PHONOGRAPH COLOSSUS: RJD2

The
celebrated underground hip-hop DJ takes the critical heat while laughing all
the way to the bank… and ad agency.

 

BY RON HART

 

For well over a decade, Ramble John Krohn, better known as
RJD2, has been in the business of making beats. From his late ‘90s salad days
behind the boards for the rap group MHz, who released some highly sought-after
12-inches on the sorely missed New York City hip-hop label Fondle ‘Em Records,
right on through to his recent receipt of the coveted ASCAP “Best TV Theme”
award for his opening theme to the AMC hit series Mad Men, RJ has embarked on a journey few can claim to enjoy in the
realm of underground hip-hop; but not without a roadblock or two along the way.
In 2007, his highly adventurous third solo album, The Third Hand, which saw RJ defect from the venerable NYC indie
rap label Definitive Jux to XL Recordings and venture into previously
unchartered pop territory that included singing his own songs, received less
than stellar reviews, most notably a rather heavy-handed piece on Pitchfork that decried the album as “an
unsettling piece of evidence that he’s lost without someone else’s pre-existing
sounds to extrapolate from and transform.”

 

However, 2010 is looking to prove that Mr. Krohn will have
the last laugh on his detractors. The
Colossus
, his fourth full-length and inaugural release on his newly
established boutique imprint RJ’s Electrical Connections, finds the Ohio-bred DJ
intertwining samples and live instrumentation to strike a perfect balance
between the soulful art pop he pioneered on The
Third Hand
and the Bill Conti-meets-Lalo Schifrin beat science of his first
two solo works, 2002’s Deadringer and
2004’s Since We Last Spoke (both of
which he amicably acquired the rights for from Definitive Jux to release on his
own label, by the way). And while he does employ a host of guests to sing and
rap on the vocal portions of The Colossus,
namely Phonte Coleman of Little Brother, Neptunes affiliate Kenna and
occasional Roots singer Aaron Livingston among others, RJ also makes a defiant
return to the mic despite the critical razzes bestowed upon him a couple of
years ago, adding all the more flavor to one of the best albums of his ten-year
career.

 

As RJ prepared for a world tour in support of The Colossus, BLURT caught up with him
for an illuminating discussion about the new album, the launching of RJ’s
Electrical Connections, upcoming projects beyond the new album and being
affiliated with the best damn show on television today.

 

***     

 

BLURT:
At what point did you come to the conclusion that launching your own record
label would be the best viable option for you in this industry and why?

 

RJD2: I think, in hindsight, the Third Hand campaign was the tipping point. I had brought the
publicist who worked it into the fold. I had brought the videographer into the
fold who did the only video for the album. I routed the tour, and my booking
agent handled the setup. By then, it seemed like I was contributing at least an
equal amount to the record. I knew that if I could get distribution, I could
get the record out there properly. 

 

 

 

BLURT:
How are you running RJ’s Electrical Connections? Is it a one-man show or are
you looking to expand it enough to take on a staff?

 

RJD2: Well I have a label manager at my distributor, and I
have an assistant, and me. I plan on approaching it like this: see what the
revenue stream looks like and see if expanding the staff makes any sense. It’s
hard to say in this market whether more resources really equals more record
sales, or if a record basically “will do whatever it’s gonna do.”
Once I have an idea about that, then I can gauge it. But also, the other side
of the coin is that I don’t want to be touring forever; I am seeing the
oversight of the label as a way to “retire” from the road,
eventually. Even if it’s just managing the back catalog, hopefully it will
still generate revenue in the future. Who knows? 

 

 

 BLURT:
Are you looking towards the new label as a means to just get your own stuff
out there or are you looking to house a stable of acts?

 

RJD2: Primarily for my own music. I am very reticent to be
anyone’s boss. If I come across records that I love, and need a home, then
maybe. But I think what is even MORE ideal is that the label becomes a vessel
for me to work on other people’s records, as a writer and producer, so that I
actually DESERVE to own a stake in the masters, instead of trying to navigate
that on a record I didn’t work on at all. 

 

 

BLURT:
Have you ever thought of producing an album with a singer a la Dangermouse’s current project Broken Bells with James Mercer
of The Shins? If so, who would you be into doing such a venture with?

 

RJD2: Actually, I’ve got a group I’m doing with one of the
singers on my album, Aaron Livingston. Same format [as the Broken Bells album]
and it is almost done. I’m pretty stoked on it, as it definitely touches on
some areas that are new ground for me. 

 

 

BLURT:
When can we expect to come out and does it have a name? What kind of music
would you consider the project to be?

 

RJD2: I’m really hoping we have it
out in 2010. But there’s a lot to release. We’ll see. I would say that it is
a continuation of what some call “psychedelic soul”: Rotary Connection,
Chambers Brothers, early Funkadelic, etc. It’s really all over the place. At
the moment, the band is called Icebird.  

