I’m gonna pick up J-Zones book Wednesday and I’m really looking forward to reading it, this is part 1 of and interview he did with The Well Versed. Pick up J-Zones new book now titled Root For The Villain.
Those who know J-Zone know the story of the mad scientist of underground hiphop. After learning the basics of production under the tutelage of DJ Vance Wright (Slick Rick’s DJ), he dropped his debut album, “Music For Tu Madre” in 1999 to critical acclaim.
As a rapper, producer, DJ and CEO of Old Maid Entertainment, Zone built a following of underground hip hop heads and European fans through acclaimed subsequent releases such as “A Bottle Of Whoop Ass”, “Pimps Don’t Pay Taxes and “Chief Chinchilla.” Described as unconventional and at times controversial, Zone worked with and produced beats for artists like Biz Markie, Cage, Danger Mouse and Redman. Nowadays as a retired rapper, Zone penned a memoir of sorts with his new self published book “Root for the Villain: Rap, and a Celebration of Failure”. In Part I of his interview with Nene Wallace Reed, Zone tells TheWellVersed about the inspiration for his new book, his finest moments as an artist and his definition of failure.
TheWellVersed: How are you doing and how are things with the book?
J-Zone: I’m alright man. It’s going well, better than I expected actually. The response has been good and I’m just happy to have it out. It’s a bitch to self publish so I’m happy to finally see it out. It’s a lot more tedious than making records, that’s for sure.
TWV: Are you hearing from a lot of old fans or from new people that discovered you because of the book?
J-Zone: A lot of old fans actually. It’s funny because they tell me that they’ve wondered where I’ve been and it’s good to see me out again. Some people actually found out about me through my writing for Ego Trip and blogging through Dante Ross, where I had a lot of stuff published. When I was making music, I rarely had a publicist and I was on a DIY sort of thing. So unless you just stumbled upon [my music], you wouldn’t know about it. A lot of people are going back and checking out the music ten years after the fact. I was surprised that a lot of people remembered my stuff (laughs) because it’s been so long. In the climate where attention spans are so short and guys are dropping mixtapes every two months, it’s almost like WWE where you have to be extreme to stay in the news or people forget about you. That was never really my m.o. so I laid low for awhile. It’s just a surprise that a lot of people know my stuff and are checking for the book.
TWV:What was the ‘aha’ moment that made you decide to write this book?
J-Zone: I was always writing, even when I was doing the music stuff. I had a monthly column with ‘Elemental’ magazine and ‘HipHopConnection’. A lot of the British magazines would get me because they would always understood my sense of humor and were into that kind of humor, so I’d always have a monthly column in a magazine. I’ve been a sports reporter in New York [focusing on] high school basketball for the last 8 years so I was always writing, but it was my hobby and was secondary to the music. Eventually, when I started to lose the passion with the music I started to lean more towards the writing. Keeping up with the blog world was difficult for me because I was trying to write articles, y’know 2000 or 3000 word pieces where you can go in depth about something. I had a lot of stuff just stashed away and I was posting a lot of it to Dante Ross’ site. The blog he gave me had a pretty good following and I’d get 100 comments or so per article. People were enjoying it but I was running out of material and I didn’t want to just put up a Youtube clip with a sentence because I’m a writer. I just couldn’t keep up with the way the blogs were going, so I just wrote and compiled stuff. After awhile, I started to see a central theme with what I was writing. So I thought that instead of blogging, I should just put it into some kind of full length effort. It’s kind of like making songs for iTunes versus making an album. I come from the Public Enemy/Ice Cube era of making albums. You’d have album cuts and skits where you wanted to take all of your individual ideas and tie them together. It was the same mentality with the book. I wrote a lot of separate articles and the book is really 26 different memoirs, articles, think pieces and opinion pieces. The challenge was just trying to tie them together and make it cohesive. I never planned to make albums. I’d make 5 or 6 songs and then would see it going in a sequence where it could be an album. One day, I just thought how blogging didn’t make sense for me because I couldn’t keep up with these guys putting things up every day, so I’d just put into something that told a story. It allowed me to stay creative because at the time I wasn’t really making a lot of music.
TWV: In reading the book, you can’t tell that it’s a group of different articles and pieces. It’s very cohesive.
J-Zone: That’s what you start to see as you’re putting it together. It falls into place. You just have these ideas and you start to create stuff just to fill in the holes. So it was the same process as it was for making an album.
TWV: So officially, what are you doing nowadays?
J-Zone: Nowadays, I have “tree job mon (Jamaican accent)!” Besides the book, I’m doing a bunch of different things to pay the bills. I teach a music course at my old college and I’m a high school sports reporter. Besides that, I’m basically trying to figure out my next long term move like the majority of the 99%.
TWV: The tone of the book seems to push you towards the category of failure. But you’re a pretty well known artist, you’ve toured the world. Why do you stamp your career as a failure?
