Rich Medina greets me with his arm outstretched, a hand waiting to clap mine, and a warm, baritone-voiced "What's good?" He's carrying two huge bags of records, his dreads hanging onto his T-shirt. It doesn't take long to realize that Rich is just Rich.
His debut, Connecting the Dots, the flagship release for Kindred Spirits U.S., has a similar appeal; deep bass, dance-friendly drums and soul-powered vocals from an assembled cast of talented lesser-knowns. The album's sound would feel just as comfortable in the living room of your crowded apartment as it would in the basement of APT.
If you've gone out in New York or Philly in the last ten years, chances are you've been to one of Medina's parties. The term "hustler" doesn't even touch the surface - he's has made himself omnipresent, flexing his expertise in hip-hop, afro-beat, soulful house and everything in between.
Even if he doesn't know you by name, you're likely to get a smile, a nod or even a pound from the six-foot, six-inch basketball player turned deejay turned producer if he recognizes you from one of his dance floors. Because the music is what matters to Rich Medina, and if you love it as much as he does, that makes you fam. We sat down on a roof in Williamsburg, Brooklyn where Geology, Peanut Butter Wolf, DJ Spinna, and Rich Medina and his partner in crime Bobbito closed out the summer, trading records back and forth at the Back to School benefit party.
PM: So Rich Medina has an assistant now?
Medina: Yeah, yeah. It's very strange.
PM: She sounded very helpful [Laughs]
Medina: She is. She's awesome. But that's not on some fly industry shit. It's more in order for me to maintain a certain level of productivity leading up to the release of the album. I've got to deflect some of that day-to-day stuff. Because bottom line: If I'm not in the studio or on the mike somewhere, I'm losing money.
PM: I'm just laughing because when I called your phone I was surprised to hear this chipper voice that was like, "I'm Rich's assistant. Can I help you?"
Medina: I'm even laughing. It's bizarre man. And I've gotten every emotional response (from people), from "Who the fuck do you think you are?" to "It's about time you stopped answering your own phone." Just the full gamut of emotions. And it's a growing pain right now, but I think it's going to be something that keeps me 75 percent creative, which is important. That's the object, you know?
PM: You're a little busy with all your deejay stuff, too. What are you juggling right now?
Medina: I have five residencies between New York and Philly - one weekly and four monthlies - but luckily each party has a different complexion. One party's a house-music thing; one party's a straight-ahead hip-hop thing; one is real freestyle, bugged-out shit; one is straight on afro-beat; and the other is my weekly. And that party at APT maintains my presence in New York. And I say that because it's only five bucks to get in - less than the price of a fucking drink to get in there - and there's no pretension. People hold me down so strong in there that if somebody was acting out and being a dick they would have it handled and throw them out before security even got there. And that's a big deal to me, man - being able to remain tangible to the community that you play for is a big deal. But I love 'em all because they all represent a facet of what I'm trying to show people musically.
PM: You've held Apartment (APT) down for awhile now. How long has that been?
Medina: APT hits four years next month. And we just had a four-year anniversary for Jump-n-Funk. Just had a six-year for Afrorykan Vibe in Philly. And that's dog years as a deejay, so all we're trying to do is maintain that. So the whole assistant thing and bringing people into my camp to help me stay on point creatively has been beautiful. Working with Peggy Jean-Louis, who does the door at Table 50 and who's also my booking agent for the States now. It's weird man - I have to pause when I hear "my booking agent" coming out of my mouth because it doesn't even make sense. Because really I've been answering my own phone and sorting through my own shit for the last twelve or thirteen years.
PM: Jason [Romanelli, photographer] and I were just today thinking back what a blessing those parties over at Martinez Gallery were. Just a beautiful setting and environment and all the people who came out were there to dance.
Medina: It was such a destination. If people came to the gallery when we were rocking, they came because that was where they planned on closing their night.
PM: They were there for the right reasons.
Medina: Yeah, man, and they created such an atmosphere in that room
PM: Some of the Jump-n-Funk parties there were some of the best I've ever been to - great energy, super positive. A lot of times people weren't even drinking as much as they were just out there sweating it up on the dance floor. They didn't need to drink.
Medina: I think that was a big variable that fed the energy too. I mean, I play for dancers. I don't get paid to make people drink. That's the venue's job. My job is to make sure everything sounds clean and that the musical presentation is right, but as a deejay you end up getting trapped in this vocabulary with venues where they're like, "Well, when we have Joe Schmo here we make $25,000 at the bar by midnight." And I'm sitting there thinking, "Dude, I don't give a fuck." And Martinez being a gallery, it took that variable off. It took that monster out of the equation so people came and we didn't have to worry about any of that shit. It always sucks when situations like that fall victim
PM: It seemed like you guys had the freedom to do whatever you wanted to do. But it's not like you're exactly handcuffed at Apartment. That's become kind of your signature night.