 

 

BLURT:
What other projects can we look forward to from RJ’s in the near future
outside of your project with Aaron Livingston and The Colossus?

 

RJD2: There’s going to be a sort of modified version of an
instrumental Colossus album. That is
the next release. I have another rjd2 album finished after that, and at least
one side project album. So there’s a lot to get out there, at the moment. 

 

 

BLURT:
How did you go about choosing the guest vocalists that you feature on The
Colossus? Did you always have these folks in mind?

RJD2: I knew Phonte from years back. A mutual friend connected me with Kenna;
same with Aaron Livingston. I just started sorting the songs with the vocalists
I had on my list. Pretty simple.  

 

 

 

BLURT:
Was there someone on your list you were hoping to get on board but didn’t
work out?

 

RJD2: Oh, lots. I’m surprised more people didn’t ask this
question, really. Yea, lots. I cut a lot of material during those sessions, and
I reached out to a lot of people, not just singers, but producers for remixes,
instrumentalists, etc. to collaborate. Some of them didn’t get back to me at
all. Some of them would get back to me, and then kinda blow me off. The song “A
Son’s Cycle”, I had the concept for that song for a long time; there were two
different lineups for that song before the one that actually worked. But I was
talking to “name” rappers, and at a point I realized that if I reached
out to some underground kids (Catalyst, Illogic and NP), they might have a
little more interest in actually executing it. I was totally right, and they
killed it.    

 

 

BLURT:
In your opinion, what proves to be more of a challenge to work with as a
producer: Using a sampler or directing live musicians?

RJD2: Really anything that’s new. When I was learning how to
do a whole song on a sampler, that was tough. But figuring out how to write
charts and find performers, that was hard as well. Each was equally tough when
I didn’t have any experience doing them.

 

 

BLURT:
Of all the instruments that you play beyond the sampler and turntables, what
do you feel you are the most proficient at and why?

 

RJD2: At this point, bass. I just feel more and more
comfortable with it. My takes are usually really quick when I’m cutting bass.
And it is probably the funnest [sic]
instrument to play live, for some reason. It’s very small motions with very big
results. It’s like having your finger on a nuclear bomb button, pretty
much. 

 

 

BLURT:
How were you approached by the creators of Mad
Men
for the use of the instrumental for “A Beautiful Mine” from your album Magnificent City with Aceyalone as the show’s theme song? Was someone a fan of yours over there?

 

RJD2: Really, it all just came through Decon (the label that
released Magnificent City). Lions Gate reached
out, and that was that. I don’t even know if “fan” is the right word,
probably more just that it was working for them, I guess. Well obviously it
worked for them (lol). 

 

 

BLURT:
Would “A Beautiful Mine” have been your first choice for the theme song? Why
or why not?

 

RJD2: No, but in hindsight, I can see why they chose it. I
guess I would have chosen something that i thought was a little less
“dense”, but it works surely. It has an immediate sense of drama
really. 

 

 

BLURT:
Have you received any other offers to score television and film soundtracks?
Is this something you would be interested in pursuing more in the future?

 

RJD2: Only one, for a horror film. I don’t think it’s gonna
pan out. It seems to be up in the air or something. DEFINITELY would love to
pursue [soundtracks] in the future. I listen to a lot of soundtracks from the
late ‘70s and early ‘80s: Tangerine Dream and John Carpenter and all that. Love
that stuff. 

 

 

BLURT:  If you were a musician back in the Mad Men era, what kind of music could
you see yourself playing?

 

RJD2: Probably some [David] Axelrod, spaced out
cocaine-laden orchestral funk. At least I WISH that’s what I would have
played. 

 

 

BLURT:
As a fan of Mad Men yourself, who is
your favorite character and what is your favorite episode?

 

 

RJD2: Ummm, aside from the fact that Joan is so unbelievably
smoking hot, I think Peter Campbell is pretty interesting. So is Peggy, though.
Favorite episode: the one where dude loses a foot at the party was pretty
awesome. And the one where Don gets drugged by the young kids was great, too. Can’t
pick one, the whole show is just badass.

 

  

BLURT:
What is it about Peter and Peggy that most intrigues you?

 

RJD2: It seems like their internal struggles happen closer
to the surface. Don gets great lines written for him. So does Roger. And Sal
and Betty’s internal conflicts seem to be effectively buried. But Peter and
Peggy both feel like they are on the verge of exploding at times. It’s very
exciting when they kinda do. 

 

 

BLURT:
Have you met any of the cast members of Mad
Men
yet? 

 

RJD2: NO! I’m mad. Where is my Joan introduction, Mad Men? Not cool.  

 

 

RJD2’s
tour runs now through March 19 in Pennsylvania,
then resumes again April 2 in California.
Tour dates at his MySpace page.

 

 

[Photo Credit: Dan McMahon]

 

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