RJD2 Discusses His "More Is Than Isn't" Album, Fatherhood & Working With Phonte
Exclusive: RJD2 also updates fans on the progress of upcoming Soul Position and Icebird albums and explains how boredom & "Game Of Thrones" fit into his creative process.
While many artists look at their music catalog in a linear fashion, RJD2 instead takes the opportunity to conceptualize his own work based on progress rather than praise. At 37-years-old with over a dozen projects behind him, he’s created a number of critically-acclaimed albums, yet his pursuit will always be vested in musical growth and expansion, and that’s evident on his new album, More Is Than Isn’t.
HipHopDX spoke recently with the veteran producer, who describes the textual and sonic differences behind More Is Than Isn’t. RJD2 also goes into detail about dedicating a song to his son in “Dirty Hands,” as well as updates us on the progress of his collaborative projects with Blueprint and Aaron Livingston. We round out the conversation with a few “Game Of Thrones” references (it will all make sense in context), and the possibility of RJD2 making a full-length album with Phonte.
RJD2 Explains Sonic & Conceptual Changes On “More Is Than Isn’t”
HipHopDX: We spoke a few years back for HipHopDX. Obviously a lot has changed since we last spoke, no pun intended there. You had a son; congratulations on that.
RJD2: [Laughs]. Thank you.
DX: You also released the MHz Legacy album alongside some of your longtime crewmembers. In between then and now, what has changed for you since dropping The Abandoned Lullaby?
RJD2: Well there’s actually some logistic things as well. I’ve moved, so this record got recorded in a different space than the Icebird record and everything previous. So this record is the first thing I cut in my new space. This might sound like an unimportant distinction to make, but there’s an acoustic imprint that happens in a space. I believe Daniel Lanois had a thing about changing his studio every three to five years, because he felt like the space that he recorded in left a sonic fingerprint. And I found that to be true. For example, the drum sound on a lot of the record, if it sounds different it’s because it was recorded in a different physical space that has different dimensions, wood and so forth.
But aside from the logistics side of things, this is the first record that I’ve made in a while that’s probably the least cerebral. I was acting more in an intuitive space mentally than sort of a calculated space, if you will. A lot of the songs I was just kind of “doing.” I would just record, let the process happen and let it be what it really wanted to be. And even when it came to selecting songs for the album, it shook out in a manner in which there was a balance to it, but I didn’t feel a high priority to have a bunch of vocal tracks or a bunch of fast tracks or a bunch of slow tracks.
DX: That’s interesting. It’s sort of this open concept, and yet you have the three suites tying it all together from track one to track 16.
RJD2: Yeah. The idea of that came as soon as I had the chord change pitch that those three suites are based on. It was right then and there, even before I cut the first one; it was just one of these ideas that came to me. And I realized as soon as it popped into my head that it was completely feasible to take the same harmonic idea and pursue it in three different iterations. In essence, write the song three different times, or compose those instrumental suites in three different manners and see where they came out. In a way I kind of see them as one song, just three pieces in a way.
DX: That’s interesting, because I think I’ve read before that you’ve talked about how when you create new records, you feel that it’s more difficult to create a new record after that. Was that frustrating for you to go back and essentially take the same record and do it over three times?
RJD2: No, honestly, it was not frustrating at all. In fact, it was easy. I know this might sound like a contradiction of what I was saying before. My first intuitive reaction to that chord change, as soon as that chord change came about, was to try to do this suite thing. Often times what will happen is you’ll have an idea with a song. Sometimes it will be a chord change for example, like this. Or a harmonic idea, or it might just be a relationship of intervals. Often times what will happen is you’ll think, “This is really cool; I need to nail it. I need to get it right.” It was just one of those things of, you’re only going to do the song once. There’s only going to be one iteration of the song. It just kind of came to me. Well, I’ve never done this thing of, what if I didn’t have to do it once? What if I could pursue it in three different ways? To a degree, it sort of took the pressure off any particular one of them when it came to actually fleshing them out and recording them.
RJD2 Updates Progress On Soul Position & Icebird Projects
DX: You were talking about how you didn’t really go into this thinking about, “I’m going to have this many tracks that are instrumental, and I’m going to have this many tracks that have vocals.” But we do get to see you collaborate with some old and new faces on this new album. Tell me about working with Blueprint.
RJD2: As this record was happening, me and Al [Shepard] had been kicking around working on the next Soul Position record. We’ve actually done a fair amount of work. I’d say the two have probably crossed over at a point. Like I said, I was really just recording things and throwing them at people. Right now, technically I would say that the next Icebird record and the next Soul Position record both have a pretty decent head start on them. Because I would cut something and the first instinct would be, “Oh, this might be great for Al,” or, “This might be great for Aaron [Livingston].” And I would just send it to them.
