J-Zone

January 7th, 2005

J-Zone

In his second appearance for the sites interview section, J Zone talks with Matt Grant who fires questions his way about the difference between a rapper and an MC, how he learnt his hiphop trade, his life story and collaborations!

Ever heard Westside Connection's "Bow Down" album? It came out just after all the Eastcoast/Westcoast bullshit and I am not sure what Ice Cube, Mack 10 and WC's intentions were but for me it was one of the best albums I heard that year simply because of its comedy value. I've tried explaining this to other people but am not sure they understand! Anyway, I have to say that I think J-Zone does… he's exactly what hiphop needs… see, we have a lot of indie rappers and underground heads decrying bling rap or gangsta rap, I am known for this myself, but what J-Zone does is point to the comedy in this style of rap by embracing it, exaggerating it and in turn, subverting it… DROP SCIENCE is pleased to speak to one of the favourite UK hiphop imports from the US… step up J-Zone…

So first off for the heads who don't know, what's the difference between a rapper and an emcee?

I know my answers to hip-hop questions are known for getting people upset, but I consider myself a rapper, not an emcee. An emcee is a 24/7 job. You rap anyplace, anytime. I love writing rhymes to make records and I like doing shows, but I don't do all that freestyling and battle rapping. I just do it for fun and don't take rapping or myself as serious as your average emcee. I just rap when I feel like it, no more no less.

What releases do you have in the pipeline and what can we expect from them?

My fifth album is called "A Job Ain't Nuthin But Work" and it drops in September on Old Maid Entertainment/ Fat Beats Records. I only have four guests on the album because I'm tired of albums with 50 million cameos. One special surprise guest and three usual suspects. I did all the production as usual, and beat wise it's the best album yet, by far. Rhyme wise, it's a lot of rude and tasteless humour as usual, so if you like that kind of shit and don't take rap too serious, which a lot of people do, you'll love it! The first single is called "A Friendly Game of Basketball" b/w "$poiled Rotten" (featuring Celph Titled) and it drops in July.

And what releases would you recommend to heads who hadn't heard your music before?

I personally prefer my last album, "$ick of Being Rich", over the previous three. Everybody has their own opinion, but artists usually recommend their most current shit because it's closest to where they're currently at. I don't even like my first three albums anymore, but I'm still proud of them because they represented where I was musically at those particular times. Opinions will differ, but fuck it, buy them all and make me richer!

How did you learn your trade in hiphop? Was it through your peers, entirely on your own or through the mentorship of someone else already involved in hiphop?

I started out on my own. I taught myself how to DJ and make beats, but I had some studio internships that helped me out. The main internship was at Vance Wright's studio back in 1994. Vance was Slick Rick's DJ and I worked at his studio in high school. I was already making beats when I got there, but Vance schooled me on audio engineering and he and a producer named Mark Spark- Mark did stuff for Grand Puba & Nice and Smooth- helped me polish my craft. They taught me how to program drums, filter sounds, etc. I was pretty much self taught, but Vance and Mark gave me a lot of tips when I was starting out.

OK, here's a challenge for you, if you had to sum up your life story in one picture what would it be of or what would it look like? Give us a quick rundown…

I was always the underdog. I was always slept on in everything I did and had to work hard to get mine, so I guess some midget dunking a basketball might be a good picture!

In your music you talk quite frequently about your exploits with women, have you found the woman of your dreams yet? Dare I say it, have you met THE ONE?!

Hell no! I was out with some rathead bitch last night and I ditched her at a bar when she went to the bathroom. Her breath was stinking like a muthafucka man! That ratchet mouth tramp. I probably could have took her home if I tried, but I just wanted to get the fuck out of there so I could go home and go to sleep. Sometimes I wonder if I'll find Mrs.Zone, but then I don't sweat it because experiences like last night give me more material to put in my new songs. And a girlfriend will keep you broke, which ain't to my liking.

Haha! Moving on, when you set about working on a project do you start with an existing concept that you carry through right to the end or do you perhaps have a few ideas and develop them as you go along?

I'm real concept driven as a rapper, meaning most of my songs are some type of topic or story, but I've yet to make an album with one big theme. Like Price Paul's Prince Among Thieves or Masta Ace's Disposable Arts. That's hard to pull off. I've tried and couldn't do it effectively. I may have songs with different concepts, but a similar vibe for a whole album- which is how all my albums are- but doing a true concept album is something I always wanted to do. You can't force it. I usually just make songs and as I get further into the record, I come up with skits and ways to tie it together and make it all coherent. My vibe is comedy, so that's natural to me. But a real concept album is hard because it can be genius or real wack with the inclusion of one bad song or skit.

Which artists are you producing for at the minute?

Recently I've done beats for Biz Markie, Prince Po, J-Ro (of tha Liks), Akinyele, Casual, 7L & Esoteric, Cage & Tame One, Copywrite, Celph Titled, Louis Logic, GM Grimm and a few others that aren't complete yet.

And what's happening with the Old Maid Billionaires? Can we expect more on that front?

