To speak with Rich Medina, a world renowned DJ, producer, and poet, is to receive a lesson in culture, politics, humility, and, of course, music. Rich is smart and endearing, the type that knows something about everything and everything about something. His music knowledge knows no bounds, and his keen sense for production is encouraging.
In this engaging and lucid interview, Rich Medina talks with Mariella Gross about his Groundbreaking Fela Kuti Party, His Role in Popularizing Afrobeat in the U.S., the DJ school of Thought that He Comes From, why everyone should know Fela Kuti, why the connection between funk and hip hop is so glaring, what it’s like to practice your craft in public, his affinity for protest music, his BBE Compilation, what one of the biggest components of being a successful DJ is, growing up surrounded his pre-rap DJ’ing days, and more.
MG: Give the people a brief introduction to who you are.
RM: My name is Rich Medina. I’m from Lakewood, New Jersey. I’ve been living in Philadelphia for over twenty years now. I’ve been working in New York, employed as a DJ or poet or music producer, since 1994. I’m extremely good looking.
MG: Ha! Ok. Is there a big difference of the part of New Jersey where you’re from and Philadelphia?
RM: Yeah, I mean I’m from a town in the middle of New Jersey that’s about 40 minutes south of Manhattan and about an hour north east of Philadelphia. So, as a kid I had the best of both worlds.
MG: Ok, it’s not like you were in the middle of nowhere.
RM: No, not at all. I mean it’s not a huge metropolis like New York and it’s not a big sprawling city like Philadelphia, but because it’s practically in the middle of both we have all the influences of the city. Plus, the beach 15 minutes away. So if anything, it was better.
MG: You started DJ’ing when you were 12. That’s pretty young
RM: Uh Huh.
MG: How did you start DJ’ing? Like was this music always in your family? Something that you grew up with?
RM: Yes. I grew up in a Baptist church family [jokingly coughs]. And in the American Baptist church, music is an enormous part of worship. It’s very different than the Catholic church in that sense, where it’s very quiet and kind of solemn. In the Baptist church, particularly Black, the African American Baptist church in the United States, music is an enormous part of worship. All the elder men in my family — my grandfather on my mother’s side, my grandfather on my father’s side, most of my uncles — were all preachers. So I grew up surrounded in that. My mother’s a choir director.
MG: Your mother?
RM: My grandmother on my mother’s side. And aside from the musical influence of the church, my sister is 18 years older than me. She was pretty cool in her day. And her first husband was a local neighborhood DJ. So, you know— I think they lived with us since I was about 5 or 6. So I spent a great deal of my childhood growing up watching this man prepare to go DJ.
You know, going to events, where kids were allowed, where he would be the person selecting the music. So it’s been an enormous part of my life. And just growing up in the 70s on the East Coast of the United States. Obviously, hip hop culture and everything that comes with that is an enormous part of my life. So the older boys in my neighborhood, you know, you were playing sports, dealing drugs, or doing music. Or doing art. Those are really the options. And lucky for me, I followed the boys who were doing sports and art and music.
MG: You mentioned that in the ‘70s on the East Coast, hip hop was the culture and you were surrounded by it. Which is contrary to people growing up in Europe, who, I guess, their first impression was through TV. So there might be a little bit of lack of understanding as far as how much music was already part of your environment or how much it influenced a person. As far as the music when you were 12, what was the music that you started DJ’ing?
RM: The music I started DJing with was— This was pre-rap music. You know, I mean Sugar Hill Gang only came out in 1979. So for a kid like me, talking about hip hop, it’s much more about lifestyle and the culture, which was DJ’ing, MCing, Graffiti Art, and B-Boying. And the music we were dancing to and listening to was pre-rap music. You know, there were MCs at the events, they would host the events and keep the crowd engaged but, you know, rap music in it of itself hadn’t even become a phenomenon.
