Saturday, November 19, 2011

Payphone Pimping Ain’t Easy: An Interview With J-Zone

Living outside the box can be a lonely existence.  Some do so by choice, usually as a way to distinguish themselves from the pack.  That kind of pretentious facade is usually nothing more than an elaborate ruse.  Much harder to figure out is the authentically odd duck, that rare kind of weirdo who is, quite simply, being himself.  Such an individual has an especially hard row to hoe, seeing as how people tend to roundly dismiss anything they can’t easily categorize.  

J-Zone has always been the proverbial odd duck, and that suits him just fine.    He represents a corner of the Hip-Hop experience that is rarely acknowledged or exposed.  He was one of many “indie” rappers who came to prominence in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s.  His quirky, self-styled brand of rap music allowed him to cultivate a small but loyal following and traveling the world.  None the less, he opted for an early retirement and decided to re-enter the workforce.  His experiences as a recording artist have culminated in his latest endeavor, the frequently hilarious and oddly touching book ‘Root for the Villain: Rap, Bullshit, and a Celebration of Failure.’  

He agreed to take a break from recording the audio version of his book on cassette tape (Yeah, you heard that right), and give the world some insight into the enigma that is J-Zone.  During our interview, I found him to be something of a kindred spirit.  I suspect I will not be alone in that.     

Scott “Tre” Wilson: Rap fans seem to have a very hard time embracing anything out of the ordinary or off the beaten path.  Do you think that’s the result of media influence, or do you think that people are inherently narrow-minded?

J-Zone: I think part of it is that a lot of people don’t have the capacity to think for themselves. They just don’t have the time.  Forming an opinion is hard work.  I’ve actually heard people say that when people listen to music, they don’t want to think.  They don’t want to absorb too much.  A lot of times people listen to music when they’re running, or in their car, or doing laundry or whatever.  So stuff that isn’t that deep or profound has a tendency to be easier to digest.  I guess people who are in charge of marketing and media try to push that stuff because simplicity sells.  But even if you’re doing something that’s different, you’re always going to have a little trouble unless you can find a niche.  I also think that media, DJ’s, taste-makers, and journalists should take more chances instead of trying to cater to what’s already popular. They should try to break new ground, which is what the job of DJ’s and media is.  People might open up to stuff.  In general, a lot of times when it comes to entertainment, people like their entertainment to be simple.  Anything that’s not super-duper simple or dumbed down is a little bit of a harder sell.  

Scott “Tre” Wilson: Your influences seem to include a lot of obscure artists and albums.  Do you consciously try to avoid things that are popular or mainstream, or do you simply listen to what you like?

J-Zone: I listen to what I like.  This morning I was doing push-ups, listening to The Chronic, which is one of the most popular Hip-Hop albums of all time.  Last night I was listening to Baritone Tiplove, which was a cassette only release from 1991.  To me, good music is good music.  

Baritone Tiplove

On the other side of the token, I was in the indie Hip-Hop thing for a while, and that quadrant of the music business is just as elitist as people in the mainstream.  As soon as you sell 15 units, you have people who think you’re officially no longer cutting edge, because somebody else likes you besides you and your five boys.  

I’m a record collector.  When you look at record collecting, people get into it for sampling for beats and stuff like that.  You can’t go out looking for Stark Reality records and not know James Brown, because everybody has James Brown and they’re not that obscure and everybody knows it.  That’s the foundation: Kool & the Gang, James Brown, The Meters, The Ohio Players, Parliament.  That’s the foundation of digging.  It’s just as irritating when people go for rarities solely because they’re rare, but I just happen to like everything.  A lot of stuff I happen to like is an acquired taste.  Everything about me is an acquired taste.  When you embrace a lot of music that’s an acquired taste, by default, a lot of it Is going to be music that a lot of people didn’t like, or that a very small percentage of people were exposed to.  So I just appreciate a wide variety of things, and I just like a lot of stuff that’s very niche market.  In turn, a lot of that shit is obscure, and when I like it I pursue it.           

