RJD2 slices through genres with ease. It never feels overwrought; everything is in the right place. Full of funky drumming and bass lines, the Columbus, Ohio producer’s music can start a party, but it can also be deeply introspective, harkening back to 70’s AM rock radio. Even though much of it is wordless, it never fails to feel personal. You can see the profundity of his love for music, but also his virtuosic skill as a hip-hop producer and sampler. He’s advanced musically, but still can make something that affects you.
No album of RJ’s sounds like any other. When Mhz Legacy released “World Premier’’ for their debut single — a song led by RJ’s ‘’Monkey Man’’ sample flip and nimble bass line production — it announced the arrival of a new sound from the Midwest. Camu Tao’s dark humor as a rapper shone bright, as though he was starring in his own one-man radio show. The “Monkey Man” sample worked because it enhanced the song and supplied the rapping with a canvas to speak its truth.
In 2002, when El-P was clutching the deep space 9 mm, RJ signed to Def Jux and dropped Deadringer, a classic album made with sci-fi samples, Beatles-influenced production, and blues fossil fuel. The beat for “June” sounds like it could be a scene in a Soderbergh movie as Danny Ocean and Rusty Ryan transition from caper to caper. “Final Frontier” creates beautiful chaos. ‘’RJ constructs a canvas, I find a color that matches’’ is a shout out bar that will cause your face to scrunch up.
Then there’s Magnificent City, his collaboration with Los Angeles rapper Aceyalone, which also manages to be a career-defining album. ‘’Fire’’ re-imagined 70’s funk while Aceyalone flows effortlessly. His collaborations never feel cynical and always boast perfect synergy. The beat to ‘’A Beautiful Mine’’ wound up becoming the intro to the critically acclaimed TV show, Mad Men. Don Draper would fall from a Madison Avenue window, representing his failures and demons, over RJD2 production. That’s an imprint on culture that not a lot of producers can claim.
His recent album, The Fun Ones, is more of what we expect from RJ, which is to say, the deliriously musical and unexpected. ‘’Indoor S’mores’’ is smooth and grandiose without becoming a chore. RJ produces off straight up feeling, almost savant-like and in the way that all the best producers do. The second half of ‘’Flocking to the Nearest Machine’’ is band music, DJ scratches, and a walkie talkie voice all into one. RJ uses Phonte of Little Brother as a comedian on this album. He is being interviewed as if he is talking to a ghost. It allows us to hear one of the funniest people in music as if we’re just regularly listening to the album. It isn’t a feature that you see every day.
RJD2 knows that he has accomplished a lot but he never allows himself to think that way. He wants to continue doing music the best he can. He understands that he has to give himself something to keep chasing. He’s gracious, humble, and eager to talk about places he has been in his life and every genre of music. We talked over the phone in conversation about the dearly departed Camu Tao, coming up with Mhz Legacy and Def Jux, Phonte, which rappers have the best sense of humor, and The Beatles. — Jayson Buford
You grew up in Ohio. There are a lot of historic music scenes in Ohio. You had Bone Thugs, you had yourself, you had Blueprint, you have Camo. Even in the rock scene, you had the Black Keys. What did you take from those Ohio artists?
RJD2: I think honestly the main thing that works for some of us, if I understood you correctly… a few of those that you mentioned, I was working with. So I have a group called Soul Position. And we were in the MHz together. So those artists up in Cleveland.
Right, you were from Columbus.
RJD2: Yeah, but I actually grew up in Akron. I’d say the main thing that I took from them is a sense of… There were things coming out of Ohio that were hitting on a national level. I don’t know, it might sound trivial, but it’s very significant when you’re starting out as an artist in the Midwest, particularly in a field that’s not really known for that type of music, but kind of comes with a stigma around at the time. At the national level, I felt like when I started doing this things that were from the Midwest and South or Florida were really almost like vivid hip hop if you will, where they were looked down upon. They’re not going be able to do anything that’s going to contribute. So seeing acts like that make it kind of honed it in, turns. If all these could make it… It broke down those psychological, head-winds or barriers I think I would have otherwise had.
Would you say that you are most proud of the fact that yourself and Blueprint came up together and are from Ohio and kind of started that type of instrumental jazzy hip hop for your region.
RJD2: Yeah, I would say… I think I’m a weird, probably abnormal guy in that I don’t take pride instinctually, so there’s a lot. I never felt like I have time to sit down and be proud of my accomplishments because I’ve got a lot of work to do. So my general ethos around music has been to kind of actively avoid trying to sit back and think about, hone back and feel calm, proud, or really about anything.
