The past few years have brought major changes for RJD2.
A prolific indie DJ once known for his innovative hip-hop beats and arsenal of vintage samples, RJD2 has embraced pop and started writing songs. He played nearly every instrument on his newest album, The Third Hand, which came out this month. Now, he's touring with a band and plays the 9:30 Club tomorrow and Sonar on Saturday.
"I wanted to not be shackled by having to use samples," said RJD2, whose real name is Ramble John Krohn. "Then once I kind of got to the point that I had the freedom to not do it, I think I maybe went a little hog wild, so to speak."
In 2002, RJD2 released his solo debut, Dead Ringer, on the Definitive Jux label. It was a critical smash. Many hip-hop DJ fans put him in the same league as DJ Shadow and even Moby. The same year, he worked with the MC Blueprint on the first Soul Position project, Unlimited EP. The full-length Soul Position album, 8 Million Stories, dropped in 2003.
A long EP titled The Horror came out in 2003. Then, in 2004, RJD2 came out with Since We Last Spoke - his final album on the Definitive Jux label. It was one of the DJ's first steps away from his trademark sound of soulful beats and brass horns toward more hook-filled pop music.
Last year, he collaborated with Blueprint for another full-length Soul Position album, Things Go Better with RJ and Al. This month saw the release of The Third Hand, RJD2's full departure from sampling and his hip-hop sound. Aside from a few drum tracks, he plays all of the instruments and sings on most of the songs.
RJD2 said he stopped sampling for a couple of reasons. After years of sifting through records looking for new brass horns or bass lines, he felt like he hit a wall. There were only so many more original samples out there, and only so much that he could do with his equipment.
"I had taken it to a point where I understood exactly my own limitations on the sampler," he said. "I knew what I could and couldn't accomplish very specifically and accurately."
Then there was the legal aspect. Every sample he used had to be cleared first by the company that owned the rights to the music. Sampling could get pretty expensive and time-consuming, depending on how many and which ones he used.
"I don't have the kind of resources that Kanye West has," he said. "Clearing a sample is a massive ordeal for a guy like me who manages himself."
With his Definitive Jux contract up, RJD2 was reluctant to sign another one right away. Instead, he took his time, built a studio, bought instruments and started writing an all-original album. He wrote all the songs for The Third Hand from mid-2004 through the beginning of last year.
Growing up, RJD2 took piano lessons. He compares learning chord progressions to studying Latin - once you have a basic grasp of it, you can apply it to multiple instruments, or languages.
"Music theory in my experience is basically the same," he said. "You might not be able to shred, but you can apply the basic concepts to an instrument once you get a fair amount of technique on it. "Enough to play a song, basically."
While recording The Third Hand, RJD2 developed a passion for tinkering with instruments and equipment. It gives him the same rush he once felt from sampling, he said.
"I've become one with the cancerous fumes from the soldering gun," he said. "I'm amazed I can hold a conversation now, considering the amount of solder fumes I've inhaled in the last few years."
The Third Hand is named for the person who picks up the CD. It came from RJD2's two hands, he said, so the audience is the third hand to touch it. It's RJD2's first album on new label XL Recordings and a fresh turn in his career.
"It was a little bit daunting," he said. "It was more like a different chapter in my life."
RJD2 plays the 9:30 Club, 815 V St. N.W., Washington, tomorrow night at 9. Call 410-393-0930 or go to 930.com. He is at Sonar, 407 E. Saratoga St., Saturday at 9 p.m. Tickets are $20. Call 410-547-SEAT or go to ticketmaster.com.
To hear clips from RJD2's new album, go to baltimoresun.com/listeningpost.