Based in Philadelphia, Rich Medina is widely known as a legendary Afrobeat DJ. He has developed a wide variety of styles with his unique eclectic tastes, as well as being a platinum-selling record producer, recording artist, poet, journalist, and Ivy League lecturer. He has worked on music production with artists such as Jill Scott, J Dilla, Bobbito Garcia and Phil Asher, and in 2005 released the seminal "Connecting The Dots” LP. We recently got a chance to visit Rich Medina at his Philadelphia studio, where we discuss hip hop history, collecting vinyl and more.
——What’s your philosophy as a DJ?
Being a Dj is a layered job, like the peels of an onion. There’s much to learn musically and technically. My philosophies would have to be, always take the role of a student willing to learn, and understand things he/she does not understand. For instance, a DJ gets hired to play a show or event and comes fully prepared with a list of songs to run with for the night. That’s great and all, but sometimes the script you wrote doesn’t work with the crowd. That’s when you have to think on your feet, and adjust as you go. If not, you’re fucked [for lack of better term]. Humility would have to be the next keystone to remember as a DJ. If you don’t allow yourself to be humble, you wind up being humbled by life. As a DJ, your top priorities are the music and the people. You’re doing a service for the people as a member of the community, which means, you have to represent the art, culture, and state of the environment of that community the best way possible. I think that is the art.
——Who inspired you as a DJ growing up?
My sister’s first husband. He was a local DJ, not famous or anything; but I grew up watching him DJ at a lot of local places in my neighborhood. He was the first DJ I saw as a professional. I’d watch him prepare for work almost every day; cleaning his records, organizing his records and whatever. Then I discovered other guys like Pete DJ Jones, Larry Levan, David Mancuso, Shep Pettibone, and Ernie Kendall. Not to mention all the hip hop pioneers Herc, Bam, Jazzy Jay, Flash,Theodore, Cash Money, and Jazzy Jeff. Those were the big guys that really paved the way. They pioneered different types of styles and techniques to pull from. My influences are pretty wide, that’s why I play the way I play.
——How did hip hop culture influence you as a DJ?
It all started as a little kid living with my sister and her husband. We lived in the same house with my mom until I was ten or eleven. Then, I started hanging out with some of the older kids in my neighborhood who were into hip-hop culture. This is in the 70’s, so hip hop music wasn't really a phenomenon yet. There were MC’s at the parties and guys dancing and rhyming, but there were no real rap records until Rapper’s Delight in the 80’s. The culture kept me from doing a lot of stupid shit, and helped me to focus more on family. I was an athlete, b-boy, D.J., graffiti writer, and MC. At that time, it was no joke to be in the culture, you had to practice day and night to get your skills tight. If you weren’t up on your shit you’d be embarrassed by someone better than you. Hip hop is what made me who I am to this day, even if I'm not playing hip hop music, I’m still guided by the principles instilled in me long ago.
——How big is your record collection?
At this point, I have around forty thousand records in my collection. What you see here is about half of my record collection. Now that my new studio is built and everything is working, my next goal is to move them out of storage. I want to see records from the basement to the roof.
——How do you catalog your collection?
I organize my records by genre, and then under each genre, I organize the genres by album, compilation, EP, 12 inches, bootleg.
——What’s are your most prized records, and can you explain why?
The stuff on the wall is precious to me because some of them are the records that I've made over the years. Other records are autographed by some very important and special people to me.
Orchestre "Rail Band" – Nanthan (1973)
I don't know if I would say these are the most precious in my collection but rail band is the holy grail African 7-inch. It’s a very very very very rare, and very very very expensive record. I can’t stress that enough.
Orchestre Poly Rythmo De Cotonou - Dahomey – Cote D'Ivoire Cherie(1975)
Orchestre Poly Rythmo is one of my favorite band. As a fan of Fela Kuti, Tony Allen and Afrobeat sounds; Poly Rythmo is the Ivory Coast's unique blend of James Brown’s funk and Fela's afrobeat philosophy.
Mono mono - Layipo (1974)
Another one that is hard to find it in clean condition. You can find it but it’ll most likely be in horrible condition.
——What was it about Fela Kuti that inspired you?
I bought my first Fela Kuti record in 1992. Initially, I was inspired by the beauty of his compositions, but later would come to appreciate his story and rise. Fela came from a prominent family in Lagos, Nigeria; and different beliefs than his family. Like a rogue agent, he didn't believe in the system. He didn't believe in the colonial way and he made that clear through his music. I'm inspired by the sound, the messaging, and how tough a person you have to be to stand up for what you believe. The United States and rest of the colonized world still have challenges dealing with race and culture, but to say the things that he was saying on a record was completely edgy and tough. James Brown was also a pretty tough guy, but Fela was a different kind of tough, man. His music was rooted in fighting the colonial system and always talked about bad things the military and the colonial system does on its own people.
