How ATCQ And KMD Inspired RJD2's New Album: Interview

The Def Jux vet talks bass inspirations for 'Visions Out Of Limelight.' +reviews of Previous Industries & Your Old Droog

How ATCQ And KMD Inspired RJD2's New Album: Interview

The imposing summer sun was still bright and high in the South Brooklyn sky when RJD2 dropped "1976" for the revelers gathered at Public Records' outdoor Nursery space. Not even the gentle wind occasionally gifting noxious odor from the Gowanus Canal's Fourth Street Basin could disrupt the Saturday afternoon vibes on the sustainably shielded dancefloor. It certainly didn't seem to distract the DJ/producer behind Def Jux classics and the recently released Visions Out Of Limelight as he glided nimbly between the decks. Though his two-hour set contained a variety of styles and sounds, including a few New York salsa classics and some funky routines incorporating recognizable emcee acappellas, he understood what the audience came for primarily.

"I want them to go home happy," RJD2 tells me over Zoom. "If my name is top at the marquee, I'm working on the assumption that there's at least some percentage of people that are only familiar with Deadringer–and that's perfectly fine with me."

Over the course of the conversation, the artist born Ramble Jon Krohn demonstrates an almost zen-like humility when discussing his catalog, including 2002's aforementioned Deadringer and its now twenty-year-old follow-up Since We Last Spoke. Despite keeping up a brisk release pace for over two decades now, largely though his own RJ's Electrical Connections imprint, he doesn't bristle at the term legacy act the way that others from his generation of hip-hop might.

"I've had people call me me that to my face, and I don't take it as an insult," he says. "I'm not going to call any record I made great, but if the judgment that's been levied on legacy acts is they made one great album, that's fucking amazing, man. You know how many people don't get the opportunity to make any great albums?!"

Unafraid of his past, RJD2 insists that he all-but depends on it when working on new material. To that point, he regularly returns to unreleased material and abandoned demos from prior sessions early on in the process of making albums. Those leftovers, as he calls them, aren't simply excavated but reevaluated as unfinished pieces that he's potentially better suited to complete now as opposed to then.

"Sometimes you've changed as a person, you've changed as a composer, you've changed as a musician," he says. "You might not have seen the right angle or lane on it, to maneuver it and finesse it in a way that really made it great, but three or four years on, maybe you can."

This process germinated what ultimately became Visions Out Of Limelight, his eighth solo album as RJD2. A largely instrumental affair despite its first single "Through It All" featuring fellow Ohio denizen Jamie Lidell, the full-length largely coalesces around a creative answer sparked by a curious question: whatever happened to the hip-hop bassline?

Coming of age during rap's Golden Age meant exposure to all manner of beats defined or largely held together by deep grooves, be they sampled or not. He cites Diamond D's "Sally Got A One Track Mind" from 1992 and Snoop Dogg's "Gz and Hustlas" from 1993 as clear if distinct examples of this phenomenon. He romanticizes KMD's cruelly shelved Black Bastards as "the most unsung album in rap music history" in no small part because of the Dumile brothers' production, while hailing A Tribe Called Quest's The Low End Theory for more than living up to its titular promise. "[Both] are basically just albums that are ruminations on the power of a bassline," he says, "not every single song, but for the most part."

Upon realizing how little of that desired approach was reaching his ears via contemporary hip-hop production, particularly in the era of drill, trap, and their various subgenre offshoots, he felt compelled as a composer to probe further. "When we talk about bass, I'm not talking about the frequency," he says. "Most trap beats are constructed from the perspective of a keyboard player and the bass is a thing that's there to occupy a frequency bandwidth. It's not there to occupy a compositional bandwidth, and that's where the void is to me."

Identifying a potential gap in the musical marketplace, while realistically conceding that Thundercat both exists and rules, he set out to make Visions Out Of Limelight address what he felt was missing. Prominent if nostalgic basslines characterize several of the album's most gratifying moments, setting in motion the jazzy shuffle of "Fools At The Haul" and fortifying against the cinematic ruptures of "Es El Nuevo Estilo."

"Almost nobody is really trying to grab that torch and run with it," he says. "It really felt like I'm entering a track race where there's just not a lot of competition."

Another objectively old-school instrumental influence made its way onto the album as well: The Bomb Squad. "Wild For The Night" exists as a homage to or, as RJD2 defines it, an appreciation of the Public Enemy affiliated production crew and their radical sonic aesthetic. "I was intentionally trying to break the instinct of coming at it and making it perfectly in key and on time," he says of the track. "There's kind of a beautiful thing that can happen when you disregard music theory altogether and you just go inside the sampler and make shit strictly on the criteria of like, does this sound good?"

Coming after so many years of honing a certain discipline as RJD2, jamming his own programming led to one of Visions Out Of Limelight's most unique peaks, reminding that even with a discography as lengthy as his, there's plenty more avenues to explore.

"To me, that song is like a Tetris game where instead trying to make color palettes be complimentary, [I'm] just jamming shapes into shapes," he says. "You're kind of tapping into a different part of your brain at that point."

Photo credit: Francis Lebeau

Your Old Droog, Movie (buy it / stream it)

If you were Your Old Droog, you'd come across a touch defensive too. After the initial rumors during his come-up over what some perceived as vocal resemblance to a Queensbridge icon, the Ukrainian Brooklynite then had to show and prove while on his back foot, with the added scrutiny that comes with being “a good guest.” Thankfully, he rose to meet that challenge, again and again, earning respect in rap even as he grew more elusive and even reclusive. Unlike his satisfying EPs and loosies of late, the full-length feature Movie opens the heavy curtains to reveal an origin story in vivid big screen detail. Listening to him spit autobiographically about immigrant hardships on “Mantra” or arriving metaphorically late to “Grandmother’s Lessons” allows listeners to sympathize with him as a human being while concurrently appreciating the breadth of his skills. He spits game unapologetically on "What Else" and defends the logic behind his antisocial tendencies on "Yodi Dodi." His beat selection is about as much of a flex as his bars, with producers like Harry Fraud, Madlib, and two different Williamses–Conductor and Roper–behind the boards. The same applies for Droog's choice of guests, with top tier emcees Method Man and Yasiin Bey coming through for "DBZ" and the bonus cut "Care Plan," respectively.

Previous Industries, Service Merchandise (buy it / stream it)

Comprised of Open Mike Eagle, STILL RIFT, and Video Dave, Previous Industries isn't some slopped together "supergroup" so much as the creative braintrust of three restless Midwestern minds (in)conveniently transplanted to Los Angeles. If their self-deprecating choice of moniker sounds too subtle, song titles named for bankrupt or bygone retailers like "Babbages" and "Zayre" should offer some indication of the demeanor of the three rappers involved with Service Merchandise. Their lively if existentially bewildered cipher on the Quelle Chris-produced "Braids" shows off their respective lyrical talents as much as their quirky common ground. Playing off of corporate collapse with demented nostalgia and personal inventory taking, that interplay leads to whimsically retro moments like the mail-order daydreaming of "Roebuck" or the slice-of-life snapshot slideshow of "Fotomat," both woozily helmed by Child Actor. While no one team member steals the whole show, on any given track you'll find a worthy candidate for Employee Of The Month.

Three new tracks for you to snack on...

Duncecap, "Two 2 Dollar Bills"

Lawrence Matthews, "Once More & Again (Our Mourning) (feat. Idi X Teco)"

Factor Chandelier & Codefendants, "Without A Trace"

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