RJD2 Gives You His Third Hand
Since erupting onto the independent hip hop scene in 2002 with the critically acclaimed Deadringer, producer extraordinaire RJD2 has built a name for himself as an innovative talent, with his cinematically layered approach to music. In addition to his soulful genre-crossing work on his sophomore release, Since We Last Spoke, the Columbus, Ohio-native has done projects with emcees Aceyalone, Blueprint, and countless remixes and guest spots with a who’s who list of the underground hip hop scene.
With the release of his third album, The Third Hand, RJ shifts the musical direction away from a traditional hip hop-centric sound, favoring live instrumentation and sung vocals in this new collection of songs. A week before leaving on tour to promote the record, RJ took the time to talk to Okayplayer about the change in his sound, his departure from Def Jux, and the method to his madness in the studio.
OKP: After initially listening to the promo for The Third Hand, my first question was going to be along the lines of “what’s the deal with this huge change?” But upon further listening, the sound on the record does seem like a natural progression for anyone who’s studied your albums- a natural growth. What prompted this gradual change?
RJ: A number of things prompted it. I agree with you, and I can see things from both sides. I can see that if people just heard “Ghostwriter” and “1976”, they’d be like, “Ok, I’ve got a read on this guy.” (For them) to hear this record, I can see how it would seem so far out of left field that they’d think it can’t even be the same person. But for people who are familiar with every single song that I’ve ever done, it’s probably less of a curveball.
With that said, when I finished Deadringer and for the first time thought about doing a second album, it all dawned on me that relying solely on samples as my only way to make records was going to prove to be very problematic in the long run. It could be a very risky place to put myself in, if only for the fact that I had already somewhat spent the kind of useable samples on that record. I remember thinking, “alright, if I don’t find anymore good samples, I’m screwed.”
OKP: When you say risk, do you mean legally? As in, having to clear the samples?
RJ: There’s definitely inherent legal risk. But also, if I were going to say, “I’m only going to continue making music using samples,” it would put me completely at the whim of whatever I found. You gotta realize, to make Deadringer again would require finding that many vocal acapellas- I don’t know if you really realize how rare finding a vocal acapella that’s usable is…(laughs) It doesn’t happen very often. So there’s that and the obvious legal risk. Those are the first two things. So after I finished that record, I kind of realized that I need to put myself in the situation where if I want to use samples, I can- but I’m not completely relegated to it, technically.
Another limitation I came across using samples was that by the time I started doing Since We Last Spoke…I’ll explain it like this: Up until 2003, I was so completely enamored with the capabilities that could be done with a sampler, expanding on that and maximizing the potential was so exciting to me, I threw all my weight into that. While I was doing SWLS, I kind of figured out the exact limitations on the MPC. Getting to know the exact limitations and what I could do and couldn’t do with it kind of killed the mystique.
OKP: The thrill was gone…
RJ: Yeah! And that doesn’t mean that I don’t like using the machine, I think that it’s great. It moved from this thing that I thought was the magical be-all, end-all way to make music to just another tool. So in 2004 all my weight shifted over into building a studio and learning how to engineer, what instrument I wanted to buy, what kind of studio I wanted to have, how to use things, how to tune things- 99 percent of the machines in my studio are at least 25 years old. Some are 40 to 50 years old! (laughs)
OKP: In your past, you had played in other sorts of arrangements like bands. It wasn’t always hip hop based. So it wasn’t that unprecedented for you to move into other realms of music. What were the types of music that influenced you during the making of The Third Hand?
RJ: I’d say that in my head, what I’m going to bring up here has a very direct connection to hip hop music: 60’s and 70’s progressive rock music, old rock music that was pushing the boundaries. Music by groups like Yes, King Crimson, Rare Bird, or anything psychedelic like the Beatles, the Beach Boys…At first glance I can see how these were very starkly different from hip hop music. I’ve always been a fan of classic rock. When I was growing up I was always into Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath and so forth. Then at a particular time I realized that when that kind of music is groove based, it’s cut from so much of the same cloth that rap music was cut from.
When I went through the period of being obsessed with who was sampling what, I realized that certain records like the first Black Sheep album, the first Nice and Smooth album- a huge part of their DNA came from ‘60s psychedelic rock, because that’s what (their records) were sampled from. So that type of music was so akin to hip hop. And since I came into the whole thing being a DJ and a producer, the most important thing to me was the music, and the beat and the drums. After a while, they really stopped seeming very different in my head. When there’s a good rap record that comes out and it’s really extremely different, I definitely will listen to it, but the brunt of my listening has been in that kind of music. There’s just as much old soul and 80’s R&B, but mostly classic rock and R&B, in a nutshell.
