A Conversation with J-Zone

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Photo courtesy of Keith "Has Vision" Rogers

Photo courtesy of Keith “Has Vision” Rogers

Queens, New York emcee J-Zone has returned after a five-year hiatus from the music business. The rapper/producer initially retired from the game after being frustrated by the industry. Zone chronicled the ups and down of his career in the 2011 memoir titled Root for the Villain: Rap, Bullshit, and a Celebration of Failure.

J-Zone’s latest creative effort is an album produced, written, and mixed entirely by J himself titled, Peter Pan Syndrome. The album features appearances by Celph Titled, Al-Shid, Has-Lo, and Breeze Brewin’.

The Real Hip-Hop spoke to J-Zone about why he returned to rap, his struggles to fit in with the norms of society, and his new album, Peter Pan Syndrome.

TRHH: After leaving rap you wrote the book Root for the Villain, which was kind of an explanation of why you stopped rapping. So what made you decide to come back?

J-Zone: Well, I don’t even know if I could say it’s coming back. It kind of is coming back but the same thing that made me want to make a record made me want to write a book. You go through stuff and you look for an outlet for it. My frustrations with the music business were expressed in the book. I was looking for an outlet for life after the music business. To write a book takes a lot of energy. You have to be in a certain zone to do a book and I couldn’t get back in that zone. A lot of the stuff that I touched on in the book I wanted to take it a little further. It happened by accident really. I started learning how to play the drums just for fun. I dabbled with a little bit of production but nothing serious. I put out the 45 last year and I was thinking about putting out another one but I was going through these things in life and thinking about all this shit that was going on.

Meanwhile I’m dabbling with the drums and making beats for a 45 and before you know it I had 10, then 15, then 20 songs. It just happened, man. I was trying to come up with two songs for a 45 and it just snowballed. I don’t even think I made anything that’s good for a 45. I just made a bunch of album cuts. It’s like everything else that I did. It started as one idea and while you’re working on that idea you get another and another and after five or six you start to see a skeleton form and get some direction. With the book I wrote chapters and it started to take shape. Once you get to the halfway point and can see where it’s going you can kind of make stuff to guide it further in that direction. It was totally by accident. It was a combination of life and trying to makes stuff for fun.

TRHH: Explain the title of the album, Peter Pan Syndrome?

J-Zone: I don’t even remember Peter Pan. When I was a kid I remember the cartoon and he was like the little dainty dude with the hat and shit but I don’t remember anything about it. As you get older and start going through shit you start to Google shit you’re going through. One thing you never wanna do is Google shit you don’t know the answer to ‘cause then you’re gonna end up fucked up. It’s like, I’m 35-36, should I be married? And you put it in and it says if a dude is that age then he’s damaged goods. I’m 36 and looking for a job and I’ve never worked a real job, I put it in and a lot of the results I was getting was “grown ass men with Peter Pan syndrome”. It was always a message board or comment thread talking about people that don’t wanna grow up. Everything I was going through or questioning the general consensus was this is shit that people who don’t want to grow up do. Peter Pan Syndrome kept coming up and I thought it was cool. It had a little ring to it and I was playing around with titles at the end and wanted something to do with being hesitant to grow up and Peter Pan Syndrome always came up. Later on I looked at the Never Neverland story. It came from me not being a typical adult and not wanting to grow up.

TRHH: I first heard of it from Michael Jackson.

J-Zone: That was another thing that came up. He had the Neverland Ranch. I ain’t with it the way he was talking about, running around with a bunch of young kids but in terms of expectations of what you’re supposed to be doing at this point of your life. It’s like, damn, I don’t wanna do that. Does that mean I’m not a mature adult? I was running around getting Gumby haircuts and people were like, “J, you’re a little too old for that.” Word? Everything that I saw was telling me what I had to do to be an adult. Even on Facebook, I might post some low brow humor and people are like, “Oh J, grow up.” Damn, everybody in my age group is on that shit. They’re like, “Aren’t you a little old to be listening to Tim Dog and thinking it’s funny?” Nah man, I still listen to that shit! I didn’t outgrow some of the shit you’re supposed to outgrow.

TRHH: Your drumming is on full display throughout the album. How difficult was it for you to incorporate live drumming into your production this time around?

J-Zone: It wasn’t difficult at all. I’m still learning how to play. I’ve only been playing a year and a half. The technique is the most difficult part but in terms of the process it wasn’t really nothing. I would program drums but basically I would just make a beat and I would have the music sequenced in the sampler like I always did. Whenever I’m making beats drums is always the last thing I add, I always have the music first. So when I have the music in there I try to find the tempo of the beat. I’d be sitting there with the sample or bass line going and I’d get on a kit and play what I would normally program. Once I got the pattern down it was a matter of choosing the right snare drum, do I muffle the bass drum or do I let it ring, do I mic it close or far, what kind of rolls do I put in? I just translated what I would program to the kit and get the right drums and the right tuning to make it sound right with the beat.

If the beat is 105 [bpm] I’d just pull out the metronome and play what I wanted to play to the metronome so that it was steady and in time. Then I would manipulate it, run it through a tape deck, and try to dirty it up to make it sound likes some old Stax or Motown. It was a lot more tedious. Before when I found the snare I wanted I just sampled it and programmed it. Drums are very hard to get them to sound like you want because you have to experiment with the tuning. Sometimes I had to take the heads off, put a wallet on the snare drum, leave it open, tune the toms a different way, put a napkin on the bass drum head. It’s a lot of trial and error. It’s a lot more tedious but it wasn’t that bad of an adjustment. It’s just a matter of learning how to play what I was hearing.

TRHH: The song ‘Rap Baby Boomers’ kind of resonated with me. I’m one of those people that’s being talked about. It makes me angry to think that people my age are viewed as irrelevant to the art form. Why’d you choose to address that topic?

