RJD2 is full of surprises. The beatmaker extraordinaire has made a career of confounding expectations. Whether as a solo artist or collaborating with others, he's produced sonic landscapes that range from old-school boom bap to nuanced mood pieces.
But constantly coming with the surprises can be a mixed blessing. When last year's The Third Hand dropped, fans of the man born Ramble John Krohn were split on the stylistic departure. In place of more traditional hip-hop sampling, RJ was playing instruments and singing himself on nearly all the tracks.
"I've always wanted to have a strong vocal presence on my records," says the native of Eugene, Oregon, who moved with his family to Columbus, Ohio, when he was just a few months old. "The end result probably sounds a bit different when it's me singing on eight songs, and it's the same voice, instead of having eight different sampled voices on eight songs. But musically, I think the difference between my second and third records is not very much at all."
That's a hard sell for long-term fans, who find the innovations of The Third Hand to be a bit far afield from earlier solo offerings Deadringer and Since We Last Spoke. Many hip-hop heads more accustomed to intricate beats and judicious samples blanched at the most recent flavor.
That's fine with RJ. The work he looks back on most fondly doesn't always line up with the consensus of what his best work is, anyway. His collaboration with underground legend Aceyalone, Magnificent City, is a perfect example. "People have told me, 'You put up some clunkers on that record,'" he says. "Which is fine. It's interesting to me to hear what other people's opinions are on that stuff."
Perhaps not coincidentally, making Magnificent City was the most fun he's ever had working on an album.
"Working on the Aceyalone record was a blast," he says. "That was me kind of letting my hair down and doing whatever the hell I wanted to, musically. I had more control over that record than any rap record I've ever done. Acey was basically leaving it up to me. I'd have to get his stamp of approval, but he was looking for my vision of what a full-length rap record would look like."
Among music fans, RJD2 might be known best for his work in Soul Position with Columbus rapper Blueprint. But over the last five years he's had increasing mainstream exposure, with tracks used in video games, films, and even a financial services commercial.
What's it like hearing his song "Ghostwriter" in that ubiquitous Wells Fargo ad?
He laughs. "Awesome. It's me getting paid. I hear a little cash register jingle on every snare," he says. "Cha-ching! Cha-ching! Cha-ching! That's what it sounds like to me." The mere fact that this massive, global-domination corporation is even aware of someone like an independent DJ and producer is "cool, in the sense that it's somewhat surreal."
The interest in his work from monolithic business entities is certainly not going to stop RJ from taking chances. Take Soul Position, in which the sound evolved over each release, culminating in 2006's Things Go Better with RJ and Al being released by Rhymesayers.
"I'll be honest, there's some tracks on Things Go Better that I did that I'm not thrilled with," he says. When working on a rap record, there is always the risk than an MC will pick certain tracks that the DJ doesn't see much potential in. The producer is often relegated to following someone else's vision, he says, which RJ is fine with. Yet it's clear he'd like to do more exploration over the course of his solo work than tandem joints allow.
That's happening, both live and in the studio. On his current tour, audiences can expect more of the unexpected. "I've got a trick or two up my sleeve this time," he says. "I'll be playing some covers-slash-surprises, and we'll be playing some songs I've never played live before."
There will be another Soul Position record at some point, but not any time soon. Blueprint has a solo project that he's going to be working on throughout the next year, so RJ expects to do at least one more solo record before another Soul Position effort. Any chance he'll let us in on what that record might sound like?
"It's premature," he says. "I'm not going to let you waste your breath on that one, my friend."
More surprises still to come.
RJD2 performs with Dalek on THURSDAY, APRIL 17, at FIRST AVENUE; 612.332.1775