Set Blasters To Sung

Originally published in the Stool Pigeon

Some people have it easier than others when it comes to career shifts. Take Paul Newman: one day he decides to make a salad dressing, the next there’s an entire aisle of your local supermarket dedicated to his balsamic vinaigrette. Or John Malkovich: one call to Larry the Agent and he’s a goddamn puppeteer. It’s that simple.

Unless you live in the decidedly less understanding world of hip hop, that is. Behold the sheer volume of flak foisted on DJ Shadow last year when he shined up his gold shit, twisted his cap off axis and started making records with hyphy mumble-bums like Turf Talk and Keak Da Sneak; marvel at the circle of spit that House Of Pain’s Everlast found himself in after picking up a guitar in 1998 and reinventing himself as wailing Whitey Ford (‘a mixed up cracker that moved over to country,’ to quote Eminem).

Stray too far from the beaten path and you can expect a beating of Biblical proportions – not that RJD2 seems concerned. Despite having gone from being one of the world’s most acclaimed hip hop producers to recording The Third Hand, a singer-songwriter LP of almost snowflake delicacy, Ohio’s Ramble John Krohn sounds virtually giddy with boyish excitement at the prospect of a change of scene.

“It’s hard to explain,” he says. “I don’t want to sound like I’m turning my nose up at things I did in the past – I’m extremely proud of all the rap records I made with the likes of Diverse, Cannibal Ox and Aesop Rock – but after a while it felt like I’d become part of a culture that was very much disposable and interchangeable. People were phoning me and saying things like: ‘We want to get you on a record with so and so, and we want to get Madlib to remix it, but if we can’t get Madlib then we’ll get this other guy… and so on. It got to the point where I felt like I was basically contributing to a background of white noise, and I didn’t want to do that anymore.”

It’s a resounding statement of intent from a man who only two years ago seemed to be suffering something of an identity crisis. Where his 2002 debut Deadringer had been outstanding cerebral hip hop from start to finish, its 2004 follow up, Since We Last Spoke, struggled to straddle a number of borders – hard rock, Latin funk, psychedelic balladry. The last time I saw him perform, RJ concluded a show in London by switching off the turntables, picking up an acoustic guitar and parking himself on the edge of the stage for a solo rendition of Making Days Longer (‘It’s nice to hear you say hello / And how are things with you? / I love you’). RJ looked slightly nervous; the audience seemed a little confused. With hindsight, it all makes a charming sort of sense.

RJD2: ready for a change of scene

“Looking back, Since We Last Spoke does feel rather like a transitional record,” he says. “I get bored pretty easily, and 20 years from now I’m sure I’ll look back on every album I ever made as a transitional record. But at the same time, although it sounds corny, I do feel like I got closer to finding my voice on The Third Hand.”

That voice, in case you were wondering, is a wistful and whispery approximation of Elliot Smith’s, especially on tunes like Someday; one and a half minutes of balletic rumination on the benefits of marriage. It’s hardly what you’d expect from a man who once turned dance floors into dark matter with The Horror, or dropped beats rough enough for Jakki Da Motamouth to set the world to rights on FHH (‘Some got the nerve to say they dope when they spit / When even they family got a tape and they won’t open the shit’). Is RJ worried about alienating his hip hop fan base?

“You’ll always end up pissing off some people eventually – either because you’re trying something new or rehashing the same stuff over and over. Ultimately, I couldn’t possibly keep releasing the same record without feeling like I was going through the motions. Whatever you do, it has to be something you’re passionate about, and I think that doing a half-assed version of Deadringer at this stage would have been more of an insult to the fans than making a record that some of them may hate, but that I’m 100% into.”