The indie hip-hop boom of the early aughts was an era teeming with all the right elements for a creative renaissance: previously unheralded voices/contributors to the culture, classic records, and an unprecedented connection between fans and artists thanks to the emerging presence of the Internet.

But even the digital archives are susceptible to people and movements falling through the cracks, and we’re far enough removed today to look back at some of the faces plastered on the sides of our musical milk cartons and wonder, “What the hell happened?” There are few artists that better fit this particular scenario than Chicago’s very own Diverse.  

A lyricist with densely packed, often-abstract bars—and an impeccably hypnotic cadence—Diverse (born Kenny Jenkins) was putting it down for the Windy City in an era that predated Kanye West, Lupe Fiasco, Chance the Rapper, Vic Mensa, and the other rap superstars that have since repped for the Chi. His first commercially available release, 2001’s Move EP (Chocolate Industries), showcased the type of emceeing that typifies the era from which it came, sporting a fairly-prominent Talib Kweli influence and dusty, jazz-inspired production bolstered by live instrumentation (including the Roots’ original bassist Joshua Abrams on the title track).

Move’s success led Diverse to pursue music full-time. In 2002, he became a bigger blip on the national radar (particularly in New York) with his Mos Def-featuring single “Wylin Out” from the Chocolate Industries compilation Urban Renewal Project (which also featured the likes of Aesop Rock, El-P, Souls of Mischief, and Mr. Lif). The song (produced by Prefuse 73) got the remix treatment from RJD2, but also more prominently showcased the fact that Diverse could hold his own with the rapper now known as Yasiin Bey—which was quite a feat in 2002, considering this was a guy whose previous album was Black on Both Sides.

The stage was set for the next level up, and Diverse’s 2003 follow-up full-length One A.M. is what separated him from the would-be emcees. It’s also what warrants closer inspection of his career, and provokes some head-scratching when addressing his relative MIA status since (more on that later). Clocking in at a trim 41 minutes, the record is an almost too-good-to-be-true alignment of some of the best talent in underground hip-hop at the time.

RJD2 provided production for five of the album’s songs—including the break-neck funk of “Explosive” featuring Quannum Bay Area rapper Lyrics Born, the haunting stomp of “Big Game” (with Cannibal Ox’s Vast Aire), and “Under the Hammer,” which found the Chicago rapper paired with the deadpan delivery of Jean Grae. Add in tracks produced by Prefuse 73, Madlib, and even Tortoise’s Jeff Parker, and the One A.M. album quite frankly feels like stumbling upon a box of vintage rookie cards from some of hip-hop’s future greats.

Although the slew of impressive names both behind the boards and on the mic definitely made for a star-studded lineup, it’s worth noting that Diverse himself never got overshadowed at his own gathering. An obvious student of the game, Diverse was able to hold it down on his own, professing his love for the craft of rhyming on “Just Biz” and effortlessly integrating melody to his sharp flow on the relaxed head-nodder “Leaving.”

Meanwhile, opening tracks like “Certified” and “Uprock” didn’t exactly reinvent the wheel when it comes to what has now become the somewhat-hackneyed “underground rapper rapping about rapping” formula, but it’s again important to consider the context of the recordings. If you subscribe to the idea that rappers utilize their voices like a jazz musician approaches his instrument, Diverse had clearly clocked many hours in his woodshedding efforts. Multi-syllabic rhyme patterns, an angular flow that contorted and transformed throughout 16-bar passages, tonal control that prevented against the type of monotony that was often a deal breaker for so many of his peers – this guy was the complete package. Though he may have lacked the punchlines and over-the-top personality necessary to become a breakout superstar, his proficiency as a rapper (and clear ability to make the right choices when it came to songs/beats) makes the fact that this is the last album that he has officially put out even more puzzling.

After touring to promote One A.M. (including a spot on the 2006 Storm Tour with Aceyalone, Ugly Duckling, the Processions, and MayDay!) and gaining some notoriety via song placements on the soundtrack to Capcom’s “Final Fight Streetwise” game for Xbox and PlayStation, there was talk of a second album entitled Round About. But beyond a pair of unofficial mixtapes featuring random unreleased songs and collaborations, the sophomore LP never came to be. A 2008 7-inch single, “Escape Earth (The Moon),” pairs a beautiful Clair de Lune sample with a dirty breakbeat and features Diverse weaving together a vivid narrative with an appropriately spacey theme. He hasn’t officially released anything since.

The idea that somebody in his shoes could just disappear is unfortunate but not exactly shocking, either. Fans and participants alike are no doubt aware of the type of grind that having (and maintaining) a career as an independent artist requires. Even the most talented and creative minds can sometimes get sucked up in the trappings of the real world, motivated by factors either financial, personal, or both.

