Sounds Like: An Interview with RJD2

Dan Willis

The underground hip-hop producer RJD2 recently released a new CD on the XL label. Formally signed to the progressive indie hip-hop label Definitive Jux, “The Third Hand” marks a dramatic move away from the sample-based, soul-tinged instrumental hip-hop hailed by fans and critics alike toward a performance-based, vocal-centered pop approach. RJ was kind enough to talk with me for a few minutes about his newest release.
Dan Willis: A lot has been said about how different this album is from your previous releases. Do you see it so much as different, or perhaps a departure, or just simply the next thing you need to do as an artist?
RJD2: I guess I can kind of see it from sides of the spectrum. I mean, for me the kind of individual parts of how a song comes together, they are just sort of a natural progression. I’ve always used a lot of vocal samples previously. So turning to using my own vocals once I got comfortable singing in the studio is just kind of natural.
Otherwise everything else in a lot of ways comes together the same way that I did stuff before. It’s just me, and I’m, you know, trying to do a bass line, and maybe before I’d just use a sample, or I’d use the MPC. Now I pick up a bass. I can also understand how people might see it as something extremely different. At first glance I can understand.
DW: What’s the difference between trying to find the right hook in a sample and trying to create your own hook?
RJ: Oh, it’s very similar. You know when something works; it clicks, you recognize it. You’ve got to realize, when I do a song with just samples, the first thing you try in a place doesn’t always work. A lot of times you try something in a particular place in a song, and it works OK, or it works great, or it doesn’t work very good. You end up going through three or four incarnations of different samples till you find the thing that really clicks.
And, you know, recording for me is the exact same thing. Especially as far as vocals go, it’s the same thing. I do several different drafts. I kind of do a sketch of the vocals, just to see how things should fit. And do that over and over until I find something that really clicks, you can just kind of tell.
DW: On “The Third Hand,” you sing all the vocals and play all the instruments. From a performance perspective, what’s the difference between singing and playing instruments versus DJing?
RJ: I love both, but there’s a different level of excitement with instruments. You’re able to think on your feet when you’re playing an instrument to a level that you can’t do with turntables. Which isn’t to say I like one more than the other. They’re each different.
DW: Do you think instruments allow for more interaction with the audience?
RJ: Completely, totally. It’s more interactive, it’s more risky, in the sense that it could fall apart at any time. There is a huge inherent safety net built into DJing.
DW: Is that interaction something you were looking for in your move towards performance music?
RJ: Definitely. Yeah, I mean one of the things I didn’t like about just using turntables was that it felt like there was this disconnect between me and the audience. You know, being able to see people face to face really, and you know, playing. I feel like it’s a lot more satisfying.
DW: Was the move from Def Jux to XL a way to get away from feeling like you had to do more exclusively hip-hop?
RJ: It was more that once the record was essentially done, I kind of felt like it would be hard to market and promote from just the perspective of a hip-hop label. I felt like it was going to be very important to market and promote this record. And I would need a label that was more experienced with different genres of music. That’s where XL came in.
DW: What’s the difference between how a critic might receive this record and how a fan might receive it? Does that affect you at all?
RJ: I’ll start by saying the difference between how a fan might receive it and how a critic might receive it is that the critic doesn’t continually review a record. They don’t review the same record five times.
In real life, though, a record changes in a month. Your experiences and phases in your life are what change the record. Sometimes it takes you a while to appreciate things; sometimes it hits you after a period of time.
The only thing a fan has riding on a record is how much they enjoy it. But from a critics perspective there is another factor that’s not just about whether they like it or not. Their job and career might sort of dictate the way they review it.
DW: Besides the performance aspects of non-sample-based music, is there anything else motivating your move away from samples?
RJ: Well, there are a bunch of other reasons. There are creative limitations, legal limitations and I think it’s just natural to want to try new things. Being solely constricted to using samples is very limiting.
DW: Can you talk a little more about the creative limitations?
RJ: Here’s an example of a limitation that I come across almost constantly. I go into a song knowing that I want to have a lot of chord changes; I don’t want to just use the same progression through the whole song. A common experience for me would be, like, I’ve got the song and I’ve got a couple of the changes already worked out. And I need a guitar line for this part, let’s call that part A. But the song already has a part B, C and D. Its very, very rare that when you find that sample, its going to have enough variations on the record that you can chop it up and use one part for A, another part for B and another part for C. And that’s something that I’ve always wanted to happen. Plus, it’s enormously time consuming to sift through samples.