RJD2’s “Smoke and Mirrors:” Crafting a Dramatic Reveal

+ This video is presented courtesy of RJD2’s brand new course on Soundfly, RJD2: From Samples to Songs. Sign up and learn to create and arrange original, instrumental hip-hop music from a true sampling pioneer!

In the video above, RJ (Ramble Jon) says: “you wouldn’t expect a magician to rush on stage and give you his best trick right away.”

That same mindset is essential in songwriting. An interesting song arrangement will create a sense of anticipation for the most important moments within it, whether that’s the chorus, the climax, or are another moment you want to really hit the listener with.

0:50 into his classic track, “Smoke and Mirrors” (off 2002’s Deadringer), when the vocal sample and the groove kick in together, we get the core moment that defines the song. For the first 50 seconds of the track, RJ’s goal is to lay the table for that moment to arrive.

Let’s listen:

One of the ways he does that is to avoid a fairly common arranging technique: adding parts one at a time leading up to that moment. That is certainly an arranging approach he has used before, and it’s really common, but RJ wants to create the feeling that, when the reveal hits, it seems like it’s all from a single sound source, rather than disparate pieces paired together.

This is his “auditory sleight of hand.”

Creating a Sense of Anticipation

RJ starts the song with a shimmering drone that was created by shaving the attack off a single chop and then stacking it back-to-back. He then automated a filter on the sound in the MPC using the note variation slider to give it some movement. The filter also helps create a sense of tension that makes you wonder where it’s going.


Another element that adds some tension is the little keyboard “dinks” that are happening in the background. They sound on the cusp of something, but we’re not sure what yet. By staying on the tonic, RJ creates a lack of any harmonic movement in the keyboard and drone create a real sense of tension and anticipation.

He then foreshadows the guitar part that will be happening during the reveal with a similar part that was created out of a different set of chops from somewhere else in the song. There are a few other parts that pop in and out, including a little synth melody that also gets reversed, and some pads that fade in and out.

The effect of all of it put together is a growing sense of tension, but only slight hints at what’s about to come.

Finally, a split second before the A Section finally hits, the sound ducks out for a beat to create an even more powerful entrance for the reveal.

(20-30 minutes)

Craft your own reveal.

Find a short groove or song loop that you’ve never developed or make a new one, and practice crafting a reveal that might set the table for its arrival. Think about how you can borrow from RJ’s approach by withholding key elements until the reveal hits.

Give that a try within your own project and post your track to our community Slack forum (*subscribers only).

Ready to Learn From RJD2 Himself?

Learn from instrumental hip-hop producer and sampling pioneer RJD2 himself how to write and arrange music drawing on the power of sampling records and a collage-based mindset. He’ll show you how he personally tackles new tracks with his trusty MPC, and he’ll open up sessions from some of his classic tracks to show how they were made. You’ll learn new approaches to sampling, songwriting, and arranging, and how to make instrumental beats that capture someone’s attention from start to finish.

Join RJD2: From Samples to Songs today.

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