Alone with my headphones and immersed in experimental hip-hop veteran RJD2’s latest release, the eclectic and soulful odyssey Dame Fortune (RJ’s Electrical Connections), my mind drifted to photos I’d seen a few months earlier. The reverie occurred somewhere between track two, a two-and-a-half-minute burst of frenetic then gliding Afrobeat-inflected funk, and track three, a stirring and emotive soul cut featuring the vocalist Jordan Brown.
They were shots of Polaroids fixed atop ephemera ranging from books to torn magazine pages to manila envelopes, themselves framed by their carpet or hardwood floor backdrops. In one, a muted color snapshot of a backyard family is up against a full-page black and white magazine image of civil rights marchers, a pairing of the commonplace and consequential. Another depicts two young men caught reading magazines in a low-slung, bare-walled apartment living room, a glimpse inside a historical diorama, itself placed squarely over a hand-scribbled, graffiti-style sketch.
The association didn’t seem worth sharing until I’d reflected on a conversation I’d have a few days later with the musician, a former jazz school student who put down his guitar in the mid-90s to begin his monastic devotion to crate-digging, the practice of fishing for old, usually obscure records on vinyl, and the attendant art of sampling, reinterpreting snippets of found songs through new juxtapositions and arrangements. Like RJD2’s music, the montage photos from Leslie Hewitt’s “Riffs on Real Time” series forge connections and imply continuum through fragments arranged in unexpected ways; for me they evoked something approximating wistfulness for a period I did not know and inherently couldn’t save for my own lens on artifacts: the African-American experience of the 1960s and 1970s.
I have always loved the music that bookended the civil rights movement, and Dame Fortune burns with the spirit of Stax, Motown, and the sweet sounds of Philadelphia, where RJD2 had been living and recording for the last 14 years before his recent move back to Columbus, Ohio, where his music career began in the mid-90s. I hadn’t kept up with RJD2’s forays into soul, including 2011’s The Abandoned Lullaby, which he recorded with Philly vocalist Aaron Livingston (Son Little) under the name Icebird in 2011, so the cuts featuring vocalists Brown, Livingston, Phonte Coleman, and X Factor runner-up Josh Krajcik were a welcome surprise to these ears, tracks a DJ could sneak into a vintage rare groove set with only the most discerning listener calling the bluff.
For an artist who started out in hip-hop, a genre birthed from a liberal sampling of Parliament, James Brown, and other funk forebearers, it’s an interesting and not unfitting evolution—R&B that incorporates foundational hip-hop elements of sampling and scratching, a feedback loop of musical influence. Two decades since he first started spinning classic breakbeats in small central Ohio clubs, Dame Fortune finds RJD2 confident in his time-traveling sound. Alongside the velvety soul jams are the spooky, head-bobbing beats, noise, and soothing ambient soundscapes RJ explored in his previous genre excursions. “A New Theory” features two minutes of cut-and-paste hip-hop acrobatics, while “PF Day One,” sounds like a lullaby from outer space.
I caught up with RJD2, born Ramble Jon Krohn, on a Friday night by telephone, after he put his four-year-old to bed, to talk about how he achieves a sound that is simultaneously contemporary and retro. “Over the last 12 years, maybe more, I’ve basically trained myself to do two things simultaneously. One of them is to use an MPC (music production controller) in a fashion similar to what a band or real instrumentalists would do. And the other is to play instruments in a manner that is informed by all my years chopping up samples,” Krohn says. “In a way, I’ve taught myself how to imitate a band with a sampler, and how to imitate a sampler with a band. What it’s done for me is kind of allowed me to toy with the lines between the two in a way that’s fun, but is not a rule.” On Dame Fortune, Krohn plays guitar, bass, keyboards, and drums. He’s joined by cellist Dave Eggar, the string section of The Bohemiam Dub Orchestra, as well as Philly-based trumpet and sax players Adam Hershberger and Elliot Levin. One of his tricks is to record musicians playing then slice up the recording into loops. “Sometimes I’d use the MPC to kind of trick your ear into thinking what you’re hearing is a sample,” he says. “People might not realize they’re very adept at identifying whether they’re hearing the exact same audio recording of a snare drum every two bars.”
Krohn is certainly not the first producer reared on hip-hop to gravitate away from sampling. Lawsuits and increasingly fierce copyright protection efforts from music publishing companies have made the technique, with its requisite clearance costs, too expensive. Look at any of the great sample-based records from hip hop’s golden age, like Paul’s Boutique, Fear of a Black Planet, and De La Soul’s Prince Paul–produced game-changer Three Feet High and Rising—none could be made today without incurring bank-busting clearance costs. It’s pushed producers to take hip-hop into new directions. Formally educated in music and self-taught in the art of beatmastery, Krohn maintains his appreciation for fundamentalist hip-hop techniques. “The things that are informing me are either RZA sampling Bob James or Bob James… those are two drastically things but they’re both equally important.”
Born in Eugene, Oregon but growing up in Columbus, Krohn attended arts-centric high school Fort Hayes, where he studied jazz guitar and envisioned a slightly different career trajectory. “I was thinking, ‘Oh, well maybe if I’m really super lucky I’ll be able to slog out and make 75 bucks three nights a week to pay my bills in five years,’” Krohn says. “The students already resigned themselves to defeat in that it was going to be so difficult for them to make a living in the field of music.”
