Last year proved to be something of a banner year for genre-smudging Philadelphia musician/producer RJD2. The man known to his family as Ramble John Krohn made a strong name for himself back in 2002 with his debut album, Dead Ringer, positioning him as the leading light in instrumental hip-hop music—a successor to DJ Shadow’s throne. Over the course of five years, RJD2 broadened his sound to eventually include 2007’s The Third Hand, an album in the pop/rock vein made sans samples and featuring RJ’s own singing. Critical response was mixed at best, and a relative quiet followed, until RJ dropped a bombshell of a press release last September. Not only did he have a new record on the way—The Colossus, out January 19—but he’d started his own record label, acquired the masters to his two Def Jux albums and EP, was reissuing those as part of a vinyl box set, and had digitally released three long out-of-print independent records to boot. As he hits the road behind The Colossus for a U.S. tour that stops at 9:30 Club Saturday, Jan. 9 and extends into April, RJD2 appears to be stretching his fortuitous run into the new year. When The A.V. Club caught up with RJD2, he was in Ohio, rehearsing with his touring band.
The A.V. Club: You’re suddenly in the enviable position of having your own studio, your own label, and your own audience. How long have you aspired to be in this exact situation?
RJD2: No aspiring whatsoever. I’ve found that in life, and certainly in music, it’s all just a series of occurrences in which you are constantly assessing the potential outcome of your decisions based on past precedence. As an aside, this is apparently the defining factor in science that separates artificial intelligence from human consciousness. One thing that our brains are really good at is taking a bunch of answers and extrapolating the question, whereas in computing, you input a question and it will provide an answer. So in my case, I had several answers already—realizing those old records had never been released digitally, having reacquired the Def Jux masters, and having completed a new record—and the question was: “Should I start a record label?”
AVC: In a recent press release you said that you’re “much more concerned with making a timeless record than [with] how to sell a record.” Doesn’t running a label make that more difficult, in that you’re taking on the burden of selling as well?
RJ: Ironically, I feel like it’s the exact opposite. You’re right, I am taking on that burden but I’m doing so in what, to me, is the most practical, sensible, low-overhead method possible. I can outsource some of the work that needs to be done—an example being hiring a publicist or somebody to work radio—but being in charge of those decisions is what makes the difference. I feel like this is the most sustainable approach for almost any artist, really.
AVC: “RJ’s Electrical Connections” sounds like the name of a vintage instrument repair shop. Did you put a lot of thought into the naming of your label?
RJ: That’s actually, originally, the name of my publishing company, which was started in back in 2000 or 2001. But that is the reason that I chose it, because I’ve always been into repairing instruments and electronics and taking things apart. As for naming the label that, I didn’t really want to have two different LLCs in the state of Pennsylvania, so I was like, “Aw, fuck it.”
AVC: The label’s first physical release was the vinyl box set, 2002—2010. A couple of reviews have referred to the title as being misleading, as the bulk of the material spans just 2002 to 2004. What’s your response to that?
RJ: Here’s the reason: It’s supposed to have some foresight. You’ve got my first three records [Dead Ringer, The Horror EP, Since We Last Spoke], which were done, you’re right, between 2002 and 2004, along with this extra EP of unreleased material from that period. But the box is actually constructed to hold that, plus The Third Hand and The Colossus—it’s a little bit too big, but it’s exactly sized for those additional records. Furthermore, the cover is a collage of all five record covers, so you look at it kind of like one of those “schooner” eye-trick things. So, right now, yes, it’s a misleading title. When The Colossus is out, it will be accurate.
AVC: That’s kinda cocky.
RJ: That’s a totally fair assessment. What it is for me, even more, is that I’m willing to be misunderstood. I’ve never had a problem being misunderstood by a portion of people on any particular issue if it makes for that much more of a special experience for those who understand. I think The Third Hand was an example of that. I knew going into that record that it would piss people off. What tipped the scale in my decision to put that record out was that, well, to be utterly frank with you, for the people who appreciate it, this would almost be like a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I don’t think any of my peers would be willing to sing all over a record like that. That was an appealing thing to me.
