Many Hip-Hop fans breathed a collective sigh of relief when news circulated some months ago about Queens, NY resident J-Zone’s return to the world of music. As one of the game’s most creative and entertaining figures, the self-confessed Onion Ring Pimp left a large void in underground rap circles when he announced his self-imposed retirement from the microphone towards the end of the last decade.
After debuting in 1998 with the cult classic “Music For Tu Madre”, Zone spent a solid ten years carving out his own musical path, shunning mainstream trends and laughing in the faces of stern-faced Hip-Hop purists, all while filling projects such as “A Bottle Of Whup Ass” and “$ick Of Bein’ Rich” with his colourful humour, sharp observations and unique production.
But whilst pimps might not pay taxes, they do still have to pay bills, which was a cold fact Zone faced following the release of his 2006 projects “To Love A Hooker” and “Experienced!”, with the self-confessed Rap-A-Lot fanatic forced to enter into the world of nine-to-five hours, office politics and daily commutes.
Brilliantly capturing his transition from artist to tie-wearing work colleague in his 2011 book “Root For The Villian”, the chances of J-Zone releasing a new album seemed unlikely. Until now.
Returning with the poignant “Peter Pan Syndrome”, the talented producer-on-the-mic has crafted a project that finds Zone poking fun at certain elements of modern day living whilst grappling with his own place in life as a thirty-something musician refusing to be sucked into a life of conformity and the potential social consequences that accompany that decision.
A few weeks ago, on the eve of the release of his eleventh album, Zone Loc jumped on the phone to discuss his passion for playing the drums, adult peer pressure and the pitfalls of social media in his typically candid manner.
When we did our last interview in 2011 you’d just published your book “Root For The Villain” following your retirement from music. Yet here we are in 2013 ready to talk about your new album “Peter Pan Syndrome”. What happened?
“I had no intentions of making any more music at that point, at least not Hip-Hop. I was done with the J-Zone s**t and I still can’t really say that I’m fully back in it because most of my albums happen by accident. The book happened by accident. You just get inspired and you do something, but the problem is that when you create something you then have to do a whole bunch of other stuff with it that you never planned to do. I mean, even though this album is done, I still don’t want to get out there and perform (laughs). People have been asking me if I’m going to go out on tour to the promote the project and I’ve been weighing it up, thinking about it, and maybe if I could tour Europe I’d do it as I’d like to go back there. But I mean, I can’t remember the words to none of my old songs (laughs). The whole idea of performing is just so foreign to me now. But I really had no clue that I was going to do another J-Zone album. What happened was, I’ve been a musician since I was five and have always played an instrument or done something. So when I stopped making beats and rhyming in 2008 / 2009, I was writing for places like Ego Trip and then I did the book which gave me a creative outlet. But I didn’t have any musical outlet, so I was deejay-ing here and there. But after two or three years of not doing any music, if you’re a musician by nature, it’s easy to say that you’re going to walk away from the business but you can’t walk away from the music. Sooner or later, you’re going to get that itch. Around the time that the book came out I took up drums as a hobby. I wanted to learn an instrument and do something where there was no pressure to make money or anything like that. I just wanted to be able to enjoy it for what it is. So about six months in I really wanted to try and improve. I was watching a lot of old footage of Clyde Stubblefield and James Brown’s concerts and stuff like that…”
Did learning the drums give you a sense of creative freedom that you hadn’t been getting from Hip-Hop at the time you announced your rap retirement?
