These days, there’s much brighter lights in our little big city.
Long-gone are the days of Columbus hemorrhaging creative talent, as the magic of Midwest hospitality and low cost of living has now merged with a vibrant entrepreneurial scene to create a renewed cultural hub drawing its former residents back to the roost.
This, is Why They Came Back...
Ramble Jon Krohn, aka RJD2
A few days before my lengthy interview with hometown hero RJD2, aka Ramble Jon Krohn, his longtime friend Wesley Pentz, aka Diplo, was vamping on the Grammy stage with Skrillex and the chart-topping, cultural lighting rod Justin Bieber as Jack U, who had just won the trophy for Best Dance Performance. Many years ago, Diplo and RJD2 were peers in the same crate-digging crew of young deejays and producers in the emerging Philadelphia scene. The two chose different paths. But both have been mega-successful in their own way. I have to ask Krohn if there’s a tinge of “that could be me” when watching the carnival.
“It’s awesome to see that. And I’m proud of Wes,” says Krohn, “but you can’t put a dollar figure on being away from my son for seven days.”
In his words, RJD2 has “repatriated.” There’s certainly no ill will towards Diplo, or Mark Ronson, or the myriad high-profile names Krohn has worked with over the years—he’s as humble and prolific as they come, there is no muckraking—but his agenda towards fame and success has changed.
“It was a zero-sum game between my career and our kid’s ability to be near family,” says Krohn. “I felt like it would be irresponsible to stay in Philly for my career. As much as I love that city and as much as that city has given to me, it couldn’t give me what Columbus does now.”
But it’s much more than domesticity and familial norms that have guided RJD2 back to the capital city. Krohn can extol the reasons why he loves Columbus like a scientist, referring to sine waves and aggregates as to why the city is so consistent, and as a philosopher, perceiving gentrification with a Buddhist’s indifference. Every day the water touches the shore and retreats, the world turns, it all equals out in the end.
Don’t look to RJD2’s repatriation as a turncoat move or failure. It’s not opportunistic or by necessity—quite the contrary. It’s a chess move by someone who is wholly and genuinely invested in the city’s evolution and upward mobility.
Spanning genre, era, and locale, wanderlust has always been at the heart of RJD2’s music. It’s an impulse that has also informed Krohn’s life choices. As early as 19, he packed up his Honda Civic to travel cross-country to the San Francisco Bay with no direction and no job prospects. He soon found his way back to Columbus where, despite wanting to be a mathematician, he began producing beats for the now legendary MHz in between odd jobs. His collaboration with Copywrite, “Holier Than Thou,” put him in the good graces of the then nascent Definitive Jux label, who by 2001 were set to release Krohn’s solo debut, the critically acclaimed Deadringer. With success looming, another big move was imminent, and that year Krohn packed up and settled in Philadelphia where he’s made a home for the past 15 years.
“When I left, for people my age, Columbus was a place to get out of,” remembers Krohn. “It just didn’t provide the same resources for young artists that a bigger city could.”
When RJD2 was coming up into celebrity status, it was his location on the Eastern seaboard that certainly contributed to his rise. It gave him connections with other artists, many of whom he’d collaborate with. It produced a publishing and licensing deal, which has been lucrative from the beginning. It’s hard to watch TV on a Saturday afternoon and not hear his compositions in commercials for Miller Lite and Nissan. That strong foundation fostered in Philadelphia gave Krohn the freedom to follow his artistic muse wherever it roamed—from the beat-heavy mosaics of his DJ roots to the dark quixotic composition that begins every episode of Mad Men to the majestically arranged pop songs that appeared (with Krohn singing) on 2007’s severely underrated The Third Hand—but these days a fancy address doesn’t hold the same cachet.
“As far as being a musician or an artist now, knowing what I know now, I don’t need to be in a major city,” says Krohn. “In terms of the bread and butter, the day-to-day, in recording and making records and running my business, Columbus has the same internet and airport accessibility as anywhere else in America.”
3 A.M. CHINESE VS. THE PARK OF ROSES
“Of course, seeing Olympic Pool, or Vets Memorial being razed is nostalgic to me and not something that I want to see,” says Krohn. “But how do you know it’s not going to become a benefit for someone in that neighborhood?”
