J-Zones brand of self-deprecating comedic rap may not have led him to commercial success but his razor-sharp wit and skill for producing thickly layered boom-bap beats definitely left a mark. From the late 90s into the early 2000s, the New York indie rapper/producer made a slew of albums that received cult adoration from the underground, but as a career it felt more like he was self-funding a very expensive hobby. Near the end of 2008, he decided to throw in the towel after his last album sold only 47 copies within the first month. His distributor, Fat Beats Records, asked him to either remove them from the warehouse or sign them off to be destroyed. He chose the latter. Around the same time he got a call from his digital distributor informing him that they were removing his songs from iTunes and his Wikipedia page also got deleted for lack of relevance. J-Zone dealt with the humiliation of being a “failed” musician having to make a start in the 9-5 world the only way he knew how, by looking at the lighter side of it. He hit back with a book, part memoir from his rap days and part cantankerous social commentary called Root for the Villain: Rap, Bullshit and Celebrating Failure that we interviewed him about here. Now he’s returned to the rap game with a comeback album called Peter Pan Syndrome. We chat to him about his comeback, being a rapper in his mid-30s and he tells us why he hates the term ‘90s revivalist’.
In our first interview you said producing had become a hobby, but you were done with rapping. What made you change your mind?
It really snowballed out of nowhere as far as wanting to rap, but the ideas for the songs themselves just came from life experiences that gave me a lot to talk about. I had a lot on my mind from what I’ve gone through in the last five years and was kind of burnt out on blogging, so it came out in rap form.
Your book was about failing in the rap game and the new album has a lot to do with failing to make it in the 9-5 world as well. Do you feel caught between a rock and a hard place?
Emphatically yes. You hear people say it all the time: “Stop rapping, grow up and get a real job.” Because rap is a notoriously unstable career and rappers have a stigma attached to them as being irresponsible, deadbeat dads, lazy, irrelevant artists who didn’t get the memo, dudes who don’t grow up…it’s not a prestigious thing to be once you hit a certain age and nobody takes you seriously if you can’t prove you’re successful like Jay-Z or Nas. Rap is usually a phase that you grow out of due to maturity, responsibility and financial strain. So naturally, if you’re aware of this, you hit 30, evaluate your success and wonder if this will sustain you until you’re 60 or if it’s time to start looking for other ways to make a living. I was bitter with the music business, so instead of finding work in the music biz, I tried to get a regular 9 to 5 and “work my way up.” But after three years, I realized that my experience, resume and connections weren’t getting me anywhere in that world. It’s like leaving Corporate America after a decade to be come a singer-songwriter in your 30s and you’ve never written a song or sung a note in your life. Music was my full-time job for 10-plus years, so it wasn’t like I had any relevant work experience when I was looking for jobs except writing jobs. So I just took what I could get and humbled myself. In 2009, I made $100 a month at my reporter job and lived off my savings and the random iTunes check, with the hopes the company would expand because it looked like it would and opportunities would open up. They never did, so I got a bunch of other reporter jobs to try to fill the gaps the following year. I eventually took a gym job and an office job to get more money to finance my book, but those were just above minimum wage after commute money because they were far away. After a year of doing all that and finishing the book, I realized I couldn’t “move up” and went back to J-Zone stuff full time. I’m working my ass off to try to make music and my own writing stuff work this time because I’m over the stigma attached to doing this at this age. If people don’t take me seriously, then I just have to deal with it.
Tell us about your gripes with society’s expectation to conform to the model of settling down in your 30s with a steady job and getting married, popping out babies, etc.
I’m an only child and I was always somewhat of a loner and in my own world. I had no clue any of these norms applied to me until I hit 30 and set up a Facebook account. So now you’re getting daily updates from people living that life and a switch goes off, like “Oh shit, if I don’t assimilate I won’t get any respect.” Then you Google your life situation, and that makes it worse. I realized at 31 that I was in an unenviable position and wanted to change it, but by 35 I was still there, four years of trying to get in that world had passed, it went nowhere and I’m sitting up here learning to play the drums when I should’ve been at work somewhere or playing with my kids. That’s when I kind of knew that world isn’t for me – or at least not right now, but that’s the problem. If you decide you want to go that route at age 45, then you’re already damaged goods in the eyes of many and they assume you’ve got Peter Pan Syndrome and are a commitaphobe. So in you’re in your mid-30s, there’s pressure to make that decision immediately while you still can and hope it’s really what you want and you eventually get settled. Time is the real issue.