“Yeah and it also kinda tied in to the whole “Peter Pan Syndrome” thing as well. I mean, people make you feel like at a certain age you’re not supposed to try new things. It’s kinda this thing where once you graduate college you’re not supposed to learn anything new unless it’s going to lead to instant money or a better job. Nobody really puts three or four hours a day into something just to learn it once they reach adulthood because people have bills or want to start a family, things like that. So people look at you crazy when you tell them you’re going to try something new. But about six months in to learning the drums, I just started taking it really seriously. I was collecting vintage drums, RJD2 gave me some tips on how to record them to make them sound like old records and I just really got into the drums. But I still wasn’t good enough to be a professional drummer, it was just a hobby that I thought maybe I could do something with. Then I’d been playing for a year and I started thinking about how it would sound if I made some beats and did my own drums. The issue was always sound quality because live drums either sound great or really shi**y. To get them to sound like those breaks I used to sample you have to have certain mics, certain studio equipment and use certain techniques. I was creating breakbeats for people on the side and I was like, ‘Well, what if I started making beats again and I added this new thing that I’m doing with the drums.’ So I started making beats with live drums and they were coming out good. The tempos were a little faster than the stuff I usually made and the overall sound was a little funkier, so I was going to do another 45 single to follow up the “Drug Song” one I did last year. So I was looking for two songs to put on a 45, like an uptempo instrumental and a regular rap joint. I made two songs, but they weren’t right. I made two more songs, but they weren’t right either. Then before I knew it I had twelve songs. So I was like, ‘F**k a 45! I might as well just make an album.’ (Laughs).”
Were these actual finished songs or just rough ideas that you’d been working on that you thought could work as an album project?
“They were the songs you hear on the album. I’d made “Gadget Ho” and “Molotov Cocktail” and those were going to be the 45. Then I started making more songs and was like, ‘Nah, this would be a better song for a single.’ Then before I knew it I had all these songs and I could start to see the skeleton form for an album. There was a running theme throughout them with me talking about getting old because that was the only thing that I wanted to rap about as it was something that was on my mind. So once that outline formed I knew where to take the direction of the album. I mean, I didn’t even announce that I was doing an album until it was just about done. I couldn’t believe I’d actually done it (laughs). At first, I was just going to give it away to friends to show them that I could still make good music. Then I was just going to throw it up on iTunes and not actually tell people it had come out. Then I thought about doing some artwork. So little by little it just became a fully fledged project.”
What makes the project work so well is the fact that, even though you’re addressing certain life issues that perhaps people aren’t used to hearing you talking about in your music, it’s still very much a J-Zone record. If you’d have tried to remake a “Pimps Don’t Pay Taxes” in a safe bid to please fans it could have easily sounded forced or awkward…
“Definitely. I mean, I’m always going to be me. But when you put something out, people are always going to want what they can’t have. I mean, I have a lot of different layers and I’m influenced by a lot of different things. So that means I can give you something like “Chief Chinchilla – Live At The Liqua Sto” or I can give you something like “Experienced!” because I’m a clown and a joker but I’m also a musician. I like West Coast exaggerated gangsta s**t but I also like the Jungle Brothers. I’m influenced by so much and it just comes out, but not everyone is always going to get it. I mean, I don’t know five people who all have the same favourite J-Zone album. I don’t really read message boards and online feedback to my stuff because it messes with your head, but I read this one thing someone forwarded me that had been written after someone had heard the new music and they were saying that I was on some new s**t with the beats which they said they weren’t really feeling but then they were saying that I was still rapping about the same old J-Zone stuff. So I was like, ‘Okay, so you want me to deviate from what I usually do with the rapping but then keep the production the same?’”
So, basically, you did it the wrong way around?
“Yeah (laughs) It’s like what do you want me to do? This is something I say to artists all the time and me and Vinnie Paz were talking about this recently because he was a little frustrated about some stuff, but, as an artist you really can’t win. Whatever you do, some people will like it and some people won’t. Some of your records will be more popular than others. One of the most valuable things that Danger Mouse ever told me was to just keep making music because, even if a certain record isn’t received very well at the time, when your career is said and done and you have a discography people are going to look at that as a whole and then that’s when they’ll be able to appreciate the peaks and valleys. So I’m trying to think long term in terms of doing what I want to do and just in terms of thinking about what a new album does for my catalogue as a whole rather than just trying to get a new project out there for the sake of it. I mean, people always say they want the J-Zone they heard on “Pimps Don’t Pay Taxes” or “A Bottle Of Whup Ass” but I’ll never be able to do that again. You’ll hear subtleties from that era on the new record, but it’s impossible to recreate those earlier projects.”
