority of my heroes prior to coming into knowledge about Fela were American; the pro black perspective from American artists is a particular angle. But to hear those same sentiments coming from a brother from Lagos Nigeria; the home of black on black crime, the home of colonization, the home of oil, and all of that, it just really opened me up to a completely different mindset.
Washington Informer: Unfortunately, a lot of people still have no idea who Fela is.
Rich Medina: It's just a beautiful piece of Black history that I think is missing from a great deal of our houses as black Americans. So I feel really blessed that once I was turned on to it, what I realized was that there were no disc jockeys in my community - or in any other community of my friends that I associated with on a regular basis - who were championing that sound. I don't consider myself deep for doing it but I definitely feel that I beat a great deal of people to the punch.
Washington Informer: You've been doing Jump N Funk for over 10 years. Are you surprised that it's gotten so big?
Rich Medina: You know, I feel like, as a product of hip-hop culture and watching how the mainstream embraced hip-hop and washed some of the rougher edges off of it and made it palatable for the rest of the world. At this point, no it doesn't surprise me. You know a larger surprise for me came when the real Nigerian cats who were studying Yoruba and were wearing Nigerian garb who, initially looked down on me like, who is this Yankee? Who is this Yankee think he is to be playing our music? For them to realize that I'm actually being a humble student and I don't think that I have all of the answers. For them to turn around and begin to endorse me has been the biggest surprise for me.
Washington Informer: I recently read that you have 30,000 records in your collection. Are we going see you on an episode of Hoarders at any time soon?
Rich Medina: [Laughs] Let's make it all the way one hundred. I got 30,000 in my house. I got another 10 to 20 (thousand) floating around between my momma's house and other relatives' houses but no, my record collection will not be on episode of Hoarders because as much as there's a gigantic abundance of records in my collection, my record collection is active. These are not things that I am holding on to and hording per se. These are things that are part of my fabric as an artist. They are part of my fabric as a creator. They are part of what makes me who I am and every single day that I am actually physically in my house I am putting hands on my tools. So there's definitely an abundance but it's like being a librarian to a degree. You know you're kinda the gate keeper to all this history that you got up on these walls and I try my best to treat it that way and stay as active with my collection as I possibly can. Despite the information age and technology and being able to go DJ a party with no records at all. I still bring them with me.
Washington Informer: So you still do gigs where you just use vinyl?
Rich Medina: I still do gigs where I use just vinyl. I still do gigs where I bring my computer and vinyl. I try to approach it like mixed martial arts, you know?
I'm not gonna give up my boxing just because I picked up jiu-jitsu. I'm not gonna give up my jiu-jitsu just because I picked up muay thai. The combination of those things makes me a more dangerous fighter. So I always have records with me, no matter what. I always, without fail, every single gig that I go to, I have vinyl with me.
Washington Informer: Traveling with vinyl has to be difficult.
Rich Medina: Doesn't make my travel difficult at all man. I'll tell you what's difficult, difficult is jail. Not paying your rent is difficult. Carrying records and not having a boss, I got the best job on the planet. If I had to buy the extra protective case in case I need to check records under the plane, fine. It's the overhead for my business. I'm on a five day road trip right now, I didn't check a single bag and I've got enough records to play 8 hours uninterrupted.
Washington Informer: So you've got it down to a science basically?
Rich Medina: When you've been doing this as long as I've been doing it, it's all science brother [laughs]. It's all beakers, beakers and liters [laughs].
Washington Informer: Bunsen burners [laughs].
Rich Medina: You know what I mean? Bunsen burners, all that. Dissect some frogs. Yeah however you need to hear it, yo.
Washington Informer: Let's say, God forbid, that your apartment's on fire. You can only save one record. Which one do you save?
Rich Medina: "Sunday and Sister Jones", Roberta Flack. Actually I take that back, the album is called Quiet Fire. The reason I would keep that album is because of the song "Sunday and Sister Jones". I come from a Baptist church background. I grew up around preachers, deacons, choir directors, church people. The sentiment in the song writing of that tune speaks so deeply to the history of my family that from the first time I heard it as a child; I've carried that record with me everyday.
Washington Informer: Technology has definitely made the world smaller. How has technology made digging for records easier?
Rich Medina: Technology doesn't make digging for records easier at all. Technology creates saturation, with regards to digging for records. All of us know that when you're dealing with saturation, you gotta wring it out before you get to the good water. The technology has put us into a position where anybody and their momma who can read a manual and learn how to program music is suddenly a producer. You have to sift through all the riff raff to get to the meat and potatoes.
Washington Informer: That leads me to my next question. All the DJs I interview, I always ask them the same question. What do you think of all the "celebrity" and "iPod" DJs that are out there now?
Rich Medina: I think that food cooked on a gas stove, over the day, tastes way better than food cooked out of the microwave.
