RJD2 Breaks Down Musical Approach To Icebird Album, Considers Another Soul Position Album
Exclusive: Ten years after the MHz started making national noise, RJD2 breaks down his project with Aaron Livingston, and how he feels about sampling, after some varying approaches.
If you’ve followed RJD2’s career path since his Definitive Jux days, it’s clear that he’s the type of musical architect that works beyond the confines of a label, figuratively and literally. Launching his own label RJ’s Electrical Connection in 2009, he’s already released three full-length projects in the last two years, the latest being with Icebird, a duo comprised of him and Philadelphian singer-songwriter Aaron Livingston.
Their debut album The Abandoned Lullaby is an exploration of the senses, with RJ’s layered production of live instruments acting as a driving force behind Livingston’s stark, animated vocals. As it goes without saying, it’s nothing like you’ve ever heard from him before.
Last Friday (October 7) HipHopDX spoke with RJD2 about his newly-founded connection with Aaron Livingston, what this latest album means to him, and what people can expect to hear in the near future.
HipHopDX: Before we jump into talking about the new project, I actually wanted to first discuss the cover art. Ever since Deadringer your covers have acted as vivid portraits, almost narratives in their own right. I sort of see this one as some semblance of Noah’s Ark but from a child’s perspective. What’s being said here on the cover of The Abandoned Lullaby?
RJD2: Well, the truest answer to that question is that there’s an aesthetic about it that felt right to both of us. It was the right option for reasons I could try to explain but it may not necessarily be the…Sometimes something just fits right and feels right. We had the title The Abandoned Lullaby in place, so like you said it has kind of an innocence to it that matches well with the title. In addition to that it had animals on it which I felt was a good tie-in with the name of the group.
DX: Did somebody draw that for you or did you do it yourselves?
RJD2: All of the art on the album was done by a guy named Caleb Neelon who’s a Boston-[based] artist. He had done a show in [Philadelphia] a few years ago at this place called Space 1026 and I had bought a couple paintings from him. I really liked his style, and for some reason I felt it would be a decent fit when we were looking for cover art so we went through his repertoire of paintings and we found stuff that worked for the album.
As an aside, kind of an interesting tidbit here, the name Icebird was sort of a modification of the term "Iceberg." And initially the image that came to mind for Icebird was a bird that lives on the ice. Like a big-ass albatross that’s super-heavy duty tough. Later we found that an ‘Icebird’ is a ship that breaks up ice in the arctic. So it was kind of a weird coincidence that we chose Icebird as our group name and picked a cover with a ship without even being aware that Icebird is a term for a ship.
DX: Now, if I’m correct this project began around the same time The Colossus was being finished with you and Aaron Livingston collaborating on “Crumbs Off The Table.” You worked with several artists on The Colossus, so I reckon there was a distinct synergy between you two that prompted a full-length project together, yeah?
RJD2: Yeah, yeah. I definitely felt like there was more to be said there. Including “Crumbs Off The Table,” there were two tunes that I had written that were more hired-gun style for Aaron [Livingston]. When I first linked up with him I wanted to be in a scenario where we were collaboratively writing and that’s not exactly how it turned out. I felt like there was more to say there, so we explored it more.
DX: In the past you have worked on collaborative albums with just strictly one-artist one-producer, such as Aceyalone and Blueprint. How did this differ working with a singer as opposed to a rapper?
RJD2: Well, it primarily differed in two ways. One, with Aaron being a singer and having a pretty wide palate of styles of music that he’s interested in and able to do, it really opened up a lot of doors to do ballads or weird synthy things, or hard rock things. There were no real boundaries that I had for the instrumental side when I would write for him. The other way that it differed was at times I would end up in a real producer role in the vocal takes instead of just sending away a track and getting it back in the mail.
DX: You mentioned you guys having the ability to have more space to work with in terms of musical creativity. I got a chance to listen to the album and I would say that’s very true. One track that really stuck out to me was “Gun For Hire.” It’s very thematic. You got Aaron’s elaborative chants about the “good dying young,” and then it takes this rock-out turn with drums pounding and a guitar stinging you with every lick. Was that you behind the guitar?
RJD2: Yeah, I played all the parts on that record.
DX: That was awesome.
RJD2: Thank you.
DX: That must have also been fun to perform in studio.
RJD2: [Laughs] Well that was basically one of those records where I wrote the instrumental and Aaron wrote the lyrics and then we demoed it up. Then I cut it; all the guitars and drums were cut at one time by myself. Then I was able to just focus on Aaron’s vocals when we were cutting them in the studio. But yeah, it was a blast doing that song. It’s arguably one of my favorites on the new album and I am really happy with the outcome of it.
