Interview: RJD2

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

RJD2, Columbus' beloved prodigal son, will bring his band of hometown heroes (Derek DiCenzo, Happy Chichester and Sam Brown) to Skully's, 1151 N. High St., Friday to play the anniversary show alongside Thought Collective, Kenan Bell and a solo set from Chichester.

My feature on R.J. in today's paper only scratched the surface of our interview last Friday, which delved deep into his tech geek side and explained the origin of his collaboration with Columbus rappers Illogic, N.P. and The Catalyst among other topics. Follow the jump for the full text of the conversation.

Alive: How’s your voice? I heard you lost it.

RJD2: I’m feeling better. Today’s my first day talking since Monday. So yeah, I’m feeling better today.

How’d you lose your voice?

I think just being out on tour and playing every day. It’s hard to stay healthy, and this isn’t the first time I’ve lost my voice. Going out on stage every night and stuff doesn’t really help. I’m just happy that I made it through the first leg without problems, really.

Will your voice be ready to go for the Columbus show that kicks off the second leg?

I should be fine. I’ve got another week to recuperate and stuff, so I should be fine.

How was the first leg?

It was great. Once we got into a rhythm, it went fantastic.

Anything particularly interesting or hilarious happen on the road?

The first three days were just rough (laughter). They were really rough. I added some things to the set, so it’s really an enormous amount of things to keep track of on my part. I tour manage myself, so I’ve got five people that I’m responsible for. I’ve got a stage setup that includes three turntables, two mixers, a sampler, cerrato, electric guitar, bass guitar, five keyboards, acoustic drums and four mikes. And on top of that, I have two costume changes and a wireless MIDI remote suit thing that I need to manage, as well as a wireless microphone. So there’s an enormous amount of stuff to go wrong.

And to top it all off, I don’t ever put these shows together the traditional way. You know, like if you look at a lot of the acts that sort of straddle the line between electronic and live music. I’m specifically thinking of stuff that comes out of the DFA school of music. A lot of those guys, they play to click tracks or to sequenced things. And my whole goal or agenda with the way that I want to do my music live is to get away from that and to provide as much organic breathability and getting away from sequencing and playing click tracks as much as possible.

What it provides is a huge element of risk. If any point in time something goes wrong or a machine goes down or something, or even if I just don’t get enough sleep, we’re all keeping time amongst each other. So if somebody f---s up or if I f--- up, there’s that natural breathability, and you’ve got to catch up. The point that I’m making here is that there’s just an enormous amount of stuff to go wrong with the show.

The biggest incident on the first leg for me was that I had spent a long time, probably close to 10 hours, just building this particular thing, this wireless, battery-powered remote control MIDI trigger system for my sampler, for my MPC. And not only building it, but then also rehearsing with it and making sure I could use it. And programming it to work. This is this enormously labor intensive thing. Basically, everything the day before the tour was so last minute, and I hate working like that. We were supposed to dress rehearse the day before, but the band didn’t get in until like 11 p.m. So what we had to do was dress rehearse the morning of the first show.

So when we’re scrambling to get everything together, we packed everything together, and the one thing I forgot was the MIDI receiver for this suit that I’d spent 10 hours building and probably like an hour a day rehearsing, practicing this, how to use it. So I get down to DC for the first show, and it’s like 5:30 p.m. and ‘m setting everything up, and I realize that I left the MIDI receiver at home, which completely makes the whole suit obsolete, like useless. So I had to basically pay a friend of mine’s girlfriend to drive down from DC and bring the thing down. But you know, I got the thing. It was a Saturday. The latest that it could even be going out if I could have it shipped to me would be Monday, and then I wouldn’t get it until Wednesday. And I’m like I’m going to miss the first five days of the tour with this thing. So it worked out. I got it down there.

So how does this suit work? You control some sort of MIDI trigger with the suit that you’re wearing?

