There's more to life than being Rich

Mark Dale speaks to Rich Medina about the Philadelphia music scene, quitting a high paid job to become a DJ, and performing music until the day you die.

Jimmy Coultas

Last updated: 17th Jul 2015

Photo: Rich Medina and Frankie Knuckles

Rich Medina is a man of many talents, poetry and music production being just two of them. But contrary to recent trends, which almost insist that a DJ's music making should be high profile, running in tandem with their growth as a DJ, it is primarily for the art of spinning records that Rich Medina is best known. And for good reason; he's truly one of the best.

He has schooled himself in soul, funk, disco and house music, but it is with the dexterity of a hip hop turntablist that he strings his multi-genre sets together. 

He has been DJing internationally for two decades, equally at home playing hip hop nights as he is more up-tempo disco and house nights. At home, he established a residency Jump N Funk in 2001, North America’s original Afrobeat party, dedicated to Nigerian icon Fela Kuti.

His spoken word poetry has featured on records by the likes of King Britt, Phil Asher, De Lata, Antibalas, IG-Culture and Nathan Haines.  As a record producer, he has collaborated with the likes of Jill Scott, J Dilla and Platinum Pied Pipers.  He also released an LP, Connecting the Dots in 2005, on Dutch label Kindred Spirits.

Originally from New Jersey, he now lives in Philadelphia, a city whose music scene he is fiercely proud of. He attended an "ivy league" university, Cornell University, in Ithica, upstate New York. That's a pretty big deal, his country's equivalent of going to Oxford or Cambridge. 

After finishing university he ended up in an extremely high paid job, befitting of his intellect and education, in Philadelphia. Then, he gave it all up to become a DJ. 

Ahead of his appearance at this year's SuncéBeat festival in Croatia, where he returns in an almost resident's position, Mark Dale caught up with him to find out what's his story. Check out his Crate Diggers appearance below.

Where does Philadelphia come into the picture?

When I got finished playing college basketball I had the opportunity to try out for a basketball team and I ended up playing a very short season of semi pro ball there. At the end of that season I took a job offer in Philadelphia. That was in 1992 and I've been there ever since. 

How does it rate compared to New York and New Jersey?

Where I'm from in New Jersey is pretty suburban. It's a city, but it's nothing in size compared to Philly or New York. Philadelphia and New York are both very important American cities but they're completely different animals.

New York is the city that never sleeps and Philadelphia is more of a blue collar, everyman's town. It's almost impossible to compare them. New York is for everybody, there's so many different things happening there, all the time.

What is it that you like about Philadelphia that's kept you there?

The music culture in Philadelphia. It has one of the strongest music communities in the world, in my opinion. Genre to genre, decade to decade, there's a great deal of American musical history that has its foundations in the city of Philadelphia. That's a great legacy to try and keep up with.

I think when you find yourself in a place where the bar's that high, where you have to meet that standard, it can only make you better. I'm really thankful for the opportunity to have been in Philadelphia for as long as I've been and to have benefitted from the history of the city and the people I cut my teeth with, creatively, from 1992 to now.

Over here we tend to hear more about New York's club scene - hip hop, Paradise Garage, The Loft, Shelter etc. As you're primarily a DJ, can you tell us if Philadelphia has a club scene that rates as highly?

I don't think Philly's club scene rates as highly as those standards, but there definitely has been a very strong history of disc jockeys, singers, MCs and musicians from there.

Paradise Garage, The Loft, Larry Levan (head here for more on Larry Levan), David Mancuso, Nicky Siano, Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, Masters At Work, we could go on for days listing the pioneering DJs that have come out of New York and what the city of New York did for club and DJ culture around the world, but these are stories that are well known.

I think the Philadelphia story in comparison goes relatively unsung. In hip hop you have Schooly D, Cash Money, Jazzy Jeff, Grandmaster Nell, Lightning Rich, Lady B, The Roots, in house music you have King Britt, Josh Wink and Ovum Recordings.

