Hip hop superproducer-cum-multi-instrumentalist song writer, RJD2 is a name that many people are familiar with. Whether its from his amazing work on his solo albums Deadringer and Since We Last Spoke or as the beat maker in Soul Position or perhaps even from his music being played on skate videos and TV adverts, everyone can appreciate just how good at his trade he is.
With his new album, he took a different approach and when he came to London, Abjekt was on hand to speak to one of his heroes and find out more.
Ok, so I guess we could start with your earlyish career, in Columbus, with MHz?
RJ: Yeah. I was kinda DJing around and doing my own thing and then and I sorta fell in with those dudes.
And how was it as an entry to hip hop? Like you were saying you were DJing before, but was it good to get into a crew like that so you could work off each other?
RJ: In hindsight, it was one of the most valuable things. At the time, this is gonna sound funny, but at the time I was DJing and they were this group that hadn’t really put out a record, but because of the way that the scene was, they kinda had some notoriety. But I had won this DJ battle, it was this real small fry thing, Columbus is obviously super small fry, not a big deal type of thing, so within that little thing, you don’t have to do a whole lot to get yourself to a point where people know who you are.
So by then I had done a couple of mixtapes and was in the battle scene so, I don’t wanna say it was a step down to get with those guys but it wasn’t like “Oh shit, I hit the big time”. I’d hesitate to say it was a side project but it was like this is something cool that’s out of my element, because I was so just in the record nerd world and they were a rap group. They were kind of at the opposite end, culturally speaking. There’s like, I don’t want to say differences but they’re on the opposite end of the spectrum, something I didn’t have a lot of experience with.
And the reason it was so beneficial in hindsight was that there are perspectives to hip hop and making rap music that you are just not going to have until you are in the studio with a rapper. And that’s just the bottom line. My concept was an outsider’s perspective, “this is what a rap record should sound like, this is what you guys should have been doing, this is what you’re doing wrong, this is what you’re doing right”, that kinda thing. And when you get in there and you start taking it apart and get into the nuts and bolts, so much other shit that you just don’t realise, is there, stuff that you just don’t know about until you do it, so that was a really beneficial learning experience.
And so, as it wasn’t your major thing, going off to do your solo stuff again was easy right?
RJ: Yeah, by then I had sunk a lot of time into the MegaHertz thing so in this kind of ass-backwards way from say 98 to 2000 or 2001, those few years, I was more focussed on rap music, that was what I rang with – the MHz stuff and the Copywrite single on Rawkus so by the time it came to do a solo record, my foray into making public music and releasing things to the public, was rap music. So then doing this instrumental shit was like another turn of events if you will. A change of format.
And you said it was quite small, but was the scene for hip hop good in Columbus? Because Ohio as a state has Scribble Jam, which I went to last year and its dope to see a big event like that, and obviously there’s people like Blueprint, Greenhouse Effect, people like that, so is it a cool scene to be in?
RJ: Yeah it’s a great scene, Ohio has a lot of great elements. One of the good things to me was that it was behind where New York was, as far as progression goes. Experiencing the hip hop scene in Ohio in 96-2000 was probably akin to experiencing New York’s rap scene from 92-96 almost. You know? So yeah it was really good and being in that culture and climate where there was still a critical eye. I mean, speaking frankly, it was a black scene. And at the same time, it was also a very critical where there was a very, very realistic possibility of you getting booed off the stage, getting heckled, of people clowning you and throwing shit at you. Because making records hadn’t really taken off yet, it was still all centred around battling and that live element.
So next in the timeline came Def Jux.
RJ: Yeah, so I did the solo record of Def Jux.
Deadringer got good acclaim…
RJ: Over time yeah.
Do you have good memories of that release? Was that the first major thing that you can look back on and be super happy about?
RJ: Definitely, I think that’s an accurate assessment. It was the first record that I did that, like the quote on the record, it’s the first time I had a chance to do just what I wanted, not have to listen to anyone else, just do whatever the hell I want. Yeah, I definitely look back on that record fondly.
And you got some people from beforehand to appear on it as well
RJ: Yeah, Blueprint, Copywrite, Jakki.
And what was it like being on that label at the time with Aesop Rock, El-P, Can Ox were all putting out major albums in the underground, Def Jux was the pinnacle at the time I think.
RJ: It was an exciting thing because we all felt like we were not coming at things the exact same way. I hesitate to say this but I think its very possible that I got more of an acceptance out of that than anyone else because I felt like what I was doing was innately a little more leftfield.
