Back to the Future
Music Preview: RJD2
For progressive hip-hop producer RJD2, "in-demand" is a way of life. A one-man ambassador of the beat, his behind-the-scenes credits cover an amazing range of styles and genres. Work for hip-hop talents such as El-P, Mos Def and Cannibal Ox has led to cross-genre experiments with indie-rockers and other hairy beasts. A list of celebrity admirers including Radiohead, The Strokes and avant filmmaker David Lynch suggests that RJD2 probably DJs the best parties. His new disc, Since We Last Spoke, expands the palette of hip-hop while maintaining his underground cred. The forward-looking "producer and remixer extraordinaire" recently spoke to Seven Days in advance of his gig this Sunday at Nectar's.
SEVEN DAYS: At what age did you realize that music was the thing for you?
RJD2: Since I was about 10 years old, music has been my preferred hobby... I still to this day don't really feel like a musician, I feel kind of like a band masquerading as a dude that manages to make music for a living.
SD: What music were you first turned on to?
RJD2: Oh, I remember Michael Jackson, Run-DMC, The Fresh Prince... I was buying tapes, but I didn't have much money. Honestly, what I remember doing was dubbing stuff off the radio. I had this little piece-of-shit boombox, and I remember waiting around for Tears for Fears songs all day so I could tape 'em.
SD: Did you start out playing instruments, or were turntablism and production your introduction to creating music?
RJD2: Oh, no -- I played a little bit in bands. I played drums, and guitar a little bit. You know, as a hack. I ended up going to a vocational music program in high school. For half of the day I'd be studying music theory and composition, typical shit. I didn't learn anything, really... I'm glad for school, but the stuff that's important is the intuitive shit.
SD: Your production background is pretty legendary. Was it an easy transition for you to become the focus of attention?
RJD2: Um, it wasn't anything I was consciously avoiding, but I never really sought it, either. I just try to stay business-minded about shit. I say, 'What is my goal here?' My goal is to make records and have fun. If that means I have to do photo shoots and stuff, I'm not opposed, but I'm not crazy about it. It's all just forms of marketing. Some people like that kind of thing, some people don't. Some people just want to hear a record and don't give a fuck about what you look like.
SD: Do you have any formula in your approach to production? Do you start with a beat, a melody line, a sample? What's the process?
RJD2: I used to just sit down, cross my fingers and hope that something happened! Now I try to stay a bit more organized. I collect drum breaks, bass lines -- I try to put sticky-notes on all my records. Ninety-five percent of the time, I'm looking for something very specific -- 'I need a string section here,' or something. Some of the new record is "live," so I've been buying keyboards, amps and microphones... I'm trying to get my shit together when it comes to engineering live records. I'm not a Chick Corea-type dude, but with the help of the sampler and all that shit, I can recreate the sounds of those records. I'm trying to read up, get pictures -- I want to get inside the minds of the people who engineered these albums.
SD: The age of the computer has forever altered people's approach to music production. Do you prefer analog or digital, or a hybrid?
RJD2: They both provide their own things, you know? The more I learn about it, there isn't a huge difference. From a layman's perspective, you see these huge rifts. It's kinda like religion and science. When you're 15, you see the two as polar opposites. The older you get, the more you see things they have in common.
SD: Do you leave room for creative re-interpretations in your sets, or do you pretty much perform what's on the records?
RJD2: The goal is to make it a musical experience that doesn't sound just like the record -- it's unique to the show. I try to avoid letting a song run the way it is on the album. Almost every song has a new section that I've prepared that's in key and in time. Think of it as a remix for one verse or a bridge. I can't really change it too much, 'cause it's such a preparation thing. But the scratches are different, and parts are switched up.
SD: You seem to be stepping away from "traditional" hip-hop productions. How has the hip-hop community responded to your evolution, and do you care?
RJD2: I don't think about it too much. With the first record [Dead Ringer], the hardcore hip-hop guys were relieved it still had stuff on it that they could push on their friends. With the new one, I think some of the underground kids are pissed off about it. But if somebody doesn't like it, somebody doesn't like it. I feel like if you need to hear some rap music, there's plenty. And there's plenty of shit that I did [as producer] last year! I mean, go buy that Aceyalone record, that Soul Position record, that Diverse album.
SD: Hip-hop is becoming a more universal language. Why do you think this is?
RJD2: At the heart of it, I think that black American culture has, for the last 80 years, fascinated the whole world. It's fascinated white America. It's fascinated Europe. It's fascinated Japan; if you go to Japan, you'll see hardcore Blue Note-style jazz clubs, and in Europe, dudes are painting trains. They take graffiti very seriously, and they're so by-the-book. Historically, New York hip-hop culture is the shit. For whatever reason, 99 percent of the important things that have happened in American music in the last hundred years have come out of the black community.
SD: Where do you feel hip-hop is heading? What would you like to see more of in the scene?
RJD2: I'd like to see people taking five years to do an album. Recording technology got real cheap real fast. Making a CD got real cheap real fast. Everyone's got a demo. Music is becoming so disposable that people are taking the approach of, 'I'm gonna do a record in a week. If it sucks, cool, I'll try again.' I want something that raises the bar, like Outkast's Stankonia. I try to do that with my records. On a technical level, I'm out for blood!