We are talking gentrification—the good and the bad. How cultural zealots in our town want to dictate to the masses what Columbus needs to “put it on the map.” I tell him I have family in Brooklyn. A perfect family. Yet there’s a delusion that their existence in that borough is slightly utopian, or at least superior to life in the fly-over states. The last time I visited I couldn’t quite wrap my head around that sentiment. I was bored. All of the sudden we have better beer, better coffee, better record stores—all of the raw materials that keep the young artistically minded staying put, creating inertia.
When I asked Krohn his reasons for choosing Columbus again, a lot of those same edicts were spokne with such a fluidity and enthusiasm that you’d think he were gearing for a mayoral campaign in 2020.
“If you use 3 a.m. Chinese [food] as the barometric as to when Columbus has ‘made it,’ well, you’re never going to get that,” says Krohn when the conversation digs deep into the reason we are here. How do we tip the ratio of being more a destination rather than a launching pad? “Being out of the city for 15 years and returning, I thought I had this unique perspective of the city, because I had empathy as a native and as a foreigner, or a transient or transplant. It might be rose-colored glasses speaking but coming back I see is a different entrepreneurial spirit.”
”A GENIUS IS THE ONE MOST LIKE HIMSELF.” — THELONIUS MONK
The quote above, repeated by Krohn, seems to sum up his hopes, dreams, and reasons for repatriation. Columbus is the “genius,” when it doesn’t try to replicate a more profound urbane experience. It doesn’t have to.
“Now I don’t see Columbus’ trajectory as trying to rival bigger cities like Chicago or Philadelphia,” says Krohn. “To me, success for the city of Columbus is being the best that it can be. Because of geography, Columbus is never going to be a proxy for New York City. Success looks like, and it may sound corny, being a unique and individual city, a place you can’t get anywhere else.”
It’s a sentiment that’s emblematic of Krohn’s latest artistic turn on the just-released Dame Fortune. His sixth and most ambitious album to date, it’s a deep and meaningful record, grand in scope and a culmination of Krohn’s years of Ramble. It’s both soulful and cosmic—a Nova soundtrack interrupted by modern renditions of Capsoul classics. With guest spots from other Columbus musical luminaries—long-time partner-in-rhyme, Blueprint, as well as Josh Krajcik—there’s a palpable longing for home influencing the grooves embedded on the album.
“The process of leaving and coming back has been cathartic,” says Krohn. “It’s relieved me of any preconceived notions I had about Columbus. I can see it for what it is. You can do anything here. It’s its own unique place, so it doesn’t sit in any hierarchy between New York and Youngstown. Here is a perfect environment from which to discern the differences between those experiences. If you want to be close to the Grand Canyon, get on a f*cking plane.”
And as for seeing a move back as an embarrassment or failure?
“We all have some sense of pride and ego,” Krohn says. “The question is: are you going to feed that, or are you going to shut it down? If someone reads this from, I don’t know, Oakland—it is going to be very easy for them to write a narrative that this is an indicator of failure. If you can come to terms with that, you can move beyond that. What sets me at ease with the whole thing is that I’ve done a lot of shit in my life. It is not an accomplishment that I’ve lived in a major metropolitan city. I don’t need to be proud of that, there’s a lot of other things in life to be proud of.” •
RJD2 will perform at the first PromoWest Fest, July 15-17 this summer. Dame Fortune is out now on his own label, RJ’s Electrical Connections. For more, visit rjd2.net
- Age: 37
- Occupation: Founder of Storyforge, A Purpose Agency
- Education: Qualified as a Hotel Manager
- Other cities lived in: Cork & Galway, Stockholm, San Diego, CA
- Years previously in Columbus: 6
- Local spot you missed most while you were gone: The Rossi for the fries and pizza
- Your vision of Columbus in six words: Keep growing. Don’t stop. Include all.
Barry Chandler has a story that you’re not likely to hear very often: from the shores of sunny California, he openly admitted to an ache to be back in Ohio.
Even more rare? Barry was born in Ireland.
“I realized Columbus was home,” he said, almost a little surprised himself at being called back to the Midwest. “When I left Columbus for San Diego, in my mind, I had drawn a line under the Columbus chapter of my life. I had sold my company, my house, ended a long-term relationship, and thought that my life would now be in California. Two short years later, I realized just how much I missed the people, the vibrancy—the sum of all the parts that I had come to love over the previous six years in the city.”
