More RJD2 4 U

Westword's May 10 profile of Ramble John Krohn, known to the music world as RJD2, finds the hip-hop producer turned pop-music maker complaining about the press taking comments out of context. There's no danger of that here. Below, find the entire transcript of our RJD2 interview.

The conversation touches upon a slew of topics, including the similarities (rather than the differences) between RJD2's latest CD, The Third Hand, and his previous work; the challenge of releasing unusual tracks, as opposed to simply making them; the misinterpretations of his offhand joke about going "rap-free in 2006"; similar confusion over his description of some past productions as "moron music"; the propensity of critics to be as unwilling to let artists develop as some fans; the risks and rewards of a producer experimenting with singing; constant change versus the development of a signature style; so-called "Scott Storch bullshit"; the excitement of playing live using old-school instruments; and the beauty of mistakes.

As you'll see, context is everything.

Westword (Michael Roberts): Everyone’s treating your new CD as a huge departure from what you’ve done in the past, and you’ve talked about there being a thread between it and what you’ve done previously. Is there a song on the new album that you think illustrates that point?

RJD2: Well, I think some of the songs on the record are a little easier to link with old things. For me, it’s easier to say that certain bits and pieces of it are akin to older things. To a large extent, the songs that have drums on them – all of those drum parts are akin to what I have done in the past. And I think songs like “The Bad Penny” and “Get It” have some of the more obvious connections.

WW: “Get It” was the one I was going to mention.

RJD2: I guess it’s obvious in the sense that they’re instrumental, more funk-oriented songs.

WW: How about a song on the new album that has the least to do with what you’ve done before – the one that feels like the biggest departure to you?

RJD2: I think “Paper Bubble” is probably the one. That or “Someday” are probably the biggest departures.

WW: Does that make those songs more satisfying to you, because you’re in new territory?

RJD2: It’s certainly fun. Especially a song like “Paper Bubble.” From my perspective, it doesn’t have a time signature, it doesn’t have drums. It’s just kind of like splashes of sound on a canvas. I consider it really watercolor-y. It’s the kind of thing that I have done in my spare time for fun or enjoyment, and I probably wouldn’t have even considered it to be a song two or three years ago. But it was one of those things where it was a little snippet of music and sounds, and when I was sequencing the record, from my perspective, it kind of fit. I guess it’s more of an accomplishment to decide to put something like that on a record than the actual recording of the song.

WW: So the breakthrough was your realization that it deserved to be out there – that it wasn’t just something you were tinkering with?

RJD2: From my perspective, that boldness, that throw caution to the wind attitude – if any of that went into this, it was more the choosing of the songs to go onto the record than the actual recording of the songs. There were some of the songs where I was recording them where I knew, to release this might be a tough pill to swallow for some people. But when I was recording most of the songs, I was just having fun. I wasn’t really putting any thought into how it was going to be perceived, because I hadn’t decided at the outset that this song or that song was going to be released. I was just recording for whatever reason. So when it came time to actually release the record, that was the difficult part.

WW: You obviously anticipated that there was going to be a reaction from some of your fans. There was a quote of yours where you said you were going “rap-free in 2006.” Did you put that out there to alert people that this wasn’t going to be just another RJD2 album.

RJD2: Not at all. That quote is one of these things that, speaking frankly, make me feel like I don’t need to talk to the press anymore. Because from my perspective, it was a joke. And when I said it in an interview, the interviewer laughs. It was one of these jovial things. He gets that I was just being facetious. I wasn’t really being serious. But it’s the kind of thing that gets reprinted in the headline of a story, and then it spreads. So now, I feel like I have to be very guarded with my words. It’s unfortunate, but because of these experiences, I’ve got to think about what I say…

WW: And you can’t joke.

RJD2: I can’t joke, and I feel like I can’t speak to the press anymore in a manner that I’d normally have a conversation. I guess to connect the dots here, the reason the joke was funny to me was because it was… Well, it was based on reality in a sense, because by that time, I knew that there weren’t going to be any rappers on the record. But a lot of people have asked me this question, and none of them have brought up the fact that the only things I released in calendar year 2006 was rap music. I did a full-length album with Aceyalone called Magnificent City in February, and then in April, I put out a Soul Position record, and Soul Position is a rap group. And that’s to me the context of that comment. And these are the kind of problems I have with the press. I’ll make a little joke when it’s in the context of what we’re talking about, or the scenario. It was very obviously a joke. You can take anything out of context and make it look like almost anything you want.

WW: And there seem to have been repercussions to those kinds of comments in your case. I don’t know if you’ve seen the Pitchfork review…

RJD2: I haven’t. I skimmed through one or two, and then I decided that I didn’t want to do it anymore. I heard that it was really bad.

WW: The reviewer took another quote from you, where you supposedly said a lot of hip-hop production was “moron music,” and implied that the new album basically repudiated everything you’d done before, and made him feel stupid for liking albums that you apparently weren’t that into in the first place.

RJD2: That’s unfortunate. That’s too bad.

WW: I’m guessing that this message is the last thing you want The Third Hand to send.

