Since He Last Recorded: An Interview With RJD2
The former hip-hop producer explains the evolution of his sound and his inability to be like Steven Tyler.
Some might view genre abandonment as a sleight to the crutch of a successful musical career, even if the reason stems from an artist's inherent experimental nature. But for the clairvoyant fans of RJD2, the potential for a musical digression from instrumental hip-hop has been in his foreseeable future since the beginning of his career. Deadringer, RJ's 2002 debut, was a spin on breakbeat and hip-hop conformities, with eerily candescent tracks loaded with hip-hop interplay and a barrage of mangled and crackling samples. Born Ramble John Krohn, RJ had reformatted the concept of an instrumental album in the same way that contemporary DJ Shadow had done with Entroducing, showing that a hip-hop beat could have its own soul when assembled without an emcee as the focal point. But on his 2004 album, Since We Last Spoke, RJ shed the guise of the faceless beatmaker and became the prevailing star of the songs, rather than the music itself, by lacing his composite instrumentals with lyrics and vocals. The Third Hand, RJ's forthcoming album, is the result of consistently toeing the line of experimentation, with a pop-based backbone that bears live instrumentation and a focus on vocals -- the predictable backlash that had been buried in the music all along.
"I feel like this stuff doesn't even compare to Since We Last Spoke because it was like a preliminary experiment, and this is kind of a result of having gone through that," he says. The Third Hand is a blatant departure from the elements that made RJ's previous efforts the common ground for both hip-hop heads and tagalong hipsters. Having independently recorded the album in his basement, RJ culled drum patterns (the only samples used on the LP) and played every instrument on the tracks, ranging from his standard keys and synths to the more atypical grassy acoustic guitar. The songs are a translation of RJ's knack for hip-hop song structure into off-kilter pop music, with unpredictable bends in linearity and chronic rotations of instruments that make the record have a push-and-pull effect. "You know those collapsing telescopes?" he says. "That to me is kind of what I aspire to be. Hopefully, the music has an initial appeal, but there are other layers to it, and as you listen to it more, there are different things to appreciate."
While RJ is predisposed to emcees acting as his verbal counterpart, like on full-length collaborations with Blueprint and Aceyalone, The Third Hand is RJ's claim to the spotlight, with most of the tracks filled with ripe harmonizing and extrovert melody lines sung in his light tenor range. The album's single, "Beyond", is one of the thinner vocal tracks, with a windy choral synthesizer set against intermittent drum hits and spacey vocal arpeggios. The track only features lyrics on the heavily constructed chorus, but where RJ is sparse with words on "Beyond," he dots the rest of the album with completely vocal-based content. "You Never Had It So Good," the first full track on The Third Hand, is a punchy piano romp complemented by a sparkling synthesizer, which RJ uses as the jump-off point to reflect on the shortcomings of a lady-friend. The reactionary track "Work It Out" shows RJ reflecting on the spectrum of emotion in relationships, with cluttered vocals of lyrics like "Don't let me bother you / Don't worry 'bout it / I got this, I got this / Just let me work it out."
Elsewhere on the album, RJ uses criticism and judgment as the inspiration for his lyrics. On "Sweet Piece", he croons over a burning bass line and glassy synthesizers, chastising a mystery girl with the lyrics "Little princess with memories gone bad / You should ask him about the dates she had / Mr. Legend, Dr. Civic, and Mr. Lexus / Don't think I'm bothered, what you is gonna be / I'm not your father, thank God it's not me". RJ uses other tracks to criticize on a larger scale, dismantling the lazy habits of society on "Laws of the Gods," which is based on a pulsating carousel organ and ethereal harp flourishes. "I only feel comfortable voicing critique about aspects of living in life and being a human being that I see in myself," he explains. "Like 'Laws of the Gods' is kind of about being critical of leading a lazy lifestyle, I try to make an attempt to empathize with the antagonist of the song, in the sense that I see those things in myself too, so it's a song about having issue with the laziness that I see in myself."
Although the record is filled with the somewhat unexpected addition of lyrics and a pop girth, The Third Hand is graced with several instrumental tracks that channel the style of the Deadringer era. RJ explains that during the recording process, he attempted to echo the elusiveness of his Definitive Jux debut by constructing tracks that could grow without the assistance of a vocal melody. "When I was recording the record, I did a fair amount of instrumental music, and I spent a bit of time trying to kind of stay within the box that Deadringer was made in and still have fun," he says. "Sometimes it felt kind of lackluster, and other times I was happy with them." Of the tracks that are included, "Get It," which parallels the cutthroat sentiment of "Good Times Roll Pt. 2," is a shape-shifting endeavor, swinging from organ drones to light glockenspiel twinkles to grinding drums. The track captures the integrity of his first record without having to bow to samples, like on the song "The Bad Penny," which expands with interwoven buzzing organs, trance synths and keyboard chorals.
But where RJ stylistically looks to the past by including the instrumental songs on the record, he uses experimentation to instigate his style's evolution on the rest of the album. The most out-of-character track, "Someday", is a lonely acoustic guitar ballad accompanied by a wall of harmonized vocals, reminiscent of the intimate and lo-fi bareness of an Elliott Smith recording. RJ additionally incorporates musical elements like bizarre Zelda-esque synths on "Paper Bubble" and new-wave methodology on "Just When", two tracks that bring the listener out of the pop and hip-hop comfort zone established on the other songs. "I think this [album] could be more like from the psychedelic, classic rock school," he says. "But there's all kind of stuff mixed up. It's hard to condense it into a one-sentence description."
The Third Hand signifies RJ's transcendence of strictly instrumental tracks and overall growth as an artist, but it also parallels the shift in his career outside of the music. After fulfilling his contract requirements with Def Jux, RJ found himself free of obligations to any label and decided to experiment on his own. He multitasked by adopting the roles of engineer, producer, and instrumentalist, and faced the challenges of recording by himself in his studio. "The whole thing, from the writing to the engineering to the recording to listening to yourself singing in a controlled environment ... All those things were very new, and it took me a while to kind of get up and running," he says. With a ratio of ten to fifteen songs recorded for every track that made the final cut, RJ followed an A&R friend to XL Records who soon struck a deal with him to release the album.
In addition to releasing the record on XL, RJD2 plans on touring with a live band consisting of two multi-instrumentalists and a drummer. The band is a departure from his one-man show, based on either two or four turntables, depending on the inclusion of a rapper, and RJ states that he will be playing guitar and piano in addition to singing. "I need a crutch, I need the barrier, I can't just jump out there like Steven Tyler, no guitar or keyboard ... I need a security blanket," he says. While fans may be dismayed by the drastic change in RJ's overall style, those who appreciate the experimentation can look forward to further developments in the music, with no plans to revert back to hip-hop or record a full-length with another rapper. "I've got all these little things that I'm into, at any particular moment, and I could just as easily get pulled in to doing kind of electronic danceable pseudo-disco records after this record," he says. "I don't have any plans about anything at the moment. Take it one day at a time, and wherever I kind of end up, or end up doing, I'm just trying to do that at the best of my ability."