This is Why Barry Chandler Came Back:
“There’s a palpable sense of progress in Columbus. We hear it and feel it regularly, from the economic development targets from Columbus 2020 to the best places to live and work indices, Columbus is growing, rising, and achieving the goals it has set. It’s inspiring and infectious. When other cities are contracting, Columbus is expanding in all the right ways—culturally, economically, socially.”
“Everyone I’ve met in Columbus feels it’s their obligation to connect me with five other people. I love it. It’s almost an unwritten rule that if you live and work in Columbus, you must expand the circles and reach of everyone else, too! My network and business exist because of the generosity of spirit of strangers who want to share the amazing folks they already know with me.”
"I couldn’t replicate [Columbus] in San Diego and didn’t want to try and replicate it anywhere else. I wanted to come back to where the action was. I knew this was where I could start my next business, safe in the knowledge that there was a community that could embrace it, customers I could serve, and a smart educated workforce should I hire.”
“We often hear about how challenging it is to focus on the one thing that Columbus stands for that best represents the city. Is it football? Is it Midwestern values? Is it that we’re 10 hours drive from 50 percent of the U.S. population? Is it cost of living? The beauty and uniqueness of Columbus is that it is all these things. It’s not, one, two, or even three things. The sum of all these things makes Columbus the most attractive city to live, work and raise family in of any I have visited. Rather than worry about what the one thing we can hang our hat on, let’s celebrate the number of hats we need! It’s more than one!”
- Age: 28
- Occupation: Actress/Creative and Theatre Educator
- Education: BFA in Acting with Emphasis in Musical Theatre
- Other cities lived in: Memphis, TN; Denver, CO; and NYC
- Years previously in Columbus: 16
- Local spot you missed most while you were gone: Surly Girl Saloon
- Your vision of Columbus in six words: A hidden gem in the heartland.
Kelsey’s story is a complicated one.
The long-and-short of it: she returned to the “only place I ever called home”—which was also the place she swore she’d never come back to.
Simultaneously suffocated by that she felt was a “too-small” city and driven to follow her theatre dreams to NYC, she skipped town from her parents’ Short North home, where she had actually hand painted the whole skyline of the Big Apple in her bedroom.
It turns out, what New York had to offer was bedbugs, crime, and plenty of sexist producer creeps, a world with which her Midwest morals were constantly doing battle.
“In that city, I had to ask permission to do my art. It was dog eat dog, and ‘who do you know?’ ‘what have you done?’” she said.
So, she quit. The whole city. E-mailed all three jobs, and bought a train ticket to her parents’ current home in Indiana the next day, and later stuffed the entire NYC chapter of her life into a small SUV, and made her way to a new Columbus.
Not only did she return to a very different Short North, but also a thriving creative city where no permission needs granted for any artistic endeavor. Today, she’s started a band and works as a theatre/acting teacher at the place where she first caught the bug, Columbus Children’s Theatre.
This is Why Kelsey Hopkins Came Back:
Columbus was not the Columbus I left. It had a new sheen to it. Here, you don’t need permission to do what you love or your art. You are allowed to create and find your own opportunities for success. At your own pace even! Columbus isn’t a fast-paced or slow-paced city, it’s a go-at-your-own pace city.
What used to annoy me growing up is now the thing I hold most dear. Community. Before, I hated that I felt like this city was too small, but now I know that’s the best thing to feed your happiness. A sense of community and social relationships are so important. In NYC, I felt like I could disappear in a crowded subway and no one would bat an eye. I never feel alone here. I feel at home, with a huge family made up of the most random people I all love dearly and in their own way.
NYC was like a cancer…. in another sense it was like sugar and processed foods. It’s great for that quick thrill and high, but over time it was sucking my life blood away and everything I held true to me. I became sick. Columbus is like a healthy community garden. Yeah, there are times when it rains and pours, and a frost comes in, but with care and many tending hands it’s a soil where anyone can thrive.
- Age: 38
- Occupation: Co-Founder & Chief Creative Officer, Visceral (thisisvisceral.com)
- Education: BA, Central State University
- Other cities lived in: Dayton, Xenia, Battle Creek, MI; Alexandria, VA; Fairfax, VA
- Years previously in Columbus: 2
- Local spot you missed most while you were gone: Rubino’s Pizza, Katzinger’s Deli, The Book Loft—German Village area in general
- Your vision of Columbus in six words: Big-city opportunities, small-town friendliness.