Basically, yeah. I’m going to do a video on it, describing it. I’m going to probably put up a YouTube video next Friday. What I want to do is basically walk through how the thing was built and then how it works. And it would make a lot more sense I think if you’re seeing it. But basically I took a MIDI trigger controller that 16 pads, and it works just like a sampler, but it’s meant to be plugged into the wall, and then you plug MIDI cable into whatever you want to control with it.

I realized at a point — in 2006 I had this group called Soul Position. In 2006 I built this harness so I could wear the MPC around my chest. And I would strap it on, and I had this outfit, and we would do this thing on this Soul Position tour so I wasn’t stuck behind a table in remote nerd land. And I would basically come out and play the MPC and we would do these dumb little dances. It was stupid and funny, but it worked. And so I wanted to do something of that ilk. And when I realized that it… basically I realized that I could program it to control my MPC.

When I realized if programmed properly it could trigger the MPC, and I realized the power supply for it was just a simple 9-volt DC Wall Wart power supply, and I realized, well, I could probably rewire this to run off of a 9-volt battery. And then I looked around online and I found out there was this kind of apparently obsolete wireless MIDI controller. It never really took off because it didn’t seem like anybody had any need for it. It was never really popular. But this is exactly what I had a need for. If I can power this thing through a battery pack that I wired, and then install a wireless MIDI transponder, I could essentially wear this thing and trigger the MPC. So I had to take the machine apart, and it took a long time. It was doable.

But furthermore, I also got the idea at a point where, well, if I’m going to be able to wear this thing… At some point the image of ZZ Top crossed my mind. And I was like, if this thing could spin as well, God, that would just be amazing! So when I had it disassembled, I bought a couple lazy Susan mechanisms and I built a base for it. And essentially through a system of counterweights, I was able to build this thing onto a base that then got built into a belt. So I strap this thing on and I wear it around my waist, and it spins, and it also triggers the MPC.

So it’s attached to a belt, and the belt is attached to a suit?

It’s on my crotch, basically.

So that went off without a hitch once you got the part down?

It’s the kind of thing that I basically start the show and end the show with it. And when I come out, sometimes it’s just confusing. People don’t know what the f--- is going on. Cause I wear a full suit. I’ve got this helmet, full body suit and stuff. Sometimes it goes over like gangbusters and people love it. And then other times, even if it’s just confusing and people are like “What the hell is this guy doing?” it kind of doesn’t matter because it goes from that, and then I spend the next 20-25 minutes behind the turntables and sampler. And then the band comes out. And then I go back to the turntables at a point. And then the band comes out again. And then I end the show coming back out in the suit. So the show goes through all these incarnations and by the time it gets to the end of the show and I come back out in the suit, there there was never a show where it didn’t go over like complete f---ing gangbusters.

You mentioned that you do your own tour managing. Obviously your big thing over the last year or so has been taking over all parts of the operation. Has that been as freeing as you hoped it would be, or has there been a whole new set of complications?

It’s definitely a lot of work. It’s both freeing and shackling. It’s freeing in the sense that I don’t have the concern about what I can and can’t do in the future. So if I decide to release an album three months from now, again, in theory I can. If we’re talking about freeing in terms of I have less work, then no, I’m shackled to my Blackberry and my laptop at all hours of the f---ing day, which isn’t the most freeing thing. But at the same time it’s certainly the most sustainable way to go about making music. The bottom line, to put it bluntly, if I’m not generating enough money to pay myself, then I would have no hope of having any level of sustainability if I was signed to a label. If this isn’t a workable business model, then there’s nothing out there that would be, basically.

That was all just established within the last few months, right?

It was about a year ago. Ten or 11 months ago. Beginning of 2009 is when it all got set up. But it wasn’t established until maybe March, April, something like that was when I sort of solidified all the contracts, paperwork for my distribution deals. I put a box set out in October. And then the reissues of my first three albums came out in November. And then this album came out in January.