J-Zone: Because the people that we grew up listening to, some of them are still around, but a lot of them are gone. People are using words like “veteran” to describe me but I’m still used to being young! I’m used to being youthful. I’m just 36 and I still feel like my generation is the young one and then you get online and you see the generation gap between old and new. It’s also people are like, “Word, you still doing that music shit?” It’s almost like a stigma if you do Hip-Hop or like it past a certain age. It’s like, that ain’t for grown folks. All of a sudden you have to start wearing penny loafers and watching Shemar Moore movies and listening to The Whispers. I think because Hip-Hop is so young it’s never been here before. We see what happens when young jazz heads get old, when young funk cats get old, and when rock kids get old–Hip-Hop kids getting old is new shit. We had Spoonie Gee and guys like Big Daddy Kane and LL who grew up on those older guys but if you were born in the early to mid-70s we’re the first generation that were raised on it since we were little kids. We didn’t get our first rap record in college; we heard our first rap record when we were four or five. Hip-Hop was our soundtrack to grade school, junior high, high school, college, and adult life. Who is making music for us?

When Soulja Boy and Ice-T when at it that’s when I was like, “Shit is about to change.” Ice-T was actually older than your average rapper when he blew up but still Soulja Boy was like, “You old enough to be my granddaddy,” and he’s right. There’s such a stigma attached to rapping past a certain age, especially if you’re not rich. Jay-Z does it but Jay-Z is making money. If you’re a struggling artist or a rapper getting by and you’re 36, 38, or 42 and this is what you do then your peers are looking at you funny and Hip-Hop is wondering if you’re relevant. The worst thing that you could call somebody in Hip-Hop is old or broke. When you go to the barbershop it’s like, “He’s old,” or “You know he ain’t got no money.” I’d be in the barbershop and hear people say, “50 Cent is old,” and I’m thinking 50 is just a year older than me. He’s making way more money and is having way more success so if 50 is irrelevant what does that make me? It’s not that I believe what I said in the song but this is what a lot of people believe and what they say.

Who is going to represent us? Jazz artists never feel the need to hang it up and go work in an office. Rock musicians don’t do that. In Hip-Hop once you hit 30 you’re no longer to rap about getting your dick sucked. You’re no longer allowed to curse because you got kids. Hip-Hop is so youthful it’s like once you get to a certain age are you allowed to continue being Hip-Hop even if you’re an adult with responsibilities when the cameras aint’t rolling? I take care of my responsibilities, I’m an adult, I look after my grandmother, I have a house to upkeep, I pay my taxes, pay my bills, but I’m always going to be a Hip-Hop kid, I don’t care if I’m 80. I grew up listening to Hip-Hop a lot of the young kids don’t respect or understand but what are we going to do? Cop out or support each other? Instead of saying “There ain’t no more good Hip-Hop out. Fuck it, I’m gonna keep listening to 90’s shit,” if we have more artists from our generation that aren’t scared to come out and write books, make music, make movies, and stay active then we have a voice. As long as we have a voice and support each other then we don’t have to worry about if someone 21-years old don’t relate to us. We feel like when we get a certain age you gotta leave that shit all the way alone and stop creating and that’s why we have no voice.

TRHH: It drives me crazy when people say artists are too old to rap. I saw Kings of the Mic with LL, Ice Cube, Public Enemy and De La Soul and every one of them tore it down. It wasn’t like it was a bunch of old guys up there. Why can’t they contribute? I haven’t really liked an LL album since the mid-90’s but put him on stage and he’s one of the best. He still can contribute so why is he irrelevant?

J-Zone: I think it’s our fault. It’s my fault and it’s our generations fault because we get to a certain age and say, “OK it’s time for me to be a parent, Hip-Hop’s a thing of the past, I don’t have time to check for new releases, I’m a family man,” but yet you have time to put on Midnight Marauders and listen to it every day. When we were growing up all of that shit you’re talking about was in plain sight. You turn on MTV and you saw LL, De La, Kane, and EPMD. Now Public Enemy is still putting stuff out, De La is still making music, I’m still making music, Masta Ace is still making music, Craig G put out on an album this year. They’re still making music but you have to dig for it. You can’t turn on Rap City no more and see the shit. If you turn on the TV you’re not gonna get Special Ed, you’re going to get Soulja Boy or Kendrick Lamar or A$AP Rocky. They’re in the forefront and it doesn’t mean we’re not still doing it. You just have to seek it out and a lot of people either don’t have the time or don’t want to make the time.

My thing is, if you don’t want to make the time then don’t say there’s nothing out that for you. I was one of those people but now I have no right to complain about the state of music. As long as there’s people making good music from all different generations, if I’m not gonna put in the work to look for it then I have no right to complain. I think a lot of people said Hip-Hop was a phase in their life and only die-hard music people will continue to seek it out and pursue it. That audience gets smaller and smaller. I think it’s because they are comparing it to how big LL or De La was twenty years ago. These guys are still living, working, creating musicians but it’s scaled down. The kind of music they do and I do is not going to be on the most popular sites. This is unexplored territory for Generation X. We’re becoming old so what do we do? Do we continue to support what’s left and people who are doing it in small numbers or do we say fuck it and keep listening to golden era shit? Meanwhile artists from that era who make quality stuff lose their audience. That’s the choice.

Check out part 2 of A Conversation with J-Zone

Purchase: J-Zone – Peter Pan Syndrome

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About Sherron Shabazz

Sherron Shabazz is a freelance writer with an intense passion for Hip-Hop culture. Sherron is your quintessential Hip-Hop snob, seeking to advance the future of the culture while fondly remembering its past.
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