The Anniversary

Deadringer Turns 20

Definitive Jux
Definitive Jux

The Private Press was a letdown. Earlier this year my colleague Tom Breihan explained that DJ Shadow’s second album, released six years after his masterpiece Endtroducing….., was a blast on its own merits even as it “essentially transformed DJ Shadow from mysterious genius into working musician.” The album was fine, it just wasn’t the album I was hoping for. As a teenager who’d been entranced by Endtroducing….., who’d spent long summer nights listening to it behind the wheel of my car or hunched over my family computer, I was in the market for more mysterious genius. And in the summer of 2002, the market provided Ramble Jon Krohn.

In hindsight, Deadringer obviously was not the second coming of Endtroducing….., though Shadow’s crate-digging collages of course loomed as large over RJD2’s debut as any other mostly instrumental hip-hop release of the early 21st century. I don’t mean it as a slight when I say the album shares DNA with hit-making late-’90s producers like Moby and Fatboy Slim, beatmakers who combined their library of samples into something slightly less mystical and raw. I enjoyed those artists almost as much as I’d enjoyed Shadow. And upon its release 20 years ago this Saturday, I eagerly embraced Deadringer as the next big thing, even before I realized it was made in my hometown.

“RJD2 is in the very enviable position of being the hottest new artist on Def Jux, which is quickly establishing itself as the epicenter of post-millennial hip-hop.” So began Pitchfork’s rave review, which put me on to Deadringer the summer between my graduation from Westerville North High School outside Columbus and my enrollment at Ohio University down the road. In 2002, when the likes of Timbaland, Missy Elliott, and the Neptunes were at their peak, to anoint El-P’s Definitive Jux label as “the epicenter of post-millennial hip-hop” was to reveal your bias toward the jarring and abstract corners of the underground. Grain of salt aside, in those days Def Jux was definitely building steam, so even if Deadringer didn’t sound as abrasive or avant-garde as your average Def Jux release, RJD2’s association with the label was like creatine for the indie-rap cred he’d spent the past half-decade accumulating.

Born in Eugene, Oregon in 1976, RJ moved to Columbus as a kid and grew up around Ohio State campus. By the late ’90s, he had fallen in with the burgeoning hip-hop scene nurtured by Columbus landmarks like Short North record shops Groove Shack and Roots Records and the campus punk-rock dive Bernie’s, institutions that have sadly vanished from the landscape in recent years. (Bernie’s, a scuzzy basement bar and deli with famously nasty bathrooms, was demolished in 2016 and replaced by a Target as part of Ohio State’s effort to purge all vestiges of local character from High Street.) RJ was the DJ for the MHz, a rap crew whose 1998 debut single “World Premier” saw release through Bobbito Garcia’s influential Fondle ‘Em Records. The track matched RJ’s livewire Rolling Stones flip with hard and eccentric rhymes from Copywrite and the late, great Camu Tao.

“World Premier” was the beginning of deep ties between Columbus and the underground hip-hop vanguard. Camu and Copywrite plus MHz member Jakki The Motamouth eventually found their way into the Weathermen, a supergroup formed by Cage that also featured El-P, Aesop Rock, Yak Ballz, Cannibal Ox’s Vast Aire, Tame One of the Artifacts, and Breeze Brewin’ of Juggaknots. Though MHz released their Table Scraps compilation in 2001, by the early aughts the crew had spread out into an array of new projects associated with many of the leading labels in the underground. RJ teamed with Columbus rapper Blueprint as Soul Position, whose debut EP dropped on Rhymesayers just a month after Deadringer. Copywrite’s solo debut The High Exhaulted soon followed on Eastern Conference. S.A. Smash, Camu’s duo with Metro, put out Smashy Trashy on Def Jux the following summer — by which point I was beaming with local pride over Columbus hip-hop and was delighted to catch S.A. Smash and RJD2 at a smoke-filled Little Brother’s. But none of those records took off like Deadringer, which stands as not just a stellar document of its moment but a reverent monument to the city that birthed it.