AVC: While on the topic of The Third Hand, do you have plans on reacquiring that as well?
RJ: I’d love to, but XL Records’ lawyers are fucking ninjas. I don’t think that’s in the cards.
AVC: All of these new changes and endeavors can’t be cheap. Did selling “A Beautiful Mine” to Lionsgate to use as the Mad Men theme help make this possible?
RJ: [Laughs.] Fuck no. If you want to talk about money, we should be talking about [licensing songs to] Wells Fargo or Saturn, or my XL advance and touring income. I’m not trying to be smart or say that it was unfair. I’m just saying, I wasn’t walking away with six figures.
AVC: You’ve said you don’t regret selling that song in its whole, hence negating future royalties, but clearly you’d stand to make more money if you still owned the publishing.
RJ: It’s a live-and-learn thing, you know? I generally don’t regret decisions that have poor outcomes for me because that’s the best way you can learn, but they were completely adamant about buying the publishing. It had to happen on their terms, and really, it’s just one song. If it hadn’t been used for this, it probably wouldn’t be generating royalties that would equal what I was paid for it. More importantly, that song, A) Is the theme to one of my favorite shows on television and, B) It’s been referenced on The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live. It was worth it.
AVC: So coming off of the first RJD2 record to predominantly feature live music, zero guests, and your own singing, what tack did you choose in approaching The Colossus?
RJ: There were two goals. After intentionally limiting myself to sounds that I could generate on my own, I thought that it would be fun to do the exact opposite and pull in as many outside sounds and tones as I could. Goal number two was… Every time I’ve done a record, I’ve been looking to see how I can progress, bring in new elements and approaches. When I started thinking about this record, I realized there’s so much that I’ve already done that I could do this as almost a retrospective of writing methodologies. That was really fun because it allowed me to switch between these hugely disparate techniques: from using a sampler to make a song, to starting with acoustic drums and building from the ground up.
AVC: And this record marks your debut behind a physical drum kit. That seems surprising for someone so percussion-oriented.
RJ: I just hadn’t had that much time practicing behind the drum kit. I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time listening to, thinking about, and programming drum parts, but it’s completely different. One of the beautiful things about using a sampler is since you are so detached from traditional technique, you’re forced to have a macro perspective of the project. With an instrument, it’s the opposite. With drums specifically, there’s nothing that provides more instant gratification and nothing that’s funner to play. I don’t care how good you are at it, but if you don’t enjoy playing drums, you aren’t in touch with a facet of your humanity. Really.
AVC: Your last record, The Third Hand, received some of the lowest reviews that you’ve gotten. Did that have any bearing on your approach to this record?
RJ: Nah. If I was really trying to hold my ass tight for what I thought someone out there wanted, I wouldn’t be singing on this record. I would make Dead Ringer again. I don’t feel the need to be apologetic about that record or my singing. I think the criticism has more to do with a perceived line between instrumental and vocal music, which I understand. I didn’t want to make The Third Hand again in the same way that I haven’t wanted to recreate any of the records I’ve made.
AVC: In your September press release, you hinted that all of this is only a portion of what you’ve got planned. What else do we have to look forward to?
RJ: I have a lot of music recorded, and I don’t think all of it is going to come out under the RJD2 name. I have a collaborative record that’s almost done, and at least one album’s worth of proper RJD2 material as well.
AVC: Can you say who the collaborative record is with?
RJ: I’d rather not. I’m reticent to talk about a bunch of shit all at once. I don’t want to take the focus off of this record. Also, I’ve tried to work in a themed manner. For me albums happen within their own context. These last few things that I’ve been working on have been very… maybe “goal-oriented” is the way to put it. They are supposed to be bodies of work.
AVC: Any plans to sign other artists to RJ’s Electrical Connections?
RJ: I’m open to it, but this comes back to the sustainability thing. I’m not an aspiring Ahmet Ertegen or Clive Davis. I’m not an A&R; I’m a guy who makes records. If I find some great records that need to get put out and it’s the right time to do it, I’m more than willing, but if the only thing I ever put out is my own records, that is perfectly fine with me.