J-Zone is one of my favorite people to interview in Hip-Hop. His honesty and candidness is refreshing in today’s synthetic society. J-Zone the musician keeps it as real as J-Zone the man. Since coming out of retirement in 2013 J-Zone has not only produced more thought-provoking rhymes he’s producing the funkiest music of his career.
Zone learned to play drums in 2012 and has been incorporating live drums into his production ever since. J-Zone’s funky drumming is on full display throughout his new album, Fish-n-Grits. The album, his seventh solo album and twelfth overall, is written, produced, recorded, and mixed by J-Zone and released by his Old Maid Entertainment record label. Fish-n-Grits features appearances by his long time collaborators Al-Shid and Has-Lo.
The Real Hip-Hop spoke to J-Zone about his new album, Fish-n-Grits, the plague of hustle rappers, the importance of mastering your craft, and how his late grandmother, Evil E impacted his life and his music.
TRHH: Was there less or more pressure doing an album for the first time with no real theme?
J-Zone: I didn’t feel any pressure. It had no real theme but this album started the way all my other ones did – just making music. When you get to a certain amount of songs you start to see a stich kind of form. With Peter Pan I made like 7 or 8 songs before I came up with the theme. Even the concept albums started as ideas. Peter Pan was half instrumentals and vocals, but it was still more vocal. This one is basically 50/50 so with that kind of structure it’s kind of hard to pull off a concept. So I said, “What if just stretch out on some music shit and accumulate everything I’ve done from before I was J-Zone to now?” The alter egos, live instrumentation, beat making, cutting, and I didn’t do the skits but I kind of had some of the personality from the skits, and rolling everything into one. I didn’t feel any pressure because it started the same way. I just changed the direction of it.
I noticed albums are kind of getting shorter, not in minute length but track length. Look at Run the Jewels and its ten songs, this album is ten songs, that album ten songs. I haven’t really made an album that was less than 17-18 cuts since Bottle of Whup Ass really, and that was an EP because so many of those were skits. So many of my songs were a minute long so I decided to do something different and do 15 straight up tracks and see how it goes. I never did an album like that. I don’t even feel pressure no more when I make music. I just make music at this point. I’m not competing with anybody. I don’t feel like it’s competition or I have to get attention above who else is making records, I just do my thing. It’s kind of like letting the people in on my process and have them watching me do what I do. I’m not thinking in a music business sense even though I was looking around at the current climate. I wanted to do it my way. I wanted to try something a little different and never felt no nerves about it.
TRHH: Is it more enjoyable for you to do an album with mostly original music than sampling the way you did in the past?
J-Zone: I still sample. Playing instruments and people think they’re samples, I get a rush off that. Before it kind of became known that I was playing drums people thought they were samples. Just Blaze told me when Peter Pan came out that he didn’t know what was samples and what wasn’t drum wise. I didn’t sample no drums except for like one cut – The Fox Hunt. To me it’s just all music. I think indie Hip-Hop has always had a stigma against live instrumentation. I kind of addressed that on the album. Sampling itself, I’ll always do it. It’s in my DNA. It’s part of me as a producer, it’s just getting crazy with so many sources that reveal the samples. I understand that if you sample something you gotta prepare to be outed, it’s just that a lot of stuff on this level can’t afford to be cleared. I just studied the style of the music I was sampling so much to where I could learn how to create it with minimal reliance on sampling. In terms of drums and bass, not at all. I’m a student of the music. It’s not like I have a sample and I got a week to replay this shit. I sit with the original music and study it, and study it and study it, and study it. I did so much studying in terms of how stuff was mic’d, what kind of gear was being used, and I was able to get some of that mojo without actually sampling it.
