The veteran instrumental electronic/hip-hop artist/producer talks about creating the sample-stuffed More Is Than Isn’t on his beloved Akai MPC and wall of DIY synths, perfecting minimal miking techniques, and how one of his tracks ended up as the Mad Men theme
WHAT WOULD you do if a popular Emmy-winning television program used one of your compositions as its theme song but paid you not one red cent in publishing royalties? Would you get mad or get even?
“Mad Men bought the publishing rights, so they don’t even have to run my name in the credits, but it’s certainly raised my visibility,” Rjd2 (a.k.a. Ramble John “RJ” Krohn) responds when asked about his song “A Beautiful Mine,” which was purchased lock, stock, and two smoking barrels for the theme to Mad Men, AMC’s acclaimed series about loutish Madison Avenue admen, set in the 1960s. Rjd2’s music has since enjoyed commercial use for products from Blackberry, Wells Fargo, Adidas, T Mobile, and Anadin Extra.
An uneasy jumble of descending piano notes, arcing strings, and herk-a-jerk beats, “A Beautiful Mine” perfectly frames the quagmire of Mad Men protagonist Don Draper’s existence, yet it’s also the kind of sample-stuffed cocktail Rjd2 typically conjures. Maligning samples from an Akai MPC into potent musical gems is kid’s stuff for Rjd2, heard to glorious effect on his fifth LP, More Is Than Isn’t [Electrical Connections]. Built from hip-hop, funk, and electronic fare (both sampled and performed live by Rjd2 and a small cast), More Is Than Isn’t offers generously catchy songs, a groove-heavy joint where Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra slams up against dirty funk, exotic flutes, itchy guitars, and warm DIY and analog synths.
“I’ve always tried to transform instrumental music— which can sometimes sound like elevator music—into something that has the same cohesion as a Stevie Wonder song,” Rjd2 explains from his Philly flat. “I am hopeful in that endeavor, but I don’t always know if I am successful.”
Unlike most contemporary producers immersed in Pro Tools in-the-box recording and grid-heavy beat directives, Rjd2’s primary tool remains the primitive Akai MPC.
“I’ve spent a long time trying to make an MPC sound not like an MPC, but like a band,” he laughs. “This is the first record where I’ve felt comfortable not doing that. Instead of masking something that is sequenced and digital in nature, I’m playing it up. There’s no learning curve for me on the MPC; I can free my mind of technique and focus on exploring the song.”
Fifteen years in to a still-burgeoning career— why disrupt a successful songwriting approach now? “I never want to write the same song twice,” Rjd2 says.” There are a number of different ways to create a song or explore new musical territory. You can work in an unusual tempo or in a different texture, or in a medium that is familiar but using different tools. My approach on ‘Behold, Numbers!’ for example, was to let the technique itself be obvious. You can tell the strings have been sampled and cut up; I put that up front.”
More Is Than Isn’t runs the gamut of sampled-meets-live-performance songcraft. “Milk Tooth” recalls a British library track à la KPM, all groovy beats, analog synth noise, barking brass, and er, whistling. On the opposite tip, “Got There, Sugar?” is a schmaltzy, ’70s-era lounge number complete with swizzle-stick brushes and smoky saxophone gurgles. First single “Her Majesty’s Socialist Request” ups the beat-driven jazz quotient further with a Lalo Schifrin-esque groove and Middle Eastern tinged flutes. “Behold, Numbers!” excels in cutup string samples and rapid-fire MPC solutions.
“’Behold, Numbers!’ is me playing up the idea of an obvious MPC-based composition,” Rjd2 says. “In the past, I would have taken all those little samples of strings and sequenced a couple different patterns to make them feel like a loop, to present a plausible argument that it wasn’t a sample. But now I’m comfortable making it obvious that these are strings that have been chopped up in the MPC to feel syncopated, weird, and rhythmically unnatural.”
More Is Than Isn’t was recorded at Rjd2’s Dustbowl Studios, which inhabit four rooms of his two-story Philadelphia home. A “sampling room” consists of two Technics SL 1200 Mk turntables, Akai MPC 2000XL, and approximately 8,000 vinyl records. The “synth room” contains an eightcore Mac (running Pro Tools 10), DIY modular and analog synths and percussion. Two drum kits, amplifiers, vibraphone, Wurlitzer, Yamaha CP80 electric piano, Hohner Clavinet, and a Fender Rhodes outfit the live room. A bank of tricked-out synthesizers fills a fourth room.
“I have two rows of DIY modular synths built with parts purchased from Synthesizers.com,” Rjd2 reveals. “DIY synths offer the stability of a new synth with custom sounds. There’s a burgeoning world of DIY synth makers who can design and build a PCB with a bill of materials for around 20 bucks. Then you buy the parts, drill the panel, solder, and wire it up. Then calibrate and troubleshoot. It’s time intensive, but because this is a relatively popular pursuit there are forums to help you, like Electro-music.com. It has the lowest noise floor of any hangout on line. No Internet dickfaces!”
As for hardware synths, Rjd2’s Clavia Nord Lead Electro, Korg Polysix, Yamaha CS-80 and SY-2, ARP Pro Soloist, and Moog Minimoog provide color to his beat-pulsing tunes. The “synth room” holds an ARP 2600, Moog Polymoog, Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 and Prophet T8, Rhodes Chroma, Oberheim Matrix 12 and Oberheim OB-Xa, Roland Juno-60, Elka Rhapsody 490 String Machine, and Elka Synthex.
