FROM PRODUCING AND DJING a myriad of genres, spoken word performances or popping up in clothing ads or independent films, singular paradigms don’t exist for this forerunner within music culture. You may have come across the buzz surrounding his name, whether it be a moment had with his Connecting the Dots artist album, his avid reputation for commanding dancefloors or his baritone voice encrypted on a record.
What sets this Philly resident apart from many is his humility and hustling DIY ethic. From speaking about the end of his famed Jump N Funk party, mixing business and pleasure, to his new beginning as a father, we were able to catch up with Rich Medina for a phone interview one afternoon in between him tending to his son.
Every time your name comes up these days, somebody brings up the fact that you have a newborn. I’m not sure if it’s a congratulatory statement, or more of a, “Well, he’ll be slowing down now” kind of connotation. Tell me about this new chapter in your life?
It’s a welcome addition to what I have going on. If anything, it makes life a lot more meaningful and I’m completely ecstatic about it.
As for it slowing me down… No. You got to do what you got to do in your responsibilities as a parent. If anything, I hustle more now because I have another mouth to feed. That raises the stakes on everything, so nah…
Is my child going to slow down my creative world? Not at all. Will it make me make sharper decisions? Absolutely. It’s only going to make me better.
What’s your baby boy’s name?
His name is Kamaal Nasir Medina and he was born January 10th at 4:10 pm in Philly. As for the name, Kamaal was a very prominent leader in Egypt and I took an interest in that story when I was in college. It also happens to be the name of my two favorite MCs – Q-Tip and Nas. So we chose that between the royalty, the beauty of the name and those two guys. Especially Tip, who I’ve come to be friends with over time.
What’s the story on Jump N Funk? I think there may be some confusion there with your new party, Afro Disco.
I had a beautiful run with Jump N Funk for five years. Some issues had come to grow between my business partner and I, so we went our separate ways. I could have been a hard ass and taken the name. But even though the name was catchy, people were coming to the event at the end of the day to hear me. So it came down to: Do I keep this internal energy, or rename it and start with a clean slate?
I made a decision to start with a clean slate, so basically it’s a renaming, which allows me to broaden the scope of the presentation.
During Jump N Funk, I had come to research the hardest West African records, and we did a good job of that. But I became so pigeon-holed in the Afrobeat range, so the new party also delves into a wider range of selections from the African musical diaspora. So I’m taking this opportunity to reclaim the music – Zouk, Highlife, Ju-Ju, other world music forms and American Funk forms that fit the theme of the party will be explored. So it really makes sense for a rebirth.
How’d NYC go?
NYC was brilliant. We did it on Fela’s birthday and people were really receptive. Last Friday in Philly, the place was sold out. Leonard “Doc” Gibbs and J. Carlos Izzaguire performed with me – two of my favorite percussionists in the world. I think initially people were confused with the title and what it all meant to the die-hard followers, but over time we’ll drive the point to people that it’s essentially the same party, just with a different attitude, better video presentation and broader music that just steps everything up.
And you’re still doing Little Ricky’s Rib Shack every Wednesday at APT in NYC? That’s been going for a minute.
We’re about to have our seven year anniversary. The crowd has been coming for seven years because it’s a small party that doesn’t follow a program. It’s a relief, really. Whether it’s my peers, clubs kids, Hip-Hop or Househeads, people get refreshed by the idea of a jock playing with a sensitivity to the crowd rather than a program. That allows us to really dig our nails into it deeply. The people who come are so open minded, and that’s what has been the key, enabling us to carry along.
Where’s your spoken word work standing these days? Did you first get your start in that arena before music?
I think they were two totally separate lives, and at a point in the late ’90s my music and writing merged when I was asked to do recordings and get my voice on their records. And at the same time, the slam circuit grew into its own monster, and I was a participant in that. So I was able to maintain two lifestyles that were able to feed off of each other. But as for actual performing, I haven’t done any stage performing for a year and a half, two years now. I plan on approaching that in due time, but I don’t feel I have a loss in that scene since I’ve had so many cameo appearances on people’s records.
You seem very diversified within progressive culture in general. I remember seeing you in a clothing print ad and you had a recent cameo in James Spooner’s movie, White Lies Black Sheep.
I’ve been in ads for Live Mechanics and Undrcrwn and I used to do a little bit of modeling and art with Echo Unlimited so I always try to keep my eyes open for those opportunities. If you pigeon-hole yourself, you limit your opportunities. If you’re not hustling, you limit yourself to a particular pocket. Basically some of us opt to be a specialist, but then there are others like myself who like to keep it spread out. My interests are very varied and at the same time, people have an interest in a number of my talents, so I’ve been really blessed that I’ve been able to do that.