This is something that we’ve talked about before, how certain artists who made such an impact on fans early in their careers are always tied to that initial material. So, even if someone like Nas made an album in 2013 that actually was better than “Illmatic”, fans would still say it was inferior because of the nostalgia and memories that surround that project for so many people…
“That’s exactly right and it really has less to do with music and is more to do with aesthetic and time. I mean, people tell me all the time that “Pimps Don’t Pay Taxes” or “A Bottle Of Whup Ass” was their theme music in college. Now, I could have have put “Chief Chinchilla” out when they were in college and made “Pimp Don’t Pay Taxes” today in 2013, and if I’d have put out one of my newer records back then, those same people would equate that record with getting drunk, getting girls and going to class and they’d equate “Pimps Don’t Pay Taxes” with having to pay bills and all the other responsibilities that come with adult life in the present day. Memories are attached to music so it’s easy to say ‘Oh, this album is the best!’ because you’re also thinking about the time period it came out in. But when you’re just talking about the music and being completely objective it’s a different thing all together. For instance, “Hard To Earn” or “Moment Of Truth” are technically the most well-produced Gang Starr albums, but “Step In The Arena” will always be my favourite Gang Starr album because I have so many great memories attached to that record. “Words From The Genius” by The Genius is obviously inferior to “Liquid Swords” but I’m always going to pick “Words From The Genius” because that came out during a great time in my life and “Liquid Swords” came out during a terrible time in my life. So my opinion on those two albums really has nothing to do with the music itself, it’s based on where my life was at the time I ingested the music. So, with this new “Peter Pan Syndrome” record, I understand that now. It’s something that we all do. I mean, if someone says they don’t like the new album, it really doesn’t matter to me. If someone says, ‘Well, it’s no “Pimps Don’t Pay Taxes”‘ then that tells me they were probably twenty-one years-old when that album came out with no responsibilities and now they’re probably married to a big three-hundred pound woman who’s taking them to court, they’re in a lousy job and they’re like, ‘”Peter Pan Syndrome”? Whatever, man….’”
But “Peter Pan Syndrome” should really be the album that does resonate with that person in their mid-thirties who’s not really sure where there life is at right now…
“Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s why people like the “Jackin’ For Basquiats” track that I did so much because a lot of people’s favourite artists are out of touch. Now, I don’t really fault the artist because as you start to make money you get into buying million dollar paintings and business franchises. That’s natural. But you’re audience isn’t really going to change with you. The difference between me and Jay-Z is that he started from the bottom and made it to the top, whereas I came in at a certain level and stayed there the entire time (laughs). Regardless of what they sold, my records have always been made for the same guy, that blue-collar regular motherfu**er. Even though “Music For Tu Madre” was a much different record to “Peter Pan Syndrome”, both albums were made for the guy that’s in the same tax bracket then as he is now. I’ve always made records for the same person. I mean, even as I got older and more polished with my production and some of my records became less slapstick and clownish, all the records were still very youthful. Even though “To Love A Hooker” might be a little more mature than “A Bottle Of Whup Ass”, they’re all youthful records. I started my recording career at twenty-one and now I’m thirty-six, but my records have always been youthful, just in different ways.”