TRHH: You referenced Dr. Dre on the album and how you can’t sample his stuff. You mentioned the snitching web sites, which I actually love…
J-Zone: They have a purpose. A lot of times you really wanna know something and it’s great for that but it’s a double-edged sword because if it’s like a Kanye West thing or a Jay-Z thing you know it was cleared. Who cares? They have the money. A lot of records that were before the statute or records that were independent, it cost a lot of money to clear stuff. The same people you’re honoring you can also get them in trouble. I do see the appeal of it. Most of the stuff I’ve been snitched for was drums. I’ll never have to sample a drum again because anything that I can sample I can play. It’s just a matter of getting it to sound that way. To me that’s the challenge, that’s the fun. I do replays. I did a bunch of studio work for Danger Mouse and Marco Polo. That’s a challenge to me, even more so than digging to find a drum break, to try to channel the spirit of the original drummer but put my twist on it and then record it in a way that I can get that sound. I’ll be down there for hours, sometimes days and weeks, trying to nail a specific drum sound or a specific playing style. It makes me a better drummer, a better producer, a better musician, and a better engineer.
What can be seen as being messed up I see it as a positive. People getting called out for drum breaks, well let me go down there and see if I can make my version and make it funky as the original. It’s training because a lot of that stuff wasn’t cut to a metronome. A lot of that stuff had imperfections. Music didn’t become really perfect until the 80s when everybody was on a metronome and were trying to compete with a drum machine. Music in the 80s if you couldn’t play like a drum machine as a drummer you couldn’t survive. In the 60s and 70s were most of the samples are from guys were just in the studio grooving. Those imperfections are part of Hip-Hop for sampling. A lot of those classic breaks have imperfections. It’s actually training to learn how to play something imperfectly perfect. That’s a challenge and I enjoy that. In terms of experimenting with different drums, different mics, different mic positions, different heads, and moving the drum kit to a different place — that trial and error, I’m a nerd for that kind of stuff. I love it. I really enjoy playing stuff. I play with bands and stuff, too. I’m still learning. I’m not a professional by any means. To bring that into my production is not like I have to do it to avoid a lawsuit, nah, I love to do it.
TRHH: One of the themes I picked up on when listening to the album is you seem frustrated with other rap artists, be they old school, new school, or aspiring mixtape rappers. Are you really sick of rap?
J-Zone: Well I have nasty sense of humor. Of course it’s all done tongue in cheek. I love Hip-Hop. If I didn’t love Hip-Hop I wouldn’t have dedicated my life to it. And there is great music out there. There is great modern Hip-Hop. I’m not one of those guys that thinks it ended in the 90s. Artists from back then are still making good music. I was just kind of taking shots at the cheapening of rap. For instance, if you see a bunch of jazz guys playing in a subway station there is like a donation bucket or a hat where you can drop money in the hat. My first drum teacher was a street musician. He was a jazz cat that played on the street and I met him playing on the street! He was playing in Penn Station. I was just watching this cat and I was like, “Man, he’s got some serious jazz chops.” I put a dollar in the hat but I was like, “Yo, you got a card? I wanna take a lesson.” It wasn’t like they were grabbing people as they were walking by like, “Yo, yo, yo, check me out!” It was like, “We’re playing and if you like what you hear give me a buck or give me a quarter.” Most music works that way.
Early on in Hip-Hop it was cool. You have Percee P, who I love and he would be like, “Would you like to check out some music?” and it wasn’t rude. It was like, alright, you have somebody going into the store that likes Hip-Hop and they might not be familiar, let me check them out. He would get into a cool conversation. A lot of those guys would actually talk to you about music and if you didn’t buy the tape they wouldn’t yell at you. It was like, “Okay, have a nice day.” If you were a tourist that was a cool part of your experience. After a while the guys got real aggressive, “ Yo, yo, yo, I know you like Hip-Hop! I’m sayin, check me out though!” I’d say, “Alright, let me listen to it,” and they’d say, “You sayin’ it’s not good enough?!?” I’m like, “Yo, I’m on my way somewhere!” They would run you down, especially if you were young and black. They figure it’s a given you like Hip-Hop. I used to carry a Walkman and be like, “If you got it on tape I’ll buy it off you. I don’t have a CD player.” That how I used to get ‘em to leave me alone. For people that don’t know anything about Hip-Hop that kind of cheapens it like, “Yeah, I was out in the street and these guys with their Hip-Hop came and bothered me.”