Then there's the whole Gamble and Huff/Philadelphia International stable, MFSB, The Trammps, Thom Bell, The Dells, The Delfonics, The Stylistics, Patti LaBelle, Barbra Mason, Blue Magic in soul. Hall and Oates too, that blue eyed soul sound, that's a Philadelphia dynamic.

In disco Double Exposure, First Choice. Most of the music that went on to be associated with the New York disco scene, on Salsoul and Gold Mind, was actually Philadelphia music, Philadelphia musicians.

Philly made the music that was being played at places like The Loft and Paradise Garage, all the fabled New York club cornerstones. But in terms of actual clubs, we had The Limelight, The Bassline, Evolution, Fluid, where myself, Diplo, ?uestlove, Cosmo Baker and hundreds of other Philadelphia DJs cut their teeth in that room over 15 years, throughout the nineties (watch Rich Medina discuss DJing's past, present and future below).

Although you are a writer and a spoken word artist, you're primarily known as a DJ. Is it difficult to be concentrating purely on those disciplines, coming up around peers in Philadelphia who are following the city's main musical heritage, the actual production of music?

Well, each of those languages has a power. It may be a slightly more difficult road. For me, I take it as a blessing that I'm able to work in forums where a lot of my peers are well known for making music and I get mentioned in the same breath as them, purely because they like the way I play records. 

My time as a producer is really only just beginning. I'm lucky that for the last 15, 20 years I've been able to make a name for myself as a working class artist. Everybody can stand to have a few more dollars, sure, but I've found a way to be happy making the most of what I have. 

In short, maybe it is more difficult, but because I love what I do, I don't really view it as work.

I read that you'd given up the career you first started with. Can you tell me a bit more about what you did at Abbott Laboratories, this Fortune 500 company you used to work for?

I have a degree in marketing and management from Cornell. When I decide to end my athletic career I took a job at Proctor and Gamble in Philadelphia. I worked there for a year and change, then I moved on to Abbott Laboratories selling pharmaceuticals. So in both jobs I was a territory sales representative. I was basically selling anti-hypertensive drugs and macrolide antibiotics to primary care physicians. 

At that point was your DJ career running simultaneous to that work?

I had been a real deal disc jockey since I was 10 years old. Music was an enormous part of my fabric my whole life. It wasn't something that just popped up in the nineties all of a sudden. When I moved to Philadelphia, the first thing I moved into my apartment was my turntables and my records from my mom's house.

So for the first few months in Philadelphia all I did was practice, practice, practice, because for the previous four or five years, all I had been doing was making sure I could graduate, get my degree and stay on the basketball team. I couldn't cut from the basketball team, so DJing, as an occupation, was something I just couldn't do when I was in college, although I did manage to throw a few incredible parties. 

So, it had always been a part of my game. When I met a couple of people in Philadelphia who helped me learn what the club community was really all about, I found out that I could probably make $500 or so a week DJing, if I focused.

At that point the money and the security from the job I was doing became less important. I didn't find it challenging, I didn't enjoy it, whereas when it comes to music and the club environment, that was something that was always magic for me. Here we are 20 years later talking about it.

Do you ever give any consideration to the fact you threw away what would probably have been financial security for the rest of your life to follow this career as a DJ?

That's a slippery slope, to start thinking I threw away all this money and all this security. What did I throw it away for? That's the question. If I threw it away and this great thing is in the trash, and your world turns to shit, then that's something to feel fucked up about.

I made a conscious decision to say "As great as this thing is, as great as it could be for me and my family, this thing over here is more exciting, I'm pretty damn good at it and if I take care of this thing, it can pay me in ways that this job I'm doing, all the financial security and the trappings of the American Dream, can't do."

So, I don't look at it as I threw it away. If I threw it away, I might be sitting here thinking that I fucked up. I didn't fuck up. I traded a brand new Mercedes for a really, really dope mountain bike (laughs) and I've been riding this bike 20 fucking years. I change the tyres, tighten the spokes every once in a while, sure, but I'll be damned if this motherfucker ever once let me down.

Being constantly in the club environment and touring, how does this sit with your life in Philadelphia, because I hear you're quite the family man when you get back home.