DX: Another track I really enjoyed was “Wander.” True to the title, the beat gives off this meandering vibe and the emotion in Aaron’s voice is palpable. I read that you guys actually worked separately before you went in to record it. It’s kind of amazing to see that come together.
RJD2: Yeah, and that is one of the things that I felt was critical about the quality of the record. Not to speak cruelly of the format of making rap records, but the bottom line is that when you’re making rap records, one thing people don’t generally do is demo a song. Ninety-five percent of the time the first time that vocals go down to tape, that’s it as far as the writing and execution of the song.
One of the things that I felt was hugely beneficial with this record was that Aaron would demo the vocals, and then we would sync it down on tape with placeholders. Sometimes those placeholders were so good that they would stay exactly as they were, but there would also be room for improvement. It gave us a chance to kind of take a different perspective at it. I got a chance to look at it and say, “Hey, maybe there’s space for a counter-melody here, maybe we put harmonies on this part.” So on and so forth. In my opinion, that made a huge difference with the end product because it was like polishing a stone. You’re just honing it until it’s as a good as it can be.
DX: And with you guys working separately at first and then coming together to, like you said, polish the stone, is there a certain theme behind this album?
RJD2: I can’t say that there is a theme in any traditional sense. There is a mission statement that applies to both the instrumental side of the record and the lyrics/vocal side of the record, and that is a complete disregard for any kind of dogma. So for my side, the production side, what that means is every song starts and ends with me looking for something that’s exciting sonically. I’m less concerned with the dogma of any particular genre or style or format or instrument as I am just finding something that sounds exciting to me. And for Aaron, I’d say the same thing. What we both hold in higher regard than anything is something that feels right. Something that feels fun and exciting. You can sort out whether it makes sense or not later. That’s kind of our attitude about it.
DX: I know it’s difficult for an artist to say one record is singularly better than another on their album, but is there one track on The Abandoned Lullaby that sort of sticks out to you, whether because of a memorable recording session or how it was created?
RJD2: “Gun For Hire” is a really special record to me, as well as “King Tut.” I’m proud of the entire album, but “King Tut” is one of these tunes that that has a lot of little facets and aspects that I’m really excited about. I still get excited about it.
DX: Was there much sampling on The Abandoned Lullaby? I’m guessing not since there’s a lot of live instrumentation implemented.
RJD2: It is mostly live, but there is a little bit here and there like on “Charmed Life” and “Find Yourself.” On “The Return Of Tronson” a sequence of a lot of the sounds and stuff came from a modular synthesizer and then got sampled. But you’re right, a good majority of it is live instrumentation.
DX: You’ve sort of gone back and forth when it comes to sampling. At the beginning of your career it was mostly sampling, then with The Third Hand you started working in live instrumentation. The Colossus was a mix of both, and The Abandoned Lullaby moves toward live instrumentation again. Would you say sampling is something you’re moving away from or is it something you’re not necessarily getting into as much at this point in your career?
RJD2: This kind of comes back to the mission statement earlier and approaching things with a dogmatic mind state. I’m not for or against it in primitive language. I’m not trying to avoid it, and I’m not trying to do it. It’s a tool I see that can be picked up and used when it’s appropriate and not used when it’s not appropriate.
DX: I’m surprised we didn’t get to hear The Insane Warrior on The Abandoned Lullaby. [Laughs]
RJD2: [Laughs] I guess in spirit there’s some…[Laughs] You just blew my mind, that’s great. Having a feature of an alter ego on my own record, that’s fucking genius. I gotta do that.
DX: Yeah, pull an MF DOOM.
RJD2: Yeah, I love it. If I need a feature, I guess I should call him.
DX: We Are The Doorways was inspired by horror and sci-fi movies. Has scoring a film ever been an interest of yours?
RJD2: Absolutely, but for whatever reason it’s never really come together for me. I’ve gotten pitched it a couple times here and there. It’s not something I’m actively pursuing, and I don’t think that helps. It’s something I’d love to do but I’m not dropping everything to try to make that happen. I’m running a label and making records that I want and having a blast just being a recording artist. If someone comes in with a solid budget and wants to hire me for a film, I would love to do that. With that said, I’m not gonna take three months out of my life to try to go and make that work because I’ve got other stuff I want to be doing.
DX: Over the last decade you’ve covered a lot of ground as far as musical creativity goes. What is RJD2’s next move? Is that something that’s still unwritten or have you already calculated the next phase?
RJD2: Still unwritten, no idea.
DX: As far as collaborations, will you be working with rappers or are you moving toward working with singer-songwriters?
RJD2: There’s three things that I can virtually guarantee you on the next project. It’s either gonna be a solo RJD2 record, a Soul Position record or another Icebird record. And in terms of priorities, all three of those I want to make happen. I haven’t really thought much about putting them in order. It might just naturally happen organically but all three of those I want to happen eventually.