RJD2's New Album Gets Cinematic but Stays True to His Hip-Hop Roots

Photo: Nick Fancher

If you can tell a lot about someone from their chosen words, Ramble Jon “RJ” Krohn, known to his fans as RJD2, comes across as analytical, technical and a bit nerdy. His vocabulary is speckled with terms like contour and hierarchy

His music reflects his lexicon — precise yet diverse, varied with samples from obscure film clips, deep soul cuts and slick horns. Like his genre-crushing, vinyl-spinning contemporaries DJ Shadow and Kid Koala, the 39-year-old producer and DJ gives a progressive sheen to sample-based music, which is nothing short of refreshing in an era swamped with amateur vaporwave and MP3 remixes.

RJD2’s debut full-length, Deadringer (2002), dropped on El-P’s label Definitive Jux alongside artists such as Aesop Rock and Camu Tao. When El-P put Definitive Jux on ice (or at least on hiatus), RJ started his own imprint, RJ’s Electrical Connections, which just released his sixth album, Dame Fortune.

“Even though the business of putting out records has changed dramatically, that time [at Definitive Jux] still was a great learning experience for me,” RJ says. “It informed a lot of what I do running a label. … It was huge in the sense that I got a really good look at how records get put out on a visible independent label.”

He's speaking from his home in Columbus, Ohio. Unlike many of his contemporaries who have moved to L.A. or New York, RJD2 says he’s perfectly content with the “return on my investment” from living where he also grew up.

If RJD2's music feels like the soundtrack to an imaginary movie, that’s no coincidence. Following in the footsteps of electronic music pioneers like Brian Eno, RJD2 says that "the contour, you know, the arc of a story, of a movie, that informs what I do musically as much as — if not more so — than the music.”

It’s surprising that RJD2’s music hasn’t appeared in more films, although he’s done plenty of commercial work. His best-known track, “Ghostwriter,” appeared in the 2005 film Prime and his track "A Beautiful Mine" became the title song for AMC’s Mad Men. More recently, “See You Leave” was featured in Comedy Central’s Broad City.

With Dame Fortune, RJD2 returns to full cinematic force, using a moodier palette than his earlier releases. This album paints scenes that would fit into films like Punch-Drunk Love or Blue Valentine. “PF, Day One” has the off-gray tones of a French new wave classic, but it’s followed up with crashing drums and mournful vocals on “Saboteur,” while “Your Nostalgic Heart and Lung” grows, swells and then explodes with hissing, pumping percussion, not unlike the rhythms of its titular organs.

“The Sheboygan Left” is solemn at first, but soon deploys the same trademark tease-and-reward bombast of “Ghostwriter.” Overall, the album is a more serene and sentimental effort than the mammoth hooks and beats of RJ's previous two albums, The Colossus and More Is Than Isn't. But RJD2 still retains his choppy hip-hop roots on stuttering tracks like “A New Theory.”

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“What I really want to be doing is making records that give you the same immersion that my favorite movies do,” RJD2 says. “I think [Brian Eno] very much got the idea that instrumental music can take many, many forms. One of its great values is that it can allow the listener to read their own meaning into a song. I think he was a master of that.” 

RJD2 performs a sold-out show at the Teragram Ballroom this Friday, April 8.

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