So with any music you’re making now it’s about balancing that youthful energy and humour with an honest reflection of being an underground musician in his thirties…
“Yeah and it’s a balance that I’m trying to maintain. See, I’m in an odd position. Like I said in my book, you have different types of artists. You have artists who became so successful that when their music career died down, they were already involved in other things. Someone like a Sticky Fingaz was doing the acting thing, Xzibit had the “Pimp My Ride” thing. It’s almost like rap was a springboard for them. They came in as artists but then they were able to use that to go in other directions with their careers. They never had to go into the nine-to-five world when the music started drying up a little. Then you have rappers who always had a day job. They’d work during the week and do shows on the weekend or maybe if they did something during the week they had to make sure they got onstage early as they needed to be up for work in the morning. So those guys always had a job on the side while they were also doing the music thing. But I fall into that very small percentage of underground artists who was able to make a living off music for ten years or whatever, but then I reached that point where I had to start looking for other sources of income. So I started looking for work around 2008 which was one of the worst times to be doing that as the economy was so bad. People my age were starting to go back to school because they didn’t know what else to do because they couldn’t find jobs. But I didn’t really have the money to go back to school so I was starting real low in the job market. It took me about a year to find a job for about nine bucks an hour. I hated it. I actually ended up working four jobs, doing about eighty hours a week, napping in the car between jobs so I didn’t get into a damn accident. I had two sports reporting gigs, I had a sales job at a gym and I worked in a school. So I was doing all of that in my early-thirties which is the time in life when you’re supposed to be established. People around you are getting married, having kids, buying houses and I’m like, I can’t do none of that s**t because I’m only earning about eighty bucks a day after working for twelve hours. Of course, being in New York as well it’s all about class, status and money. So where I might have been able to meet a girl before because I was doing something interesting as J-Zone even though I might still not have had a lot of money, at that point I wasn’t even doing anything interesting and I still didn’t have a lot of money. Then, in the jobs I was doing, I’m getting dicked around by management and whatever. So it was a shock to go from being your own boss, running your own business and being an artist and entertainer, to having to start from the bottom in the worst financial time. It’s a hard pill to swallow. So it gave me an insight into that world that perhaps another artist might not have. You might have other artists taking about similar stuff that I’m talking about on “Peter Pan Syndrome”, like getting older and whatever, but if they’ve not been in that position that I was in then they might not know exactly how dire it is out there. I mean, maybe they are in that position, but not many people really want to talk about it. “
So that whole employment experience really opened your eyes to a different world?
“Yeah. I mean, I’m not saying that other rappers don’t go through the same stuff I’m talking about, but not everyone wants to be so honest about it and admit that they’ve fallen from grace as they say and have had to start from zero. I mean, there’s really no reset button once you get into your thirties. Everything around you becomes a lot more rigid, it’s harder to change, you can’t undo a lot of s**t because as you get older mistakes are more costly. But it’s a different world out there today. I mean, nobody’s retiring at sixty like our parents did. People are having to work longer, people are changing careers instead of having a job for life. But I had no experience in the nine-to-five world, so going to employment agencies, I’m getting laughed out of there like, ‘What the hell is Old Maid Entertainment?’ I mean, I ran my own business and it took a lot of skill and will power to be able to do that, but they don’t really see that. You get on LinkedIn and all that s**t but that doesn’t make any difference. So you begin to get frustrated because you’re like, ‘Damn! By me dedicating all this time I have to Hip-Hop does this mean I now have to stay where I am for the rest of my life?’ I was scared and I’m still scared because I honestly can’t tell you what my next thing is going to be. I have no clue.”
“Peter Pan Syndrome” isn’t necessarily the first step in a planned J-Zone rap comeback then?
“Nah, man. To be dead honest, with my life, I see about three months ahead. I don’t look any further than that really. I mean, I’m also helping to take care of my grandmother who’s ninety now. I’m in a very odd situation and in some ways it’s good but in some ways it’s bad. I mean, I’ve been trying to move but if you don’t have a traditional nine-to-five then you can’t rent without showing pay stubs from a steady day-job. It’s hard. There’s just different s**t going on. I’ve already decided that I don’t want to go back to school, partly because I don’t have fifty thousand in expendable cash to throw at a masters degree. I tried to do the teaching thing but then I realised my method of reaching kids when I was working with them wasn’t something that would be accepted by the administration. It just wasn’t for me. Working with all these baby-boomers who’re pensioned up for life and trying to save their jobs by pushing test scores up but they don’t really give a s**t about the kids. Everybody working there is dysfunctional but then they’re worried about me wearing a weird haircut to work. I just didn’t do well there (laughs). So I kinda used “Peter Pan Syndrome” as a way to laugh at some of that stuff because humour has always been my coping mechanism for serious issues. But right now, I’m scared to death because I have no idea where the f**k my life is at or what’s next. I really don’t.”