Whether you’re an emcee, a DJ, or a producer, there is a craft that goes into that. You spend hours on your craft. Hip-Hop is street music and hustling is embedded in Hip-Hop. The entire 90s were about “I’m a hustler” and “Hustling, hustling, and hustling,” and that hustling ethos is part of Hip-Hop. But when craftsmanship takes a backseat to the hustle, that’s where I have a problem. ‘Cause it makes people who have no craftsmanship, who don’t respect the music, who don’t respect the art form, but have a good hustle feel like they can get into it, and it becomes a free-for-all. I’ve been playing drums for four years and I’m not confident I can get out there and play with a touring band yet. People practice their craft for years before they come out. But now it’s like, “Well, I can’t really rhyme but I got that hustle though.” To me that cheapens Hip-Hop because you couldn’t go into jazz and be like, “Yo, I got this hustle,” you gotta be able to play. In pop music they don’t call it hustle they call it appeal. So you just shake your ass and hit a few notes. In Hip-Hop it’s called hustle, but in jazz, true Rock & Roll, funk, blues, classical, film scoring, and soundtracks, you gotta have a passion for your craft and be developed. I don’t care how good your sales pitch is, your music’s gotta show it. In Hip-Hop the hustle has come to the forefront and the craftsmanship is in the background. I’m supposed to buy your CD-R because you came up to me on the street ultra-aggressive? For somebody that’s not into Hip-Hop to encounter that on the street, I don’t like the way that makes us look. In particularly black music – I don’t like that.
It was kind of tongue in cheek but there’s a seriousness underneath it. It’s frustrating to know that what you’re doing is being reduced to that and cheapened to the hustle. Pull out the instrumental and rhyme for us. Give us a show! I’ll buy a CD. Give us a show! Show me something. Say, “What’s your name?” “My name is Richie,” and then give me an 8 bar freestyle about Richie. Be creative with it and then I’ll buy it. Then the hustle has shown some craftsmanship because you just impromptu rhymed bout me. That’s hot, I’ll buy a CD. I’ll put some money in his pocket so he can get some food or whatever. Even the guys on the subway who dance, they’re giving me a show! I’ll put a dollar in the hat because you’re entertaining me. You’re showing that you worked long and hard at something. You might not be able to get into a dance troupe or a dance school, but you can give me a show to make my commute a little more entertaining. I respect your craft, I’ll put some money down. Don’t just run up on me saying, “Yo son, I’m sayin’, real Hip-Hop, five dollars.” I can’t respect that.
TRHH: I started making beats probably in 2002. I’m still not very good [laughs]. It’s a hobby for me. It’s something I’m trying to learn and I’ve never devoted full-time to it. But when I started I went to Sam Ash or Guitar Center and the salesman was like, “All you need is Pro Tools!” It’s so available. There are much cheaper workstations than Pro Tools now, but it’s so available to people. I think the Soulja Boy thing was the real start of showing that anybody can do it. Do you think having these things be so accessible has contributed to a lot of these on the street hustle rappers?
J-Zone: The on the street hustle was around before technology advanced. Cats in the street were around but I think in terms of the online version of that – showing up in people’s social media – me and you are going back and forth on Twitter and someone pops up saying, “Yo, check my shit out,” that violation came from technology. I think the floodgates are open and it’s very easy to get into it. When I first started you had to have money to get in the studio. You had to have money to get equipment. There were so many barriers and obstacles to even have money to get a demo tape! And then when you got your demo you’re not even sure if it’s ever going to become something. There were so many barriers that you had to be hungry and ready.
