Interview: J-Zone

Interview: J-Zone

J-Zone is an encyclopaedia of musical knowledge. He didn’t quite make it to that top spot, but just maybe that’s what makes him that little more engaging and real, it’s always good if you can relate to an artist.

I feel the word ‘underrated’ is used a lot nowadays and we forget the real meaning: ‘to underestimate the extent, value, or importance of (someone or something)’. Describing something using the word itself is of course down to opinion, but is something just unlucky, or is it really underrated?

J-Zone is an encyclopaedia of musical knowledge. He didn’t quite make it to that top spot, but just maybe that’s what makes him that little more engaging and real, it’s always good if you can relate to an artist, even if he did  get one of his first jobs working with Slick Ricks DJ.

Zone grew up with music from day one. Knowing from an early age what he wanted to be, something many of us can be envious of, he pursued his passion and ended up with memories that most music fans growing up can only dream of. While in high school he worked at Vance Wrights studio watching notable names walk in and out on an every day basis. He started up his own record label, produced and took to the mic releasing numerous projects, toured around the world, then after years in the industry he walked away from it all and ended up writing a book on what he had experienced, Root For The Villain.

Root For The Villain takes you through some incredible moments in J-Zones life. Written in the most addictive way, it is cleverly constructed, extremely humorous and most importantly, it educates. I had the pleasure to ask J-Zone a few questions, and the answers are just as honest and captivating as every other project he has done.

The beginning: what was New York life like growing up?

Growing up here in the ‘80s and ‘90s was a unique experience because New York was such a powder keg during those times. The dynamics between rich and poor, the different races…things were exciting, yet intense in a scary way. This city is still polarized by money, class and race, but back then everything seemed to be on steroids while now everything is kind of cloaked in this liberal, passive facade. I was raised going back and forth between Jamaica, Queens and Mamaroneck, which is a town in Westchester County. They’re apples and oranges, really, but I got the full experience and got a chance to be around all different types of people.

It equipped me for navigating through different situations later in life; I can make 15 minutes of conversation with anyone. But I have a low tolerance for time wasting, bullshit and palaver because of it. New York was a very aggressive, to the point kind of place when I was growing up.

When did you know music was for you?

I knew since I was 5 or 6 years old that I wanted to be a musician. I used to bang on the drumset we had in my grandparents’ basement. We had an organ down there, a trumpet, a flute, bongos, records… it was always around me because my relatives all made music for a hobby. It was just a matter of time and which path I’d pursue, but I always knew I’d make a go at it professionally. Sometimes I wish I kept it as a hobby, but ah, fuck it, I wouldn’t last an hour in Corporate America.

Can you tell us about the first vinyl you purchased?

It was an album by a funk group called Slave. The album was called The Hardness of the World. I knew of the group because my mom played their Just A Touch of Love album around the house when I was really young, so I bought it based on familiarity and my love for funk. I was maybe 10 years old. The bass player for that group (Mark Adams) passed away in 2011, but that album inspired me to learn to play bass. I played for 8 years and eventually put it off to do the hip hop stuff.

When you began creating music what equipment did you start of using?

I had a Casio keyboard that sampled for 2 seconds. I may have been 11 or 12 when I got that. I’d put it to the speaker and sample records and make loops. It was a really shitty machine, but that’s’ how I learned to get my timing and ear refined for sampling. I got an SP-1200 sampling drum machine when I was 15, and that’s what I really learned how to produce with. 

Which musicians influenced you with your work when you were starting out?

Bomb Squad, Pete Rock, Prince Paul, Large Professor, DJ Muggs, Dr. Dre and 45 King for production. As an artist, I always liked rappers who weren’t always so serious lyrically, but were more personality-driven, like Tim Dog, Too $hort, Eazy-E, Milk Dee, ODB, all the Rap-A-Lot Records artists, 2 Live Crew, etc. Overall, James Brown, Ronald Bell – he wrote and arranged all the Kool and the Gang stuff – and a lot of other funk and jazz musicians. I always really admired Jimi Hendrix, [James Brown drummer] Clyde Stubblefield and Art Blakey as well, for being self-taught musicians who still achieved mastery.

Photo: ‘Floating’ by Rez Ones

You started working for Slick Ricks DJ Vance Wright at his studio. What did you learn while you were there?

I learned all the nuts and bolts of working with professional equipment, because I was coming from a bedroom set-up. I got to meet a lot of famous artists and at the time I was still in high school, so it taught me to be mature and professional. I couldn’t be asking for autographs! Most kids my age would be on it like that. I had to grow up quickly working there. Some of the artists got involved in street stuff and I was always kind of sheltered from that when I was young, so I had to learn to deal with all different types of characters at a very young age, from music industry bigwigs to street thugs.

At the young age of 22 in 1999, J-Zone set up his own label Old Maid Entertainment Inc. He was responsible for everything, including the creative content. He released all his own work on the label as well as other releases from Al Shid and H.U.G. J-Zone then released his debut album Music For Tu Madre, which happens to have the most amusing lyrics I have heard in one whole project to this day. Incredibly creative beats that have their own unique style, and not forgetting his grandmother on the cover, probably the best album cover around. If you have missed out on hearing this one, don’t.

Can you talk to us in more detail about how Music For Tu Madre all came together?

