Since the start of his career in 1993, the list of artists and labels that Ramble John Krohn, aka RJD2, has collaborated with is one that inspires envy among his fellow artists and producers. And with multiple albums released on well-regarded labels including Definitive Jux and XL, Krohn has secured himself a place among electronic music's elite. It's also provided him the freedom to create his own label and take full creative control of his music. His much-anticipated new release, The Colossus, due out on Jan. 19 on RJ's Electrical Connections, allows him to avoid the confusion of trying to coordinate a record under the guidelines of outside interference.
"What I would liken it to," he says during a delay at Philadelphia International Airport, "is kind of how, you know, if you go out to eat dinner by yourself, you don't have to have the entire conversation, like, ‘Well, what do you feel like eating?' ‘Oh, I'm kind of in the mood for Chinese, but I don't really know. What do you want?' And all that kind of dialogue that can happen when you have to integrate the decisions with someone else."
Born in Eugene, Ore.—not necessarily a hotbed of electronic music—Krohn was raised in Columbus, Ohio. His nickname came from a friend who referred to him by the alias in his raps; the name stuck as he became immersed in hip-hop battle culture. He was signed to Definitive Jux in the early '00s, a prosperous time for affiliated alternative hip-hop artists like El-P and Aesop Rock. Since then, Krohn has released three full-length albums, a series of instrumental discs, mixtapes, EPs, and singles, and has collaborated with or produced work for MF Doom, Soul Position, and Diplo. While his first ventures in recording included mostly small scale DJing and mixtapes, Krohn now largely chooses live instrumentation over popular software-produced samples. He contributed a short edit of his instrumental track "A Beautiful Mine" as the theme song for A&E's critically acclaimed series Mad Men.
While he enjoys the benefits of being in complete control over the release of The Colossus, Krohn says he's happy to return to his roots of collaborating with multiple musicians, a method that he abandoned for his 2007 album The Third Hand, which he recorded entirely solo. But he also had to face the typical challenges that accompany working with an eclectic group of artists and collaborators on the new disc.
"Coming off of The Third Hand, it was a change of pace for me to do a collaborative record," he says. "I mean, it's a challenge because of coming off of The Third Hand methodology of seeing how far I could get on my own, because when you collaborate sometimes you have to jump through hoops for certain individuals. I'm the kind of person who, if I make an appointment with a plumber, and he doesn't show up, I'm just as likely to go on the Internet and buy a ratchet set and do it myself. Because I'm really impatient like that."
On his new album, Krohn's unique version of vintage-inspired, heavily instrumental electronic music includes contributions from well-known artists such as the Grammy-nominated experimental electronica artist Kenna. But Colossus also features tracks that include Krohn performing a majority of the vocals, a trick that's helped him avoid the trap of repetitiveness.
"It's tough," he says. "I mean, I still feel like, at times there's only so much you can do. That's why, on The Third Hand, I approached things differently because I felt that my music was becoming repetitive. I don't want to keep doing the same thing over and over, but it's really hard not to. I guess a way that I avoid getting into those ruts is to work at different tempos and basically just keep challenging myself. I want to see if I can do something that doesn't sound at all like anything else."
Krohn took a handful of instrument lessons growing up, which contributed to his understanding of music theory and prodded him to include live instruments in his work. But he's far from a perfectionist as a player.
"I took piano lessons as a kid and guitar lessons," he says. "Then I got into playing drums and percussion. But then I got into records and sampling and collecting records, hip-hop production and all of that kind of stuff. For what I need to do, for what I want to do, which is make good records, recording is my highest priority. And it doesn't matter how consistent I am as a player. If it takes me five takes, basically if I'm kind of sloppy, it's no big deal because all I want to do is write good songs and the studio is there."
With The Colossus, it's clear that the studio has become a haven for Krohn to exercise his creative control and deliver a record that is anything but repetitive.
"I feel like musicians have things that kind of appeal to them," he says. "You know, there are certain aesthetics when it comes to certain rhythms and grooves or chord progressions or melodies. With all those things that I named, I don't feel like I'm very versatile. I think it's very, very difficult to truly be versatile in all of those fields. But one of the things that I can control is putting out different fields of songs on a record and putting wildly contrasting songs next to each other and I feel like I've done that with this record."