RJD2 Colossus Interview
RJD2 Crafts A Colossus
by Jarrod Dicker
Ramble John Krohn, or more famously RJD2, enters the New Year fully equipped, triggering the release of a new studio album and a full fledged five leg international tour starting January 2010. On January 19th, his fourth studio album The Colossus will hit, brewing up a much anticipated and fan-feigning return to RJ’s signature collaborative and instrumental hip-hop methodology.
The album will be the first one released on his newly established label, RJ’s Electrical Connections, and includes guests Phonte Coleman, Kenna, Aaron Livingston, Columbus MC’s The Catalyst, Illogic and many more. As RJ explains, his previous album, The Third Hand, was a mission to do as much as he could do on his own, without any outside influences. The Colossus takes a complete opposite approach, trying to incorporate and include as many outside influences as possible, which RJ gleefully boasts he succeeded in doing.
Jambands sat down with RJD2 to discuss the release of The Colossus, his largest tour to date, his debut behind the drum kit, touring with a backing band and much more.
The album revisits the instrumental/vocal hip-hop collaborative format fans experienced in your breakthrough studio album, Deadringer. Did you intentionally return to a technique or feeling you held when producing Deadringer?
I don’t really see it as going back to one particular thing as much as going back to a number of broad things. I don’t personally see it as a return to the style and working of Deadringer for the whole album per se. There were songs in which I essentially used a sample only methodology to produce them and there were many other songs in which I didn’t. So there are some hints of the former album and then there are differences.
Why did you decide to go back to featured vocals on tracks (as well as singing yourself) other than predominately instrumentals and samples as you demonstrated on The Third Hand?
As far as instrumental dominance, when I look at Deadringer and Since We Last Spoke, both of those records were attempts to have as much of a vocal presence as possible. So while I think that it’s accurate to say that I’ve by-in-large spent a lot of time doing sample-based music, I don’t personally feel like instrumental music is necessarily me completely. It’s a big part of what I’ve done, but at the same time I think that if I were to go song by song down those records, at least 50-60% of the tracks will have varied vocal elements. The vocals may not be loud, but whether they are sampled or live they’re still present. It was a very cognitive thing making this record and that was kind of my mission. I mean there was a very conscious effort involved throughout it. I remember in the late ‘90s when I first started getting serious about this, creating my own music or whatever, I remember that my angle on “instrumental hip-hop” was that I wanted to make short & lively vocal-oriented pop songs. The goal was to get as close to that as possible by using the same techniques or approaches that by and large people didn’t think “instrumental hip-hop” normally used. I just remember that being a conscious goal that I wanted to achieve.
How much studio time was spent on The Colossus compared to your previous studio releases?
The record came together sometime around January or February of 2009. I started working on it pretty much when I completed and released The Third Hand. So around some time in 2007, but the bulk of the work happened from around fall 2008 through the winter of 2009. It’s hard for me to remember the exact date, but part of the way I work is that I develop ideas and little sketches of music. Sometimes those things develop really quickly and some of the songs come through right away. And other times they just sit. If it’s not coming out or it’s not working, I never force it. So I just let it sit. And a lot of times those things end up in the dust bin or the garbage and they never get revisited. But sometimes I will go back and revisit them and what needs to happen for it to progress is having a fresh perspective where the piece of music should go.
*As you said before, you invited guests to join you on some tracks of The Colossus. Can you talk a bit about the process of scheduling and the impact that may have had on the music?
As far as the collaboration portion, all the instrumentation parts that I didn’t play were tracked in the studio, and that was labor intensive having to get everyone scheduled, getting charts or writing charts. So that was a bit labor intensive. But the other songs, the vocal songs, the only one that was recorded in studio was “Crumbs Off the Table” where I had been working with Aaron Livingston a little bit. The other thing that made it easy was that all the collaborative songs were still songs that I wrote all the vocal parts, melodies and lyrics, so I was recording songs that were technically already finished and demoed. So it was a lot quicker because of that. In the typical producer/vocalist collaboration, the vocalist is writing and that makes it take a lot longer. But when I worked with Phonte Coleman, he had the song (“The Shining Path”) done in a week (laughs). You know, it was just like, here are the lyrics, here’s the demo, here’s the instrumental and it’s done.
What was it like to work behind the drum kit on Colossus? What other instruments did you play on the album?
I guess, to me, I see the main discipline being drums, bass, keyboard and guitar. Everything else I really just sort of built extensions from those instruments. An example is the difference between a harpsichord and piano, besides specifics, are a similar technique as long as they are keyboard based. So I use the harpsichord as an extension of the keyboard. Synthesizer, acoustic and electric guitars, bass and drums were the basics.
Is there a particular philosophy behind the making of your music? Does each album have a theme or certain influence that propels it?
The more deep I get into the record mission, the more that is the case with the overall philosophy. My first record was a compilation of songs. Reason being, the only means I had to complete a song at that time was a sampler. Thus everything I made for that record was sample-based music. For the second record I had bought a couple of keyboards and sort of got into tracking live stuff a little bit. There was also a couple of songs that I sang on that record. Not everything was sample-based per se, but the only driving philosophy behind it was for me to just keep expanding and provide new and interesting songs. By the time The Third Hand came around, that was the first record that had a theme, whereas the point of it for me was to see how far I could get just by myself without drawing on anyone else. And now The Colossus has a completely opposite theme than The Third Hand. The intent was to collaborate as much as possible, with as many outside influences and players and resources on the record as possible. Additionally on this album, there is also an overview of the different approaches I’ve taken to making music and also specific references to my first 3 albums that are “hidden”; I don’t think they’re hidden, I think they’re pretty obvious but with that said they’re hidden in the music if you will.
