In college, J-Zone was one of my favorite hip-hop artists. He made a series of loopy, funny and inventive albums, like Pimps Don’t Pay Taxes, $ick of Bein’ Rich and To Love a Hooker, among others. The beats were weird, the songs hilariously ignorant and the personality was a strict departure from any other notable artists from the height of the backpack rap era. And it didn’t go anywhere.
A few years ago, J-Zone gave music up as his primary career, to pursue other interests, including writing and teaching. He has a new book out, Root for the Villain: Rap, Bullshit and A Celebration of Failure, where he hilariously chronicles his exploits in the world of hip-hop in the early ‘00s, why he got out of the business and his lifelong aversion to bullshit. It’s a great, funny read and can be purchased from his website, http://govillaingo.com.
After nearly a decade in the music industry, you left it behind to make a living in other ways. Did you seek out advice from other former musicians about how to make transition out of music?
I did, but I didn’t get much help [laughs]. Most musicians do this forever. Look at it this way: If 25- year-olds with Master’s degrees and PHDs can’t find 9 to 5 jobs, imagine being in your 30s or 40s with a giant gap in your job resume. Most professional musicians either never had jobs or they did like telemarketing, customer service, bar tending, or retail in short spurts to pay bills while they pursued their dream. We never saw 9 to 5 jobs as careers and places to grow – they were temporary cash. So most musicians I asked thought I was crazy for even trying to get work outside of the music biz. And the ones who made the jump didn’t want to talk about it because there’s a stigma attached to being a professional musician who gets a job. It’s like an indicator of “I wasn’t good enough to make it.” So it becomes a pride issue. I know that reality is reality and it rarely has anything to do with one’s talent or personal worth, but artists have fragile egos. So I’m still trying to find new avenues that are away from the music biz, but not traditional 9 to 5s. I didn’t last very long in the 9 to 5 jobs I took.
How did you decide what kind of work to focus on?
I still haven’t decided! The last three years have been a grueling, albeit hilarious experiment. I did sales at a gym and lasted four months because if you’re a slovenly hog and still want to penny pinch on buying a membership knowing you spend money to eat out every night, then fuck you, stay a slovenly hog. I’m not trying to hound you like a dude fresh out the slammer trying to get his first free world piece of ass. So I was a lousy salesman. I worked in a high school doing all the data for the district. That wasn’t bad at all, I liked that job. My boss was Rakim’s 6th grade math teacher and he was such a brilliant, cool guy. I got along with everyone and the kids were tough, street kids, but they were cool. But the woman I replaced on that job got full benefits and salary and the bureaucratic school system tried to string me along with hourly pay doing the same work. They said I wasn’t entitled to full salary and benefits because I hadn’t taken a civil service exam that wasn’t being offered again for another two years. Meanwhile, I’m driving 50 round trip miles a day to the school and gas is $4.49 a gallon. I wasn’t surviving, needless to say. I’ve been a high school sports reporter for years; I did it on the side when I was still doing music full-time. I love it, but it’s grocery money at best. I don’t want to rack up debt by going back to school and then can’t find a job that I don’t really want to pursue anyway and although I have the discipline and the smarts to work in Corporate America, I’m the type of guy to wear a Gumby haircut to work and not care. I don’t follow rules that don’t make sense and I’ve never been on a serious job interview in my life. My resume needs a lot of work to make it look anywhere near competitive. Typical musician. So here I am!
You were pretty focused on music from high school, and once you got out of college, you were essentially making a living as an artist. During the heyday, did you feel like you were going to be a musician forever?
I knew I wouldn’t be rapping forever because rap careers are finite. But I thought I’d be able to produce for bigger artists or do music for film, DJ, license stuff, etc. I still pursue that stuff, but it’s supplementary income at this point. It’s really difficult to get a steady stream of work to where you can support yourself unless you’re plugged in with the right folks. And I also got sick of the lack of professionalism that comes with entertainment careers. Every job has its own set of bullshit, but I really loathed the whole “Yo I’ll give you a call, we gotta build, holla at me” thing and then you call or e-mail the person and suck up to them because they’re “important” and they never get back to you. I’m one of the most non-violent men on the planet, but dealing with flaky people really made me feel I had a right to stab anyone who wasted my time. Like, people who say they’ll work with you just to be talking and they really have no intentions of working with you deserve to die because nothing on this earth is more offensive than wasting the next person’s time. So I eventually got frustrated and reality hit soon after. I still don’t know what the hell I’m doing.
