Reverb Interview: RJD2 on Gear, Samples and Collaboration

If you think you haven’t heard the music of RJ Krohn, better known as producer and multi-instrumentalist RJD2, you’re probably wrong. From Acura commercials to the Mad Men theme song, RJ’s music can be found all over the place, and it’s not hard to see why: whether instrumental or with guest vocalists, his music has a certain accessibility without being boring, contrived or overdone.

Although RJD2 started out as a young ’un on the piano, he graduated to sampler and synthesizer rather quickly, making him a mainstay in the underground hip hop scene ever since the release of his highly lauded album Deadringer in 2002. Since then, RJ hasn’t stopped. He’s released 10 albums over the last 14 years as a solo artist and in groups like Soul Position and Icebird.

RJD2 had a chat with Reverb about his beloved Yamaha CS-80, what kind of art informs his songwriting, the artists he’d kill to work with, and how he goes about creating songs out of everyday sounds.

When did you start making music, and what kind of gear were you using?

I’ve gone through a bunch of musical experiences since I was young. I took piano lessons and then my mom got me a guitar, I think around maybe 10 or 12 years old. And that was my primary instrument.

I played in bands and stuff up through high school. And then I got exposed to the hip hop scene here in Columbus, and that took over the next 10 years of my life — almost 10 years of not really playing a traditional instrument. First I got turntables, then a sampler, then I got an MPC and started making beats. So that was my primary focus for a long time.

And then after I had made a couple records, I got to a point where dusting off the traditional ability to write and record music became beneficial. There was an impetus for it. That brought me back into playing “real” instruments, and at that point I got really into synthesizers; now I’m a little more proficient as a keyboardist than I am as a guitar player or anything else.

You did a “Song Exploder” podcast a while back and mentioned you love the Yamaha CS-80. Can you elaborate a little on that?

Oh yeah, I was just working with the sampler for the longest time. But I was looking at records to see what the instrumentation was like, so I was always cataloging in my head the correlation between what sounds I was hearing and what people were playing; and the CS-80, you don’t see it that often. It doesn’t appear on that many records.

Vangelis was famous for using it on many, many recordings. It’s fairly prominent in the “Chariots of Fire” theme but also the theme to the “Blade Runner” movie. It’s a favorite of mine, and I always loved the way the score sounded.

I had been looking for one for years and I finally started putting a price on it — like, “Hey, this is my price. I’ll pay, cash in hand. No B.S.” And that was the turning point where I sourced one; that was around, maybe, 2008, 2009? Because the record I did the Song Exploder on, that album came out in 2010. And I used the CS-80 a lot on that recording.

1977 Yamaha CS-80

You also mentioned in that "Song Exploder" that your gear informs what you’re writing.

Yeah, definitely. It’s particularly apt with analog synthesizers because, in my experience, they all have a path of least resistance to particular places. So there’s a lot of crossover; you could emulate a CS-80 with, for example, an Oberheim OB-XA, but it would be a little bit longer to get to that place on the Oberheim than it will on the CS-80.

And then there’s a number of other machines — if you really work hard, you can start to emulate them — but they all have their strengths and weaknesses. And because of that, that’s the most obvious correlation for me.

Sonic Youth is a band that’s really taken it to its logical extension, where there’s a bunch of guitars and they all have different tunings and there are screwdrivers jammed in ’em and so on. My guess is that they set themselves up for a handicap with a particular instrument, and then they work within that handicap because interesting things can often come out of that experience.

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I’ve read that you draw a lot of inspiration from film and television — is that still true? What do you find inspiring about those mediums?

Yeah. Those are the first that come to mind, but they’re not the only types of art I’d say I pull inspiration from. Music inspires and informs me in many ways, but it’s also fairly easy to be inspired by music in a very direct manner, where the translation becomes very direct. It’s hard for it to not creep into your musical lexicon.

So the experience of my favorite films and TV shows and art that isn’t music, there’s a lot that I can draw from because ultimately those mediums have a contour: they have a beginning, a middle and an end; and there are a million ways to approach that and there’s a lot to be done with it. So that is often a place of inspiration for me.

A big part of it is that it is not such a direct thing; you’re not going to come away from Inception and say, “That’s a killer turnaround going into the second chorus,” or whatever, or, “Wow, that’s an awesome lick,” and to me, that’s a good thing.

RJD2 - "The Sheboygan Left"

How have you changed as a songwriter since Deadringer?

Technically I’ve gotten a lot more proficient, but that’s not necessarily always a good thing. But that’s the natural path, whatever your art is. It’s a fool’s errand to try to stay at one particular level of technical prowess. You’re going to want to get better and to have new experiences, and I’m no different.

The struggle in that is that it’s easy to look chronologically at the nuts and bolts of the records that I’ve made and say: Yes, it’s technically better; the mixes are better; the chord changes have hopefully gotten more interesting, and the arrangement and composition have gotten more complex. That doesn’t necessarily translate to a better listening experience for a fan.

