Don Medina: Discusses Life and the Music Industry

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Don Medina is a name you may not know as a music fan. However, he is musically connected to a diverse list of music luminaries and heavyweights having worked with Stevie Wonder, Esperanza Spalding, Jermaine Dupri, Usher, R. Kelly, Carl Thomas, Tyrese, LeToya Luckett, Young Jeezy, Leela James, Syleena Johnson and many other celebrated, award-winning artists.  1st Amendment Media was fortunate to have Don Medina visit with us at our offices in Chicago and share part of his inspiring life story.

Earned, Not Given

We’ve all heard the saying “Earned, Not Given.” It’s used a lot nowadays, quite notably by NBA Champion LeBron James. Well, it rings true for the accomplished and seriously sought after music producer Don Medina. A proud Chicago Southsider, he traces his humble beginnings back to the now demolished Prairie Courts housing projects in Chicago. He had to earn his props in the hood and his spot in the music industry. His aunt, Irviner, and his uncle, Rodney sparked his passion for music.

Early Music Influences

He fondly recalls, “They would play and sing along to a variety of soul, funk and disco records while babysitting us. They had the most amazing voices.” He recalls that when his aunt or uncle would sing to the songs they played, “My cousins Dee, Mario, Bernard, Lawrence and I acted like we were the band. Yep. We were an air band,” He said laughingly. “I played keys, bass, and drums in the “air band.” We all played multiple instruments. We were crazy kids.  Can you believe it, we would actually rehearse with our ‘air instruments’. We’d play and rehearse, then, all of a sudden stop and start all over because someone didn’t play something right.” 

Taking Advantage of Music Education

Don took full advantage of the music programs in the schools he attended. He fondly recalls, “I remember enjoying music class in elementary school.” He continued, ” I had Band my first two years of high school. I played the trombone.”

On top of  his heavy involvement in music he also found time for varsity sports. “I was very active in sports throughout all of this. I was a standout playing baseball and football. Hard work and good ethics were instilled in me as a child by my mother, teachers and coaches. This truly became the catalyst to my becoming a successful music professional.”

The Moment that Started it All

When asked what was the moment that started it all for him, Don said, “That exact moment came after playing a game of baseball with friends – Kirkland Moore, Walter Mitchell and Lamar Ali.” Don followed them to Michael Donley’s house. He didn’t know Michael, so they introduced him. It was that introduction to Michael Donley that ignited his desire to becoming a DJ. don medina 3

“When I saw him scratchin’ and blendin’ those records on those turntables I was like, ‘Wow, I wanna learn how to do that’, so I went back to his house by myself and asked if he would teach me.  He said ‘O.K. come back this day at that time,’” he recalls. So after coming by at the specified times for over two weeks I got frustrated. I mean all we would do was sit and listen to music.” In haste, Don stated those exact words to him then he said, “Hey man you gotta learn the records”

Patience Pays Well

Don recalls, “I remembered every record he played. So I told him every record he played from the first time to the last and from what crate.”  I remember Michael saying to him at that point, “Ok, you’re ready. Wanna learn?” I  didn’t know Michael was teaching me the philosophy and science behind music, and later on teaching him the craft of mixing records. By the age 15,  Don was a featured attraction  at parties around his neighborhood, Prairie Courts, aka “The P.C.’s”.

“Imagine our apartment party. It used to be so crazy.” Don said. “We used to have people coming from the Harold Ickes Homes, The Dearborn Homes, Ida B. Wells, Wentworth Gardens, South Commons just to come to the parties I was throwing. The parties used to go on till damn near six in the morning.” For non-Chicagoans, you should know that these are names of housing projects that are quite familiar to people who grew up in what was then known to many as the “LowEnd” (Bronzeville/South Loop) area of the south side of the city.

Youthful Business Success

Don’s popularity grew and he became very well known on the “LowEnd”. At the time, he had started to make some nice money at a young age. Not surprisingly, at the youthful age of 18, Don began to hang around businessmen, like songwriter and producer Willie Henderson.  He knew that Henderson could help him to understand how to work in the music industry and the studio. As DJ’s go,the well-known producer and DJ Steve “Silk Hurley” inspired Don Medina the most. Don said about Hurley, “I told him that I idolized him and I patterned myself after what he did and how he did what he did. “He had a great name in the world of DJs; he was an innovator. His skills were undeniable.”

Before Don graduated high school in the late 80’s, DJs like Steve “Silk” Hurley and Farley “JackMaster” Funk were making hit records that were impacting the clubs, radio and the charts all over the world. It was then that Don decided he wanted to make records, too. While still quite young, Medina met via introduction longtime friend and business partner, Kevin Mabry. The two hit it off and started a production company and record label.

Young Don Works with Legends

By the age of 20 Don had his first chance to work with legendary producer Willie Henderson, whose credits include The Chi-Lites, Tyrone Davis Jackie Wilson and Barbara Acklin known for her earlier chart-topping hit “It’s Love that Makes A Woman” and “Am I the Same Girl”. Under Willie’s continued tutelage Don gained more extraordinary experience that included working with Motown great Jimmy Ruffin and then singer and businesswoman, Helen Wooten. He learned from some of the best how to be a professional in everything he does. Along with the likes of Barbara Acklin and Jimmy Ruffin, Don worked with other artists like the late Alvin Cash and Leroy Hutson, 70’s producer/singer/songwriter/instrumentalist and former lead of the iconic group the Impressions.

The Low End Kingpin Passes it On

A-list artists and labels still seek Don out for his extraordinary skill and creativity. He is also renown for his skillful DJ mixing as “The Low End Kingpin”.  Today he is a regular at the Chicago House of Blues.  However, after piling up over 20 years of vast experience and knowledge of music production from recording to mixing and post-production, one of his activities that he finds most satisfying now is passing his knowledge on to the next generation. He teaches his skills to high school students at the Little Black Pearl Art & Design Academy in Chicago. 

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