The difference between knowledge and wisdom is made manifest through results – whether good or bad. To illustrate, an individual can know a tomato is indeed a fruit. However, wisdom will help a person refrain from putting diced tomatoes into a fruit salad. This ideology also applies to the art of DJing and producing. A skilled producer knows music, then uses that musical knowledge to discern what sounds and effects blend seamlessly. Philadelphia based produce, RJD2, knows music (over 15 years of experience) and – most importantly – applies his keen insight into the records he produces. This week, the industry vet released More Is Than Isn’t via his imprint, Electrical Connections. It’s an album that channels George Duke’s funk infused Follow The Rainbow (1979) and combines it with classical and hip hop elements that are signature to RJ’s style. Here, RJ sheds some insight into his musical playbook.
Life + Times: On More Is Than Isn’t there are a ton of collaborations – which isn’t something new with you – but I did notice some new artists that you haven’t collaborated with before, Khari (Mateen) and STS. With Blueprint and some of the other artists you have on the album that you partnered with before, I’m sure it was quite natural. How did you come across these two latest collaborators?
RJD2: One of the guys on the record, Aaron Livingston, we have a group together called Icebird. When we were doing shows for the first Icebird album, I was looking up putting together a band and when I looked for a bass player, Khari’s name came up. So, Khari got chosen to play bass for those shows and we just got along great. He’s a really cool guy. In addition to being an incredible bass player, he’s also a pretty damn good vocalist and a producer, and a cellist…he’s kind of, generally, super awesome. He was a no brainer for the tour and it went great. He was really easy to be around and fun to hang out with. So when I started working on my record, I just keep a running tally in my head of people that I can reach out to for any different reason or services. Frankly, the reason that I reached out to Khari to sing a hook on the song without producing or playing on it was that he’s a producer, but also a part-time instrumentalist. I rarely, if ever, get asked to be just a hired gun in any one particular field, but it’s a thing I’d like to do if I had the wherewithal and I was in demand, for example as a mixer or keyboardist. I’d be flattered if someone were to call me and say, “Hey! I want you to play keys on the record.” So, that was one reason I asked Khari about doing the hook on the song. Slim – STS – is the guy he’s (Khari) has worked with in the past. He made the connection to STS. The format of the song (“See You Leave”) made perfect sense for the three of us to do.
L+T: Awesome. Now I see how the connections all link up. I like how you slipped in that Icebird track, “Love and Go.” I’m just going to say it’s an Icebird track.
RJD2: (Laughs) At the end of the day, it is semantics. That song was done the same way of any of the Icebird records. I write the instrumentation and record it, then I pitch him (Aaron Livingston) the tracks. Sometimes he writes the melodies and vocals. So yeah, fair enough.
L+T: In a recent tweet you said, “It sucks watching talented ppl waste opportunities cause of simple failure of perspective.” So, what’s helped you to keep a positive outlook?
RJD2: Keeping a positive outlook I would say is somewhat a default mentality for me, honestly. By and large – unless there’s something catastrophic going on – when I get out of bed in the morning I am glad to be alive, lucky to be on the planet at a point in both earth’s history and human history in which I have so much at my disposal. I’m breathing, I have a wonderful family, [and] I have a lot to be thankful for and optimistic about. So, that’s my default perspective. To tie it into that tweet or that idea – I see my position in the field of music as realistic; pragmatic in the sense that none of us are guaranteed a career. None of us are owed anything. To some degree we have to wake up and earn our keep and prove ourselves every single day as musicians, producers, and artists – no matter how many times you’ve done it in the past. That doesn’t scare me and that doesn’t bother me. I’m happy with that perspective. I’m happy recognizing that position. Whoever you are – I’m not gonna name any names – we can all think of an artist that was literally on top of the game at one point in time and then squandered opportunities. You can at least think of one and probably four, five, six, or seven would come to mind. A lot of it, potentially all of it, can be reduced to a lack of perspective or not having their head on their shoulders basically. It’s sad [and] it’s unfortunate to watch.
L+T: I agree with you. You obviously know what you’re talking about because you’ve been producing for at least 15 years or more. You’ve seen it all. Plus, as a musician and a producer you can’t rest on your laurels. Just because you’re at the top of your game at one point, you can’t expect that five or ten years down the road that will still be the case.
RJD2: People aren’t stupid. They’ll recognize it fairly easily.
L+T: My intro to you was actually in 2004 with “Making Days Longer.” I love that track. One thing remains consistent with you – and I admire this – you have a really eclectic music palette. You have sampled tracks from the ‘60s and ‘70s. I’m sure your vinyl collection is insane. What are your go-to records? Are there any that you listen to all the time?
RJD2: I wouldn’t say all the time. There are very few records that I think have infinite replay value. There’s a small pool of records. Did you want me to name them?
L+T: You can give an example.
RJD2: There’s a group from Chicago called Tortoise. They put out a record called Millions Now Living Will Never Die. It’s an all-instrumental record. It plays as if there were just two songs to the record. There’s multiple tracks. That’s a record that’s very mood specific and kind of close to timeless. So, that’s an example. I listened to The Chronic 2001 this weekend. I was just thinking that this is one of the most timeless rap records in history. I don’t mean that I think it’s one of the best…It dominated my youth. I remember it came out when I was in high school and for a period of months it was what you heard. It was everywhere we went in my circle in high school. It’s a great record, but I don’t think it would have the same impact now. When I listen to it now to some degree it sounds like a record from that era. The Chronic 2001 – I don’t know if I’d say it’s timeless, but I feel like it’s pretty close. John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme – it’s a very demanding and emotionally involving record for me, so I can’t listen to it all the time. I’ll never get sick of that record. It will never not have replay value when I’m in a particular mood.
L+T: With More Is Than Isn’t, there’s a lot of funk influence. I like how you also tie in classical elements with the violins and of course hip hop. What helps you to expand and broaden even more when it comes to putting different albums together – such as what will sound good together?
RJD2: I think that what’s at the heart of being a producer is being a decision maker. I think of their strongest asset being they’re effective and functional decision makers over a long period of time – basically a recording session for a song. To me, that’s the most important component. My recording sessions for my own records are very unorthodox in the context of music production at large because it’s just me in the studio making all the decisions. Often times, I’m playing all of the backing tracks at least. Just through time do I think that one gets to a point they can do that quickly and effectively and repeatedly. The short answer to your question is I force myself to not think about it very much. When I’m in the studio and I’m working on a track, I just try to not get in my own way. I sort of stay out of my own way. I try to not take a too cerebral approach to things and just kind of let your instincts take over. 90 percent of the time my first instincts are things that end up within a track. Sometimes it doesn’t work out; but the more you do it, the better your success rate gets.