How Hannah Montana & Ad-Rock Uncorked Champagne Jerry's Career
Photo by Allison Michael Orenstein
It’s two weeks to the day until Christmas, and the self-described “greatest rapper in the world” is living up to his name but in an entirely different context (and with an extra W thrown in for good measure). Today he’s wrapping presents for his son. “It’s a big afternoon at the Champagne Quarters,” he says, offering the first of various quips that decorate his sparkling persona.
Born Jerry Neal Medlin and raised in Brushy Creek, Texas, the performance artist – who also goes by Neal Medlyn – made his debut as Champagne Jerry in January 2013 at Joe’s Pub, and for the past two years he’s been refining the character. He dropped his debut album, For Real, You Guys, in 2013, released ridiculous music videos to accompany nearly each track, and then toured up and down the East Coast. On December 16, Champagne Jerry will headline Synth Nights at the storied nonprofit space the Kitchen. It was here back in 2012 when producer and beatmaker Max Tannone caught one of Medlin’s performance pieces and suggested they collaborate.
“He sent me this Dropbox full of 40 different beats [while] I happened to be on a trip working on somebody else’s project in Minneapolis,” says Medlin. “I was bored in the hotel and I was like, ‘I’m going to listen to these,’ and then ended up staying up in the hotel until five o’clock in the morning and wrote eight of the songs that are on the first album. The next morning I was kind of like, 'What the fuck just happened?'”
Bewilderment isn’t an uncommon feeling when considering the rhymes of Champagne Jerry. His facetious manner is comparable to that of the Lonely Island but with deeper layers of vulgarity. One track that surfaced during his initial marathon writing session was an ode to CNN anchor Erin Burnett and asks her to "come out of the TV box and fuck the shit out of me.” He doesn’t always rely on bawdy material – you don’t call yourself the “greatest rapper in the world” without a little braggadocio – and his top track “Yo Kev” solidifies his fame with the line: “I got more pics of myself with celebrities than a pizza shop owner.” Over some rowdy drums and a brooding synth-heavy beat, “Yo Kev” sounds similar to later Beastie Boys – which makes sense since Ad-Rock produced and appears on it.
“To be able to do a song with him was sort of like, 'What the fuck – this is crazy,'” says Medlin who considers the Beastie Boys' debut License To Ill his first hip-hop record. “It was very transformative for me.”
The Brooklyn-based Medlin is currently strategizing the March release of his next album, The Champagne Room, where he predicts there will be between twelve and fifteen songs with three beats from Ad-Rock, two of his own, and the rest from Tannone. Medlin produced the beat for the song “More Wet” off his debut. After fourteen years of living in New York, he was able to insert an idiosyncratic aspect of his city life into a song.
“There’s a sample of my neighbor whistling [which] I looped a bunch of times. For a while it was weird for me to listen to because I live on the ground floor and he’s always whistling for somebody to throw him down the keys,” says Medlin, which quickly reminds him of another beloved lyric. “That’s my favorite thing on that A$AP Ferg album: ‘I’ve got to close the window because New Yorkers don’t know how to be quiet.’ I think about it everyday and it makes me laugh.”
He’s also preparing for how he’ll present The Champagne Room on stage next year. An avid performance artist who once hosted a show out of a Motel 6 room in Texas, Medlin designs his shows around absurdities like riding a Citi Bike through the crowd or playing a game of catch with Ad-Rock before launching into the softball-themed “Yo Kev.” In remaining true to his unpredictable nature, his concept for performing The Champagne Room has its roots in none other than a Hannah Montana concert.
“She did this tour where Miley Cyrus was the opening act,” he says. “Miley would come out with her regular hair and do a whole music set and then she’d be like, ‘Alright ladies and gentlemen, give it up for Hannah Montana!’ She would do a video and dancers would cover the switch and then she’d come back out. So basically she’s performing three hours but in two different characters and I kind of always wanted to do that – it’s kind of like one of my favorite ideas. That’s what we’re doing for the show: Neal Medlyn is opening for Champagne Jerry.”
The first time Champagne Jerry tasted the bubbly beverage that inspired his name, he was crouched behind a couch with a group of people awaiting for a friend to return home for an unsuspecting surprise party. “I don’t remember my friend even getting there but all I remember is drinking champagne from behind the couch,” he adds.
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He calls it “delicious” and the name Champagne Jerry was christened after another soiree when he got in a friendly squabble with comedian Bridget Everett. “I walked around the whole party drinking champagne and I think Bridget and I got into an argument about which snack is better: Goldfish or Pretzel Bites,” he says. “We had this whole thing and then the next day everybody said, ‘Whoa, you became Champagne Jerry.’”
If his raps are any indication, Medlin embraces the ludicrous side of his brimming creativity. Since childhood, he’s sought to express his weird, esoteric art via music, and pop in particular. His rhymes might not receive validation for their street credibility – he his, after all, a scrawny dad with glasses – but the commitment to his craft is proven. And when he hits that stage, Champagne Jerry knows that’s exactly where he’s meant to be.
“Originally, I wasn’t even sure what ‘performance art’ even meant, but in my mind I was like, ‘I guess it means that your art is just performing. Like performance is your art,’” he says. “And I was like, 'Yeah, that’s what I do.'”
Champagne Jerry will perform at The Kitchen on Wednesday, December 16. For ticket information, click here
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