A couple of years ago Queen’s rapper/producer J-Zone’s 2002 release “Pimps don’t pay taxes” became the soundtrack to my life. Complete with stories of failed attempts at macking, cock blockers and dissing judgemental headwrap chicks, who were all too prevalent at hip hop parties on Long Street. The album spoke to my younger self more than any of the so-called conscious raps that were still popular at the time. With the exception of a few colabs I heard over the next few years he had completely fallen off the radar. Recently I learnt that J-Zone had quit the music biz after his last album sold only 47 copies in the last month, and he signed them off at Fat Beats to be destroyed. At the same time his digital distributor informed him that they were removing his songs from iTunes as well. In true J-Zone style he hit back with a humorous take on being a “failed” musician by penning a book called Root for the Villain: Rap, Bullshit and Celebrating Failure; part memoirs from his rap days and part cantankerous social commentary.
Mahala: Root for the Villain… so what’s in a title? And could you briefly explain what readers can expect?
J-Zone: The title is really about being anathema to what’s respected in our society. The hero never really makes his faults visible and he does whatever it takes to play the game and be successful. The villain is usually the guy going against the status quo and what’s considered right. He’s known for his faults and character flaws. In our world, it takes a lot of balls to be an iconoclast and go against a lot of what is valued by the masses. That’s why sometimes it’s good to root for someone like that!
I don’t know if you believe in all that hippie shit like “words manifest destiny”, but you’ve always kinda been a self-deprecating rapper do you think this could have been one of your downfalls?
Probably. I think any downfalls I had as a recording artist could be attributed to a number of different factors, but self-deprecation is not a winning formula in rap. Hip-hop is alpha male, selling the people an image shit, and it always has been. Nothing wrong with that, but I’ve always been an underdog in my life and I wear the badge proudly. I don’t feel ashamed when things don’t go my way, so I’ll always be honest about my reality. People always complain about rap not being real anymore, but when you’re honest and blunt in a way that makes you look less than heroic, all of a sudden that approach doesn’t work. It doesn’t equate with success. I would’ve done better with a Curb Your Enthusiasm type of crowd than a hip-hop crowd.
I was sad to hear you quit the music industry, I would put you up there with Prince Paul and Madlib when it comes to sampling and beat-making. Have you quit making music altogether?
No. I still produce. I don’t do it nearly as much as I did. It’s like a hobby now, which is fine with me. I do it when I get that spark. I made maybe 5 beats this year, but each one was dope because I was hungry every time. I produced a few records this year. For about a year and a half, I didn’t do any music whatsoever, but recently I’ve gotten back on the beats for my own enjoyment. I don’t feel pressure to do it to pay bills; I do it when I want to. I also still DJ from time to time and I’m teaching myself to play the drums, so the music is still there, just in a different capacity. I’m done with the rapping part, though.
What pays the bills nowadays? How do you handle the everyday grind now, going from being an independent hip hop artist to working for a boss?
Yeah [laughs], that transition was rough as shit, but there’s certainly parallels between the music business and the working world. I’m a high school sports reporter and I teach a music course at a college. The day jobs I wrote about in my book and on the blog, I quit those. [laughs]. They didn’t pay me my money. Now I’m just working the jobs I have, pushing the book, and focusing on what’s next. Although the music business is a taxing and soul-killing world, it’s a fantasy land compared to a nine-to-five. When all is said and done, bills have to be paid and at times you have to do shit you don’t like to pay them. From 2009 to 2010, I chose bullshit jobs over trying to play the game in the music business because that was the lesser evil at the time.
Going from rapping and producing to becoming a writer to make loot seems farcical, because in this country it’s a highly underpaid job. I’m broke as a joke most of the time. How’s it working out for you and how long have you been doing this?
Yeah, the book isn’t solely about making loot. I’m on the cusp of breaking even, so I’m relieved. Although I want to get paid for my hard work, I’m very aware that writing is no more lucrative than music. I actually made more money writing than doing music at the end of my music career, because I had so many writing jobs! I’ve been a writer since about 2001, when I started with my monthly columns in Hip Hop Connection (UK) and Elemental magazines. I started sports writing around 2004. It’s a labour of love, but I enjoy it, make a little money, and find other outlets to help pay the bills.
I’ve read your blog posts (on Ego Trip and Dante Ross’ website) where you tell stories about digging for vinyls and tapes in dusty old music stores. Thing is you’re a dope writer as well, do you scratch through shelves of second-hand book stores? Who are your influences when it comes to writing?
The shit I read is nothing like what I write. Besides the Ego Trip stuff, most of my reading material is about socio-economic issues, race, and the educational system. I read Donald Goines from time to time when I’m craving some shit talking, but with the exception of the profanity in Goines’ stuff, I have no idea where my style came from. [laughs]. I’m more influenced by comedians than authors.