Scott “Tre” Wilson: A lot of mainstream rappers go to great lengths to create and maintain their public image.  Was your image as a rapper painstakingly calculated or did you make it up as you went along?

J-Zone: Everything was made up as I went along.  My problem was, I had a persona but I didn’t go to great lengths to do it.  I was known for giving interviews and saying shit and people would be like “what the fuck did he just say?  I didn’t expect him to say shit like that.”  It wasn’t totally calculated.  When I started out, all my stuff was very self-deprecating, but halfway through my career I said “You know, I want to talk some shit.  I’m always talking about being the whipping boy and saying ‘woe is me’ in a funny way, but I’m just going to flip it on ‘em and get real arrogant, because I feel like being arrogant.”  A lot of people didn’t like that, but everybody is dual-natured.  We all contradict ourselves every day.  We have this ambiguous behavior.  

People didn’t know what to make of it (My behavior), so because of that it was hard to pigeonhole.  It was very hard to categorize.  Some people pigeonholed me as kind of like this novelty thing, like comedy rap.  People were like “He’s very serious about his production craft, but he’s a goofball as an artist.”  They didn’t know where to put me.  In terms of that, my image was kind of all over the place.  The only common ground was that it was comedy.  I was known for being funny, but then I would switch it up.  I was influenced by Prince Paul, but I was also influenced by Tweety Bird Loc, Eazy-E, Tim Dog, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Geto Boys, 2 Live Crew, X-Clan, and Kid N Play.  I took a little piece of everything.  So when you do that, your image tends to be a mixture of all those things.  Unless you were exposed to that wide variety of artists, you’re going to be like “What the fuck is this?”  I think that’s what happened to me, at least on the music side.  I was hard to categorize and that got me in a lot of trouble.  

The infamous Tim Dog

Scott “Tre” Wilson: During your career as a rapper did you find that so-called underground rap fans were any more intelligent and open-minded than mainstream rap fans or is that just a myth?

J-Zone: That’s a myth.  That’s definitely a myth.  A lot of people were underground for the sake of being in something different.  A lot of people would just say, “Oh he’s on major label, I don’t want to listen to him.  He’s a sell-out.”  I was like, “You don’t know that.”  There was plenty of underground CD’s that were garbage.  There was major label garbage, but there was also good major label shit and good underground shit.  To me, music was music.  

I wasn’t underground just because.  I was sampling my ass off, so there was no way I could put out any of that shit on a major without fucking getting put under the jail.  On top of that, the subject matter was all over the place.  I remember I had Atlantic Records showing some interest in me early in my career and they were like “We love your album.  Its comedic genius but you have to make some songs for the club.”  I was like, well, what does that mean?!  Picture me making a record about the club.  If I make a record for the club, to me that means I’m popping bottles, I dance, I break my ankle and I’m home jerking off at the end of the night because I broke my ankle and can’t dance and can’t pull no chicks.  To me that’s a club record (Laughs).  They’re like “Nah man, we can’t play no records with you jerking off and put that shit on the radio.”  So in turn, I was underground.  So it’s not I came out with the intent of saying “No, I’m too underground.”  I just did whatever came naturally.  I had records that could have been on commercial radio if they had given it a shot.  I had records that had an ice cubes chance under a fat girl’s ass that anybody would play that shit during the day.  So I just say music is music and I like everything. 

 There are ignorant motherfuckers on both sides.  There were people like “Yo, you disappointed me when you said your favorite rapper is Sugar Free.”  I was like, Why not?  Sugar Free is great!  The typical underground rap fan in New York doesn’t listen to Sugar Free.  I just know what I like when I hear it.  I don’t think underground rap fans are any more or less intelligent than mainstream rap fans.  Maybe they’re less easily swayed because they seek stuff out, but even then, an underground tastemaker says “Yeah, you should like this” and they will like it.  People like whatever a blog tells them to like.  A lot of times people just don’t seek shit out.  Whether it’s an underground blog with 300 followers or a mainstream blog with 3 million followers, If they say “Yo, this is a record that you should like” and then you go and like it because they do, then it doesn’t matter whether it’s underground or mainstream.  Bottom line is you can’t make up your own mind about what you want to listen to.  

