Notes on RJD2

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The music of Ramble John Krohn, better known as RJD2, can be distilled into two peaks. The first, Deadringer, appeared in the fall of 2002, just as RDJ2’s first group, MHz, was winding down after years spent in the 90s rap underground. It was hailed for its cinematic themes – one popular track, “The Horror,” evokes the spooky synth work of 70s horror maestros like John Carpenter – and layers of cop funk and Southern soul. By infusing it with throwback kitsch and employing guest rappers like Jakki da Motormouth (from MHz) and Blueprint, both from RJ’s hometown of Columbus, OH, he crafted a sound that was less introspective, and more boisterous and fun, than the DJ Shadow model of instrumental hip-hop that was so dominant during the era.

Deadringer prefaced more solo albums. He relied less and less on sampling, instead playing instruments and recruiting session musicians to create his distinctive tracks. He experimented with singing, most notably on 2005’s The Third Hand. And he made a series of collaborations with rappers, including Blueprint (as the group Soul Position), and Aceyalone.

It was the latter’s Magnificent City, that led to RJ’s second peak. The 2006 album closed with “A Beautiful Mine,” its title obviously inspired by the Ron Howard movie A Beautiful Mind, as Aceyalone spins images of man’s evolution and self-actualization, “one so enlightened, one so divine, the planets are aligned, all point in time.” Magnificent City wasn’t a mainstream success; then as now, “backpacker” rap didn’t have much currency in the pop marketplace. But someone other than Acey and RJ’s usual fans must’ve noticed. By the summer of 2007, the instrumental for “A Beautiful Mine” became the theme for the 60s period piece Mad Men. RJ’s track was a fusion of Martin Denny-like strings exotica and crisp, rolling breakbeats, a fusion of old and new that was well suited for the TV show’s look at past American mores through a post-millennial perspective.

Thanks to the ongoing success of Mad Men, RJ launched RJ’s Electrical Connections, through which he now releases all of his work. The small-scale operation satiates his loyal fans: his concerts can pack nightclubs and small theaters, and he’s a stalwart on the jam band festival circuit. However, it has also led critics, even those sympathetic to indie rap, to overlook projects that range from the slight but lovely The Abandoned Lullaby collaboration with singer Aaron Livingston (also known as Son Little); to his most recent solo album, 2013’s More Is Than Isn’t. And this week, RJ dropped an album with Atlanta-to-Philadelphia rapper STS, RJD2 x STS, a memorable excursion into Southern mores and deep funk that extends RJ’s reputation as an idiosyncratic and restlessly creative artist. It shouldn’t go unnoticed.

(Rhapsody – May 4, 2015)

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