Listening and analog culture meets a master of ceremonies and dance music at Dante’s HiFi.
In the fall of ‘22, we flew to Miami, the Magic City, after learning of a new kind of listening bar that had emerged in the city’s Wynwood neighborhood. Co-founded by a team of nightlife veterans alongside legendary DJ, spoken word artist, journalist, and producer Rich Medina, Dante’s HiFi is the city’s first jazz-kissa-inspired listening bar –– and unlike any other hi-fi bar we’ve visited in either the United States or Japan.
Equipped with a custom-built analog sound system featuring Klipsch speakers, vintage Cary tube amplification, and Master Sounds rotary, Dante’s serves up “hifi sound with a lofi approach” to a Miami crowd typically accustomed to bottle service and pounding club music. Their unique take on the “listening room” puts equal emphasis on listening, dance music, DJ culture, and music education. During our visit, the night flowed naturally from full album-sides of jazz classics to DJ sets featuring a mix of latin music, disco, boogie, and house with one of the residents picking up the mic at various points to interact with the crowd. Somehow, everyone in the room knew exactly what to do at all times throughout the night.
Medina, the music director, master of ceremonies, and originator of this new approach to the listening room, was out of town during our visit, but his presence was made known through the 10,000 records from the Lakewood-born, NYC-raised DJ’s personal collection housed behind the bar.
In Sheep’s Clothing’s Phil Cho recently caught up with Medina to learn more about the bar’s ethos, musical roots, education in a jazz kissa context, Miami’s music scene, and Dante’s constantly evolving music program.
Hey Rich! To start… Miami’s music scene is, of course, very club focused. How did the idea first come together to create a spot that was dedicated to listening and sound?
A few years ago, my partners went to Japan and really experienced jazz kissa culture for the first time. They had been to them in the past, but never went with the specific intention to understand what the culture was about. After a couple days of going to as many kissas as possible, they convinced themselves that they wanted to open one in Miami.
My three other partners are all successful venue owners and/or entrepreneurs already, so they have a vocabulary about how these things work, but there was a missing player with who was going to represent the brand musically so that we don’t move too far away from the Japanese tradition, but also put a thing on it that makes it uniquely ours. That’s where I entered the conversation. After months of Zooms, looking at CAD drawings, talking about the business, and all of that, next thing I know I’m packing up my shit and on my way to Florida. They’re the right guys for the opportunity. Praise God that the call came my way. I feel like I’m the right guy for the job to finish off that team. It’s been fantastic.
Education seems to be a key element of the Dante’s Hi-Fi experience along with having an MC (master of ceremonies). Can you talk about your background as an MC and how that culture/history informs Dante’s?
My background as an MC goes all the way back to my grandfather’s church and growing up in a space of men of the cloth (preachers, deacons, reverends) and particular teachers who made it a point to me as a young child to recognize that I have a way of making a point. You tell a kid they got something and then you nurture it and you let the kid run with it. If the kid really loves it, it’s just the water out of the faucet.
I’m 53, so I grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s forty minutes south of Manhattan. I’m a member of the Zulu nation. I’m a member of the Rocksteady crew. I’ve been B-boying my whole life. Whether it’s MC-ing from a secular hip-hop disposition, or reggae disposition, or the church, or the school assembly, I’ve always had a thing for orators and people who can bring an idea to you that you never heard before. They make you feel like you get it a little bit and inspire you to leave and go do your own recon on it to see if it’s for you or not.
My relationship with MC-ing is deeply rooted. I’ve also been a writer, writing for magazines, decades of poetry performances, and all of those things. With Dante’s, I now have a place where all that work and experience has someplace really redeeming to come home to roost. Then, when you apply it to the jazz kissa culture, it’s a new audience. Damn near everybody under the sun here is a new audience to that game.
For people that have never been to the bar, can you take us through how you incorporate the educational aspect into a typical bar night?