And the fact that the Chocolate Industries label would subsequently go through a series of internal conflicts between its label managers as well as the typical financial woes many indie operations faced in the age of rampant illegal file-sharing in the mid-to-late ‘00s certainly must have played a part in the abrupt silence in Diverse’s story (after putting out records by the likes of Lady Sovereign, Vast Aire, Ghislain Poirier, and the Cool Kids, the label has been dormant since 2012). But all of that is largely speculative, as there is no clear narrative as to exactly what happened.

Also frustrating is the fact that, by the modern standards of the Internet, it would appear that Diverse never existed. The man has no public social media accounts (active or otherwise), making the search for his current whereabouts and musical output limited at best – though there have been some breadcrumbs. He popped up on Black Milk and Bishop Lamont’s 2008 collaborative project Caltroit, and also made an appearance on the guest-heavy Stones Throw producers Quakers compilation album.

In 2014, Diverse teamed with Chris Hunt (drummer for Atlanta-based experimental electronic band Cloudeater) to form Holoking, an outfit that showcased Jenkins’ trademark abstract style against a backdrop equally as amorphous and musically ambitious. The duo released two songs (“Superhuman” and “Wise Fools”) that actually make a strong argument for more ’00s rappers to reinvent themselves in a more adventurous band setting. A 10-song EP was said to be in the works—but it would seem that it has yet to see the light of day. Holoking’s Internet/social media presence has been similarly abandoned, with no real updates or activity in the last few years.

Based on his track record, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether or not we’ll be getting more music from Diverse in the future. One can hardly fault anybody from wanting to keep the rigmarole of the music industry at an arm’s length, so if his exile is self-imposed, so be it. Nor does it feel appropriate to eulogize the career of an artist who may very well still be active or on the brink of popping his head above ground to share new music with the world once again. But as we move further away from a reality of stumbling upon tattered old vinyl in the back of used record stores as a means of discovery, it’s important to shed light on the unsung heroes and forgotten (or perhaps completely overlooked) gems of yesterday. For many fans of underground hip-hop, the music of Diverse may come as a throwback to a now-bygone era of hip-hop; or as an undiscovered and pleasantly welcome surprise.

Speak your piece in the comments below or over at the UGHH Forums

 

Catalog Shuffle: Blueprint

In this edition of Catalog Shuffle, Sean Kantrowitz travels through time with the renowned Blueprint with stories on his groundbreaking catalog.

We’re back at it with another installment of Catalog Shuffle, where artists get their entire discographies thrown into a playlist and give the stories behind randomly selected songs. This month features rapper/producer/book author/filmmaker Blueprint. We go through both his solo work and work with Soul Position (his group with RJD2) and talk about storytelling, Cincinnati riots, the time that he sampled one of hip-hop’s most notorious samplers, and how a single computer programming command helped him write a song on one of indie hip-hop’s most beloved debut albums.

Blueprint “Untitled” (Sign Language, 2009)

Blueprint: Sign Language was my first attempt to make a real instrumental record with the MPC. I made [2004 instrumental album] Chamber Music before then, but used the EPS-16 for that. I always wanted to make a “real” instrumental record like a DJ Shadow type thing where it was all samples within the MPC for the most part.

But when I made “Untitled,” I was starting to get into playing instruments more. That track came about because I had always been a fan of Terrence Trent D’Arby. “Sign My Name” has always been one of my favorite songs of his. He’s an unsung ‘80s kind of guy. He’s got a couple dope hits, but that record was always at the top of my crates. One of the last songs on that album [“As Yet Untitled”] is an a cappella. I would listen to it and wonder why nobody had taken this a cappella and put music to it. This was before the whole mash-up craze was really cracking.

I couldn’t do it with the MPC because I didn’t have enough sample time. So I did it how I was doing it with Chamber Music where I was just flying in samples and dropping them into my 12-track [recorder]. I would mix around them and move elements around. I didn’t have the ability to time-stretch the samples. I had to make it work to the tempo that I kind of guessed. Some parts were perfect and some were a little off. I only had 20-30 seconds of sample time, so I just kind of made the beat around what I thought should be there.

Was Sign Language the last record where you used the MPC as your primary tool?

It might have been. Either that or maybe the Blueprint vs. Funkadelic record. Those were made around the same time. 

Blueprint “Kill Me First” [1988, 2005]

This is fucked up to say, but you could put this song out today and its message would still resonate.

Blueprint: I agree. What’s funny is that my man Swamburger [from Solillaquists of Sound] called me a little while back saying, “People think we gotta talk about police brutality on every song, but you was talking about it on 1988!” That shit is still relevant. It’s fucked up, but it’s very true.

