Beat This

RJD2's instinctive production style

Think it's easy being a dope producer? Think again. Sure, it may seem like fun to make blazing tracks for MCs to spit over and moody, instrumental pastiches, but most knob-twiddlers tend to be perfectionists who find it hard to enjoy the fruits of their labor. RJD2 is no different. "Each day that goes by, I get less and less satisfied with what I've done," he admits.

That might seem like a strange statement, since RJD2 has accomplished a lot in the last few years. Since bursting on the scene with the Deadringer, which became one of the definitive Def Jux label records, he's become an alt hip-hop A-lister, balancing solo albums (the last being Since We Last Spoke) with collaborative projects like his recent team-up with Aceyalone, Magnificent City, and the latest effort from Soul Position, Things Go Better With RJ and Al, also featuring rapper Blueprint.

The latter two items are one-producer, one-MC affairs. "People might have grown weary of multi-producer albums," RJD2 speculates. Having one person work on an entire record naturally lends itself to more subtle musical statements, like Magnificent City's "Solomon Jones" or Things Go Better's "The Extra Mile." However, when he's just doing one or two tracks, RJD2 says he favors the accessible over the super-obscure: "I'm always going to go for the single."

Soul Position's Blueprint (left) and RJD2 (right).
Cory Piehowicz
Soul Position's Blueprint (left) and RJD2 (right).

The key to RJD2's technique is that, much like Bruce Lee's martial art, he has no one style, and thus no limitations. "I've always wanted to be a chameleon," he says. That explains why Magnificent City and Things Go Better sound almost nothing alike; where the former offers up expansive soundscapes filled with carefully layered sonic textures, the latter is laid-back, relaxed, and highly minimal. On Things Go Better, he says, "I wasn't concerned with exercising my chops at all."

Part of RJD2's adaptability is warranted by the difference between vocalists. Aceyalone can rhyme in multiple cadences; Blueprint's focus is much more pinpointed. The latter's retro MC style recalls such fabled East Coast rappers as Lord Finesse and Big L; Soul Position's Things Go Better positions itself as a resolutely underground alternative to mainstream, super-commercial rap. "No Gimmicks" is something of a statement of purpose, spotlighting all the things Soul Position don't ascribe to: No slogans, no 20-inch rims rollin'/ No gold fronts, no publicity stunts/ No make-believe beef, no shootouts in the streets. Other tracks provide humorous social commentary: "I Need My Minutes" should resonate with anyone who's ever paid overage charges on their cell phone, and "Blame It on the Jager" is a wistful, morning-after reflection on dubious, alcohol-fueled sexual encounters.

Things Go Better may not immediately overwhelm listeners with radio-ready, sugar-coated formulas, yet it holds up well to repeated listenings. In keeping with Blueprint's late '80s/early '90s influences, RJD2 keeps his drums dirty but def, a reminder that hip hop can sound wack if it's too technical or cleaned up. Some of the best rap records ever made were gritty and grimy, fashioned with technology now considered obsolete. "How technology affects music honestly hasn't changed," RJD2 opines. For that reason, he believes it should "just be a tool" instead of something that dictates the creative process.

Not that RJD2 lacks technical skills. He went to music school, after all, and along with Prefuse 73 and DJ Shadow, he's made the progressive hip-hop instrumental into an art. As his career has evolved, he's "abandoned any pretense or affiliation ... now it's kinda like I just want to find my own thing." His ultimate goal, he says, is simply "to make a good song." And to perform well. He adds that Soul Position's current stage set "is the closest I've ever gotten to what I want a rap show to be." Spoken like a true perfectionist.

 
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