I mean, it was all very cutting edge and the bottom line was we all felt like we respected each other and it was cool being part of that thing. You know, Lif’s records didn’t sound like Can Ox’s records and my records didn’t sound like Can Ox. We had this mutual respect of what we were doing and acknowledging that it was different and it was a great time. It really felt like we could all just keep expanding.
And again on Def Jux came Since We Last Spoke and it moved slightly away from, I don’t want to put you in a bracket, but the more definitive hip hop sound and in the reviews I read of it, a lot of people were talking about the song writing rather than it being hip hop, or the beats. It was “this is an album that showcases your ability to song write”. Did you do that consciously, or was that just how things came out?
RJ: Yeah it just kinda came out really. It was an approach that I tried to take with Deadringer, but with that first record it was all done via instrumentation. I feel like the attention to song structure and detail and keeping things moving and changes and all that arrangement work, a lot of work was put into that in the first record. I feel with the second record, I think I took it a little bit farther, started using live instruments and with the singing, I feel like it really draws people’s attention.
Being from a musician’s standpoint, its something that’s hard to understand, but I recognise now that just having vocals on something makes people’s ears hear it a lot more in that songwriter vein.
And last year you were still doing hip hop production for other people; you had Magnificent City with Aceyalone, the new Soul Position and you’ve got a beat on the new Pigeon John album as well. Do you enjoy making beats for rappers, separately from your own solo stuff?
RJ: Yeah I do. They’re different disciplines and the kind of thing that I when I’m in the mood for it, and when I’m motivated to do it, it’s really, really fun. And I go through cycles. This is the reason I do my solo thing and then go off. There’s a certain level of boxing in that it involves that after being all footloose and fancy free, that’s refreshing. But after I do it for too long, it starts to feel kinda claustrophobic.
And that’s not anything against those guys. That’s just something in my experience that is something to do with my personal experience of when I’m making rap records. So with that said, I like it but now with this record, its like lowering your expectations in a way, and I don’t want to do that, I like having higher expectations of myself. So yeah, I like making rap music but doing the solo thing, there’s a whole different level of satisfaction and demand involved in it.
And I read, I don’t know if this is true, that the beat you did for Pigeon John with J-Live on the song, was done over the internet, is that true?
RJ: Well, through the mail.
How was that?
RJ: It’s common. I’m not going to lie to you, that’s the way people do music now. It’s rare for people to get in the studio. Like me and Al [Shepard aka Blueprint] when we did the Soul Position record, he came out to Philly and we sat down and we recorded. And that’s where songs like I Need My Minutes came from was just us physically being in a room, putting on a beat and just dancing around acting stupid and being an idiot, and a joke that came about in the studio ended up becoming a song. But that’s not common. A lot of rap records that I’ve done in the past have been done through the mail.
So, moving onto the new record then, The Third Hand, you said for Since We Last Spoke you brought in more live instrumentation, did you do a hell of a lot more for this one?
RJ: This one’s all live instrumentation, the only thing that’s done using samples is the drums.
Why did you decide on that? Was it just something you enjoyed listening to, or wanted to make purposefully?
RJ: In my experience, there are times in life when all arrows are pointing in a particular direction and if you ignore those things, you’re either really stubborn or determined and sometimes foolish. That’s what happened basically, all arrows were pointing to “you need to get away from using samples”. It got to the point where using a sample was so much more labour intensive and when you get to dissecting samples smaller and smaller and smaller, the downside is that you start to lose what to me was the appeal of the sample in the first place which is the natural ambience of the recording.
Everything that went into the engineering of the original record and you start taking those things apart and piecing them out, you can still do it but it gets harder and harder. That’s why loops sound so great! That’s why Ghostface records sound so great because its just a loop and when you take a loop, you get all of that ambience and energy and whatever went into that original recording.
So from that point of view it didn’t make sense and from a legal standpoint, it was just a pain in the ass, and I wanted to get to a point where I’d look for things on records, like I’d say “I need a clavinet sound, I need 5 staves of clavinet, and then I need one or two or three nice sustained chords that are at least two bars”.
Well, does it really make sense for me to go out for a weekend at the flea market and buy 50 records and come home and spend 15 hours sifting through records so I can find this one thing that I already know exactly what I want or should I spend a grand and go out and buy a clavinet? Then start buying amps and mics and get to a point where that initial set up takes so much longer but then once you’re set up, if you want those staves, you set up a mic and you play it and boom.
Did you teach yourself any new instruments, or were you always quite musically adept?
RJ: I went to a music school so I always understood music theory, I haven’t always used it, but the chops thing was something I had to work on. I could understand what I wanted to do but, especially with the piano, I was never a good piano player, and so that was the big thing I had to spend a lot of time on. This meant playing every day and trying to get the chops down and sometimes I would have to punch in, and sometimes do two bars and then come back. But the more you do it, the better you get.