“The Yamaha CP80 sends MIDI,” Rjd2 elaborates, “so it can trigger both the Nord Lead Electro and the Korg Polysix. Sometimes I layer those three synths together to get some cool sounds, running it all through a Leslie cabinet.
How does Rjd2 ensure that samples and old synths stay in key within a song? He also plays the album’s drums (a classic ’60s Ludwig black pearl set à la Ringo Starr), keyboards, guitar, and bass (with additional musicians on cello, violin, saxophones, and flute), so the possibility of sound-clash is serious.
“I’ll chop up samples and pitch them to where it sounds natural,” he replies. “I try to keep it at A 440. But sometimes I forget to do that. Some of my older songs are between A and A-flat. Often I will start at 440 as closely as possible and still end up pitching stuff. With analog synths, you have to consider their ability to stay in pitch. I reference things against the Rhodes to know if it’s bang-on in terms of 440. Other times, I’m in the mixing phase and I’ll have to fix the pitch using the pitch shift in Pro Tools.”
Rjd2’s songwriting process begins with a beat, “trying to find a good meeting point between an awesome rhythmic idea and a good harmonic idea.” But contrary to what you’d expect from a producer with a heavy sample finger, Rjd2 keeps his music minimal when necessary.
“Not everything I do is vocally exploratory or ambitious instrumentally. One of the beauties of a really great rap song is its repetition. It’s just a loop, the same groove for four minutes. But when the groove is so awesome you can’t stop listening, there is a beauty and power in that. So I’m not always trying to go totally apeshit, embellishing the hell out of an instrumental.”
And while Rjd2 typically tracks drums on the grid, he will sometimes record tracks off the grid, singing the song to himself as he maneuvers a beat, then layering additional sounds.
“Recording on the grid makes editing easier,” he says. “But ‘It All Came To Me In A Dream,’ for instance, is off the grid and has no BPM. Sometimes I’ll cut drums with no grid and map out the song in my head as I’m playing it. That’s fairly atypical for me, but I need to be on the cusp of something being difficult to stay focused. Recording off the grid is one way I challenge myself. It’s easier to record one performance and loop it throughout the song than play it perfectly for four minutes straight.“
Rjd2 is a schooled guitarist, but his drumming cracks with special determination and tonal resonance. There’s an immediacy to his drum sounds that recalls the warmest, wettest ’70s production (think such rarefied studio drummers as Al Green’s Al Jackson, Jr. or Muscle Shoals’ Roger Hawkins) yet with the clarity of digital recording. Rjd2’s beats, some tracked live start to finish, stomp hard with tumescent intent.
“I came to recording live drums from sampled drums. The bar for that is set in classic hip-hop drum BREAKs sampled from Skull Snaps’ ‘It’s A New Day’ (sampled by Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Eric B. & Rakim, Digable Planets), The Honey Drippers’ ‘Impeach the President’ (NWA, De La Soul, EPMD), and Melvin Bliss’s ‘Synthetic Substitution’ (Moby, Kanye West, 50 Cent). Those tracks were recorded in the 1970s. Nothing recorded today sounds like that; how do you even get close? But when you’re the same person playing the drums as engineering the drums, you have an advantage. Then the dynamic between where you place the mic on the drum and how hard you hit the drum is something you have an innate understanding of.”
Rjd2 keeps his literal mic setup close to his vest; but less is more is his message, typically employing a Heil PR40 for kick drum, with Beyer M160 and AKG C12 mics for the remaining set.
“Minimal miking is my approach,” he confides “In a pro studio, the first thing they’ll do is put up two overhead mics then close-mike every drum; that is like ten mics. I would mute eight of those tracks and pick two. You have to trust your ears and not your eyes. It’s really hard to make six mics sound good together. That’s phase wizardry. Even if you do it well, it’s still not my first choice, aesthetically speaking.
A rebadged Chinese TNT APM1200 largediaphragm tube condenser is his go-to mic for vocals. “It was part of a group buy and everything was $75 to $150 a pop. Some were duds; some were cool. I had a guy mod the transformers and upgrade the circuit paths.”
Rjd2’s minimalist concept follows a similar esthetic on MPC for tracking and composing sounds, but he’s not afraid to use plug-ins, preferably from Universal Audio.
“The Universal Audio plug-ins are my bread and butter,” he says. “I use the UAD EMT 140 [Classic Plate Reverb], the Lexicon  Digital Reverb, and the Roland [RE-201] Space Echo. If drums or bass sound boring, UAD’s Fairchild 670 Compressor beefs stuff up and gives them character. Or the [Teletronix] LA2A plug-in on bass. Synths go straight to Pro Tools. Guitars and piano go to outboard effects like the hardware Space Echo, which I love for its unpredictability. I used a Manley Massive Passive EQ a lot too. The TubeTech CL-1B was the main vocal compressor. And I have a set of Lucas Limiting Amplifiers into a pair of Amtek Pultec PEQ-1A clones. That is a dummy-proof signal path. It’s hard to botch that.”
He may not botch his signal chains, but you could make the argument that Rjd2 did botch his publishing deal with Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner and the AMC network. While he’s followed his hero’s sampling scenarios, Dr Dre and Snoop could definitely teach him a thing or two about business—and show business.
“I am not in the business of selling publishing,” Rjd2 insists. “I wanted to sell the rights just once, because I had never done it. They wanted the full publishing; they were persistent. Finally I said, ‘Okay I will do it once.’ I am not bitter about it, even though, financially speaking, people think I am driving a Ferrari now and believe me, I’m not. But the marquee value is worth it. I’m happy with that. I’m at peace with it.”