He pulls records out like rabbits. Flipping back and forth from the pounding thrash of rock-inspired beats to the seductive slick of funk and soul at Halifax’s Paragon Theatre, RJD2 is the night’s magician.
“I’ve got treats for your eyeballs and your earholes,” his voice booms, as he launches into one of his most recognizable songs, “A Beautiful Mine”. We’re in a trance. We’re chanting. We can’t get enough of it. Our arms are outstretched, fingers flailing wildly in the air.
Concertgoers are violently jostled into blunt, black security railings, the metal thrust into stomachs and clanging against legs. It’s painful to be there. One girl, supported by the crowd, rides the wave of hands and abruptly tumbles on stage. Security tells her to get lost. Another girl has her head stomped on, a crowd surfer’s brown boot pressing down into her skull. The room glows red, then off-white again; neon green dots litter the stage.
And RJ continues to play, tinkering with the turntables as if they were the most delicate silk, unaware of the effect he’s having.
“ARRRRRRRE-JAAAAY, ARRRRRRRE JAAAAAAY!” The crowd is stuck on repeat.
But the confidence that Ramble “RJD2” John Krohn has on stage is markedly different from his offstage persona. He is soft-spoken and self-deprecating, fiddling with earplugs as he speaks. “I wouldn’t exactly call myself famous,” he mumbles.
The contrast is jarring: there’s an expectation that he’ll be larger than life and intimidating. After all, this is one of the most sought-after producers in hip-hop, a guy whose song was chosen as the theme song of AMC’s Mad Men, one of the most popular TV shows on air.
But he never even intended to be a DJ.
“I just kinda fell into it,” RJ shrugs. “A friend of mine was selling his turntables, as well as his record collection, and it was a really good opportunity.”
He had an nontraditional musical childhood. He collected records ever since he was a child, when his mother turned him onto musicians such as Kraftwerk and Philip Glass—“avant garde neoclassical stuff like that. But I brought home a lot of that 80’s pop stuff: Michael Jackson, Prince.”
From there, Krohn got his start in hip-hop as the DJ/producer for the Ohio-based group Megahertz. From there, he signed to the record label Fondle ‘Em before moving to Definitive Jux. In 2002, RJ released his first full-length album, Deadringer, to much critical acclaim. Since then, he has released three other LPs, his most recent being The Colossus.
But he’s not just all about hip-hop. His sound transcends genre. His Halifax show, for example, begins with moody violins undercut by rapid succession drum fire, switching to jarring skittish chip-tune intermingled with classic hits like the Cars’ 80s party anthem, “Let the Good Times Roll”. And for the college crowd, he even throws in some dubstep, just for good measure.
“When you’re making sample-based music, you’re at the whim (of) whatever’s in front of you,” he says. “There’s great balladry in soul music. But it includes everything from rap music to soundtrack music, heavy metal…”
He continues. It’s hard to pin him down. He rambles sometimes.
“…I’d like to think that (my music) borrows from enough genres that there’s no point in bothering to mention them all,” he says. “But by and large, it is rooted in a hip-hop aesthetic, because that’s the world that I came out of.”
He’s even started his own record label, RJ’s Electrical Connections, which has reissued his previous albums. The decision to break out on his own was prompted in part by Krohn’s desire to be the owner of his own master recordings. An ownership, he feels, is something you can’t put a price on.
“I find it rewarding,” he laughs. “But, it’s like when you ask parents if having a kid is fun. I guess the answer is no, but your definition of fun changes. But I’m confident that I made the right decision.”
He fiddles again with his earplugs.
He snakes and skitters through a wide musical canon, but he never stays too long in one place. With a single push of a button, bodies tremble. The bass weighs heavy, each deep note hitting like an earthquake. He’s got us right where he wants us. We’re prolonging the inevitability of the end, when the music will stop, when we’ll be ushered into the cold, into treks home or into cabs.
“I’m running out of record thingamajiggies,” he jokes. “As (my record collection) gets smaller, they get funkier.”
The music stops. There’s cheering. Then pleading. Then, coyly, Krahn emerges from back stage.
“I guess I got one more tiny little thing…”