I was living in Cincinnati right before the riots in 2001. There were three incidents in a row where a Black man had gotten killed. One of them got choked to death on camera by mall police. A month later, another guy died in police custody; there was foul play. Cincinnati at that point was maybe nearly 50% Black, and each of these incidents was making things more and more tense. The news was reporting about it constantly. The next thing you know, Timothy Thomas got shot in the back and killed by police running through an alley. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

I was working downtown at the time in the Kroger building. The area was mostly corporate, but one street over was one of the most dangerous and craziest hoods called Over-the-Rhine. I used to catch the bus to get to work and had to go through there. The shit you would see going on was just wild. Super hood shit. Not funny hood shit like how I tell funny hood stories on my podcast [Super Duty Tough Work], this was fucked up hood shit, like “I need to get the fuck up out of there” hood shit.

I could see the area from where I was working in the IT division and saw motherfuckers running through downtown destroying shit, breaking windows. It was right around the time that we needed to leave. There was a four-lane street that separated all the corporate shit from the hood shit. I walked out of my office and needed to cross that street to get to the parking lot—on the hood side.

As we get to the corner, there’s literally a hundred police officers in riot gear standing in front of us. On the opposite side of the street is a couple hundred people trying to get through them to get back into downtown. The cops were riot ready, and we were escorted over. It got so bad that the city went through three days of a 7PM curfew; you had to be off the streets in Cincinnati. That climate was basically the backdrop of that song. I had CJ the Cynic on there because he was a Cincinnati dude, too. I had to get somebody who was from there who understood that feeling, that there’s no guarantee that even if you are acting peacefully that you’re going to get out of there. Motherfuckers are dying in custody and it made us really uncomfortable.

Blueprint “Never Grow Old” (Deleted Scenes, 2012)

Blueprint: As an artist, when you get older you can go one of two routes. You can try to be hip and young, never speak about age, and attach themselves to whatever is new. Or you can grow and express your reality as you experience it. I always felt comfortable just expressing where I was at. And age is something we have to think about as artists. What you talk about in the public eye is judged by people. The way you act and your age don’t always coincide. There are young people who have seen crazy intense things and were forced to mature very early; and people who are older who haven’t seen as much, and they may have a younger perspective.

“Never Grow Old” was me trying to capture the sentiment that age is not always a number, but it’s how you see the world. You can be young in age and old in mind, or you can be old in age and young in mind. I thought the best way to express that was through the concept of relationships. I describe what sounds like a young chick; she’s riding a bike to class and is super energetic and happy to be in school. And then there’s this guy who drives a Cadillac and is all even-keel in the back, not excited, and you would think maybe he’s the older guy because his demeanor is of someone who’s seen a lot. But then you see that he’s a guy that was in the military really young and is just now doing the things that a lot of people his age had already done. When they hang out, she’s like, “I’m the one who’s supposed to be old; so I need you to act your age instead of acting all old.”

When you write a song like this one, are you basing these characters around people who in some way already exist in your life? Or are you thinking about concepts and then building made-up characters to serve the song’s message?

Blueprint: It’s everything. I see people and their qualities and characteristics. At the time I don’t think I’m going to make a song about it, I just see their energy or perspective and think it’s dope. I don’t think about it at all until I’m writing and telling stories where you have to think about characters. How do you tell stories? There’s so many ways to approach songwriting, and sometimes the easy way is just telling people, “You’re only as old as you act,” and that’s it! That’s the easy way to do it. I always try to think of a different way. I don’t want to get bored. I try to think of the slickest way to approach a subject. I try to think about people and stories and what would happen when this type of person comes in contact with a person or thing from a different place.

Soul Position “No Excuse For Lovin’” (8 Million Stories, 2003)

Blueprint: Parts of that one were drawn from a girl who I used to be friends with in college, way before I ever started writing. We were just great friends, never anything romantic. And she was with this dude who used to put hands on her. I might have been 18 at the time, but I was like, “Yo, you can leave anytime you want.” This guy didn’t even go to school with us; he lived in another city. And I’ll never forget how she was always like, “I can’t leave because I don’t think anybody else loves me like him. I don’t think I deserve more.” I never had a response to that.

That’s such an honest answer. It’s obviously not healthy, but it’s very self-aware. It’s not like she was making excuses.

Blueprint: What can you say to that? “Well girl, start feeling good about yourself”? That’s all you can say. I saw her for the first time since college about a year ago. I’ve been out of college about 15 years. I saw her at the mall randomly and she said, “You was right, you kept telling me to get rid of that dude. I got two kids by him, I can’t stand him, but I finally got rid of his ass. But you was right back in college.”

She was the archetype of the person in the story. That was the first time that I felt like I was writing for people who weren’t artists or writers, who didn’t have a voice. That was one of the first times where I was like, people are going through things I haven’t personally experienced, but maybe I need to use them to inspire a story about a topic.