Washington Informer: You're an in-demand DJ; you've been all over the world. How are crowds different in the U.S. compared to overseas?
Rich Medina: Well It depends on where you're speaking about at overseas. If you're talking about Asia, you're talking about the full gamut of proper eastern culture: very much about honor, very much about bowing to your elders and code. The Asian community are the absolute best students of black culture. They study black culture from a polar standpoint. So that when it's given to them, they're very thirsty for it. When you go to Europe, Europe is steeped in club culture where designing a club that's built to accommodate patrons that want to feel with what you're bringing to the table is a major part of the fabric meaning production is always tight. The promotional system that the club uses is always tight and the people who patronize those clubs are very loyal. So all you have to do is come in and do a good job and as long as you represent yourself well you're going to be treated well. In the United States, we're basking in the crux of black music culture, there's a great deal of things that we take for granted.
Washington Informer: Do you think we take it for granted? Because, like you said we're basking in it.
Rich Medina: I know we take it for granted. If you played basketball, no matter how much you like your teams' uniforms, once you put your uniform on; you don't think about it anymore, you go play. As a black man in the United States, I don't think about Earth, Wind and Fire - Earth Wind and Fire is part of my fabric, Commodores is part of my fabric, The O'Jays is part of my fabric. I don't think about it, it's natural to me, right? Natural to you, feel me? So maybe "for granted" carries a particular connotation in a general context but for what we're talking about I absolutely believe we take for granted what we have.
Washington Informer: Definitely. I live here in DC and when people from out of town come to visit they want to go see the cherry blossoms or go to the Smithsonian and I'm like, 'been there, done that'. I live here.
Rich Medina: Right. Why am I gonna rush over to do that? I live in that. I think that we do ourselves a disservice with that mindset. I think we do the larger community a disservice. I think we do ourselves a knowledge disservice. And I think that it dumbs our perspective down.
Washington Informer: What's your best DJ experience?
Rich Medina: My entire career has been my best DJ experience. You know I've been blessed to have traveled the world. I've played the worst, [expletive] hole dive bars. I've played the biggest, most overly populated super clubs. I have been blessed with the opportunity to experience every single aspect of the range of the game. Good equipment, bad equipment, cool promoters, [expletive] promoters, well-equipped venues, venues that don't get it. I've danced around with all of those people and the culmination of that experience puts me in a position now where I can call my own shots, I know where my hot buttons are, I know what the protocols are for a successful event and as long as all those pistons are firing there's no way to lose. So I really have to generalize to you and say that my entire experience has been amazing. The good. The bad. The up and down. It's put me where I am now and where I am now is in a position to understand all the tenets of the culture. I have the person who's flying me into their city. I know what they're supposed to be doing in order for me to be at my best. I know what I'm supposed to be doing to be at my best when I get there.
Washington Informer: You started producing in 1999. Was getting into the production side of the business just natural progression or was it planned?
Rich Medina: I actually got into the production, literally, in 1999. The reason I got into production was because a dear friend of mine, by the name of Jill Scott. She approached me and said 'I want you to do something with me on my album. I just got a record deal and I would like to do a record with you'. I thought she wanted to do a spoken word collaboration because that was where the power of our relationship was. I was DJing at the same time but that wasn't the crux of our relationship, it was with poetry. I told her that I would be honored to do it and she was like 'all right how long do you think it will take you to make me a beat?' And I was like 'I don't make beats' and Jill's response [laughs] to me was 'well you do now and you've got two months'. So my impetus to get involved in production was at the behest of a dear friend who thought that my DJ sensibility could give her something that she could do what she wanted to do over. I can't think Jill enough for lighting that fire under me.
Washington Informer: How did you and New Balance connect for the "Where Are You Running to Next" campaign"?
Rich Medina: That connection came through my brother DJ Mars, from Atlanta. I happened to be on the first season of "Smirnoff's Master Of The Mix" on BET, with Mars. Upon our first conversation, he told me he respected me. Not only because of my DJ mindset, but because he saw me as a confident marketer. He couldn't really get his head around the way I had marketed myself into the position that I'm in without, playing the pop game or putting a whole bunch records in the marketplace to gain popularity. He showed me a demo of a New Balance video that he had made on his own time because he's a die-hard, true-blue New Balance fan and he was looking to put himself in a position to deal with the brand on a higher level. He did this video and asked me what I thought he should do, and I was like , well, what you should do is watermark it and just send that to them because what you did looked super professional, super well done and any brand-manager that saw this and wouldn't want to work with you is an idiot. And he did that. And in doing that they actually took the bait, as I told that they would, and I happened to be one of the guys that he called on immediately when they took the bait and gave him an opportunity to create the campaign.
Washington Informer: You just mentioned "Master the Mix", how was that experience?
