OW caught up with instrumental hip-hop luminary RJD2 a few weeks before the release of the producer's fourth full-length solo album, The Colossus.
Orlando Weekly: Conference calls, huh? Is that about the worst part of being a working musician?
RJD2: I don't totally hate it. I guess it's a necessary component of releasing a record. I can't really complain about it.
OW: With the past few releases, you've done a lot of different things; different styles and sounds. At this point, do you consider yourself a hip-hop artist, primarily, or something else?
RJD2: I guess I would say I never considered myself an anything artist. Really, it would be disingenuous to say either. I'm just along for the ride. At no point did I have this mentality that, ‘Oh, well, I'm this kind of artist or this is the kind of classification that I'd like to fall under.' That's really the long and the short of it, and that continues to this day. The idea of being an artist period is a tad foreign, you know? To illustrate this point, we went through five different emails between myself and the distributor about where this record should be classified. Nobody knows, you know. At the end of the day, we chose hip-hop, and really I feel that's just by chance, based on how my past records were classified. But even then, I remember going through the same thing on my first album. You know, what divider card should it be under? I don't know.
OW: Does it frustrate you that the music industry and music listeners try to box artists in and create these categorizations that are at least somewhat artificial?
RJD2: No, it makes sense to me. But, you know, when someone asks you a yes or no question, you have three options: You can say yes, you can say no, or you can just not answer the question, and as long as not answering the question is a valid response, I don't care. It's easier to understand things when they fall into categories. I don't have a desire to be understood as any particular type of artist. I don't even have that big a desire to be understood period, you know? I hope that people enjoy listening to the records that I make. That's the best that I can hope `for` out of the thing, really. If that much happens, everything else is gravy.
OW: Given that, throughout your career, you've touched on lots of different styles, how does your creative process change based on what style or what feeling you're trying to capture, and is that significantly different for you now than when you were just starting out?
RJD2: The tools have changed, or more tools have opened up to me. When I first started making records, everything was vinyl and samplers, and it was very much just sample-based music, so I feel like I only had one format to work on. Through doing that, I distinctly remember, kind of the point of Deadringer for me was to make an album that, you know, some of it sounded … I remember working on songs like "The Proxy" and thinking I want to do a song that sounds like a rock record. You know, I'm relegated to using samplers. Or, you know, something like "Work," where I want this to sound like a '60s soul ballad, or I want this to sound like up-tempo, UK club shit, or something like that. The intent behind that record was very, very similar. In a way, I was trying to cover as many bases as I could, and I just had one writing medium. Fast-forward to now, and I've got a lot more writing mediums, and that kind of exploratory nature or intent is still really there. I'm sort of approaching every song on its own basis and merits, and trying to do something fun, interesting, exciting, every time I sit down to do music, whether it's behind a sampler, or on a keyboard, or behind a drum kit, or whatever.
OW: Through that time, how have you seen the musical landscape change, and the way people approach your music? Have you seen that there's an appreciable shift, like you were saying, for music and musicians to cross genres and be more than one thing, without sort of losing the core audience that found that music in the first place?
RJD2: I guess I'm not — it's kind of a difficult question for me to answer, because I've never personally felt like making a record that maintains, that takes into account the "core audience", or peripheral audience, or your audience period at all. Personally, I don't think that's the best idea. I think that the best music, the best art, comes from people who are absorbed in trying to make themselves happy. Trying to do something that they find interesting, exciting and fascinating. Because of that, I don't think that the time to be thinking about that kind of thing is when you're actually making music. When it comes time for releasing music, or to market music, or distribute music, then I can understand having that kind of conversation. I don't want to have that conversation when it comes to the creative process.
OW: What role does this record play in the progression throughout your records, particularly from The Third Hand, which a lot of people see as being a fairly significant departure, though perhaps not in intent. Was this at all an attempt to meld the aspirations of that record with the legacy of your previous stuff?
RJD2: I guess I think the way it falls, it was intended to be a working methodology; the first look back that I've taken. Every time I've sat down to do a record in the past, I've always tried to do something new, and I've always been obsessed with how I can progress what I'm doing, and take on, and put a couple more tools in the toolbox, and expand what I'm doing. This is the first record `where` I felt it was kind of an appropriate time, and it just felt natural, for whatever reason, for me to just kind of take a breather and look back on all the different frameworks or methodologies I've used to make music over the years. You know, specifically sample-based music, live-based instrumental music, songs working with other vocalists, writing songs for myself. So that was kind of the one big overarching theme. The other side that, I guess in a way, played into this record was that the point of that record, everything down to the title of it, was I was trying to see how far I could get without using any other resources besides myself. It was essentially the concept of lock yourself in a room and see how far you can get with just yourself. This record, I thought it would be fun to do the exact opposite. You know, use as many of the people and resources and talent you can get a hold of (and that's around you) as possible to go into the record.
