By Nate "Igor" Smith
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Soul music isn't what you think it is. If you listened only to 99 Jamz or 103.5 The Beat, you'd think modern soul rests with slick young women who trill over mechanized hip-hop beats and quiet storm arrangements, and advertise their wares by stripping down for soft-core booty mags; and young men with light, tremulous voices who spend equal time on their dance moves and cheesecake poses.
But there's more to soul music than R&B and adult contemporary, the two sounds you'll most likely hear on those stations. There are sounds so reminiscent of great Seventies singers like Donny Hathaway, Roberta Flack, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder that it is called neo-soul or contemporary soul. There are dance music stylings so lush whether it's techno, house, or broken beat that listeners refer to it as high-tech soul.
To put it simply, there's a whole world of underexposed black music. Left to the underground and mostly ignored by mainstream outlets, it still draws large, appreciative audiences. Just ask anyone who has seen Louie Vega's Elements of Life band perform during WMC, or Agape play its Caribbean/dance/soul fusion around town. This is the scene that Rich Medina celebrates.
"There's a scene that functions in and of itself because it's made up of a group of people, from the artists to the patrons that really appreciate sincerity coming off the stage, out of the DJ booth, or through a microphone. To a lot of people, it's an alternative to what's going on the radio," Medina says during a phone interview. "It's a shame that, in order to get out of the öunderground,' you have to aspire to be a pop star."
Based in Philadelphia, Medina is best known as a DJ and tastemaker. The 36-year-old hosts several parties in Philly and New York, including a Wednesday-night weekly Little Ricky's Rib Shack at NYC club APT with fellow DJ and hip-hop renaissance man Robert "Bobbito" Garcia. He also plays frequently in Miami Beach, thanks to local promoters Aquabooty. Calling himself a sonic chameleon and a pied piper, he's an advocate for future soul, one of many terms used to describe black music unencumbered by genre. He lists Strange Fruit Project's The Healing, Lady Alma's Get to Know Me, and Aloe Blacc's Shine Through as his current favorites.
"[Radio program directors and major label folk] come to my parties because there's a chance that I'm going to break a record in front of them, you know. I'm going to put them on to something new that they don't know," he says. "My job as a DJ is to break new records."
Medina also produces music, performs spoken word, and occasionally writes stories for publications like The Fader. Last fall he released Connecting the Dots, a debut album synthesizing all of those elements. Its music is blissfully midtempo and eschews the tempo changes of his DJ sets in favor of soft and blissful soul music. His deep basso voice is largely missing, however, save for a handful of tracks like "Delirium" and "Blues Baby." Medina argues that when he wrote the songs for Dots, he heard the voices of others, which turned out to be up-and-coming rapper/producer Jneiro Jarel and acclaimed singers Alma Horton, Maya Azucena, Maimouna, and Martin Luther, among others. The result is a producer compilation of sorts that occasionally features his poetry.
"I felt like it was a better starting point for me to show my face as a composer, considering what people think of me as a DJ and what people expect from me as a DJ," says Medina. "I wanted people to really see my songwriting, arrangement, and composition abilities first, and set up for the record that really features me more on vocals.
"I'm definitely a spoken-word artist, and it's something I take pride in," he continues. "But the industry doesn't really know what to do with a spoken-word album yet. If you're not Ursula Rucker or Saul Williams, where you have a major-league push and a machine behind you that'll put your records in the places that it needs to be in, it's a difficult undercurrent."
The same could be said of Medina. Over the past half-decade, his name has popped up on a handful of recordings, including Jill Scott's Who Is Jill Scott?, Words and Sounds Vol. 1, the Roots' Phrenology (albeit a promo version), and King Britt's Adventures in Lo-Fi. Collaborations with Platinum Pied Pipers, DJ Spinna, and others confirm his status as a future soul locus, an aesthete whom artists know and respect yet is seemingly unknown to the general public.
"I think I'm one of the artists where people are so close to me that they don't pay any attention," says Medina. "I think I've recorded on some pretty impactful albums, and I think my discography is very strong. But a lot of people don't read liner notes."
Although Medina's mainstream profile remains frustratingly low, his underground career is thriving. He notes with pride that he recently hired an assistant to manage his growing DJ gigs, and often secures corporate assignments like doing voiceovers for the NBA Street videogame series. More important, his name resonates louder as the underground scene he champions draws more fans eager to hear something new. "The reason my career is still going," he says, "is because I get up and go get it."