Ramble John Krohn, better known as the prolific producer RJD2, became an immediate critical darling with his 2002 debut “Deadringer.” Some critics hailed the album as the next step in hip-hop production. Next came a successful string of primarily sample-based hip-hop records, which basically followed the same formula: hard-hitting beats mixed with funk samples and obscure dialog from B-movies. It would’ve been fairly easy for the producer to continue churning out these kind of sample-based beat records to the delight of hip-hop fans, but, like a true artist, RJD2 wanted to expand and grow. He moved from creating music that, at its core, depended on samples from pre-existing songs, to creating his own compositions. His 2007 record “The Third Hand” featured downtempo genre-bending beats and was a distinct departure from his previous sample-based material. It was a risky move, and alienated more than a few fans, but despite the album’s lack of critical success, it was an important record. It set the stage for future adventures in studio experimentation and live instrumentation.
“I remember reading the Rolling Stone review of that album in an airport, and having this realization [that] reading this review is not making me a happier person,” says RJD2. “That record was the start of me not being invested in any stylistic or genre-oriented leanings.”
This month RJD2 releases “Dame Fortune”, which may be his best album yet. It’s a full set featuring feel-good funk grooves, raw hip-hop beats and psychedelic soul. And made almost entirely of original instrumentation.
I spoke with the man who wrote the theme to “Mad Men” last month. He speaks in dense bursts of thought and like one of his tracks, he enjoys following an interesting tangent, and often arrives at an unexpected fresh idea.
Mike Andrelczyk: I have to ask just because of your name – what did you think of the new Star Wars movie?
RJD2: I liked it. I thought it was good. I feel like it accomplished what, to me, it was intended to do, which was to reboot the franchise in a way. I feel like with the last three films, the thing that they were working against was basically skeptics. You know people were like this is your last shot, do this one right or I’m tuning out. It was very well thought out and conceived within the context in which it was released.
MA: Who is the better droid R2D2 or BB-8?
RJD2: What’s so cool about BB-8 to me is that every time he moves, I feel like it’s like a physics sleight-of-hand so to speak. I thought that was really cool. Every time he moves you’re thinking like, how did they do that? I’d have to assume that the head is animated and the body was real, but even with the body being real how did they pull that off? From a analog film perspective I thought there was some really cool stuff going on.
MA: What did you use to make your single “Peace of What?” Samples? Instruments?
RJD2: There were no samples on it. It’s all live. The title “Peace of What” is a reference to a Main Source song called “Peace is Not the Word to Play.” I don’t know if you’ve ever heard the Main Source song, but [it goes]: “Peace / piece of what? / You can’t mean p-e-a-c-e / ’cuz I’ve seen people on the street shoot the next man and turn around and say ‘peace.’” That’s how the Main Source song opens, and that little couplet encapsulated everything that I wanted to convey. For whatever reason, [Main Source MC] Large Professor’s delivery of that opening line encapsulated my exact feelings about where we’re at in relation to the issue of gun violence in America right now. The spirit behind those lines that Large Professor wrote were almost a better illustration than just extracting lyrics from the song.
MA: So what’s on the track? What did you use to make it?
RJD2: There’s drums, bass, piano, guitar and then string parts that were farmed out to a string team out of Oregon and the horns were done by some Philly guys. There’s some buried synths in there. That was a song that I just struggled with the instrumentation forever. I actually had to put it down for a while. There’s a thing that can happen when you mix music, where basically each time you take a pass at something you’re just making it worse. Some people in the world of music call it “demo-itis.” You end up unsuccessfully chasing a vibe that existed in the demo that can never be recaptured.
MA: How did you cure your demo-itis?
RJD2: I just got lucky. I worked on the instrumentation of the song for so long and the mix just didn’t have any urgency. It just wasn’t working at all. I save the generations each time I mix a track. So, I went back to one of the older sessions and somehow it sounded great. The drums were loud and slapping, but it was beefy and just sounded really urgent and great. I remember the relief of being like, “I’m so glad that even though I wasted a month chasing a unicorn that didn’t exist, at least I have this old session where it works.”
MA: How much of “Dame Fortune” is sample based and how much is original music?
RJD2: It’s almost entirely all live instrumentation. When there are samples, they’re just totally buried. I have to be extremely strategic and discerning. I basically only feel comfortable, at this point, using a sample on a track if it’s so recontextualized and obliterated that it doesn’t bear any resemblance to the source material.
