all words: Paula Mejia
all photos: Emily Cohen
With a live show brimming with space-era gypsy costumes and unconventional theatrics, RJD2 has transcended the traditional role of simply a beatmaker, thrusting himself into the realm of performance art.
Snaking my way through the crowd, I was surprised to find myself at the very front considering how late I was to the already late show at 11:45 at U Street’s notorious 9:30 Club. As soon as I arrived, I immediately felt the funk reverberating from RJD2’s opener, psychedelic soul outfit Icebird. A side project of RJD2 and Aaron Livingston (of Philadelphia’s The Mean), the band serves as the funky, alter ego cousin of RJD2, the one wearing a bowler hat and with an affinity for Funkadelic on vinyl. A dichotomy to his traditional, painstakingly precise electronic beats, the band (complete with RJD2 himself on a Korg, Aaron Livingston as a vocalist, a bassist and an incredibly talented drummer, Chuck Palmer) Icebird was only the beginning to the spectacle that RJD2 had in store for the expectant crowd.
Jumping onstage in a metallic suit with an MPC attached to his belt, RJD2 began the set playing the instrument as a drum machine, displaying his talent with a myriad of rapid and methodical beats. The crowd wailed as he shed the suit, diving directly into his set by playing “A Beautiful Mine,” the swelling, sultry song that perfectly coexists as the theme song to the critically acclaimed AMC series Mad Men.
By the way he moves onstage, Ramble John Krohn is a natural tinkerer. Someone who grew up taking apart old synthesizers and putting them back together, just for the fascination of knowing how they work. Utilizing four turntables and an MPC, he skillfully sampled parts of records live, ducking behind the table and sifting through 45s like a machine. Particularly toward the beginning of the show, he played the MPC in a variety of ways: a drum machine, a piano, even chip-tunes characteristic with classic video game sounds of SuperMario.
While the beats from the record were instantly recognizable, he carefully layered elements that served to swiftly cross traditionally defined genres. With record-scratching, pre-recorded beats and live samples from records, his set blurred the line from everything to vagrant desert soundscapes, smooth electronic, orchestral crescendos and just plain kickass hip hop beats.
The first four tracks that RJD2 played solo were compelling, infectiously dancey, and layered with a variety of sounds.
But then came the addition of the drums. Holy shit, the drums.
Chuck Palmer, a friend of Krohn’s and previously of the band Earwig, sauntered up to the drums after RJD2‘s fourth set, nonchalantly holding two drumsticks in his right hand. Toothpick casually hanging out of his month, he had the sort of pissed off and aggressive look that categorized punk. But the moment his hands touched those drums, it was as though he was entirely possessed by the greater force of sound, the impeccable rhythm something he HAD to exorcise from his system. Eyes rolling back, completely lost in the percussion sharply contrasting the electronic beats, Palmer played with a demonic, obsessive fervor. It’s evident Palmer grew up playing in punk bands–drumming with such sonorous strength, it was almost frightening.
As if the live samples from records, insane drumming and contagious beats simply weren’t enough, the visual aspect of the performance added an entirely different dimension to the experience. The visuals fluctuated rapidly into a hypercolorful array of landscapes: a liquid light show, ultraviolet brand names flashing on the screen, fields of poppies and tulips drifting in the evening breeze. With violent shifts from black and white Evildead footage, to samples of unsettling voices and geopositioning visuals, RJD2 makes you just how aware you are of your place in the universe.
And it’s true. Like us, RJD2 knows he’s being watched. The implementation of a videographer documenting his every move, as well as a miniscule video camera showing the crowd a closeup of his fancy fingerwork on the MPC, his deep awareness of pop culture is evident in his performance. I’d venture to say that RJD2 is an artist implementing the aspects of performance art previously embodied from the likes of Andy Warhol, as well as the stage antics of Iggy Pop and the Stooges.
Yet more than anything, RJD2 has mastered the art of tension. He knew that the crowd could collectively taste the infamous opening chords of “Ghostwriter,” sticky sweet on their lips. Instead of banking on instant gratification, he teased the audience, until finally satisfying their taste for the cult single.
- I can’t say this enough…but THE PERCUSSION. THE DRUMS. WHAT.
- The people-watching–this crowd drew everyone from long-haired computer geeks in NASA shirts, to thirty-somethings clad in CBGB t-shirts, to the rave generation clad in Mardi Gras beads and glowsticks
- Snatching the Icebird set list, with drawings from the band
- Chatting with RJD2 and Chuck after the show, recommending things to do on their day off in DC
- Did I mention the drumming?