I think a lot of people feel that way in today’s world though due to financial issues, lack of job security, relationship problems etc, but you just wouldn’t know it if you believe everything you read on social media…
“Everybody on social media gives you the highlight reel. Nobody wants to show the missed free throws or the bad dunks. Nobody’s going to show you that they missed five shots in a row. They’re only going to show you the highlights of the game because nobody wants to be seen as being less than superhuman. I mean, I’m struggling with a lot of things and to me my music is my outlet. But whenever you create something and come from an honest perspective you run the risk of people ridiculing you like, ‘Okay J-Zone, well why don’t you just go do this…’ but they’re not in your situation. I mean, people see me as just living in my grandmother’s basement or whatever, but taking care of a senior citizen is a lot of f**kin’ work! It’s not easy. But when you put that stuff out there, people who are in the status quo position will tell those who aren’t in the status quo position that it’s easy to go out and get a high-paid job or get married because they’ve already done it. I mean, my best friend, he works a regular job and he’s like, ‘Okay, to get a job this is what you need to do. Just go to the employment agency, tell them you want work and they’ll give you a job.’ But he’s been working in the regular workforce since he was eighteen and he hasn’t had to look for a new job in about ten years. So he doesn’t really realise how much things have changed and he’s also not going into those employment agencies with a Hip-Hop resume (laughs). So there are all these little details and idiosyncratic things in my life that make it a struggle for me to get to the traditional adult life of nine-to-five job, wife, kids and all of that.”
But is that traditional lifestyle something that you actually want?
“I haven’t figured out exactly what I want yet but I’ve figured out what I don’t want (laughs).”
Sometimes that can be more important…
“Yeah, exactly. I mean, people look at me sideways when I say that I don’t want to have kids right now. But I’ve been something of a caretaker over the years with my grandmother, especially in the last five years or so. I’ve always had some kind of responsibilities so I’ve never really lived that whole wild bachelor drunken lifestyle. So here I am at the age where I feel like I should be settling down, but then on the other-hand I feel like I’m twenty-one and I just want to bomb the f**k out. But when you say something like that it’s easy for people who are in that traditional life to criticize you for it. I mean, I try not to judge people for the decisions they make in life because I’m not there, I’m not them and I don’t know what they’ve been through firsthand. But I know people who aren’t married and who don’t have kids who’ve deleted their Facebook accounts because the pressure was too much and they felt so bad about not being in this so-called ideal situation that they were seeing other people in. They were looking at Facebook like a constant reminder that they’d failed, when, in reality, you don’t know what’s really going on in the lives of those people. You could have a kid, but that kid could be sick. You could be married, but your wife or husband could have a drug problem. You don’t know what’s going on as you’re only getting half the story. As adults, I think we judge each other too quickly without knowing everything that’s going on. I mean, I thought it was bad enough when you went through peer-pressure as a teenager; you’ve gotta drink, you’ve gotta smoke, you’ve gotta have sex. But the pressure I’ve been dealing with in my thirties, that s**t is some major pressure. I mean, I’ve pretty much managed to stay on my course and avoid doing s**t that I don’t want to do, but it f**ks you up because the pressure that I’m dealing with now is based around time because all you hear people say is that time is running out. Which is something that I really wanted to address on “Peter Pan Syndrome”. I mean, there comes a time in everyone’s life where you have to make a decision and live with the consequences. If the pressure’s too much and you don’t really want to have a family or work a square job but you do it out of fear, there’s a chance that in twenty years time you’ll be like, ‘You know what? I’m glad I did it.’ But there’s also a chance that in twenty years you’ll be like, ‘What the f**k did I do?’