Do you intend to put out some other people’s stuff on that label too, or are you sticking with the one-man show kind of thing?

It all depends on what comes down the pike and whether it makes sense. I’m not exactly anxious to be someone else’s boss. But at the same time, if it seems like it’s going to make sense or sensible for all parties, then I would certainly be open to it.

When you put out The Third Hand, your big thing was getting away from using samples. Based on your earlier remarks about touring, you’re still feeling the organic vibe. Is that the attitude you took into The Colossus too? Because it definitely sounds like there are some samples on there.

Yeah, that definitely was not a sort of overarching theme or goal or whatever you want to call it for this record. By and large this record was intended to be sort of an overview or kind of retrospective look back at all of the different styles of production that I had partaken in in the last 10 years. So working with rappers, working with singers, doing some sample based music and doing some live music were kind of the four goals if you will.

As for the rap part, I know you worked with the Catalyst, Illogic and N.P. Do you still stay up on what’s going on in Columbus hip-hop?

I try to pay attention as much as I can. I’m usually pretty busy. But yeah, I do my best to stay briefed on what’s going on, who’s doing what.

How did you end up working with these guys? Obviously you came up around the same time as Illogic, but what about the others?

That song actually came about — initially I had gone through one or two lineups so to speak of rappers. I was first calling people that I would talk to more regularly in the recent years. They also happen to be guys that were more known on a national level. And it just really wasn’t working. There wasn’t that level of dedication and passion about it for whatever reason. There’s a myriad of reasons why those things can happen sometimes. Even if they don’t say it, their mentality is like “I’m not lifting a finger for less than three grand a track,” or whatever. Or it could be like “I’m cool with RJ to his face but really I don’t want to f--- with his weirdo-ass music.” It kind of took me a while.

I was reaching out to people that I had worked with in the past, and I really wasn’t getting anywhere. The concept for the song was very specific. It’s not just a beat that I was sending to people saying “Hey, do you want to rap on top of this beat? And I don’t care what you say and I don’t care how you do it.” It was a pretty specific concept for a song and how it needed to be executed. And that also might have been a hindrance or something that was inhibiting the process.

Anyway, the thought just crossed my mind at some point, what if instead of me working with these guys that are already established and maybe aren’t as hungry to do this, what if I reached out to some guys that might potentially be a little more hungry/unknown on a national level? So that was how the idea came about. Who’s basically out there right now in Columbus that’s good at rapping?

I basically put a call into my friend Wes, and he made me a CD. I had a gig last year in Ohio, I was back in town. I asked him to burn me a CD of newer releases of stuff in Columbus. A number of things caught my ear. I was familiar with Beau — I was familiar with Catalyst — from his mixtape. I knew that he was a super talented kid and stuff, but getting that really solidified that both him and N.P. were guys that I definitely should reach out to. And I had already known Illogic of course, so that was kind of like a no-brainer. Illogic was one of those guys that I had been on tour with. We took him out on Soul Position tours, and I had always been around him for years back in Columbus. We had never really gotten the chance to do music together too much. So he was a no-brainer.

You still tour with Columbus musicians Derek DiCenzo, Happy Chichester and Sam Brown as your backing band. Has your comfort level together increased after spending a few years playing together?

Yeah, and also having everybody from one place makes routing the tours easy. And having them already know half of the songs that we’re going to play, or at least having played them before, that makes it easier basically. So yeah, all of those things are contributing factors to why I chose to do the same band. Plus the fact that for this record there was a lot of percussive elements on it, so I knew that somebody was going to have to play a glockenspiel. The fact that I can stick Derek on basically any instrument and know that he’ll be just fine is a huge bonus and benefit for the lineup.

Doing anything special or different for the Columbus show?

Hopefully. That’s what I’m planning on. So we’ll see. But even if it’s the standard show, the standard show for this tour has some new things that I’ve never done before and I’m never going to do again. (adopts funny voice) So it’s a special night every night. Every night is a special night!