You have great knowledge about all rap from obscure old skool shit to the more commercial, and you’re not afraid to share your opinions on it – even if they’re unpopular – but one thing I haven’t found out about is your thoughts on some of the newer stuff. Like what do you think of Tyler the Creator and OFWGKTA? And what’s some of the best or worst shit out now?
I really don’t have much of an opinion on it. I mean I do, but a lot of the newer stuff is not really for me. Two years ago, I’d probably say it was wack, but I don’t really look at it that way at this point. They’ll call me a “hater” no matter what, although haters really don’t exist. [Laughs]. I’m from a different era and listen to a wide variety of music, but most of it is my generation or older. I’m sure there’s new stuff out that’s dope, I’ve just been a bit out of the loop because I don’t even own an iPod. I listen to vinyl, tapes and CDs, so a lot of the stuff isn’t even available in those formats. So while I may not like most current rap, I’m not gonna start a campaign dissing it because it’s just not my thing. If I don’t like it, I just won’t listen to it. At this point, I’d rather spend time promoting music I do like, regardless of how old or obscure it may be.
What do you think of internet rappers and how it’s impacted on the culture? How different is it from the way you got into hip hop and when you were pushing your shit as an artist?
The internet is a blessing and a curse. When I was coming up in the early ’90s, getting studio time, cutting demos, pressing vinyl – those were difficult and expensive things to do. We had to depend on so many other people to make shit happen. The only reason I was able to come through that with little to no help was because I was so determined to get my music out. Now, you can be a one-man wrecking crew, from video, to music, to website – and do it all in your bedroom on one Macbook. On the other hand, the fact that it was so hard to get your stuff out as an artist back then created a hunger and a drive. We had to be so sharp in the studio, because there was no Pro Tools to punch in rhymes a bar at a time. We couldn’t clean up mistakes as easily with tapes. At talent shows, people got booed, jumped, dissed – it happened to me in high school! There were so many obstacles and floodgates keeping out anyone who wasn’t dead serious and the competition was thick. Now, you can say all the right things on Twitter and your song can blow up because of it. You can become a well-paid DJ overnight simply by purchasing Serato and being a movie star already. Or, you can know the right blogger and get famous and headline a major venue without working your way up and honing your show with years of work performing in hole in the wall clubs, opening up for others. It’s just a different time and era. We all have opinions on what’s better or worse, but it is what it is now, as cliché as that is to say. Everyone online has an opinion and voices it. You can pick and choose which adaptations you make and ignore, and live with it. That’s what I’m doing. I know how I came up and I adhere to that same set of principles today. I pick and choose what I update to stay with the times, but the overall “master a craft and build from the ground up” approach is encoded in my DNA. That’s not a winning formula, but I accept it and do the best I can.
Can you share an anecdote of one of the highlights of your career?
My NYC “retirement” show in 2006, where Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse joined me on stage to perform “Disco Ho”. That was wild. They were a group known as Gnarls Barkley and “Crazy” was the biggest song in the world at the time. It was at the CBGBs club’s basement, which was the size of someone’s living room. Danger Mouse is a friend of mine, but it shocked me that Cee-Lo of all people was a J-Zone fan and offered to sing the hook for me at my show – and I didn’t have to pay him! That showed me that despite poor sales and being unknown to the general public, my music touched people who were embraced by the general public and made hits. And having some die hard J-Zone fans in the crowd was dope. Up to that point, I had gone over a year doing shows where no more than 10 people had showed up. I did maybe 20 shows in a row with 10 people or less in the crowd, so that night always stood out as a moment I appreciated.
Is there any part of you that thinks that if you just reinvented yourself and did what a label wanted you could get a deal or if you played a behind-the-scene role and made beats that labels want, you would be reeling in cash? Or would you never want to do that?
I seriously doubt I’d blow up if I reinvented myself. That window of time is over! As a producer, it’s possible. But I never played by the rules. Music is therapeutic to me, and will always be that way. The day it stopped being therapeutic was the day I stopped. I gotta do shit my way or I just won’t do it. I’d do beats for TV commercials, because that’s easy and anonymous work you can do to get some money. But I wouldn’t come back out as J-Zone singing auto tune and using snap clap drums. Nobody would buy that!
What comes to mind when you think of South Africa?
The US media is so fucked up, they’ll stigmatize places. Unfortunately, it was always apartheid, racial tension, and minority rule. Whether through listening to rap all those years or watching the news, that’s all we were told. Through music, I’ve had dealings with some folks from SA and they were all really cool and informed people who loved music, so I know it’s much deeper than what I’ve been taught. I was supposed to go there in 2004 for a show, but the gig was cancelled due to some security alert, or so I was told. I hope to go someday and form my own opinion because I’ve learned to never trust the media.