You know, you have of course the MCs and the groups that really kicked off the culture, groups like Cold Crush, Funky Four Plus One More, and all of the early ‘70s and early ‘80s iconic rap groups. But it wasn’t until “Rappers Delight” [Sugar Hill Gang, 1979] came out that there was even such a thing as an industry for rap music. So it’s a completely different dynamic than a lot of people in Europe would think. Because you would think all along there were dudes rhyming to records. But what it really was, was clever MCs — “MC” being short for Master of Ceremonies — who were the hosts of the events. So every once in a while, they would get on the mic and engage the room and make sure everyone was having fun and making sure people were engaged in what was happening. And that, in God’s time, turned into what we know as rap music. Which is really just a component of the culture.
MG: Right. So the type of music you said you were DJ’ing was funk, soul or what music at that time?
RM: Funk, soul, break-beats, pffff, I mean, rock, Electro. The taste palate for what we were rocking to was much broader I think. People weren’t so boxed in about, “I only like this,” or “I only like that.” We were just happy to have some music to celebrate with. So you know, that covered a great deal of styles.
MG: So what are your thoughts between the connection between Funk and Hip Hop?
RM: Well, it goes without saying that James Brown is the Godfather of soul music, and James Brown really introduced the world to what it really was to be a Master of Ceremonies. So the connection of funk music and hip hop is absolutely undeniable.
You know, if funk was the music of our parents and that generation, the development of hip hop from the use of funk music and sample based production, It’s glaring. It’s as clean as day. You know, obviously it became what it was through all the different influences and all the different music producers that were developed through the late ‘70s and ‘80s. You know, things that got started with Pete DJ Jones and Grandmaster Flowers and DJ Hollywood, and Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash, Grand Wizard Theodore, DJ Jazzy Jay… you know these men are largely notated as the forefathers of Hip Hop.
Because all eyes were on New York. All eyes were on the South Bronx. And I think something that goes unnoticed is that just about every borough, or every neighborhood, had their own Grandmaster Flash. Had their own Jazzy Jay, their own Kool Herc. And, obviously, these gentlemen are who they are and they led the way in regards to who brought proper notoriety and focus to the lifestyle that many of us still live by, but it was much bigger than was going on in the South Bronx.
MG: At what point did you tell yourself, Ok, this DJ thing is it, or there’s nothing else that I want do?
RM: I don’t know if there was ever really a time where I had to tell myself that, you know. It’s just such a part of who I am. Like I said, growing up where I grew up, you’re with the bad boys, or you’re athletic, or you’re musical, or you’re doing creative stuff. I learned at a young age that being a tough guy, being at the dark side of things, it’s a short life style, you know (laughs) Soon as you get caught, it’s over.
So for those of us who have embraced it from the beginning, it’s just a part of who we are. I’ve been doing it since I’ve been a kid. Twelve years old was my first real break, my first opportunity to really play records for people on my own. I was carrying crates for the cool DJ guys in my neighborhood for 2-3 years before that. But I think when I decided that I wanted to make this my life, I would probably have to say 23, 24.
I was a year or so out of college. I had just finished playing a season of semi-professional basketball. I had a lot of work to do if I wanted to go to the NBA, but I had a fantastic degree from Cornell University, and I moved to Philadelphia to go to work. And I went back to my DJing just as a way to clear my mind, a way to keep my mind fresh. Something that I loved to do since I was a kid. And now, here I am with this big serious job in a city I’ve never lived in before so, DJ’ing was my therapy when I first moved to Philadelphia. And after two years of that, I realized if I focus, I could really make a living at this. And it came a point were I realized that’s what I was gonna do. That’s what I did.
MG: Ok. So you ditched the corporate job and went full on.
RM: Yeah, I walked away from the corporate world in 1994.
MG: So at what point did you discover Fela Kuti?
RM: Ahhh. Fela Kuti became an enormous part of my life in October of 1992. I had heard songs before. I had friends who’s families were from Nigeria, Africa, who played the records from time to time across my childhood. But I didn’t really become a student of Fela’s music until 1992. And that really changed my life.
MG: Was there a significant, incident? Like, you went diggin’ and you found an album?