That was the context in which he arrived at the Groove Shack, a record store that doubled as performance space and served as central headquarters for up and coming emcees in Columbus. Hip-hop had always interested him, but Krohn had no idea how the music was made. And he’d never seen two emcees compete. “The movie 8 Mile did a pretty good job depicting what a rap battle looked like at that time,” Krohn says. “I had a moment at Groove Shack that informed what I would do for at least the following decade of my life,” he adds. “What made it so fascinating was that anyone could get up and grab the mic and rap. Periodically people would spar off against each other. I’ll never forget how it wasn’t a panel of judges. The people in the room were the ones judging the outcome.”
Like punk, hip-hop democratized the capacity to make and perform music, not just for emcees but producers as well, a structure wholly different than the top-down approach Krohn experienced in school. “Making something that a rapper would want to rhyme to, at that point in time, it had nothing to do with how proficient you were on an instrument or what you understood about music,” Krohn says. He put down the instruments, picked up the turntables and a sampler, and began teaching himself. He didn’t touch a traditional instrument for almost a decade. “Having chops on an instrument didn’t give you any better odds of making a dope beat, making something a rapper would want to rhyme to,” he says. “I’ve had this experience where now I’ll have to learn old things—songs from my old records—and they’ll be halfway between (keys) B and C because it didn’t matter.”
Krohn began deejaying locally and eventually was booked on a bill with some rappers. When their DJ didn’t show up, they asked him to fill in. “Literally, like a half-hour before they were supposed to go on stage they were like, ‘You’re a DJ. Just do breaks, just do back-to-backs,’” the Grandmaster Flash–style of spinning the same break on two records to maintain a continuous beat. That was the first time he performed with Tage Future (now Tage), Copywrite, and Camu Tao. Eventually joined by the syllabically dexterous Jakki Da Motamouth, the pioneering hip-hop crew MHz was born in 1997.
MHz established themselves as a force in a hip-hop scene that didn’t have a lot of visibility outside of a small cadre of record shop owners, emcees, DJs and beatmakers. They were “the bunion on the ass of the Columbus music scene,” as Krohn once described it. Subsequently, RJD2 was signed by indie hip-hop powerhouse Def Jux and released his critically acclaimed debut Deadringer in 2002. Dark, cinematic, and conceived in the cut-and-paste school of instrumental hip hop, it earned frequent comparisons to DJ Shadow’s landmark Endtroducing and elevated RJD2 to the national stage. Soon, his music was being featured in commercials for companies like Wells Fargo and Saturn, and eventually, as the theme song for an AMC television series about a bunch of hard-living Madison Avenue executives in ’60s.
The show’s producer, Matt Weiner, had heard an instrumental version of a cut RJD2 did with rapper Aceyalone as bumper music on NPR and decided it was just what he needed to tee up each episode of the series in development. Iconic as the Mad Men theme has become, Krohn’s authorship is not widely recognized. “I don’t feel the need to pump it up or anything,” Krohn says, laughing when I suggest a rapper could name-check Don Draper on his records. “Maybe I should have done a better job of being self-promotional.”
According to an interview on Fuse’s “Crate Diggers,” Krohn spent five or more years “digging for records” in the run-up to Deadringer. That amounted to 14-hour days bouncing around record stores and sifting for forgotten gems. These days he can’t imagine finding samples online. “You mean like mp3 digging?” he asks. “I don’t. You’ve got to realize one of the basic premises of sampling is that when you take a record home and put the needle on and are listening to it, the whole thing is happening under the guise of the possibility that you’re going to hear something that no one else related to hip-hop has heard. That could mean no one has found this record and looked for samples on it, or it could mean people have found this record and looked for samples on it and overlooked something. There is a third option, which is people have found this record and found samples, but they haven’t used it in the same way that you are going to use it.”
While he doesn’t pass judgment on anyone finding sampling inspiration online, the tactic cuts against his own crate-digging ethos. “By definition this is something else someone has discovered and put on the internet. So you’re starting from a fundamentally different place,” he says. “You’ve got to realize it would be as if every single record in every record store had a post-it note on top of it that said something like, ‘Large Professor already sampled this one’ or ‘from Large Professor’s collection’ or whatever. The psychology behind it would be totally different.”
Of Dame Fortune, he cites personal experiences “of being a grown man with a kid in America… experiences coming off the record with Philly rapper STS (last year’s STSxRJD2) in some way, the Icebird record, and my own previous album” as contributing components to the record’s sound. “My ultimate goal is just to make a great album,” Krohn says. “At any given time, what are the best 10, 12 or 15 songs I can come up with to put into an album?” But his ancillary explanation for the album’s eclecticism is surprisingly modest. “I’ve never been comfortable making an album that’s a bunch of songs aiming to do basically the same thing,” he says. “You don’t realize how impossibly hard it is to make 10 beats that are all the same style and still so good that you’re going to listen to them,” he says. “Gang Starr, let’s use that as an example. Moment of Truth or Step in the Arena—you don’t realize until you start making a beat how impossibly hard it is to make 12 beats that are just as good as each other, that are all that caliber. It’s impossible.”
But making a cohesive, compelling record of songs that bounce around genres is also no easy task. On Dame Fortune, RJ once again proves to be up for the challenge.