Philly DJ extraordinaire RJD2 ventures out on his own and discovers true bliss.
He’s been a dishwasher, a waiter, a barista, a pizza deliveryman and a bank teller.
He’s put out a bunch of albums and toured the world numerous times, all the while having to answer to record label honchos who pocketed at least some of the fruits of his labor.
Now, finally, he’s the boss.
That’s the name of the label RJD2 (born Ramble John Krohn, known as RJ to his friends) founded last year, close to a decade into his career as DJ, producer, singer and multi-instrumentalist. It’s now home to his lauded 2002 debut Deadringer , the 2003 EP The Horror and 2004’s Since We Last Spoke —all of which he re-issued late last year after acquiring the masters from his first label, Definitive Jux. There’s also a limited-edition vinyl box set, RJD2 2002-2010 , that packages those three titles with a rarities EP.
There are a couple more items stuffed in there for the diehards, including a signed and numbered poster, but RJ purposely left some extra room in the box for two more releases that, if added by fans, will allow the collection to fully live up to its name. First, 2007’s XL Records-released The Third Hand (more on that one later). And second, The Colossus, the fourth proper RJD2 full-length album, out this week. (See the first video from the album below.)
For the first time, he’s overseeing every last detail: The manufacture and distribution of the album. The publicity campaign. Preventing the album from leaking online prior to its January 19 release date (he was remarkably successful at doing so, mostly for not handing out physical advance copies to journalists). And putting together and managing a, well, colossal four-month tour that launches its third leg on March 5 at First Unitarian Church.
But the 33-year-old is up for the work. “I’ve always enjoyed the idea of setting a task for myself, of challenging myself,” he says over lunch at West Philadelphia’s Gold Standard Cafe, just a few blocks from his home and studio. It’s the day prior to the kickoff of the Colossus tour in Washington, D.C., and less than two weeks before the album’s street date. “Right now is probably the worst it’s gonna get, with all the shit hitting the fan these next few days. But most other times I’ve found it quite manageable, and it’s been really rewarding.”
Born in Oregon and raised in Columbus, Ohio, RJ spent much of the ’90s working a string of mainly food-service jobs while struggling to get his fledgling DJ career off the ground. By 1999 he had given up almost entirely, taking a job at a bank, re-enrolling in college and figuring music would be nothing more than a hobby. A year later, though, his tracks found their way into the hands of underground rapper El-P, who signed him to his independent label, Def Jux. RJ relocated to Philadelphia in 2002, around the time Deadringer —a slab of atmospheric, cinematic, instrumental hip-hop thick with soul and funk samples and crackling beats—began to blow up, positioning him as the logical heir to DJ Shadow.
Aided by West Philly’s cheap rents and his easy 11-minute drive to the airport (no small concern when you’re jetting off to cities around the globe for DJ gigs many times a month), RJ turned his musicmaking into a full-time endeavor. Two more sample-centric discs rapidly followed for Def Jux; he teamed up with Ohio rapper Blueprint under the Soul Position moniker for a handful of releases on Rhymesayers and did one-off collaborations with Freestyle Fellowship rapper Aceyalone, fellow Philly DJ/producer Diplo and others.
Eventually he left Def Jux for XL Records, and it wasn’t long after the release of The Third Hand that he started thinking about exerting more control over his career.
“There was this thing that always used to be in the back of my head, which was wondering whether I was gonna have some big issue with the record label about a certain song I did, or an album, or some decision I was making, or even a street date. Are they gonna bitch if I wanna do this side project thing before my next solo record? Are they not gonna let me put out another record under an assumed name? And all these other things that in the past I’ve dealt with,” he says.
Since striking out on his own with RJ’s Electrical Connections, he smiles, “to not have those conversations anymore is really, really nice.” Still, he doesn’t have too many regrets about the route he took to get to this point.
“When I didn’t have a record deal and I barely had aspirations of making a solo album, getting hooked up with Def Jux, that was a no-brainer. Like, dude, you gotta take that. And then fast forward a few years to XL, they believed in The Third Hand and so it made sense to me at that time. Fast forward to now—I’ve run the gauntlet of an album campaign at least six times now. I know how it works, who needs to be hired, what needs to be done. So at this point it’s not rocket science. I don’t really need a label to inform me how this thing works.”
The new label and the new album certainly represent a fresh start for RJD2, particularly after the furor that surrounded The Third Hand. In a move that jarred a lot of longtime followers, RJ holed up in his studio, abandoned his sample-based approach, picked up traditional instruments, and made an album of psych-pop songs and even acoustic-based, singer-songwritery fare that (gasp!) featured him singing on nearly every track. Though the production style was often as lush and layered as his earlier efforts, a sizable number of fans and critics reacted harshly to the aesthetic shift.
PW's Music Issue 2014