OW: So was The Third Hand your Emersonian work?
RJD2: I guess so, sure. I hadn't thought about that, but I guess that makes sense.
OW: This album seems to continue at least some of those themes of self reliance. I remember reading about The Third Hand that the only thing not played live, the only thing sampled, was the drums.
OW: And this time around, it's exactly the opposite, at least on a handful of tracks, where you jump behind the kit. I'm curious why you decided to drum on this album, and if that's something we can expect to hear going forward.
RJD2: The simple answer is that I couldn't play drums well enough to execute a song when I was making The Third Hand. I was trying, throughout that era, but I wasn't consistent enough of a drummer. I also hadn't figured out the engineering. I mean, in my experience, recording drums is at least three times as hard as recording any other instrument that I've ever tried to record. So that was another big part of it — that I just couldn't get the tones and the sounds, and also I was relatively new. I think I got my first drum kit in 2005 or 2006 or something like that. So, you know, I was messing around throughout that era, but I couldn't really come up with anything musical.
OW: So was that a goal of yours, in setting out to make this record, to get to a level of proficiency where you could put yourself down on tape?
RJD2: No, it was. The goal for me has always been (and this is the beauty of using samples `or` drum sounds off of records), is that every song you come across has a different sound. Every song has its own unique imprint and no two songs, since you don't use the same drum break twice, are going to have the same drum tone. So for me, it wasn't so much that I set myself a goal that I need to play drums on record, it was more I set myself a goat, which is typical of me, that I want to have as wide a landscape of drum tones on a record as I can. Throughout this whole process, I was acquiring drum kits and microphones, and trying out sounds, and experimenting with tone, and obviously a huge part of that was just playing and honing my playing. I wasn't necessarily doing that as a goal-oriented thing, I just like playing drums. It's fun. Drums are the best. So it came time to do the record, and if there were songs where — well, there are actually two or three different drum kits on the record, and I didn't want to have the same tones on every song on the record. There are things that are sampled, and things where I'm playing keyboards. The drums are done on the sampler and everything else is recorded live. Then there are also things where, obviously, you know, live drum kit.
OW: On this record, it feels like there are quite a few more upbeat moods and arrangements than on many of your previous records, and I'm wondering if that is indicative of either your personal, emotional state while making this album, or the others.
RJD2: I think that, honestly, a big part of it is from transitioning from primarily working with samples to primarily working live. To me, what you're describing is dictated by chord progressions and chord voicing. Due to the nature in which I used to make, or still would make, sample-based music, you really can't get into super weird … it's really difficult when you get into really weird chord progressions. It gets really difficult when things start revolving to quirky chords, or you have weird turnarounds and stuff like that. It's really hard to layer multiple sounds. What it kind of comes down to is that it's feasible to go out and find ten audio sources on record and put them all in the same key and the same time, if they're all in kind of a minor, pentatonic scale or nature. When you get into more adventurous harmonic stuff, I don't want to say it's impossible, but doing that kind of thing with samples would take years instead of months. It would be bordering on impossible. Nobody's ever really done it, you know, and if you listen to a lot of sample-based music, it all kind of has this minor, pentatonic sensibility; a blues scale sensibility. That's because you can take a lot of those sounds and put them together, and I don't want to call it easy, but I would say that it's realistic. If you look at the chords of a Bobby Caldwell record, or R&B music like a Chaka Khan record has a lot of really weird chord voicings that it's going to be just about impossible to find doubles of an exposed piano or an exposed bass doing that same kind of thing. Fast-forward to why this record has this kind of feel. That's the kind of thing that sort of excites me about music: cool chord progressions and weird turnarounds, and things that are kind of unexpected and take an odd left turn when you don't expect it. That's the kind of stuff that I find exciting, and I can do that when I'm writing the chords. If I'm not, it becomes much harder.
OW: In addition to the positive mood, there also seems to be a bunch of tracks where the mood or the feel is almost cinematic. Even on the instrumental tracks, and I know this sounds kind of odd, there's almost a narrative scope to what's going on. Are there stories being told in any way through any of these songs?
