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Out of the Shadows

'Deadringer' sounds the alarm for Def Jux maestro RJD2

By Mosi Reeves

RJD2, WHO is currently all the rage in underground hip-hop circles, is an unlikely candidate for producer of the moment. The Columbus, Ohio, resident didn't start making beats until five years ago, and it wasn't until he signed with Definitive Jux--the red-hot record-company brainchild of producer/rapper El-P--that RJD2 began to attract serious attention for his compositions like "Rain" and "June." His success, then, is partly a product of the hype surrounding the dominant independent label in hip-hop. To be fair, though, RJD2 is talented, and underground heads didn't just jock his Deadringer harder than DJ Shadow's equally vaunted The Private Press this summer because it came out on Definitive Jux.

RJD2 makes tracks that are earthy and whimsical. He usually relies on '60s- and '70s-era soul, jazz and rock breaks, using them to build rollicking tracks like "Take da Picture Off," with its funky, syncopated horn section, and "Let the Good Times Roll," a piano-led romp that channels the spirit of Cannonball Adderley.

Girding Dead Ringer is a punchy emotional center that manifests itself in song titles like "A Shot in the Dark" and "2 More Dead." "Chicken-Bone Circuit," the most emotionally complex song on Deadringer, bustles with rattling cymbals and unpredictable time signatures as a sampled violin menacingly undercuts the tapestry.

RJD2's relative accessibility is demonstrated with three collaborations with MCs. One of them, "F.H.H." (an abbreviation for "fuck hip-hop"), features a combative lyric from Jakki the Motormouth that sums up many an indie-rap fan's feeling about the "abstract" epithet that has plagued the underground scene for years. "I'm the part of the underground that only feels the raw shit / And I can take a nigga regardless / You can bring your hardest artist, and I'll make them heartless," he says.

While Deadringer appears at first to be a dead ringer for a classic instrumental hip-hop album, in fact it is an artistic compromise between the left-field recordings that artists like the aforementioned Shadow, DJ Krush and Coldcut have been making for years and the all-star compilations assembled by popular beat makers like Funkmaster Flex and J. Rawls.

Most of RJD2's production tricks (polyrhythmic drums; irony-laden vocal samples culled from films, obscure records and TV shows) will be familiar to anyone who has followed the former camp. But Dead Ringer always comes off as an earnest, if exciting, hip-hop record. There are no accidental detours into uncharted genres, save for a key moment on "Chicken-Bone Circuit" when a blaring horn sounds off while two girls complain about their musician boyfriends. Meanwhile, although they make up only three out of the 15 songs on Deadringer, the rappers' contributions seem to reflect RJD2's true voice, that of an open-minded producer who nevertheless contextualizes his sonic adventures into a raw, caustic worldview.

This partly explains why Deadringer sounds unfinished, despite a handful of memorable songs like "Chicken-Bone Circuit" and "F.H.H." RJD2 is an adept producer; he layers his songs with samples that reveal themselves over repeated listens while piecing them together into a harmonious whole. But his vision is limited. It can be stultifyling at times, as when he follows up the minute-long fusion-rock journey "The Proxy" with the monotonous foreboding of "2 More Dead."

Then again, some of hip-hop's best-loved innovators perfected their signature sounds through repetition and intolerance. Stealing from equal parts Timbaland and Steely Dan, the Neptunes have cranked out samey club anthems for years while subtly achieving new heights in melody and drum patterning. Concurrently, DJ Premier of Gang Starr will always be known as the king of head-ringing, chopped-up loops, although he's used that formula to make a stunningly varied discography. RJD2 hasn't joined that much-admired beat club just yet, but Deadringer proves he has the same sense of tunnel vision.


RJD2 appears on Thursday (Oct. 3) at the Great American Music Hall, 859 O'Farrell St., San Francisco. Tickets are $18.


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From the September 26-October 2, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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