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)
Adrian Younge isn’t the first musician to create sounds so faithful to early 70s psychedelic soul. But he may be the quirkiest. Each project finds him using a variety of instruments, from the familiar (drums and guitar) to the exotic (sitar and glockenspiel) and wholly unique (a Selene, a keyboard sampler he built himself). Performing alongside a shifting series of of collaborators that includes backing vocalists Loren Oden and Saudia Mills, and well-traveled trumpeter Todd Simon (of Breakestra, Antibalas and many others), he creates a sound that seemingly creaks and pops like scratchy old vinyl. And when he performs with one of his bands, Venice Dawn, they appear on stage with phantom of the opera masks and funereal black suits as they strum instrumental breaks, often to the bewilderment of their audience.
After several years spent toiling anonymously in the L.A. underground, the crate-digger magazine and record label Wax Poetics recruited Younge for Black Dynamite, a parody of black action films. If you haven’t seen the movie, which premiered to positive reviews in 2009 and spawned an Adult Swim cartoon spinoff, it’s much better and funnier than you’d expect. After that auspicious debut, Younge codified his aesthetic on subsequent projects. It’s a cross-section of black power dreams, B-movie soundtracks like Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly and Ennio Morricone’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, and workmanlike funk curios like the Whatnauts and Sir Charles Hughes (whose “Dynomite” was used on the Black Dynamite soundtrack). In fact, each Younge album seems to be a soundtrack for an imaginary film, whether it’s the voiceless illustrations of Venice Dawn’s Something About April, or Twelve Reasons to Die, where Ghostface Killah and other rappers lay out the plot machinations in rich detail.
Thanks to a rising profile, Younge formed the record label and recording studio Linear Labs in 2014, and made it a home for his retro fantasia. This year has already brought the compilation Los Angeles, Bilal’s In Another Life, and Twelve Reasons to Die II. Coming soon is The Midnight Hour, a collaboration with Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest, and Something About April II, which will feature Laetitia Sadier from Stereolab.
On You’re Dead!, Steven “Flying Lotus” Ellison revisits the mysteries of the afterlife. His 2008 album Los Angeles concluded with “Auntie’s Harp” and “Auntie’s Lock/Infinitum,” tributes to his late great-aunt, the spiritual jazz harpist Alice Coltrane. A second version of “Auntie’s Lock” was included on 2010’s Cosmogramma. 2012’s Until the Quiet Comes explored the human capacity to alter consciousness through dream-like journeys, with the title holding a double-meaning: the moment when REM sleep settles into a deep slumber, and when the body is fully at eternal rest.
“If I have one fan rate me highly, I could never feel underrated,” raps Black Milk in his slightly stilted Midwestern accent on “What It’s Worth.” It’s one of many albatrosses the Detroit musician – no, really, he plays live drums and keyboards – has carried throughout his career. Another well-worn claim is that he’s a far better producer than rapper, but even his late mentor J Dilla was better at turning a clever hook than delivering an actual rhyme. (“Still won’t let you live out from the shadow of your hero,” he rues on “All Mighty” as he tries to cast another critic monkey off his back.) Unfortunately, all this chatter has led to the kind of polite applause that prevents us from fully appreciating Black Milk’s gifts. His 2008 breakthrough Tronic deserves to be ranked as a minor classic, half-decent raps or not.
El-P occupies a singular perch. The Brooklyn rapper-producer has never sounded quite like anyone else, not even in the late 1990s, when the Sasquatch thumps and xylophone flows of his Company Flow crew birthed a generation of similar-minded travelers, spawned the hugely successful independent label Definitive Jux, and briefly transformed the hip-hop underground into a land of no-wave art-jazz and super-scientifical theorizing.
Now, ten years after Def Jukies last ruled the indie circuit (and two years after the label went dormant), the new generation whines about living in the suburbs, doing prescription drugs, and drinking sizzurp while molesting white girls, all while begging Jay-Z to cosign them. Meanwhile, the man who declared himself “independent as fuck” swims against the tide. I mean, what can you even compare Cancer for Cure to… Nine Inch Nails? Over three solo albums, El’s turned into a kind of prog-hop composer, an evolution made clear on opening track “Request Denied,” a three-minute instrumental jam full of analog synths, a drum volley worthy of DJ Shadow’s Entroducing….., heavy guitar riffs, and a Rhodes organ flurry, all before he introduces himself as “a pale kid calamity artist.” (He employs a crew of backing musicians that includes keyboardist Wilder Zoby.) While other rappers design songs that grab you in a 30-second playable stream, El-P’s third solo album demands repeat listens, and even then it can seem murky, like an abstract image that refuses to congeal.