Variety, integrity and safe driving habits keep the unstoppable producer at the top of his class.
Just a few questions into our conversation with legendary DJ/producer RJD2 and he begins to sound noticeably distracted. Is he so annoyed with our probing questions about origins, inspirations and techniques he’s already checked out of the interview? After a brief moment of silence he says, “Sorry, I’m driving to the airport and a cop just pulled up behind me. Would you mind if I called you back?
He’s no asshole, just avoiding a costly run-in with Johnny Five-O.
True to his word, RJ (whose real name is Ramble John Krohn) gets back with us a short time later. “Sorry about that,” he says with a laugh. “I would be so fucked if I got pulled over and missed this flight.”
Despite his pleasant demeanor and commitment to safe, distraction-free driving, the 38-year-old mastermind behind classic tracks like “Ghostwriter” and “Smoke and Mirrors” is actually a bit of a rebel. In today’s world of vanilla pop hits, dime-a-dozen bangers and flavor-of-the-week genres, the ability to make great music while staying true to one’s roots and style is a trait not often seen in musicians anymore. In fact, the ability to keep artistic integrity intact while others chase the next million-dollar hit takes some serious moxy — but RJD2 has been doing it for more than two decades.
Immersed in music from any early age, RJD2 was bound for musical success from the get-go. “I started off playing the guitar when I was very young, maybe 8 or 9, but I also had friends that were into rap music,” he says. “I had a big moment with one of the first UTFO records. I was listening to pop, so it was like nothing I had ever heard before and was very foreign compared to everything that I was familiar with musically.”
It wasn’t until high school when RJ attended a vocational music school and bought his first DJ rig with a bin full of records from a friend. “I just wanted the records,” he says, “but I ended up buying the whole thing, which led to more record collecting, then to buying a sampler, then to becoming a producer.”
In spite of what he calls the “demoralizing experience” of going to a school pumping out career-oriented music drones, RJ began drifting deeper into the burgeoning hip-hop scene in the unlikely setting of Columbus, OH. “Rap was very exciting at the time because everyone was just working toward the respect and admiration of their peers,” he says. “And that was very appealing to me considering the environment I was in before.”
Eventually, he became the DJ for a local rap group called MHz (Megahertz) with whom he produced his very first single. From that point on, RJ continued to produce singles and release mixtapes until 2002 when he released his debut solo album “Deadringer” to the acclaim of critics and hip-hop heads everywhere, featuring the legendary track “Ghostwriter.” The album was the first brick to be laid as he built a prolific-as-fuck career in music — something he never envisioned happening.
Since releasing countless albums, EPs, singles, collaborations and even lending one of his tracks to the title sequence of AMC’s “Mad Men,” RJD2 still pushes forward, but hardly ever at the same pace or on the same path as his contemporaries.
So how does he set himself apart when it’s so easy (sometimes even encouraged) to only make what others blindly consume? “The driving force for me in the studio is when I hear something that I’ve never heard before,” which, he says, is the main reason that there’s so much variety in his lengthy catalog. It’s something he says he’s proud of, but it can be seen as a curse by those uncomfortable with the idea of change.
“I’m rarely aiming for a certain target when I make a record, and I’m definitely not aiming for the same target each time,” he says. “I never really put a lot of thought into who a record will appeal to or how it will be perceived. If I like it, I like it — if not, I probably won’t release it.”
RJ’s mindset, something once labeled artistic integrity, has become somewhat of a rarity in the age of million-dollar DJs, generic EDM hits and indifferent listeners.
Whether in the studio or on stage, doing things his own way is only way RJ knows. While others are content with acting like a glorified “shuffle” button on a iPod loaded with Top 40 hits, RJ feels the need to “keep things interesting” by playing vinyl records during his live sets — something few DJs do anymore.
“If I’m not doing something that has some kind of challenge to it, then all I’m doing is practicing my fist pumps and backflips and new ways to jump on tables,” he jokes, “and that just really isn’t for me.” But he notes, if that’s anyone’s thing, then more power to them. Who is he to judge?
Today, terms like producer, DJ, musician, and artist tend to be thrown around willy-nilly, but RJD2 is one of those rare examples of someone who truly embodies them all. It’s his commitment to staying true to his taste and style that marks him as a true artist. In a culture (oddly enough) still valuing record sales and royalties more than authenticity, it can be easy for someone to lose their way as they search for the next mega-hit. But for RJD2, leaving behind a humble body of work he can be proud of will suffice.
Who: RJD2 w/ Tnertle and lily Fangz
Where: The Bluebird Theater
When: Friday, Jan 30 – 9:00pm
How Much: $23 Advance $25 Day of Show | Ages: 16+
Who:RJD2 w/ DJ Chonz and Skydyed
Where: The Bluebird Theater
When: Saturday, Jan 31 – 9:00pm
How Much: $23 Advance $25 Day of Show | Ages 16+
Cover Photo: Benny Mistak