Perhaps it was last September's Pitchfork headline, "RJD2 Signs to XL, Ditches Hip-Hop," that had the underground rap scene grumbling. In the nearly five years since his solo debut, RJ attained hero status for his unearthly beats and work with cats such as Mos Def and Aceyalone. But now he's making rock and pop music with his recent release, The Third Hand.
"Growing up, I wasn't aware of this distinction between hip-hop and other things," he says. "I listened to all sorts of pop music as much as I did rap...all the stuff that was kind of popular in the '80s." The artists who influenced him range from Tears for Fears to Michael Jackson to UTFO, a mix that bleeds through on the new record in songs such as "You Never Had It So Good," which evokes XTC, or "Have Mercy," which recalls Peter Gabriel's world-beat percussion.
But there's still a distinct RJD2 sound that carries over from his hip-hop records, likely a result of his songwriting approach. "The groove and the rhythmic element, and what's sort of going to be the driving harmonic theme of the song—that's where everything starts," he says. "You can think of it as a loop, if you will, on a sampler."
RJ's singing takes a similar approach. Vocals are just another layer of sound, with melody taking precedence over lyrics. "The music is the star," he says. But can he sing? He does as well as most indie-rock frontmen.
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Still, RJ isn't leaving his turntables and MPC in the closet. In fact, he's bringing those rap music tools on tour to perform some of his past hits. "Even though I've got a band and we're learning a lot of the old songs, at the end of the day, I don't see music in terms of genre and description as much as I do nuts-and-bolts things. Like, what's the tempo, what's the groove, what's the key," he says. "Because of that, there's just certain aspects of my old records that can only be translated using turntables and a sampler."
Even with his wheels of steel in tow, he plans to do some of his old songs live. That may mean a show that will challenge both rock and rap fans, but he plans to challenge his band and himself onstage as well, trading off on guitar, bass and keyboards. They'll be sharing vocals, too, since many of the vocals on The Third Hand consist of three-part harmonies. For RJ, the show isn't about what genre he fits into, but "a band that's gonna rip."
And though his decision to try rock surprised some fans, RJ doesn't characterize his decision to make a rock-oriented record as a diss to rap. "If you go to McDonald's, and you get the Filet-O-Fish, it doesn't mean you hate the Quarter Pounder with all your heart and fucking soul," he says. -- Mark Mays
RJD2 performs Saturday, March 17, at Warehouse Live, 813-St. Emanuel, 713-225-5483.