You may know Ramble Jon Krohn–better known by his stage name RJD2–from his critically acclaimed debut album Deadringer or Mad Men where his song "A Beautiful Mine" is the theme. Fifteen years into his career as a DJ-producer, Krohn continues to develop his unique genre of hip-hop: an amalgamation of funk, soul, and beat-centric melodies that evoke visual imagery. This past May, he released a collaboration album with Philly-originated rapper STS called RJD2 x STS. STS had previously appeared as a vocalist on RJD2's last solo album More Than Isn't. We sat down with Krohn to discuss the new album and how he's grown as an artist.
Can tell me about your collaboration with STS?
STS was put on The Roots' record and we had a mutual friend in Philly. I reached out to my friend when I was working on my last solo album that came out in 2013. He said it would be cool to have him sing the hook and STS rhyme on it. So from there we stayed in touch and talked and about making songs. I started sending him some rough beats and he started writing on them quickly. I started getting demos back and thought there was a chance we could make some music. It went from a couple songs to it being feasible for us to make an album.
Did you know what sound you wanted to capture when creating this album?
We weren't shooting for any particular sound. I would say we were just exploring how things were going. I don't really work form a preconceived place when it comes to starting a record. Sometimes I start making a record and halfway through I'll try to balance it out and give it some depth. Initially, we didn't sit down and say "let's make a record like this or that."
What are some songs on the new album you're most proud of?
There are little pieces of every song that have something I'm proud of. I'm also happy with STS' performance and with what I've brought to the table. The singles were the obvious ones that we really liked. "Don't Get Played" and "Doin' It Right" I was very happy with. Initially "Doin' it Right" started off with a smaller sound but ended up with a bigger sound.
Can you tell me what it was like working with Amos Lee for "Don't Get Played"?
I've had this experience a number of times in my career where I cold call people, cross my fingers, and hope that something will come out of it. That was one of those experiences where I did that. STS and I had this demo–the song and everything–and it wasn't bringing to the table an urgency we wanted it to have. So I just cold called Amos and it worked. I was very happy with that. But of course I didn't know what to expect going into it. I had been a fan of his for forever and he's done what I think are some modern day classics. So I was humbled that he even knew who I was. And the whole experience was really cool to me.
This process was much quicker than a collaboration where everyone's a writer. When you're calling someone and say "Hey, what do you think of this? Does it resonate with you would you like to sing it?" it's easier than a collaboration that starts with "Do you want to write something together?" That could take a lot longer.
How did you get started in hip-hop, instrumentals, and just music in general?
I was always into music when I was younger. I went to vocational music school in high school and after that I played in bands and got into DJing. Then it just consumed all of my interests. From there I started producing songs with the MHz Legacy and became a DJ-producer and that led to signing onto this label called Definitive Jux. At that time I thought I was just going to be a producer of rap records but it led to the solo thing and from there I put on my first record and people liked it.
In your own words, what is the RJD2 sound? How has it evolved since Deadringer?
To be totally honest I've always liked so many different types of music that I never approached my records from the point of view of trying to catch a simple sound. There are many different sounds I'm interested in trying to capture. But the things that have informed what I do more than anything else are the building blocks of hip-hop: soul, funk, groove, and bass music. These types of sounds are what I can't escape, as much as I want to sometimes. I don't think that's a bad thing. There's a lot that I want to do and achieve over the course of a record nowadays that it can't be reduced down to a single sound.
Do you have inspirations outside of music?
Films also inform what I do and a lot of the time I'm thinking about the simple dynamics of what happens in them like suspense and release and other tools that filmmakers use. I try to utilize those same tools but for sound instead of visuals.
While you're performances often make the audience feel good, how are you feeling on stage? What's running through your mind?
Usually I'm thinking about what the cues I need to hit are. It's very technical in terms of staying ahead of what programs I'm switching around to. There's a lot for me to stay aware and be alert of. At the same time I'm trying to read the crowd and see what's working and what isn't and have that on my radar. Sometimes I need to adapt to things and shift the set around.
What are some ways you want to grow as an artist from here?
There are so many ways. There are so many types of music I appreciate where I'm not at the point of nailing just yet, technically speaking. The older I get the more I realize there's so much I would like to accomplish that I probably won't. My ear progresses and evolves faster than my technique and ability. But I'd love to make a full-blown jazz record one day and explore working with a vocalist. There are all sorts of experiments and ideas in rap I'd like to explore some day or try. Time is a limited resource unfortunately.
RJD2 is performing at The Observatory on Wednesday, Aug 12, 2015, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $7.