When I was 16 and first started recording in real studios I couldn’t afford multi-track. I used to have to have the SP 1200 running and I would sequence the beats to my verses and rhyme live over the drum machine to a cassette and if I fucked up we had to start over and it was thirty five bucks an hour. I could only afford an hour so we had to cut three songs, so that meant I could only afford one or two mistake takes per song. It was a different approach. I’m not saying mine was better or worse, it was just different. Those limitations, lack of resources, it was just unavailable. Making music was so expensive. You had to have all this high tech gear that wasn’t available to the consumer. It changed your outlook on craftsmanship.
To this day I do all my verses in one take. I may punch in a line, like when I do that Slick Rick style overdub thing where I go over the line and it’s impossible to do it in one breath. I’ll punch that in, but the majority of the rhyme I do it in one take. If I screw up I’ll do it over, just because I’m so used to doing it that way, not because it makes me better or worse. It’s just in my DNA. That’s how I learned how to record songs. When Pro Tools came around I was just so used to doing it in one take or I thought I would lose the energy if I punch in after the third bar, so I’d just do it over. It’s just a different time. I’m not saying it’s better or worse, it’s just easier.
You can’t work in a hospital unless you get a certification in something. You can’t work in a lot of skilled jobs in the medical field, construction, or any other field without passing some kind of proficiency test to get certified to work. Even sports, the proof is in the pudding. If you want to be a basketball star you have to be able to do certain things to fit. Your skillset has to apply to your size. If you’re 5’9” you have to be able to pass the ball because you’re a point guard. Even with sports there is a prerequisite. With music at this point it’s like, be marketable. There really is no skill requirement and because of that the technology is there. You know how many people are gonna wanna do this? They don’t have to go to school for this, they don’t have to be proficient at this. All they gotta do is be enjoyable, get lucky, be present on social media, be likeable, Instagram stuff, and have swag and you got a shot. Will you ever be mentioned among the Pharaohe Monch’s and Rakim’s? No, but you can have a career and that’s been made evident.
Even film is different because so much money goes into it. You can do YouTube videos and stuff like that. I think a lot of the arts are being cheapened because of that. I was talking to Mike Clark who is Herbie Hancock’s drummer and a great jazz drummer. He said growing up all he wanted to do was play drums. It was no, “What are you going to do on the side?” or “What are you going to do to make a living?” He was like, “I said I was going to play drums. I played drums, and that was that.” Now it’s like, “What’s your side hustle?” or “What’s your angle? Playing drums? Making beats?” It ain’t enough. Everybody knows that it’s so accessible that to say that you’re going to do that and only that people will laugh at you. Music itself has been cheapened to the point where people don’t respect it as a profession, unless you’re a superstar.
Somebody asked me, “What do you do?” and I explained and they were like, “But what is your real job?” Most artists had jobs back then but when you were a musician back then it was like, okay, I know you spent X amount of time and eventually you’re going to try to make it a career. I think at this point it’s like a hobby to everybody but who can have all the other factors in play to make it a living? Luck, timing, knowing the right people, social media presence, nepotism within the music industry, all that kind of stuff. It’s just become a hustle. There are people who live it and people who are great at it, but overall it’s like a hustle and a hobby. That’s fine. It’s just different times. The arts are not respected in the schools and it’s not viable to a lot of people because we’re made to feel like anybody can do it and succeed. Unless you’re lucky, who cares?
TRHH: By listening to Fish-N-Grits and the SuperBlack single White Privilege you seem to be a little angry but more so like you have to get your feelings out on certain things. When and why did this change occur for you?
J-Zone: You mean as an artist going from more comedic stuff to that?
TRHH: Yeah, exactly.
