Random Rules: RJD2

The shuffler: RJD2 (born Ramble Krohn), a Midwestern turntablist-turned-instrumentalist who rose steadily in the hip-hop underground on the strength of notable collaborations with people like Blueprint, Diplo, and Aceyalone. He continues to tour sporadically behind his 2007 instrumental-based prog-pop album The Third Hand.

Thin Lizzy, "Don't Believe A Word"

RJD2: I'm going to have to listen to this again, because I'm really bad with song titles. I don't pay attention to that kind of shit. Like, my favorite album, I couldn't even tell you what the names of the songs are. Do you know Thin Lizzy?

AVC: The Irish rock band.

RJ: Were they Irish?

AVC: Yeah. They're from Dublin.

RJ: Really? No shit. No way. Crazy! Hot damn! You learn something new every day. Thin Lizzy already kind of plays boogie-rock, if you will. But I'm listening to this song, and this is on my "skip" list. Thin Lizzy is not like Led Zeppelin for me. It's not like I'll listen to their boring shit, 'cause it's that amazing. This song's all right. It still isn't like in my top tier of Thin Lizzy. I really have to be in the fucking mood to listen to this song.

AVC: What mood is that?

RJ: You ever have moods where you can't get enough of a particular thing? Sometimes you might put on X group and you really want to hear your favorite songs, and sometimes you put on X group and you're like, "I don't care about what they're saying. I don't give a shit if they're a ballad or a rocker. If they're shredding or not, I'll listen to it." That's what I mean. I have to be in the full mood for things to get into a particular track.

I don't believe in the fucking concept of guilty pleasures. For me, there's music you like, and music you don't like.

U2, "Wake Up, Dead Man"

RJ: Here we go again. Basically, regurgitate my response from the first one.

AVC: Another Irish band, yeah.

RJ: Exactly. That's a little weird, right? Yeah, [Pop] isn't my favorite U2 album, and it's definitely not my favorite U2 song off of my not-favorite U2 album. It's not bad, though.

AVC: Do you still follow their more recent stuff?

RJ: It kind of trails off, you know? Didn't [Brian] Eno do a bunch of this shit? I think it's really slick, and I like the way that it sounds. I have an appreciation for it, and I think that it is very cool. Joshua Tree and Under A Blood Red Sky were like childhood records for me.

AVC: Are you always listening for stuff you could sample, or are you able to just listen to music?

RJ: I've graduated to essentially full-blown just listening to music for inspiration. So nothing on here, certainly nothing on my iPod, would be like sample-fodder music. I'm basically just looking for music to like. Sometimes I'll sit down and try to look for vague ideas or things that could get me inspired. Sometimes you just need some inspiration.

And this is normal, you know, ['60s songwriting-production team] Holland-Dozier-Holland talked about the same thing. I mean, they talk about ripping off gospel songs and stuff, so I don't feel bad about saying that I sit down and listen to music for particular information. You know, sometimes it's just about the sound, and a lot of times it's just about the chord progression for me, coming out of the world of—I'm sorry, I'm going to go off on a tangent here.

My introduction into making records was through a sampler, and that's what I did for a long time. All I had access to was a bunch of records and a sampler. And through doing that over a period of time and kind of coming out of it, I've realized that one of the reasons it works so well for me, one of the reasons psychologically I took to the process so well, was because I'm a problem-solver by nature. If you stick me in a void, I don't do so hot. As soon as there's one little thing to spark an idea, and then I have something to bounce off of—then I'm all right. But until I have that, like in that void, it's kind of hard. Does this make sense?

The reason that it correlates is because we're talking about music I listen to for inspiration, and sometimes all I need is one little idea, or just a turnaround, or a couple of chords, or a kind of groove or something; I can just take that one little idea and suck it out of that music and say, "Let me run with this. What would I have done with this? How would I improve upon it?" 'Cause that's exactly what you do with a sampler: You're just taking sounds and saying, "How can I take this and make it something that I envision?" But to just sit there and say, "Oh, let me come up with an idea"? I don't know how people do that. Songwriters that just sit in a fucking room and are like, "I'm going to write a song today," like Bob Dylan? That shit is genius to me. I don't understand how people can do that.

