RJD2 - Biography
Hip-hop is often criticized for a lack of actual musicianship. Some say that the rag-tag roots of the genre put repressive limits on its potential. However, leading the charge against these accusations in the early part of the new millennium was an eclectic New York-based collective called Definitive Jux, who saturated their obscure hip-hop with brain-numbing distortion and messy bass-heavy subversions. One of the most acclaimed members of this crew — and certainly one of the most musically talented hip-hop artists to emerge — is the DJ/producer/singer RJD2. Successfully traversing genres ranging from hip-hop to rock to electronica, RJD2 has involved himself in an abundant amount of lauded projects with a hybrid of dark, morose tones and heavy thumping beats.
Born Ramble John Krohn, RJD2 first cut his musical teeth in Columbus, Ohio as the DJ for a local rap group called Megahertz (also called MhZ). The group also featured rapper Copywrite, whom RJD2 continued to collaborate with throughout his career. Now going by the alias RJD2, Krohn and MhZ released Table Scraps (NCS Records) in 2001. While not a formal album, Table Scraps is a collection of singles the group had recorded throughout their brief tenure. That same year, RJD2 flexed his creativity as a DJ with his mix Your Face or Your Kneecaps (Bustown Pride). A busy fusion of obscure funk records, hip-hop acapellas, and samples from the film Wildstyle, the wide musical scope of the album provided an early glimpse into the vast audio territory RJD2 would peruse. Your Face or Your Kneecaps also includes several of RJD2’s original productions, including an early version of “Good Times Roll Pt. II,” which would later be used on RJD2’s first album of original productions.
As a buzz began to develop around RJD2, he inked a deal with progressive hip-hop label Definitive Jux. In 2002, he released his solo debut, Deadringer (Def Jux). Met with a hefty amount of praise, Deadringer featured songs like “Ghostwriter” and “2 More Dead,” which heard RJD2’s thick and brooding production begin to come into its own. For the album’s murky sound, he took samples from sources ranging from the band Yes to the classic cartoon Scooby Doo. Deadringer is primarily an instrumental hip-hop album, but it does include several lyrical contributions from MhZ band-mate Copywrite (“June”) as well as another Columbus-based rapper named Blueprint (“Final Frontier”). Later that year, RJD2 once again linked up with Blueprint for a project dubbed Soul Position and the duo released the six-track Unlimited EP (2002 Rhymesayers). Featuring RJD2’s dark productions and Blueprint’s witty philosophical raps, the EP also contains the instrumental track “Oxford You Really Owe Me.” The following year, RJD2 released an EP of his own, The Horror (2003 Def Jux), which is composed of remixes from his original album Deadringer (with the exception of the new track “Sold the World”). Named after one of the more recognizable songs from Deadringer, The Horror puts some new spins on previous RJD2 tracks, such as the remix of “Final Frontier,” which is a Def Jux showcase featuring rhymes from fellow label-mates Murs, Vast Aire, Aesop Rock, and Blueprint. Also in 2003, Soul Position released their first full-length album, 8 Million Stories (Rhymesayers). Although 8 Million Stories is similar to Soul Position’s EP, the final three tracks are RJD2 instrumentals, without Blueprint’s insightful rhymes.
Between solo work and Soul Position, RJD2 contributed to various projects including several songs for Copywrite’s album The High Exhaulted (2002 Eastern Conference) and Kentucky-based rap group CunninLynguists’ album, SouthernUnderground (2003 Freshchest). RJD2 also produced the track “Saliva” for Viktor Vaughn’s album Vaudeville Villain (2003 Sound Ink).
In an interview, RJD2 controversially stated that he felt much of the hip-hop he had produced was sub-par. Whether he was being jaded or merely stating his desire to explore his capabilities, RJD2’s production had always been noted for its versatility and ability to transcend genres. His second studio album served as further proof of the prestigious producer’s eclectic talents. 2004’s Since We Last Spoke (Def Jux) creeps away from the dark and trip-hop-tinged music of his previous work. Cuts from the album like “Ring Finger” and “Iced Lightning” draw more inspiration from rock than anything else. Another noticeable aspect of the album is the complete absence of any contributions from MCs. Some critics were taken aback by the musical departure of Since We Last Spoke and many felt that the explorations into indie rock, metal, and disco caused the album to lose focus. However, while his sophomore full-length didn’t achieve the critical accolades of Deadringer, it still garnered fairly favorable reviews.
RJD2’s abandonment of hip-hop proved to be short-lived as he began 2006 by producing Soul Position’s Things Go Better with RJ and AL (2006 Def Jux). The second full-length between Blueprint and himself found remarkably good reviews from Pitchfork Media and Okayplayer who both praised Blueprint’s lyrical sense of humor and its ability to glide over RJD2’s soundscapes. RJD2 was also equally praised for his collaboration with underground hip-hop legend Aceyalone. Their worked together yielded the album Magnificent City (2006 Decon Inc), which mixes hip-hop with a decent amount of electronica on tracks like “Fire” and “Supahero.” Aceyalone’s rhymes juxtapose themselves beautifully over RJD2’s funk-powered beats. RJD2’s production acquired him a plentiful amount of praise. An instrumental version of Magnificent City was also released and treated as an entirely new RJD2 album, Magnificent City Instrumentals (2006 Decon Inc).
Stating that he wanted to produce more pop music, the prolific producer left Definitive Jux and signed a deal with XL Records. RJD2 then released his third solo album, The Third Hand (XL Records), in 2007. Without a doubt the farthest departure from his core hip-hop work, The Third Hand simply deserted RJD2’s sample-based beats in favor of pure indie rock. Completely devoid of samples or the aggressive rhymes of longtime collaborators like Copywrite and Blueprint, the album features RJD2 singing and playing instruments on a majority of the songs. While some critics respected RJD2’s daring departure into a genre he had rarely skimmed before, some felt he was merely trying to pander to a wider audience. His statement from three years earlier regarding his lack of enthusiasm for his hip-hop-based work also came to light again and many felt that he had disrespected the genre, his fans, and his own catalogue of music. Nonetheless, RJD2 continued his exploratory ways and covered Radiohead’s “Airbag” for the tribute album Exit Music: Songs with Radio Heads (2006 Rapster). Other artists on the compilation include Meshell NDegeocello, Mark Ronson, and Sa-Ra. RJD2 also sharpened his film-scoring claws for the album Nightmare Revisited (2008 Disney), which features contemporary artists doing their own renditions of songs from the soundtrack to the animated film The Nightmare Before Christmas. RJD2’s reworking of “Christmas Eve Montage” added his pulsing depth and thick drums to the atmospheric piece.
RJD2 has proven to be one of popular music’s most daring producers, not only by experimenting with different styles but by altogether abandoning and adopting new ones. With a seemingly endless desire to inhabit new musical ground, RJD2’s creativity and musical abilities shall constantly be in motion.