RJD2: That's a good question. There definitely are, but to me, the stories are more … OK, here's, to me, a really obvious example: You know that Phil Collins song, "In the Air Tonight," how it's got that vibe and then it's got that really, really epic drum fill that's so epic and so effective of a songwriting technique or device, you know what I'm talking about `beatboxes Collins' drum fill`, then it goes into the backbeat, right? That is an example, to me, of a narrative or a story being told, just instrumentally, just strictly speaking in terms of instrumentation. Going from that drum part, then the drum fill, then the drum fill leading into this other part, that tells a story. I don't know what the story is. I wouldn't say it's like, ‘I went down to the store, then I got a chocolate milk, and then I got back, and then I saw Billy, and oh, Billy, hey, I got the mail today, and guess who blah blah blah." It's not like that kind of narrative, but having, in the sense of a song that progresses. Those are the things that have always been a big deal to me. Whether I'm working on a sampler, or anything else, those are the things I feel make or break a song — little shit like that. So what I try to do when I am working on a song, I want to have a series of those things. More often than not, they're gonna be little things that are gonna give you a feeling, like when the bass comes in or whatever.
OW: Not that this is necessarily a touchstone of this record — certainly your entire corpus of work is wildly eclectic — but this album as a singular work seems to be, in a good way, kind of all over the map. At the same time, it doesn't lose any of its cohesiveness. How does it manage to be a singular statement said in so many ways?
RJD2: First of all, thank you very much. I appreciate that; I think that's probably one of the highest compliments that someone could give this record. That's great. I think that I have two things going for me. One is that almost, at least as far as the methodology, everything on this record I've at least touched on before in my career. As far as whether it's playing guitar or keys, samples, me singing, someone else singing or someone else rapping on tracks that I've made. So there's that kind of going on, and the other thing that I've realized is that, by and large, it's pretty damn hard to do something that sounds like … that doesn't have your sonic imprint. I mean this across the board, of anybody. It's rare, in my experience, that I've heard music from someone that didn't have a sonic imprint, kind of what their thing was, what they were into, what they liked and disliked. So I've kind of taken this attitude of being reassured that those tendencies of mine are going to shine through regardless of the vibe of the song, or the tempo, or any of that stuff. It's just gonna come through. Things that I just have a natural tendency to lean toward. Whether that's the kind of drum parts that I like, `or` whether it's me playing it, or a sampler. You know, there's just these things that I like to hear on drums and stuff, and that applies to almost every twist and turn of making a song. So I've just kind of thrown caution to the wind, like, ‘You know what, I'm not going to worry about that stuff. I'm not going to try to bring it together because, if anything, it's not necessary.' By nature the music that most artists are going to make, it's going to innately have cohesiveness. You might as well shoot for trying to be expansive and trying to get out of having that signature or thumbprint on everything that you do. By and large, you're not going to be successful. Most people don't even have the capacity. I don't think that I have the capacity to escape the trappings of my tendencies as a producer or songwriter, or beatnik, or whatever you want to call it.
OW: So you might say that I've actually got it completely backwards, and your entire career is an attempt to get away from cohesiveness and you just can't manage to do it.
RJD2: No, it totally is. It absolutely is. I mean, 1,000%. I specifically remember working on songs on Deadringer with the intent of, ‘Man, I hope this sounds like the pressing plant screwed up and stuck an Everything but the Girl song on an RJD2 record.' You know, really trying to give that experience.
OW: There's a couple of tracks that have a strong sense of whimsy. Is that something you'd like to bring into your music as an ongoing force?
RJD2: Probably more what it is if I stumble across something that has that sort of whimsy or nature to it, then I latch onto it, say, ‘Hey this is cool, let me expand on this.' Usually that's the way writing and making music for me kind of works. It's a lot less targeted and full of intent than you might think. A lot of it is kind of throwing things against the wall and seeing what sticks. Seeing what you like, trying a bunch of things, then when you see something intriguing, you think, ‘Let me expand on that `and` investigate that idea.' Going into it, you know, you have no idea what's going to come of it.
OW: What's next for your new label? Do you have anybody waiting in the wings to put out a record on RJ's Electrical Connections?
RJD2: I have one record that's almost done that I've been working on. Other than that, I'm not really approaching it. Part of the reason that I started a label is to not have to be beholden to someone else's tendencies or whims or whatever. Basically to not have a boss. I want to be my own boss. So, I'm a bit reticent to jump into the role of being someone else's boss. So, I'm not approaching it as much as an endeavor for me to go out and sign a bunch of artists, `but` more to have a vehicle for me to put out records that primarily I'm working on, `that` are mine, secondary things that I'm working with but might not be billed under me. And tertiary if I come across an artist and I think that the record's phenomenal, and it's the right case for everybody business wise, then I'd consider it. That's kind of how I'm approaching it.
OW: Anything you can say about the one you're working on currently?
RJD2: It's a collaborative record in the — wait, is this going to run before `The Colossus` comes out?
RJD2: I'm hesitant to talk about `the next record` before `The Colossus` is out. Let's just say I'm working with a singer. I've found a singer, that is, and we're at the tail end of doing a record together and I'm very excited, I think we're doing some things that are really super firstname.lastname@example.org