RJD2, aka R.J. Krohn, hails from Columbus, Ohio, a surprisingly fertile source of Hip Hop talent. Making his mark DJ-ing for a collective of local rappers dubbed Megahertz (MHz), Krohn eventually caught the ear of Definitive Jux, the renowned underground New York Hip Hop label led by El-P.
The Ohio native's 2002 solo debut, Deadringer, catapulted him into a rarified stratosphere, drawing worthy comparisons to DJ Shadow and other forward-thinking purveyors of penetrating, atmospheric Hip Hop. And for good reason: Deadringer is a deep-grooved showcase of obscure, far-reaching samples and skilled, creative rapping (Cincinnati rapper Blueprint makes a stellar contribution). Several production stints followed, including collaborations with such Hip Hop luminaries as Viktor Vaughn, Aesop Rock, Massive Attack, Cannibal Ox and Aceyalone.
RJD2's latest takes a different route. Employing nary an MC — often in favor of Krohn's own vocals — When We Last Spoke is a radical departure from Deadringer's beat-heavy approach: The esoteric yet oddly personal new material flirts with everything from proggy, guitar-based tracks to straight-up '70s Soul.
Speaking by cell phone from his new home base (a sweaty Philadelphia abode where our conversation is interrupted several times by an air conditioner repair man), Krohn is exactly what you'd expect: laid-back, incisive and genuine.
CityBeat: The new record is a fairly radical shift from Deadringer. Was that a conscious decision?
R.J. Krohn: Every time I work on anything, I try to make it as different as possible. A lot of — I guess I'd say "Hip Hop" — is changing so often, there's always some new shit coming up. Every six months or a year there's some other shit that pops up and you say, "Oh, I'm interested in that, that's cool." And it makes it seem like the shit you've been doing is a little more antiquated and just old. The bottom line for me is this: I've learned first hand that if I'm having fun, odds are that I'm onto something that I think is good and it's gonna be received well.
CB: Why no MCs this time?
RK: If you were to add up all the records I did after Deadringer, it would be about four full albums worth of Rap music. So I felt like I had done that. My goal is that I want every single project that I'm involved in or work on to be one little puzzle piece that will eventually fit into a bigger picture.
CB: How do you approach the whole live thing? DJ shows can be pretty tricky.
RK: I've spent a lot of time watching bands and I realized one thing that's important: The pace of a Rock show is different. A lot of times DJs or electronic guys approach it like it's a mega-mix and blow through 45 minutes of music. And to me that's boring. Silence is an important thing. It's just a different ballgame.
CB: A live review from earlier this year mentioned that you did an acoustic version of "Make Days Longer" for an encore. How'd that go over?
RK: I just thought, "Fuck it, that's how I wrote the song (acoustic)." It was one of those things where I know I'm not the best singer in the world, but it was something I wanted to do before I died. Now I can say I got up in front of a crowd of 800 people with a fucking acoustic guitar and nobody else and sang a song, you know what I mean? And it depends on the crowd. When people are drunk and they want to act like idiots, you kinda have to encourage that — that's what they want to do and who are you to get up there and be like, "Oh, it's serious time, it's math equation time, get your thinking caps on."
CB: How has being from the Midwest had an impact on what you do?
RK: If anything, the thing I've taken from being from the Midwest is work ethic. Being from Ohio isn't a very reputable thing: Nobody's got an ego about being from Ohio who's involved in Hip Hop. It puts you in a good situation. I knew that I would have to work harder to make it because I've got all these handicaps being from a small town and not having the connections that come with living in New York or L.A. I hate to make generalizations, but that was at a time when I felt like New York Rap was getting lazy, and it was a time when I was realizing all you really could do with Rap music and production work. And the competitive battle DJ in me was like, "OK, here's an opportunity, this is a weakness — if you're (New York) gonna be lazy, I'm gonna work five times as hard to make a mark."
CB: You once said you wanted to be the Wes Anderson (the filmmaker behind Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums) of Hip Hop. I thought it was an interesting comparison on several levels.
RK: He'll take a serious topic and find ways to inject subversive humor, and he does it with a nice touch. That style optimizes what I want out of a solo album. He does what he does and he's never compromising. And he's not on some kind of high horse. He's just trying to do his shit, and he does his shit really, really well.
CB: The last couple of years have been quite a ride for you. What's next?
RK: I'm gonna try to just be a normal person for a little while. I haven't taken a vacation since Deadringer came out. So, yeah, I'm just gonna chill out.
RJ2D performs with Diplo and Rob Sonic at the Southgate House on Wednesday, Sept. 22.