With precious few days left to get your Christmas shopping done, here’s a helpful tip from your friendly neighbourhood rap blog if you’re still searching for a great gift for that hip-hop fan with a sense of humor on your list: J-Zone wrote a book. TRU spoke to the former Old Maid Billionaire rapper turned book scribe and talked about the highs of touring, the lows of badgering for your buck and learning to embrace failure.
Pimps don’t pay taxes but I imagine writers do, how’s the transition working out for you?
Well, I’m paying taxes anyway ’cause now I got regular jobs. It comes out of ya check so now J-Zone is a tax-paying citizen. As far as the writing goes, it’s hard to say what’ll come of it. I’ve always been a writer, as far back as middle school, high school, it has always been a hobby. Even when I was doing the J-Zone stuff, my music career, I wrote for Hip-Hop Connection magazine in the UK, I wrote for Elemental in the US, I had stuff in The Source and on HiphopDX and for the last ten years I’ve been a high school sports reporter in New York. I’ve always been a writer, it’s just that now I’m not really doing music anymore. It went from a hobby to something that takes up a lot more of my time but I’m not calling it a living yet. Hopefully it will go to the point where it’s a living but not like music, where you’re so busy trying to pay your bills with it you wind up losing your passion, because you get frustrated with how things work on the business end.
So writing has already been a big part of your life for quite some time.
It was a hobby that I got paid for so it was supplementary income. With my music, I was a niche-market, underground artist. Being J-Zone the rapper isn’t gonna pay your bills, so you become a jack-of-all-trades. I was a writer, I did beats for other people, I did DJ-gigs, I wrote for magazines. You have to use all of your different talents to get money when your not succesful enough with one of these things to pay all of your bills.
When did you decide to make the switch and be a writer primarily instead of a recording artist?
There wasn’t really one incident, it was a series of things that lead to it, but there was one where I just stopped making music. I’ve made beats since then but it took six months for me to go back to the studio. I’ve made two beats this whole year. It wasn’t like I said “I’m gonna stop music and be a writer” but I didn’t have the passion anymore and writing was something I was doing anyway, so by default it wound up being what I did more of. I had so many freelance gigs as a writer, I just decided to pick up more of them because the little money I had making music was lost, and you just gravitate to what you do best. Writing, like music, is an art. Anytime you’re dealing with the arts the money is gonna be up and down, so I had to get regular jobs, I had to teach. I had to do a lot of different things.
You talk in your book about being a teacher and students finding videos of you as a rapper online, possibly creating awkward situations. Did that happen a lot?
Not a lot, because I wasn’t that famous and at the time when I was active most of these kids where in grade school. But we also have the internet so a kid who’s really into music might go back and study stuff. It happened twice, and it was always a shock to hear.
Was it counter-productive towards your career as a teacher or did it flatter you these kids are still seeking your stuff out?
Now I think it’s flattering. At the time of the particular incident, I think it was 2008 or 2009, I was a bit bitter about the music stuff. When you go into the business with no expectations, like I did, that’s one thing. But when your in the business you start getting expectations because of what people tell you. When you have Cee-Lo come perform at your show, for free, with you, and he tells you “Yo man, you should be much bigger” and you work with Danger Mouse and he’s like “It should’ve blown up more” and these guys more famous than you; Just Blaze; Danger Mouse; Cee-Lo, and guys that you grew up idolizing like DJ Premier and Large Professor saying that you should get a lor more money and more work, by nature you get a little bitter.
What I had to do was remove myself from it and look at it from the outside. I had a chance to travel, I had a chance to do what I love, to work with my idols and meet them. I was a commercial failure but I was a creative succes. But for me to understand that I had to ‘get out of J-Zone’ and be at the outside looking in.
At the time that the kid said that [he found J-Zone music online] I was embarassed because I felt J-Zone wasn’t anything to be proud of. When you hit age 30 you think about what it is ‘to be and adult.’ Everybody knows me from rapping about jerking off to Lucy Liu and these records that were kind of childish and juvenile. Now you’re 30, 31, and you’re trying to lock down your future, stabilize your income, and establish yourself for the second half of your life, you feel a little embarassed about it. But I had to say “that was then and this is now,” at age 21 that was who I was and I had to accept it and be proud of it. Now when people recognize me I’m like “Oh, thanks, I’m glad you acknowledge it” so I’m way less bitter and accept the level I reached when I was active and the way my career went. I can accept where I’m at now and where I was then.