It could be anything. I could stop the music, talk about who we are and how long we’ve been here, ask the room how many people are here for the first time, give them a quick bullet-point breakdown of who we are, what the inspiration for the place comes from, express our appreciation for them coming in to rock with us, and get back to playing music. I could play a song and stop the record and tell you why this record is so important to me. “I got this record in San Francisco ten years ago for $5. Now it goes for $300 on Discogs because of X-Y-Z whatever.” Just data about the music.
If you’re into music or you’re listening to music, you’re at least curious who the artist is. If you’re listening to music in an analog way, you’re probably reading the liner notes. You start to become this active piece of liner notes for people. Liner notes for what the culture is about in general and what our intent is within the culture. Pioneering that type space within the kissa culture has been vital to satisfying people’s curiosities about what exactly this is.
So it seems like you approach it as a free-flowing conversation?
For me it’s free flowing because I’ve been MC-ing my own parties as a resident DJ across the span of my career. The parties that I grew up with were steeped in the old school tradition. Coke La Rock and Kool Herc… “Throw your hands in the air, wave them like you just don’t care.” The people that did that, the people on the other side of that statement that actually put their hands in the air and waved them like they didn’t fucking care. Those are the motherfuckers you’re talking to. That’s the root of the tree. They’re the ones that make the wall flowers loosen up. You can’t do with records what the guy standing next to the stiff guy can do with a physical reaction. So it’s the truth in the engagement of the community.
We’re not up there telling you what to do or dictating to you how things are going to be. Your energy, what you think, and how you see this space is important too. We want you to know that in this space, we acknowledge how smart you are musically because even if you don’t know any of these records, you’re smart enough to know to stick around because you’re going to hear something you like or know soon enough.
I was in Philly for the last 30 years, so it’s Cash Money and Marvelous. It’s Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. It’s all the Notorious forward DJs in Philadelphia who became touring DJs always having an emcee, not a rapper, a master of ceremonies. So it’s tradition from the crib, as well. Taking New York, Philly and Jersey and implanting that energy here in Miami. It stands out because we’re not there, we’re in Florida. Bringing that seasoned club disposition to the table inside of a hi-fi bar – it’s bulletproof if you execute it with the right intent.
Even being there just one night, I could feel there were people around who came specifically to listen and learn.
My thing is, I’ll tell you what the record is, where it’s from, what it costs, then it’s good luck from there… It also allows the line to remain drawn as well, but the only line is professional vs. hobbyist, and even that isn’t a greater-than-less-than conversation, it’s just the delta. Right? To make the hobbyist intrigued by the in-depth considerations that we make with regard to the records and how a room sounds – it becomes like a bottomless pit of sharing. If you can share music with the right humility and make eye contact with the right new person in the room, you know that you got somebody in front of you that’s probably going to be in a record store in the next 48 hours.
They’ve never seen or held a record in their whole life, and now it’s stuck to them. It’s like they’re seeing an elephant inside of a building in America, and thinking, “what is going on here?” Then that guy is back the next week and the week after and he’s got this look on his face like, “Yeah, okay, you played a record by so and so and I researched it on my phone and I went to some record store a couple of blocks from here. They had all these records made by this artist. It was so great.”
I have these conversations with people that are new to digging all the time now. That’s just priceless, man. I mean, there’s something to be said for keeping some things to yourself at times, but in an environment like ours, we want to lift that veil like the information is there for you, too. All you gotta do is want it.
I love Dante’s tagline “HIFI SOUND / LOFI APPROACH” Can you elaborate on this philosophy?
We serve you craft cocktails and we present you craft music. The “lo-fi” part just means treating the place as precious as it should be treated, but to not be precious about it. Everybody that you come across in the room is the most important guy in the room. Talk to people with respect. Keep it simple, keep it pushing. Avoid the goofy shit. So that’s “lo-fi.” That humility of approach means that we are a watering hole for all music lovers, from the most experienced to the most inexperienced. If you have questions, somebody within three bodies of you can help you get to the answer that you’re looking for.
If you’re the person that wants the optics of being seen, the people who are running the place are personable enough that, as long as you approach them with some etiquette, you’re going to get an exchange. So if the intent is to share information and the intent is to enjoy this experience together. It’s not the servers versus the clientele. It all works together. Keeping that out in front of the intent has done wonders for us in terms of the way people talk about us and why.