Scott “Tre” Wilson: Do you think that Hip-Hop adequately addresses all aspects of its fanbase?  Do you think there’s a particular type of Hip-Hop fan that isn’t being addressed or represented?

J-Zone: No, I don’t believe Hip-Hop addresses its entire fanbase.  After a while, I felt I was the type of Hip-Hop fan that wasn’t being addressed.  That’s why I made records that were in their own little niche.  I look at myself, and I have friends who are similar to me.  I’m a native New Yorker.  I’m a Black guy.  They have stereotypes of what you’re supposed to do as an adult young Black male.  What you’re supposed to listen to, what you’re supposed to watch.  I’m a 34 year old Black male and New York native who’s educated and intelligent, but at the same time, when I’m in my car riding around with a girl I’m listening to Tim Dog.  I don’t listen to Luther Vandross in the car.  I love Luther Vandross, but I listen to Tim Dog when I’m riding around in the car on a date.  I’m 34 years old and I have a Gumby haircut.  Why not?! I still have a full head of hair, I take advantage.  So you go around people and they wonder what to make of you. 

I live in Jamaica, Queens, which is a predominantly Black neighborhood.  Trying to talk to women over here, they think I’m too eccentric.  They’re like “You’re too quirky, you’re too weird.”  But if I go into the city and get around some of the more artsy crowd, some girls have told me “You’re kind of hood for me.  You’re kind of Hip-Hoppy and kind of Hood.”  So it’s like I’m too hood for this and too nerdy for this.  So I don’t fit in anywhere.  In recent years I haven’t heard as much stuff that speaks to a person like that.  I remember growing up, that void was filled by acts like Digital Underground.  They kind of walked the line and hit everything.  They had a whole album with this Sex Packets ideology where it’s like fantasies, and they’re talking about wet dreams and jerking off.  It’s kind of like nerdy, quirky shit.  But then the beats were hard.  They were from Oakland and they were funky.  When you were growing up, that kind of music shows you that it’s okay not to fall into a stereotype.  That it’s okay to not fit into expectations based upon your age, your ethnicity, your level of class, your location, or education.  Things you’re supposed to like and do.  I’m not saying there’s not stuff out there like that right now, because I’m not that entrenched in what’s going on.  When I was making my records, I didn’t hear that much stuff, especially on a mainstream level, about that.  

I would think people would look at entertainment as something they could relate to, but in recent years I’ve found that people look at entertainment as something to distract themselves from their own personal misery.  People watch these horrible reality shows on TV to get their mind off of their everyday bullshit.  I worked in a high school where 90% of the kids were in poverty and they liked to listen to people rap about Maybachs and making all this money.  That’s nothing they can relate to, but maybe they don’t want to hear about being broke.  I’m the opposite.  I like to hear music that speaks to me.  I just think they don’t want to hear music that speaks to them.  They want to hear fantasy stuff.  I think they want to be distracted from their reality.  If you’re poor and you lost your job, maybe you want to hear about people balling.  I don’t know, I’m just guessing.  To me it seems like a lot people really don’t want to hear what they can relate to.  Kids especially, live vicariously through the artist.  That could be an explanation.

Scott “Tre” Wilson: Do you think that people who prefer sample based production to synthesized production are behind the times and/or curmudgeons, or do you think that sample based bears are inherently better than synthesizer beats?

J-Zone: Well, the answer to the first part of the question is Hell fucking no!  It’s basically saying do you like your grits with sugar, or do you like your grits with salt and butter?  That’s really it.  Some people prefer a cleaner sound. Some prefer live instrumentation, and some prefer sampling.  I like both.  I like Ant Banks, who plays a lot of stuff.  The Bomb Squad from Public Enemy, who are sampled based, are my favorite producers.  I much prefer sample based because that’s how I learned how to make beats.  I’m such a fan of 60’s and 70’s funk that I’m a sucker for a good chopped up sample and some crazy drum breaks.  I prefer that.  Being completely subjective, I say sampling wins.  So does liking live instrumentation better than sampling mean that you’re wrong?  No.  Does liking sampling production mean that you’re behind the times?  Hell fucking no!  It can’t be!  How could it be when 90% of the classic Hip-Hop records were samples?  If that’s the case then we have to rewrite history.  So I definitely don’t think you can be a curmudgeon for that.  It’s just a matter of taste.  