What was it like working on this album where, I assume, you didn’t have the pressure of expecting to make it a commercial success? Do you care about sales, illegal downloads and how well it will be received?
I didn’t care at all initially. It was just therapy for me, like all my projects are. I felt like I was going through a rap mid-life crisis and had to have an outlet or I would’ve went nuts. Obviously I need to make a living and I cared about sales, but if you’re concerned about illegal downloading in 2013, you’re wasting energy on something you can’t control.
Which demographic do you think the album will appeal to? And do you think the old-school production and throwback references will resonate with 90s fetishist hipster crowds?
I think thirty-somethings – people who are in my postion in life, as well as people who went the other route. Some people caved under pressure and settled into a traditional life, but really didn’t want to. Some people went that route and are happy they did, but may be curious about what life had been like if they took a different road. Neither way is right or wrong, I just wanted to be a reporter from the other side of the fence because not many people are where I am at 36 years old and if they are, they may not want to talk about it because society says it’s an embarrassment. I think some of the throwback crowds may like it, but the album is more of an Ice Cube vibe than a Tribe Called Quest or Big Daddy Kane vibe, which seems to be more popular. I think kids are into the fashion and aesthetic more than the actual music, and my music is more reminiscent of a niche early ‘90s thing than a Low End Theory or a Hard to Earn boom-bap vibe.
What’s your take on your sound being referred to as “boom bap revivalist” when that’s the kind of sound you’ve been producing your whole career?
What inspires you at the moment? Do you listen to any new rap? Do you dig the 90s revivalist dudes from New York like Joey Badass and Action Bronson?
I really hate the term “‘90s revivalist.” The artists make the music they want to make and that’s it. People assume because it may be influenced by music that came out in the ‘90s, doesn’t sound like Lil’ Wayne, there’s samples in it and guys are rhyming like they’re functional human beings means “’90s revival.” That’s bullshit. The ‘90s are gone. I used ‘60s drums and played drums like the ‘60s funk drummers did on this album, but that doesn’t mean it’s a “’60s revivalist” album. I’m not talking about Vietnam and reliving the Watts Riots. I’m sampling and rapping, too. Sampling and rapping weren’t around in the ‘60s. Just like I or any other artist being labeled “’90s revivalist” isn’t walking around New York “wilding” and stabbing kids for Starter coats. To me “’90s revival” would mean everything is the exact same as it was in the ‘90s, and gentrification prevents that, as do politics, technology, values and the global state of everything. Until everyone starts using payphones again, this ain’t the ‘90s. I never understood why it can’t just be good music in 2013.
Could you give us a rundown of your studio setup?
Just a six-channel Tascam mixing board from the ‘80s, two four track cassette players, an old version of ProTools on an old computer, an MPC-2000, a Moog synthesizer and an old drum kit with a few extra snare drums. I did the vocals on a regular SM-57. That’s it.
On your track ‘Trespasser’ you spit vitriol at the new inhabitants of a gentrified New York. Is it hard to strike a balance between being comedic and just coming off as bitter when it’s a topic so close to your heart?
I don’t see how it comes off as bitter if I’m laughing as I say it and have a 4 foot rodent there saying shit with me in a helium voice. Everything I do is done with humor because when you vent, people tend to take you too seriously when in your mind you’re just venting. I always liked extreme opinions in hip-hop because it was the only music that had a place for it. If you listen to Death Certificate, songs like “Horny Lil’ Devil” are full of venom, but Cube is in Hollywood now, which is full of white folks! I like the fact that rap has gotten weirder, because being a weirdo is good, but I also think artists stopped speaking their minds because the worst thing you can do in hip-hop today is be mad at something or offend people. Puffy ushered in that anti-mad shit in the ‘90s. Fuck that shit. Rap is supposed to offend someobody at some point; it was created out of angst! Be mad so you can be happy and get closure or find solutions after you vent your frustrations. I hate the fact that you can’t be mad, fuck that, rap needs more anger because it’s underrepresented. It’s a human emotion. I’m no conspiracy theorist, but I truly believe the removal of artists like Paris, Onyx, Public Enemy and the Geto Boys from the forefront of rap was intentional and served to placate the listeners and make them insouciant, indifferent and blissfully ignorant. You have artists that curse and talk just as crazy now, but they’re not doing it with genuine anger, just irony. I get mad, happy, sad and then turn into a silly-ass joker all throughout the course of one day. Then you get over it. But the emotions all exist and the music should reflect that. That’s not bitterness. Biterness is being mad all day, blaming the world and not seeing the humor in shit.
