When legendary Nigerian bandleader Fela Kuti toured the US in the '70s, he was blown away by the funk, soul, disco and other African-American music forms he heard here. So he took them with him back to Nigeria, threw them in the blender with some African dance highlife and traditional Yoruba music, and came up with Afrobeat. Whether you're listening to hip-hop, R&B, house, or even dubstep at the club, you're getting down to one of Afrobeat's sonic brothers from another mother. You're an Afrobeat fan whether you know it or not. And nobody knows that better than 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, 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.