Scott “Tre” Wilson:  In Your book, you talk about the impact that video shows like Yo! MTV Raps had on you as a child.  Do you think that being initially exposed to Hip-Hop through television affected your perception of it?  Do you think that makes you different from the guys in the 70’s and 80’s who were exposed to it primarily through block parties and 12 inches?  

J-Zone: I don’t think either one is better than the other.  At the end of the day, when they were doing those block parties I was three years old.  So what could I do?  It’s not like I had a way to go there and watch it.  I just think it’s a different experience.  I think watching it, absorbing it through videos and TV, I think eventually you’re in for a little more of a shock because you have to learn stuff first-hand.  A lot of stuff was violent.  At Hip-Hop shows fights would break out.  There would be beef between artists.  A lot of times an artist’s persona was totally different than how an artist was in real life.  So if you have a front row seat to it, you can kind of see it and your view of it is a little better.  

When I started getting into the music business, I started working with people.  In the videos, a lot of people got Benzes and Beamers and shit.  Then you meet them and they’re doing landscaping jobs to pay their rent.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but you kind of have to learn.  I think it’s more of shock.  You kind of have to decide to actually enter the music business to find out. The learning process is a little more of shock, because you can only absorb but so much from television.  Whereas if you’re at a show, you can see what’s going down.  So I learned a little bit later, and in turn it was more of a shock to me.  Like “Okay, this guy’s persona is like a tough guy, but he’s really full of shit.  Okay, this guy is rapping about being in a club and he’s singing to the chicks and being soft, but I just saw him knock somebody out for no apparent reason.  Okay.  I’m learning how this works.”  So I think it’s just a different method of absorption.  As you get older and decide to enter the music business you get to see a lot of it face to face, and at first it will scare the shit out of you.  

Scott “Tre” Wilson: You did a bit of traveling in your career as a rapper.  What’s the main difference between how Hip-Hop is viewed in America and how Hip-Hop is viewed abroad?  

J-Zone: In my experience, when I went overseas, the fans were still fans.  That shocked the fuck out of me, because here we take stuff for granted because it’s readily available.  I was performing in New York twice a month.  So after a while, it’s like, who gives a fuck?  He’s from New York.  During my career, everybody in New York was trying to rap.  So after a while you’re performing for your peers.  You get off stage, and instead of people asking “Where can I buy your CD?” or “Yo, can you sign my CD?” They’re saying “Nigga, let me give you my CD.”  When you go overseas, I just felt like there was a greater appreciation for we were doing.  We went all the way out there.  We were working hard and pushing our stuff.  I didn’t feel like I was performing for competition. I was performing for fans. 
When I would go to Hip-Hop shows, yeah I made beats.  Yeah, I had a beat tape in my back pocket.  Yeah, I had a business card.  Of course I had records in the trunk.  But when I came to see EPMD at Tramps, right after my first album came out, I went to see EPMD at Tramps.  I didn’t go up to DJ Scratch like “Yo, I’m J-Zone!  Check out my record!”  I went as an EPMD fan because I had been an EPMD fan for ten years.  I felt like a majority of the time when I performed in the states, a lot of people in the crowd, especially in major cities, were guys who are trying to get on themselves.  Not only could you not make any money, but you just couldn’t feel the appreciation.  

In America we just don’t have enough appreciation for the arts.  In other countries the government will dole out money to bring people there to perform.  They’ll sanction festivals and stuff like that.  I just think that here in the states, because so many musicians are from here, we kind of take it for granted.  There’s not a lot of emphasis placed on the arts.  Arts are being taken out of the schools.  Schools are always cutting music and athletics.  I feel like it’s not as valued here as it was overseas, and because of that, my experience as an artist overseas was a lot better.