On an album crafted mostly without original vocals, RJ used the framework of instrumental hip-hop to conjure a wide variety of aesthetics and vibes. Deadringer blasts off with the spooky synth-funk track “The Horror,” a song that repurposes the siren squeals of West Coast rap for a different kind of fright. Along the way there are fun breakbeat barrages like “Good Times Roll, Pt. 2” and “Chicken-Bone Circuit” — the former infusing smoky soul samples with the unbound energy of a park jam, the latter splicing up live John Bonham drums with joyous recklessness — which contrast pleasingly with the uptight shimmer of a track like “The Proxy.” This being 2002, there were of course some scratching showcases too; the likes of “Cut Out To FL” and “Take The Picture Off” are among the most dated tracks here, though even those ones are constructed with a songwriter’s touch.

Deadringer is one of those records that validates how authorial and truly musical sample-based compositions can be. The oft-synced “Ghostwriter” lays low until it has earned its big, brassy wordless chorus, then descends back into eerie vocal samples and stray bluesy flourishes. Those who made it as deep as “Silver Fox” were rewarded with a gorgeous convergence of rhythm, texture, and harmony, while closing track “Work” blurs together glimmering jazz piano and bluesy guitar into something achingly beautiful. RJD2 was remarkably good at making umpteen disparate audio sources sound smooth and natural together, and then constructing something entirely different from a new set of ingredients. Deadringer rarely played like sensory overload in that cluttered Girl Talk mode; every sample served the song.

Beyond the musicality, what stands out to me most about Deadringer now is its thorough entrenchment within the lineage of Columbus music. All three of the rappers who appear on the album are local compatriots from RJ’s various groups. First Blueprint emerges to flex on the spring-loaded “Final Frontier,” then Jakki darts and weaves on the boom-bap thumper “F.H.H.,” airing his critiques of a faux-profound underground rap culture between cries of “fuck hip-hop!” Late in the album, Copywrite steals the show on “June,” reckoning with his father’s passing over RJ’s moody, subtly sophisticated loop. Copy’s heartbreaking treatise concludes, “It sucks to lose/ It also sucks we had to share the month of June/ I would’ve shared eternal time before I left/ Each month I celebrate my birth, I’m reminded of your death.” On an album where the emotion has mostly been implied, it’s a punch to the gut.

RJ’s dedication to his home city goes beyond guest MCs. The sweeping, bluesy minor-key odyssey “Smoke & Mirrors” samples “Who Knows,” an obscure 1970 cut by Columbus singer Marion Black released through Capsoul, a label helmed by local music legend and political agitator Bill Moss (famous for pounding his shoe on the table at a Columbus School Board meeting in protest of corruption in the district). Two years later, the reissue label Numero Group resurfaced a bunch of Capsoul music via their first Eccentric Soul compilation; Numero later unearthed some of Marion Black’s music for Prix Records, the label he joined after a financial dispute with Moss. Black’s “Who Knows” and RJ’s “Smoke & Mirrors” have both been licensed numerous times over the years, and when I visited Black at his Near East Side home in late 2009, he said he’d made more money from his music that year than his whole life combined. It’s hard to imagine how that would have happened without RJD2 shining a light on Columbus music history.

With Deadringer, RJ became a big part of that history. His career since has been a study in chance, ingenuity, and DIY perseverance. He was in the zeitgeist for a while until he wasn’t. He moved to Philadelphia for a while, then returned home to Columbus, starting his own label, RJ’s Electrical Connections, somewhere along the way. He refashioned himself as a singer-songwriter and switched to a live-band format for a while, recruiting a Columbus all-star team including Sam Brown, who’s drummed for Ohio punk heroes like New Bomb Turks and Gaunt, marquee indie bands like the Britt Daniel/Dan Boeckner summit Divine Fits, and many, many other acts. In 2007 RJ scored his biggest success — albeit one he didn’t profit from as much as you might think — when an upstart cable TV drama called Mad Men turned his song “A Beautiful Mine,” originally recorded as a beat for Aceyalone, into its opening theme music. He’s had a fascinating run, and it’s not over yet. But Deadringer alone would have been legacy enough.

We rely on reader subscriptions to deliver articles like the one you’re reading. Become a member and help support independent media!

more from The Anniversary