Definitive Jux, 2002
I think the first thing that comes to mind, without even listening to a second of RJD2’s debut album Deadringer, is that you know, right from the Def Jux stamp on its record cover, that this album is going to be all sorts of insane. At least, that’s what I initially thought years ago when I crept into the caverns of RJD2’s discography.
Definitive Jux, the creation of perhaps the most influential producer of post-millennial hip-hop, El-P, is an independent record label that plays so much to its unique face to the point where you can predict what each of its artists are going to sling. This isn’t a bad thing by any means, because what is dominantly accessible here is that you’re going to find yourself flooded with an array of artists, each with their own agenda and hip-hop soul, playing specifically to the Def Jux code. Obviously faces like Company Flow, Cannibal Ox, Aesop Rock, Murs and El-P himself dominate this space, with influential and successful projects that protrude spacey rhythms and kick abstract lyricism, but other artists with the Def Jux belt such as The Perceptionists, Cage and Danny! also bring forthcoming cuts that play into the record label’s feel while at the time conducting wild hip-hop experiments that help expand the Def Jux sound. RJD2 is one of those artists, with a debut album that kicks as strongly as Endtroducing…. and samples as creatively as a Beat Konducta tape.
Deadringer‘s ability to create distance between itself and the rest of Def Jux is incredible given where instrumental hip-hop was at the time. On one end, the heavy DJ Shadow influence is here, with resounding samples from vast genres over concrete breakbeats, but on the other end there’s the mask of variance. Yes, it’s incredibly hard to pinpoint Deadringer as a structural concept, which is one of the biggest reasons why it’s so successful.
“The Horror” kicks things off, with synths that glaringly whine and scream over a trudging bass that could play during a sludge metal show. Inter-laden between these sounds are various cryptic vocal samples, seething strings, quick funk riffs and an overall tone that paints an ominous image on an even more harrowing soundscape. “Smoke & Mirrors” continues this, with plodding keys waiting to pounce on an ill-informed listener, and synth pads that dance in slow motion waiting to spring. The cymbal riding percussion breakbeat comes through as it kicks strongly with Marion Black’s classic, “Who Knows.” The picture with “Smoke & Mirrors” is more uplifting in a sense, but the overall feel of the track alone convinces even the most in-tune listener that nothing here is more happy.
Just when you think you’ve got Deadringer pegged, RJD2 changes course and direction instinctively, throwing in a blaring horn track worthy of a breakdancer’s approval in “Good Times Roll Pt. 2,” a sunny acoustic/breakbeat fusion cut dripping in Southern Soul called “Ghostwriter” and “Chicken-Bone Circuit,” a song that rolls out on PEDs with percussion that hits homer after homer, sounding eerily similar to one of DJ Shadow’s many hyper-eccentric drum cuts.
The magic behind Deadringer is painted right on its cover, but to get a grasp of its true intentions, you have to realize where it’s coming from. Creating a sound and name for itself–a sound worthy of separation from the rest of the Def Jux crew–Deadringer is one of the best hip-hop instrumental albums that explores creativity, experimentalism and diversity. The gorge of this record is filled with an abundance of caves, each with varying sounds, and it’s with this–the notion that we really can’t peg the album’s sound–where Deadringer stands out.
Instrumental albums can be difficult. If there isn’t much happening, they can be repetitive and feel as though they’re dragging on forever. When this happens, the hottest beat can even get old and tiresome. On the flipside, when an instrumental is on point, there might not even be a need for lyrics. Released in 2002, RJD2’s Deadringer is an instrumental album that is stocked to the brim with flipped samples, heavy drum beats and blaring horns. Masterfully mixing and matching old and new samples with more of a contemporary feel, Deadringer is a record that tells stories and paints pictures.
Right off the bat, “The Horror” launches us into a dark cavernous world of mystery and villainy. Sounding like something a funky fresh Frankenstein would put on as he chases Scooby and the gang, this track perfectly blends creepiness with groove. “Smoke & Mirrors” begins with a slow build, keeping us in that same creepy place of funky fresh Frankenstein. However, we move out of that into a ride-cymbal heavy beat with a sample of Marion Black’s “Who Knows.” As Black throws out, “Who know’s what tomorrow will bring/ Maybe sunshine or maybe rain/ But as for me, I’ll wait and see/ And maybe it’ll bring my love to me/ Who knows.” These words bring the story to a level of complete uncertainty. Have we escaped the villainous, yet ever fresh Frankenstein, or are we only being led deeper into his lair?
The journey continues on “Good Times Roll (Part 2)” which smoothly transitions into “Final Frontier.” Here, Frankenstein is no more. We have emerged from the depths of his grasp and are greeted by one of the few MCs to appear on this album, Blueprint. He lays it down, perfectly explaining the power of music and the relationship between the producer, MC and the role they play in the construction of music that people can rock with. As he spits:
“Life begins when the record spins/ And ends when blended into the next with scratches/ RJ constructs the canvas, I find a color that matches/ Outline the rhyme and increase the content/ Blueprint the piece that completes the concepts.”
While “Ghostwriter” is perhaps the most well-known track on this record, this is not misplaced praise. The beginning guitar chords set the mood, making it feel like a warm spring day as the flowers begin to bloom. As the song builds, the beat comes in and everything continues to intensify, growing to something, something that is going to be out of control. Then just like that, the horns come in and there is nothing else to be said. Just let your head bounce with it because this track sounds like victory.
As I’ve talked about Deadrigner, I’ve tried to describe the stories and images that come to mind when listening. Now I realize I haven’t come close to covering every single song on RJD2’s debut. This is in part because I want you, the listener, to make up your own stories and come up with your own ideas about what this album makes you feel and think about. In my mind, there is not a single track that disappoints on this album. This is the type of instrumental effort that you can listen to more than once and continually get something out of it. You can’t say that about every instrumental-heavy album. Put on Deadringer, close your eyes and let the music and your imagination take you away.