The sound gnawing through my ear might be a closely mic’ed up lawnmower played through a baby monitor filtered into a distortion pedal, or a cut-rate Foley artist’s vocal emulation of UFO takeoff, or maybe a synthesizer approximating the stomach movements of a cartoon lion. It doesn’t sound like the bassline to “Tom Sawyer” by Rush, although that’s what’s it’s supposed to be. Two reasons: One is that this is actually a rhythmic discombobulate of “Tom Sawyer” as performed by the might-be-human DJ Qbert on two turntables circa the mid-’90s. The second is that this specific rendition is transmitting from the vocal cords of RJD2, who is singing (Buzzing? Susurrating? Softly screaming?) into the phone from his home in Columbus, Ohio.
Ramble Jon Krohn is a producer who’s released several artful, impressive, and uniquely-flavored hip-hop instrumental albums as RJD2 that have progressed the beats-as-full-show blueprint laid out by DJ Shadow before him. He has a new record out on 17 April, titled The Fun Ones. RJD2 has an obviously Star Wars-inspired moniker, which seems unnecessary when your name is Ramble Jon Krohn. He’s also a turntablist, which means he’s a nerd.
Right now, RJD2 is nerding-out about the first time he heard the opening routine on a Qbert mixtape (probably Demolition Pumpkin Squeeze Musik) and why it changed his life. “It was the most incredible routine I’d ever heard,” he says of Qbert’s “Tom Sawyer” cut-up. “I can’t even describe to you how revolutionary it was. That mixtape made me really obsessed with funk and breakbeats. It also made me realize that I was never going to be a DJ because it was so good, I was like, ‘There’s no point in pursuing this. I got to go do something else.'”
The self-deprecation is misleading, though. His early 2000’s mixtape Your Face or Your Kneecaps shows off some nimble fader-flicking and choice taste in blending classic breakbeats. A YouTube search for “RJD2 live” will bring up dozens of videos of RJ executing some very dope scratching and acapella-blending using three to four turntables and a sampler or two, making for one of the most entertaining and original live DJ routines out there. He still rocks vinyl records on tour, trading out the risk of Serato crashing his laptop mid-set for the thrill of switching out 12-inch platters and lining up the right groove.
“One benefit for me is it keeps me on my toes,” he says. “It’s still kind of a fundamentally mistake-laden discipline, and that’s the thing that I kind of need.”
Simply put, RJD2 is an underrated turntablist. Of course, the rub here is that turntablism in its highly-technical battle-DJ format is a strictly underground phenomenon. In contrast, RJ’s work as a producer over the 17 years since Deadringer was released has far surpassed the beat-juggle clique in popularity. For example, the health-food grocery store/trendy restaurant down the street from me regularly plays “Ghostwriter” over its speakers at a reasonable dining volume.
However, for those schooled in the boom-bap, it should be clear on first listen that The Fun Ones exemplifies RJ’s upbringing as a hip-hop DJ. The album plays like a mixtape, packed with creamy nuggets of horn-laden funk, grainy phone-call patter from rapper/producer/DJ buddies like Mr. Lif, J-Zone and Kid Koala, and plenty of max-contour scratching: chirps, scribbles, transforms and Joe Cooley-style variations. The result is possibly RJ’s warmest, funkiest, and most laidback album, as well as a callback to his turntablist roots that, if not apparent to the layman, have nonetheless always grounded his productions.
“I recorded the songs, and then, when I was done cutting them, I wanted to tie them together in some fashion,” RJ said. “The idea of basically trying to make it play like a mixtape came to mind.”
“In previous times, I would have gone looking for spoken-word snippets from comedy records, spoken-word records, dialogues, whatever, and use those to tie it together. Instead, I had this idea of basically creating my own dialogue, so I set up some phone calls with peers. The intent was to call people who are at a similar station in life and talk to them about why they’re still making records. ‘Cause when you get 20 years into it, there’s got to be some reason other than you’re trying to pay your bills.”
RJ’s story as a DJ goes back further than 20 years, back before he developed his passion/obsession for crate-digging, back to the early 1990s, when he was an un-monikered teenager spinning rap records in Columbus, Ohio. “At that time, the battle scene [in Columbus] was more of a live thing than a recorded thing,” RJ says. “I was really interested in what DJ’s were doing in a live setting, in a battle, not really interested in what producers were doing in a recorded setting.”
“The first rig I had was [Technics] 1200’s and a bullshit Gemini mixer. I upgraded to a piece-of-shit Numark mixer shortly thereafter. The screws would come loose, and the crossfader would fall into the thing. I remember it happening in the middle of a gig once. The crossfader literally fell into the device, and I was like, ‘Fuck!'”
The role of the true-school hip-hop DJ has always been that of a musical scholar. Attend a Grandmaster Flash show these days, and you’ll experience his amalgamate role of block-party frontman and history teacher, interspersing lessons on sample sources and breakbeat-cueing with shouts of “throw your hands in the air!” It’s only natural that RJ’s battle-DJ phase led to his love of breakbeats and, eventually, sample-based music.
“I started out as a DJ that was just playing rap records, but that lead to my interest in playing the records that were being sampled in rap music. This is an extremely common pathway. I went from playing Run DMC to playing ‘Take Me to the Mardi Gras’ by Bob James. From that point, for me, the next logical progression is you want to find the ‘Take Me to the Mardi Gras’ of the world that have not been used, and that’s kind of phase three. Phase four for me was you eventually want to create something that would work like ‘Mardi Gras.’ At a point that became the holy grail for me – to write and record something that would be useable as a sample source, to make the records that you would want to sample.”
“That’s where I’m at now. Most of [The Fun Ones], I’d say 90 percent of the record, is rooted in that basic idea of me wanting to make the kind of thing that 18-year-old me would get excited about.”
Of the 14 songs on The Fun Ones, RJ says “Indoor S’mores” is the one he’d hand doubles of to his teenage self to gash apart in a live battle routine. The synthesizer bass stabs are sticky but bulbous, expanding like a swamp frog’s bubble chin. There’s house-party conversation din à la “What’s Going On” underlying the nuanced drumming (which RJ believes is some of the best he’s ever put to record) and the Kool & the Gang-esque horns sweating through the summer heat. This one’s the block party jam.
But I’m guessing rap-enamored teenage RJ would dig the album single “Pull Up on Love”, an airy boom-bap number featuring slippery-sweet rhymes from STS. There’s reverb-clouded guitar strumming in the left channel, offsetting the right’s deep-puncture bass keyboard and synthesized sheen undulating in the backdrop. The drum patterns are both proficient and restrained; RJ doesn’t squeeze out the funk so much as make intricate drumming seem as easy as sipping lemonade. Towards the end, there’s a dose of vertiginous scratching that’s a touch off-rhythm in parts, assurance that there’s a human behind the decks, one who wants his music to sound rough, rugged, raw, all those adjectives that defined golden-era hip-hop at its most revered. The song is proof that, by this point in his career, RJ’s ability to churn out head-boppable hip-hop rooted in true-school ethos seems perpetually ingrained.