It’s like the concept of the mid-life crisis has been reversed now…
“Yeah, definitely. I mean, before, people would say that you were moving too fast, but now they say that you haven’t grown up quick enough (laughs). I mean, since I started promoting “Peter Pan Syndrome” I’ve had friends and other people come to me who are married with kids telling me that they wished they’d done what I did and chased their dreams so at least they would know now how it would have turned out. So I think a lot of what I’m addressing on the album is stuff that everyone around our age goes through in one way or another. Everybody wants the life that they don’t have (laughs).”
So have you taken away any particular life lessons from your experiences over the last five years since you attempted to enter the regular world?
“I’ve learned how much life sucks when you stop dreaming. I mean, you do have to take care of your responsibilities and you do have to accept reality, which is something that I accepted when my music career didn’t end the way I wanted it to. I can live with that. I can accept it. But even though I’m not ever going to go around being the successful rapper supreme, which was never a realistic goal anyway, just being able to keep creating and making music is what keeps me feeling young and alive. I mean, I wanted to die when I was just doing straight work and didn’t have any creative outlets. When I love something, I don’t believe in outgrowing it. I mean, you might outgrow going out to the club and getting drunk every night, but when it comes to music, hairstyles, clothing, I still like the same stuff that I liked as a teenager (laughs). I just never outgrew Hip-Hop but you’re made to feel guilty about that at this age.”
Do you think being so involved in Hip-Hop has held you back in certain areas of life?
“Oh yeah, definitely. I think by me pursuing music and Hip-Hop seriously as a career when I was twenty-two, I unknowingly sacrificed a lot. The difference between then and now is that I know I’m digging myself into a hole by continuing to do this. When you’re young, the field is level, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve become very aware of the fact that people who aren’t in this world really don’t respect the s**t. I mean, when you take that path and then later in life you start looking at women you might want to date or friends who have families, they’re looking at you like you’re crazy for still being involved in this. So for those of us who went the musician route full-time in our twenties and became accustomed to that lifestyle, now that we’re older, we’re realising, not that it was a mistake, but that we’re on a different boat with a different destination that’s riding a different current. You can’t really explain it. So unless you’re a huge successful artist, if you’re just a blue-collar musician still out there grinding, you just have to get used to people asking you all the time, ‘When are you going to wake up, give it up and come over to this side in the regular world?’ Well, I tried it and I couldn’t get any respect. People say go get a job? I went and got four jobs and I still couldn’t make a living (laughs). I was physically falling apart and I was broke and miserable. So I decided that if I was going to be broke and miserable, I’d rather be broke sitting up here having fun, writing books and making music in my own situation. I tried following the rules and that s**t didn’t work. At least now, even though my future has a huge question mark over it, I’m happy doing what I’m doing.”
So depending on how well “Peter Pan Syndrome” is received, will there be another J-Zone album in the pipeline?
“Like I said, I live maybe two or three months ahead, man. Would I like to get some production work? Yeah. Would I like to get some deejay gigs? Yeah. I’m still learning as a drummer, but a couple of people have already hit me up for some breaks so maybe I can find a niche doing that. I really just want to find my niche. I’m not really interested in re-entering the Hip-Hop arena and competing with other artists. I just want people to know they can come to J-Zone for something specific. I want to have certain things that I do very well, whether that be with the music or writing, and I’ll do those things as an independent contractor. Maybe scoring music for films and TV or doing voice-overs, things like that. I just want to solidify my brand, do certain things that only I can do, and build J-Zone into this entity that might not be famous but is hopefully something that I can turn into a decent living. That’s really all I can hope to get from it, man.”
Follow J-Zone on Twitter @JZoneDontTweet and visit GoVillainGo.Com for more info.
J-Zone – “Gadget Ho” (Old Maid Entertainment / 2013)