RJD2: Of course not. It in no way, shape or form repudiates anything. [Laughs ruefully.] I’m sorry, but that’s fucking funny to me. It’s a ridiculous thing to assume. I have a hard time understanding how any piece of art can refute what someone did before anywhere, at any time, in any universe. I don’t understand the concept [Another rueful laugh.] It’s just a trip to me. You know, it’s one of those things where it’s like, I guess somebody has a bone to pick… I don’t want to give any more credence to that. But the bottom line is, this record isn’t a refutation of anything I’ve done in the past. But I don’t want to do the same thing over and over again. I want to have a catalog that, in hindsight, is colorful and diverse, and has a lot of different things in it. From my perspective, where does this stop? When I did a remix for a rock group like Polyphonic Spree, was that the same thing? Was that a complete refutation of anything I’d done before then? Or when I do something on a major label, is that a complete refutation of doing a record on an indie, and vice versa? How far is this fucking going to go? It’s just ridiculous to me.

WW: It doesn’t surprise me that the first reaction of some fans might be, “I wish he hadn’t changed, because I really loved his other stuff.” But critics are supposed to be more aware of the creative process and be more open to new things. And a lot of them don’t seem to be more open to that. A lot of them seem to want to lock artists into a pigeonhole and never let them out the same way fans do.

RJD2: It is what it is. And please, don’t take this the wrong way, and gathering from this conversation, I don’t think you will. But I feel like I can’t allow myself to care too much about what critics say.

WW: No offense taken. So, let’s talk about how the new album was put together. I’ve heard that the singing was the hardest part for you. Was that similar to what we were talking about before – that the singing wasn’t as hard as the decision to put the singing out there?

RJD2: To a certain degree, yeah. The technical part of working on my voice and practicing the recording, that was a challenge. But I still feel like, as much of a challenge as that was, I feel like it was a natural musical development. Those are the kinds of natural musical developments that I don’t see anyone around me not doing. From my perspective, I don’t know anybody who’s involved in music who doesn’t have that innate curiosity. Every rapper I’ve ever known is at least curious about how to produce a beat. And a lot of them were so serious that they bought samplers and are learning how to do it themselves. And I’m out here on tour with a band, with a bunch of guys who come from a rock and roll pedigree, and they’re freaking out. They’re like, “How does the turntable work? How do you DJ? How do you use a sampler?” And I’m picking their brain about, “How do you warm up your voice? Do you run scales? What do you do?” So I guess it’s not uncommon or unheard of. It’s not surprising when artists get curious about other aspects of their art – when musicians get interested in other types of music. That’s natural.

WW: In fact, to me, it’s surprising when artists don’t do that. An innate part of artistic creativity is that curiosity.

RJD2: I agree. It’s interesting from a social perspective. But from a catalog perspective, a lot of people don’t do that. The first example for me, I think of DJ Premier. His initial offerings were kind of all over the place, but then he found his thing, and he really stuck to that thing – which is normally something I wouldn’t gravitate toward. But for a guy like him, I have a huge respect that he’s done that. He hasn’t decided to change with the times, and I guess for some people, because of their environment, that can be a really bold move. It can be more difficult than changing. For someone like him, you’d probably expect them to start making some music that sounds like Scott Storch bullshit club-beat music – not that I dislike that.

WW: It sounds like you dislike it.

RJD2: I dislike the bad side of it.

WW: There seems to be such a template. It’s as if radio is saying, “This is what we’re going to hammer you with for the next three months. This is all you’re going to get.”

RJD2: Sure, and I should scratch that previous comment and say it more accurately. What I meant to say is, the landscape of popular rap music has changed so radically over the last ten years that for someone like DJ Premier, it can be a really bold move to stick with what he does. That’s more what I was trying to say.

WW: So you’re not searching for the sound you want to stick with. You want to explore as many different sounds as you can.

RJD2: I’m just stumbling through life, doing music. And I’ve never had that destination mindset. It’s always been about the journey. I know that’s a clichéd way of speaking, but it’s the best analogy I can provide. I’ve never approached any record like this is what I want to be doing, and once I arrive at this destination, it’ll just be a long and continuation stage of small, stepping-stone-type goals.

WW: How has touring with a rock band been different from you than the way you’ve performed before. What have been the pros and cons of it?

RJD2: It’s just been a completely different musical experience, and a whole other thing to worry about – well, not worry about, but to discover. There’s so much more to it, you know? We don’t play these songs to click tracks or MIDI drum sequences or anything like that. It’s four people who are following each other and playing. It’s like in the olden days. Real people, and rhythm and timing and harmony. From a live perspective, it’s a new experience.

WW: For a lot of people who work in the studio, they’re used to achieving perfection, and there’s no such thing as achieving perfection in the sort of live setting you’re talking about. Has that been hard for you to feel that something still sounds really good even though it might be a little messy?

RJD2: Yeah, definitely. When I was deejaying – when I was just doing my shows, and I had my turntables and a sampler – if you were to take two flawless shows, because of the way I approached the shows, they would have virtually been the exact same. Really, for people that do that type of thing in the world of electronic music, defining success solely rests on the number of mistakes you make. There isn’t a whole lot of room for improvisation, if you will. It’s a very, very limited form of improvisation at any given time. And one of the things I missed about that was I started to realize where I’d have shows where I’d make really, really big mistakes… I’d cue up the wrong record, and I’d have to stop a routine in the middle of it, and there’d be dead silence, and I’d have to talk to the crowd. And getting into those scenarios and getting yourself out, those are the kinds of things that make a show exciting. And I realized, crowds love that. They don’t want to see you fuck up the whole set, I’d say, but they can be very endearing, and it can work in your favor when you’re in that live setting. So I went into this not being afraid of mistakes. I feel like those are the kinds of things that let people know you’re really having to focus and try. So right now, it’s just such a huge and intense learning experience, and it’s so fun. Having a live band for me is a ton of pros at the moment, and I can’t really think of any cons.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts