RJD2 Pro/File: Giant Steps



Photo: Dan McMahon

Among underground hip-hop cognoscenti, RJD2 (né Ramble John Krohn) has been a known entity ever since he signed to New York's Definitive Jux label in 2002 and released his sample-crazy instrumental debut,Deadringer. That release was also notable for RJD2's convincing impression on the album's cover of a recently dumped corpse.

The music, however, was very much alive and kicking, and it has continued to evolve along a creative arc that widened considerably with the 2007 release of The Third Hand (XL Recordings), when RJD2 began to move away from sampling and into full-fledged studio instrumentation, arrangement and production.

“Of course, if I was going to do my own playing and recording, I still wanted to make it sound like a sample,” he says. “Everything that I love about samples usually comes from that late-'60s, early '70s era, so my general default mentality was to make it all sound old. But at the same time, I don't necessarily want to go about aping those recordings. I have synths that are from the late '70s and early '80s, and I don't have a desire to make them sound like an ARP 2600 from 1971. At a certain point, you've got to let the instrument just be what it is.”

The Colossus (RJ's Electrical Connections, 2010) is his latest foray, and what immediately separates it from his past releases is the presence of some hired guns (largely on strings and horns), some guest vocalists (particularly The Neptunes' protégé Kenna and hip-hop innovator Phonte Coleman) and RJD2's own debut behind the drum kit. The album takes up many of the quirky pop sensibilities explored on The Third Hand, but pulls them even further apart into a spaced-out, borderline psychedelic mix where vintage synths merge seamlessly with live acoustic piano, vibraphone, glockenspiel, electric guitars and washes of unusual effects processing — some of it generated by a home-built modular synth with a foundation of components designed by Roger Arrick.

“You can hear the modular on the outro to ‘Tin Flower,’” RJD2 says, citing the envelope filter that he ran the song's drum tracks through to get a wobbly, jarringly off-kilter flanging sound. Along with the modular, he uses a Yamaha CS-80 (the main synth on “Games You Can Win” featuring Kenna; see Web Clip 1), an ARP Axxe (on “Let There Be Horns”) and a Yamaha SY-2, which stands out with the Axxe on “Crumbs Off the Table,” with singer Aaron Livingston.

“To me, the SY-2 is a severely underrated synth,” RJD2 says. “It's an early Yamaha that has Aftertouch, so even though it's based on preset sounds, it has a real dynamic to it that you don't find on those '70s synths.”

He's no keyboard virtuoso, but RJD2's ear for chord voicings and composition, and his technical bent for all things electronic, puts him in his own class. Few producers can squeeze such richly nuanced beats out of an Akai MPC2000XL, and although RJD2 had largely abandoned the unit in favor of teaching himself to play drums, he rediscovered it while sketching out ideas for the new album.

“In a weird way, I fell back in love with it,” he says. “I mean, to use it now is enormously labor-intensive [Laughs]. In the three songs that are essentially sample-based, they're all broken down to single-note hits — every single sample. I knew that was the farthest I could take it, and for a long time I was disillusioned because the payoff seemed to be lopsided. But stepping back into it, I remembered you get these other artifacts out of it. You get to borrow someone's engineered sound from a different era in time, but you're also forced to be very objective and not get lost in the minutiae of a song. The natural tendency of the MPC is to push you to step back and see the forest.”

Home base: Philadelphia

Key software: Digidesign Pro Tools HD

Main synths: Yamaha CS-80 and SY-2, ARP Axxe, Synthesizers.com (Arrick Robotics) modular