OKP: That makes sense and seems a lot more organic than, say, you discovering a trunk of polka records and now that’s the new direction. So had you been working on this for a while, or was this done after you completed the Aceyalone and Soul Position records?
RJ: At the same time. There was also a lot of prep work, because a lot happened in a short period of time. I went from having two keyboards to really getting nuts with buying amplifiers, a lot of keyboards, organs, a piano, and guitars. There was an incubation period there of learning how to use the studio but at the same time writing, singing, and working on the whole organic songwriting thing. I recorded a lot of songs during that two and a half year period- 39 songs for this record. A lot of it’s not going to be released because it’s not all great. I was finding my voice. Sometimes you take things to an extreme to realize where you can operate in a natural setting and be at ease and sound more comfortable. Sometimes when you’re in a new environment, you have to do things the wrong way before you realize that they are the wrong way, and find what, for you, is the right way. It was all very exploratory and I was doing it all by myself, with very few people that I could bounce ideas off of.
OKP: Is it a totally different process writing a song like one that appears on Third Hand compared to your earlier work?
RJ: I do kind of approach it the same way. I sort of stratified the process. If I’m doing a beat for Aceyalone that’s 100-percent done on a sampler or doing something on my own record that’s all live, the problems that you have to address are still the same. How do you find a good chord progression? How do you find good harmonic content? How do you find what’s basically a good interesting riff? And then, how do you shape and mold that into a song that’s listenable? (laughs) Sooner or later, you have to start making decisions. And that doesn’t change with the medium that you’re working in.
Here’s the nuts and bolts of how I did this record. I was constantly collecting drum sounds. I had stopped using drum loops, because they’re very limiting. I’d collect single drum hits and build these kits, and they’d be all from the same record. Snare on track 5, kick on track 1, whatever…If it’s the same group it should have the same cohesiveness. So I’d build these, and they weren’t programmed. I wouldn’t even make sequences, I would just build them as raw material. So I had 15 to 20 of these programs, and when I was coming up with ideas for songs, I’d just got through these programs and see what kind of tones fit the idea I had for the song. It gave me the freedom to do the riff before I had to do the drums. Another issue with drum loops is that the pattern is pretty much pre-dictated. In order to make the groove to work, you really have to play to the drums. So having the drums deconstructed gives you the freedom to do things at the same time.
Once I got that down, it was just like how I do anything else on my other records, just using instruments. You map it out. Say you’ve got the groove done- keyboards and drums, and you’ve got a basic feel of what’s going to happen. In a perfect world, what I tried to do is write the entire arrangement of the song: intro, outro, bridges, turnaround, everything, as much as I could. Because then I could record all of the instruments in one pass. You can have the piano playing on any sections that you want. The way I used to work, I would do the first section and flesh out the whole thing at once before moving to the next section. Moving on to the chorus? Scrap everything else and the find some new sounds. And that’s why a lot of my records would have a lot of different sounds and samples come in for a particular part. And that’s another limitation of sampling: say I had a guitar part sample on the intro, but say the verse is totally different and requires something else, but you still want that guitar presence in there. There’s only so much manipulation you can do there.
OKP: So it certainly sounds like the whole process has been a lot more organic for you versus working within the limitations of sampling.
RJ: Yeah it’s been great, but that’s the upside. But the downside is that with a sample, the engineering is done. (laughs) When you let the needle hit the groove, somebody has already chosen mics, plugged in amps, done the mic placement, set the compressor, set the preamp, got it to tape- all that is done! You don’t even have to think about that. When you’re recording live, you have to think about those things for every single pass of every single instrument. So from that perspective, it allows you freedom but it’s a lot more time-consuming.
OKP: Your earlier work, though instrumental, still speaks without using lyrics to convey emotions and thoughts. When you were writing lyrics to these songs, how did you envision the words and the melodies to fit into the context of the song?
RJ: The lyrics, to me, are kind of a separate thing. The vocal melodies I approach the same way that I treat an instrument. I kept that mind, so instead of recording big, sweeping, melodically-oriented instrument lines, I just said, “oh, you should save that space, that’s gonna be the vocals.”
OKP: I’ve heard that you are planning a tour with a band in support of this record.
RJ: The band is rehearsed and we are ready to go. The line-up is a drummer and three of us up front, all basically doing the same thing. At any given time, there will be two keyboards, two electric guitars, and an electric bass. We’ll kind of switch accordingly amongst those roles.