Soul Position “Candyland Part 2” (8 Million Stories, 2003)

When I first heard these songs/interludes [note: three different versions of “Candyland” pop up throughout the 8 Million Stories album], I thought it was such a great idea. It’s not crazy complicated, but it’s so dope. And you don’t even notice that the lyrics don’t rhyme, either.

Blueprint: Those lyrics were inspired by Ghostface on Supreme Clientele when he was describing scenes of his childhood in the ‘80s. “Candyland” was one whole song with three verses, but none of it rhymed and there was no chorus that you could possibly put there. So I was like, this could be a dope way to bring the record together and make them three individual songs.

As far as the lyrics not rhyming, I didn’t even write them in alphabetical order [as they appear on the songs]. I just wrote all the shit I could remember, and then because I was a computer programmer at the time using Unix, there was a command called sort…and this is some super nerdy shit, but you could take a text file and apply this command and it sorts it however you want. So I wanted it to be alphabetical. I sorted it with Unix, all these memories. And it came out like “A-Team, Activator.” And it was like, “Yo this is the shit, now I can actually rap it!” It was hard to put together because it didn’t rhyme, but when I ran it through that command, it spit out these three alphabetical rhymes. As long as I put a rhythmic cadence there it would sound dope.

Mission accomplished. And that is definitely one of the most nerdy rap origin stories I’ve heard about a song.

Blueprint: [laughs] I think Soul Position started all of that nerd-core shit. The first computer science guy really rapping about it. I’ve met people from that world who told me that that inspired them to rap. I wouldn’t be surprised if 8 Million Stories started nerd-core as we know it.

My Melody (Chamber Music, 2004)

I was mostly using my 12-track to track things on that album. I didn’t have much sampling time. At that time, I was really into DJ Shadow and Prince Paul, and how free Prince Paul was in terms of what he would sample, especially on the vocal side of things. I was watching a Charlie Rose interview with Puffy, where he was talking about melody. And at the time I hated Puffy. This motherfucker ruined rap. In 2001, the consensus with all “hip-hop heads” was that Puffy ruined rap. I would come home and just set my VCR to watch the next day. I went to sleep or something and I went back and listened and was like, “Yo, this guy has said some brilliant shit.”

That was the time that I turned the corner and stopped hating Puffy—when I realized it was no accident what he was doing. He understood pop music and trying to do something similar with rap. He also signaled to me why so many underground records or indie records aren’t as successful as pop. Maybe it’s not just the marketing dollar, but also maybe it’s the melody.

Blueprint “Rise and Fall” (Adventures in Counter-Culture, 2011)

I know you’ve talked about this song and the rest of the album in your The Making of Adventures in Counter-Culture book. But I’m curious to know—now that you’re so far removed from that album—what are your thoughts now when you hear it?

Blueprint: I think it’s fucking incredible. It’s weird that it’s one of those records where I’m like, “Wow, I made that.” There’s a point when you make a record and you’re too emotionally attached to evaluate. That one took me a while to detach myself to where I can listen to it as someone outside of myself. I almost have to forget the process of making it before I can listen to it.

Now, I’m super impressed with it. It’s like a statement of what I can do. How far I can take this shit. There’s only a couple of conventional moments on that album, but they mess with other genres so heavily that it’s not conventional in that sense. I don’t think there’s a record like it on Rhymesayers, and I don’t think that there will be one like it afterwards.

You’ve played that song live a lot, too. More than a traditional hip-hop song that might evolve in a live set, that one has changed in a broader sense. You jam it out more, adding to the intro, changing the melody of the hook.

Blueprint: Yeah. That song is one of the ones that we used to figure out the live show. How to use the bass live, how far can we go, re-arranging everything. When I started messing with it, I realized I didn’t technically have to do adhere to anything on the record because it’s new, and people don’t know the arrangements.

I listen to it, and it’s one of my favorites because it just makes me feel good whenever it comes on. It’s not over or under produced, and that’s always something I try to watch. Not throwing too much shit in there, and just keeping what works. That song really works, and there’s only 2-3 instruments.

That album in general isn’t really over-produced. It’s minimal, but tasteful. When songs like that get released, have they typically been stripped down from their original versions, or do you sometimes just build a track piece by piece and stop when you get to the second or third element of the beat?

Blueprint: I always start with a bunch of shit. I have demos of that song where it was at half the speed and had a bunch of shit going on. From there, I keep things that work and for things I don’t like, I’ll start to pull out. As a producer, I start with a lot and try to slowly chip away and pull things away until the only things that are there are absolutely needed to convey the mood I want to convey. So for “Rise and Fall,” there’s a bassline; a weird arpeggiating synth, and then an additional synth in the chorus. But the melody of the bassline is what really makes it dope. I didn’t feel the need to put a bunch of stuff over there. The more I put on there, the more I would compromise it.