With “It All Came to Me in a Dream,” I kind of knew right then and there, because textually it was working for the album. I think that I had a vague idea that I would like it to end up on my album, but a lot of tracks were getting thrown around. So when it came time to come back, that track got cut, and it just fit with the record. In terms of working with Blueprint, he’s always easy to work with, because he’s not a high maintenance dude. He’s real laid back. We get along great, so that makes it easy.
DX: Similarly, you worked with Aaron Livingston on this, which I thought was awesome because you’ve talked about how you definitely want to do a solo album, which you did. You also wanted to do an Icebird album as well as another Soul Position. It looks like you’re going to be doing all three of those very soon.
RJD2: Pretty much. Like I said, we’re probably farther into the Soul Position record than the Icebird record. I’m just kind of letting them happen as they may. But those are definitely my next two priorities.
Why RJD2 Calls Albums “A Documentation Of A Space & Time Of Life.”
DX: We get to hear you sing again on “Dirty Hands.” I feel I’m right in saying that it’s an ode to your son?
DX: You sing, “Caught between what I know / And what I still don’t understand / Little man has got my heart / In his dirty little hands.” It’s this awesome intimate moment that the listeners get to share with you. Tell me about making that record.
RJD2: My best foot forward is not my vocals—I know that. But this is one of those things where it just felt right, so I just went with it. In the context of the record, it felt like it worked. That line, part of it was about being a parent. It’s a hugely drastic learning curve. There’s so much that you really don’t understand about the stuff you’re doing as a parent. There’s things that you know, but everyday you’re dealing with something that’s a new experience, and you’re asking yourself, “How do you navigate this? How do I react to this?” So much of it is flying by the seat of your pants. So that was reflective in that line.
This might sound morbid, but to some degree a record is a documentation of a space and time of your life, and for whatever reason I felt like documenting it. To some degree the record is actually for him more so than it is for me or a listener. I understand that might sound self-indulgent, but fuck it [laughs]. And hopefully it’s not; hopefully there’s some universal appeal. I think one of the things that people appreciate about records that are directed at people personally, even if you can’t relate to the sentiment, I think that the sincerity behind it is something that can be relatable.
DX: Yeah. I know that you’re saying this is for him, but let’s say there’s a male fan and he has a kid as well. He could basically relate to it on that level.
RJD2: Yeah, hopefully. We’re sort of delving into the nature of more traditional songwriting, but this is a thing that I’ve found. In my opinion, it’s much easier for a songwriter to find universal appeal in something that is an exploration of something that is uniquely personal. Often times I’ll hear Pop songs on the radio, and I feel like they’re attempting to bring together something universally appealing or understandable, and they lack sincerity in a way. And you can hear that. It sounds like someone is trying to relate to you instead of someone that’s writing a song.
Often times songs that are deeply personal can become songs that are almost universally relatable depending on the subject. I hear all the time about how there’s kids who at one point and time 10 years ago, they were buying my first record, and now they’re grown up. They’re in their 30s and they have children. I hear it all the time. So hopefully there is some relatable element for the people that are in their 30s and have kids.
RJD2 Details His “Game Of Thrones” References
DX: I feel like there definitely is. Switching gears, musically, like you said, you were kind of open-ended with this album. We get a lot of thematic changes. We get some Funk, we get some Soul, and a little bit of Rock in there. Seeing all this come together in between each suite, that was really awesome.
RJD2: Thanks. To some degree, I felt like they grounded the record by bringing it back to a thematic idea, which will hopefully make it more tolerable. I do understand that for some people my record is all over the place.
DX: This is almost a personal question for me, but is the title “Winter Isn’t Coming,” is that a reference to “Game Of Thrones?”
RJD2: It is. It really is as simple as that. I think it was a quote if I remember correctly of something that was said in one of the episodes.
DX: I think you might have flipped it because the quote is…
RJD2: “Winter is coming.”
DX: I was like, okay, he’s playing off that idea here.
RJD2: Exactly. What I’ll do is keep basically a running tally of phrases that I find interesting, or for just some reason they’re intriguing, and I stick them in my phone. In the note section of my phone I’ve got probably 75 or 100 things that are just fragments of ideas. Often times they are just phrases that pique my interest, and I don’t know exactly why.
When I first heard the phrase, “Winter is coming”—when you extract that and look at it as a stand alone phrase—it’s straightforward, and it doesn’t hold much intrigue. It’s obvious. “Winter isn’t coming,” I feel like as a stand alone thing invokes a lot more intrigue to me. It’s a statement, but it’s also to some degree an answer to a question. And what is that question, you can sort of play this out in your head for fun and wonder, “Well, why isn’t winter coming?”
