Renowned Columbus DJ/producer/multi-instrumentalist samples phone calls with friends on excellent new album 'The Fun Ones'
In the past, when RJ Krohn set out to title the instrumental songs he created under the name RJD2, he would reach for phrases or ideas that seemed to encapsulate the mood of the tracks. But on just-released album The Fun Ones, Krohn embraced a new kind of freedom.
“The beauty of making instrumental music is you can name a song anything,” Krohn said recently via phone, explaining that the titles on The Fun Ones riff on experiences from his upbringing in Columbus. “Itch Ditch Mission” and “A Salute to Blood Bowl Legends” both reference local off-the-beaten-path skateboarding spots, while “High Street Will Never Die” and leadoff track “No Helmet Up Indianola” are callbacks to the north-south corridors the producer and multi-instrumentalist traversed in his youth.
“For the people of my generation, being on High Street was a thing, and there was some allure to the record shops and the seedy bars that you could get into at 15. High Street had some connotations after 10 p.m.,” said Krohn, now 43. “I grew up in the campus area, and I spent a huge portion of my summers riding my bicycle from there up to the Olympic pool without a helmet. So ‘No Helmet Up Indianola’ was how I moved around most of my summers.”
As the title suggests, The Fun Ones is a lively, supremely funky collection of songs that Krohn assembled during a time when he began thinking through a larger question: “Why am I still making music?”Why are we still making Alive? Good question. If it didn't exist, then we couldn't do the one thing we were put on this Earth to do: put out a daily newsletter
“It might sound like a very simple question, but for me there's a lot of layers to it,” said Krohn, who got his start in influential hip-hop group MHz, partnered with Blueprint in Soul Position and garnered national acclaim with 2002 RJD2 debut Deadringer (in addition to being the composer behind the “Mad Men” theme). “Music was the thing that I loved the most. It was the thing that I did the best. It was also the thing that was my best shot at any kind of job — I'm a college dropout. So from a cog-in-the-economy [perspective], it's the thing I'm most qualified to do. Because of all these factors, by the time I’m 28 or 29, I really didn't think about why I was making music.”
“Being an independent musician is a very much do or die proposition,” he continued. “Because of that, I had a number of different revenue streams that I tried to foster, and I've seen those go up and down and sideways over the last 20 years. The more you develop those things, the more choice you have. I could pursue touring more. I could pursue making records and making the label [RJ’s Electrical Connections] a little bit more successful. I can pursue licensing. I could pursue freelance stuff. I could pursue remixes. Those are all avenues I have at my disposal to earn a living. Building these components of your business up, the more freedom I had to allot my time to one or the other. Then you start to have a choice as to what you want to focus on. So technically speaking, I could choose to just never make a record again.”
The question got him thinking about some of his peers, and why they still make music. So Krohn called up some friends — Phonte Coleman, Kid Koala, J-Zone, Mr. Lif and Son Little/Aaron Livingston — and put it to them. “All these guys are between the ages of 35 and 45, and we all started making records in our late teens or early 20s. We've been doing it for long enough that, to me, once you're this far in, there's got to be a purpose beyond the fact that it’s your job,” he said.
Krohn recorded the conversations and began listening back to them, looking for ways to incorporate his friends’ thoughts into the funky batch of songs he’d written. “If this was 25 years ago, I would have just tried to take Richard Pryor and comedy record snippets and spoken word things and just bits and bobs of people speaking and scratched it into interludes and treat it like a mixtape. But I thought, well, what if I just made the samples myself?” he said. “The mindset of a guy using a sampler is, you're sitting around and waiting for the gold. In the same way that you go through 45-minute albums looking for six seconds of drum-break gold or spoken-word gold or whatever, that's how I went through these things, and then I literally just stuck it in Serato (music production software) and treated it like I was scratching a record. … I sat with these source materials and accessed the part of my brain that spent so long making mixtapes.”
Talking to fellow musicians about their own reasons for making art helped deepen Krohn’s understanding of the question he’d been asking himself. “Through having those conversations, I realized that not only does everybody have different answers, but everybody puts the question in a slightly different framework. There's not a right and a wrong framework. There isn't a hierarchy here. There are just different paradigms on which people understand that question,” he said. “For me, a big part of it is realizing that my time on Earth is limited, and I feel I have a responsibility to think about not only what am I going to leave behind, but what am I going to contribute to the world? And in many ways, I feel like music is the thing that I have the most reach with. If you remove all of the financial aspects of it, my best shot at benefiting humanity on the whole is through music.”
Of course, Krohn never thought he’d be releasing a long-in-the-works album — his first RJD2 record since 2016’s Dame Fortune — during a pandemic. While choosing to forge ahead with The Fun Ones, he briefly second-guessed the decision when speaking with a label rep at his distributor recently. “He was like, ‘I'm kind of glad that you wanted to stick with this release date, because everybody is pushing their record back. Nobody wants to put out a record in the middle of a pandemic, and they're all expecting things to be better at the end of the year,’” Krohn said. “When he said that I had this moment of panic where I was like, ‘Wait, am I doing something really stupid?’ The concept of pushing back my record never dawned on me. I just chugged forward, and I think that's probably an artifact of my state of mind in the music industry. You're just taking your punches and bobbing and weaving.”
In the end, releasing an RJD2 record felt like the right thing to do during this moment. “I feel good about putting something out at a time when people are stuck at home. Hopefully art is a refuge for them at times like this,” said Krohn, who still very much believes in the power of recorded music. “Leaving behind a documentation of a place and time, and having the historical document of a record being in the public domain — I am still totally enamored with that. I've been to some amazing concerts, but they don't hold a candle to the lasting impact that amazing records have on me.”