MA: You’ve talked about how limiting sampling can be. Kendrick Lamar used jazz musicians on “To Pimp a Butterfly” to play live in the studio on some songs where traditionally samples would’ve been used. What’s your take on that trend?
RJD2: It makes perfect sense. I think it’s an accurate reflection of the music culture surrounding hip-hop right now. And where is it? It’s at a place where the bottom line is if you want to make a record as groundbreaking as “To Pimp a Butterfly”, then it cannot be done with samples. I’m not saying that one [method of creating music] sounds better than the other. When people say, “I just want to hear Madlib beats all day,” that’s totally valid. I love Madlib – and all of the other guys that are basically sample based producers. I did that for a long time and I still love it. But, the juncture that I found myself in, [was] like OK, I built a thing out of samples, it’s a four-bar loop, but, then you are locked into the recording. Say you want to have the chord change every eight bars, you want to have a turnaround, you want to do something slick where you walk up half-steps to the [root] chord when it comes back on the loop, you either have to throw something totally unrelated in terms of sound source in, or you can’t do the idea. It really forced me to go down the route of live instrumentation. To use “Peace of What” as an example, there’s multiple things in there that could not have been done if I was using samples. It’s funny you bring up Kendrick, in a way I feel validated by records that sound like “To Pimp a Butterfly”, because I feel like my natural progression was like, beat nerd and MPC guy that ultimately got to a point in the creative process where I had to go beyond doing the same things I was doing. When I hear records like Dre’s “Compton” or “To Pimp a Butterfly” that are basically departures from a previous sound, I can’t help but feel validated. Those guys that were confronted with the same thing that I was confronted with, and they confronted the challenge head-on, and made records that ran the risk of potentially alienating people that liked how their previous records sounded.
<<< Listen to RJD2’s new single “The Sheboygan Left” and find out how he came out with the name here. >>>
MA: Do you think that sample-based mode of making hip-hop has kind of run its course?
RJD2: I don’t know. I definitely don’t think that there’s anything wrong with it. I don’t want to say it’s over because I don’t want to rule out the possibility that someone could do something really creative with the media. I look at the last Justice record and, to me, that was, in terms of what I would call sample-based music, that to me was the most recent breakthrough in that field. So to give you an example, I’ll hear stuff on like whatever an Action Bronson record, and it’s one-hundred percent sample based and I think the beat is amazing, I think it’s incredible, but from a technical standpoint, it’s extremely rare that I hear something that makes me say, “How did they do that?” That Justice record was the last time that I heard something and I said, “Man, they did a thing and I never would of thought of doing that.” Never in a million years would I have thought to do that and it’s awesome and it’s sample based. I don’t want to rule out the possibility that someone else will do that in the future. Who knows?
MA: Did you know that all the tracks on “Dame Fortune” would be RJD2 tracks? Were there things that you made that possibly could’ve gone to someone else or was it like, “OK, this one is for me,”?
RJD2: Some of them I did and some of them I didn’t. That’s a great question because it does illustrate how work. With the creative process you can’t box it into a thing of like, “Oh, this is going to be for someone,” or I should say it’s not always worked out so tidily. You know some of the things, I soon as I executed them I could tell that they weren’t going to fly in another [situation]. Like the opening track, “A Portal Inward,” that was the kind of thing where it was like, halfway through recording the songs, I could tell, like, “I can’t pass this to Aceyalone. [Sugar Tongue] Slim? Nah, he can’t get with this. It’s too weird. Or like Aaron [Livingston]? Where is he going to sing on this?” You know what I mean? So sometimes that’ll happen and it kind of dictates where it’s going to go. Like, the instrumental to “Saboteur” with Phonte, that’s the funniest story. It would be tactless for me to name the rapper, but a rapper that definitely you would know his name if I said his name, originally used that track and it was actually the title track of their album. For some reason, at the eleventh hour, he scraped the recording of it and rerecorded it to a different track from another producer, but it’s fine.
MA: I wonder why?
RJD2: I’m not exactly sure, but just so you know that kind of thing is really common. I don’t even lament it. I think it’s kind of cool because in hindsight it’s like, “Well, would I rather have that as like a production credit on Famous Rapper X’s album or would I rather have it play the role of what “Saboteur” plays in the context of my album?” And on one of them I would be getting paid and one the other I’m paying somebody else, but still, you know? It’s like, if I gotta pay to get that on my record, I’m OK with that.
MA: I really want to know who that rapper is…
RJD2: (laughs) Yeah, I’m tempted in these scenarios to name names, but it’s just kind of tacky. Poor form.