I know this might sound like just bullshit ramblings or idiotic musings from the dude that makes beats. I think part of the reason I gravitate toward these things is that there is this sort of sense of mystery and wonder to me surrounding both how I do what I do at its root. When it boils down to the most basic instinct, when I’m in the studio, curiosity is probably the most prevailing emotion I feel. And it’s a curiosity of coming back to the suites. What would happen if I take the same idea and try to write it three different ways? Virtually every time I start a song, curiosity is at the heart of it. Where is this going to go? I feel like I’m just as much a bystander as I am creator when a song comes together. I’m kind of just facilitating. In many ways I feel like I’m just there to make sure the inertia doesn’t stop.
DX: Speaking of curiosity, I’m curious to find out where the phrase More Is Than Isn’t came from.
RJD2: [Laughs] This is embarrassing, but it also comes from “Game Of Thrones.” The reason that that phrase became the title, the little girl, the Stark girl, I guess she’s orphaned at this point. What’s her name?
DX: You’re talking about the youngest one, right? The one that’s trying to pass as a boy…Arya?
RJD2: Yeah, she’s masquerading as a boy. The thing that she said, there’s a scene where she’s arguing with the ogre dude. The dude whose face is burned. What do they call him, Wolf? Or Ogre, or something like that? The Hound?
DX: Yeah, I know who you’re talking about.
RJD2: I’m terrible with names. You may have homework to do if you want to get this interview [laughs]. Anyways, she’s talking to [Sandor Clegane] in a cave, and it was a thing that she said as a response. They were debating about whether something was or it wasn’t, and she says, “More is than isn’t.” And it stuck with me. I felt like it was kind of coming back to this thing of mystery and curiosity, and I felt like it was the perfect phrase.
That phrase is not meant to describe the album. It’s meant to be something much more literal. It’s intended to be a phrase that is spoken to the listener right before listening to the album. And the reason why I felt like it worked well for the record is that it’s sort of an obvious contradiction in a way, because it’s questioning the absolutist nature of well, something is or something isn’t, and putting it in front of a spectrum as opposed to it being a black or white issue. I felt like this was an interesting headspace for me to try to put people into before they went and listened to this record. That was the goal.
RJD2 Says, “I’ve Moved Beyond Ranking My Albums.”
DX: A year ago, during of one of your infamous Reddit AMA’s, you did say [about] The Colossus, “There are things I achieved on that record that I never thought would have been possible 10 years ago, not in a million years.” Does that change now? Because you said The Colossus was your personal favorite album at the time. Does that change now with More Is Than Isn’t?
RJD2: It’s definitely changed, because in hindsight, I don’t feel like The Colossus is my best record. I’m not sure, but I might have moved beyond the thing of ranking my albums in a qualitative rating type of system. I’m starting to see records more as a snapshot of where one is in their progression as a composer, arranger, producer and an engineer. I can safely say that there’s songs on this record that I still get some slight amount of pleasure out of listening to, which I can’t say for some of my records.
I want to make it clear, and please make sure you print this part if you’re going to print the previous part. I’m always bored of listening to my records when they’re done. I’m not a good person to ask about my catalog, because as soon as the record is done, I am already starting to get bored of it. So when I go backwards into my catalog, in essence what it comes down to is just sheer volume. I’ve heard the songs on Deadringer more than I’ve heard anything in my catalog. As you move forward in my catalog, for obvious reasons, I have heard each progressive record less and less. And so I think that part of the reason that I’m not quite as bored of this record as I am about the others is because I haven’t had time to get sick of it.
DX: Just to recap, we’re going to be looking at a new Soul Position album. We’re going to be looking at a new Icebird album. But I give you this: Will we ever hear a RJD2 and Phonte collaborative album? I know he’s got a running partner with Nicolay, but could we see that happen?
RJD2: I get asked that all the time, I swear. Every time that we put something out I always hear chatter of like, “When are you guys going to do a record together?” And I’ve been telling that dude, I’ve been down. Since I’ve known that dude, I’ve been down to do it.
Outside of being a phenomenal singer and an incredible rapper, Phonte is super fucking funny. Like if he put time into pacing and delivery and all that, I think he could hang in the stand-up world in my opinion. He really is that funny. I’m off on a tangent here, but the reason I’m saying this is I’d love to make record where he could be rapping, he could be singing, he could be doing stand-up. I don’t give a fuck. He could read Dr. Seuss. I don’t give a shit. I’m down. Will that ever happen? I don’t know, I can’t answer that.