By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
In a certain way, RJD2's latest, The Colossus, is the album the artist has been building toward over his entire career. On it, like on a sitcom "clip show," the versatile DJ samples music and production styles spanning his dozen years of recording.
That's no small feat: RJD2's artistic journey has taken him from minimalist boom-bap rap to hip-hop instrumentals in the vein of DJ Shadow to deep, jazzy, club-worthy grooves and, most recently, even to textured electro-pop on his last release, 2007's The Third Hand. And he's stepped up his game too, growing from a strictly sample-based artist into someone capable of playing every instrument on a record (as he did on The Third Hand).
RJD2's come a long way, indeed.
The man behind the name, Ramble John Krohn, bought his first DJ rig while in high school—mostly because it came with his friend's vinyl collection. But, in fooling around with the turntables, he found a new passion. He hooked up with MHZ, a local hip-hop group that included still-vibrant underground artists Camu-Tao, Jakki, Copywrite and Cage. Coming into the group, Krohn wanted to make hip-hop with backing tracks inspired by Ninjatune and Mo Wax. The band, however, wanted tracks that sounded more like Biggie.
It forced him to reevaluate his approach, for sure.
"That was a hugely critical turning point for me because it gave me an appreciation for minimalism," Krohn says. "My angle as a producer from the jump was going to be making these big, intricate, epic tracks like Prince Paul times 10. I was trying to break the rules, but I never learned how to play by the rules in the first place, so those guys really forced me to learn the rules of a more traditional, straightforward rap track."
Another epiphany for Krohn occurred after the release of his critically acclaimed solo debut, 2002's Deadringer, which coated vibrant soundscapes like DJ Shadow with a layer of guttural grime appropriate to the underground style of his label, Def Jux.
But Krohn realized he couldn't go on like this.
"I had effectively blown my load to a certain degree," Krohn says. "I realized that my entire career in music was based upon my ability to find good, usable samples. Plus, what I was doing was becoming more and more visible, essentially eliminating the types of things I could get away with in records by sampling. Around 2003, I realized the only way I could start making this sustainable was to incorporate live instruments."
The transition began with 2004's Since Last We Spoke (a third of which was recorded on live instruments) and culminated with The Third Hand. But the distance between the two releases is vast—in part because Krohn began singing, leading to more traditional song structures driven by a vocal melody. He blames eight years of working in samples to the point where "the physical idea of sitting down at a sampler for the brunt of the work on a record wasn't appealing."
Since We Last Spoke received some very positive reviews, but it also alienated some of RJD2's audience. But, now, moving forward with The Colossus, it's clear that Krohn's feelings toward samples have changed.
"Not only had I done that record with Aceyalone [2006's Magnificent City, featuring the sample used by AMC series Mad Men], I had also done Third Hand, a lot of remixing of bands, and even a little production for singers," he says. "By then, I was removed enough from it that I could think of sample-based music just as another asset in my corner and not my main asset."
The resulting album employs rappers such as Kenna (on the dreamy space-soul, "Games You Can Win") and Phonte (who sings on the Gnarls Barkley-ish "The Shining Path"), and explores dance-pop grooves ("The Glow"), psychedelic guitar rock ("Gypsy Caravan"), and lush, knotty, synth-driven instrumentals ("Giant Squid"). It's a wide-ranging effort, to say the least.
And there's more on the way: Not one to stand still, Krohn's almost finished recording a collaboration featuring Third Hand guest vocalist Aaron Livingston writing lyrics and singing over Krohn's production.
"I'm breaking new ground, in terms of sonic capabilities," he says. "I feel like I've never touched on the things I'm doing with this next album."