Few artists have emerged with as profound a sense of immediacy, nor with as much vitality, as acclaimed beat smith Ramble John “RJ” Krohn (known by his stage name, rjd2) with his masterful 2002 debut full-length release, Deadringer, released on the Definitive Jux imprint. Borrowing from the sample-based production techniques that became inextricably associated with DJ Shadow, Krohn produced a recording that not only garnered much in the way of critical acclaim, but also showcased his diverse musical palette, utilizing disparate samples from genres and sources to produce compelling hip-hop cuts with throbbing bass, pounding drums and compelling vocal flourishes. Krohn continued to evolve as an artist – utilizing live instrumentation in his subsequent releases and progressing in a direction that embraced his love for funk, soul and classic rock, all the while maintaining the tangible influence of hip-hop in the form of break beats and pulsating bass. Rjd2′s music has featured most notably on AMC’s original series, Mad Men, with his track “A Beautiful Mine” serving as the theme song. We had the opportunity to get to know RJ and his music a little better in anticipation of his upcoming performance at the inaugural Lights Out Music Festival, taking place at Soho Studios Wynwood Convention Center, this coming Saturday.
Over the many years that you’ve remained active and producing new music, you’ve always been keen on integrating new markedly disparate genres into your continually evolving sound. How is it that your departure from the funk-infused, sample-based instrumentals that became your calling card on Dead Ringer allowed you to express your clearly diverse musical interests over the course of your subsequent releases, and how do you steer away avoiding the pitfall of having those ideas come out as convoluted in the process?
RJ: Well, to clarify, I wouldn’t say “departure” is a wholly accurate characterization. There were sample-based songs on “The Colossus”, “Inversions”, and the Icebird album; they lived alongside live instrumentation, and hybrids of the two. I personally think that every record I’ve made owes more to funk and soul music, at least in terms of production, than any other genre. I try to keep the music making process earnest. I try to make songs that get ME excited. I can’t control how that comes across to an audience, but I also don’t think it’s my job to, frankly.
In the wake of the release of Since We Last Spoke, back in 2004, you received some flak for downplaying that earlier sample-based work as not being necessarily conducive to the broader range of talents you possess as a musician. How did you feel you were being stifled in terms of honing the artistic direction you wanted to head in and how has incorporating your own instrumentation and collaborators expanded your horizons as far as making new music is concerned?
RJ: There’s things that a sample provides in the context of a song that live instrumentation cannot duplicate, and vice versa. Strictly relying on samples became stifling for me when I reached that point that I wanted a chord progression to be what I heard in my head, but it was only 60 or 70 percent there. Both utilizing live instrumentation and collaborators allowed songs to go to places that were never possible if I hadn’t. Here’s an obvious example-if you want to change from an A-section to a B-section with a different chord change in a sample-based song, you’d need to either use entirely new samples, or take multiple sections of a record. When neither is an option, you’re basically at a loss. I found myself there too often, and got frustrated with that.
That being said, while rjd2 can no longer be said to be a purely hip-hop act, you’ve always managed to preserve that distinctive ebb and flow of the genre on your recordings, dropping those funky drum beats and really melding it with the apparent love you have for classic and contemporary rock productions; clearly a great deal of the latter of these influences went into the recording of The Third Hand and The Colossus. Which acts, genres, or even experiences can you cite as being the impetus for these newer recordings in your catalogue?
RJ: I’ve always liked classic rock since I was young. I think that going from an environment where sampling a drum break off, say, a Led Zeppelin record, to attempting to record live drums in the same manner and feel as something Led Zeppelin would record, is a fairly short cognitive leap, so to speak. Again, it kinda comes back to the family tree of music: virtually all of the music I like of the last 40 years has been imprinted with the DNA of funk and soul, so the same types of drum feels and patterns of a hip-hop record can be traced to a rock record that can be traced to James Brown or Stax/Volt, so on and so forth.
A good amount of your work has been featured prominently in the media, with your instrumental track ‘A Beautiful Mine’ serving as the theme song to AMC’s hit television series, Mad Men. There’s been a considerable amount of controversy surrounding the issue of track licensing in the midst of disputes involving corporations taking the liberty of using songs without the band’s permission, most notably in the case of the band Beach House and Volkswagen, and more recently, Black Keys and both Pizza Hut and Home Depot. While these instances may differ from your experiences with the licensing process, what is your opinion of the issue of commercial licensing, in general? Can there be some sort of common ground to be found somewhere along the lines of the artist’s creative vision and the necessity of the corporations trying to market their product?
RJ: I see licensing as almost essential to a successful music career nowadays. The sad fact is that with no licensing, most bands or artists wouldn’t make it past the mile marker of album #2 (maybe #1 honestly), due to how low record sales are. It’s possible that if I hadn’t licensed my music at all over the last 10 years, there would be no Insane Warrior LP or Icebird LP. Albums essentially get funded by either touring or licensing. To me, I don’t see licensing as compromising, as long as the artist maintains control over the actual music. If Home Depot asks the Black Keys to change their lyrics to reflect the new 18V cordless Dewalt drill set, then yes, that’s a compromise, but if the band isnt changing the actual song, I basically don’t see why a fan would care if the song appears in an ad.
You’ve kept busy over the past year, making music with your side project, Icebird. How would you describe that project in terms of its extension or departure from the music you’ve made on your own, and how would you describe it to fans that aren’t necessarily familiar with it?
RJ: I think it’s most accurate description would be a very psychedelic soul album. One producer, one singer, and a wide range of feels and styles.
Apart from your work with Icebird, you’ve maintained relative independence in terms of your ability to make tracks that appeal to your convictions by building up your own imprint, RJ’s Electrical Connections. How has moving away from producing music for a larger label allowed you to exert your own will on your music and in what direction are you trying to steer your label sonically with regard to the recordings you release?
RJ: The biggest benefit is that I can decide to put out an album, and just go do it. Boom. The immediacy of not jumping through hoops is pretty great.
You’re set to play in Miami at the inaugural installment of Lights Out Music Festival, alongside a slew of EDM acts. What do you make of the massive explosion that genre has incurred in the past few years from the perspective of commercial viability, and do you consider yourself a fan of EDM?
RJ: I think it’s great that EDM is blowing up. I consider myself on the fringes of it, both as a fan and participant. I don’t think much of my catalog SOUNDS like the current star crop of the genre, but I think that the spirit or vibe behind some of my songs is very much in line with some aspects of EDM. I’m sure that I have some common influences with most of the artists that self-identify as being a part of the world of EDM.