OKP: Are they going to be playing on your older stuff as well?
RJ: Yeah…(laughs) I don’t want to give away too much, but I think it’s going to be interesting. There are a few songs off the first two records where the material was completely learned by the band and it’s organic. For all intensive purposes it’s us covering the song. Other things, there’s a particular sound that couldn’t translate to a live setting, so I built programs for the sampler. I’ll be bringing that and turntables out on this tour. Some of the material is just going to be me by myself using turntables and a sampler, the way I’ve always toured. Some of it is going to be a hybrid between samples and the band. And some of it is going to be totally live. And what’s cool is that I’ve taken the MPC out before and played drum programs manually to the point that I don’t have any fear about it. We’re not going to be playing to a click track. I’m programming stuff along to the drummer. It’s fun for me because it allows me to loosen up and it’s a challenge. And plus, nobody wants to play to a fucking click track, that’s just…stale.
OKP: Were you considering your pre-existing fanbase while making this record, and what their reaction might be?
RJ: I wasn’t thinking about anything. I was a free agent while recording this record. I did that very consciously and purposefully. And if you think this is weird, the stuff that I recorded and didn’t make the record is way more out there than some of this stuff. So much of this record was being in the studio and experimenting and having fun, and sometimes I sat at the sampler and was like, “You know what? I should just try to make a song that sounds like it came from the Deadringer era, just to see what happens.” And I realized that I can’t go back to the past. It just doesn’t work and it sounds insincere and you can hear it. It’s lackluster-sounding. The realization that I came to with this record is that as much as it pains me, I have to roll out a record that I feel really passionately about and more so, music that sounds like something I care about.
The last thing in the world that I want is to disappoint or offend the listener or throw anybody a curveball. And if we’re speaking conceptually, I wish that I could please everybody. But I can’t. It’s an unrealistic wish, and because I know that, I’ve had to abandon it. Another thing I’ve realized is that once you’ve had a fanbase built, it’s almost inevitable that at least some percentage of them are going to be turned off by whatever you do. Even if I did Deadringer four times over, there’d be people by the fourth time that would be so bored they’d be like, “You know what? I’m disappointed with this guy.” I’ve got to just do what I feel passionate about right now. I don’t have an abrasive, fuck-you attitude at all- if anything, (laughs) I want people to appreciate what I do, but you can’t change what you do or who you are to please people, because it’ll come off as insincere and nobody wants that.
OKP: Tell me about you leaving the Def Jux label.
RJ: Here’s what happened. After SWLS I was a free agent. I didn’t owe anybody anything. Instead of jumping back into a contract and handing in a record, I thought it’d be smarter for me to make the record that I wanted to record in an environment where I didn’t have to worry about expectations or whatever anybody else thought- if it takes 6 months cool, if it takes 3 years, that’s cool, too. I realized that when the record was done, it was in a large part different than anything I’d ever done before. And because of that, being at a label like XL, where the people working it have an innate understanding of working rock music, would be important for it. In the UK they’ve got the White Stripes, Thom Yorke, Tapes N Tapes, MIA, Dizzee Rascal- they have a lot of experience in electronic music and their own brand of hip hop music and rock music. I felt this record has to be in a place like that. They believe in the record, and that’s important to me.
OKP: Are you still in contact with Def Jux do you have any plans to collaborate with other Jukies or anyone else in the near future?
RJ: I talk to Lif a lot now that he lives in Philadelphia, just about personal shit. We’ve never really done much music together anyway. It’s more just about hanging out and talking about human being shit. As far as collaborations go, I don’t have any plans. I’m just seeing where life takes me. There’s an R&B thing that I stumbled across recently- it’s a guy who’s a really great R&B singer. It’s something I’d really like to do, just produce, and I think it’d be really fun. I listen to so much R&B music from the 70s and 80s, I just think it’d be a blast to do. I may do that, I may do another solo record, I don’t know. All musicians have to think about business, but I’m at a point where I have to make things fun, and part of that is not being in a box where I owe anybody anything and just doing what I want to do. Just the experience of making a record, and not thinking about who’s gonna like it, where it’s gonna fit in, and marketing, and all this kind of shit. Recording music solely for the sake of enjoying it is so fun and so rewarding that I wouldn’t be surprised if I end up working with a lot of nobodies now. I like this organic, start-from-scratch process. It’s very, very fun.
– Sean Kantrowitz