RJD2 on modern music: "I really don't care about being culturally relevant"
Since 2000, RJD2 (aka RJ Krohn) has been creating anthemic hip-hop tracks. Live, the turntablist dominates four decks while seamlessly mixing classic songs in with his own original beats. In the studio, RJD2 is continuously working to progress his sound, from laboring over honing the brass sections to finding just the right drums. In advance of his upcoming Denver dates at the Bluebird, we spoke with RJD2 about More Is Than Isn't, his latest release, the influence of Pete Rock, his aversion to repeating himself artistically and more.
Westword: As a seasoned veteran producer, tell me your thoughts on the recent release More Is Than Isn't.
RJD2: That's a simple question, but the process of putting a record out can encompass so much emotional energy. From the business side, you can see so much of the underbelly to the creative...process isn't the right word, but you go through life and make records, and the reason you do what you do is because of the creative process.
That's the part you hold dear, and it's your primary focus. The process of releasing a record -- especially for someone like me, who is so involved in the business side and creative side -- can offer so many things that are good and bad. Largely, I'm happy with things, but there is always just roses.
Would you say your emotional investment in this album varies from previous ones?
No, but I would say that when you put out a record, the most recent one is the one you are most sensitive about. When I get distance from a record, it's easy to not take things personally. It's a double-edged sword, though. To care about it, and to be invested in the success of a record, has a flip side. You are making yourself vulnerable in both ways.
In the past, I have tried to disassociate myself with those feelings. I have done that to varying degrees of success in terms of being able to separate myself from it. It's tough for someone like me, because I have to care on the business side. The response seems to be good, so on a personal level I'm happy with it. I haven't quite gotten to the part where I'm looking for where I could've done better, but that, inevitably, will happen.
Are there tracks that stand out for you on the album more so than others?
"Winter Isn't Coming" is probably one of my personal favorites on the record. Part of that is that it sat for a long time and I wasn't quite sure what to do with it. The core of the tune was a beat, and I didn't know what to do. Sometimes I'll have a track that I pitch a vocalist on, or a rapper, to turn it into a vocal track. If it doesn't take, I force myself to turn it into an instrumental song.
It's fun when that happens, because it takes on a life that I sort of didn't expect it to. That was a song that I kind of got backed into a corner with, in a sense, in that I really liked the track, but none of the vocalists that I was working with latched onto that one. I basically forced myself to make it instrumental, and I was happy with it.
What were some of the contemporary influences for this album? It sounds like there are some heavier synths, especially on "Descended From Myth," that just seem darker with a heavy beat that really hits in the gut. Where did that come from?
To answer that question, I'd need to answer it more from a technical standpoint. In that form, that tune started with the horn portion of it -- it really felt like I didn't want to make it early on -- there is this anthemic horn that I gravitate toward, but at the same time, I don't want to beat it into the ground, like something from "Ghostwriter." Everything I make is my iteration of my obsession with horns. Where it all comes from is Pete Rock. He was such an influence for me, and at some point it hit me that that was what I wanted to do. For lack of a better term, I was going to chase that ghost until it kills me.
"Let There Be Horns" was kind of an attempt to take that logical extension of what Pete Rock did in the mid-'90s and update it. Every time I tackle it, I try to do something new with it. That tune had a bunch of different sections to it, and "Descended" was less exploratory in the arrangement, but trying to approach it from more of a clubby perspective, if you will.
I purposefully tried really hard to restrict myself from the drum programming with the syncopated sound. If you listen to the drums, all the drums on "Let There Be Horns" are pretty syncopated, and I shot for something more basic, more four-on-the-floor style, Chicago house vibe, almost. With the synths and stuff, I wanted to update it. Instead of doing what I would've done in 2002, I did what I wanted to do now in 2013.
Do you sometimes have this fear of painting the same picture over when creating an album?
You are 100 percent right, but I would change "fear." I wouldn't say that I have a "fear" of it, but I have an aversion to it. I don't want to -- it's hard for me to invest myself in a tune if I feel like it's retreading waters that I've already tread. I can't get into it. It's hard for me to get excited about it. People like me, to some degree, it's all about the studio. experimentation is a critical component of what I do.
In essence, I'm treating the recording studio as a means of which to write the song. It's crucial to be excited and caring about something. If I'm not doing that, it turns into a paint-by-numbers thing. In my opinion, there is a lack of sincerity in that, and it just doesn't work. That's why I need to be excited about what I'm doing. For me, that happens by thinking I'm working in virgin territory. It needs to be novel, new and unique, to me.
That can spark new interests and lead you down a new path?
Say you are an ambassador of music 2013 sent back in time to report on modern music. Who would you report to and what would you say?
If I was going back in time? I hate to give an answer to this question that is going to sound evasive, but I am going to be honest. It's the root of this question that is the assumption of two things: I am concerned with the "state of the union of modern music," and the person I would talk to is concerned with the state of music as a whole. The reason I am qualifying this answer is to answer it honestly, and both of those assumptions are dubious.
I don't consider myself to be concerned with the state of music as a whole. It doesn't mean I don't care, but my primary goal is to make the best music I can. I'm not always reflecting or perceiving what I do in the context of modern music. It doesn't mean that I don't care, but it's not that important to me. I really don't care about being culturally relevant. I'm never going to bend over backwards and compromise my ideals for that.
My first instinct when you asked that was that if I could go back in time and spend time with anyone, it would be John Coltrane, but knowing what I know about him and his trajectory of music and spiritual path, I'll bet dollars to doughnuts that if I went back in time to have a conversation with John Coltrane about the state of music in 2013 versus the state of music in 1962, I think there is a good chance he wouldn't care about either.
I don't know how important it is to me. I see the context in which I am creating records as one in which I am accepting what I do versus what I've done in the past. That is my context, my catalogue. I am not worried about what is happening in music when it comes to my creative process and what it means to me. For my records, I just want people to listen to it, give it a chance, and form their own opinion of it.