[Interview] J-Zone: I Got A Story To Tell
RubyHornet: Throughout the book you tell stories, you’re very honest, you don’t sugarcoat what you’ve done. You don’t over emphasize the ups or the downs. It seems that while you reflect on these things, there’s not a lot of ‘I wish I would’ve…” Was there a time when you were like, I wish I would’ve done this?’ Have you always been at peace?
J-Zone: I never had any regrets. There’s parts of the book where I talk about some of the people who appreciated my music. And some of the people are personal friends of mine like Danger Mouse, or there were guys who made it a lot bigger than me who like my stuff. When you have people around you that are like, ‘yo, if you only make a pop record, this guy can put you on, that guy could put you on.’ It doesn’t really work like that. By me doing whatever the hell I wanted to do, that’s how I gained their respect in the first place. Even if I did a record like To Love A Hooker or Chief Chinchilla or A Job Ain’t Nuthin’ But Work, all of those are commercial disappointments but those are records that earned me respect from those guys. I wouldn’t change anything from a creative standpoint. I would’ve tried to be a lot more aggressive doing shows. A lot of times I did whatever shows I could get, and you saw what happened with that, and taking Greyhound buses… My only regret would be from a live show standpoint, but I really did the best I could.
I think the novelty and the humor of the J-Zone character and stuff like that, people lost focus that I was a serious musician and I took my work seriously. I was a humorous kind of an artist and I was over the top and you couldn’t tell if I was bullshitting or if I was serious. At the time it was just me doing me. Looking back it’s like, ‘damn, maybe people slept on the instrumental projects or the production because they’re like, ‘oh, he’s talking about jerking off and he’s got the titties onstage, this and that.’ I think theatrics from my persona kind of overshadowed my seriousness for my craft. I don’t look at that as a regret. I just look at something that I just felt it was unfortunate that people couldn’t see through it, and I was a little bit more than a novelty act.
Rubyhornet: Speaking of that character, while you’ve retired from making music, J-Zone the character is not retired. You still write as J-Zone, you still do DJ sets as J-Zone. What’s it like when you’re at your regular job, what role does J-Zone play in your life if it’s not music?
J-Zone: When I’m on my job, I’ve had people recognize me at games. When you got to high schools where there’s an art’s focus and the kids might be a little more savvy, a couple of those jokers might actually know me because of their older brothers or they’re really into music. A lot of the schools I go to, if you’re not Lil’ Wayne, nobody cares. I’m able to be incognito. I’m just J when I’m reporting. When I write, my writing style tries to go beyond just bland reporting. I’ll even throw some humor in my stuff, but it’s subtle. I’m not up there cursing and talking shit. It’s like, I pepper it in there but I stay in my role.
My other job, teaching music at my Alma Mater, I teach a music course and some of the kids, most of them don’t know who I am because it’s a different era. They know me by my name, but everybody in the building knows I’m J-Zone, including the other professors… I make sure the kids learn. My character definitely comes through when I’m teaching, and obviously I have to share some of the ups and downs of my career. When you’re dealing with college kids, teaching music, they all think they’re going to graduate and be making hits. When they’re 18 I got to tell them how it was for me, the ups and the downs. I pretty much tell them, ’95% of you will be working a regular job when you get out of here.’ There’s nothing wrong with that, but I just ask them the question that nobody asked me, ‘what purpose do you want music to serve?’ There’s a seriousness to it, but the J-Zone character definitely comes out a little bit. More so when I’m teaching than on the Sports reporter job.
RubyHornet: You talk about that in the book as well, some of the those misconceptions, the thought that if someone has a music video or music out that you can hear that they’re making money. Some of the things in the book that you’re writing about, I didn’t realize because I remember when the music was new in the late 90′s, early 2000′s, the independent Hip Hop scene seemed to be thriving and new music was everywhere. It kind of just seems like nowadays it’s over romanticized. I think back to those scenes, the Rawkus era, it seems like we romanticize it a lot. When people talk to you, do you pick up on that? Do you think that’s going on?
J-Zone: One thing I will say, I don’t know about young kids in the hood because to them, every rapper looks large. I think not a lot of books are like mine and show that, but I think a lot of those VH1 Behind The Music’s, TV1 Unsung… When we were coming up the Internet was new. Whatever didn’t make it to a magazine, you didn’t know about. I knew a lot about this music business stuff because I was interning at studios so young. I would see guys who had videos on BET The Countdown come by the studio in their work clothes. I was like 17 and thinking, ‘what the fuck? this guy’s supposed to be large.’ You realize that they really weren’t making a lot. You didn’t know why they weren’t making money. I learned in my 20′s that a sample costs 30K to clear, the lawyer gets this, this person gets that. I didn’t learn the mechanics till later, but I knew at a very young age that a lot of rappers just weren’t making enough money to survive. I think now, it’s a lot more out in the open. People will still romanticize it, especially to the young kids who only listen to Lil’ Wayne and Drake, they think all rappers make money. Young adults, guys in their 20′s, my students are maybe a little bit older, kids getting ready to graduate, a lot of the bloggers that are in their early 20′s, the interns, 10 years ago it was romanticized, and I think they kind of fell for the bait and were shocked to hear rumors of a rapper getting a job or getting on social media like, ‘yo, if you get at me before Christmas I’ll give you a verse for $200.’ People were shocked to see their heroes soliciting services online to anybody who would pay for it, and it was like, ‘wow!’
I think now that you’re on Twitter and your favorite rapper was always a mystery, he was kind of like this character and now he’s on there and you’re seeing that he can’t spell. You’re seeing that he’s typing shit in all caps. You’re seeing that he’s trying to get his son an X-Box, and he’s hustling verses to everybody in cyberspace. I think social media, the blogs and all this other stuff, all these things are coming to the doorsteps of the fan. If you’re 14 and you’re getting into music on a serious level and you follow your favorite artist on Twitter, you’re reading every blog post, you’re on their Facebook page, you’re watching every youtube video, you’re getting a lot of the reality. It’s there for these kids and we didn’t have it. All we had was the rapper had a fan club on the back of the CD. You could send them a letter and maybe they’d write back, or you’d read Word Up or The Source and hear that someone was unhappy with the label and they showed up with guns. It’s been demystified with everybody’s life being up close and personal. Before, whatever a rapper said on record or in an interview was what you knew about them. Now, you got rappers tweeting every 5 seconds and you’re reading their mind. I think it’s a lot more out front now. People still romanticize it, people still believe that rappers are paid. But I think that slowly people are starting to realize that music is a job just like anything else. If you’re not getting promoted, you’re getting demoted. There’s no health insurance. The journey to get to the top, unless you have nepotism, the journey is a lot longer than your stay. I didn’t make it big, but I got big because my journey in rap started when I was 13-14, and I finally put out a record when I was 22 and then I got out when I was 30. My stress to get to my first record was just as long as my stay in the business. Now we have to start over and I wanted to put that out there. These guys are human. We got to eat just like everybody else. When all the oil industry shut down in Detroit, those auto plant workers had to go get work. So, when you’re in the music business it’s no different. When it’s over, you have to go get work. Well, the guy in the Detroit, his skill was fixing cars and now they’re outsourcing the labor. My skill is using an MPC, DJing, so I’m going to go apply for a job and they’re like, ‘well, you haven’t had a real job in 10 years, what can you offer? get the fuck out of my office.’ I wanted to bring all this to the front. We all hear about the LL Cool J’s. We hear about a life that a lot of us will never live. You come from the bottom, you become a super star and then you might have drug abuse you might go to jail for a year, but you never hear about them having to get a job. Us as artists, we’re no different than the fans reading the book. I wanted to show that.