RJD2 and his inventive, wearable music-making technology.
RJD2 is a fiddler. Whether it’s music or contraptions, RJD2 — the DJ and producer born Ramble Jon Krohn — has a knack for taking things apart and then putting them back together in an unrecognizable way. Reached at his Philadelphia studio on a recent Wednesday afternoon, he was busy cutting yet another remix of another artist’s song.
Remix offers are common for RJD2, who enjoys tinkering with other artists’ songs when he has the time. Just because he’s offered the chance to remix a song though, doesn’t mean he’ll take it. He won’t “blindly commit to a remix based on who the artist is,” and has been known to turn down remix offers “because I’ve thought the song was perfectly fine in its incarnation and there was nowhere to go with it.”
Remixing a song, he says, is more a matter of deciding what he’ll cut from a song and what he can do with what’s left. “I need to have a path forward,” he says. “I need to feel confident that I can come off well doing my thing on a remix.”
In addition to tinkering with songs, RJD2 is also a big fan of tinkering with contraptions. In 2006, while on tour with Soul Position, his side project with rapper Blueprint, he designed a harness to strap a 20-pound Music Production Center (MPC) sampler/sequencer to his chest so that he could make beats live, while walking around the stage. He called the device “Mo’ Buttons.” “I wanted to take the nerdiness out of the whole dude standing behind a table staring downwards motif,” he says.
But the invention was plagued with downsides. Not only was it “huge and cumbersome,” he says, but the MPC had to be plugged in, which meant that RJD2 was constrained by a number of wires. Plus, it was painful. “My back would hurt,” he says. Ultimately, Mo’ Buttons was too awkward for RJD2 to wear it again on another tour.
But Mo’ Buttons’ failure became the impetus for RJD2’s next generation of wearable machinery. By 2010, he’d crafted another mobile beatmaking device, this one worn around his waist (dubbed “Commissioner Crotch Buttons”). This iteration was a marked improvement from the plugged-in harness because not only does it use a wireless midi controller, it’s considerably less heavy than an MPC. It’s also more stage friendly. Using a mixture of Gorilla Glue, zip ties, and old vinyl, RJD2 created a Lazy Susan twirling mechanism that allows him to spin the commissioner while wearing it.
Commissioner Crotch Buttons got another upgrade earlier this year when RJD2 added a full-body suit emblazoned with LED lights and welder’s helmet to the mix. Now, whenever he plays a beat on his crotch controller, the suit lights up to create a multi-colored spectacle. “I took it to another level,” he says.
Though RJD2 occasionally tours with a bassist and drummer — both of whom will be present at his upcoming show at The Independent — the crotch controller is especially handy when he’s touring solo.
“In a live scenario, I have two choices,” he says. “I could either try to take out a 20 piece band or I can work in a different methodology where I’m taking the pieces apart and using the actual source material and stems from studio sessions and recreating them in different ways using the MPC controller and the turntables.”
RJD2 is known for a mélange of soulful electronic beats, which provide the backbone for instrumental-only tracks as well as songs with smatterings of vocals. You’ve heard his music, even if you didn’t know it: His composition “A Beautiful Mine” is the title track for the show Mad Men. He’s also a well-known producer who has worked with artists including Mos Def, Massive Attack, and Yo La Tengo, as well as the rapper Homeboy Sandman and the San Francisco ambient musician Tycho.
He started making music at the age of 17 and has since released 10 studio albums, including his May 25 drop,Dame Fortune, released through his label RJ’s Electrical Connections.
But though RJD2 claims that instrumental music is “in some ways, [his] first love,” the instrumental electronic and hip-hop music he makes today is a far cry from his sound when he first started out.
Growing up in Columbus, Ohio, indie rock dominated the airwaves and speakers, he says. He learned guitar and piano as a tween and attended a vocational high school where he studied jazz guitar in the classroom. But when a friend invited him to see an open mic hip-hop night at a place called The Groove Shack, his world changed. Whereas everyone that RJD2 went to school with was already worrying about their future careers as gigging musicians, no one at The Groove Shack had career aspirations. “It was just a completely different world where very different things were at stake,” he says. “All that was at stake was the respect of your peers, but it had a level of competition that was visceral and immediate in a way that music school just wasn’t.”
After that experience, his interests were recalibrated and he became fully invested in the world of hip-hop and DJ-ing for the next six or seven years. “I spent this whole period of time only being interested in samples and beats and scratching and drum machines,” he says. “Everything else was just off my radar.”
It wasn’t until the early aughts after the release of his solo debut album, Deadringer, that RJD2 decided to return to playing traditional instruments. “I realized I’m not going to be able to do this forever and just be a dude going to record stores and pulling LPs,” he says. “I wasn’t going to be able do everything I wanted creatively if I was just using an MPC for the rest of my life.”
He started playing the guitar and piano again, and though he was rusty, he began incorporating live instrumentation into his next few albums. By 2007, he’d created an album entirely composed of live instrumentation (The Third Hand), and from that point on, his aim has been to make albums that include both buttons and bars.