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…
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: 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.