When Ramble Jon Krohn, better known as “RJ” or the beat-making nerd/longtime cratedigger who calls himself RJD2, moved to Philadelphia more than a decade ago, the eclectic producer, DJ and singer-songwriter settled on the City of Brotherly Love for a few reasons.
One was its proximity to New York City, a place he frequently had to visit early in his career while being signed to indie hip-hop label Definitive Jux (“Def Jux”) that was co-founded by El-P, the Brooklyn rapper, producer and entrepreneur now of Run the Jewels fame. Another was its cost-effectiveness, where “real estate was criminally undervalued,” he says.
By this point in time, Krohn, who was born in Eugene, Ore., and grew up in Columbus, Ohio, had already garnered a considerable amount of critical acclaim from his debut LP Deadringer and his 2004 follow-up Since We Last Spoke. Layering soul and R&B samples on top of classic hip-hop beats, his early work bordered on trip-hop, falling in line with what other prominent instrumental hip-hop producers like DJ Shadow were fashioning in the late 90’s.
But what the brains behind the theme song for the hit TV series “Mad Men” hadn’t realized is that the cultural underbelly of Philadelphia’s music scene fit perfectly for the type of music he had already been making before moving there.
“It ended up being an ideal place,” he says over the phone from his home in Columbus, where he moved back to last year after spending the last 10-plus years in Philadelphia.
“Even outside of the music being made there, Philly is an extremely musical city amongst the general population,” the 39-year-old continues.
Krohn returned to Ohio permanently so that he and his wife can raise their son around the rest of their family, but he had made quite a few connections, both business and personal, while living in Philadelphia, helping him lay the foundation for his later albums, including 2010’s The Colossus in 2010 and 2013’s More Is Than Isn’t, that he released on his record label RJ’s Electrical Connections.
One of those friendships that Krohn forged during his time in southeastern Pennsylvania was with Aaron Livingston, the Philly-based vocalist whose contributions on both aforementioned albums would eventually lead to him and Krohn forming a separate side project that they call Icebird (the indie-funk duo unveiled their debut release The Abandoned Lullaby in 2011).
On his sixth RJD2 album Dame Fortune that came out less than two weeks ago, Krohn taps back into that well, as Livingston, who goes by the stage name Son Little, drops some silky-smooth vocals on “We Come Alive”, an R&B-flavored tune with a catchy “diamonds flashing all in my eyes” hook you could even find on one of Gary Clark Jr.’s two most recent albums.
It’s the third straight RJD2 record that Krohn has collaborated with Livingston on, and it’s no secret at this point that the two of them have developed quite a chemistry working together in the studio. But Krohn also enlists the help of some other reoccurring guests on Dame Fortune, including rapper/R&B singer Phonte Coleman and Columbus emcee Blueprint, who RJD2 fans might remember for the hard-hitting rhymes he spits on the Deadringer cut “Final Frontier”.
“So much of it is pursuing curiosity,” Krohn explains about his approach to songwriting, “and curiosity at its core is what you know and what you don’t know — what you have experienced and what you haven’t experienced. The threshold defines one’s curiosity.”
Yet, the track on Dame Fortune that might embody the spirit of Philadelphia better than any other is the album’s first single “Peace of What”, which features vocalist Jordan Brown, who sang on Krohn’s collaborative album with Atlanta-born/Philly-bred rapper STS last year.
“(Philly) has a very working-class, blue-collar spirit to it,” Krohn says. “It really does feel like a fleshed-out city that has a very sophisticated musical history. I feel lucky that I landed there and spent so much time there.”
Part of what makes Philadelphia’s music scene so unique, Krohn says, is that unlike New York and Los Angeles, where young, up-and-coming artists often flock to in hopes of fulfilling their dreams, it breeds mostly homegrown talent.
“Nobody really moves to Philly to make it in the music industry,” he adds bluntly. “That just doesn’t happen.”
Of course, neither did Krohn, who heads off to California this weekend to play back-to-back gigs Friday at Teragram Ballroom in LA and Saturday at The Independent in San Francisco. He’s making sure to do things a little bit differently this time around, whether it’s concocting and constructing this spinning, wireless MPC remote to play onstage or adding sidekicks like bassist Khari Mateen and drummer Chuck Palmer to create the full live-band experience for this tour. There’s even the possibility of a guest vocalist making an appearance at the shows.
Krohn, nevertheless, is quite familiar with Palmer and Mateen, the latter of which he met in Philadelphia while living there. Both are good friends of his and have helped elevate his live show into something more dynamic than his typical solo performances.
“It allows us to do songs and get completely off the grid,” he offers.
While he’s getting off the grid at his gigs, Krohn doesn’t have all that much time these days to get on the grid when it comes to touring. With his family in Columbus, Krohn has had to limit his tours to a select few cities despite knowing full well that he could be playing shows every night of the week. It’s something that Krohn simply says he doesn’t want to be doing with his life right now.
But in an industry ultimately driven more by ticket sales than album streams, taking the road less traveled can seem like a dangerous one, especially for musicians who gained prominence in the CD age like Krohn did. Still, he isn’t worried about making ends meet, telling me at one point that “you just make it work.”
Whether that means producing new music, running his label or devising remixes like the one he did of Tycho’s “Apogee” last year, Krohn’s dedication to his craft remains as blue collar as Philadelphia’s music scene stands today. It just doesn’t allow for a whole lot of time to sleep.
“I’m living proof that the work never stops until your head hits the pillow,” he says.