Issue 41 (2002)
While listening to “The Good Times Roll Pt. 2”, RJD2’s newest single off of his Definitive Jux debut “Dead Ringer,” you reach a point where you seriously question whether the song is an intricate combination of samples or if it was straight jacked from your parents’ 70s soul collection. Fortunately the answer is the former. Each instrument comes from a different record and was put together through a meticulous process. After getting five samples deep, RJ realized the pieces sounded like they were engineered and recorded from the same era. “I was like I need to make sure for the first two verses and choruses that it sounded like a record. I had to be really critical about what I was sampling. Everything had to have a certain sound about it.”
While sewing those segments seamlessly together is an achievement in itself, it is also a testament to RJ’s will to improve and succeed. Truth be told he has only been at this production thing since ‘97 and still considers himself somewhat of a hack because in his mind, while he is trying his best, he still doesn’t know what he is doing. “I bought an MPC and for the first three days I didn’t even turn the machine on, I read the manual. I had no idea [what I was doing] and I had no friends that had samplers.” These early days also marked RJ’s induction into the MHz crew out of Columbus, OH, at the time consisting of Camu Tao, Tage, and Copywrite78. While RJ was an accomplished battle DJ on the local scene, he was still a novice on the boards and the crew let him know it every step of the way. Copywrite and company’s brutal honesty of RJ’s initial beats helped motivate him where it would have crushed others. For the first five months they would berate his creations with comments like “this is garbage” or “this is the worst thing I ever heard, why did you even do this?” It was exactly what he needed at the time. “It was great because the first time Copywrite heard a beat and was like this beat’s dope I would rap over this, I knew he wasn’t bullshitting. I knew he had good taste in beats because the only ones he liked were Premier, Clark Kent, and Large Pro. So for him to turn me down for months, saying he wasn’t feeling it and then for him to say yes that beats dope, I knew I was onto something.”
He definitely was onto something and in the past year or so he has released critically acclaimed releases such as the limited 7-inch “Rain” and the instrumental mix “Your Face or Your Kneecaps.” “The quote was just so gangster and with him on the picture just ice grilling, it fit together so perfectly. I just wanted it to have a gangster ass title, but just some fun music.”
After paying dues on remixes, mixtapes, and with the MHz, RJ began working on a demo sampler in order to gain label interest in a project he’d been planning long before he even bought his sampler. With a mass mail campaign he targeted imprints that catered to instrumental music, like OM and Ubiquity. By aiming at those he tried to align himself with the crowd he felt suited him best. However, this proved to be a futile attempt.
“Every single demo I sent out I either got returned or people wouldn’t return my calls. I literally didn’t get an offer from anyone. The one demo I gave away was to Copywrite. He’s boys with [Def Jux label head] EL-P and he took it with him to NY. El-P heard it and inquired about what I was doing with it and ended up calling me. That’s where things got started. The irony of it is now I couldn’t be happier. It’s just a great situation, I feel like I am part of something that I’m really behind. Its good for me because I’m the only instrumental guy on a rap label which is more comfortable. I wouldn’t want to be lumped in with the OM or Ubiquity crowd.”
Finally with a home, RJ started the long process of creating his full length. Seventeen tracks deep, “Dead Ringer” is not your typical production album. Whereas other producer motivated LPs tend towards a loose structure, “Dead Ringer” illustrates the cohesiveness a solo album should have. It’s a complete work where the songs are more than just instrumentals for MCs to rhyme over, but musical compositions that are able to stand on their own. This is an important accomplishment and has a distinct advantage over an album that relies too much on guest performances.
“When I listen to records I try to pinpoint when and where it’s from. When you have a rapper on something it immediately dates the music. The advantage of using samples and doing something instrumental is that every now and then you might trick someone into thinking the music is not dated from the era they thought it was from. If you really bust your ass on some instrumental shit, I’d say that’s the one thing you can do that you can’t accomplish with a rap artist.”
While the album is filled with various soundscapes there are still several well-placed raps included on the album. We get a preview of the Soul Position project (Blueprint + RJD2) with “Final Frontier,” given a dose of ruggedness courtesy of Jakki Da Motormouth on “F.H.H,” and shown a different perspective of MHz front man Copywrite on “June.”
Copywrite, known for his penchant for battle raps and hard hitting punch lines, flips the script on “June,” choosing instead to speak on his father’s passing. Though he only drops two verses, it is definitely one of his more memorable performances and works well enough to become entrenched within the large arrangement of sound.
“I tried to structure it so that everything changes on parts where there are not supposed to be raps. I didn’t have to tell Copywrite, he listened to the beat and was like I’m going to kick raps here and here. I was like if you kick some battle shit on here it’s going to sound dumb because it’s this artfag beat. He was already thinking that and knew what his verse was going to be for the tune, but I didn’t know until we got to the studio and recorded the song. On a personal level it was a good feeling to connect with him on that. It was kind of chilling, he never talks about his dad.”
Even the songs with guest appearances manage to run the gamut of emotions, and that was something essential for the final product. The idea was to have light hearted dance songs, some joints to get you amped, and others that would have you bawling your eyes out in the end. “I knew I wanted it to have as much variety as possible. I could live with someone hating this record, but I can’t deal with someone saying it’s boring. So I tried to make the songs really short, pack a lot of shit into them, and still make them cohesive.”
While “Dead Ringer” has tracks all over the spectrum, expect his next project, Soul Position, to focus on more traditional hiphop beats. Soul Position is a collaborative effort with fellow Ohio native, Blueprint of Greenhouse Effect and Illogic fame. The album is a way for RJ to sharpen his fundamental skills, something he admittedly ignored when he came thru the door. Instead of honing the basics he stepped out into uncharted territory in an attempt to be different.
“I just put together whatever interested me and that’s probably the reason my music was pure fucking garbage the first couple years I was sampling. I tried so hard to be on some other shit it wasn’t good. I walked into the game saying fuck the rules, but that doesn’t fly because you need to know the rules before you not only break them, but adapt them in a way that’s effective, but still good. [Soul Position] was a different type of challenge, the goal of the record is to dumb shit down and make simple and effective beats.”
With “Dead Ringer” in stores, a MHz EP on the way, and a Soul Position single and album planned for a fall release, RJD2 has a lot of promotional work ahead of him and in light of recent events he plans to make a major lifestyle change. “My ceiling caved in three days ago and there is extensive water damage on my studio. I’m going to put everything in storage and be a homeless derelict for the next five months.”
Pick up the full-length debut “Dead Ringer” off of Definitive Jux Records. Keep an eye out for RJ as he plans on contributing production to several Def Jukies’ albums including Murs and Aesop Rock. Expect the Soul Position project around Aug/Sept and peep remixes on a few releases from Chocolate Industries.