J-Zone: I see it as this: the whole idea behind failure is that I don’t see myself as a failure. I see myself as an artistic success. I made a living doing what I love to do, I worked with the heroes of my adolescence and I toured the world. To me, that’s success. The failure part came about when I tried to shop the book. I shopped it to six publishers and five of the six publishers loved it, but, they said that nobody knew who I was. I felt that if they were comparing me to other rappers who’ve written books like 50 Cent, Jay-Z, DMX and Common, then yes I was unknown. They said I was a commercial failure, so why would anybody care? So [the book] is really taking a look at what success is and what failure is to us. We live in a world of numbers like how many Twitter followers or Facebook likes or Myspace friends do you have. How many comments and downloads and YouTube hits do you have? It’s just a world of tangible results. So when I’m explaining to a person that has no idea about rap and what I did with my career, they say; “Well I haven’t seen you on the news.” But, I know what I did and I know the value in it. So in terms of failure, I meant that I was writing a book, but I couldn’t get it published because I’m not on the level of certain guys and people see me as a failure. So instead of NOT putting the book out, I decided to celebrate my failure. If they’re failures to you, great, but I’m going to celebrate them. I’m going to talk about doing shows where only two people showed up. I’m going to talk about my last record selling 47 copies in the last month. I can find humor in it. I wanted to stress that the strength of the book was in the stories and the writing and not the fact that I could afford a 400,000 Maybach in my video or that I performed at the White House or that I’m on BET or MTV. Most guys who get to write books on the entertainment side have sold millions of records. So the failure thing is not that I consider myself a failure, but looking at what society sees as a success. I think that 98% of people in the music industry will relate more to me than to Jay-Z, but I was told that my book wouldn’t sell. So that book is almost mocking what we see as success and that you can still make an impact.
TWV: I emailed you around 2000-2001 about coming to perform at my college and you replied that you weren’t sure because your music wasn’t for everybody. In hindsight, do you wish your music was more ‘fan friendly?’
J-Zone: I don’t have one single f*cking regret about the music I made. Would I make the same music if I was making music now? Probably not. There would be similarities, but I’m in a different place. When I made those records I was 21/22 and now I’m 34. So obviously if I was making records now they probably wouldn’t’ be the same, but, that was an accurate snapshot of what I wanted to do creatively at that time. I never have any regrets about doing that. Did I alienate people by doing certain things and making certain decisions? Absolutely. When my guys Huggy and Al Shid decided to go their separate ways and I was forced to do it by myself, a lot of people didn’t like the direction I went in. Those guys [Hug and Shid] brought balance. Shid was a street dude that was very clever with the punchlines and he brought an element of toughness to the sound. Hug was a thinker, he was political, he was funny and very versatile and covered a lot of bases. He gave the records some depth. When I got on my own it was like a comedy album. I wouldn’t do it any differently because that was my persona but I lost a lot of fans because of certain decisions, but I don’t have any regrets about any of that stuff. Whether or not it sold two copies or 12,000, music to me was always about expression and a stress relief.
TWV: What, to you, were your finest moments of being a rapper?
J-Zone: As far as the best moments, it’s a toss-up between getting to go to other countries to do what I love to do and meeting the heroes of my adolescence. Rap changed my life growing up. I think I would have been done without it. Being a quiet kid [in a place] where your boys are good at ‘snappin’ and were more street smart than I was, rap kind of helped me to find a voice and an outlet. It helped me break out of my shell. So to meet the guys who created the music that supported that thing in my life like Biz Markie, Masta Ace, Pete Rock, Milk D, King Tee, The Alkaholiks, Devin The Dude, Prince Paul, it was amazing. I got to work with those cats. When I was 14 and 15 going to The Wiz, Sam Goody or Tower Records and buying up their music, I would have never thought that they’d be in my basement a decade later working on a song.
TWV: What are the misconceptions of a rapper who has some notoriety (in terms of money, status, lifestyle, groupies, etc) by the average fan?
J-Zone: I live in the same neighborhood that 50 Cent is from, Jamaica Queens. 50 kind of set the blueprint. He’s the guy. He’s the face of our area. He’s a megastar. Most people don’t know that I do music, but when people find out that I do and they see me driving a ’99 Protégé they ask how I am a rapper. A lot of people just don’t get it. In my neighborhood, if you can’t brag about it in a barbershop, or it’s not on BET or on WorldStarHipHop then they just don’t see it. It’s kind of like what I was saying before about failure: a lot of people don’t think deep into this stuff and don’t know what the music business works. They don’t know that you can have a video that’s playing all day and be blowing the f*ck up and making no money because your contract is structured a certain way. TLC made no money and they were on top of the world in the 90s. On the flipside, you can be this obscure ass rapper who only performs in New Zealand and be cakin up. But people don’t see that. A lot of people just don’t look that far into the music business to understand it. A lot of people would look at me too because I don’t act “rapper like”. I’d go into the hood and go to basketball games as a sports reporter and I volunteer to do things in the community. People would say, “If you’re a rap star, then why are you here with a notepad at a basketball game?” And I’d say “Because I have to pay my bills!” Rap gives me a little bit, but I can’t survive on it, so I’m a reporter. I have to go to work. A lot of people really have no clue as to how the music industry works. Until we had ‘VH1 Behind The Music’ and all of those documentaries, people didn’t know that you could be the most famous rapper out there and be making no money. People judge by what’s on the surface. If they haven’t heard of you, then how much clout can you really have? It’s just a perception of what success is.