What job would you never consider to take on?
I know I could never go into sales. I worked at a gym in sales and I just don’t have the personality for sales. Anything where I’d have to convince you to buy something would be bad ’cause I don’t have patience with people. I’ll ask you once if you wanna buy a membership and if you say no I’m gonna leave you alone. The worst job I ever had was in an ice-house, when I was in college, but a job I’d never take was in sales or customer service. Unless I’m selling my own product I don’t like dealing with people all day long. Dealing with people all day long I’d never do. I’d rather be a custodian, than you can work at your own pace. That’s a job people frown on but one of the greatest day jobs I ever had was a summer job as a custodian in a middle school, when I was in college. One of the greatest jobs I ever had! Nobody bothers you, they leave you the f*ck alone! You can do your work and goof off and not be bothered.
Actually telemarketing is even worse than sales. I did telemarketing, that’s a tough job. Even when I did sales I had to collect money from people over the phone. When they hadn’t paid their membership bill I had to call up and hunt them down for money. People would hang up one me, curse me out, after a while you become immune to it but it tears away at you to do that all day long.
What’s the the thing you miss the most about being a recording artist?
To be honest; travelling. Going to different places and not having to pay for it. It wasn’t a vacation it was work, some of those shows were stressful, we stranded in France one time, I almost got into a fight in Austria, things weren’t always pretty, but I just loved going to Europe Europe and Australia. I never got to Japan but i got to Europe and Australia and just meeting people from different parts of the world affected by your music while you have nothing in common. I’m a black guy who grew up in New York and then there’s a guy in Sweden who’s upbringing was totally different, but something I said on record, or something I did in my production brought us together. I loved going to Europe. That was probably the greatest experience of my life. Me, Louis Logic and Vakill went on tour in 2004 and did 20 shows in Europe. That I miss the most.
You would talk to women and some of them didn’t even know we were entertainers and you could just walk up and say ‘hi’ and have a conversation. In America you have to spend some money first. It seemed like an alternate universe ’cause America is f*cked up, society as a whole is, but our values in America in particular. We watch too much television and put too much emphasis on money and education. Not education as in life lessons, but college education, a paper education. People judge you. At home I’m a nobody, they tell you you’re not even on Mtv and you didn’t make it, “grow up and get a real job” but over there they think it’s so great you’re doing your music. You just feel so much appreciation when go to Australia or Europe. That’s the part I miss the most, getting to travel and meeting people all over the world.
How did getting into a fight in Austria happen though?
It was the second to last show on that tour. Myself, Louis Logic, Vakill and DJ Equal, we bonded. I talk about that tour in the book, it was an anathema because we were artists that weren’t major stars at home and we were totally different. Louis was on one thing and Vakill was a street guy and I was a funny guy, it wasn’t supposed to work but it worked. So the last three shows we agreed to go on stage together and we knew each other’s songs. So this night, this kid threw a bottle at me with some liquid in it and it missed my face by an inch. I just saw red and tried to jump off the stage and go after the kid. Security got him but I wanted to get him. Now Vakill is a big, muscle-bound dude and he just grabbed me and said “Yo, don’t throw it away. We came this far, we got the money, we had 19 great shows. One more left, don’t f*ck it up.” The fact that a tough cat like Vakill called me down me realize I shouldn’t let one person f*ck up my entire experience.
There’s gotta be something you miss least about being a recording artist too.
There’s a couple of things. The hardest part about being a recording artist, the part I really don’t miss is -and this could be in anything but it’s very prevalent in the music business- disingeniousness in people. I noticed that everybody is flakey to an extent but I’ve been raised to be respectful of people’s time. The only thing you can’t get back is time. I remember going to the studio and being their for eight hours and the person you’re supposed to be working with just never shows up. Somebody will schedule a meesting with me, like “yo I wanna work with you man” and they’ll cancel the meeting without telling you. You show up and you’ve wasted your time. “I’ma holler at you kid, I’ma buy a beat” and they get the beat and then don’t pay you. In the music business a lot of people don’t take time sewriously. When you’re working in corporate America and you have a 09:00h meeting while you show up at 10:30h you’re fired. If you have a hip-hop show and the headliner is two hours late everybody in the crowd is like “oh, he’s a genius, he’s misunderstood.” And he might be high and drunk and forgetting the words to his songs. I used to work hard on being punctual, remember the words to my songs, I might’ve been a little drunk on stage but I never let it compromise the performance. I always tried to be a professional and respect people’s time and people who paid money to see you. A lot of artists just didn’t respect that and it aggravated the shit outta me.