Blueprint “Where’s Your Girlfriend At?” (1988, 2005)

You have a lot of songs in your catalog that are really dark and heavy. But then there’s a song like this that is totally not that at all.

Blueprint: The chorus to that song is where it started. That whole statement was a running joke, when we used to make fun of each other. Whenever someone was annoying us, talking about some shit that we didn’t want to talk about, one of us would go, “Hey man, where’s your girlfriend at?” It was just us being assholes. I wanted to name a song after that where we just chant it.

A lot of my music is serious but I do also make music with a funny element. I needed that on 1988. The music for the beat itself reminded me of Benny Hill, when he’s running in circles trying to squeeze girls’ butts. So I felt like I needed to rap about some Benny Hill shit.

Blueprint “Fist Fight” (King No Crown, 2015)

Blueprint: That’s a deep one. I wrote it in 2011. My brother was living with me at the time because he had had a stroke. Him and my mother came to live with me while I was out touring. When I got back from a tour, my mom was upstairs and there was a therapist who was over working with my brother. He couldn’t really walk at the time; he was relearning. My studio was underneath his room. I was playing music, but I remember hearing him fall. I rushed upstairs and my brother was really torn up. It really hit him how he couldn’t walk. He had lost his physical ability. His decisions had caught up with him and he had deep regret about a lot of it. He expressed it to me. It hurt him that we had to take care of him. I remember when he had fallen, and I walked in to see if he needed help, because he was nearly 300 pounds at the time. But they didn’t want me to help him up. He had to learn to build up the strength not just physically, but also mentally because there will be times that I won’t be around. That situation inspired that song. I started writing about it immediately.

It ended up being a message to anybody who had fallen. As I was standing in that doorway, I just wanted him to fight to get back what he’s got and not just lay there and cry. But you can’t just yell that at somebody. You’re rooting for them, but they have to do it for themselves. I wanted someone to hear that song and know that even when you have taken losses, you have to get back up.

Blueprint “Anything is Possible” (1988, 2005)

Blueprint: Production-wise, I always wanted to use [the song’s main drum sample] “Sucker MC’s” somewhere. It’s hard to put anything on those drums because they sound so dope by themselves. But I found a sample that sounded good. The rhyme was about the mentality that it takes to really be successful; I started that record right around 2002. That was right when I started doing music full-time and I feel like at the time I had perspective on how my life had changed—and how it would continue to change—and how it was happening because of sacrifice and never giving up.

I was looking back at college, because there was a point in my third or fourth year that I didn’t want to be there. I did not like college at all. I had more money in high school because I could work. In college, I was so busy that I was broke all the time, but I was surrounded by wealthy people. Wealthy students driving BMWs and Benzes, and I was eating ramen every night—and it was awful. I also ate that boxed macaroni and cheese with the powdery cheese every day for four years. So with that rhyme, I was looking back and remembering how I almost gave up then, but I didn’t and look how I benefited. And then when I looked at rap, there was time when O thought it wouldn’t work out but now look, it’s taken off. It just reinforced that anything is possible when you stick with it and put in the work.

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Welcome to the inaugural edition of Catalog Shuffle. The concept is simple: put the entirety of an artist’s discography into a playlist, throw it on shuffle, and have them talk about whatever songs randomly pop up – whether it’s one of their biggest songs or an obscure b-side that time forgot. For the first installment, we talked to RJD2, whose solo career/group albums/random production credits easily present over 300 songs to select from. Get ready to get your shuffle on…

RJD2 Peace of Mind

Photo Source: Spin.com

RJD2 “Liquid Luck” (Inversions of the Colossus, 2010)

RJD2: I literally think this is the first time I have discussed this song since the record was released. That song started with the drums in the MPC, and because they occupy so much sonic space, my vision for it wasn’t to make it hyper complex with interesting chord changes and voicings. I was basically looking for something more riff-oriented that was a little easier to digest. Usually, once I sit with a groove, I can hear whether there could be a vocal component on top or not. And that felt more like a scratch record. I’ll do 15-30 songs and it will slip my mind that scratching on a record is an option that is in my tool chest. And then I’ll remember. This was one of those songs.

Inversions is the companion record to your 2010 album The Colossus. How do you typically decide what makes it onto a record and what goes on a companion album?