The hi-fi heads that frequent our site will definitely be curious about the sound system, so I gotta ask: What makes up the system at Dante’s? I especially loved the care and small details put into the DJ booth.
Klipsch Cornwall Speakers
Cary Audio Tube Amplification
Klipsch Spatial Fills + Subwoofers
Altec Lansing 5 Panel Horns
Technics 1200 on Isonoe Isolators
MasterSounds Radius Four-Valve Mixer + FX Unit
Looking at the schedule, it’s clear that the selection at Dante’s is meant to be diverse and the DJs focus on all genres of music. Can you talk about a few of the zones you guys have explored recently in terms of music selection/selectors? Any favorite regular nights?
As music director, it’s been a blessing to be able to bring all my experience to the place. I bring in all types of guest selectors, explain what we do, and they come in there and it really swings them back. They really feel happy about being there. They feel appreciative that there’s a space where they feel like the music director is not trying to be a program director and tell them what to play. The music director brought me here because they like what I do, or they want to give me a shot. Both of those people have room here.
In terms of special nights, man, it’s so much stuff. I mean, Dave Chappelle coming in town and calling us on a Monday night, asking if we can open up. He’s like, “Everybody’s been to Dante’s but me!” We were sitting there for two and a half hours, Dave Chappelle and I on a freestyle. Just Dave Chappelle talking shit. It was fucking amazing. For the residencies, there’s Ladies Night, Record Shop Sessions, Holy Smoke (gospel & spiritual jazz), La Cura (latin diaspora), Dvize, Lumin, and Marcello Bentine’s Brazilian Sessions, Rum & Coke (tropicalia). I don’t want to leave anyone out, but it’s just been a constant barrage of exciting moments because at any given night, there might be somebody on the bill that nobody really knows yet, and they might be playing the earlier slot of the night, but they’re a fucking wizard in the box.
Sometimes you get a big name in the room that’s playing at peak time, and they’re a little bit nervous on the rotary. You watch somebody very established who’s used to play in big rooms and big arenas, and you give them an intimate environment like ours where people are right on top of you and it’s a whole different kind of pressure. It’s a whole different kind of animal to fight. So it’s hard to call out all the highlights.
Art Basel this year was probably the biggest impact moment for us yet. We had two systems set up the whole week, outside in the courtyard and inside the bar. So having that outdoor ignited with 9th Wonder, Digging Through The Crates, Alize, B-Sharp, Dvize, Lumin, Quantic, J Rocc, Maceo, Louie Vega, Osunlade. It was an unbelievable week, but yeah day to day it’s always something…
One night, I walked in the room at 7:30 and one of the bartenders was brave enough to get the ladder and pull a couple records out of a shelf they’d been staring at. They’re playing something in the room that I haven’t played in five years that’s a banger. It’s a go-to joint in my mind, but I haven’t touched it in years. So it comes across the whole bell curve whether it’s somebody who comes through the door, a song that comes through the speaker, or just a person who came in here who looked unhappy and then 30 minutes later they’re smiling with a drink and rocking to the music.
How has the city responded to this new type of music space?
I think that we’ve impacted the club culture in Miami in a very positive way. You asked me about the “lo-fi approach” earlier. Just being sophisticated, approachable, and simple at the same time has kind of taken people aback a little bit because they come expecting club energy. They come expecting the beach club, and we’re nothing like that. You feel like you’re walking into a speakeasy somewhere deep in Brooklyn. You don’t feel like you’re in Miami. You feel like you could be anywhere because it’s something that you haven’t experienced in the city before. We’ve been getting that energy from people in government to local police to patrons to other businesses that surround us physically on our block. We’ve brought bodies to an area of Wynwood that didn’t really have that type of traffic for a very long time. Also, when you’re inside of the development or gentrification machine, and you’re actually doing something culturally redeeming, you don’t feel so bad about being there.
Lastly, we love sharing as much music as possible in our articles… Can you share five records you’ve played recently at Dante’s?