An interview with Rich Medina, headlining Mosaic Music Festival | Five Words with... | Indy Week
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An interview with Rich Medina, headlining Mosaic Music Festival 

On deck at Mosaic? Rich Medina

Photo by Dan Raaf

On deck at Mosaic? Rich Medina

In a perfect world, dance DJs would possess encyclopedic knowledge of every genre at their fingertips, not just the deft touch it takes to translate that knowledge into a transcendental dance experience.  

That's impossible, I know, but one prototype of that ideal might be Philadelphia's royal sound selector, Rich Medina. During the last two decades of the curating, crate-digging, Cornell-educated audiophile's career, Medina has built unfailingly funky sets with a mélange of Afrobeat, soul, hip-hop, disco, breakbeat and house records. And since 2001, his infamous New York-rooted, globetrotting "Jump N Funk" parties have brought more attention to the life of Fela Kuti and Afrobeat music at large.

The genre and its concomitant Pan-Africanism have long played pivotal roles in Medina's artistic approach, whether through his poetry, his production or his sets behind the decks. Put him near a dance floor, and all this focused knowledge and experience goes wild.

When I reached Medina by phone several days before his headlining appearance at the Mosaic Fall Music Festival, though, he was nowhere near a dance floor. He was instead driving around Philadelphia with a trunk full of school supplies from Staples. His son, Kamaal, started second grade the next day. "Doin' the real work" is how he describes this particular errand; as far as his other work goes, we asked him to contextualize it.


It's the foundation of my career as a DJ. I'm a card-carrying member of the Universal Zulu Nation. I'm blessed to be close personal friends with BreakBeat Lou [Louis Flores], who was Lenny Roberts' partner in the Ultimate Breaks & Beats series. That kind of became a grail for all of us in the early days of digging. Breakbeats are the backbone of hip-hop DJing, production, b-boying, graffiti and everything that has to do with the five components of the culture.


If you don't pass your classes, you get left back. If you get left back, you don't get your diploma or degree. If you don't get your diploma or degree, you're fighting a little bit harder than the ones that do. On a basic level, academics gives us all the tools that we need to go out into the world as adults. I was the first person in my family to go to college. I went to Cornell University. Despite the fact that I'm not working in my marketing and management major, I still use a great deal of the business acumen that I learned via my education in order to keep my business alive. It's a template for discipline.


Four-on-the-floor dance music obviously has its origins in disco and what we like to call classic dance records. It's the electronic manifestation of the future of disco. In that music, a great deal of people have found a lot of opportunities for a career and for expression, whereas they may have had a more difficult time finding those same opportunities in other styles of music. I personally grew up steeped in hip-hop culture, but I also grew up in Club Zanzibar, Skate Key, Club 88 and the Shelter. For me, house music has always been a vital component of my game.


The music coming out of Philadelphia since the Declaration of Independence has been groundbreaking. The first opera house in the country is built here. At the same time that the settlers, slave owners and regular people were dealing with that, the slaves and freed black folks had their clandestine congregation. That's the birthplace of Philadelphia Soul. It's been long overlooked and treated with a bit of skepticism because, for years, Philadelphia has had the reputation of being New York's stepsister. But a lot of the music that was being broken on New York radio from the 1950s to today is music that was made in Philadelphia, made with Philadelphia music teams or made by Philadelphia vocal artists.


It's the daughter of Fela Kuti and Baba Tony Allen. They took the components of West African highlife and juju and all of the dance music and religious music that is local to Nigeria and all of its percussive elements. They combined that with a very heavy American funk-and-soul sensibility. It's very well documented that, after Fela's trip to the United States and seeing James Brown and understanding the black American experience a little bit better, Fela's music became more radical. He combined forces with Tony Allen, who pretty much came up with what we know as the signature Afro-beat drum rhythm. Fela Kuti is the first black president. I've embraced and studied his music for well over 20 years. It's an enormous piece of black history.

Smaller scene

Come each spring and fall for the last six years, the Mosaic Music Festival has packed an army of DJs into its ambitious 11-day schedule. But this season's event is sorely abbreviated, with the four-day span beginning Thursday with an opening party of EDMers Luneffekt and MoJo-T and ending with back-to-back beat marathons Sunday evening and night. At least this year's only two headliners—Afrobeat and soul advocate Rich Medina on Friday, and disco-house don J Paul Getto on Saturday--are principal DJs in their field.

It may seem the festival was shortened due to abiding local disinterest. But longtime festival organizers—Samad Hachby, Keith Ward, Steven Feinberg—aren't really to blame: They've been pushing the biannual spectacle for a half-decade in a city that has yet to develop an appreciable dance music availability or taste. Indeed, outside of Mosaic's house, soul and disco-friendly dance floor and the beat-driven series at The Pinhook and Nightlight, the Triangle overflows with Top 40 clubs, deep techno and bass raves, and one-off concerts featuring in-demand, trap-loving DJs and producers behind turntables (or, well, laptops and knobs). Raleigh clubgoers aren't looking for the DJs who tote rare 45s and worship Frankie Knuckles.

At The Pinhook just two weeks ago, frequent Rich Medina collaborator DJ Akalepse played to a near-empty dance floor. He should have sold out the club. Maybe Moogfest will boost interest when it arrives in Durham next spring; let's hope that, in Raleigh, Mosaic perseveres long enough to find out. —Eric Tullis

This article appeared in print with the headline "Audio logic"

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