RM: Yeah. I was working with a record dealer in Philadelphia named DJ Train, also known as R.E. Saxe, and I was buying a mountain of records from him every week. And on one of my trips to his place to buy some records, he threw a record on top of my pile and was like, “You know, considering what you’ve been buying from me, I think this is something that you would really, really appreciate.” And it was “Fela Kuti and Ginger Baker Live.” And I had heard the name Ginger Baker because of the group Cream. Ginger Baker was the drummer for Cream. I had known who he was to a larger level, because I’ve also been a bit of a rock fan. But it didn’t make sense to me. You know, these two guys on the same record. And who’s this other dude? You know.
So I’m listening, and I’m like, what is this? Is this patois? What kind of accent is this? It doesn’t feel Jamaican, but it’s definitely not American. And once I was able to listen to the language, I was realizing that it was real protest music. Real Black Power music. And I grew up on Black Power music via James Brown and all the usual suspects in the American Soul scene. And then on top of that Bob Marley; everything that he did for West Indian music. So I already had an affinity for protest music. And here comes this big component of Black History and protest music that I had no idea about. And it just kinda blew my mind that I didn’t know about it.
Africana Studies was my minor in college. I took a great deal of pride in knowing what I know about the black diaspora, and this was a piece of history that was just missing from my language. So, I found that a challenge. And on top of that the music was just mind blowing. The arrangements and the instrumentation, the compositions, the size of the band. It was just mind blowing to me. I was completely fascinated. So being that I’m a bit of a nerd, I attacked it. And being that I’m a bit of a nerd who happened to have a damn good job at the time, I spent a shit load of money going after it. And chasing it down and just kinda built up my knowledge and understanding of who this person was in a very small window of time. And I immediately began incorporating him into my musical presentation. And, it wasn’t sexy in the beginning. I can tell you that.
RM: you know….
MG: When you say musical presentation you mean you started incorporating his music in your sets?
RM: Yeah. Anywhere that I was DJ’ing and anywhere I was playing it became almost guaranteed that at some of point in the night, I was gonna play some kinda African record.
MG: And when you say that it wasn’t sexy that meant people were—
RM: I was scaring people out of the club with it.
MG: Ha! What was your reaction? You didn’t care? Or were you just “Here take this!…eat this!”?
RM: Yeah. I was like, “This is something that you need to know!” Because it’s ahhh…it’s powerful music. It’s protest music. I think some of what we do and the lifestyle is protest against the norm. And I was determined to make people love it. A big component of being a successful DJ is breaking records. Meaning, introducing people to things that they’re not familiar with.
RM: So in that sense, I wasn’t afraid. It was just about, OK, maybe I’m presenting this in the wrong dosage. Maybe I’m presenting it at the wrong time of the night. Maybe I’m playing it after the wrong record or before the wrong record. So it made me really conscious about where I used it and why I used it. And as I got more comfortable with that I got less and less resistance.
I mean some of the same people that were, who didn’t appreciate it in 1992, in 1995, they were asking me for it. It took me about three years to really understand how best to continue to introduce this music to people.
MG: And what was the reaction then? Did you see a certain shift in people that now the accepted Fela’s music?
RM: Yeah! Like anything else. You hear a record that you don’t know, maybe at first you just like the melody. The next time you hear it, maybe you’re trying to figure out what the words are to the chorus, you know, the next time you hear it you know the chorus. The next time you hear it you can sing the first verse. You know….it’s a washboard process.
RM: You’re constantly rubbing away, rubbing away, rubbing away at this thing until you get the stain out. You know. It’s the practice makes perfect thing. You’re trying something the first time you’re not very good at it. You keep doing it over and over and over and over again and the muscle memory starts to kick in. And over time it starts to become organic and natural to you. I think that’s something that anybody can relate to. Whether it’s learning at school, whether it’s athletics, things you have to do on your job, you have to practice. And I chose to practice in public.
RM: So people would see me introduce Fela and other records the first time around and be like, “What the hell was this?” And then the second time around “Ay, I guess it’s not so bad…” And then the third time around, they actually stay on the dance floor and dance to it. And that’s kind of part of the organic process of what we do as DJs, what we do as tastemakers. Try to influence people’s taste. Which is a little bit different than the way the commercial music machine works now. It’s not about doing things that are new, it’s about repeating things that were successful. So – that’s the school of thought that I’m from in general.
