Hip-hop producer extraordinaire RJD2's slight frame is nearly encircled by a heavy weave of electronic wiring and a half-ton of clumpy amplifiers and miscellaneous sound equipment. It's the sound check for RJD2's San Francisco album release party, and although he's politely fielding questions, he's also obviously distracted with the task at hand; singing stabs of feedback punctuate the conversation, and his answers trail off as he submerges himself further into the machine.
Most DJs of RJD2's stature would've left the details of setting up their equipment to the sound techs and stagehands. But RJD2 rejects their help, shooing away various hired hands as he meticulously interconnects his four turntables, two mixers and an MPC (drum machine/sampler). It's the sort of attention to detail that has come to characterize a body of work that is among the most compelling to emerge in hip-hop's past decade. Radiohead, the Roots and the Strokes all have publicly sung his praises. And music publications such as Spin, Vice and Pitchfork Media have placed his albums on their year-end best albums lists.
"Till the day I die, my whole agenda is going to be 'Let me pick a project and do it to the most artistically fullest extent,' " RJD2 says. And we're prone to believe him. As he scorns the help from sound techs before bouncing over to his merchandise booth to ensure that everything is in order, it's clear that RJD2 is obsessive and more than a little anal-retentive.
And while these are all common traits of a bedroom tech geek, the complexity and nuance of RJD2's work almost ensures that his music will never reach the mainstream ears that he secretly covets. Like many underground producers, RJD2 has the tendency to focus on technical nuance, an esoteric approach that often emphasizes the process over the product. To combat this, RJD2 plans to next do what no one expected: make the sort of bouncy club record that serves as the antithesis of his previous output.
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"I don't want to be overthinking things," RJD2 says. "That's why this goal [of making a club record] makes sense. I don't want to make a record for just a small market."
A native of Columbus, Ohio, RJD2 first burst onto the hip-hop scene with his 2002 sampledelica masterpiece, Dead Ringer. A revelation for many, it's perhaps the most acclaimed instrumental hip-hop album of the decade. Melding the hip-hop tradition of raw, gritty samples with a more classic approach to song structure, Dead Ringer leaped musical boundaries in single, seamless bounds, scavenging the outer realms of late-20th-century music for nuggets of psych-garage, obscure funk and wobbly blues. RJD2 held together this potpourri of pop culture with a steady, palatable procession of easily recognizable melodies and head-nodding rhythms.
Dead Ringer was challenging yet ultimately rewarding, and experimental without being obscure. RJD2 applied this formula to his next endeavors, a collaborative album with emcee Blueprint and a series of backing productions for some of underground hip-hop's biggest names. While his work with such stalwarts such as Aceyalone, El-P, Mos Def and Prince Po established him as a go-to producer along the lines of Pete Rock, Madlib or Diamond D, many of his fans patiently waited for him to return to the instrumental hip-hop terrain that had made him a household name -- at least if you live in a very hip house.
His proper follow-up to Dead Ringer, 2004's Since We Last Spoke,is among the most adventurous and ambitious albums of the year, incorporating elements of Philly Soul and greasy rock to continue to break down the barriers between seemingly disparate genres. A consummate conceptualist -- for better or worse -- RJD2 originally had wanted to record a straight-up rock record using nothing but samples.
"The Strokes and White Stripes had come out with their albums, and you kept hearing about the second coming of rock, but the records weren't what I was expecting," RJD2 tells me. "I was expecting this big psychedelic and funky sound, and none of these groups were doing what I wanted them to. So I decided to record my own rock record."
Although he soon abandoned this conceptual framework -- citing the absurdity of the notion of an electronic producer "saving rock" -- the remnants of that rock record are still evident in such songs as the title track and "Exotic Talk." The album was also a bit more nuanced and less visceral than Dead Ringer, a quality that RJD2 would discover during subsequent touring.
"I have a new perspective because I'm listening to it on really big systems in clubs," RJD2 says. "Since We Last Spoke is a lot more of a refined record and in a live setting, there are things that are going to get missed, and you want to break things down to the most primitive elements. Doing a lot of complex things throughout the show doesn't give it much contour. And on a big system, Dead Ringer sounds better because it's loud and unrefined."
Being able to hear the album in a more direct, interactive context inspired RJD2 to take his music in a new direction. "My next goal is to make a club record," RJD2 confesses. "Make it interesting and artistic, but make everything on it playable for the DJs the first thing that comes to mind is somewhere between Daft Punk, De La Soul Is Dead and Eightball & MJG. Those are club records that aren't boring."
RJD2 says he wants to tone down the technical aspect of his new work and stick to making good songs. And while making good songs surely won't be a problem -- if his track record is any indication -- keeping things simple will be a bigger challenge for him. "I started out as a scratch DJ, so I still have this mentality that everything is a competition. I don't think that I'm ever going to be able to approach a record without trying to show my chops."
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