The Beatles, "Michelle"

RJ: [Rubber Soul is] my favorite Beatles album probably. What are you going to say about The Beatles? Is there anything new to be said? It's a level of pop-music writing that's the rulebook. Rulebook isn't even the way to put it. I honestly at this point don't think anyone's gonna—people at this point do different things, but in terms of writing sophisticated, intricate chord progression and harmonies, and at the same time resonating with people? I can't imagine a group cramming in as much interesting harmonic content, as well as such an extreme level of human emotion that just anybody can relate to. This is what's so brain about The Beatles: Even people that don't like music and don't give a fuck about this shit like The Beatles.

RJD2, "Salud"

RJ: This makes me feel embarrassed, humiliated. I have my own music on my own iPod.

AVC: You don't sound too thrilled. Why is it on your iPod, then? Do you listen to your own stuff?

RJ: Fuck no! I never listen to my own stuff.

AVC: Why not?

RJ: Just for the record, I'm not alone on this; a lot of musicians don't listen to their own music. But to put it on and just listen to it, all I hear is the process. All I hear is the time and place and process that I was going through. The fun in music to me is that you make the thing, you build this little thing, and you put it out in the world, and then you move on, go do something else. The process is fun to me.

I don't make stuff like I have an end result, and just sit back and listen to it. Sometimes I hear stuff, and it's not to say that I don't just hear mistakes—the funny part is that I wouldn't have heard something in a really, really long time, and then it'll come on and I'm like, "That's fucking awesome! I can't believe I did that. That is fucking great!" And it's like some little specific thing: I really took a long time to get that drum programming right, or whatever, some nerdy shit. It's not that I dislike it; it's just not an enjoyable experience for me. I've never sat down and listened to any of my—an album gets sent in for mastering, that's it, it's done. The fun part, I will admit this much, there is a period when listening to my music is fun, and that's when I'm making it. There's a tiny little window before something gets old, but after it's come to fruition. There's a little window there where I can listen to a song probably about five times, and I'll really think it's awesome. That's kind of the period that lets me know when I—99 percent of the time, that period is right about whether a song is going to be a keeper for an album or just a throwaway track that never gets—in that little window, if I attach myself to it, usually it means that there's something good about this, and I want to keep this song.

Narada Michael Walden, "Divine Emotions"

RJ: It's like early-'80s R&B-boogie; music, basically. You could also describe it as New York club music, '80 to '85, like, halfway between Cameo and Cybertron. Does that make sense? It's basically R&B;, it's just very experimental, and not all of it was drum machines. Sometimes they'd have drums, sometimes drum machines, sometimes it was a house-y kind of thing. It wasn't just Cameo straight-funk, even divisions and real clean-sounding. Some of the shit from this era, I really, really—it's just as inspiring as '69 The Meters or '73 James Brown. It's just from a different era, so it sounds different, different engineering, different instruments. But sometimes the grooves are just as tight and raw and super-inspiring.

AVC: How do you define "boogie"?

RJ: I guess I've used that word as two different terms. Like when I was talking about Thin Lizzy, it was more about a mid-'70s—like, what I would call "boogie-rock" is like ZZ Top-type shit, like Southern rock, hick-rock, or whatever. I'm real into some of that shit. I've heard this early '80s R&B-type; music. I've heard people refer to it as a classification. They call it "boogie." Which I don't fucking know, you know what I mean? [Laughs.] Early-'80s R&B; is the easiest way for me to classify it. If you're looking for some kind of common thread there, I think that at the end of the day, music and dance are forever intertwined. Some cultures don't have a separate word for music and dance; it's the same word to describe both.

To my knowledge, this notion of listening to music without dancing is a Western creation. On the whole, I feel like that's kind of the point. I don't know if that's the point of music, but I can't think of any artist that I love that doesn't inspire movement in some form or another. I mean, maybe like folk music, something like that. I guess Tangerine Dream or early Vangelis or something like that, you're not really going to dance. So there are minor exceptions, but on the whole, I feel like dancing and music are so naturally intertwined. I feel like subconsciously, that's the goal whenever I'm working on music. It's kind of the defining thing: Does it got some funk to it, basically?††

AVC: You said you don't like listening to your own music, but when you do, does it trigger that desire to dance?