MG: What made you start Jump N Funk, a party dedicated to Fela?
RM: I don’t think that I can say that I had a thought to start a party dedicated to Fela. I mean, I knew that I was in love with the music and I knew that I wanted it to be better known than it was and, luckily, for me because of a friend named Brett Cook…ahhh… I did a show with Brett Cook at a place called P.P.O.W. Gallery in New York City. Brett is a visual artist who had a show there and he asked me to curate music for his gallery show. The gallery had never had a DJ before.
And we kinda set a new tone in there, in terms of how an art show could be presented with the help of music. And because of that, Debbie Sealy who was managing Wunmi and A Guy Called Gerald at the time, she worked at the gallery. Her offices were in the gallery. Wunmi is Victor Olaiya’s niece. And Victor Olaiya was an artist from West Africa who gave Fela Kuti his club break, for a lack of a better way to put it. So Debbie is already connected to this music via Wunmi. I also met Trevor Schumacher who is a museum curator, and Trevor was about to do the Black President exhibit at the New Museum. The first ever museum based exhibit about Fela Kuti, his life, his influences and all of that. It had never been done before.
So when Brett made the introduction in the fall, I’m sorry, in the spring of 2001 – in August of 2001 we started an event called Jump N Funk. And we were originally 7pm to 11pm on a Thursday night. Free entry. It was an after-work information session. So from 7pm to 11pm, I’d be in the club playing Fela records and other West African records from new bands like Antibalas, other new bands who were also making African records, Afrobeat records. I’d play the music, we handing out information, “This is who Fela Kuti is. This is the exhibit that’s about to happen. This is why you should go see it.” We did that for about three months at Shine, which is now Canal Room on West Broadway and Canal. It was weekly. Leading up to the exhibition. It was only leading up to it. The exhibition was gonna happen six months after we started.
Three months into it, the party just grew its own legs. It just became a monster of its own. Shine offered us our own night, around being it after work. And we bounced around who knows how many venues in New York over the next six years or so. Trevor went on to have a successful curatorial career and educational career. Our partner Debbie eventually went back to England to visit her family. Because of all the complications around 9/11, she wasn’t allowed back in the country. And I was left to handle and run the party on my own. And here we are in 2016 talking about it.
MG: Crazy. So you’re just celebrating 15 years. If my math is correct.
RM: Yeah, this past August.
MG: That’s amazing. Was there any one party in particular that stood out or still stands out in your memory for whatever reason?
RM: Yeah. In 2004, we hosted Ghariokwu Lemi. Ghariokwu Lemi is the gentleman who painted the first 28 Fela album covers. So all the politically infused artwork that you see on the Fela Kuti album covers, 90% of that was done by an artist by the name of Ghariokwu Lemi. We brought him to the States on a visa to give a symposium on himself, his relationship with Fela, and the artwork on these albums. And we auctioned off some albums and he gave a really, incredibly informative lecture on his relationship with Fela. He and Fela’s relationship with the Nigerian government. What brought them together. Why they stayed together so many years working together. That was a moment where we were like, “Holy shit! This is it, we’re here.” We were talking to one of the architects.
Shortly after that, we did the same thing with Sandra Izsadore. And if anyone who knows Fela’s music, there’s a song called “Upside Down.” Sandra is the vocalist on that record. In a short time, I ended up becoming friends with Femi Kuti, Yemi Kuti, eventually Sean Kuti, the youngest son. Yeah, but that time at Martinez Gallery with Lemi that was really like, “Ok, here we are. We are really connected to Africa. We’re really connected to Fela now.”
MG: Have you ever been or had the chance to go to Nigeria?
RM: I’ve not physically been to Nigeria yet. I’ve been wanting to go forever. But the timing hasn’t been right. And there’s also been a lot of other things since we started what we started in 2001. There’s also been a great deal of very, very popular interest in Fela and the Shrine and the family.