James Spooner’s film has been gaining some great press and he’s noted as a forefront figure in the Afro-Punk movement. How did you hook up with him?
I’ve known James as a dancer for many years. I met him through Brett Cook-Dizney. I knew him as a club kid and began to see him at my events. He started talking to me about Afro-Punk and thought it was a dope niche and they felt as though my niche was just as appealing to what they were doing. So it was a cool fit and I was thankful to be approached about it. Adding the segment of House Music culture was a great sidebar to their presentation, but I haven’t seen the final edit.
With all these different mediums you utilize, what’s your approach on being diversified within music culture?
I’ve always been a bit of sponge since I was a kid, so I get turned on by different things. One day I might feel like mixing my emotions, drawing them or writing my thoughts out. It just depends on the moment, and I’ve been lucky enough to go into any of those chambers at a drop of a dime. Thank God it’s been able to become a lifestyle for me.
Because of your diversity within music culture, what sorts of trends do you see emerging?
I think I’ve seen a lot of the same things as other people; the record industry is eating itself alive. Going digital will make you ubiquitous, but you can’t expect the business to bend to you. You have to change your model to flow with the new possibilities, and the new possibilities are making the business a blank canvas. It’s what my momma always said: “If you don’t wanna get hit, you don’t play football.”
I’ve accepted the fact that gone are the days of major label deals unless you are already in the machine. But I see it in the upside because there is less to fight against. There are less obstacles in the way because performing live is where you’re going to get most of your love and loyalty. It’s just about shifting and changing to what the new opportunities are now.
If I put something on my Myspace or a digital server, I’m hopefully giving my current fans what they’ve been asking for and turning some new people on. The key is to respect the fact that you have to be able to go live, go live consistently, and to be able to go live on the drop of a dime. And ultimately I think people are tired of the gingerbread man thing.
What’s the gingerbread man thing?
The gingerbread man is – put the dough in the gingerbread man stamp and push out a million of them. That’s the way the industry operated for years. But now, people want pie, juice, soda, water, cake – and I think that’s a trend across the board. People are in their own ways branching out and looking to challenge their crowd and themselves. And that can only do well to everyone’s craft.
It’s best when you have people recognize the opportunity to have their creative license recognized, rather than being dictated. No more of this tightly structured skeleton you have to present yourself in. Now it’s a blank canvas. So if you want to curse through the whole song and put it out there – you can. If you want to put some downtempo stuff on your album and challenge your crowd – you can, rather than having a large label cut you off because they don’t feel it’s marketable enough.
I remember someone saying once that they don’t want fame because it comes with too much responsibility. As the brand behind your name grows, do you feel like, while you gain more supporters, you gain more haters as well, and why is that?
Not everyone is going to love what you do. Honestly, what we do as artists isn’t meant to be loved by everyone. Just hit the people that embrace your work and continue with it. If they have a problem, nine times out of ten, the problem is their’s. I don’t have any negative feelings, and if anything, it’s jealousy and that’s flattering. If you don’t like it – you don’t have to like it. But if you’re going to challenge it, I would say bring the issue to the horse’s mouth. Don’t become a part of the rumor mill because if the critique is honest, it might make the artist better.
Overall, it doesn’t bother me. I take it with a grain of salt. And if anything, I look for that because you want people to be turned on by your work. So as long as they’re thinking, I’m doing my job. It becomes pretty simple at that point – critics come and go, but real art sticks.
In Prefix mag you said: “To me it’s just proof that you’re impacting people, and one stupid thing about mass appeal as an artist is that the people who say or do the worst things to you or about you are just creating more interest in you.”
Exactly. It doesn’t sway me or move me to make a huge sweeping statement about haters. God bless them all. Just spell my name right in print when you say it. And luckily for me, when a person catches the rumor mill, they usually end up coming to my parties and saying, “I heard this and this, but now that I met you, I can see that the person who is saying this is essentially jealous.”
All in all, I’m not seeking out jealousy or saying that it’s all just jealousy, but I don’t have any enemies and I don’t go out and create them.
On a positive note, coming from the perspective that I live in Omaha, can you name a hot party you’ve played in a city you wouldn’t think would have a scene?
St Louis, Missouri – that’s a hot party! That Fly party with Luan Le and those guys (Trevor Matthews and Dino) is over the top. Outrageous! You don’t think “soulful House Music” when you think of St. Louis as an East Coast kid. Not to say it doesn’t exist. But I think a knowledgeable music person is a knowledgeable music person wherever you are.