Medina: I've been really lucky with that. APT has really stuck by me and listened to my feedback as far as equipment and sound in there. Three years of me talking shit to them and now they've got a Function 1 sound system in there. Not only did they upgrade but they went out and got a fucking Function 1! That's like the Lamborghini of sound. It's just proof positive to me that as a venue they care about talent.
PM: Speaking of nice sound systems, how do you like playing at Table 50 with Bobbito?
Medina: Bob is one of my oldest friends, one of my favorite deejays and, as strange as it sounds, he thinks I'm bigger than he is. [laughs] As awesome and weird as that is to hear, it's just an even exchange between us, and it's so positive and I think it shows.
Table 50 is another example of a young venue that doesn't want to get trapped in the same old conversations. In ten years they want the talent that plays there to have the kind of attitude like, If I see that motherfucker on the street and they've got trouble, I'm going to get involved. That's a big deal, because I think the club culture in New York after Save the Robots closed really suffered from a disconnect between the people who run the place and the people who make the place - that create the atmosphere that is the club.
Places like APT and Table 50 are good examples of management and ownership that want to have a solid relationship with their talent, and that's going to carry them no matter how long I play there or anyone else plays there. They have a protocol for how deejays should be treated and they adhere to it and they're very consistent with that. And I think that's what people that come to the parties see.
PM: You're back and forth from Philly every week, right?
Medina: Yeah, man.
PM: But you've got a place uptown now, too.
Medina: Yeah, I got a place in Harlem now. Had to. Long overdue. Philly's only an hour and twenty minutes away, but with miles on the car and miles on the body. I was in transit ten hours a week. If I could be on the drums for five out of those ten hours, my rent's paid.
PM: And you've got a studio up there, too?
Medina: It's an office studio. I've got a one-bedroom garden-level apartment in a brownstone with all my equipment, and I've got the shit sound-proofed. Locked off lovely. I recorded most of the vocals on my album in that room.
PM: Who are some of the vocalists on the album, because I didn't really recognize anybody?
Medina: Alma Horton, Martin Luther, Maya, Jeremy James, Justine Masters, Janell Summer, Jneiro Jarel. Everybody who's on my album is an underdog. Everybody who's on my record really sought me out and put a heavy effort to make sure we knew each other musically. I know a lot of famous people - people I've worked with over the years who I have a lot of respect for and who have a lot of respect for me - but I don't have the type of budget to go after them in a recording scenario or, in a lot of cases, the kind of relationship that would allow them to get creative with me. But there are people just below the radar who are honestly just as talented.
PM: And it's nice to see people like Waajeed do something similar and have success with it.
Medina: Definitely. You've got to keep your nose to the street because the further you go up the ivory tower the less tangible you are to the people who really need you. As a deejay, as much as I think Jay-Z is one of the most brilliant emcees in the business, Jay-Z doesn't need me. Jay-Z's got Clear Channel and Soundscan and all his other business investments that are moving his thing forward. So me playing a Jay-Z record at my party is not going to have the same effect as it would for a different kind of artist. That's not a dis; that's just real. The guy on the street with a Jay-Z talent and a Jay-Z vision that hasn't been heard yet needs me far more.
PM: The record is very dance-oriented and sounds like something that would be very comfortable at one of your parties. In fact, I've heard you play the records out to good response.
Medina: Definitely. I really wanted to show my face as a composer coming out of the gate as a recording artist. Because as much as some people out there may think I've arrived because my name is on people's lips as a deejay, I'm a rookie producer. I did a song on Jill Scott's album in '99. Some cameo appearances on other people's records, co-production, ghost production, song writing. But I never did a thumb-print record after all these years. I really wanted to show my personality as a song writer, as a mix engineer, as a producer - give people a broad base to hear me from until I have time to do a full spoken-word album or a full hip-hop album. I wanted to show people as many faces as possible the first time out of the gate. I'm a generalist as a deejay, so I felt like on my album I needed to show that same perspective.
Marketing yourself as an artist is a lot different than marketing yourself as a deejay. People take that one thing home with them and that's who you are. I wanted to take care of how I treated that presentation of myself. After so many years working so hard to be able to get booked at a house-music thing or a hip-hop thing, a this or a that, why not present that same perspective on my album?
PM: Your record library must be ridiculous. Do you have a whole house?