RJD2: Most of the songs on a companion record are songs that didn’t seem to fit with the original incarnation of the record. Many years ago, I did this record In Rare Form that was just instrumentals of tracks I had produced for rappers. They were album cuts, they never became singles, so the instrumentals were never released. Being a DJ, one of my prized hip-hop records is the instrumental record of [Gang Starr’s] “Step Into the Arena.” At the time, it was a hard thing to find as a DJ, and really valuable. It’s impossible to tell someone in the modern era about the novelty of an entire instrumental record on vinyl, pre-Serato. Kids literally can’t understand that concept when every instrumental record is on YouTube today.

So that has always been my motivation to put instrumentals out because I’m a DJ and you want to have these things out there; it’s a useful tool. Inversions was more driven by my desire to release the instrumental versions of the vocal cuts from The Colossus than it was to put out a b-sides record. An album of instrumental versions of the vocal songs would just have been an EP, so then I filled it out with other tunes.

When you make a record, at some point in time you have an album done and you’re happy with it. But by then you have this creative momentum going and you can’t turn it off right away. You coast on fumes for a period after turning in a record for mastering. Sometimes songs get recorded after the record is done, but just weren’t done in time to make it onto the original album.

The Insane Warrior “Then You Hear Footsteps” (We Are The Doorways, 2011)

This is one of the more bonkers songs on a particularly adventurous side project. You’re most known for instrumental hip-hop, which is typically straight 4/4, with a meter that doesn’t really deviate. So how does a record like this happen?

RJD2: “Night on Bald Mountain” was a huge influence to this song. It’s on Bob James’ One. That album as a full-length piece is one of my favorite recordings of all-time. Obviously “Nautilus” is a big deal, but that whole record front to back is a really fucking huge deal to me. For the longest time, as a hip-hop guy, I owned four copies of One only because of “Nautilus.” After years, I decided to sit down and listen to this record. You get out of “beat digger mentality” and start listening to records and absorbing them as entire pieces, specifically records that at one point in time were just “buy it for the break” records.

“Night on Bald Mountain” is really manic. It sounded like a soundtrack to me. It’s keeping in the theme of the Insane Warrior. It’s got really weird changes, really angular. It’s hyper-tense. So when I first put the hi-hat sample on “Then You Hear Footsteps” into the MPC…I don’t remember why, but it started as a thing in 7/8 [time signature] and it led me down this path. Oftentimes, when I’m working on songs and I come across some weird curveball of sorts—like an odd time signature part of the groove or chord change that are abrasive sounding—my instinct will be to soften the effect of it, to sort of pad it in a way. And this was one of those times where I wanted to ditch that.

One of the things about doing a side project record is that I can throw out all of the rules I have when I make RJD2 records. That’s why the Insane Warrior record is so fun because it’s a chance to break all of those rules intentionally. Instead of softening the blow of this weird, odd time signature quasi-proggy thing, let me just go whole hog with it and see if I can do this thing on my own—with an MPC, some horn charts, and some synths—and get it to a place where it’s really weird.

Soul Position “1 Love” (8 Million Stories, 2003)

RJD2: I think one of the beauties of just sitting at an MPC and making a lot of beats is that you fall into the groove or habit of only reacting to the immediacy of the beat. You’re not thinking about anything. It’s a beautiful place to be. I don’t remember the session of making that song at all. At that time, me and Blueprint didn’t really have too much to think about. When you don’t have a catalog to create the context of what you’re working on, all you care about is, “is this dope or not?”

That’s a fun record for me to listen to. I use part of it in my shows to do an MPC routine based off that beat. It reminds me of the fact that something doesn’t have to be hyper-thought-out to be enjoyable. It’s a really obvious chord change and there’s nothing special melodically about it, but something about it as a cohesive groove just feels good.

“Don’t Get Played (feat. Amos Lee)” (STS x RJD2, 2015)

This whole album sounds more live than most things you’ve done. Did you set out to make a record that was all live and then decide to do bring in [Philadelphia rapper] STS, or did working with him make you want to make it more “live”?

RJD2: Honestly, it wasn’t too thought out. We did that song “See You Leave” for the More Is Than Isn’t record. It was really fun, and we lived in the same city, so I thought it would be good to work with him some more. I would send him a batch of beats, and I was so used to sending 15 beats to rappers and only getting one beat back with demo vocals on it. But with STS, if I sent him a batch of beats, he’d send six demos. I thought, “Holy shit, this guy is super prolific.” It became obvious right off the bat that we weren’t looking at just a song, we were looking at an EP. That quickly became an album because he was writing so much.

In terms of it sounding live…that was just me being me. Some of that record is MPC-based, but I was embracing a live sound. I wasn’t trying to make it sound like it came out of an MPC. There’s a lot of rap records that have been made using live instrumentation that are…

RJD2 and STS

…sucky?

