RJD2 Explains How He Builds Songs From Scraps

Oct 12, 2013
Originally published on October 12, 2013 2:19 pm

RJ Krohn, better known as the artist RJD2, has been making original electronic music for 15 years. He has a signature style, in which he layers together snippets of soulful melodies and hard-driving beats to create cinematic arrangements. (If you watch Mad Men, you've heard him do just that in his theme for the opening credits.)

Even for a music scholar, the exact process involved in making sample-based music can be a little obscure. So, Weekend Edition Saturday asked Krohn for a walkthrough of one of his own songs.

"Her Majesty's Socialist Request," the energetic single from RJD2's new album, More Is Than Isn't, doesn't sound much like a 12-bar blues — but Krohn says that's where his thought process started.

"For me, the home-run scenario when working with samples is to take a passage of music that has very, very little merit or value on its own, deconstructing it and rebuilding it into something that does have merit," Krohn says. "The ghost that I am chasing is that."

Hear Krohn's full breakdown of "Her Majesty's Socialist Request," including cameos from some songs you might recognize, at the audio link.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.



Even if you don't know RJD2 by name, there's a good chance you've heard his music.


SIMON: His song, "A Beautiful Mind" begins every episode of the TV show "Mad Men." RJD2, who was born Ramble John Krohn is a collage artist of sorts who weaves together snippets of found sounds, synthesized licks and just plain old acoustic music into tightly crafted pop songs. For a peak behind his artistic curtain, we had him walk us through the process of building the song, "Her Majesty's Socialist Request." That's from his new album, "More Is Than Isn't."

He said it began with old-fashioned blues.


RAMBLE JOHN KROHN: Think of your favorite tune by, you know, someone like B.B. King.


BB KING: (Playing)

KROHN: It has a feel that's semi woe-is-me, but not entirely down trodden. It's kind of a hard thing to describe. I was listening to a song at one point in time and it was sort of a bluesy tune. Your typical 12-bar blues will be dominant chords like one-four-five. I heard a song, a 12-bar blues tune that used a passing chord that was a flatted two chord.


KROHN: It's the kind of thing where you might hear in a Deep Purple song or something like that. And the song's happy, happy, happy, happy, happy, and then there's one passing chord that's, like, whoa. That's a little - you're getting serious here, you know, for just a moment, and the thought in my head was what if you did that all the time for the whole song.


KROHN: So this 12-bar blues idea that I just had stuck in the back of my head that didn't really know how to execute. That was kernel A, and I would say kernel B was an essence of drum pattern. I can walk you through the stages in which the drums on this song came together and so I think the first thing to play would be just the raw material of the drum passage as it was found on an LP.


KROHN: So the next step in that situation would be to start deconstructing that into smaller pieces, pieces that can be used to either fill in gaps or give things a feel or a swing that they didn't have originally on the recording. Now we have all of these pieces broken down and we can put them back together and play them in a manner that doesn't resemble in any way the original sound source.


KROHN: Progressively, from this stage out, the process, in my opinion, gets easier because you've got a certain amount of inertia already rolling on this thing. Something's happening. The next step that got added into that was another sound that got taken apart note by note, but this time it was not a percussion thing, it was a flute thing.

When I had gotten that far into the song, a lot of the song was feeling very angular and digital in ways. You know, it felt processed. So it was a natural instinct for me to put something in there that would contrast that, the sort of piano bluesy-like thing was, you know, old style, just analog. I've got a Yamaha electric piano.


KROHN: And so to close out this song, there was this recording of - it was an instructional record about how to be a door-to-door salesman. For me, the home run is to take a passage of music that has very, very little merit or value on its own, deconstructing it and rebuilding it into something that does have merit. The ghost that I am chasing is that.


SIMON: RJ Krohn speaking with us from member station WHYY in Philadelphia. His new album is "More Is Than Isn't."


SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.