J-Zone: It’s just life. The J-Zone character is only a piece of my personality. A lot of what I was known for 15 years ago has lived on through Chief Chinchilla and Swagmaster Bacon. They provide the comic relief as my alter egos. I’ve always been a serious thinker. I’ve always had these questions, these frustrations, and these ideas. As a younger artist I found a shtick and kind of ran with it. Looking back on my younger self it was kind of like, “I just wanna do my thing – comedy. That’s my lane.” When I left music and came back I felt like I had nothing to lose. I basically wrote this book, I’m learning to play drums, and I’m doing different things. I didn’t think I was coming back to music. I was like, “I quit, I’m retired, I’m done.” I felt like that was no pressure so if I come back, still be humorous but start addressing other shit, if I alienate people, who cares? I’m old news anyway. That’s just the way that I felt.
I’m just getting older and shit is real. I worked in a high school in the hood with high poverty, high crime, everybody wanted to be a rapper or an entertainer. Being in the music business you’re kind of shielded from that because you’re just around other music people. When you have to get a job, and you work in the community, in the hood? I’m a sports reporter and every kid thinks they’re going to the NBA so they get their whole body and neck tatted up, they fuck up in school, fuck up on the street, they think they’re immune to hard times ‘cause the ball is going to get them outta there and to watch them three years later come back to their high school and their girl is pregnant, they’re screwed up, they ain’t got no money, they’re in the streets, this one is in jail, to watch that shit happen most artists aren’t really around that. They might have grown up around that but once they get in the music business they’re not faced with that. I was dealing with that every single day.
Segregation in the school system — I worked on Long Island where segregation is huge and racism is thick. Watching a white school play a black school and feeling the tension in post-racial America, quote unquote. In the music business I wasn’t exposed to that – I just knew music. When I was working regular jobs and working in different environments, in different communities, with different kinds of people, far removed from the music business certain things started to bug me. Getting out and dating not as J-Zone; I met women in the industry, I met women at shows, I met women who were friends of friends in the industry. When I left I had to meet women on dating sites and it’s like, “Oh, you live in that part of Queens.” What is that supposed to mean? When you go back to being a regular Joe and you see shit is real, artists a lot of times are shielded from that because of their art. What did John Turturro say in Do The Right Thing? “Magic, Eddie, Prince, they’re not niggers. I mean they’re black but they’re more than black. It’s different.”
Class, race, any of that kind of stuff. I got an awareness of it from being out there. I wanted to incorporate that in my music, but I knew if I went all Chuck D on them I’d lose ‘em because I’m known for comedy. I took Chief Chinchilla and Swagmaster Bacon and put some of that humor in them. I’m still a goofy, funny guy but at this point I like lampoonery. I like to make jokes at the expense of serious stuff, almost being facetious. Using humor, but wait a minute there’s an issue at hand here that I want to discuss. I feel like as an artist the reason it’s up and down is because you’re supposed to follow what your instincts are. I don’t care about marketing or what people liked about me in the past. I don’t think about what people expect from me. You mentioned making an album that’s not as linear as a concept album, I just make what I feel because I’ve already hit rock bottom so what’s the worst that could happen? It happens again? I just make music and be real with myself and that’s it.
TRHH: You lost your grandmother recently and she played a key part in the career of J-Zone. For those that don’t know, explain how your grandmother impacted you and Old Maid Entertainment.
J-Zone: My parents were great. My mother, my dad, we’re still tight. My dad is my best friend. Me and mom have gotten extremely close as we got older. My parents split when I was 6. It was a rough time for both of them. They were always there for me, they took care of me, and they made sure I had clothes and food on the table. The 80s were a rough time. A lot of times on weekends I would stay with my grandparents. You know when you have a week off from school for winter break or spring break, I was always staying with my grandparents. I was half raised by my grandparents. I discovered music in the basement of the house that I live in today – that’s my grandparents’ house.