When you were teaching music at Purchase, or when you’re just talking to young producers or MCs, what advice do you give them about pursuing a career in music?
I’ve recently gone back to teaching at Purchase. It’s a whole new era now; the kids are having an experience that’s completely different than mine. So I don’t really go to deep into what I did (musically) because times have changed and they don’t know or care about the music I made. I talk more about some of the stuff that will never change, like learning how to be a complete musician and producer, not just a rapper or beat maker. Being able to do music for a car commercial, score music for film, voiceovers, etc. – those are the skills that will allow you to pay bills doing music. One in every 200 kids will be the next J-Dilla or Kanye. The rest of us have to use our talents in a more widespread manner to make income. I made more money doing a cheesy snippet for a Superbowl commercial than I did from the sales of all ten of my albums combined, so I teach them that. I talk about how people will waste their time and make empty promises in this business and how to deal with it. I talk about how they’ll have to do things on their own before anyone tries to help. I try to remind them to stay passionate about music and don’t get into this solely because you don’t want a desk job. Being passionate about what you do is the only way you can cope with the bullshit on the business side. How to make sure taxes are paid, health insurance for musicians, legal stuff, what touring is like from both the glamorous side and the chitlin’ circuit side – just survival skills that I had to learn by fucking up because nobody taught me. Sometimes I motivate them and sometimes what I have to say seems grim, but that’s the balance of highs and lows that every musician will see. Staying on an even keel in this business is the only way to maintain sanity.
Are you paying much attention to newish hip-hop, either on the radio or in the ether of the internet?
No. I learn about some of it from my students, but I’ve accepted that I’m from a different time. I really can’t judge the newer stuff because it’s not made for me. I don’t listen to it, but I’m not gonna be that bitter old guy preaching to the kids about how the ‘80s and ‘90s were better. They were embryos then. I’ll show them how it was so they have an understanding of the history of hip-hop and be more knowledgeable musicians, because other genres do that. Rock kids know Hendrix. Jazz kids know Max Roach. Most young hip-hop kids don’t know who EPMD are, so I show ‘em. But I don’t bash the new shit or say my era was better. I’m not gonna bother telling them Wiz Khalifa ain’t better than Redhead Kingpin, because they won’t understand. It’s a generational thing.
What do you think is best thing to happen to hip hop in the last 5 years?
Shawt Bus Shawty! That shit is hilarious.
What made you decide to put Root for the Villain and self-release it?
I’ve always been a D.I.Y. guy. I also hate depending on others and to self-pub was my plan from the jump. People persuaded me to put it out there to get some feelers first, so I did it. There were a few publishers that my agent shopped the book to and most of them liked it, but they all said I wasn’t successful enough as a musician to be writing a book because nobody would buy it. I knew that would be the case anyway, so I went along with my original plan of doing it all myself. And I was doing edits down to the moment it came out. To leave it completely in someone else’s hands with no ability to make last minute changes would’ve driven me into the nuthouse [laughs].
Your writing voice seems like a (more honest) extension of your on-record personality, so I wonder if there writers who influenced you? Or if it was just you, trying to put J-Zone to the page?
The latter. Most of the stuff I read is nothing like what I write. You’re right. It’s just a more honest J-Zone rap personality on paper.
How has the response to it been? Do you feel at all re-connected to old fans of your music?
The response has been great, much better than I thought. Just seeing Chuck D, Questlove, RJD2, Atmosphere, WW Norton Publishers, and other people far more notable than I giving it love on social media made it all worthwhile. I got a lot of support from my old diehard fans which felt good, too. I was surprised people remembered my music because early 2000s indie rap was such a short-lived, chew-’em-up-spit-’em out era and my stuff hasn’t been preserved too well on the internet.
There’s some dark, and darkly funny stuff in the book, like stories about empty shows and the time when your distributor destroyed your back catalogue. Did any of that feel too personal to put out into the world?
It was difficult to write at first, because like I said, the egos of musicians are super fragile. My main accomplishment in life up to that point was J-Zone the artist, so to trivialize it and devalue it with those stories could’ve easily chalked my life’s work up to nothing. But when I put it on paper, I just started laughing. I guess because I was on the outside looking in and knew that I’d create a new life chapter with the book, I could look at my music with a sense of reality and accomplishment for what it was.
Are you planning on continuing to self publish?
We’ll see. I have to write another book first – and that shit takes time!
Henry Goldman is listening to J-Zone as we speak.