——Why do you still prefer to use vinyl when the mainstream has gone digital?
God puts the ear on each side of your head so that you can listen in stereo. Vinyl records, even if recorded in mono, will still play in stereo format. So it's a full sonic spectrum of sounds being used, giving it more body and depth. The friction caused by the needle touching the record is boiled down to the push in a button. That friction gives is what gives each record that characteristic warm crackling sound we all love. Whereas digital has erased that feeling entirely. It's like eating food cooked from the microwave as opposed to from a stove. Same meal different type of nutritional retention.
——What insights have you gained through collecting vinyl records?
I learned that record collections are libraries of a different sort. Just like a library with books, record libraries vary in topic, mood and story. The bigger the library you have, the more information you can pull from. The artists who make these records speak for the people and represent various backgrounds, times, political atmospheres, history and more.
——The craziest digging story?
One time me, KC The Funkaholic from Amsterdam, Kenny Dope… I think Spinna was with us too. We were talking about this place in Camden, New Jersey called Broadway Eddie’s. Eddie’s closed down years ago and was replaced by a clothing store, but then we found out all the records from the store were still in the attic of the building! So we were sitting in Broadway Eddie’s with protective breathing masks on for 15 hours. Heading back, it was very difficult to fit in the car since we had filled the whole trunk up to the backseat with records. Digging with those guys was great too because these are some of the smartest record collectors in the world. Record shopping in Jakarta, Indonesia was crazy too. Like walking into this big open market with all these retailers and you get to a store with records piled up 4 feet off the ground. We went through every single shelf in that place and I ended up shipping out around a hundred records back home.
——Do you have any unusual record in your collection?
My most unusual record would have to be “My Name is Roosevelt Franklin”. He was the first black muppet character on Sesame Street. When I bought it, there were a lot of liner notes in this record. Sesame Street was the most important learning show I watched as a kid. I learned how to count by watching it.
Breakdance Fever was a pop record featuring cover songs like Beat It, All Night Long, Rockit, Islands in the Stream, Flashdance, Billie Jean, and Girls Just Want To Have Fun. This record catered to a more pop commercial crowd since no real b-boys or b-girls were breaking to Girls Just Want To Have Fun. Breakdance Fever was a way for everyone to learn how to dance to hip hop music, that didn’t actually come from a hip hop background. Some of the versions are really cool cover songs though.
These are American comics, vintage books and records. It's fun to read as you listen. Some of it is just the storyline, some of it is just theme songs for the things.
——What is your next move or dream?
I teach Hip hop history at Cornell and Lincoln University, as well as The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. I’ve also been working my way into education and activism for 9 yrs. I want to put people on the right side of history. I’m focused on creating more good parties, more opportunities to share knowledge and to be the best father I can be for my son.
Putting some more products in the marketplace would be great too. I've really done a lot of work over the years as an artist. I never cared about the recording industry and wasn't in it for a record deal. I feel as if I'm part of this industry in some ways, and still unique in my own way. It took me a long time to understand that, and where I fit in the marketplace. I still love the process and never shy away from learning more. At this point of my life, I like to keep my goals simple.
Rich Medina is an elite international DJ who, in the thirty-plus years since he spun his first record, has turned his young love for music into a celebrated career as a platinum-selling record producer, recording artist, poet, journalist, and Ivy League lecturer. From the legendary nine-year-run of his Lil’ Ricky’s Rib Shack party at APT in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, to his globe-spanning, conscious-raising, dance-floor-shaking party Jump-N-Funk, a sonic tribute afrobeat and its iconic creator Fela Kuti, Rich stands without peer as a contemporary DJ of diverse range and taste. A sonic storyteller par excellence. But his art pushes past those boundaries. As a respected spoken word artist, he has performed on stages around the world, and his sonorous voice has been utilized by everyone from EA Sports to Nike. He’s an intellectual and public speaker who has lectured at TEDXPhilly and his alma mater Cornell, amongst others. And he’s a producer of note, crafting work with a range of artists, including Jill Scott, J Dilla, Bobbito Garcia and Phil Asher. In short, Rich Medina is the modern-day renaissance man—an artist and visionary who has built a compelling narrative on his own terms. And his journey continues.
Interview by Yayoi Kawahito
Photo by Koki Sato