Scott “Tre” Wilson: Do you think that being an only child had an impact on your work?  If so, what impact did it have? 

J-Zone: It definitely had an impact on my work.  When you’re young and you don’t have an older brother to show you the ropes, you’re kind of an outsider.  My parents divorced when I was six.  My father was around, but I was in a single parent household.  I would stay with my grandparents from time to time.  I was always the youngest one amongst adults.  So I kind of had to learn how to grow up a little quicker in terms of maturity and do things on my own.  I would get home from school and my mom didn’t get home until 10.  It’s four o’ clock and I’m hungry.  I’ve got to go find some money and get something to eat.  Go get some kind of job or something and get something to eat.  So I think it affected my business acumen.  Take, for instance, my first album.  I finished the album.  I played it for some people.  Nobody bit, so I put it out myself.  Now people want to offer me a record deal.  With the book, I had an agent work my book.  Everybody liked it, but they all said “Oh, he doesn’t have a big enough fanbase.”  So I pressed it myself.  A lot of people are like “Why don’t you just wait for another publisher or send it to this guy.”  My whole approach is rooted in being an only child.  My mom ain’t home, so I got to get something to eat.  Okay I finished the book, so why am I going to sit around?  I always had to fend for myself, so I feel like I took that theory and brought it into my music.  

J-Zone's first album, Music For Tu Madre.

, being an only child your imagination starts to run wild.  So I imagine that I’m a little more eccentric than the average cat because I didn’t have an older brother beat my ass every day to kind of keep me grounded, so I had imaginary friends.  I would draw fictional album covers with me on them with a big fro or a high top fade, playing an instrument or cutting up turntables.  That quirkiness came from being an only child because there was no one around me saying “Yo, you’re doing that weirdo shit, what the fuck is wrong with you?”  Nobody was around me to stop me from being a space cadet.  So when I started making music, I would play stuff that sounded normal to me for people and they were like “Yo, you’re fucking bugging, what the fuck are you talking about?  Why are you talking about jerking off on a record?”  I was like “Yeah, because when I was in High School I was jerking off, what the fuck?!”  So a lot of that eccentricity was rooted in being an only child.  Most kids have an older brother to slap them into shape.  I was bored, my mind would start wandering and I would start doing bugged out shit.  In terms of being self-sufficient, when you got nobody to help you and you’re on your own, you’re not going to sit around and wait, you’re going to go.  I think it helped me from a business stand point and I think it definitely influenced me being kind of eccentric with my art. 

Scott “Tre” Wilson: If you could get Doc Brown’s time traveling DeLorean from Back to the Future and go back in time, what rapper would you erase from existence?

J-Zone: There are rappers that I just thought plain sucked.  Obviously I think a lot of the shit that’s coming out now is just plain terrible, and a lot of that is just my age.  This whole Kreayshawn, V-nasty thing, those two bitches I would go back and make sure there was no fucking going on that night!  There’d be no sex in the champagne room!  I’ve heard bad shit.  You hear a Souljah Boy record and you’re like “Oh that’s kind of bad,” But you give it a pass because it’s not for my generation.  It’s for the youth.  But those two bitches?  That shit ain’t for nobody!  I could bend far enough to say, Okay, my twelve year old cousin, Souljah Boy’s for him, therefore it’s not deplorable.  I don’t like it, but I’m not in a position to snap on it because I’m older and just in a different spot.  I have no problem with Lil Wayne even though I don’t listen to him.  I don’t have a problem with Drake.   That’s just not my generation.  But Kreayshawn and V-Nasty, those two bitches?  I was like, somebodies gotta be beat down for that.  Not even so much for this white girl saying nigga every other word.  What bothers me the most is that it’s just so fucking bad!  It’s getting hits just because it’s bad.  It almost makes me feel like if you come out and you’re just exceptionally bad you’ll get hits.  It’s almost like the reverse theory, like “Let me see how shitty I can be to get hits.”  Some A&R will definitely sign that shit.  You’ll get hits.  So I would make sure that they were taken out of here, like completely wiped out.  

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