That and the politics. Politics are in every line of work, no matter what you do there are politics and the politics of the music industry I got sick of.
Now that you’re no longer a recording artist is your grandma going to reclaim the basement (J-Zone’s studio Pimp Palace East is located in the basement of his grandmother Evil E‘s house)?
Haha! My grandmother just turned 88, she doesn’t go down there anymore, her knees hurt. She hasn’t been to the basement in five years so I think it’s safe to say it’s mine by default. I did buy a drumset a couple of weeks ago so I’m teaching myself to play drums. I wanna keep music in my life, just because I’m not making hip-hop doesn’t mean I’m not making music but I’m a looong way away from being in a position where I’d call myself a drummer. I love the drums, fascinated by the drums, and I’m learning how to play. Hopefully I get my skills up and take it somewhere in the future.
You use a lot of self-deprecating humour in your writing but your on-mic persona, while funny as well, was more boastful. Where did that dichotomy come from?
Well, in my music I did make a lot of jokes about myself, but I made it look cool. People in the music industry, we’re kind of raised to belive everybody’s invincible. That’s not human and that’s not real. Not everybody gets the girl every time. Not everybody has money all the time. Not everybody feels like they’re the shit all the time. Vulnerability is not hip-hop. Honesty is not hip-hop. It’s about putting up a facade and creating a character. I created a character too, but when things don’t go well I found that the best thing is to laugh at it. My last record sold 47 copies in the first month, I’m not gonna lie and say it sold 5000 because that’s a piece of information that can be found if you look it up. I can’t run from the truth, so how can I cope with the truth. I cope by laughing at it. My record bombed but I’m still alive, I got my health, there are other ways around it. Our society just puts such a stigma on failure, while nobody is immune to it. Everybody wants to always be seen in a good light but I’m the kind of guy that rather has reality. It’s a dish best served cold. I give you reality but I also know how to cope with it, I don’t make it all depressing and gloomy, I can find humour in failure because as long as you can get back up again there’s nothing to be ashamed of.
You could even say there’s no possibilty of succes without a possibilty of failure.
Exactly, for succes to exist there’s gotta be risk and you risk, failing. Failure sucks, it hurts but I feel like our society is an all-or-nothing society where it’s better to not try at all than to try and fail. That’s the message we’ve been given. I work with a lot of high school ball players and a lot of them, and their parents too, are basically saying “if my son doesn’t go to a division 1 college, play big time basketball, I’d rather have him drop out of school” so they can say “if he made it, he would’ve been good.” It’s not like he tried and failed, there’s still a question mark. He didn’t give it a hundred percent effort so maybe he would’ve made it, we’ll never know. That’s better than saying “you know what, he tried it and he only went division 2 or 3.” It’s not out of humility, we celebrate people that don’t try it all, have all the talent and just don’t try or people who make it, but what about people who do the right thing and fail? Our society doesn’t respect that. I feel like that’s an ass-backwards way of thinking because everybody is going to encounter failure at one point in their life and I just wanted to put it out there, how I dealt with it, ’cause I encountered it a lot.
Do you think hip-hop will ever swing back to more autobiographical stuff or was it never really there to begin with?
Will it go back there? No, I don’t think so. But a lot of the stuff that I grew up listening to seemed so real to us because we were young. A lot of that stuff was just entertainment too. There was definitely more autobiographical stuff then than now, but not all of it was. Not all of it was a hundred percent authentic and it doesn’t even have to be. I’ll play devil’s advocate when I say there’s something to be said for just making a good entertaining record and it doesn’t have to be your real life, but… Keep in mind that that’s your persona, when the cameras turn off, turn off. The problem is you got guys trying to live out their persona all day long. They try talk all this shit… With me, with J-Zone, I would always talk “pimp this, pimp that” but you could tell I was so over the top with that shit there’s no way anybody with any intelligence would believe I was an actual pimp. No pimp would be that farfetched and self-deprecating. Even when you’d interview me I’d just say it’s just my persona, it’s how I get shit off my chest, how I vent. Rap is a form of venting and living out stuff that’s inside of you. For instance, with the book and with my music, we all go through moments where women just piss us off. Men and women are different animals so we’re gonna butt heads.