For Matthew Billingsley, repatriating was a form or rehabilitation—from corporate and civic burnout.
“Flattened” by the work he and his business partner were doing and by the clients they were working for, the disenchantment of living in the nation’s capital for nearly a decade—with its punishing hours, commutes, and blindingly career-driven populace having taken a toll.
“My wife and I needed a change of scenery and we knew Ohio was it,” he said. “We made some great friends but as much as we tried it wasn’t ‘home.’ There was this unattainable feeling of settling down the way we wanted.”
This is Why Matthew Billingsley Came Back:
Choosing Columbus was a no-brainer. We wanted a place where we could decompress that felt familiar but still had some relatively unknowns. It’s a brighter feeling and more inviting city. Being an interracial couple, we felt like it was more progressive in welcoming diverse cultures. Perhaps that would easier on our eventual child. I knew this was a city we could thrive in.
The decision to come back came at a pivotal and anxious time in my life. I was transitioning to start my company and a family simultaneously and felt I needed to do both in a place that was comfortable and inviting. I moved back from a very cynical place in the country—the D.C. area. There is a mental and emotional weight to living in an area like that for so long. After a while, it wears you down.
Columbus is growing and still finding its identity in a lot of ways. With so many diverse pockets, it has a bigger, transient-city feel, but with Midwestern principles I grew up with. There are no preconceived notions of how to pursue and achieve anything.
People are naturally cordial and willing to help. There’s a sense of “You need help? I know someone.” It sounds a little corny but in a place like D.C., this is viewed in a very opportunistic, negative way. You could be in debt to that person. But when applied to Columbus, it’s genuine.
In my quest to find greener pastures I lost sight of why this area was the best choice all along. My partner now lives in San Diego, along with our office and a few employees. His oasis was Southern California. Mine is here. In choosing to setup my own company, the country was wide open. Columbus had the mix of potential growth, professional opportunity, culture, and familiarity that made the choice easy.
- Age: 61
- Occupation: Bread Baker
- Education: Miami University, Oxford; Independent Studies at the Art Institute of Chicago
- Other cities lived in: Chicago, New York City
- Years previously in Columbus: Commuted to Columbus for one year after graduating from college.
- Local spot you missed most while you were gone: Driving Olentangy River Road in my MG Midget (convertible!) in 1976!
- Your vision of Columbus in six words: It’s the little engine that could.
In her recently published book, One Dough, Ten Breads, Sarah Black hinted at the inspiration for returning home with the quote printed on last page: “New Earths, New Themes Expect Us.”
The same sentiment expressed by Henry David Thoreau in 1857 resonated for the Marion native who has spent the last three decades not only living in New York City, but becoming one of its go-to bread bakers as well.
But, when faced with “casting about for a new direction,” Black’s compass pointed to the only other city that had ever found a place in her heart—that capital city just south of her, one that she watched from a far become entirely different than its 1960s version.
Finding that feeling of “home” again—not to mention the chance to start a new business, Flowers and Bread, a bread school, café and floral studio that will open in the summer of 2016—is Why Sarah Black Came Back:
In many ways I thrived in New York—the stimulation, the drive, the challenge all pushed me beyond my comfort zone, and I grew for it. Living there was about a love of learning, not unlike studying abroad, but never did I feel in step with the city or the lifestyle there, and never did it feel like home.
I’ve traveled to this big small city all of my life—to Lazarus Department Store downtown to see the Christmas windows as a six-year-old; to the Columbus Zoo as a sixth grade reward for being a school patrol, to a birthday lunch at the Christopher Inn before going to see The Sound of Music at a nearby movie theatre, to dinner to celebrate my parents’ anniversary at the charming L’Armagnac.
I chose to return for the people who live here. Ohio has always had my heart—for family, for friends, both old and new and for colleagues—the Midwestern values of kindness, consideration, hard work, and responsibility foster this connection for me.
There’s an intimacy here that still resonates as human, and keeping that element alive, with all its creativity and verve, is an important component of intelligent civilization. It makes the small big city of Columbus unique among cities, and like Dorothy said in the Land of Oz “there’s no place like home.”