RJ: Oh yeah, that's how I know. That's one of those things where if I'm working on a song and I'm in that stage where I can stand listening to the shit, that's how I can tell if something is worth its caliber, is if it makes me want to dance in the studio.

The Flaming Lips, "Are You A Hypnotist??"

RJ: I like them. I'm not like an across-the-board, all-the-albums devotee, but I really, really like [Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots]. It's kind of a perfect ground between a synth-y type of thing and still rocky. It's not too electronic, and it's got some really, really pleasant textures. I really like the production on this record a lot. It just sounds fucking awesome.

AVC: Did you track down the 5.1 mix of Yoshimi?

RJ: Nah. Even with my favorite groups, I'm not a completist. I remember hearing The Beatles Anthology, and there's some great stuff on the second anthology, but I don't want to hear that, and not because it's bad. There's something to me that is so powerful about hearing the catalogue of an artist as they intended it.

Look at the Queen catalogue, or the Public Enemy catalogue. If you start listening on the B-sides and remixes and all this other bullshit, it taints the big picture that they're trying to paint. You can look at the song as a picture and you can look at the album as a picture on just a different scale, so for me, a catalogue can be the same sort of thing. It's just parts of one big movement. And when you start listening to live bootlegs, outtakes, and all this B-sides and shit, it's just not my thing, because it fucks up the image of that.

AVC: Do you mind if your fans get into all that stuff with you?

RJ: Oh, why would I care what other people listen to? I'm just talking about what I'm into. That's a decision at this point that solely comes down to the listener. That stuff's been going on since at least the beginning of recorded music.

Jim Florentine, "No Walls"

RJ: [Laughs.] Just looking at my iPod right now, it's funny. I don't even have to listen—that's how funny this shit is, I think. I find [crank calls] just utterly hilarious. It's off Terrorizing Telemarketers 3. Have you ever heard any of these? Reverse crank calls? The telemarketers call him; he records them. But it's not totally altruistic, because he made his phone number known to these people, or whatever. [Laughs.] But anyway, this one, he's talking to this woman about ordering windows, replacement windows for his house, and she starts asking him questions describing his house. [Laughs.] The conversation comes out that he basically, and it sounds stupid, you've gotta hear it, but basically he doesn't have walls. The woman is like, "Describe your house. Do you have a door?" He's like, "No." "Do you have a wall?" "No." And she's like, "So the windows are just hanging there, in mid-air?" "Yeah." And he does it funny, and just drags it out. This is what he does. This record is absolutely, like completely, I mean at parts, it's sinister. Parts are kind of creepy for just pure laughter. Comedy records are like a godsend when you're on tour. At times it's just what you need to make it through the day. I've got a couple David Cross records, or I used to, I don't know if I still do. Just a couple spoken-word things here and there.

AVC: Are you a fan of Crank Yankers?

RJ: That's the weird part. Jim Florentine does the voice for some of them. Some of them are really funny, but I find the show kind of—after hearing this, Jim Florentine on Crank Yankers definitely doesn't hold up for me. Like, Jim Florentine is just way, way funnier [on record]. Every now and then, the show is really funny. [Crank Yankers] did a Wu-Tang [Clan] one. I can't even remember what it was about, but I remember it being funny as shit.

AVC: Have you ever done a crank call?

RJ: I never have. I've had too much of a moral streak. I guess when you're 8 or 10, everybody's made some pitifully lame prank calls, but not anything that's beyond post-adolescence, no. [Laughs.] I like to laugh at it, I think it's funny, but I just feel bad, like I'm wasting people's time [by crank calling].

AVC: Have you been the victim of a crank call?

RJ: I can't ever recall getting pranked, but you know who did some unbelievable pranks? When I was living in Columbus, I was in this rap group called MHz, and everybody in the group at one time or another worked as a bill collector. In fact, most of my friends at the period were bill collectors. According to Ohio law, a call has to be between two people, and if it's not going to be between two people, you need to disclose that. So this is actually really illegal, but one of the guys would call me up in the middle of work and say, "Hey watch me prank-call this guy." He would put me on two-way, and then he would call these guys that he was bill collecting for and just railroad them. I mean, it was unbelievable. It really gave me insight into what it meant to be a battle rapper. 'Cause that's all these guys did then, was like getting in battles, that's what they did. It gave me an amazing insight into the psychology of what it takes to basically get onstage and tell somebody that they suck, in a rhyming manner.

