J-Zone Rap Tofu Analogies
Published Sep 23, 2013Queens, NY rapper/producer J-Zone made fans of Cee Lo, Danger Mouse, the Lonely Island and Prince Paul over an 8 year career before everything collapsed. Equally influenced by Cash Money and Prince Paul's psychedelic sample collages, J-Zone released his debut Music For Tu Madre in 1999, a mix of bizarro loops, obscure movie clips and tongue-in-cheek rhymes. Over the next few years, J-Zone released four solo albums and a number of side projects through his independent label Old Maid Entertainment. Running with the burgeoning rap underground, he produced for artists like Biz Markie, R.A. the Rugged Man and Sadat X. Then the recession came. Nobody was buying his CDs, the gig offers dried up and J-Zone retired from music in 2007. He never stopped writing, contributing to Complex and Ego Trip. In 2011, J-Zone released Root for the Villain: Rap, Bullshit and a Celebration of Failure, a wry autobiography that received accolades in The Washington Post and The L.A. Times. After a nine-year hiatus, Zone took up drumming and returned to music. His new album Peter Pan Syndrome sees the rapper hilariously deconstructing rap's one percent ("Jacking For Basquiats"), and the perils of dating ("The Fox Hunt"), backed by Breeze Brewin, Has-Lo and frequent collaborators Celph Titled and Al-Shid.
Why take up the drums?
I put a book out at the end of 2011, so around that time, I'd been talking about picking up an instrument 'cause I hadn't made any music in years. Even though I had to walk away from hip-hop, I was always a musician. Eventually, if you leave that void in your life, you're gonna get the urge to do something. I played bass when I was younger. I was going to take that back up, then I started watching videos of James Brown's drummers. I was always talking about it and when I put the book out, my father bought me a cheap start-up drum kit as a surprise gift. At first, I was teaching, promoting the book, so I would just bang on it. After six months, I started taking lessons from one of my students in exchange for production tips. I'd say I've been playing seriously for about a year and a half.
How has it influenced your production?
I owe a lot of credit to RJD2 because when I put on Twitter that I was trying to play, he said he'd give me some tips. I talked to him about it, and the hardest thing is miking. If you wanna get that ol' sampled '60s, '70s kinda sound, it's a lot of research. Mikes, drums, the room, how you set it up, the head, the style of play — had to do a lot of trial and error. My production has always been very sample-based so I didn't want to add anything to it to make it too clean or too unplugged. I wanted it to still sound like samples but I kinda liked the [looseness] of live instruments. When you sit down at the drums, you naturally start playing at a faster pace. It's more natural, but hip-hop is programmed. I wanted to make it more loose, funky, sloppy and a bit raggedy. Some of the older hip-hop, guys weren't really even sampling. They were cutting in samples on the turntables, over the drum machines! [Laughs] Some of those mistakes and more natural things that took place before really good sequencing, ProTools and metronomes gave it an inhuman feel. I really wanted to go for that on this record.
The album reminds me of early '90s Ice Cube albums.
That's the era I was reared in. I got into hip-hop after Public Enemy and De La Soul went and fucked it up for everybody. They made it so your album had to be entertaining. There were peaks and valleys for production and album sequencing. De La Soul, "A Little Bit of Soap"...if you play that song at a party, you'll get shot because it's not a party song [laughs]. So every time I made an album, it always had that Ice Cube, P.E., KMD's Mr. Hood influence of that time, '89 to '91, where albums are kinda like movies. It's gone back to a singles game, people are more about singles and mixtapes, songs and freestyles. They're not really about doing an album where not every cut is a banger but it works. I guess I never changed how I approach albums.
You mentioned KMD and De La Soul, icons of a goofier time in rap. Do you feel like rap is getting weirder and funnier again?
One thing I'm happy about in hip-hop is guys like Odd Future... whether it's your cup of tea or not, you gotta give them credit for coming out and just doing their thing. I was trying to do the same thing a lot of these guys are doing now ten-plus years ago and that was a time when hip-hop was extremely segregated. You were pigeonholed into a sound and aesthetic based on your record sales and distribution network. When I came up, my connections were Bobbito [Garcia], Sound Library Records and stuff, and eventually you expand to stuff like Sandbox [Automatic], Fat Beats... That was my network, but that network had a sound that dominated it. Boom-bap purist kind of stuff, very twelve-inch based. I was a lone wolf with the attitude of the Big Tymers but a sound similar to Madlib. That made it very difficult to get on tour and promote. I didn't get a lot of reviews or press, distributors didn't want to give me the carte blanche they would give a Stones Throw or an Uncle Howie or Eastern Conference. What do you know, ten years later, [Southern rap] becomes iconic. You got the same guys who would scoff at me at shows now have trap rap t-shirts and blogs and talk about ignorant trap rap. Now it's acceptable but back then it was difficult.
How do you feel about New York rap making a comeback with people like A$AP Rocky and Action Bronson?
It's cool, but I think rap is more global at this point. At a certain point, you could hear a record from New York and be like, "Damn, that's a New York record." You listen to Tim Dog, even without "Fuck Compton," or Eric B. & Rakim. At this point, hip-hop is kinda like tofu. It just takes the flavour of wherever it is or whatever is put on it [laughs]. I worked in a high school a few years ago and there were kids rapping with Southern accents! I'm like, "Man, you're from Long Island." Because hip-hop is so global, you're influenced by who you're influenced by.
