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Why has DJ and producer RJD2 been thinking about what makes a great TV theme song?

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

When the creators of the show "Mad Men" went looking for theme music, they landed on this, an excerpt of a piece by the DJ and producer RJD2.

(SOUNDBITE OF RJD2'S "A BEAUTIFUL MINE")

MARTÍNEZ: Lately, RJD2 has been thinking a lot about what makes a great TV theme song. As a matter of fact, he and his kid recently went down a rabbit hole.

RJD2: Anybody who's a parent will know that you go through periods in which your kids are very obsessive about a thing. And we're sitting around listening to vinyl compilations called "Television's Greatest Hits."

(SOUNDBITE OF MIKE POST AND PETE CARPENTER'S "MAGNUM, P.I.")

MARTÍNEZ: One after another, they gorged on theme songs from the '70s and '80s. And RJD2 started to notice some admirable qualities in the composition.

RJD2: You know, you have a finite time. The composers and producers probably want to get in quick, establish a melody. You know, it was the kind of thing that you could sing if you're walking down the street.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIKE POST AND PETE CARPENTER'S "MAGNUM, P.I.")

RJD2: And they would have some intrigue in terms of their harmonic structure. A lot of them would have a great groove, super, super funky.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIKE POST AND PETE CARPENTER'S "MAGNUM, P.I.")

MARTÍNEZ: All that obsession about theme songs started to change his own writing. And you can hear the influence on his new album "Visions Out Of Limelight." I asked RJD2 to name one particular theme song that gave him a roadmap.

RJD2: "Starsky & Hutch."

(SOUNDBITE OF THE HOLLYWOOD'S MARTINS' "STARSKY AND HUTCH")

RJD2: You know, it gets right in. The groove is incredible here. The drumming is phenomenal. It propels you. And then it's got a melody that, for me, it's very kind of earworm-y, sticks in your head.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE HOLLYWOOD'S MARTINS' "STARSKY AND HUTCH")

RJD2: And then, you know, it's got a concise out. It doesn't just fade out.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE HOLLYWOOD'S MARTINS' "STARSKY AND HUTCH")

RJD2: You know, it's constructed like a 30- to 45-second piece of music.

MARTÍNEZ: So, yeah, that brought back a ton of memories. I remember that song. I remember how it really laid down exactly the vibe of that entire era. So how did that then lead to something on your new album?

(SOUNDBITE OF RJD2'S "CATCH THE EXIT DOOR")

RJD2: It got me out of the mindset of making songs that were structured like verse, chorus, verse, chorus - pop song-type structures. And the other big one for me was I put a very high prominence on having a strong melody.

(SOUNDBITE OF RJD2'S "CATCH THE EXIT DOOR")

MARTÍNEZ: What is it about musicians like you that love to peel things apart? I mean, it seems like you grab a song and you're like, how did that work and why did that work? I mean, it just seems like a lot of musicians love doing that stuff. Whether something comes out of it artistically or not, I think you just - it seems like you love seeing how the whole thing was put together.

RJD2: Absolutely. You know, I remember hearing an interview with Grandmaster Flash, and he was talking about how he took apart a mixer and reassembled it. He just loved to take things apart as a kid. I think that there is a lot of similarities in producers and people that are interested in, you know, the mechanics of how a beat goes together - or the guts of a song, if you will - and engineering. You know, to me, it is in many ways its own form of engineering and problem-solving.

MARTÍNEZ: Because for this new album, I heard that you found inspiration in older hip-hop production, like for your song "Through It All," kind of using mouth sounds as an element. When you think about the sounds that your mouth can make other than, you know, singing actual words and lyrics, I mean, there's a lot of musicality in there that I think sometimes people think, well, it's just your mouth making some silly sounds.

RJD2: Timbaland was probably a big influence on that particular song. He was the first guy to me that made noises with his mouth. Some of them are like - on some of those Aaliyah recordings, they're so precise.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ARE YOU THAT SOMEBODY")

AALIYAH: (Singing) Boy, won't you pick me up at the park right now up the block while everyone's sleep, sleep, sleep.

RJD2: I don't know if he could have done that just in one take, go in the vocal booth and that's what you're hearing. And that intrigued me.

(SOUNDBITE OF AALIYAH SONG, "ARE YOU THAT SOMEBODY")

RJD2: So for "Through It All," that sound, which is (vocalizing) - I'm just flicking my mouth and kind of making an expanding O shape. And then one day I was like, well, if I dump that in the MPC, maybe I can make it sound in a manner that a human couldn't do in real time.

(SOUNDBITE OF RJD2 AND JAMIE LIDELL SONG, "THROUGH IT ALL")

MARTÍNEZ: So when you have one of these, like, just inspiration moments, I mean, how long does it take to kind of put all that together, considering that you have so many different elements that are involved here?

RJD2: You know, it comes back to this idea of engineering and seeing things as parts for me. The day that I had inspiration to do that, I went to the microphone, recorded it - (vocalizing) - dump it in the sampler. And then that just sits there. I have no idea where I'm going to use that. It's like having just chunks of raw material sitting around in piles at all times. They were just sitting around waiting to get used...

MARTÍNEZ: (Laughter).

RJD2: ...Until that song kind of reaches its, like, critical mass where, like, OK, once the piano is down, at that point I'm almost looking for things that are high contrast. Like, the piano is really pretty. I need something to - I don't want to say ruin the piano.

(LAUGHTER)

RJD2: It's more like, well, the piano is real pretty. How do you do something that's really high contrast that's going to kind of trash the thing a little bit, but it'll still be cool?

MARTÍNEZ: I love how you're worried about the feelings of the piano.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THROUGH IT ALL")

JAMIE LIDELL: (Singing) All the city noise. Oh, can you hear me? So I can receive, receive, the mystery of the morning (ph), yeah.

MARTÍNEZ: Considering that this kind of got started in a way while you're listening to TV theme songs with your son, what does he think of this? I mean, has he heard any of the songs?

RJD2: He actually shot the video for this song. So he's heard this song, but he's not the kind of guy to just, like, hey, Dad, I want to hear your new album. Let's sit down and listen.

MARTÍNEZ: (Laughter).

RJD2: You know, and which is perfectly fine. You know what I mean? It's like, he's got his own musical interests, and I don't have any pride about that type of thing.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, well that's good. That's RJD2. His new album is "Visions Out Of Limelight." Thank you very much.

RJD2: Oh, thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF RJD2'S "COLD EGGS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.