And I guess its more rewarding where you get yourself up to the point where you’ve had to do it for song long.
RJ: Completely! And now being able to sit down and play a song front to back on a piano, is something I couldn’t do three or four years ago. I physically could not do. So that’s cool.
And, along a similar line, the singing on the album. Did you always want to be able to sing on your own records?
RJ: Yeah, I worked more on the singing. I spent more time in terms of wood shedding and getting better at something, I spent more time on the singing than anything else in the last four to six years.
Was it scary? I mean, at first did you sing and then realise you sounded crap and think “Damn I’ve got to really work at this”?
RJ: Oh yeah! I still listen to stuff I’ve recorded and think I sounded crap. It’s a daily struggle for me. To this day I’m not where I want to be. Although now I’ll get to a point where I have performances I’m happy with. And the more you do it, the less work it is to get to those points. But it was also a necessity thing. I had an idea of what I wanted but it wasn’t specific enough that I could have told someone and say “hey, do this, this is the melody, sing this melody”.
I had to go through that process to figure out how I wanted the melodies to be phrased and voiced. And its just hard nowadays to find collaborators that you like, that can work on a record, that you can afford. Without a label, I’m just doing this shit myself, its just me. So that was another thing that came out of necessity.
And to me, I see vocals as just another instrument or tool or part of the record. The music isn’t all culminating with the vocal performance, its all just as important as the next part.
I read, on the internet as always…
…that you listen to a lot of different types of music, like Daft Punk, the Zombies, when you listen to those, do you sit and take inspiration from them or do you just like to listen to them?
RJ: I think its natural, I don’t think anybody can listen to music they really love and not get inspired by it. Especially as a musician, or producer. A lot of times, the first thing that you fall in love with is the synth tones or this particular bass line or the way the drums sound or the way the drummer played. And when you look at things in nuts and bolts, that’s just natural. I don’t think I have the capacity to not be influenced by music that I really love.
And are you planning on touring this new album?
RJ: Yes! I’ve got a band together
I was going to say, you’re not going to be a one man band with cymbals on your knees and a big harmonica round your neck?
RJ: …No, I’ve got a band.
I’ve seen a lot of hip hop acts are coming in to getting live bands to tour with them now, like Atmosphere and a couple of UK acts I saw with a live band and it really gives something more, rather than you just playing from a couple of decks and just playing out records. Is this another thing you really wanted, to have this big sound on stage with live instruments?
RJ: With the show, I feel like having this band is in a way a culmination of this little perverse desire that I’ve had in the back of my head. Because from the beginning of doing production, part of what I wanted to accomplish when using a sampler was to trick people into thinking it wasn’t a sampler. I’m not saying I’ve accomplished that, but that was a little side note to what I’ve been doing from day one with my solo records.
We will be using electronics at points and I going to do a part of the show just with turntables by myself, but having the band and not playing to a sequence track and not using a drum machine, its going to be strictly 100% analogue music, acoustic and electric instruments. I’m so thrilled, I can’t wait!
What instrument are you going to be playing?
RJ: I’ll be playing keys, bass and guitar and singing. And we’re all going to be trading. It’s a four piece band and, aside from the drummer, are, like myself, multi-instrumentalists, though they’re a lot more talented than me. They’re very good players, and they sing. So we’re all going to work it out like whatever needs to be done, needs to be done.
It must be exciting then to be able to do this!
RJ: We haven’t had our first rehearsal yet, I’ve taken all the parts and sent them to people, sort of “here are the songs, learn these songs”. But the week that I get home to this trip, I go and have my first rehearsal.
And it’ll be the first time that you’ve worked with any of the band.
RJ: Yeah, it’ll be the first time I’ve played music like that in over ten years! I think maybe thirteen or fourteen years since I last got into a room and made music with people like that.
Well I’m sure its going to be interesting.
RJ: I think it’s gonna be good.
Are you going to come over to the UK with it, do you know?
RJ: I’m hoping so. We have a tour that we’re putting together right now, and knock on wood, assuming that I can make the finances work, then definitely. If I come over here without the band, I’m not even going to be playing the new songs, because there’s no point. And at this point, I think that I’d rather not make a fucking dime on the tour and just break even, and come with the band than to come over here by myself just to make money off of the tour.
And it’d be a bit of an anti-climax as well after you’ve played with the band.
RJ: Yeah, what’s the point? So yeah, I can’t guarantee anything, but I’m 90% sure right now that this year I’ll be over at some point.
Ok well thank you very much.
RJ: Cool, thank you.