Music is always connected to them because they were right there. My grandmother would always yell downstairs, “Stop making all that noise!” I’d be down there playing records and I’d bring a record upstairs to my grandfather and ask him what “P” and “C” on the records meant. My grandfather knew all about copyrights because he tried to publish a book. He’d explain the Library of Congress and how you have to copyright your music. He wasn’t musical but he was smart. So much of my music pedigree started in this house with them around. As I got older my very first demo I cut in ’93 I didn’t have money for it and my grandmother gave me money for studio time.
When my grandfather passed in ’97 my grandmother was alone and I was worried about her. I was still in college and I would come back and see her. I said when I graduate I could get an apartment and try to find studio time or I could build a studio in my basement and go live with my grandmother, look after her, and be in the place that inspires me musically. I could make all the noise that I want so that’s what I did. It was only meant to be for a couple of years then I figured I would move out and get my own place. First I was gonna move to Atlanta and that fell through. Then I had a little studio apartment in Far Rockaway that I was gonna get. I was on the waiting list then her health started to decline and I was like, “Nah, I need to be here.” My dad was in Florida. He would fly up to help out but he couldn’t be here all the time. It wound up being something to help me at first, then it wound up being something to help her when he health declined. I was basically a caregiver for 17 years.
She was there and because she was there I would try to get her involved. I would say, “Grandma, get on this album cover, put this hoodie on.” She was still missing my grandfather so I used to try to cheer her up. I would say, “Grandma, you got fans!” and I would show her online where people would talk about the album cover. She used to get a kick out of that. I named Old Maid after her and used a caricature for her as the logo for the label. After my grandfather died it almost gave her another life and that’s what I was trying to do – keep her spirits up. She’s always been there when I was making music. She always encouraged it, always. Being in the basement is something special to me. It’s something about that basement. I go down there and it just feels so funky down there. My grandfather had that Cadillac in front of the house all the time. You’d smell the grits and eggs and shit cooking. You go downstairs pull out some records and it’s real funky down there. Everything was funky and it was just kind of a vibe growing up. Uncles would come over and tell jokes, play cards and shit. We’d have barbecues. So much of that was how I was introduced to music so I like to keep that close to me.
TRHH: Who is Fish-n-Grits for?
J-Zone: It sounds crazy but it’s really for me and my family, really. On the cover of the album that’s my uncle Fred, my grandmother’s brother. He used to have joke time and when I was a little kid I didn’t know all of the jokes and innuendos because I was too young but he fascinated me. That picture of me jumping up and down, that’s a real photo! Cats are drinking Bud and smoking Benson & Hedges, it’s almost like listening to a Dolemite record. That’s how he used to be. He never had his teeth in his mouth, he was always cracking jokes, and everybody was eating potato salad and shit. It was one of those family functions.
I did it for people in Hip-Hop who don’t fit in from a lyrical standpoint because I grew up on the New York boom bap, but I like the West Coast, I like the South, and I like the Midwest. I don’t like to be pigeonholed in a box. There’s so many influences on the album musically. I feel like there’s a small contingent of Hip-Hop that are not purist, guys that don’t hate the new music but it’s not for them, guys who love the 90s but want to leave the 90s there in the 90s, and people who just like good music without all the stuff. There’s a contingent of people and we talk and it’s like, “I feel like most of what’s out now isn’t for me, but I don’t hate it. I just do what I do.” Lyrically I was thinking about those people.
Musically I was thinking about people who like funk, Hip-Hop, and all those types of things. The whole mojo of the album is really just about family, my inspiration, and what got me into music. It’s been a long journey. The album covers so many things I’ve done on my journey – different instruments, crate diggin’, the alter egos, the humor, the seriousness. Everything from 1982 to now that I’ve done musically pops up on the record. The background for all that stuff is just being in this house, being around family, and listening to records in the basement. I just tried to bring that whole funky vibe like when you had a family get together in the early 80s – that vibe. Funky, a lot of trash talking going on. My uncle Fred inspired a lot of that Chief Chinchilla stuff – he used to talk like that. It’s just a whirlwind of influences really.
Purchase: J-Zone – Fish-n-Grits