RJD2: Sucky, definitely. There are a lot of shitty records. And then there are others…I mean, Dre is the most obvious example where they occupy their own sonic territory. They don’t sound like a band, they don’t sound like the Brand New Heavies, or a guy with an MPC; they sound like their own thing. So I look at Organized Noize, Flying Lotus, Dre, DJ Quik, and Scott Storch as producers whose records have live instruments that are really dry. You can tell it’s a human being playing, but it doesn’t sound like a guy playing in a room with a microphone. It’s very studio-esque. Almost unnatural in a way, but I don’t mean it in a bad way…

It sounds like it’s perfectly in the pocket spatially, almost like an instrumentalist is in like an ISO chamber in space.

RJD2: Exactly. Those early Organized Noize records don’t sound like a band to me. I think The Chronic is the flagship of that sound. That type of style made me feel like I could make this STS record. It doesn’t sound like a band, and it doesn’t sound like all samples.

That song was one of the first that we recorded and the last that we finished. I think we went through four demo’ed versions of the chorus, but I just couldn’t find the performance that worked for the song. I had been a big fan of Amos Lee and talked to him sporadically via email, and it clicked to me right at the end that he should do it. We weren’t even sure it would make it, it happened so close to mastering. We almost cut the song, but he pulled it off super fast; within a week, he sent the files back and it was mixed.

RJD2 “The Horror” (Deadringer, 2002)

This is kind of a classic staple song in your catalog. But I have to ask: do you get sick of playing it live?

RJD2: No. It’s fun, especially when I have my band with me. We can do things with it that I can’t do on my own. I chop up the samples in the MPC and instead of having a click track, I’m playing the MPC on top of the rhythm section. It has a breathability. It’s really fun in that environment.

The truth of the matter is that at that time I was making Deadringer, I was just trying to make something cool. I got so lucky that I made a record that resonated with people, but it’d be a lie if I told you that I had these grandiose ideas of trying to make this magnificent piece of art. I was just trying to make good music. It’s kind of like a baseball team. They play a shitload of games in a season. If you were to ask them about that one game against the A’s a third of the way into their season, they’d be like, “Dude, we were winning games and losing games all the fucking time. I have no memory about that specific game…”

It’s a brick in a building where you know the building, but you may not have specific context or memories for every single brick.

RJD2: And bricks were constantly falling off the scaffolding as you were building the building. At the time, no particular brick felt like it was the critical brick. When you’re continuing to have successes and failures, no one particular success or failure at the time feels significant at all.

Sure, but it was the first song on your first real album and you made an EP named after it. It must have felt somewhat significant.

RJD2: Sure. It went first on that record because I didn’t want to ease into the record. I wanted to come in as bombastic and loud as you possibly could. The EP thing that came afterwards was just kind of happenstance. We did a single, and then we thought should we do a maxi-single. And then I had a bunch of extra songs so we just made it an EP.

RJD2 “Before Or Since” (Deadringer: Deluxe/The Tin Foil Hat, 2009)

RJD2: I did this boxset when I was launching my record label in 2009. Part of the set was the reissues of Deadringer, The Horror, and Since We Last Spoke. We did a deluxe version of those records and for the CDs, as a bonus I put tracks that were recorded during those respective album eras but not released. For the vinyl buyers, we took those six songs and put them onto The Tin Foil Hat EP. It was like a compilation.

RJD2 “Rules For Normal Living” (The Third Hand, 2007)

Is The Third Hand [an album in which RJ broke from his formula of instrumental hip-hop beats to feature his singing and more traditional song structures] a weird record for you? There was a backlash against it at the time that sort of seems ridiculous now. I hesitate to use the term “ahead of its time,” but maybe that’s what it was? The way people draw lines in terms of restricting genres seemed a lot stricter ten years ago.

RJD2: We’re into the realm of hypotheses now, but I don’t know. DO people still hate me for that record? I have no idea. Let’s put it this way – if I handed off that record to Aaron Livingston or Jordan Brown or any of the vocalists I know who can sing way better than me, would it have been received differently? Possibly.

Right after putting it out, it seemed like an insane thing to do. [laughs] But when I was working on it, it didn’t. It seemed logical. But I’m so glad. I’m happy that I made that record and I’m happy for that experience and process. I’m fine to have a clear line in the sand drawn. “Don’t expect me to do shit.”

It kind of broke all the rules, so now you don’t have to adhere to any rules.

RJD2: For people who were hoping that I would do the same type of thing over and over, that might have been their departure point. I look at the Foreign Exchange, and I have so much respect for those guys and they’re inspiring to me because they’re just being them. And I’ve got to be me. I have no fear about putting out music I feel strongly about because now you’ve been warned in some way. I also feel, like you said, that we are in a different time now.

On that record, were you making tracks as you normally would and then the next step was writing lyrics and singing on top of them? Or were you compelled to get the lyrical ideas out and you made music to accompany them?

