Reynolds' latest project NPR is perhaps his most eccentric endeavor to date, an 18-track hip-hop album composed entirely around samples from National Public Radio programming. When I spoke with Reynolds for this interview he described the project as an album-length fan letter to NPR written in the language of hip-hop. And so far Reynolds' love for NPR appears to be reciprocal, as the nationally syndicated program Marketplace acknowledged Reynolds' tribute on a recent broadcast.
If names like Diane Rehm, Terry Gross and Garrison Keillor hold celebrity status in your household, then I recommend you immediately head to tjreynolds.net where you can download a free copy of NPR. But right now, listen while you read.
NUVO: Before we talk about the NPR album, I wanted to ask about your geographic location. You've been living in Boston the last few years, but it seems like you've maintained a very strong connection to the Indianapolis music scene. Is that correct?
TJ Reynolds: I'm going into my fourth year living in Boston. I try to get performances together when I come back to Indianapolis. But I also try to connect with the cats that are coming up. It's cool to see the little seeds that myself and a lot of other individuals started planting when there wasn't that much going on in the city, and to be able to come back and gather the people that I knew before and to perform in front of these new crowds of people that are coming out supporting the arts.
NUVO: Your new album NPR is built around audio samples and themes culled from an assortment of popular public radio programs. Can you tell us what inspired the concept?
Reynolds: I'm a hip-hop fan and an avid NPR listener, and I don't think that's a very small niche. People that are real fans of hip-hop, especially golden age hip-hop, really miss hearing the type of intelligent lyrics they grew up listening to on the radio. So what are we listening to now? We're listening to something that is verbally stimulating with a whole lot of words — there's just not a beat behind it. So we're gravitating towards NPR.
I would hear all the theme songs and I would always think while I was driving "oh, I want to flip that. I want to turn that into a beat." So I ended up doing one, and one turned into a couple. Then I had a vision for the project and bada bing bada boom — five years later it's done.
NUVO: The production on the album is very detailed. Musically you've added many layers of sound to the NPR source material you're sampling from. How did you approach developing the theme songs and bumper music you sampled from?
Reynolds: Each track starts the same but branches out into a different process. When I start with a song I listen to parts that jump out at me that I can rearrange in a way that's fresh, but still recognizable as the theme song from the show. Marinating on each show's topic gives me a direction to go in, which is a really fun challenge. To be limited in that scope made me even more creative with how I put together songs that reflected the spirit of the shows but also said what I wanted to say to the universe.
NUVO: In the tradition of so many classic hip-hop LPs you have a few skits on the album. You must have listened to hours and hours of NPR programs to find these samples.
Reynolds: The skits, the intermissions, the call-ins and the interviews were in a way harder to put together than the songs. I'm used to doing songs and I know the process. But to put together the interviews and make them sound real, I was listening to dozens of shows sometimes to find the right clips and arranging them to make the conversation sound natural. I think the "A Way With Words" track was the most successful one. Even my mastering engineer was like, "Did you really call in to them? Because that was really awkward. That's the TJ I know, good job man!"
NUVO: The album features musical contributions from some great Indianapolis artists like Kate Lamont and The Comdot. What was the response when you were approaching musicians to contribute to the project? Did they get the concept or did they think you'd gone too far in your love of public radio?
Reynolds: There were a few people who were like, "OK man, you really love NPR!" [laughs] I think some people didn't fully understand the whole concept, and maybe I didn't fully understand it until I had a number of the tracks together. It wasn't until last year that I started to put some of the skits and intermissions together and that balanced it out and made it almost feel like you were listening to NPR. Something you might put in on a road trip and it took you through all the shows. I tried to combine the experience of listening to a hip-hop album with the experience of listening to public radio.