We've all kind of went our separate ways. Al-Shid is on my upcoming album and I did a beat on his solo project. We still work together, but he's trying to focus on doing his own production. We'll always make songs though. Hug and I are still cool, but we stopped making music together about 2 years ago. No beef at all, we all just grew in different directions. He got mad talent, so I'm sure he'll do his thing. I roll with my sidekicks Dick $tallion and Contakt, so I guess they'd be the Old Maid Billionaires, but the name Old Maid Billionaires is pretty much dead. It's just Old Maid Entertainment, which is my label and production company.

You've collaborated with a whole host of artists from Masta Ace to MF Grimm to Biz Markie, which collaboration have you found most rewarding and why?

All of them. Masta Ace, King T, Casual, J-Ro of tha Liks, Akinyele, Biz Markie…I grew up on their music. You never expect to be working with these dudes as peers ten years down the line. That just bugged me out. All of these artists have been cool for the most part.

How do you go about selecting which emcees you want to work with? Is it based on talent or friendship? Which one comes first?

That's hard. I've found that the most talented dudes are the hardest to work with and the less talented dudes are less stress. It just depends on the mood I'm in. If the money is right, I'll put up with shit, but you always want to work with people you click with. If you ain't having fun, what's the point of making records? You've got to enjoy making the records because it ultimately shows when you don't.

Have you ever ghost written for an artist and what do you think of ghost-writing in general? Is it a good or bad thing?

Yeah, all of them muthafuckas! I wrote all that MTV shit! Haha. I dunno, on one hand it's kind of cheesy, but then again Eazy-E was one of my favourite rappers ever and Ice Cube and D.O.C. wrote most of his shit. I guess if the shit sounds good, then fuck it.

I remember seeing you play at No Fakin' in Liverpool, England a few years ago now. My main memory from that is just how wild the boozed-up crowd were going! What's your main memory of that night?

Most of my UK shows are great, because they know how to get a drink and get pumped up. They don't get to see me as often as in New York, so the crowd is more appreciative. It's just more rowdy and fun in general. I remember the drive up to Liverpool was a bitch though, that shit was long as fuck and we only had one mix CD in the car and they played it about 12 times on that trip.

Do most crowds greet you with such alcohol fuelled enthusiasm?

Depends. Like I said, overseas they usually do and in US cities where I don't go much -usually small towns have the drunk energy. In the bigger cities the people in the crowd are usually rappers themselves, so they just stand there and look unimpressed and don't participate.

You do get a great deal of love from the UK, do you find your fan base is more loyal here?

Hell yeah. It's always like that. It's harder to get accepted in the US because every fucking body raps. There are more rappers than fans. People in the UK seem to have more of a sense of humour as well. Shouts out to all that show love to J-Zone.

Having already worked with artists like Jehst and Diversion Tactics, have you ever thought about coming over here and working with UK artists on a compilation album? I read somewhere that you tried to do one in the US but it didn't work out, so how's about having a go over there? I'm sure there are many emcees over here that'd kill to work with you…

Yeah, the comp I was doing fell apart. I'm down for whatever. I'm just iffy about compilations in general now because the artists
are hard to get together, it costs a lot and they usually don't sell too well. I'd give that some thought, but I'm sceptical about comps now. Didn't RZA do that? How was the response over there?

Yes, "The World According to RZA" saw RZA work with various artists around the world and he hooked up with the UK's Blade and Skinnyman. I think it sold well but would imagine part of the problem is the amount of units that get sold here – there is a thriving hiphop scene here but it is small in number…but if you had your pick, who would you work with from the UK?

Verbal T is real ill. His "Showbitchness" joint with Harry Love was real dope. I'd probably say Verb T, but Lewis Parker is dope because he's self contained. Pitman is a funny dude. He's real rude. I like Diversion, Blade & Jehst as well. They're all cool with me.

Has the development of hiphop outside of the US in turn helped the development of US hiphop? Is there a degree of cross-cultural pollination taking place or is it one way traffic?

Honestly, it's not being reciprocated over here. You don't have many international rap acts doing well over here. You can't find too many UK rap records over here, unless its a US artist on a UK label like BBE or Lex or a UK artist that's huge, like Dizzee Rascal. It's not the answer people want to hear, but it's kind of true. The international rap is sort like a niche market out here.

Do you think the way you approach issues of money, pimping and all the other themes associated with 'real hiphop' actually satirises those that are pushing forward this image?

Kind of. I always had a liking for 'ignorant' rap records. I incorporate it into my stuff, but I also know I can't be somebody I'm not, so I exaggerate and twist it so far, it becomes funny and I put my own spin on it. I'm not afraid to take things that are taboo in 'real hiphop' and put them to use. That's what this shit is all about. If you're saying "yeah, I'm 100% real hip hop all the time", that shit ain't a challenge – that's fucking boring. I actually like a lot of records hiphop purists hate and I do similar themes, but I put my spin on it and make it something new. This is entertainment to me; therefore, I get out there and have fun with it. I turned a lot of dudes I know on to independent hiphop because of how I approach subject matter. They thought all indie rap was preachy and spaced out, but I'm just saying I can rap about everyday things and do what the pop rappers do, but still be raw and true to making good records.