Sometimes you might approach a city that you think is a – quote – “small town city,” but as a guest DJ, you have to listen to what a resident is doing, and you can gauge from that as to how deep you can take the room.
For me, I try not to judge cities by geography because you never know what you’re going to get. After 17-some-odd years playing professionally, you can never judge a book by its cover.
Glad you brought up that professional aspect. I also hear many people in the industry defer you to a category of a “professional” DJ. And it’s not in the context of you having a name, or that you have been playing for many years, or even because you travel. One of the other people I often hear you grouped with in that context is DJ Spinna. What do you think this context of “professional” means to you?
There are parallels in our careers, Spinna and I. I think it comes from the fact that there is an opportunity to make a career in many different fields and you can pick up a lot of work depending on how well you present yourself. And Spinna and I talk about this all the time as well – being professional and acting like a professional.
It goes beyond the actual DJing part. It goes far beyond being able to play multiple genres effortlessly. But when you tie good admin and good people skills to talent, it’s an undeniable power. My girl does my admin and she attacks that the same away I attack record store, my journal, my producing or even the way I attack the turntables when I play out.
So your business partner is also your lover?
Yeah, Tracy’s been handling the business side of things for the last three years. She’s been a godsend because now I can really focus on the art. So at this point she makes the executive decisions and I live with them because I know it’s based on forwarding the business. Sometimes it’s jamming them for the money, or doing a gig for less money to prove yourself. Keep on proving and you keep on improving.
I’ve groomed Tracy’s perspective on the business that it’s about attacking opportunity the same way you’d want me to attack the turntables. That double-headed approach gets you the win. I get promoters saying to me all the time, “Damn, man, whoever handles your papers, I email them and they email me the day of.” Or, “I ask for a mixtape and they send me five fucking mix tapes that week!”
And then you get to the place and rock them – that’s the cherry on top and you’ve handled your business like a man.
And Tracy handles your admin full time?
Yeah, no doubt. It goes back to your initial question about family slowing down the hustle. I don’t have to trade in my lifestyle for my family because my lady is a part of my business. If anything the hustle will get stronger. She doesn’t want to go to a 9-to-5 and I respect. As long as we stay healthy and focused, we can’t lose.
Sounds like an ideal situation. Being a traveling DJ is a huge strain on most relationships.
For sure. When you’re in business and you’re surrounded by drunk people and horny girls – you have to have a trust in your household that will allow you to be who you are. You’re swimming in temptation – temptation to have another drink, temptation to give in to advances. And I can say I’m one of the luckiest dudes right now because my woman understands and trusts. And that just adds to my power. By delegating authority, I gain authority. And I’m delegating in my own household.
Your own album, Connecting the Dots, was phenomenal. In hindsight, how do you feel about it? Anything you would change?
I think in one sense I wouldn’t change a thing. I have people that go to poetry readings that never go to the club, and people who dance at my shows who never hear me speak and people I play basketball with that do neither of those. So with Connecting the Dots, the album title was what I was trying to do by bringing all those worlds together. But the album allowed me to show my face as a writer, composer and producer. At the time I was listening to Quincy Jones’ album, The Dude quite a bit. I think he played three or four horn lines on the whole album, but he arranged everything, and gathered the artists and talent together to make it one unified statement. So I took inspiration from that role of a composer and brought on a number of high caliber artists that helped broaden the perspective of my own album.
Seems you’ve slowed down on the production tip since then. What projects do you have coming up?
When studio distribution went out of business, it took a lot of wind out of my sails. But I’m 80% finished with a new record I’m producing for Ranjit. He’s an amazing guitarist, keyboardist and vocalist. And he’s the first artist who’s approached me that’s asked if I could help him with his development.
I’ve also been getting back to recording myself for my own second artist album. So I’m in the woodshed recording and I’ve just been stingy with my music since I put my album out based on the notion of learning how the game is changing. I learned some valuable lessons with my first album about the interior workings of what will make a record successful and what won’t. And in the meantime, I’ve just been piling up music, piling up music, piling up music so that when I figure out who my allegiance will be with, I’m going to have so much music.
Advice to up and comers?
There are only certain things that you can do alone. And while you’re trying to find your way, you need ears to validate your work, so you don’t have the luxury to be shitty to people. So be cool and practice your ass off. And if you fall down, keep your mouth shut and get back up. And just know that someone is out there that is ill’er than you, or putting more effort into getting what they want, so just don’t be lazy. Ask questions and don’t think you can do it yourself, so be humble and ask people who know more than you.
Interview by Brent Crampton