Columbus, Ohio-based music producer, RJD2, aka Ramble Jon Krohn, is one of the world’s most accomplished music producers. The musician burst onto the international scene in 2002 with his debut solo record, Deadringer, with hits like “The Horror,” “Smoke & Mirrors” and “Ghostwriter.” In other words, if you were a hip-hop head in the early 2000s, his music was a part of your everyday soundtrack. The songs from the album are so beloved that you can still hear them in both clubs and national commercials to this day. His most recent solo album, Dame Fortune, came out in 2016, but earlier this year, he released the album Tendrils, his second LP under the alias The Insane Warrior.
RJD2, who will perform in Seattle on Saturday, December 15th at the Nectar Lounge, spoke with KEXP about that infamous record, how he fell into the world of hip-hop to begin with, and how he would compose a song in those early years as a young producer.
KEXP: When did you realize you had an aptitude for making music with a turntable and a drum machine?
I’m going to gently push back on the basic premise of the question. I don’t know if I would describe myself as having an aptitude for it. But with that said, I went to a music school in high school and I was studying music in a way that was like a traditional music school with composition and music theory, all the types of tools typically associated with making music, being a composer or performer. And I hated it. Or, I should say, it made me not enjoy music for a brief period of my life. So, I put that whole discipline away for a while.
At that time, in the early '90s, I had a friend who started taking me to open mics and battles in the Columbus hip-hop scene. So I just fell into that world. I found myself in a place where I hated this traditional way of thinking about it — or, I should say, it wasn’t pleasing and it wasn’t stimulating to me, thinking about music in this very traditional formulaic way. And when I experienced this new scene, once I got into DJ’ing and producing, what I found was there was a completely different way of thinking about music.
To use an analogy, it’s much closer to solving a puzzle, if you will, as opposed to doing a math equation. And it just suited me in a way that was fun. It felt like there was a sense of purpose and a point, a challenge to it in a way that I just didn’t get from going to music school. So, I dove right in and ran with it. I like to call it a concrete way of looking at music — hip-hop, that is. Sitting down with a beat machine and an MPC or drum machine and making a beat. I think of it in this building block way; sound becomes a concrete thing. You’re thinking about a chunk of a chord like a building block. That’s the best way I can describe it. Still, to this day, it’s useful for me to think about it that way. And I could have never learned to do that in school even though it’s been one of the most useful tools in my arsenal.
Was the idea of making music ever intimidating?
I would say yes and no. When I look back, going to music school and sitting down and thinking about playing songs like, [John Coltrane's] “Giant Steps,” like, this is going to take me a lifetime to learn how to play. And even then, how do you think about writing something that will stand up to a song like that? That was completely intimidating, like, I don’t have a shot at this! But making a beat out of chopping up sounds, something about that was a lot less intimidating to me. Culturally, though, it was kind of the exact opposite. Existing in that music school world, there was nothing culturally or socially challenging about it. To me, everybody had the same thing on the line. Everybody in that school either worked as a musician or was fine with delivering pizzas or being a barista in a coffee shop. But in the hip-hop world, what was on the line was your reputation. In that scene, it was, like, way more intimidating. People in that world cared about their reputation and their status in a way that the jazz and music school world just didn’t.
What was your process early on for making a song?
It started with just trying to make a beat. That process was basically sitting down at a beat machine or sampler and you just chop up some sounds and try to make something interesting out of it. The origins of it would just be something very basic, a one-bar loop or a three-bar loop, a four-bar loop. The idea was just to make it interesting enough, just making a beat interesting to listen to for more than eight bars without getting bored.
I would say the challenge of that is the core of making hip-hop music and it is incredibly hard. To make something that is a two-bar loop that repeats for three minutes that doesn’t get boring is incredibly challenging. So, for me, when it comes to the process of making a song, my whole thing was that I was never going to be able to make one two-bar loop interesting for three minutes, so my approach became, Okay, maybe I’ll make five two-bar loops or four-bar loops and somehow crunch them down into a song. If I can get the transitions right and get everything in the same key and time signature and get the transitions right, now I can have a song. This was my only way to make a three-minute song even remotely interesting. And that became the technique behind which my first record was made. And still, to this day, it’s how I go about things.
What new techniques did you encounter on the scene as you were coming up?
The Internet started becoming a thing culturally around that time, around 2001 or 2002. And every two-three years, there would be these techniques that hip-hop producers developed and utilize that would push things forward. Something as simple as a certain keyboard dominating the airwaves. DJ Premiere in many ways pioneered this new technology where he took the sound and chopped it up in different pieces and created something that was half-melody and half-rhythm to make a beat.