I was a student at SUNY Purchase College and the album was my final project for graduation. I made all the beats and the rappers I picked weren’t showing up for studio time I’d booked out. Deadline was approaching, so I decided whichever beats weren’t rapped on by a certain date, I’d just go in there myself and do the raps. I had no plans to be an emcee. I didn’t even want to, it just happened that way and became a career by accident. To this day performing in front of crowds scares the shit out of me. I get really bad stage fright, but I got better as the years went on. Back then I was a really shy dude.

What track holds the most value to you that you have made?               

Probably “Trojan War”, simply because I don’t think I’ll ever come up with a concept that crazy ever again.

We know you have a track (Staircase II Stage) with two big UK hip hop artists, Harry Love and Jehst. What can you tell us about that collaboration?

They’re two really cool and talented cats. Harry reached out to me after Music For Tu Madre came out and we became friends. We’d send each other beat tapes and stuff. Then when I got a UK tour, I stayed at his house for a few days and he asked me to get on the track, so I did it. I met Jehst and Verbal T at Harry’s crib. Those were some fun times.

Taking a more sombre tone, when did you feel things weren’t going how you had hoped?

Probably around 2005. That was after my fifth album, A Job Ain’t Nuthin’ But Work, came out. That was my second record in a row with lukewarm response. In music biz terms, that means your career is dead. I knew then that things would be rough if I didn’t adjust my expectations. That was also on the cusp of CDs and record stores being replaced by iTunes, so I learned the hard way what it’s like to destroy product that didn’t sell. Those were dark years for a lot of people, because nobody knew how revenue could be generated from music, like what the next medium would be. YouTube wasn’t around yet, so trying to do video promotion was expensive. Record stores were closing. There was a lot of uncertainty between 2004 and 2007.

And the end was…?

Getting a call to destroy my entire catalog from my distributor, doing gigs where nobody would show up, money problems, my Wikipedia page being removed, getting dropped by my digital distributor… it was a domino effect (laughs). But now I’m able to laugh at it, get back up and try to keep going, but with controlled enthusiasm. I’m a realist about the type of music and writing I do. It ain’t for everybody.

The music industry has changed a lot over the years. What do you think of the state of it today?

It’s really more about marketing than ever. Attention spans are short, craftsmanship took a back seat to marketability and it’s all about timing more than anything else. I’ve learned that complaining or worrying about whether it’s better or worse doesn’t help your situation. I just try to adjust to the boundaries I’m willing to adjust to and do my best.

MP3s have replaced vinyl and CDs, Serato has made it easier for DJs and there are so many ways to produce music now. What is your take on all of this technology and shortcuts?

I just feel music as a whole is generational. Musicians of the ‘60s and ‘70s loathed drum machines and hated sampling in the ‘80s and ‘90s. But then most of them ended up experimenting with both. James Brown ended up sampling himself when he worked with Full Force. It’s hard to relate to something you’ve never been exposed to, and I had to learn that. I subbed a college class yesterday and talked about liner notes. I miss reading the inner notes of a tape or CD. To me, that’s as major as hearing the music. But to a class of 18-year-olds, they were never exposed to that method of consumption. I can’t resent them for not understanding it. I always believe in doing your best to be a craftsman and studying what you do in and out.

If you’re going to DJ, learn about vinyl, CD-J and Serato. Cutting, scratching, blending, beat juggling, learn about it all, even if you can’t master everything and you choose not to utilize one or the other for your own personal applications. Learn about Louie Vega all the way down to DJ Aladdin to Q-Bert to DJ Scratch to Tiesto. I’m learning how to be a drummer now, so I go back and study the Buddy Riches, the Zigaboo Modelistes, the Tiki Fulwoods, the Mitch Mitchells, the David Garibaldis, the John Bonhams, the Steve Gadds, the Ginger Bakers, the Ringo Starrs…I listen to them all and try to learn, even if what they do isn’t what I’m trying to do. I’ll never, ever be able to play like Buddy Rich – he’s been playing since he was two! Nor is my goal to play that way.

But I’m from an era where that was what you did if you were serious about something. That isn’t as important today. Going way back and learning about masters from all genres and eras just isn’t really valued as much at this point. There’s always been a generational disconnect with music, but I had to learn to accept it for what it is and to choose what and what not to accept when it comes to my own personal approaches.

Would you change anything in the past given what you know now?

I would’ve enjoyed that ride for what it was instead of always being worried about if things would get bigger and better for me. I didn’t do that, and when the smoke cleared I realized I took the positive times I had for granted. But otherwise, no, I’m cool with everything else.

Getting on to your book, which is amazing by the way, what made you decide to write it?

Thanks. I just wanted to show that music bios aren’t reserved for people who’ve made it big. Most musicians will experience what I did before they experience what Jay-Z did. All these music books are about millionaires – that, to me, isn’t realistic for the average musician. I wanted to remind people to enjoy the middle when you’re trying to get to the top, because the middle may be all you’ll see.

Best memory of your career so far that you don’t mind sharing with us?

Performing with Cee-Lo for 100 people in a tiny-ass club, touring Europe or seeing ?uestlove and Chuck D give my book props on Twitter. One of those three.

Best piece of advice you have been given?

Don’t forget to have fun.

Your own advice to young aspiring emcees, DJs and producers?

Do it because you love it first and foremost, and don’t let the business take that from you like I let it do to me. The ups and downs of this business will kill you, so if you don’t maintain the passion, you’re wasting your time.

One last question for people to look forward to, any future plans?

I have an EP/short album coming out this summer. I hope to get to Europe again soon to do some DJ gigs. I want to continue learning to play drums and hopefully, when I find the right motivation and angle, write another book.