RJD2: Definitely the former. I just started making songs. Sometimes you’re recording a song and it screams “instrumental” or “vocal.” They were all coming out as “vocal” songs. I needed to sing something so I just started writing lyrics. I’ve never been a lyric-driven guy. I listen to [Brazilian composer] Caetano Veloso, and I literally don’t understand a single word, but I still enjoy it. The lyrics have always been gravy to me. If someone writes a really clever lyric, that’s just icing on the cake. For music to be there to serve a message is foreign to me.

So I was just making demos and hoping that someone would come in and sing them. I didn’t really pride myself as a singer. I basically had the whole record done, and I was not having any luck finding people to execute the songs better than I could so I just stopped trying. “Fuck it, I’m not a great singer by any stretch but hopefully the songs are good enough for someone to listen to.” I played it for XL and they thought the songs were good enough. [laughs]

If I’m being totally honest, it’s not my personal favorite record that I’ve made. And for the record, Deadringer isn’t, either. I don’t think it’s the best, but I’d like to think it’s not the worst. [laughs]

RJD2 “Portals Outward” (Dame Fortune, 2016)

RJD2: Both this and the first song on the album [“A Portal Inward”] were supposed to invoke an image of like a tunnel where there’s one way into the record and multiple ways out. And if you see that through the lens of a guy who’s unhealthily into science fiction movies, you can come up with a narrative there. “A Portal Inward,” you’re coming in, and there’s only one pathway into this thing. And then “Portals Outward,” once you’ve experienced the album, you understand that there’s multiple way out of it. It’s kind of a bunch of different vignettes that are supposed to sound different and inspire different moods whereas the first one is more monochromatic, if you will.

Diverse “Uprock” (One A.M., 2003)

First of all – what happened to Diverse? He recorded a fantastic debut album in 2003, and then…nothing.

RJD2: I don’t know. I think shortly after that record he chose to pursue something else. I want to say teaching. I’m not exactly sure, it’s been a long time.

Whether it’s by design or not, you’ve had more of a career as a singular artist or as part of a group versus being the guy shopping beats and getting random placements on records. I remember reading an article in Scratch magazine where you were lamenting that you sent some stuff to Common but that it never panned out…Is that something you’re still interested in, getting beats on other artists’ records?

RJD2: I still kind of feel the way that I did when I did that interview. It’s always a thing that I wish I had the opportunity to do more. But something that I’ve learned is that it requires a lot of time and energy. A lot. When I first started making records, my mentality was like, “Oh, I’ve got my little crew of guys that I do stuff with, indie guys, small fry dudes grinding it out in this modern version of a chittlin’ circuit, but guys like Common and Nas, those are real artists. And the people producing for them, those are superstars.” Now, that’s not to say that they aren’t; the producers who made Illmatic are definitely superstars, but mid-tier guys trying to get what they now call placements…

I always envied those guys. I would send stuff around, and you’re going back and forth with the manager. It turned out to be a lot more work than I thought it was going to be, and required a level of constitution that frankly I don’t know that I have. I can’t do 30 emails with no response. You get older and I just don’t have that in me to maybe get to a 31st email and then we’ll play a game for a bunch of weeks, and I’ll still never speak to the actual artists.

The irony of it is that I always thought those guys were the “real producers” and I was just making it up as I went along, and I didn’t know what I was doing. And then I talked to a few guys doing that, and it never dawned on me that guys in that world would look at what I do and would be jealous of my ability to exist as a solo artist. Like, “I wish I could just put stuff out, you think I want to just be working at the mercy of A&Rs and artists that I may not even really like.” After hearing that, it changed my perspective a bit. There’s guys I’d still love to work with musically, but I’ve got my own label that’s working fine for me. I can tour. It doesn’t keep me up at night that I haven’t broken into that. I still wish I could, and there’s guys I’d love to work with.

But it’s also impersonal in a way that I don’t want to do it. There’s a point in which, yeah, it’d be cool to be super-hot feature producer of the moment, to some degree. But even the term “placement” sounds like a business transaction. [laughs] It’s not art.

RJD2 “June (Remix) (feat Copywrite)” (The Horror, 2003)

RJD2: “June” was definitely a song people liked. I didn’t realize the benefit at the time of just having singles out that weren’t the same type of thing. Different tempos, moods, vibes. In hindsight, I realize in some ways it can make the listener feel like they found an Easter egg in a video game. “Wow, this thing is different. I liked ‘Good Times Roll,’ and this song ‘June’ is different, but I really like it.” That was not at all intentional, but I got lucky.

I pulled something off with “June” that I wasn’t entirely sure I could. It’s six minutes long, with a three-minute section with no rapping. I didn’t know if I could make something interesting to listen to. I tried to execute something similarly interesting when I did the remix.

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