They’re like “dirge” metal that’s really, really melodic and really pretty. It’s like Jeff Buckley singing for Black Sabbath.
On Sunday, November 9, a new underground hip-hop group called Soul Position came to St. Louis to promote their new album, 8 Million Stories (Rhymesayers/FatBeats). Soul Position is made up of two longtime friends, the highly prolific, up-and-coming producer/DJ RJD2, and the exceptional emcee, Blueprint. Luckily, before the show’s shenanigans, I got to sit down with producer RJD2 to discuss how he got started producing, his next solo record, and the hip-hop scene in Columbus. He even took me record shopping.
What are your top records for 2003?
First there is Outkast, Speakerboxx/The Love Below. I liked Queens of the Stone Age, Songs for the Deaf, but I can’t remember if they put that out last year. I liked NAS, God’s Son and The White Stripes, Elephant.
Who were your musical influences growing up?
My parents introduced me to Phillip Glass, the Beatles, and Kraftwerk. Later, I really got into DJ Jazzy Jeff, Run DMC, BPD, Public Enemy, and Herbie Hancock.
Who are your influences now?
There’s so much; so much. Rich Harrison is the flavor of the month for me right now. He did a couple of singles for mostly R&B people. He’s an R&B producer that has figured out how to take what sounds like underground rap singles and make them into top ten hits. He did Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love.” He uses samples and drum loops, the kind of approaches that you would use in underground rap, but makes it work in terms popular music. There is so much that I like right now. It’s a bit corny, but I like Weezer. I’m a massive, massive, massive Elliot Smith fan. I don’t hear a lot of really good singer/songwriter people. My friend just put me up on this group called The Darkness. I kind of like some of their shit. There’s a local band called The Dead Sea, a Columbus band. It’s a metal band. I’m hoping that the lead singer is going to sing on my new album.
How would you describe them?
The closest thing I could describe them to is somewhere between Captain Beyond and Black Sabbath. And I don’t know why those references are going make sense. They’re like “dirge” metal that’s really, really melodic and really pretty. It’s like Jeff Buckley singing for Black Sabbath.
What brought you to spinning records? You grew up in Columbus, right?
I got into DJing because I was a record collector. I bought vinyl, and I just kind of fell into it. A friend of mine needed some money real bad and he was selling his turntables and records and stuff. I just wanted the records, so I bought [the turntables] with the records. I thought I would just sell these [turntables] later. But they were at my house, so I started fuckin’ around. Then I got into it.
And then people started asking you to DJ?
No, no, no. [Laughs.] Nobody ever asks anybody to DJ; it’s a matter of pestering people. It’s like, “Can I DJ at your house party in the basement for 10 people?"
Did hip-hop artists start to recognize you? How does that work?
Well, no. I started as a DJ and then I progressed into what is called a battle DJ: I started competitions and shit. And I won this competition in Columbus. That was the first time I built some notoriety, just in my hometown. Then I started producing in that same year. A couple months after that, I bought my first sampler. And I fell in with this group MHz from Columbus, so that’s how I got my first exposure doing a record.
So you produced MHz?
I was the DJ and the producer. I wasn’t the exclusive producer. I did some beats for the group, but everybody in the group knew how to produce.
Who else was in the group?
A guy named Copywrite. A guy named Camu. This kid named Elliot and Jakki and Tage. Copywrite and Camu have put out records on a national level.
Did you get recognition from the label MHz was on?
Yeah, there was a label called Ardelum that we shopped a demo to and they ended up putting out two singles. The underground market is really flooded with 12-inch singles right now, but at that time it was a bigger deal.
So your success started with MHz then more and more opportunities kept coming?
Yeah, yeah, but real slow. I’d say between 1998 to 2002 it was pretty slow. Since the day my record dropped (Deadringer) I’ve had ten times the opportunities than I had in the first four years of me being a producer.
How long did you work on Deadringer?
About a year and a half. And as far as getting out of Columbus? Living in Columbus was never a hindrance. You know, it was never a problem.
How is the hip-hop scene there?
It’s great; I miss it. In Columbus, I went out and I had friends. These are my friends from Columbus [DJ Przm and Emcee Illogic, having dinner with us at Brandt’s]. Now we take them out on tour and stuff, and it’s good. The hip-hop scene is great. It feels like we all came up together. When I first started going out in ’96, ’97, DJing and stuff, it wasn’t shit. It wasn’t a city that anybody thought of. And now, if you take a snapshot [then] and compared it to a snapshot today, it’s night and day. There is so much happening. It’s like, there’s a sense of pride that me and the people that I have come up from—my graduating class, if you will—that we have.
Do you call your mother from the road?
Yeah, of course I do. When I remember.
When did you start working with Blueprint?
Did you start working with him through Definitive Jux, the successful underground hip-hop label?
No, he’s from Cincinnati. Well, he’s really from Columbus. We knew each other from the scene in Columbus.
How did you start working with Definitive Jux?
Copywrite from MHz became friends with the guy who runs Definitive Jux, and he introduced me, basically.
You just finished this record with Soul Position. Are you going to work something else that’s solo?
Yeah; I’m working on my album right now. It’s half done, three quarters done. My next album will be out next year sometime.
Will it be like Deadringer?
Not style-wise; it’s gonna be sample-based. It’s gonna be a similar approach in terms of making songs.
Now comes the hard question.
Okay, bring it on.
A lot of people compare you to DJ Shadow. How does that make you feel? Do you feel like your work is similar?
Well, yeah, we’re both hip-hop DJs who started to do production work. We felt a little confined by what you’d call traditional rap music, but wanted to do more.
Really? Is that what you think it is?
I wouldn’t even say that. It’s not even that. Scratch that.
I was nervous about asking you that question. I tried to think about why it is that you’re compared. Because you’re both white and spinning? Is it the sampling? I honestly think it’s what you both pull, sample wise. He does a lot of sampling the way you sample. He pulls a lot of conversation samples, like you. Also, if you listen to Shadow’s Entroducing, it is very moody, like your record.
Yeah, yeah. I don’t know. I’m not stupid; I know that there are comparisons.
Have you met him?
Yeah, I toured with him. He asked me to come out and tour with him last year.
What are your long-term plans?
I would like to be at a point to be able to do big, major-label rap production shit or even R&B shit, but just do it in a manner that I want to do it. But still be able to do solo albums. That’s one thing that nobody really does. Shadow’s got his solo thing down; he can do that. There’s a number of people who can do their solo thing, their instrumental shit. But they really don’t have the ear or sensibility to do good rap music. Ultimately, I’d like to straddle the two.