AVC: So why aren't more bill collectors battle rappers?

RJ: I'm willing to bet you that if you went through, there's an enormous amount of them, 'cause like I said, everybody at that group at one time or another had been a bill collector. And I knew other guys who were battle rappers, that's what they did for a living. So there is definitely a link between the two fields.

AVC: Why do they conference you on those calls?

RJ: So I could hear the way they would treat someone. I would listen to him call these people, and he would just lambaste them. It was unbelievable, the shit they would end up saying to each other. He had people threatening to come find him and kill him, and he wouldn't even blink, he'd just keep on rolling with his assault.

AVC: What skills transfer into battle rapping? Just being confrontational?

RJ: Yeah, being confrontational, being able to think on your feet, and not getting flustered in a scenario where somebody is screaming at the top of their lungs at you or threatening the shit out of you, insulting you, insulting your intelligence and your well-being and your family and all that.

AVC: What was your job at the time?

RJ: God, a lot of things. I don't even remember exactly, but it was either working in a kitchen, being a waiter, I was a bank teller for a while, I delivered pizzas and did odd jobs, like housework or yard-work kind of stuff.

AVC: Do you think there are skills from those jobs that transfer into what you're doing now?

RJ: No, not really. Well, I guess frugality. But I was just raised like that—it's a way I've always been. It's in my blood. I'm always looking for a way to either not buy something, get something for free, not spend money on something, get something for cheap, or negotiate my way down on something.

AVC: That's the American way.

RJ: It is. Really.

RJD2, "Evening Gospel"

RJ: What the fuck? Shuffle, lame. I don't want to hear it. [Laughs.] Know what I mean? I mean, all these kinds of emotions and shit that get judged and rated. It's kind of like a conversation. I mean, remember the last really involved conversation you had with your girlfriend or significant other or whatever, and then think, "Do I want to have that conversation again?" Imagine there was a recording of that conversation. Like, "I'm going to have to hear that shit right now?" No way, you know? It's not, "Oh, this is too terrible," it's just involving. Music shouldn't be that much. [Laughs.] Skip.

Weezer, "El Scorcho"

RJ: I'm a really big fan of their first two records. And I really, really love [Pinkerton].

AVC: And after Pinkerton?

RJ: It's fine. It's cool. I guess it's one of those things where if you're going to keep doing the same kind of thing, it's inevitable that some things are going to succeed more than others. You write 10 of a very particular kind of song, it's just unrealistic to expect all 10 of those songs to be incredible. So for me, what kind of ends up happening is, the stuff that doesn't succeed as much as your other stuff, your 60 percentile and below—I don't know if they taint the good shit, but it's like, "Well… You can't expect to write the same song over and over again and always do it brilliantly."

It's interesting, there's enough variation within the songwriting to keep it interesting for me. But then they do this other shit that is like cut completely from the same cloth in terms of production and sound and style and stuff, and yet there's just something about it that's not really there. I've also heard this Pinkerton record a million times, and I listened to it over the summer, and it was kind of the first time I had sat down and really avidly listened to the album since I got really serious about singing. And I realized there are so many flubbed notes on this album. It's all over the place, and it's really awesome. It's really inspiring to me. There are some background vocals on here that are just sour as shit. It's just so inspiring to me, because I was just like, "It does not matter." It just doesn't make a difference. Nobody cares. It doesn't make the record any less enjoyable.

The Beatles, "Goodnight"

RJ: I swear I have more music on my iPod, but I don't know what's up with shuffle. Does shuffle always put the same shit? I think it's a fitting end to a very surreal album. It's appropriate for The Beatles, I can say that much.

AVC: Speaking of singing, Ringo sings "Goodnight."

RJ: I was wondering who the fuck that was, 'cause I was like, "That's definitely not John." So okay, that makes sense. Again, The Beatles are so hard for me to talk about, I don't feel like I'm going to say anything new, 'cause I've talked to death about The Beatles in my lifetime.