Medina: Yes. [laughs] That's why I kept my place in Philly. The loft there is for record storage and a place for my moms to chill. And if my moms is in there, that's like having a pit bull and three fucking Uzis. Don't nobody want no problems when moms in there - trust me. She's the illest. She'll disarm them with some fried chicken and collared greens. They'll step to her like, "Give me the records!" And she'll be all, "Are you hungry? You look hungry, baby. Why you so tight? You need to relax. Put that gun down. Matter of fact, give me that gun"
PM: You should have sent her after those dumb motherfuckers who boosted those crates out of your car. Maybe not something you want to talk about, but
Medina: All I can really say about that robbery is that I'm glad I never found out who it was because we wouldn't be doing this interview right now.
PM: You'd be locked up.
Medina: Yeah, I'd be locked up. I would have caught a case. That's like fucking with my kids or my family, man. It's that deep.
PM: It's just something you don't do.
Medina: 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. Ink is ink. You can say what you want about me, just spell my name right. Because as long as my name is on your lips, I'm winning. Say what you want. The people who show love to me have that love because they know I show and prove. When it's game day I come to play hard. Whether I score twenty or shoot air balls all fucking day, I'm there playing my heart out and the people who do appreciate that are the only people I need. Any other issue you may have with me is your issue alone.
PM: People steal records to sell them or to play them. Are you thinking that at some point they're going to surface?
Medina: For the first three days after the robbery all I did was call all the record dealers, all the stores that I shop in, all the buyers that I deal with, all the guys on the street I know that peddle seven-inches and rare stuff.
PM: Records that rare, when even two of them come up together it's going to look suspicious.
Medina: I put a thousand-dollar reward out on them, and a thousand dollars to these guys far outweighs a bunch of records that they may or may not make money off of. But God don't give you nothing you're not supposed to have. I got robbed on a Wednesday night, made four phone calls, drove to Philly, came back to New York the next night and we still had Jump-n-Funk and we still murdered the place. And we put it out there that night: "If you in here and you know who did it and you haven't said anything, speak up. If it was you and you in here trying to see what's going to happen after robbing us, fuck you. And if you don't like that then bring your ass to the stage. I'll be up here with nothing but records and moral support all night. Everybody else, thanks for the support. And remember, one monkey don't stop no show." And the crowd exploded and the party was on and I've never said another word about it publicly.
PM: Case closed. So the record's coming out on Kindred Spirits. How did you hook up with them?
Medina: Kasey the Funkaholic, the A&R at Kindred Spirits over in Amsterdam. He's really a mentor to me. Kase really taught me how to be patient in the mix, in the club, and I have a lot of respect for him. When they started the label I just fell in love with what they were doing, from the art aesthetic to their taste in music to the range of music. As they began to grow legs in Europe our conversation was always that we should try to work a collaborative relationship of some sort. When I started working on my record two years ago, Kase said, "What do you think of the idea of us partnering with you to do something in the States?" To do a Kindred Spirits in the States . As much as they have respect out here, you don't see them at retail the way you'd want to. So we're figuring with my mass appeal on the streets and their name as a European distribution house, we could develop an existence in the States that starts at a Mom and Pop level and moves to a broader scale. So my record is kind of the guinea pig for the U.S. label.
PM: Who are some of the other people who worked on the record with you?
Medina: My partner Mark Hines. We mixed the record. H.Humphries at Master Work in Philly mastered the record. Greg Battle, Jeremy James, Damon Bennet, Carlos, Sy Smith - they were the instrumentalists who contributed live stuff to a lot of my programming. I'd make a track and program it and they would embellish on the melodic stuff to make it sound a little more lush.
PM: And you also have the benefit of living within a whole community of beat-makers, such as Geology, Waajeed
Medina: Yeah, man. Waajeed was monumental because this was the first time I was making a record. Waajeed taught me a lot about the things I needed to do - in the mastering process to make sure I have as much ownership as possible, as well as making sure I've done every thing I possibly can to the track to make it's the best that it can be.
Gaining perspectives from seasoned producers and vocal ideas from different vocalists to learning the way some people will position themselves next to a particular mike to get a particular sound. Just pulling jewels from every relationship I have and trying to make a conscious effort to incorporate that into my game.
I tell people all the time I would rather be a decent ultimate fighter than a champion in any one discipline musically. You want to wrestle? Cool. You want to box? Cool. You want to kickbox? I'll whip the shit out you. Because to master one discipline as a jock is very limiting in terms of what you can do for yourself down the road.
PM: That's a big part about where your name comes from on the street, because you are known in so many little enclaves. Whether you're a hip-hop head or an afro-beat head, house music, what have you: They all know Rich Medina.
Medina: It's been a real blessing man. And it's been a real interesting challenge over the years to try to stay fresh and creative, and I think that helps push it.