Photo: Matt Gonzales
If you’re a turntablist performing live without an MC, the obvious question is: Can you entertain? Or are you just going to bore me?
Just slightly above-ground sample-and-synth wizard RJD2 is aware of the potential for boredom posed when bringing his oftentimes brooding instrumental amalgamations to a live setting. And while he prefers working in the studio to DJing in a club, he’s aware of the the audience’s right to party. “It’s a night out,” he has said. “I don’t want to make beanbag Vicodin music.”
Unfortunately his current touring partner and brother-in-genre, newcomer Diplo, hasn’t yet figured out how not to narcotize the crowd. Diplo’s recently released debut album, Florida, has garnered a warm reception from critics, but the young Mississippian hasn’t yet figured out how to translate his studio work for a roomful of people who just want to have fun.
His was the kind of performance you could have missed if you were in the midst of a decent conversation. The requisite pre-show jams blended seamlessly into the beginning of his set. I didn’t even realize he was onstage, taciturn as he was, until he reticently acknowledged the crowd after the third or fourth song.
Instead of treating the crowd to the haunting post-rock guitars and moody beats the critics have described lovingly when reviewing Florida, Diplo instead played it safe, trying to win the crowd over by mixing reliable hispter oldies like Weezer’s “Sweater Song” and the Pixies’s “Where is my Mind” with crackling funk and soul beats. It was novel, and it was moderately interesting, but it wasn’t much more than that.
Diplo does have hope as a performer though—if for no other reason that on this tour he gets the benefit of sitting behind the merch table every night and watching as RJD2 do his thing.
RJD2 was all energy. His body bounced and bounded between his four decks in a controlled blur, his attention drawn from the boards only in the brief moments when he’d whip around to grab a new record from his lofty stack and deftly slide it out of its sleeve and onto the turntable in one fluid motion. His energy was all the more impressive because, as mentioned above, his passion isn’t performing. He has acknowledged in past interviews that he thinks of himself primarily as a producer and not a DJ, but there was no evidence of such a preference on this night. Just about every track he played was a variation of the original, and though it’s impossible to know how much of it was improvised, one got the sense his every scratch, sync-up, and record choice was dictated by an imaginative and spontaneous impulse.
His energy also might have had something to do with a surprisingly vital audience. Contrary to what I previously thought, there are more than seventeen instrumental hip-hop fans in Indianapolis—lots more, it turns out—and they all seemed to be at this show, lubricated and poised to move. RJD2 thrived on their enthusiasm and gave the people what they wanted, which was dance-ready renditions of tracks from his two excellent full-lengths Deadringer and Since We Last Spoke.
Several of those performed—most notably Deadringer‘s “Here’s What’s Left”—brought forth vigorous applause and hollers of approval upon the first few notes. And RJD2 seemed genuinely grateful when, after a distended and mind-bending show-closing track that corresponded disturbingly well with the images of mass production and destruction that sputtered across the white cloth draped behind him, he kindly thanked everyone for coming out.
RJD2 may prefer the solitude of his studio, but he understand that in order to continue doing what he does, he’s got to bring the music to the people. And I have a feeling that Diplo will catch on after spending enough nights behind the merch table, exchanging all of those RJD2 records for cash.