RJD2: But there’s a point in which you do feel a sense of accomplishment. I can look back and say, “Oh, I am happy to have built up a body of work that’s recognizable enough amongst a small portion of American culture to enjoy. I hate to say that probably the closest to proud I would be around other people that we came up with. So I think it’s less about the music… I’m not the kind of guy to self-aggrandize around actual music I make, but the business side of it and the passage that we have been forced to forge in the music industry, that is something I do get a great sense of accomplishment about.
When I look at Blueprint right now, specifically, I’m really proud of what he has built because of his lifestyle, his business, his brand, anything that he’s built up, he’s done very much on his own terms. There’s a point at which being around the a bunch of these guys gave a little bit of a paradigm on which to do things differently. But there’s a point which he just kind of does it in his own way, business-wise and creatively. And that’s real inspiring to me.
I saw an interview where you called Philadelphia your second home. If there were some music acts from Philadelphia that inspired you, or that were around when you came around in that city, around that time, What were some of them?
RJD2: I lived in Philly for 14 years. So I call it my second home because I moved there in 2002, and I moved back here in 2015. While I was there, obviously, there’s like a super rich history there, with like — Culture, international stuff. Going back to Harold Melvin, Pendergrass, MFSG, all this international stuff. And then The Roots, and then there’s that wave with all the Roc-a-Fella stuff. It was basically taken from Philadelphia. Freeway, Beans, all those guys, Young Guns, etc. etc. It’s that musical… I’m kind of naming names. Some of these are really inspiring to me. The Roots for sure were really inspiring to me. But a lot of it was also Philadelphia had a music vibrancy to it in many different subsets. The jazz scene there is really impressive. R&B, obviously, is big. Hip hop is big. There’s a lot of rock bands that are… There’s art scenes. Weird rock. Instrumental bands that are really great coming out of Philadelphia. So just being in an environment where you felt more like you’re a participant in a marathon rather than a participant in a hundred meter dash, where you lose to the best ten people. And I don’t have the personality of guys running 100 meter dashes and there’s 12 participants at a time, but when I got to Philly, it’s like there’s so much going on it felt like you were in a marathon. And that provided me inspiration so… to give me a level of creativity to aspire to. It was simply higher than my immediate environment in Ohio.
The thing about Philadelphia that I find interesting is there’s not one artist from Philadelphia that actually I’ve disliked? They have everything in Philly.
RJD2: They really do. It’s a very interesting city, creatively. You know it’s similar to Columbus in that it’s much… Columbus is six hours from Chicago, and it creates and environment where the main big city, people “graduate” from Columbus, at least, at that point in time it was very common. People would go to Chicago because if you’re in Chicago, then you can come back to your family. But that relationship between a city the size of Columbus and Philadelphia provides a role for people in Columbus as being an affordable place to get their careers off the ground and different dip their toes into a major market by going to Chicago or whatever. Philly, I think, has a similar relationship to New York City because it’s much cheaper to live in Philly than New York, and yet, you’re so close to the eastern seaboard. DC, Boston, New York. You can dip your toes into those markets, and then come back to Philly and pay cheap rent and spend a lot of your time between the cracks.
Deadringer is a classic. What are some of your memories from making that along with Mhz Legacy, which I know you were with around that time, as well.
RJD2: What are the memories of that time? It really all became a blur, if I’m being honest. It was… I think my favorite memories were initially linking up with Def Jux guys. That was probably… There’s El-P was running away with… but then there was a scene around… You know there was a cross-pollination with them, with El and Bobbito and Mighty Mi from the Eastern Conference and that world of indie hip hop, at that time. It’s not like everybody knew everybody, but there was a lot of overlap in those social groups and scenes, whatever you want to call it. So then my group the MHz started going to New York and very slowly started to get accepted into those circles. That was probably my most personal memories of that period, but at the time Deadringer came out, I was touring and I was just thrown into the gauntlet. I was just doing anything that came in, whether that was doing beats, or whatever, I was saying yes to all of it. I was saying yes to all the tours. So that period in my life, early 2002 to 2005 or 2006, really just a blur.
You ran with the dearly departed Camu Tao. What was your first impression of him?
RJD2: Oh boy. I’m laughing because to put myself back in that time frame of meeting those guys is just such a different world, man. I mean, obviously —
RJD2: They were wild dudes. I’ll put it that way. I remember being, not in the sense of doing drugs or anything like that. They were clean as a whistle when I first met Camu and Copywrite. They were in a group together. Those two at the time that I met them, Camu and Copywrite were inseparable. They were like blood brothers. They were in the group; they were the core members of the neighborhood.
RJD2: You never saw one without the other. They were like, yeah, they were the two guys who were in that group. They started that group.
They were synonymous with one another. Yeah.
