Looking Past Hip-Hop: RJD2 and Nobody
One night a few years ago I was zipping through the traffic maze of Los Angeles, on my way to meet the producer Nobody on the occasion of his just-released debut album, Soulmates. He had given me very vague directions, and so the signal strength of KXLU, where he was doing his weekly radio show, helped guide my path. As the static cleared, I grew more confused: what was he playing? Rather than the Project Blowed-style MC free-for-all I had expected, the show droned with a steady stream of folksy, psychedelic pop tunes and soundtrack snippets. A garage-y Flaming Youth track – featuring Phil Collins on drums, for those keeping score – gave way to ’60s bands like the Byrds, the noisy, wall-of-keyboard duo Silver Apples and the blissful West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, with no apologies to anyone (like myself) expecting glimpses of Nobody’s work as one of Los Angeles’most intriguing hip-hop producers. When I finally arrived and rifled through the records from his show, I realized he was probably the first hip-hop producer I had met who lamented the demise of the once-great shoegazers Ride–and aspired to produce Oasis.
Around the mid ’90s, a new trope emerged in hip-hop: the producer-as-auteur. Up until then, producers ‘and DJs’moments of glory had been limited to that one, often weird track given them at the end of most ’80s rap albums – cut-and-paste classics like Jazzy Jeff’s “A Touch of Jazz” and DJ Premier’s “Deep Concentration” had suggested just how excellent these token gestures could sound. But DJ Shadow’s masterful 1996 debut, Endtroducing, turned these collages into a full-blown genre–the album has become shorthand for describing anything that (1) has a beat but (2) lacks rhymes. The unfortunate consequence of this was that every instrumentalist thereafter was lumped into a nebulous “post-Shadow” category, even if the records sounded nothing alike.
One example is Nobody, whose albums have each drifted further away from anything resembling hip-hop, despite their obvious debt to the genre’s methods. Released in 2000, Nobody’s Soulmates offered a glimpse into the more laidback moments of life in Southern California: nothing to do, random drives through the desert, neighborhoods senselessly jigsawed alongside each other. Broken-down strums, pulsing sitars and windswept strings dissolved into quiet on “Green Means” and “Monotone”; elsewhere, otherworldly rappers like 2Mex (the excellent “Shades of Orange”) and Freestyle Fellowship ran wind-sprints against the beat. By the time of Nobody’s second record, Pacific Drift: Western Water Music Vol. 1, with its aqueous cover version of the Monkees’great “Porpoise Song,” it was clear that he was on his own trip.
Last year, Nobody collaborated with Mystic Chords of Memory for the brilliant and sublime Tree Colored See. Mystic Chords of Memory – the phrase is originally Abraham Lincoln’s; this seems like as good a time as any to lament the decline of Presidential eloquence – originated as an off-shoot of Southern Californian folkies Beachwood Sparks. On Tree Colored See they seem to have found their perfect complement: Nobody drapes Christopher and Jennifer Lee Gunst’s child-like, possibility-rich coos with gauzy and meticulous instrumentation, from the campfire strums, worm-like pacing and finger-snaps of “The Seed” to the gentle seesaw of “Broaden a New Sound” and the golden swing of “Coyote’s Song.” A version of the Beach Boys’”That’s Not Me” highlights the Do It Again compilation, with Nobody melting synth lines over a Timbaland-lite rhythm track and Gunst’s falsetto whispers eking out the song’s subtle drama. The problem with most hip-hop instrumentalists is that they’re more satisfied with layers and textures than making complete songs. Here – and on a companion EP, which features Devendra Banhardt’s gorgeous “La Semilla,” an acoustic version of “The Seed” – Nobody’s companions shade in his wonderful ideas.
In the early 2000s, Philadelphia-by-way-of-Ohio producer RJD2 stood out as that one member of the Definitive Jux label who made music designed to please, rather than bruise, listeners. His 2002 debut, Deadringer, was an excellent collection of patched-together compositions that aspired to be huger than the sum of their parts. For RJ, simply finding a useful loop wasn’t good enough; he wanted to make great, huge songs that would make people dance. (Believe it or not, this isn’t a quality frequently rewarded in independent hip-hop.) Tracks like the paranoid, chase theme-riffing “The Horror” and the dancefloor favorite “Good Times Roll” felt like actual, beginning-middle-end songs, and this ambition really came through on his follow-up, Since We Last Spoke, and the gorgeously broke-down soul tune “One Day.” The unintended consequence of his anthem-mindedness was that his music began showing up on television commercials for all sorts of luxury goods, and RJ could have easily continued churning out the kind of music that perfectly soundtracks a purring sports car. But after collaborative, MC-driven albums with old friends Soul Position and Freestyle Fellowship legend Aceyalone, RJ decided to try something different for his third record.
After immersing himself in old psych records and local bands like the Teeth, RJ’s new album, The Third Hand, is a bold, brilliant departure – for starters, RJ sings. Without any MCs to work around, he focuses his attention to the arrangements themselves, layering his own guitars and bass-lines over his samples and synths. On songs like “You Never Had it So Good,” his fey vocals and bobbing arrangements achieve the chamber-pop delicacy of the Zombies, while “Sweet Piece” and the “Beat It”-esque “Just When” capture the kind of updated synth-pop sound that the Postal Service might wish for. It’s a remarkably intimate record, especially when RJ ditches the electronics altogether on the lovey-dovey “Someday” and whispers with his acoustic guitar – an odd reversal of the turntables-as-guitar evolution, but an incredibly charming one.