MG: Were you involved at all in the production of Fela the musical as far as the production goes?
RM: Nah. Because of my position in New York, in regards to the music, it was impossible for me to be ignored, but at the same time, you know, I work in the clubs. What they are doing is theater. There’s really no position for a DJ. Maybe I could have played to open the show or whatever. But no, I wasn’t really included. I mean I had discussions with Stephen Hendel and I’m friends with a great deal of people who are in the play but no, I wasn’t really included. I was consulted in the beginning.
MG: Going back to Jump ’N Funk, the party. I know you had editions that were not in the US. How did that come about? Did DJs from those places contact you or approached you?
RM: Yeah. Part of the Black President exhibit went to the Barbican Museum. We played the Barbican Museum in London. Glamour Records had an African Forum and we were invited to play and participate in the Forum with Dele Sosimi, Wunmi Olaiya, Lemi, and Baba Tony Allen. Comet Records invited me to Paris to play shows with Tony Allen. I’ve toured the United States with Tony Allen and Seun Kuti. I’ve played a number of shows with Femi Kuti, both in Europe and in the United States.
MG: When you were abroad and you did these shows, what were your observations as far as the people who attended either the exhibitions or the parties themselves, as far as the feedback goes to Fela. Were there people that already knew the music or how was the reaction compared to in the States?
RM: Yeah, there was a much larger understanding of who Fela was. I mean, Africa’s relationship with Europe is different than Africa’s relationship with America. So on a base level, there’s a higher level of awareness to begin with. Visually, you can see the African relationship with Europe better because there are far more traditionally presented Africans in the culture than there are here. The art world and the gallery world is just what it is, you know, that’s always the same. People with money who can buy expensive art. But, yeah, everything from language barriers to cultural differences between the way things are done in the states and the way things are done in Europe. But the one big sticking point was that none of those people had heard those records strung together in a story the way I was streaming them together. And that became a sticking point for us.
MG: Ok. As far as any other Afrobeat, are there any other developments that come out of Nigeria and West Africa now that are not necessarily quote on quote “traditional” Afrobeat or are there any differences that you know?
RM: Sure. You still have Highlife, you still have Zouk, you still have Soukous, you have still have what’s now being called Afrobeats. Which to me, is really commercial House music from Africa. But it’s considered this new popular wave of the way Afrobeat music is being preserved. But it’s also a huge departure from true Afrobeat music. So, you know, again, with Africa’s love affair with the West and with pop culture it’s something that really does carry on the tradition, at least in terms of respecting the name, but it’s all brand new. The majority of the artists that are doing it are under 35, and when you speak to them about Fela and his influence, more often than not, the vocabulary is, “Well, that’s old music.”
MG: Would you see a similarity in a sense to the US, were maybe the younger generation here says, well you now…Funk and Soul is old music?
RM: Absolutely. There’s a total parallel. Because with the information everybody’s in touch with each other. The poorest kid in the projects in the United States is in touch with the richest kid in Africa. The poorest kid in Africa is in touch with the richest kid in the United States. And both of them influence each other in a great way. Obviously America influences it all in terms of the way we export music, the way we sell culture, and the way we work within the music industry. So we have all those influences coming together. You have this merging of a great deal of pride in their Africaness, but also an embracing of a western model of popularity.
MG: You just mentioned the similarity or the connection between the younger generation between the US and West Africa and the world basically. Where do you see Jump N Funk going in the future? As a party but also as a, for a lack of better words, movement?
RM: You know that’s a good question. So far it’s been a body that uses music and visuals to present a perspective of Pan-Africanism. I think that we’ve influenced a lot of movements. If you look at the Afrobeats movement, Afropunk, you know Okayplayer now having a Okayafrica segment. The larger influence of African fashion, you know, I think that we’ve played a position within all of that. I think we continue to go in a direction that we’re going. Initially, it was, “Play all the Fela records.” Then it was, “Play all the Fela records and all of his peers.” Then it’s, “Play all the Fela records and new Afrobeat bands that are carrying on the tradition of Fela’s music.” To, “Let’s embrace that South African house music movement.” To now, here comes this thing Afrobeats and everybody is focused on that. And I think that we’ve been a component of all of those things. So I think our objective is to stay healthy and keep working. And at the same time remain as authentic as we can. Stick to what we know. And what we know is Afrobeat. And what Fela’s objective was, which was to make it known to the world that the colonizers of the world and the militaries within those colonies have never been meant for the well-being of a Black man.