This is the first album you released on your newly established label, RJ’s Electrical Connections. What led you to release this album on your own?
I guess the main motive being that I didn’t need anyone else’s money to complete this album [laughs]. I know that it’s common to actually complete the record before it even gets signed. I know how that whole thing works. And that was the thing with The Third Hand, that record was done before I decided to put it out. I know that’s a common experience but I started having more and more of an issue with that process. It just didn’t make sense to me to drop back into a label this time around. I had this record and was mulling over whether I should try and make it work with another label. But then on a totally unrelated matter, I went through this process of reacquiring the ownership of my masters from Def Jux so then I suddenly needed a place to distribute them. So there was another argument why I should be doing this and essentially starting a label. I look back on the fundamentals of the music industry and I think I’ve gained enough of an understanding of what gets done to release a record that I basically felt confident in on my own. I didn’t think it was going to be easy but I was confident that I was going to be able to have a handle on the decisions that needed to be made.
You just announced an extensive 2010 tour that will take place from January to April of this year. Is this the largest tour you’ve ever scheduled on a consecutive show basis? Is there any strategy or meaning behind the venues or locations you chose to perform?
This is definitely the longest. Essentially it is two weeks on and two weeks off, so I don’t do all of the dates all at once. I am able to go home in between each leg which is nice. I don’t do well when I’m away too long. That’s my threshold for being away from home, about two weeks and after that I’m ready to go back. That’s the way I’ve been formatting my tours for a couple years now. In 2007, the tour for The Third Hand was three legs of two weeks and this one is four legs of two weeks and then I go off to Europe for a fifth leg. This is definitely the biggest tour and as far as the decisions of why I chose these destinations, I just wanted to cover as many bases as possible. We also paid attention to the routing of the tour considering the weather. We did the down south stuff first because it will be in the middle of the winter and should be comfortable down there at that time.
To what extent will your live show move beyond songs from The Colossus and showcase your entire catalog?
I am certainly going to showcase the whole catalog for sure. It was a learning experience when I went on tour for The Third Hand. I have a band for this tour. When I first went out with a band, we did songs from The Third Hand album and over the years I’ve realized that people want to hear their favorite songs and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. So even though I’m now doing songs from Deadringer live with a band and a different format, it’s still fun doing a hybrid thing substituting the sampler with an actual drummer. A lot of these songs are also a lot easier to execute. I sometimes feel like I’m shooting fish in barrel when I revisit songs from previous albums. We can do it easily, but at the same time people don’t go to a show for the sake of virtuosity either. The artists are not there for themselves, the artist is there for the sake of the fans. So you basically want to play songs that people are going to want to here.
Will any artists featured on the album be accompanying you throughout the tour?
Hopefully the cities I visit where they live or are at the time, they will come and do their respective songs. On the whole, it’s a four piece band including myself, a drummer and two multi instrumentalists who will be playing bass, keys or guitars. I can’t really afford to take the guests on the road just to do one song, you know, I had to be realistic. But hopefully they can come out in their home towns.
What’s your take on the mainstream fame that has blown your way, being featured on Mad Men, CSI and many other media programs? I remember while I was attending University of Colorado in 2004, my friends and I viewed you, Aesop Rock, C-Rayz Walz and other Def Jux artists as part of the “underground hip-hop” scene. Now being featured in these bigger projects, it seems you sort of went outside the proverbial indie box and now are more mainstream…
Remember, I want to point out here, that you admittedly said in this that this is something you and your friends in Colorado said [laughs]…
Yes of course…
So I think that’s an important distinction that you are making. It draws into a perspective that there are these kinds of terms that we have to make up for ourselves. You’re right, saying that my records have a higher visibility now as opposed to in 2002 or 2003. With that said, none of those things that you mentioned happened because some bigwig lawyer or bigwig agent or an A&R record guy took me in and made me do it. The Mad Men guy came to me and same with Wells Fargo and CSI. All of the stuff that you mentioned came from either me or the label that put the record out at the time, saying, “Listen are you interested in this or these songs?” So, in that sense I don’t feel like there is any difference in terms of the scale or scope, but that’s not the right way to put it. I guess I’m saying I work with the same resources I did when I began and that’s how I feel about it. I don’t feel like I have any bigger guns behind me now then say, I did in 2002. That’s really just an artifact of staying around and sticking it out and making records on a consistent basis and as weird as it seems, places like Hollywood and TV Land pay attention to little shit [laughs]. It’s true.
What other projects do you have in the works for the New Year? Any collaborations or productions on your or anyone else’s albums?
All of the above! I spent a lot of time recording in the last 2 ½ years. I basically work every day on the label stuff or producing new music, so I’ve got a lot. I currently have at least one record under my belt that I want to release under another name. I’m almost done with a collaborative record with one of the guys who is on the new album. I’m really excited about that. But it’s a different kind of thing, it’s more of a traditional collaborative process where I’m doing the instrumentation and production and he’s doing the vocals and lyrics. And after that I’d like to jump back in to the mix. The next thing I’d like to tackle is to produce another record. I’ve tried to release instrumental versions of the vocal stuff like I did for The Third Hand and have a plan similar for The Colossus where all the instrumental songs get exchanged for new songs. So half of the album would be instrumental versions of the vocals songs from The Colossus and half of it would be brand new songs. So, all of these things are things that I will be working towards releasing on the New Year.