RJD2: Yeah, and they were just wild. I mean, Camu, super out there, limelight. He was a much more abstract rhymer than Copywrite was. Copywrite was battle-tested, and —
I would say, when I listened, I would say Copywrite is a much more technical MC, whereas Cam was the much more like wild, that has less of a technical view of things and much more abstract, like you said, rhyming skills.
RJD2: Yeah, but at the time, Camu also knew beats. So he was really like an effective double threat, and I just remember being like “These guys are super good at what they do, and they are really wild.”
On a musical level, what was something about him as an artist that people may not know?
RJD2: I don’t know if there’s a lot to be honest with you because I think that they … Camu was great at really kind of letting it all hang out, musically. Like if he had an interest in something, it would kind of shine through. I guess if there was something that people didn’t know, both of those guys would do… And I’m not going to say the names, but they would do these off-brand, side-pocket kind of things. They basically would do comedy rap, and I think they used several monikers to do that. I would hate to give that away, but they would make these tapes that they sent to … It’s hard to describe. Let’s just say, if you combined like Andrew Dice Clay and a comedian more like Dave Chappelle, but rapping, but just the most over the top, scorched earth levels of just… Absolutely hilarious, and I think some of that stuff, was not better than their released material, but they would make these tapes of basically them rapping, and it would be the most offensive. But really funny shit. And most of it never got released. It was literally heard by a probably a maximum of five to ten people, but they’d stay up all night and make eight or ten beats. Nothing you’d want to keep, but they were just making beats, rapping over recorded songs, and move on.
I always felt like the most iconic thing about Def Jux was their sense of humor in all of this, in all of the writing that they talked about.
RJD2: Yeah, I was thinking about this a week ago. I think there’s a correlation between a good rapper and a distinct sense of humor, but every great rapper I’ve ever known has their own distinct sense of humor.
Right, Biggie had his own distinct sense of humor. El-P does. Yeah. Cam’ron, yeah.
RJD2: There’s two … All good rappers to some degree are also funny in a life sense. As people, not just in the lines, but as people. There’s two rappers I’ve been around in my life, these guys weren’t just funny, they were so shockingly funny that people … This is not an exaggeration, literally, could have their own comedic specials, and that is Phonte and Camu. Those two guys are so fucking hilarious as people. It’s kind of like … I don’t know. Tears level of funny.
Your new album, The Fun Ones, just came out two weeks ago. Phonte’s on the new album in conversation. How did that come about?
RJD2: So the way that the sections happened were we recorded it on the phone, but it felt like I put a song, six seconds out. Song, six seconds out. There’s a typical layout of an album, where there’s a lull between the things. It just felt like I was losing momentum every time something there was something in between them, you know. I naturally thought, why don’t I record these songs, master them, and then this message and try to assemble this like a mixtape. Basically put my DJ hat on and now that the songs are done, using those songs. So for the transitions, my first thought was, it would be great if I could use comedy references. Richard Pryor and the pips, but that’s just not feasible from a legal standpoint, obviously.
RJD2: I can’t go with a comedy record for $500 million. So then I thought well, why don’t I just record my own conversations. Then I’ll go back and select different bobs, as the transition pieces. And then once I realized that I was going to do that, I realized that I could unify the topics. So instead of it just being, “Hey, let’s get on the phone and just bullshit.” There was really that with Phonte because everything, there were probably six or eight or ten actual quotes that we talked for 35 minutes about over the phone and I recorded it. What do I use? It was so hard to decide because he is so funny. I could have made the entire album with just bits from him and it’s just how convenient.
So when I was looking at how to unify them, I realized that the topics that I talked about with these people. I realized all of us were about the same age, and we’d been in the music industry long enough to have our ups and downs. Still that… there’s got to be some reason that we’re doing this, other than we’re just here to cash a check and pay our bills. That’s when I thought… It all just kind of came into my mind, like why am I still doing this? Why am I still making records? So that’s kind of the question that I posed to people. Then I just shut up and let them talk.
What’s your favorite Little Brother album? If you have one.
RJD2: Probably the new one, man. Honestly. The album’s amazing man. I don’t know. Both of those guys are incredible, honestly. It’s hard for me to do that, honestly.
Yeah, obviously Little Brother is like – Every hip hop head knows Little Brother and how influential they are. But it feels like they should be even more respected in mainstream cannon. There’s some rappers out there that really owe Phonte and Big Pooh.
RJD2: Oh yeah. Absolutely. I think that pound for pound, I would say this: I think his previous solo record RPM that came out before the new Little Brother record. I think, pound for pound is the most content heavy rap record, I think, that’s ever made it. What I mean is if you discuss a record based on how there’s really thought behind every single line and every single song. I think it might be the most intense-laden record ever made.
Right. Your new album, The Fun Ones, feels like the funkiest one yet. What records inspired you on this one because I know that one of your favorite records is Black Market, and that’s also … Was that one of the records that may have influenced you?