Rich Medina: It was phenomenal. You know, as a working-class disc jockey you deal with a particular level of pressure on the job all the time. You're being scrutinized, you're being criticized, you're being analyzed. Sometimes it's cameras. Sometimes it's lights flashing. Sometimes people are distracting you. So, dealing with that kind of pressure is nothing new. But, when you go on TV and you have a production crew and TV cameras in your face, once it goes to print it's printed. So anything you do in that print is the impression that you read on the world. So that raises the bar and the pressure right? Being on Master the Mix is like working out with a weight vest on. I was heavy, I was carrying a lot of weight and still trying to keep good form and still trying to keep good physical presence, good balance, sensible vocabulary all those things. So it really raised the bar for me in terms of how to deal with what I do as an artist and the way that I represent myself verbally in front of people on a higher level. So the biggest thing I took away from there was that, the streets is watching. No matter how much you think you've got it wrapped up, or no matter how much you think that you can say something slick and it's gonna fly below the radar. When the cameras are rolling, nothing is below the radar. I was able to walk away from that situation with my integrity. My biggest lesson learned from it was that, the biggest commerce you have is being yourself.
Washington Informer: You know you were robbed, right?
Rich Medina: Yeah I feel that I was robbed but the fact that a brother like you would say that to me voluntarily, without me bringing the point up, makes it even more the truth, so it's not my place to say.
Washington Informer: No disrespect to the other DJ's, but yeah...
Rich Medina: I rock with that pride. I wear that pride hard on my chest. I sincerely believe that I won the production challenge. I fell on my sword. I approached it with a samurai mindset. I was like, if I'm going out, I'm going out on my feet, I'm not going out on my knees and the simple fact that I did not play pop records and bow to the top 40 put me in a position to be considered a tastemaker, on a higher level. So I walk with that, I walk away from it with a victory despite not winning the actual television show.
Washington Informer: Do you still collect sneakers?
Rich Medina: Do I?!? In between preschool payments, yes [laughs].
Washington Informer: [Laughs] So, how many sneakers you got stashed away?
Rich Medina: I've got a few hundred.
Washington Informer: As a sneaker collector, what do you think about all the madness around recent Nike releases?
Rich Medina: I think that colonialism is a hell of a drug. I think that there was a time in sneaker culture where when you beat people to the punch, and you catch the fly look, and you rock it at the fly place and you're seen with it that made you a tastemaker. Now if you bought a $500 shoe that other people aren't willing to sit out on the sidewalk overnight for, that makes you a tastemaker and I think that that's wrong. It's about style; it's about (being) original. That's the biggest point, you know? It used to be marketable to be the guy that's breaking the molds and doing things in a different way. Now, it's marketable to bite something that somebody else did. And do it your, quote unquote, way. It's quantity over quality in the marketplace now, the new sneaker head game feeds that.
Washington Informer: In a lot of the pictures I see online of you working in your studio, your son is always with you. Are you passing on your knowledge and skills to him?
Rich Medina: Without a doubt. That's all we've got, that's all any of us have. If I play golf, he'd have golf clubs. If I was playing professional ball, he'd be on the basketball court every day. If I was a plumber, he'd have wrenches, you know? What I do makes me happy. It pays our bills. It puts food on our table. And luckily for me and my family, it's fun. So, if I can pass what I do to my son, and allow him to see the business and the fun and the self-preservation within in it, he has another option, next to whatever else he may be interested in. That's all we can do as fathers.
Washington Informer: Ok, so what's next for you?
Rich Medina: What's next for me is more records, more production, trying to refine my sound, trying to refine my presentation, diversifying my business. Going from a dude that has four different careers, which are pretty much separated and trying to create a branded umbrella where my poetry, my production, my DJ-ing, and my journalism all can feed each other on a higher level. So that means more albums, more artist development. Growth for me as a writer, producer, DJ and vocalist. Just staying in the woodshed man, continuing to be a gym rat. Continue to be enthusiastic about the craft. Continuing to work very hard, challenge myself by trying to get next to guys that have more than I have or have more skills than I have so that I can learn, just remaining a student man. No matter what anybody who gets interviewed and gets asked that questions says at the end of the day you have to remain a student to your craft. That's my objective, man, is to keep it fine, stay happy with it and not ever allow for me to minimize, where I feel, like, 'oh I gotta go do this to get this money'.
Washington Informer: Of all the passions and skills you have, do you prefer one over the other or do they all feed each other?
Rich Medina: They all feed each other Bro. Like I've said, it's like mixed martial arts for me. One day I'm trying to knock you out. The other day I'm trying to put you in an arm bar. The next day, I'm trying to kick you in your ribs [laughs]. Whatever it takes to end the fight. I fight, but I don't like fighting so I try to end the fight as quickly as possible. Depending on what it takes, depending on my opponent in the moment is what I'll do. So I do my best to embrace all the, dynamics of the game so that whatever situation I'm in, I'm prepared to deal with it.