For me, coming back to this idea of cramming as much information into a three-minute song as possible, how that became my m.o. for making music was when Akai put out a version of the MPC2000 that allowed you to have four programs at once in a machine and each program had 64 songs. So, there were 256 sounds in a machine functioning for one song at a time. That technology was a really big deal to me. It kind of busted open the floodgates of how many sounds you could fit into one program in a machine at one time, which would change how much you could put into a song at one time just using an MPC.
What did you learn about yourself as an artist as you began to see the success of your album, Deadringer?
In hindsight, the biggest thing that I learned about myself was that I got into music for the sake of being able to make good records. I know that sounds incredibly elementary and obvious and overly simplified, but in the context of being a working musician, it can’t be overstated. Because there is so much about the music industry that is not centered around that idea. You have to work really hard to weed out all these other elements of lifestyle that can permeate the culture of music. To me, that is the most important thing I learned. I got into this for the sake of the music, I didn’t get into it for the sake of pride or money or status. It sounds very simple, but often there is this zero-sum game in the world where one of those things gets pitted against the other. Often, whenever you want to be creative, you have to think, Do you want this project to pay you well or be creatively satisfying?
Some of my favorite songs of yours incorporate spirituals, blues music, and gospel chants. What drew you to these sounds?
That’s a question for the ages. I don’t know if I can answer that. I look at the harmonic music that I gravitated to as a kid and lot of it was Hendrix and Led Zeppelin and later on, it was soul and R&B music. At some point in time, all the arrows point back to blues music. I’d never been a huge traditional blues fan, like a rabid fan per sé, but at some point, the blues exists in all American music that came after the 1920s or 1930s, or so.
In my mind, you’re part of this great group of producers from the late 90s and early 2000s, which includes folks like DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist. Can you share a favorite memory you had with any one of these artists?
Well, first off, thank you. Second off, in some ways, I feel like I came a ways after those guys. So, to some degree, I have the respect that one would have toward their forefathers for them. To me, the guys you mention are in the same pantheon as DJ Premiere and Large Professor and Q-Tip, guys making records that were inspiring me. So, because of that, I don’t see any of the aforementioned artists as peers. I see them as influences and people I looked up to, if I’m just being honest.
But if I had to pick one anecdote, I would say of the few times I’ve been around some of those guys — I’m struck by the idea that they are just people that have the same regular problems that any of us do, the same issues. They’re regular people like you and I. I’m just like any music fan. I have attempted to put some of these people on a pedestal. Like, Pete Rock is some massive luminary, larger than life. But at the end of the day, he’s just a normal human who puts on pants one leg at a time, just like the rest of us.
What did it feel like to be one of those sought-after hip-hop artists who had mixtapes in New York City record stores that beat heads were fiending over?
It’s a trip, is what I would say. I can’t say it was a goal because coming back to what I was saying earlier, I never aspired to be on somebody’s favorites list as much as I aspired to make a record that could be played in the same context my idols. So, it’s weird and it’s surreal and it’s cool and I appreciate it. It’s awesome. I do feel the need to keep some of those kinds of lines of thought down, though. Because I don’t think they’re entirely beneficial for making good music. I feel like in some ways, coming back to that zero-sum idea between concept A and concept B, I feel like the further I get down the rabbit hole of appreciating this or that accomplishment, to me the less likely I’ll be able to create in the future. I need to keep it at arm’s length and not spend too much time thinking about that. Mentally, being the underdog is healthy for my creative process.
One of my personal favorite tracks of yours is “Wylin Out,” which you did with a few artists. Do you have a favorite memory making that particular song?
You know, at that time, if I had — this sounds silly — but one of my favorite memories at that time — you’re working so fast and loose and throwing beats around, mailing beat CDs to people. There would be an immense satisfaction when you get — you don’t even think of yourself as making as a song as much doing a process. Then, when it would become a song, you’re like, “WOW!” I remember hearing things back from Lyrics Born or Diverse — things were coming really fast and I didn’t expect it.
How has your approach to making music changed over the last, say, five years?
For me, thinking about the last couple of years, it’s not so much a radical turn as much as a slow march toward just wanting to be a little better at drumming than I was yesterday. Be a little better composer than I was yesterday. A little bit cooler chord changes, little bit better ideas on how to freak a turnaround or an intro or a transition from A to B. If I can just do that, I’m not worried where I’m going to be in five or 10 years. I just want to be a little bit better at what I do tomorrow.
RJD2 performs this Saturday, December 15th at the Nectar Lounge with Pressha, Indica Jones, and DJ SolidSound. (21+ show.) Dame Fortune and Tendrils are both out now via RJD2's own RJ's Electrical Connections record label.