What was it like growing up in New York compared to now? What are things you miss about the old New York?
A lot different. It’s still a very segregated, racist, class-polarized city. In 1990, you knew which areas to stay away from and I kind of liked that, despite NYC having some very ugly incidents that were horrible. But you knew where you stood, and there was something to be said about that. Everything was out in the open. Gentrification has a lot of neighborhoods in an awkward transformation and people see each other every day, but don’t speak and don’t even acknowledge each other. Hipsters painted bike lanes in a Hasidic area, the residents painted over them, then there was static. So do you give new inhabitants a bike lane to ride in or do you rerspect people who’ve been there forever and own property and business in their area, but nobody asked them for permission or introduced themselves and spoke of their plans? Who’s right or wrong? That’s an issue. Nobody’s communicating and that’s what makes it annoying. The young black kids from Bed-Stuy have a white designer’s clothes on, the white girl who just moved there from Texas is a Jay-Z fan and voted for Obama and nobody’s yelling racial epithets to anyone, so people assume it’s a melting pot. But everyone still mingles within their own social class and/or racial group and acts like that’s not the case. It’s just an uncomfortable social setting. It’s like a segragated lunchroom, which it always has been, but many people act like it isn’t. I just feel New York is like tofu – no real flavor of its own at this point, it just takes on the flavor of whatever’s put on it. I miss New York slang, the cars driving by pumping a New York rap record really loud, and some of those small mom and pop businesses that represented the vibe of the neighborhood they were in that got relaced by Target and Whole Foods. And the intensity. I just don’t feel I’m entering this crazy, one-of-a-kind vortex when I step into Manhattan anymore. Cities change, change is constant and I’ve learned to accept it, but the stitch in time I grew up in just doesn’t exist anymore so it is what it is.
Through your music and your writing you’ve expressed a lot of disdain for new technologies when it comes to putting out and marketing music. Haven’t these tools worked in your favour for your recent works though?
Absolutely. I’m a Luddite, so I’m skeptical about everything at first. All these technologies are great for business, but I still hate them for social life. I don’t do the texting game with women. Nobody really communicates anymore and I hate it because everything’s a shortcut on some casually disinterested, aloof, flaky shit. I don’t mind them as technologies, I just think they’re abused to the point people have become inept socially because they’ve leaned on them for too long.
For those who have yet to hear the track or read about it in your book. What is the definition of a Gadget Ho?
A man or woman who can’t put their phone down. Just a ho to a gadget; a Gadget Ho has no gender. Everything is OMG, LOL, smiley face, “look at me,” “I’m taking a photo of my bowl of rice and putting it online” and “I’m gonna go to the club or a gym and just sit there texting instead of doing what I’m here to do and be totally aloof.”
In your blog posts for Ego Trip you cite a lot of ‘ignant’ rap as being your favourite. These days many rappers are getting called out for misogyny and general ‘ignant’ comments and lyrics. What’s your take on social media and its impact on rap?
Certain things are less shocking today (i.e. If N.W.A.’s “Fuck the Police” came out today, nobody would bat an eyelash), but others are more shocking and social media has given everyone the carte blanche to overanalyze everything. Someone can tweet a line from a song and where it would’ve just been a line in a song 20 years ago, it’s under scrutiny now because people are seeing the line out of context. Rap from 20-plus years ago wouldn’t really shock anyone from a profanity or violence standpoint anymore, but the racism and homophobia are much less tolerated now. Both will get you in trouble, because back then most of rap’s audience was young black alpha males and young white kids who were trying to get a scope on young black life. So only certain people heard it and those certain people were similar to the rappers who were saying it, so there were no problems. Now, rap is followed by intellectials, scholars, highly-educated “cultured” bloggers who weren’t exposed to people who had these beliefs and expressed them so openly and harbored so much anger. So there’s a disconnect simply because the audience expanded to people who don’t tolerate or understand those lyrics and viewpoints.
Are you currently busy with any new work in the music or writing game? Or what can we look out for in the future?
Wherever my motivation takes me, wehether it’s writing or music. For now, just trying to get my drum skills up. I’d like to move more in that direction, like playing live breaks for people and stuff. I really just want to sharpen all the tools in my box so I can always have a way to earn a living. The 9-to-5 shit just didn’t work out for me.
Check out the published version over at Mahala.