RJD2: The Vinyl Word

Jeff Kehl

As the lights dim, one man takes the stage. Armed with a crate full of vinyl, a few turntables, and a room full of speakers, he begins to mix. Lights erupt, drowning the room in bright, random colors, while cameras swirl round overhead and a crowd of hundreds rocks out before him. Who is this man, this sultan of scratch that performed at our own Carnegie Mellon University? He is RJD2.

Born in Eugene, Oregon, raised in Columbus, Ohio, and currently residing in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Ramble John Krohn (RJ) lives his life traveling from place to place bringing his fresh, innovative sound to the masses. He is one of the few DJ artists still using vinyl today.

Since he started DJing in 1993, RJ has released a number of albums, both solo and collaborative. Out of a grand total of 24 albums, RJ has released four major albums under his title, RJD2: Dead ringer (2002), The Horror (2003), Since We Last Spoke (2004), and the most recent, The Third Hand (2007). He’s made various appearances on MTV2 including a nomination for the Subterranean’s best of 2007, as well as being noticed by big-time music media source, Rolling Stone.

Rights were even bought for the use of RJD2 solos in the video game NBA 2K5, a Levi’s commercial which aired in the U.K., and the theme for an episode of CSI: NY. It’s obvious that in little more than a decade, RJ has made quite a name for himself as RJD2 on the music scene and has no intentions of stopping in the near future.

Right before his performance on Saturday, November 15, I had a chance to sit down with RJ for a brief one on one interview after an extensive sound check. During our time, I got to know a little bit more about the musician that RJD2 is, and more importantly, what his philosophy on music is.

As you may have noticed by now, RJ performs under the name RJD2, a nickname he picked up off of a friend in high school and has stuck with since. Though based in Philly, RJ travels all over playing whatever gigs he can, wherever he can, only intent on playing for a crowd, paying special attention to the college scene.

Along with several main-stage performances, RJD2 has headlined for a number of different groups. When I asked RJ which of all of his performances stuck the most, surprisingly, it was not his numerous solo and collaborative shows that he mentioned. Instead, the first to come mind were shows he covered for including David Lynch, Bonaroo, Neil Young, and James Brown. “Those are probably the ones that I’ll always remember the best,” he told me.

At about that time we also started talking about the albums he had released and the collaborative ventures he’d made so far. Out of his four solo albums released so far, RJ confessed to me that his favorite is still Since We Last Spoke. He explained that after all the time it takes to release the album, all the recordings, all the cuts, the constantly listening to each track over and over again, he tends not to listen to his albums once they’re released just to get away from the same repetitive sounds.

But recently, while listening to Since We Last Spoke for one of the first times since its release, he got caught up in the sound and found himself thinking how “cool” the sound was that he came up with and that he was “really proud of what [he’d] made.” In fact, of his four major albums, Since We Last Spoke is the only one he can listen to in its entirety.

As we talked, sitting amidst all the tech equipment yet to be moved around, RJ started to explain to me how he develops his style. To RJ, there really is no right or wrong group of sounds to mix. His repertoire is really anything he’s ever listened to. If he thinks it can be used together, he’ll give it a shot. Most sources label RJ as hip-hop or rap, but when I asked him if he had had a preference on what he mixes he explained that it’s not the genre that matters to him. “If someone says I’m hip-hop, that’s fine. If they say I’m rock, that’s ok too. Anything else I think might not be right, but I don’t really care what genre I’m grouped in, so long as people are listening to the music.”

Unlike a lot of other artists that tend to focus specifically on whatever genre and sound they’re grouped into, RJ focuses specially on the sound he makes, taking special care to see that it’s always changing. “I’m always trying for something new,” he’d explain to me. “If I can manage to work a few new sounds into a track I’m working on, I’m happy.”

Based out of Philadelphia and having grown up in Ohio, I asked RJ if where he lived had any real impact on the kind of sounds he put out. After a short chuckle, he replied that it had nothing to do with his sound. “Bruce Springsteen is the kind of guy to write about his childhood and where he grew up, and that’s cool, but that’s not me, I can’t do that.” He kept going, explaining that it was the music he listens to, from the sample tracks he hears, to the radio, to the albums he owns, that inspires the sound he mixes. There are really no limits on what he’s willing to combine so long as it sounds unique and enjoyable.

Later, we got to talking about some of the press he’d received recently. As it turns out, prior to the release of his last CD, The Third Hand, RJ had changed his label as RJD2 from Definitive Jux to XL. When I asked him about the switch, RJ immediately got defensive. As with genre labels, RJ believes that he shouldn’t really be defined by the label he’s with. Also, he defended being upset because business matters shouldn’t really matter to fans; it’s the music that’s important.

However, realizing that there are people out there who tend to pick what genres and musicians they listen to based upon their label affiliation, RJ did let out part of his reason for the label switch. As it happened, Definitive Jux is a label that signs artists that are strictly rap. In fact, “while I was with them,” RJ told me, “I was the only artist who couldn’t be strictly labeled as ‘rap.’”

As time went on and his sounds continued to change, RJ embraced the fact that he couldn’t really be labeled as “rap” and with his new CD, The Third Hand, in the works, he switched labels to XL, not only a company with a variety of signed artists, but a company that is used to dealing with unconventional sounds that couldn’t be easily tossed into any specific genre.

With our interview drawing to a close (he had to run and grab some food, and finish prepping for the concert), I had time to ask RJ one last question: When this article is released, any student on campus will be able to read it. Is there anything you would like to say to them?

Again, RJ chuckled at the question, not being one to speak out to his fans very often. “I guess if I had anything to say to them,” he mused after a few moments, “It’d be that I’m currently working on a new album. It should be coming out next year, in 2009.”

Hours later, RJD2 went on to rock the Carnegie Mellon campus for hours, appeasing the hundreds of people who had been standing in line earlier in the night, including not just students from CMU but also Pitt, Duquesne, all across the Pittsburgh area, for whom 11:00pm came way too early.

As a bonus for fans who went to the concert and want to see it again, or just for people who didn’t go and are curious about RJD2, CMU TV is in the process of getting the rights to air the concert on channel 17.

On a personal note to the reader, I am happy to say that having interviewed him, I can officially say that RJ is a funny, down-to-earth guy who got along with everyone from the tech crew to the AB reps that set up the concert. He even went so far as to be the one who invited CMU TV in to tape the concert, a feat they normally aren’t allowed when major acts arrive at Carnegie Mellon University. Also, RJ really does have a passion for the music he makes and continues to put out with every passing day. He’s definitely an artist to keep your eye on.

For anyone that wants to check out RJD2, you can find his CDs in any major music store, including both original solo albums and instrumental versions. RJ keeps updates on both his Myspace and Facebook accounts and regularly posts new music videos to his Youtube account, most recently a freestyle video featuring himself and set to Work it Out from The Third Hand.

For more information:

RJD2 Website