By doing this, are you actively trying to provide a critique of certain elements of hiphop?

Not really. I'm not knocking the stuff. Like I said, some of my favourite rappers rap about money and women all day. I just think it's obvious I'm not a billionaire, but I call myself an Old Maid Billionaire and wear fake jewellery to put my own spin on what I like. You can't take everything so literal. Yes, I really like a lot of rap records like that. No, I'm not a billionaire. OK, so I'll just act it out and be so exaggerated, that it becomes funny. But I'm not dissing those records. Shit, I thought the Big Tymer$ had one of the best albums of 2000. The only album I liked better that year was Ghostface's "Supreme Clientele". Dead serious.

OK, well would you say you are also perhaps providing a positive antidote to the negative gun obsessed, materialistic hiphop that is so prevalent amongst the mainstream in the US?

Definitely. I'll give you the bling, the arrogance, the cursing, the shit talking, the exaggeration…but I'll be completely off the wall with it so you'll know its harmless entertainment.

And what about your alter-ego Captain Backslap, what's the thinking behind that?

He's for when I really want to go overboard. J-Zone is crazy, but Back$lap is totally mental. When I want to sing offensive R&B tunes or do shit that J-Zone fans may find too crazy, I do it as Captain Back$lap.

How do you respond to those who just see you as some, for want of a better word, clown? Do you feel that because you try and bring fun back to hiphop that you are in turn not taken seriously by some members of the hiphop community?

Of course. But fuck it, I can't please everybody. I may be a clown, but if you listen to my records you can see I put a lot of time into what I do. My approach to making records is clown-like, but my work ethic is dead fucking serious. I wake up at 7AM daily and put in hours worth of work to find the right sounds, get people in the studio to say things, arrange beats, execute concepts, etc. Everybody has their own opinion and I respect that, but anybody who says my work ethic ain't respectable isn't listening to my records in detail and therefore can suck turkey dick til they choke to death!

I often encounter heads that will generally only listen to oldschool US hiphop and shun most of the modern day stuff unless it has that oldschool, funk influence. Can you understand this? Is this musical snobbery or having a refined taste?

On one hand, it's no secret that rap ain't what it used to be 15 years ago. Not even close. But on the other hand, moping and being snobbish won't help either. I was that way somewhat back when I was doing "Music For Tu Madre" in 1998, but I'd still like some new stuff here and there. Now my attitude is: OK, it's rare that anybody will make an album as good as "Amerikkka's Most Wanted" or "Slaughtahouse" again, but you can't be so prissy that you don't at least find humour in some of today's music. Some of this new shit is so bad, it's actually good! I just got depressed being a pessimist 24/7. The golden age is over, but all I can do about that is make music I enjoy. 90% of all the rap that I currently listen to is at least 10 years old, but I don't walk around with a chip on my shoulder bitching and moaning.

Funk clearly has a big influence on your music, which funk artists do you draw direct inspiration from?

Kool and the Gang is my favourite group of all time, before they went pop. Ohio Players and Cameo cause they had that raunchy image. BT Express, The Meters, The Counts, Slave…all the funk. Of course James Brown, because he was an entertainer, he had his own sound and he was so prolific. He was just nasty!

Moving onto politics, what's the US like now in the aftermath of 911, I keep seeing these apocalyptic films and epic battle films coming out is this reflective of the current American mindset?

A lot of propaganda, a lot of racism, a lot of distrust in the government, a lot of extremists, a lot of paranoia and fear and a lot of bullshit. Now more than ever my music is on some comedy shit because I need a release from that political shit.

And what about race relations? I mean, hiphop has come a long way and is now a very diverse subculture but has the US perhaps become more of a racist place since 9/11, particularly for Arabs and Muslims?

Yeah, that's why I said it last question. I sympathize for the people of Middle Eastern descent that are just minding their own and trying to live. It's tough on them. It's been magnified, but it's nothing new.

Who will you be voting for in the next election and who do you think will win?

Fuck em all. J-Zone (aka Captain Back$lap) for president, bitch!! Presidential victory party at the White House, which will be re-named Pimp Palace South, with hookers and bacardi for everybody! Don't be late!

I see lots of our youth blaming the whole of America for what's going wrong with the world and that kind of generalisation angers me. Do you think hiphop can help stop anti-Americanism and help people distinguish perhaps between the government and people of your country?

Naah. Those feelings are too strong to stop through rap. We got a rep for being a conquering country that likes to get into bullshit. That perception will never go away.

Finally, can I just say thanks for taking the time and effort to speak to HipHipJunction, do you have any shout-outs or message for the readers?

Yeah, special shout out to you at hiphopjunction.com for interviewing my stankin ass and to all the fans for supporting my music. I'd like to thank all the J-Zone haters for keeping my name alive. To every site/ radio station/ magazine that ignores me, suck donkey nuts til you choke to death. Fuck y'all. Ya mama has my underwear in her hamper! My new single and album in stores this summer and fall. Buy em I'm out, byotch.