RJD2: Oh, yeah. The Weather Report, as a group, has been my favorite. I’m glad that you got the record. The Black Market album is amazing, but really everything they did is, even the 80’s shit is good, but their first five records are just amazing to me. For that, a huge one… I feel like if there’s one album that really exemplifies how I was going about the record, in terms of feel, but just like a half funk, half jazz record, which I think is not close at all to what I was going for, but it was my comfort zone, and there’s something about that pull of a record that feels like it brings an amazing… All the performances are great, but it’s just a really “feel good” record. That’s the best way I can put it. The first inspiration album is another one where front to back, it just feels like summer. And that was kind of the head space that I was in when I was making this record. Oftentimes, I’ll come into a record and I’ll play a couple of songs that feel like my comfort zone, in terms of groove oriented music, and trying to have well thought out chord changes and signature rifts stuff. And then it’s like, I’ve said this. Now, let me try to say some other things in the course of this album.
On this record, I didn’t do that. I just kept going with that attitude that I’m going to make this shit that’s the most fun to listen to right now. And that’s why I call it The Fun Ones because that’s the driving force of the record, which I wasn’t really trying to prove my range as a producer or tracks as a producer, I was trying to make 12 or 13 of the best songs that I could, and disregard whether there were fast, slow, happy, sad. Throw all of that shit out the window basically.
I’ve got two little bonus ones for you. The Third Hand is also one of my favorites by you. It has some, I think, Beatle-esque music in it. Like Beatles pop in a little bit.
RJD2: Oh yeah.
I’ve been listening to a lot of Beatles stuff during this quarantine because … I’ve just been listening to music, man. That’s the only thing I can do really. Can’t do anything else. What is your favorite Beatles record if you have one?
RJD2: Oh, man. Definitely… It’s interesting that you caught that. It’s definitely not intentional, but I was very much in the head space of being obsessed with the Beatles. I mean I’ve always liked the group, but now it’s like… Well, and late 60’s rock was a big … I was in that head space at that time. Again, Rubber Soul is probably front to back. But I think that what they did from ’66 to ’69. It’s shocking how great… Their run in that short period of time. It’s just astounding what they recorded, and what they decided to not truly stay in the studio and grind it out. Don’t get me wrong, I love Sgt. Pepper’s. I love The White Album. I love Revolver. I don’t know if there’s… There may be like one or two that I might skip, but they are effectively… They’re all masterpieces. Pound for pound, I think Rubber Soul is probably my favorite.
Yeah, Rubber Soul is really interesting to me because it feels like the first album in which their songwriting became super adult and super mature.
Lennon was writing “Norwegian Wood” and you know, That wasn’t part of their music when the mania was happening, but Rubber Soul feels like the first time when they’re like “No, we’re adults.”
RJD2: Yeah. I totally agree.
I probably would say Abbey Road is my favorite just for the medley. The medley is like–
RJD2: It’s great. I’m totally going on a detour here, but have you heard the Booker T’s and the MG’s album? It’s like a note for note cover of Abbey Road. You should get it. It’s really good. It’s instrumental, and Booker T plays all the melodies on the organ. It’s really interesting because the record must have come out … I think the LP dates it like ’70? I remember when I first found it, I was looking at it, and it was like “This had to have come out within about 12 weeks of Abbey Road itself being released.” So they must’ve just gotten the record, and then just turned around and boom. And it’s really… It’s not just one song, they covered the entire album. Check it out. It’s cool.
I definitely will. All right. One more for you, and then I’m going to let you go. Obviously, you must get this a lot. A composition you did “A Beautiful Mind” famously became Mad Men’s opening credits intro. I know that they cut it a little bit. So it doesn’t exactly sound like … I was surprised at how much your composition doesn’t really sound like the intro.
RJD2: Yeah, I mean we licensed it, so I knew that it was obviously mine, but yeah there is some editing in it. For the longest time they… The last note that it ends on, it always feels kind of sour and detuned.
RJD2: The part of it that I didn’t recognize it at all, and felt foreign to me, was for them to edit it and it end on this note that’s like… just feels like it’s about ten cents flat compared to the rest of the song. It doesn’t feel in tune. But then I realized that might be a function of… For the longest time, it was like that little bit of the Mad Men scene kind of just irked me. But I realized after the fact, that it was probably an artifact of them editing different sections of the song, and because of how I make records, I have this sort of hodge-podgey way of going about it, you wind up with portions of the song that are slightly more out of tuned than other portions of the song.
Yeah. That’s how I was hearing it, too.
RJD2: So I think that’s on me, basically. And it’s just the function of editing together different sections of the song, and then you put those things right next to each other, then it becomes noticeable.
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