Artist Spotlight: RJD2 – ’70s Soul, Underground Hip Hop, and Don Draper

I primarily know RJD2 as a DJ/producer who creates R&B/soul-inflected soundscapes from obscure samples, reflecting and refracting their original sources to make music that never existed before simultaneously sound like a reverent homage. But I say “primarily,” because I don’t think that’s how RJ sees himself, or what he ever wanted to be.

Born Ramble John Krohn, RJD2 got his start in the Columbus, Ohio, underground hip hop scene, as a member of the crew MHz. Their early work, which RJ produced, sounds exactly how I expect underground East Coast hip hop to sound: a spare beat, MCs rapping faster than just about anyone else, and a brief moment in the middle for the DJ to show off.

That came out on a 12-inch in 1999. Three of MHz’s members joined The Weathermen after that, an influential New York crew that also included El-P and Aesop Rock. RJD2 stayed in Columbus, working on his first solo record, Deadringer. It came out in 2002 and blew us all away.

I guess they use the term “instrumental hip hop” for music like this. DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing is an obvious influence, but RJD2 takes things in a different direction. Where Shadow’s groundbreaking record leaned more toward triphop and illbeint, RJ’s music is often more fun, and looks to the 1960s and ’70s for inspiration. That horn blast in the first seconds of “The Horror” is from the opening credits of Hanna-Barbera’s The New Scooby-Doo Movies, which aired in 1972. The vocal sample is from a 1963 children’s Halloween record called Famous Monsters Speak! (it’s Frankenstein’s monster talking).

Anyway, this album is tight as all hell. Why talk when we can listen?

“Good Times Roll Pt. 2” – the vocals appear to be a slowed-down version of Muddy Waters’ 1954 verison of “Hoochie Coochie Man”; the horns are sampled from dirty comedy singer Blowfly’s 1980 track “Nobody’s Butt but Yours, Babe”

“Smoke and Mirrors” – the vocal sample is from Columbus soul singer Marion Black’s “Who Knows” (1970)

After Deadringer and its near-universal acclaim, RJD2 became an in-demand indie rap producer. Over the next few years, he provided beats for MF Doom, Aceyalone, Pigeon John, Diverse, Vast Aire, Cage, and a few other dudes I never heard of. In 2003, he teamed up with rapper Blueprint and released a record under the name Soul Position. While it maintained the underground hip-hop sound I’ve come to expect, RJD2 (being the bigger name at the time) took a more prominent role as DJ and producer.

2004 saw RJ’s second solo album, Since We Last Spoke. Like its predecessor, it’s full of upbeat tracks, sampled from god-only-knows where, combining big drum breaks with atmospheric production that envelops you in its sound. I’d say the mixes are farther from RJD2’s underground hip-hop roots this time out—there are more samples, they’re individually cleaned up a bit more, and he starts to employ typical EDM techniques, like messing with the EQ, or even dropping the beat.

That hot track was the walking-in music at my wedding reception. Go figure. The samples are Puerto Rican singer Sophy’s 1972 cut “Un Amor Original” and German dance-pop duo Cora’s 1982 song “Istanbul.”

Another Soul Position record followed in 2006, as did a collaboration with rapper Aceyalone, called Magnificent City. This latter was the first instance where RJD2 realized that, in doing these collabs, he could get two bites at the apple, by releasing a second record, same as the first but without vocals. Ordinarily, these would not be important albums, and only of interest to hardcore fans. But Magnificent City Instrumentals has one track that I think you maybe might have possibly heard before.

The string section is sampled from Enoch Light’s 1940s version of “Autumn Leaves” (thanks, AV Club!) and the drums are from Bernard Purdie’s 1972 “Heavy Soul Slinger” (thanks, obsessive Googling). RJD2 got no royalties from Mad Men‘s use of the song, because he sold the full publishing rights to AMC, meaning he only got the up-front payment. “I am not bitter about it, even though, financially speaking, people think I am driving a Ferrari now, and believe me, I’m not,” he told Electronic Musician magazine two years ago. Sure.

This is where RJD2’s career takes a wild swerve. For some reason, at this point, he decided that he was going to be a pop-rock musician. On his next solo album, 2007’s The Third Hand, RJ played live instruments (which he then sampled) and sang. Now, I don’t begrudge him the desire to try a new direction and fight against being pigeonholed. Many artists in similar positions have made that move, like Kanye West or Pharrell Williams. But RJ is no Pharrell. And considering he gave an interview to in 2004 where he derided his work providing beats for rappers as “moron music,” most fans weren’t feeling very forgiving at this point.

Some of the songs on The Third Hand are merely mediocre, and some are straight-up bad. The funny thing is, if RJD2 was not a successful DJ and producer before this record came out, it might have gotten some positive attention for its unusual mix of live-recorded samples, hip hop production, and eerie vocals. But since we’d already seen what he was capable of, it was a letdown.

RJ spent two years touring after The Third Hand, leaving little time for production work. His next solo outing, 2010’s The Colossus, is generally hailed as a return to form, though it wasn’t quite as good as his first two records. There are more synth-oriented cuts, fewer ’70s samples, and several songs that I assume RJ planned to sing himself, then wisely chose to bring on some actual vocalists for the final product.

The slow unraveling of the RJD2 persona continued. In 2011, he put out two side-project records: We Are the Doorways, a synth homage to ’70s and ’80s sci-fi and horror movies, released under the name The Insane Warrior; and The Abandoned Lullaby, a collaboration with indie singer Aaron Livingston, which the duo released under the name Icebird. The former is pretty forgettable, like listening to your cousin cover the score from The Thing on a Casio in your basement. The latter comes off half-baked: the songs start out strong, then don’t go anywhere good.

You’re probably noticing that by this time, I was pretty down on RJ. He came out of nowhere with two great solo records, got another track picked up for a huge hit TV show, and then spent the next ten years underwhelming us with side projects and failed attempts at finding a new sound. It wasn’t until 2013 that we finally got the follow-up record we were waiting for.

More Is Than Isn’t is more than just a comeback—it’s a synthesis of everywhere RJD2 has been since he started mixing beats. This record has the energy, soul, and dig-worthy samples of his first solo forays; the contemplative approach of his misfired follow-ups; the cream of the crop from his stable of regular collaborators; and a smooth incorporation of the synthesizer experimentation from his later side projects. RJ even sings on one track, and it ain’t half bad.

Listening to this album is like watching a favorite sports team you’d given up on win the championship after years of failure. You know when someone says, “I can die happy now”? That’s how I feel, knowing that RJD2 was still able to harness that greatness one last time. I almost don’t even care how this year’s Dame Fortune, the sixth RJD2 solo record, ended up sounding. And yet, that’s a solid record too.

It’s more spacey, more searching, but also maybe more predictable: it sounds like what you expect an RJD2 spacey and searching album to sound like. I’ll leave it to your personal taste as to whether that’s a good thing. “Limit your experimentation to the realm your fans are willing to put up with” is a solid mantra for commercial success, even in a niche music scene like underground instrumental hip hop. RJ ventured farther than we wanted and got burned, then came home like a conquering hero. Only he knows how he feels about that.