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“Mad Men” Theme Composer RJD2 Plans His Next TV Takeover

The electronic musician talks about soundtracking a cultural phenomenon, and how he approached a new collection of music for film and TV.

We finally know that the “falling man” scene in Mad Men‘s title credits never happened in the show, but that image will be forever associated with the television phenomenon, along with the moody theme music that it’s set against.

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That song, “A Beautiful Mine,” was composed by electronic musician RJ Krohn, better known as RJD2, and originally released on the 2006 album Magnificent City with rapper Aceyalone (the track used in Mad Men is from a compilation of instrumental versions of the album’s songs). After the show’s success, which was wholly unanticipated at the time that RJD2 agreed to the song’s use, the musician has licensed music primarily for advertising, in addition to releasing albums, with plans to release a collection of music specifically for film and TV.

RJD2 talked with Fast Company about his Mad Men gamble, why you should try everything at least once, and why he’ll never go totally Hollywood.

“A Beautiful Mine” was released long before Mad Men existed. How did that song become the iconic theme, and how did it affect your career?

I’d always been a fan of the rapper Aceyalone, and sometime around 2004 or 2005, we started talking about making a record together. It was long and bordering on awkward; we would talk and talk, and nothing happened. He gave me an ultimatum and said we’re either going to make this record or move on, but we’re not going to talk forever. So we buckled down and made Magnificent City, and put it out. It was just a little underground rap record–neither of us were a big name; I cut my teeth making small-fry rap records. And as a DJ, it’s a nice thing to make an instrumental version of a record–back in the day, that was a highly valued commodity; people didn’t make them as much. So we made an instrumental version.

Shortly after it came out, AMC said they wanted to use it. It was going to be a publishing buyout [as opposed to a license for a single use–AMC would buy all publishing rights to the song]. I was a curious but also reticent because it was a publishing buyout. But everyone else wanted to it, so I just went along with it. The show hadn’t aired, so it was a total gamble. It was a roll of the dice. I didn’t even get to see the pilot or anything, so it was an interesting turn of chance that it ended up being what it was. Going into it, I had no idea what to think, all I knew is that it wasn’t reality TV. I had licensed music to a film or two; the licensing of songs is a thing that I’ve always felt comfortable with. I’m totally happy with how things played out, and I’m honored to be associated with this great piece of art in the field of drama. As a fan, I’m totally honored and humbled. But if I hadn’t been nudged into it, I would probably have passed on it. We were just handing over the song.

The thing is, I’ve always had this ethos of my career that is along the lines of you should try everything once even if it seems like a bad idea. Being in a studio recording, that’s the part of it that is a controlled environment, that’s where I know what to expect. When it comes to the point where you’re releasing it for someone else to hear other than yourself, your degree of control is obviously diminished, you’re no longer working under the auspices of your control. So because I’ve felt like I can’t control this thing, maybe don’t hold onto the steering wheel too tight. Just do it and see what happens.

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Acura ad using RJD2’s “Her Majesty’s Socialist Request.”

Is your career now focused on scoring for film and TV?

Making full-length albums is still what I hold in the highest regard. It was never a thing where I psychologically transitioned from doing one thing to doing another. All of these support my number-one endeavor of making full-length albums and releasing them. I could maybe drop everything and do soundtrack music. Maybe there’s a smart career path where you pick up and move to L.A. and that’s what you do. Maybe in terms of career success, that would have been a smart thing to do. But the law of diminishing returns is that more income doesn’t make one happier in a proportional measure. I’m happy that I can just pay my bills and make my records and really stretch out and do side projects with a rapper or a singer, or do an instrumental EP, any of these things–they are what fuels the creative side of it for me. At the end of the day, no one remembers what you paid for your gas bill in April 2004, but the thing you did creatively in April 2004 might be seared into your persona. So I have to feed that thing.

RJ Krohn, better known as RJD2Photo: Flickr user Treefort Music Fest

You are creating a collection of music for Downtown Publishing to shop to film and television. Is there a way you approached creating that music that’s different than your albums?

What I’m really doing is making music and letting the creative process come out as it is, and then trying to find a home for the results. I’m not consciously making songs or recordings for the intent of them being usable in a particular film or TV show. This might sound counterintuitive, but doing that consciously is actually in my experience much less fruitful than letting the process unfold as it is and then trying to find a home for it. If Ridley Scott or Steven Spielberg or someone I was a big fan of called me and said they wanted me to be a part of the project, I would do it, but it’s much easier for me to make a recording and then try to find a home. I’d rather make a song and then say, “Oh, maybe this would work for a romantic comedy.”

In my experience, when you don’t think about anything and are in an exploratory mind state, that ends up actually being more conducive to a sync than if I’m doing it on purpose. Sometimes I’ll take detours out of sheer curiosity, and if I’m able to be in a mindset where I can explore those, more often than not some kind of chemical reaction happens there that a music supervisor will take to. That’s more likely to happen than if I’m consciously trying. People who can do that intentionally, I’m in awe of them.

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Even if you don’t have a particular process to write for film, is there anything about the new collection of music that has that in mind, like a range of moods and emotions?

That’s actually why this particular project makes perfect sense to me to roll out through Downtown instead of release as a solo album. It’s a little too all over the place in terms of variety of emotions and content than I would want to put on a solo record.

What did you think of the Mad Men finale?

Well, the thing is, I’m moving [from Pennsylvania to Ohio], so I’ve been packing boxes for seven or eight weeks straight, the contents of a three-story house from state to state. Not only haven’t I watched the finale, I’m not caught up on the whole second half of the season. I can’t wait to sit down and binge-watch the whole rest of the season.

About the author

Evie Nagy is a former staff writer at FastCompany.com, where she wrote features and news with a focus on culture and creativity. She was previously an editor at Billboard and Rolling Stone, and has written about music, business and culture for a variety of publications.

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