When I was coming up, you were influenced by other local artists in your neighbourhood, whoever you saw on MTV Raps. Now somebody in South America, if they practice, they can sound like someone from Brooklyn. The playing field is even, I don't think there's so much of a New York sound or a down south sound. Everybody is borrowing from each other. There are artists who kinda embody some of that. Action Bronson redid the [EPMD] joint "Rampage" with ["Strictly 4 My Jeeps"], that sounds like a traditional New York record with LL [Cool J]. Now it's more about being universal. Most records I hear now, I don't know where they're from.
New York has also changed a lot, which you talk about on "Trespasser."
New York has been gentrified to the point that there are very few natives here. All my friends I grew up with are gone, most of the people I meet aren't from here. I remember when my father took me to Williamsburg, Brooklyn in '89, '90... I was begging for him to get out of there, 'cause I was scared to death. There were base-heads walking in the street, trashcans burning. You go there now and it's completely changed. If music is your way out of poverty, violence and despair, you're going to approach your music sounding different. Whereas if you go to blogs and art shows, you can afford to pay five grand a month in rent, music's not going to sound the same. At the time these [hip-hop] classics were being made, New York was a racial powder keg. We'd have race riots in the cafeteria. The music was a reflection of that. Public Enemy's Nation of Millions, Tim Dog's Penicillin on Wax, this is what it was like being in New York at that time. That New York is gone.
This album deals with a lot of the same topics discussed in your books and blogs. How does your writing method change from each medium?
Same approach. When you write a song, it's a lot looser, it's more about aesthetic and delivery with the rhymes, you can really express your feelings better when you rap it. You can hear it in the voice. Some of these songs were blog ideas I had, turned them into songs. I go to the library with my notepad, jot ideas down. Instead of taking my laptop and drafting a column for Ego Trip, I just took the rhyme pad into the studio and just put it to music, and work on a cadence.
You rap about issues not discussed in the genre, like getting older and the realities of race. Why don't more people talk about these things?
Because the artist's most valuable asset is their ego, and once it's in danger, the artist feels like it could all be over. The difference with me is I hit rock bottom. You're in your mid-30s, you stop and look around — your career didn't pan out the way you hoped, you had some positive successes, but in the eyes of the real world, there wasn't [anything]. Because now you're out here looking for a job with no work experience. My parents are [baby boomers], a lot of the album is just talking to that generation. You have people who've been working since they got out of college, they're 35, 36, they got wives, kids, promotions. They're like, "It's easy, just get a job and give up the rap shit." But that's like me telling them, "Get in the studio and make a rap album."
I spent my entire life on the opposite side of the fence. I tried to get over to this side in 2008 when the economy went bad, everyone went into debt, going back to school. I couldn't not talk about it. Everybody was being affected, but everybody was worried about how they'd be perceived. They just don't want to put themselves out there. I think with my music and my book, I was aiming to demystify what it's like. To be an artist... sometimes you're out in the deep end of the pool and you have no choice. I probably have to do this type of shit for the rest of my life, because if I get on LinkedIn trying to be a programs administrator, they look at your resume: "Yeah, ran around in a fur coat for 15 years." I'm scared to death but the way I cope with fear and anxiety is by entertaining people with the honesty. Your average artist is going through the same shit, just we don't find out until they're 60 years old in a nursing home or homeless.
Jay-Z is 44 and the most successful rapper, which is unprecedented.
Rap is a double-edged sword. On one hand it keeps you young in spirit, because all my peers who took the traditional route might as well be 90. But we encounter uncertainty. I don't know how much money I'm going to make next month, or from year to year. That's a crazy-ass way to live! [Laughs] If rappers die, it's usually because they have no health insurance, or they can't afford it.
What do you do if this record flops?
It didn't [laughs]. I made my money back. People seem to appreciate it, it got some good reviews. I did this record just to do it. I wasn't even going to put it out anywhere, just throw it on iTunes, no promotion. It wound up being more involved, a lot more people knew about it than I thought they would. Records don't sell these days, so hopefully it opens up more opportunities to make money. Everything is a stepping stone to the next thing. The book set up the record, now the record will set up something else. Am I going to be an indie superstar like Tyler, the Creator? Probably not. Who wants to hear a 36-year-old joking around, complaining, talking about shit we all want to hide from?
I never think more than three months ahead [laughs]. I've been taking drumming more serious. I've been playing breakbeats for people on the side. I want to do more music for commercials, stay behind the scenes, get some DJ gigs. I don't really want to tour as a rapper but if I had a chance to go to Europe, I'd do it. I'm not trying to compete with the pantheon of relevant rappers. My goal is to have my own brand and people come to me for specific things, build a niche. If you want drums that sound like samples, go to Zone. If you want a concept record, like how people go to Prince Paul, go to Zone. You want music for a porno or a stupid-ass horror movie, call Zone [laughs].
I've been in the music biz for 20 years so at this point, it's about making a living, trying to enjoy what I do and build my name so when my time is up, they can say "He did a little bit of everything, he was a craftsman who never sacrificed his artistic integrity. He made mistakes but he also had victories and he represented for the blue collar common man."