I first heard RJD2 in a living room in Germany when I was fourteen. I was listening to some early windows incarnation of a Pandora-like internet radio station set to electronica. ‘Ghostwriter’ came on and I remember stopping whatever it was that I was doing for the entire five minute and nineteen second duration of the song just to listen to its grace and majesty. Love was born that day.
Six years and many address changes later I found myself finally going to my first RJD2 show at the Paradise Rock Club in the ever-so hipster Allston. Opening for him was a band called Icebird. I was shocked when they came out, though, because RJ himself was at the front. He came to the mic, introduced himself as “RJ”, gave a timid shout out to Boston, and then started in on some indie rock. Where was the hip hop?!
Icebird’s sound is not bad by any means; I was just not expecting relatively tame indie rock to greet my ears when I came to this hip hop show. The best way to describe it is if you took a band like The Heavy (known for their songs How Do You Like Me Now, and Short Change Hero) and then put an RJD2 record on in the background. I even got the impression that RJD2 was just using the band as a way to try out new keyboard riffs for his solo albums.
After being on stage for 45 minutes, they stopped, RJ said thank you and left the stage. I was puzzled, to say the least. For a few moments I thought I had just seen RJD2’s transition from hip hop to indie rock and feared that I had spent my hard earned money on the wrong band. I was beyond confused, which I now see as folly on my part, but in my defense, I had never seen the man live and didn’t know what to expect. Furthermore, a guy who looked, acted, sounded and introduced himself as RJ had just played music for me and I figured that that was it.
Then out of nowhere came a five foot ten specter in a grey jumpsuit, encrusted with plastic rein stones of all colors, frilly cuffs, a blackened welder’s helmet and a midi pad controller strapped to his crotch. Wow. In a high pitched robot drawl, the hip hop thing began to question the audience, play his instrument and gyrate.
He darted off stage and reappeared behind the long ignored DJ table in the back of the stage. Table is actually not the word. It was a long length of wood and metal, raised to a little above hip level. On top of it sat a vast range of DJ equipment, what looked like the equivalent of a year’s worth of tuition at Northeastern. Four large turn tables were set up with faders and mixers in between each pair and midi pad and keyboard controllers on either end. Behind the table, almost obscured by the equipment and the drunken party bros in front of me (one of whom had been eyeing my date hungrily as he pounded back his second cup of Miller Lite), was a box full of vinyl records.
The robot shed his helmet and the crowd gave his human face an ovation. I think we all cheered partly out of love for the opening robot display but also out of relief that we were actually at an RJD2 concert after all.
Somehow the drummer from Icebird materialized at the drum set and he began to bang away, churning out RJD2’s signature beats. Then there was the man behind the table, the machine, the master of beats. He darted back and forth, pausing only for precious fractions of a second to place the needle at just the right point on the record. He would add a record, play it, fade it, mix it, then off it came and was replaced frantically with another. All four turntables moved at once, the man jumping from fader to mixer, to midi controller, to the record box and then back to the turntable. The sounds came out flawlessly and I finally recognized the effort that went into his heavenly music. He never stopped moving, only looking up three times from his work to make even more frantic gestures at the girl working the sound booth.
He went on for another hour, running to and fro, and then it was over. Just like that, he was gone again and I found myself facing the harsh reality that it would be a good while until I got to see something like that again.
It was a short concert. Icebird didn’t get on stage until an hour after the show started and the whole thing was over with at 11PM. Do I feel cheated, though? Good Lord, no. RJD2 is still putting out good, smooth hip hop sounds but also branching out, bringing others into his fold, molding them and creating a musical family. Here’s to another six years.