So therein lies the rub: I struggle to look at what I’m doing from different points of view. I work to consider the immediacy that some of the music that I’ve made earlier on in my career might have, even though it might be more technically primitive. I still work to appreciate it for what it is and try to learn from the stuff that I naturally outgrow. Does that make sense?

RJD2

Yeah, it does. So what do you think translates into a better listening experience?

Well, I don’t think there is an objective good, that’s the other difficult thing. I don’t let any particular part of this dominate my thinking about music, you know? Most people probably experience music within the context of what they’re hearing at that time.

As an artist, you you’re making records within the context of your own catalog. But the listener is hearing it in the context of what’s coming out that year. So that’s the difficulty: there’s an inherent amount of luck there.

First and foremost, I’ve got to make music that I’m happy with, and if that leads me to a place that isn’t going to please the listener, then so be it. I’ve decided that’s the most sincere way to go about making records. I’m not trying to piss anybody off [laughs], I’m not trying to be abrasive with the records. I’m not actively trying to make anybody angry [laughs] or have anybody write me off or anything like that. It’s my duty to be aware of these contextual issues, but I don’t feel obliged to follow them or change my path because of them.

You’ve done a lot of collaborations — is that really different, or do you find that you follow the same pattern in terms of your songwriting?

No, it’s different. The beauty of collaborating with people is that the responsibility of completing the song is not entirely on me. And I like that. At the same time, there’s a challenge in that you’re giving up a certain level of control. I vacillate between collaborating on records and then doing solo records, and that works for me because I end up getting to scratch both itches. It’s good for me to go in and out of being in total control.

Often times when I’m collaborating on a record, it changes your perspective and certain things are off the table; I’m not going to pitch some super-weird instrumental thing that might work in the context of a solo record, so it definitely changes how you think about a record.

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Which artists would you love to collaborate with?

There’s a zillion and one players and singers and rappers. D’Angelo is always going to be first on my list because he’s pretty much my favorite modern working singer. But there’s a dude that I recently got hip to named Alan Stone, who’s an awesome singer. He’s got a record out on Capitol. People that I’ve worked with, like Phonte Coleman, he’s a guy that I’ve done a lot of song-by-song collaborations with, but we’ve never had the chance to make a whole album together, and people are asking all the time about that. MF Doom, again, a guy that I got a chance to work with once but I totally would again. Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper, you know, there’s a lot.

You did a collaboration with Phonte Coleman on your most recent album; can you tell us about the making of “Dame Fortune,” the gear you used and what the process was like?

Akai MPC2000XL

Pretty much everything was recorded in Pro Tools. There was an assortment of mics. For the most part, the signal path would be either microphone, preamp right into the machine, and then the MPC somewhat extensively, the MPC2000XL, the Akai.

I also used the Native Instruments Maschine. I’m not quite as proficient with it but it’s incredibly powerful and I love it. I’m always stuck between wanting to learn stuff and wanting to do stuff with the things that I know, so the Maschine is just this thing that I struggle with because it’s so great, but I’ve only scratched the surface with it. I’m not proficient with it the way that I am with other stuff.

So I really wanna take two weeks and learn it like the back of my hand, but what’ll happen is I’ll start that, end up doing the first half of a track, and I’ll be like, “Oh, I’m just going to work on this song,” [laughs]. That’s kind of the challenge there.

The CS-80 is on there, I love that thing, the ARP 2600 is in there, and then there are some odds and ends, but that’s kind of the meat and potatoes of it.

What was your favorite track to record on this album?

The opening and closing tracks are the ones that I’m happiest with. Not to say that I think they’re better songs, but because I can still get some listening enjoyment out of them. But they’re all different experiences. There’s a song called “A New Theory” on this record that I struggled for a long time with. You know, sometimes things come easily and sometimes things don’t, and this is one of those things that really did not come easily at all. For the longest time, I hated that piece of music because I had to fight it tooth and nail to get it where I could end it. So that was satisfying to struggle and emerge with something that was actually usable. But that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes you fight and fight and then you give up and you say, “Screw it, this isn’t going anywhere.”

RJD2

Do you build a song around your samples or do you look for samples for existing compositions?

It can actually go both ways, but the easiest way for it to happen is you come across this sample and you end up building a song around it. But there are times where I’ll retrofit stuff. An organic piece of music comes about and maybe it needs something happening on top, and what’s right for it is something sample-based, or maybe I just wanted to take a detour in the middle of something or something like that.

So every now and then I do end up retrofitting a sample-based thing into something that started more organically. The beauty of working with samples to me is that it takes you into a place that you would never go. It pushes you into detours or down paths that you wouldn’t normally go and that’s a very fun thing to follow after.

Do you find your samples in everyday life, YouTube or wherever you hear something cool?

Pretty much, yeah [laughs]. You’ve gotta train yourself to keep your ears open and once you can think about sound in a musique concrete-esque way, then you’re able to do it more and more.

That’s pretty cool. I don’t think I’d be able to do that.

It’s a blessing and a curse, honestly. Good and bad.

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