I have a band feeling about this

Apr 18, 2007 at 12:00 am
A funny thing happened to producer RJD2 on his way to indie hip-hop stardom. From the sounds of his new disc, The Third Hand, RJD2 has gone C3PO. The 30-year-old beat-maker from Philly — by way of Columbus, Ohio — put down the records and samples that were his hip-hop tools, picked up some vintage keyboards, and started making records the old-fashioned way — with real instruments and his own vocals out front.

As a result, Third Hand sounds as old-fashioned as the instrumentation of its making. While earlier RJD2 efforts would have been at home in any indie hip-hopper’s collection alongside joints from Aceyalone and El-P, the new record sounds like the jukebox at the Regal Beagle when Jack and Chrissy would meet Larry for Fuzzy Navels on Three’s Company.

Which, RJD2 explains, is exactly the point.

“My intention was to make a record I could have sampled five years ago,” RJD2 (aka RJ Krohn) says. “When I was making instrumental hip-hop records, I’d sample these 1960s psychedelic records anyway. You don’t think of King Crimson and Steely Dan or the Turtles being linked to hip hop. But once you go through a period of researching early hip hop, you hear how Black Sheep, Nice ’n Smooth and De La Soul all sampled those records.

The Third Hand didn’t come out of nowhere. RJ’s been moonlighting as a keys-twinkling troubadour harmonizing over his mellotron almost as long as he’s been an indie hip-hop fave.

“I started working on these songs right around the time Dead Ringer came out,” he says, speaking of his 2002 effort for El-P’s Definitive Jux imprint. “That record was about 95 percent sample-based. I didn’t want to be in a scenario where I was finding records to make records. I find that problematic — and expensive,” RJ laughs.

“I don’t try to play anything that’s beyond my ability,” he continues, “and at first, every time I opened my mouth I was like, ‘Oh shit, I can’t sing.’ But I knew the kinds of sounds I liked to sample, so I’d figure if I could re-create the studio environment those were created in, I could make my own. So I started buying up all these old instruments, which got even more expensive than buying records. It’s advantageous for me to be a bit lower on the learning curve.”

This musical transition is also why, in 2002, he left his home base of Columbus for Philadelphia. He’d been a titan in the Columbus scene, and had produced battle rappers Megahurtz as well as made beats for Aceyalone and Rhymesayers. But he wanted to be challenged.

“I do better in situations where I’m the David instead of the Goliath,” he says.

And on The Third Hand, he is. It was released last month, at the same time his former label head El-P dropped I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, an indie hip-hop record taken to extremes. El-P’s album crams 10 pounds of rhymes into 5 pounds of beats, and functions simultaneously as a paranoid and angry concept album about politics and an uncertain near future. But RJD2 takes a completely different turn away from indie hip hop. His new album has more in common with contemporary French indie rock like Phoenix or Air, for its anachronistic 1970s stylings but also its eccentric flair. (It’s no surprise that RJ jumped from Def Jux to XL to release it; XL knows eccentric, what with Badly Drawn Boy and Electric 6 on its roster.)

As radical a creative about-face as this is for RJ — his last purely sample-based effort was a clunky, fits-and-starts version of Radiohead’s “Airbag” for the Exit Music comp of Radiohead covers last year — he’s not the first hip-hop producer to try his hand at being a bandleader. Let’s not forget the Neptunes’ Pharrell Williams fronted the rock band N.E.R.D. (who covered America’s “Horse With No Name”) and that Timbaland’s latest solo record also goes back, if only to the vintage electro and new wave of the 1980s. The Shining, Dilla’s revered swan song, also has as many instrumental interludes and live samples as it does traditional hip-hop samples.

RJD2 also benefits from the fact indie hip-hop fans tend to be more artist-loyal than sound-loyal. If, say, Jay-Z put down the mic and saddled up to the Hammond B-3, it’s doubtful hip-hop fans would follow him. In fact, when Q-tip did that very thing back in 2002, they didn’t. But in RJ’s case, the indie-hop kids are just as indie as they are hop.

“I put a few tracks up on MySpace back in November, and the response was actually really good,” RJ says. “But I’m not pounding the pavement to find out what my fans are thinking.”

Instead, he’s pounding the pavement promoting The Third Hand, which is why, along with his full band, he’s still got his trusty MPC sampler and turntables to play his older stuff, even if he’s more into sitting behind a keyboard and crooning these days.

“I don’t want to alienate anyone, and I don’t want to be abrasive,” RJD2 says finally. “But to grow you have to alienate some people.”

At 8 p.m., Wednesday, April 18, at the Magic Stick, 4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-9700.

Hobey Echlin is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]