This past May, I had the opportunity to see RJD2 live at my school, Williams College. It was an intense day for me, having played in a huge Rugby game earlier and having had my head shaved in the tradition of hazing rookie bit
ches. So, this eventful day seemed to be the perfect venue for my first hip hop show. In middle school I had laughed at rap and hip-hop as a simple, boring genre, and even after I got into it in my senior year of high school, I never was willing to shell out money to go to a show, preferring the communities of hardcore kids and mosh pits. I loved the intensity and comradery at every show, and couldn't see that existing at a hip hop show. There was no traditional instrumentation (excepting somebody like Heiruspecs), so how could the artist, especially an instrumental hip hop artist like RJD2, manipulate some kind of musical device for emotional and aesthetic output quite like a dude shredding it up on guitar. Was there some unique quality of hip hop that comes across in the live setting? Am I too white to understand the beauty of a live beat?
Yes, and, sort of. RJD2 spun like a mad scientist. The look of concentration on his face and tight orchestration of his set were amazing to watch. He had a synced video and his whole set was on a special time sequence that he improvised inside of, all through sampling. He takes something so outdated and synthetic and reformed it right in front of me, which was that X factor I had yet to pick up from hip hop. He rephrased what seemed tired and played out on its own in something palatable and interesting. It's this building of a song that was revealed to me that night and I immediately relistened to all my hip hop to try to hear that unique quality in a different, "enlightened" way.
stands out to me. Whereas the unofficial king of sampled hip hop, DJ Shadow, creates songs that are dark, mysterious, and organic, RJD2's are bright, jangly, and just plain old fun. Sure, there are dark elements to RJD2's album, but in general his talent for happier tones complement his record collection of funk, r&b, and jazz classics. His albums have more loud trumpets and dominant seventh chords on top of the beat than a DJ Shadow who prefers to be slinky and elusive with smooth sax or minor seventh chords. Fundamentally, the beats are standard and a nice backbone, but where the music excels is in this unique mode, which stands out in the usually dark world of sampled hip hop. RJD2 is not an imitator, but a bellwether.
Specifically, I can't get enough of the moments of guitar. Being a guitarist myself, I really appreciated the variety of guitar chosen. On the first real track, "The Horror," the guitar isn't too overdone and is used only for effect. A little major 2nd lick with a slight wah on the pedal propels the song with a nice variety. The pretty harmonics played on "Final Frontier" play an important part in linking the percussion and melody, while just sounding plain old cool. The beachy, almost bossa nova guitar that founds "Ghostwriter" introduces chromatic harmonies but allow room for a plain diatonic melody line with the singer and horn section during the crescendo of the song. And while on the subject of horns, those are well chosen too. They remind me of listening to oldies radio with my mom as a young kid. They are fun, and well suited to the general mood of the CD. That mood, like I mentioned earlier, though bright and happy, does allow room for the darker elements of trip hop to seep in through the cracks. "The Proxy" and "F.H.H." definitely have their eerier moments, but those are more in the spirit of balance than ambience. RJD2 even samples goofy little scare tracks to bring levity to songs that would otherwise be mildly oppressive in their traditional darkness.
There is enough balance, dedication to craft, and plain old fun to make Dead Ringer
a solid outing for hip hop fans old and young. To end, I'd like to quote the album to sum up the general mood and tone of the album, perfectly stated on "F.H.H." by guest emcee Jakki. "So what the fuc
k is your definition of underground? / Depressing beats and bleak cats who love the sound."