So I might write a song or a chapter that’s like “oh, this bitch, this that and the other” but I never mistreated any of my girlfriends, because I was able to get that shit off my chest. Meanwhile, you have people saying “you guys gotta stop saying bitch, you’re disrespecting women” and he’s the guy who got twelve different kids by twelve different mothers. People never saw that. They were always like “J-Zone the misogynist.” Everybody’s a misogynist! All women hate shit about men, all men hate shit about women but we have to find the humour in it and vent through art. I use my writing and my music to talk about my relationship problems but in my relationships I’ve never hit a woman in the 34 years that I’ve been living. I’ve never disrespected anyone. It’s a mechanism, I never disrespected any woman unprovoked. It’s a way to get shit out. From that argument I’d say there’s a place for rap being entertainment, something to vent. Something you’ve always wanted to say that you, that you feel you wanted to say but can’t get away with, rap is good for that. So rap doesn’t always have to be real but there’s a time and a place to turn ir on and off. When an interview is asking you a serious question, if you weren’t a drug dealer don’t talk about drugs.
Yeah, a story doesn’t have to be completely true to be a good story but it’s probably easier to tell a good story if there are real elements to it that you you can draw from.
Yeah, everyting in the book is real. The quotes are all exactly how I remember them. Some of that was said to me twenty years ago, they’re three or four words off probably, but it’s about taking the memory and the best recollection of what was said and making it antertaining. There needs to be an element of realness to it. Though it’s entertainment, to me rap was always the most human style of music. Listening to early rap, it just felt the most human to me, these were guys that could live around the corner from me. Nobody was untouchable. Run DMC sounded like guys down the street from me. LL Cool J sounded like a guy I went to school with that got all the girls. NWA sounded like the knuckleheads that hung around the high school. It was relatable. Of course, I’m definitely for the entertainment, but also for making it relatable. That’s why I talk about failure a lot, because nobody wants to talk about it, at all.
Jay-Z is a perfect succes story now but I’m sure he had really bad struggles in the music industry early on and stuff, so I’d like to hear about that.
People might not wanna relate, they just want to forget about their own lives. You got a college degree but you can’t find a job, your mother and father might’ve been laid off, you have no money, you might be living in the projects but all the music you’re listening to is about guys riding Bentleys and popping bottles. That’s changed ’cause when I was growing up I wanted to hear about guys who were going through what I was going through. It was great for me to buy an album and there was this one song that really spoke to you. You were listening and you were like “oh, he goes through it too?” I’d feel better knowing I’m not the only one. Even growing up, there was a song by Chino XL called ‘What Am I‘ were he talks about being half blacl, half latino. People gave him shit because they couldn’t tell what his ethniciy was and that was the same thing that I went through. Hearing that song really had an impact on me. That to me was what made rap human.
Even though I’m not rapping, In my book, I’m talking about this stuff nobody wants to talk about: No rapper is going to admit the last 30 shows he did two to ten people showed up, or their last album sold only 47 copies, or that they had meeting with A&R’s where the A&R didn’t show up, (laughs) nobody is gonna admit their group fell apart. But I know there are people out there who are trying to be musicians or producers or rappers or whatever and they might be going through some of the shit I went through. My book is for people like that, to show them I went through it, I’m able to laugh at it years later, I’m able to take the pain and turn into something funny. We want to be entertained but we also want something to relate to. I can listen to Cash Money Millionaires talking about Bentleys and shit ’cause it’s funny to me, it’s hilarious! I love that old Big Tymers shit, it’s incredible, we need that too, but I also like to hear stuff that I can relate too. Like an R.A. The Rugged Man talking about being broke all the time, that shit is real but it’s anathema to what rap stars are supposed to be. Most entertainers are not rich, but they just don’t wanna show the fans. I don’t give a f*ck, I live with my grandmother, I’m strugglin,’ I worked for 70 hours a week for 10 months to save up money to publish a book, and hopefully that’ll inspire somebody else to make it through a hard time.