Delayed arrival no bother for DJ Medison
blog by Ben Tsujimoto • March 27, 2012 @ 9:27am
Joining an established music scene as an outsider can be daunting. There are pre-existing relationships—rivalries, even—to navigate, and it takes a gifted newcomer to command respect in any genre. For Steve Rittner, known for his spinning exploits as DJ Medison and his company Queen City Cartel, the rise from “random kid in Florida” to one of Buffalo’s most recognizable jockeys hasn’t been seamless, but it’s progressing.
Roundabout path to a passion
To say that Rittner has been spinning records in the electronic dance music (EDM) scene or mastering a laptop program for the last 20 years would be inaccurate, and not just because laptops are a much more recent phenomenon. Born in Clifton Park, NY, 12 miles north of Albany, Rittner’s first exposure to spinning came at the age of eight during a family party at his uncle’s house. For entertainment, Rittner’s older cousin pulled out an inexpensive turntable and vinyl, and Rittner remembers being impressed.
“[My cousin] showed me how to put the needle down and even a little cutting,” Rittner recollected of his first taste of DJ-ing.
Without the proper equipment, there was no way for Rittner to latch onto the hobby. At age 13, the same cousin tired of spinning and gave his vinyl records to Rittner, who then purchased a Gemini “DJ in a box.” Without an official teacher, Rittner grasped some fundamentals through experimentation but never mastered beat-mashing or phrasing, and soon sold the setup for a bass guitar.
Another flirtation with spinning arrived while living in Albany after spending a year as a student at Canisius College. Rittner’s then-roommate had collected old hip-hop records and taught him more advanced methods of mixing tracks and phrasing. When that same college roommate stole Rittner’s equipment and records before booking to Colorado, the promise of a DJ career became remote yet again.
It wasn’t until he moved to Florida that Rittner’s journey as a DJ took a favorable turn. Just over five years ago, he was exposed to a thriving EDM scene in Orlando, one that he described as “fresh and spreading like wildfire.” Eager to duplicate that intensity in an area that wasn’t yet saturated with hordes of 20-year-old DJs armed with laptops and unfounded confidence, Rittner moved back to Buffalo.
What’s in a name?
Take a second and think of a DJ name for yourself. Not so easy, right? (If anyone’s interested, B-Hammer and Asian Thunder were my best two). In the DJ world, Rittner explains, jockeys generally aren’t supposed to create their own aliases—they’re supposed to be determined by someone else.
For Rittner though, he batted aside tradition and firmly established his own stage name: DJ Medison. In short, Schenectady, a city very close to Rittner’s hometown, was the birthplace of General Electric, the merger of a few of Thomas Edison’s businesses in 1890. Inspired by Edison’s creative genius—the electrical pioneer’s ability to “adapt, invent and change”—Rittner shortened the phrase “musical Edison” to simply “Medison.”
The birth of QCC
The pulse of Queen City Cartel began rather innocently in September 2009, as Rittner hosted regular house parties in his apartment on Pearl Street, attracting local DJs—his friends, usually—looking for a place to spin and hang out. During those informal nights, a movement was born, the seed of a fuller, more diverse EDM scene in Buffalo. As the parties grew to over 100 people—a significant challenge to control, Rittner added—so did the quality of the DJ-ing.
“The goal was just to be accessible,” Rittner explained in regard to QCC’s start. “We slowly became a crew of people, a grassroots movement. We didn’t even have any speakers at first—stuff was just slowly donated to us.”
Friendships were formed with local DJs like Biacco, Brother Bear, Mario Bee, Bones and Stuntman, and through these Rittner organized a formal DJ crew: the Queen City Cartel. Rittner explains the purpose of the group much like the Wu-Tang Clan’s M.O.—there’s unity under the QCC umbrella, but each individual artist has complete freedom to pursue solo endeavors as well.
Massaging the scene and finding a venue
Even with the formation of the Queen City Cartel, finding a regular venue and earning the respect of Buffalo’s established DJs wasn’t a breeze, especially as the group met initially reluctant acceptance from Frosty Tone, a similar DJ group started in 2005 by Rick Matthews, aka Big Basha.
After Rittner’s first solo foray at a Chippewa nightclub ended abruptly and unceremoniously, Queen City Cartel captured his entire focus. The crew broke out with its first party at Staples in November 2009—hosted by former bar manager Dhamon Quale—and the group earned a certain legitimacy that became more convincing as the parties grew in number.
“We actually paid our guest DJs out of pocket at first since we weren’t charging a cover,” Rittner admitted. “But many [DJs] were gracious enough to perform for a bunch of drink tickets.”
As 2010 began to wane, Rittner noticed a new-found respect from his peers—Basha and Frosty Tone—largely due to QCC’s longevity and dedication in what was becoming a rapidly saturated electronica scene.
“Real recognizes real,” Rittner said bluntly when asked how he won the respect of Big Basha, with whom he now holds a steady, if still competitive, relationship.
The two groups, joined by Factory Nightlife and MNM Presents as the four primary DJ crews in Buffalo, can co-exist for two reasons: they represent different genres, and they all want to advance the EDM scene. While Frosty Tone is recognized for its reliance on bass-heavy dubstep, QCC refuses to pigeonhole its style and characterizes itself under the broader umbrella of “party rock.” Factory Nightlife, which will present Avicii at the First Niagara Center in June, specializes in house trance, according to Rittner.
“We didn’t want to represent just one genre, especially since I have some ADD tendencies,” Rittner said with a smile. “We try to go with the vibe, book everyone and don’t pigeonhole ourselves—we do our best to be diverse.”
QCC still books Duke’s Bohemian Grove Bar (DBGB), formerly Staples, regularly, while Frosty Tone has spent more time at Broadway Joe’s. QCC’s Friction runs on the second Saturday of every month, and Silk, a “QCC weekly on Sunday with deep house vibes,” adds another regular dimension catered toward a more mature crowd.
The balancing act
“At Friction, I coordinate and promote the event—and even used to work the door—while preparing for my own set at the same time,” Rittner explained. “It’s stressful; it’s a full-time job just getting the DJs together.”
Still, given the quality of international EDM talent that Buffalo has managed to lure over the past year—Rusko (photos), Caspa (photos), Skrillex and soon, Avicii—developing local DJs to open for the headliners has been a task embraced by these local crews.
For DJ Medison, though, the perks of being recognized and influential in EDM outweigh the frustrations of the scene: the fact that “everyone and their mother wants to throw a party,” younger DJs’ abandonment of turntables and vinyl for cutting-edge laptop programs, and the fact that some unqualified DJs get gigs far too quickly in Rittner’s mind.
The transformation from confused Florida resident to a household name in Buffalo’s electronica scene didn’t happen overnight, but talent withstands the test of time. For Queen City Cartel and DJ Medison, there’s more to come.
(First photo courtesy of Chuck Alaimo, second photo courtesy of Carrie Scoma, both Buffalo.com freelancers at QCC events. Header photo from Rittner’s Facebook page).