And I think that you can look at some of the things that are going on in the United States now and some of the things that are going on with places like France charging the Congo, making the Congo pay for their reparations, or colonial states that are still under colonial rule, in some ways there’s still this perpetual effort to corner black life, plain and simple. And I think that we continue to champion the root point of all of that, which: I’m a man too, and I deserve all the rights and all the opportunities that every other culture gets without being held down or without being suppressed or belittled because of my origins. You know the world of colonizers has belittled the black man and envied him at the same time forever. And we haven’t been able to see any of the benefits from that. So our objective is to continue to fight the good fight. And a good fight is proof that what happens to black people all over the world is the bellwether for what happens to the rest of the world. That’s just a fact. It’s completely undeniable. And we speak to that without compromise. So, I guess our objective is to remain uncompromising.
MG: You said “we,” obviously speaking about the party. But do you see yourself, or has anybody ever used the name “ambassador” in connection to yourself as far as an “Afrobeat ambassador”?
RM: There are a great deal of people who have said it. I’ve heard the word before. I don’t think I’ve been allowed or provided an opportunity to be the ambassador, though I could be.
MG: Who would be that person who gives permission?
RM: I’m not sure. I’m really not sure. There are a great deal of very famous people who consider themselves in that position now. Some of those opportunities are bought. Some of those opportunities are offered via colonial methods. I don’t know. Maybe my message is too stark. I don’t know.
MG: Ok. I mean you’re the only one that I know, but I also know that, how should I say, as far as Europe goes, as far as people— You know one side of their parents is from Africa, for example, from Ghana or from Nigeria, and the other side is German or is Austrian. Their experience is also different and they’re having their own experience and their own culture as far as music goes in Europe. Have you worked with or have you — besides your parties —worked with or collaborated with European African/ African European artists?
RM: I’ve tried to.
MG: What do you mean “tried”?
RM: Well, the idea has been presented to me a couple of times and only to say, “Yeah, we’re interested, let’s see how that works…” Someone more famous comes along and gets the opportunity. That’s the story of my career. Whether it’s with African music or anything else.
MG: As far as there’s politics behind or the industry or their name is just—
RM: The industry, politics, you know, popularity is king. I’m not famous, I’m well respected. There’s an enormous difference. Without a doubt. Without a doubt. I’m more interested than ever [in exploring opportunities with European African/African European artists]. I mean now, I have this experience that I have now, I’m a father now, my voice is more grounded, I have a better understanding of my place in the world. It probably was not my time yet. I think my time is still coming with the things that I have to say that can be influential or helpful. I’ve only just recently gained, you know, I had to become a man before I was able to do some of these things.
MG: I can understand that. I know you recently had a compilation on BBE records.
RM: The BBE compilation. The new mix I just did for Stamp the Wax and the BBE compilation are the two most important things at the moment.
MG: How did that compilation come about?
RM: Peter from BBE, who’s a Ghanaian, saying, “Hey, man, it’s about time we do an African comp, and you’re the dude.”
For more information of Rich Medina, including news, updates, and shows, please visit his website RichMedina.com
The music and videos below are presented here for the purpose of scholarship.
Fela Kuti – Water No Get Enemy
Fela Kuti – “Teacher Don’t Teach Me No Nonsense”
Fela Kuti – “Beast of No Nation
Fela kuti (with Ginger Baker) – “Black Man’s cry”
Fela Kuti – “Shuffering and Shmiling”
Fela Kuti – Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake AM
Fela Kuti – “Everything Scatter”Articles, Beatmaking, BeatTips, Editor's Choice, Interviews