“J-Zone knows more about rap music than anyone I know,” says Grammy award winning producer Danger Mouse. “He’s one of the most underrated artists out there. Definitely a big influence.” However unlike Danger Mouse, J-Zone’s quirky productions have never brought him any platinum plaques or a house in the Hollywood Hills. After achieving cult indie success with albums like Pimps Don’t Pay Taxes, five years ago the Queens rapper told his distributor to melt down his back catalogue and promptly retired from the game. But he’s not mad about not making it big, he’s decided to embrace it, writing a hilarious book entitled Root For The Villain: Rap, Bullshit, And a Celebration of Failure about his experience in the music industry.
I tried to bring balls out humour and unorthodox sampling styles to rap at a time when it wasn't prevalent
With the likes of The Lonely Island, Chuck D and Prince Paul lining up to endorse his memoirs, we decided to ask him and his partner Chief Chinchilla to put together an exclusive Dazed Digital mix about all the things he loves – but mostly hates – about the music business. Are you ready to be schooled? Over to you, Mr. Zone….
Dazed Digital: For those who don't know, what is your legacy in the music industry?
J-Zone: Haha, I don't know about a "legacy." But I've been active since I was 17 years old, when I used to work for Vance Wright (Slick Rick's DJ) as a studio engineer and in-house producer for his production company. My first production credit was in 1995, when I did a beat for a dude named Preacher Earl, who rolled with Nice-N-Smooth. A few years later I put out my first LP, Music for Tu Madre, and did the indie rap thing from 1999 till about 2008. I never "blew up," but I worked with a lot of my childhood heroes and people who were more famous than I ever was. I guess you could say I was a "producer's producer and artist's artist." I put out 10 albums and have a lot of production credits under my belt. I tried to bring balls out humour and unorthodox sampling styles to rap at a time when it wasn't prevalent - I guess that's how I'd word it.
DD: Your book is brutally honest about your success and crushing failure. Was it difficult to put yourself out there like that?
J-Zone: At first, yes. Rappers are narcissistic; respect and perception are everything. If I died tomorrow, most people who knew of me would know me as J-Zone the artist. So to write a book and demystify something that's supposed to be my claim to fame and the product of my life's work and expose it as a potential failure - that's risky for the ego. So now if J-Zone was a failure, what do I have left (laughs)? But when I started putting it on paper, I began to remove myself from it and see it from the outside looking in; that's when I began to see the humor in it. Failure is a relative term. I traveled the world and my childhood idols became my peers. I did what I loved for a living and to a certain extent, still do. I may have been a failure by music industry standards, but when I thought about it, I realised I never did this for industry approval anyway. I wanted to make my albums like Tim Dog's or The Afros' - how could I expect to blow up (laughs)? That's something to be proud of, so it wasn't so hard once I began to write it.
DD: Why did you decide to write it?
J-Zone: My story isn't unique at all - your average musician has a similar story. But they'll never tell it because artists are protective of their image. Why else would they keep publicists around all the time? How people perceive you can make or break you in a day. When I no longer cared about upholding my image, I thought it would be a good story to put out there. So many musicians have no clue what the business is like and are totally unprepared for what's in store. So I wanted to share my experiences and show them that it's possible to give it your best shot for 16 years and still not make it big - then have to get a day job with no work experience besides music! It's a reality check, but it's also a call to all musicians to have fun and enjoy what they do and not get sucked into the rough spots like I did.
DD: Do you still make any music?
J-Zone: Yeah, sometimes. I make beats every now and then for fun or if an artist requests one from me. I'll custom make something or remix a record they did. But it's rare that I make a beat just to make one like I did during the height of my career. Rapping I don't do anymore at all. I still DJ and I'm taking drum lessons. I really want to get good on these drums!
Root For The Villain: Rap, Bullshit, And a Celebration of Failure is out now on Old Maid Books.Govillaingo.com
Follow Tim Noakes on Twitter here @TimNoakes