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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

RJD2 on Building a Different Kind of Beat

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Ramble John “RJ” Krohn, better known by his stage name RJD2, still remembers the moment that inspired him to begin creating the instrumental hip-hop compositions that would become his signature.

“The big light bulb went off in my head the first time I bought a sampler,” says the producer. “I vividly remember the first time I made a beat and having this rude awakening that I had only used five sounds in the memory bank of this machine, when the machine held 64 sounds. I realized that I could either keep making beats that only take five sounds, and make a hundred of them, or I could do one quote-unquote beat instead of a hundred and cram as many sounds into that one beat.”

It was that approach that yielded RJD2’s 2002 album Deadringer, an instant classic in independent hip-hop circles that drew acclaim for its intricate use of unlikely samples.

Deadringer wasn’t entirely without precedent. Producer Prince Paul had been creating wild pastiches of sound since the first De La Soul records, and by the late-’90s artists like Cut Chemist, DJ Shadow and producers with Ninja Tune records had established instrumental hip-hop as its own art form. RJD2, however, came from a less radical perspective than those producers.

“In the mid- to late-’90s, you had these labels like Mo’ Wax and Ninja Tune releasing this music that was actually coming from a perspective of looking down on hip-hop,” RJD2 says. “That was a common discussion at the time, that hip-hop had become too simple and too limited, but it wasn’t something I necessarily agreed with. I never felt like I was making music the right way, and that it was me versus the Large Professors or DJ Premiers or the world, the guys doing more simplified rap production, because I love that stuff, too.

“So much of that highbrow type of music set out to provide an alternative to a Biggie record,” he continues. “But I always wanted to do both styles, and that’s why on Deadringer there are also songs that are just simple, in-your-face loops, songs that I didn’t take to the nth degree. That simpler form of production is easy to look down on until you attempt it. Everybody thinks Diddy looping a Diana Ross record is somehow a lesser form of production, but if you really try to do that, it’s a lot harder than it seems. Finding one passage to sample that can hold your attention for an entire song is difficult.”

RJD2 also separated himself with his sense of pop composition. Even when working with the most exotic, cinematic sounds, RJD2 modeled his songs after classic pop and soul singles, following the Motown template of packing as much drama as possible into a song while striking a balance between earned payoffs and instant gratification. Deadringer’s defining track, “Ghostwriter,” for instance, follows a haunting sample of Elliott Smith’s “I Didn’t Understand” as it builds and erupts into fits of triumphant brass.

RJD2 moved away from samples toward a more live sound on his 2004 follow-up, Since We Last Spoke, then threw a total curveball with 2007’s The Third Hand, a singer-songwriter record that confounded fans and critics. His latest record, The Colossus, is a return to form, though, fusing Deadringer-styled samples with live instruments and guest singers. As with Deadringer, RJD2 crafted its songs with no obvious goal in mind, piecing together sounds and samples until finding a composition that works.

“The whole process is totally trial and error, and that’s what’s so fun about it; each song is like its own little exploration,” he says. “The process dictates how each song ends up coming out. It’s a fascinating and really fun way to make music. I’ve heard writers talk of this experience how once they start writing, it will feel like the story is unfolding through them and they have this sensation of being along for the ride. I’ve had similar feelings making music.”

RJD2 plays an 8 p.m. show at The Rave on Sunday, March 14, with openers Happy Chichester and KingHellBastard.