The road is a helluva thing when it comes to having children and a family. Praise God for technology, Skype is a helluva drug, Facetime is a helluva drug, you can reach across the world at the push of a button. Because I'm not on a tour of military duty or in a lab somewhere, where there's no phone or digital reception, I do get to keep up with my family. Granted, being away and being able to talk with them is like cornflakes without the milk, but, better dry cornflakes than nothing, right?

It's important for me that when I am home, I'm off the grid. I'm not Rich Medina the DJ or the poet, I'm dad. To have that balance for me is critical.

How old is your son now? Has he been to any of your gigs?

Kamal is seven years old, he's been to three countries with me on musical trips. He's been to a hundred parties, granted not at night time in a 21 and over place, but he's been to countless festivals where I've played, daytime events and the like.

So have you shown him the Technics in the living room or have you just let him find them himself?

Of course I've shown him. He has turntables and records in his bedroom. He's not prodigious or overtly into DJing at the moment. He's exposed to it, he has access to all my tools. He can go to the shelf and take a record and play it any time, and he does. But I never wanted to be a pageant parent, I always just wanted to let my kid be a kid.

You wanna play Xbox? You want to be a musician? You want to dance? You wanna play sport? I'm happy to let the guy make his own decisions for a while and when he begins to show that something is sticking to him, something that he has an emotion and a head for, then we'll step on the gas and make it the most important thing in the world.

He loves music, he loves dancing. He loves the fact that daddy's a DJ, he talks about it all the time. But will he be a DJ? I don't know? he might be a welder, a surgeon. He might cure world hunger, what the fuck do I know?

Last time I saw you it was at SuncéBeat in Croatia where you were playing all vinyl. That's a long way to be carrying a lot of vinyl.

That's a long way to take vinyl, it's also a long way to take one of those expensive ass computers that we bring, a lot of time flying over the ocean, but records haven't been anything but good to me. I think it goes back to your question about throwing it away, making a decision, right? 

So you still find time to go to the record store?

Sure do. I didn't stop eating off of the stove after the first time I ate a meal from a microwave.

It's been a while since you made your debut album. Have you been working on any musical productions recently?

I have. I've popped up on a few things doing some poetry over the last couple of years including Da Lata, but this year, 2015, is the year to open the door again. I'm very aware that the reason I'm booked is because of who I am as a DJ and not because of the music I've put out.

I think the mass appeal that has come to date has come because of a great deal of luck as well as a great deal of passion. I now want to put some commerce, some traction behind that. I've been in the studio perpetually since the last album, it's just touring opportunities have taken a lot of my attention. But this year is the year. 

Picking up on something you just mentioned, do you think this ball will keep running? Will the requests for you to keep playing always come? Have you considered that there might be an end to this game?

I think there's a lot to be said for the idea that all good things come to an end. As an artist there are no health benefits, no dental benefits, no social security, no retirement fund. James Brown made a record called "Doing It To Death" and it was prophetic. So many of our heroes did do it to death, literally. Made music and performed music until the day they died.

For some people, that's the end. For others, your luck runs out or your muscle memory fades or your practice habits begin to atrophy and that signals the end. I think it's about the debris you leave in your wake and the preparations you make for the day when you might not be able to do the thing you love for a living.

Praise God I went to school and I have a degree, I have people around me that care for me who are always presenting me with ideas and opportunities. I don't know what the end will be for me, but I know that I'm not looking at my career as being on a downward trend, I can say that. If anything, I feel like I just grew up and opened my eyes fully when I turned 40.

I feel fresh, I feel clear headed. I feel like a lot of people who are in this community we operate in. This community that we function in keeps us young, keeps us spirited, keeps our energies up. You think about your friends who are your age who don't love music and who don't go out and celebrate in that way. Look at how old they are! They're like "What are you doing?? You look so great!!" So, I plan to do this to death.

Rich Medina plays multiple sets at this year's SuncéBeat Festival in Croatia 22- 29 July 2015. Head here for more on SuncéBeat.

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