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Be Specific... RJD2 on his "Mad Men" theme and the state of television tunes

This man grew up on "Knight Rider." (Courtesy of XL Recordings)

Hip-hop producer RJD2 has licensed countless songs for television, but his most recognizable televised ditty is his theme music for the award-winning AMC drama "Mad Men." The beat was originally crafted for rapper Aceylone under the title "A Beautiful Mine," but has since become synonymous with the silhouetted figure who falls from upon high during the show's opening credits

As he gears up for a performance at the 9:30 club Saturday, RJD2 spoke with Click Track yesterday about the state of TV themes.

(Woke up this morning, got yourself a bad theme song, after the jump.)

Watch the "Mad Men" opening credits here.

How did AMC recruit you for the "Mad Men" theme song?

Me and Aceylone did a record and then we put out an instrumental version of that record. And they picked one of the songs off of that for this new show that was coming out on AMC. They asked if they could license it but they wanted to license the master and buy the publishing. It was the first time I'd ever gotten that kind of request for a song. There was a fair amount of back and forth and I said "no" to it about three or four times because I wasn't really comfortable selling the publishing.

At the time, a pilot hadn't even aired. Nobody knew anything about it. So somebody's approaching you about a show on AMC? I mean, not to be a [jerk] but, you know? You don't exactly have high expectations.

But I just bit the bullet and said I'm going to try this. When it comes to business decisions in the music industry, I've become a pretty firm believer that you should try everything once. Even things that might not seem like a good idea. And this is a prime example of something that didn't seem like a good idea. But it was a great idea. The show became this smash hit. At the end of the day it's gotten a lot of visibility. I mean, I did the theme song for one of my favorite shows on TV.

What else have you gained from it? Exposure? More work?

I think there's awareness, yeah. But it's not like other networks are batting down my door trying to get songs. But at some point you have to abandon the idea of trying to monetize every development in your career.

When you compare the "Mad Men" music to the themes of other super-popular cable dramas, it really stands out. I always thought "The Sorpanos" theme song was horrible. Some of the versions of Tom Waits's "Way Down in the Hole" for "The Wire" were really awful. Do you think the "Mad Men" theme stands out?

You're asking me to toot my own horn here and I'm not good at that. I'm, like, hardwired against that kind of thing.

Well, tell me this: Did you grow up with an affinity for any particular TV themes as a kid?

Oh yeah, I grew up with "Knight Rider" and "Airwolf" and "The Price Is Right" and the "Scooby-Doo" theme. There's some amazing music that was written for TV back in those days. And you're right -- "The Sopranos" theme is not that cool. It's certainly not as cool as the show. A couple of seasons, "The Wire" theme was pretty lame. But yeah, I feel like the era of really cool TV themes has passed us by.

Do you think that's because people aren't composing specifically for television anymore and networks are just buying songs that already exist?

Uh... I want to preface this by saying that we're now entering the field of pure conjecture and bull-[expletive].... I'm willing to say that nowadays you've probably got a lot of L.A., hired-gun people and people who are doing library music. I know there are a lot of guys doing library work in L.A...

Before you go any further, what's library work?

Oh, sure. People will write a number of themes and essentially treat those themes as works for hire. You write a bunch of themes and shop these themes around to television shows and advertisers and movies and such. Essentially, they're constantly pitching this music and because of the nature of it, they're... cheap.

Let's say Cadillac goes after Phoenix. They want a Phoenix song. They're going to pay a lot more. They could do that ad for next to nothing -- literally 1 to 2 percent of what they paid Phoenix, if they were to do it from library music.

Getting back to the current state of theme music, look at where the world of major label music has come from 1975 to 2005. It's safe to say that the brunt of the acts that were being signed in 1975 were signed on the merit of them being good songwriters. Now it's been abandoned. Now it's by and large people trying to sell pop starlet bull-[expletive]. I wouldn't be surprised if the same thing was happening in the realm of TV with budgets overriding artistic decisions.

The other thing to consider: if we go back 30 years, people didn't have the wherewithal to make a TV theme on their own. They had to hire musicians. There weren't drum machines. There weren't synths that could be sequenced and programed. So out sheer necessity, you're going to have to get five people to play a theme in a room. Even if you were to take the most bull-[expletive] theme from 2009 and fly it back to 1975, if you have five people in a room playing that theme, odds are you're going to have a better product than if you fast-forward it back to 2009 or 2010 and have one guy with a Logic rig on his laptop programming everything.

Is that part of the approach you've taken to your music over the years? I know you've gone from working alone to including other musicians onstage.

It's certainly something I aspire to. The human element is something that I always want to include.

By Chris Richards  |  January 5, 2010; 2:10 PM ET
Categories:  Be specific  | Tags: Mad Men, RJD2  
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You think The Sopranos theme song is horrible? Whaaaaaaat?

Posted by: agl132 | January 6, 2010 12:35 PM | Report abuse

@agl132: Um, yes.

Posted by: ChrisRichards | January 6, 2010 3:31 PM | Report abuse

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