It’s safe to say that J-Zone is a cult hero within underground Hip-Hop circles. Since debuting in the late-90s with the still highly-sought after “Music For Tu’ Madre” project, the now retired New York producer-on-the-mic has left behind him a musical legacy that brilliantly incorporated the boom-bap sensibilities of the East Coast with the wit of Richard Pryor and a love of all things pimpin’. From my own personal favourite “Pimps Don’t Pay Taxes” to his Bo$$ Hog Barbarians collaboration with Demigodz member Celph-Titled “Every Hog Has Its Day”, Zone-Loc has consistently laughed in the faces of moody back-packers who think Too Short is the anti-christ of Hip-Hop by perfecting his own unique brand of humorous-yet-credible rap.
Whilst, sadly, we’re never likely to hear another J-Zone album, the man formerly known as Captain Backslap is still adhering to the first lesson taught in Pimpology 101 (i.e. the game should be sold, not told) by penning his forthcoming book “Root For The Villain”. With chapters covering what happens when rappers have to return to the 9-5 world, technology and amusing music industry stories, the book is, as Zone says himself, for those who “still use Walkmans and collect records” and who “feel it’s perfectly acceptable to wear a clip-on tie with Master P’s face on it” to a job interview. So essential reading for those literate mo’fos out there who even in today’s digital age still have an attention span that lasts longer than five seconds.
“It’s one-third memoirs of the music business, one-third social commentary from a curmudgeon in his thirties and one-third appreciation for the obscure and under appreciated,” offers Zone when asked to further describe “Root For The Villain”. “Not every chapter will be for everybody but I think everybody will find something in there they can relate to.”
Having been influenced just as much by someone like a Bushwick Bill as he has more acceptable artists such as a Rakim, the one subject that has regularly come up during numerous conversations and interviews with J-Zone over the years is our mutual appreciation for the southern-fried gangster-isms and outlandish pimpishness of the plethora of albums released in the early-90s on Houston’s infamous Rap-A-Lot Records. With a long list of deranged, dysfunctional but downright dope artists on its roster, the outrageous output from the then fledgling imprint almost made releases from other gangsta powerhouses such as Ruthless and Death Row seem as wholesome as Christian rap.
Back in the day, I had foul-mouthed albums from the Geto Boys, DMG and 5th Ward Boyz in heavy rotation just as much as universally acclaimed releases of the time from the likes of Main Source, A Tribe Called Quest and Ice Cube.
So rather than do the expected “What made you decide to write a book?” interview, I asked J-Zone to speak about his five favourite albums from the golden-age of the mighty Rap-A-Lot Records, one of Hip-Hop’s most slept-on labels. Word to DJ Ready Red!
5. Convicts – “Convicts” (1991)
So Big Mike and Mr. 3-2 just made it into your top five with their “Convicts” album….
“I have to give an honourable mention to Ganksta N-I-P’s “South Park Psycho” which almost made it but the Convicts album is just so flagrant and wrong that I had to put it in here (laughs). It’s just so wrong in so many ways. It’s also one of the few Rap-A-Lot albums that was available on vinyl with a picture cover other than the Scarface and Geto Boys releases. Rap-A-Lot releases were already known for being very politically incorrect and offensive but the Convicts just seemed to embody all of that and more. I mean, they had the song “Illegal Aliens” which was straight up racist, they had “Whoop Her A**” which is misogynistic and violent and they had “Wash Your A**” which was a commentary on people that stink. They just seemed to manage to offend everyone under the sun with that album and at some point you’ve got to give people credit when they’re able to offend that many people (laughs). The Convicts were just no holds barred with it and they went after everyone. To me, “Convicts” embodies everything about low-budget regional independent rap records of the time with the bad mix downs and poor mastering, but at the same time they were flipping samples that nobody else had really used before. So the ideas were there but it was just so unpolished, but I’ve always really liked that approach. My first solo album “Music For Tu’Madre” was similar in that regard, in terms of the samples and ideas being very original, but the overall sound quality of that project was very low-budget. But going back to “Convicts”, at the time the album was released Rap-A-Lot was a label, a crew and an aesthetic really trying to find its footing and the imperfections in the record just made it seem that much more of a DIY project.”
There’s two things that stand out to me now when I go back and listen to this album and that’s how much Big Mike improved as a rapper between this and replacing Willie D in the Geto Boys in 1993 and also how Jay-Z jacked “1-900-Dial-A-Crook” in 2000 for his “1-900-Hustler” on “The Dynasty”…
“Scarface kicked the same rhyme on that “1-900…” record that he kicked on his own record “Your A** Got Took” with the “Here’s some game…” verse. So you kinda got a little preview of Scarface’s solo material on the Convicts album as well (laughs).”
That’s a good point you made about their choice of samples as a lot of the early Rap-A-Lot releases really relied heavily on old-school Southern funk and soul for the loops they were using…
“Those early Rap-A-Lot releases had the bass of the West Coast mixed with the sampling approach of the East Coast where they were taking risks and sampling music that hadn’t really been used that much, if at all, before then. I mean, I don’t remember hearing any obvious James Brown type samples on any of those Rap-A-Lot albums, it was all old-school Southern funk and regional music that was being sampled from groups like The Meters who came from New Orleans. That whole Rap-A-Lot vibe just had that nice bumpin’, slow feel to it and it was a really nice sound. But in 1991 Rap-A-Lot were really finding their footing as both a label and in terms of their sound and the Convicts album was just a good representation of that on all fronts.”
Convicts – “DOA”
4. Willie D – “I’m Goin’ Out Lika Soldier” (1992)
To me Willie D is an unsung comedy legend…
“Willie D had a big influence on J-Zone because he was a guy who was intelligent and clearly knew better, but he had such a flagrant side and would literally say the most outrageous things. I remember when “Rodney K” came out after the beating incident and there was huge outrage from the Hip-Hop community at the time, but I have to admit I kinda felt the same way (laughs). When Rodney King came on TV talking about “Can’t we all just get along…” I remember thinking that he must’ve been paid off to say that after what had happened to him. But Willie D was very good at playing that loud, offensive character in his rhymes but at the same time you knew he wasn’t a dummy because he could also give you some social commentary and there were definitely some of those kind of records on “I’m Goin’ Out Lika Soldier”. I remember playing that tape in the car with my father and “Rodney King” came on and he almost fell out laughing. He had to pull the car over he was laughing so much. But I remember at the time The Source only gave the album two-and-a-half mics and one of their main criticisms was that Willie D screamed too much but that was also his appeal (laughs).”
He did sound like a retired WWF wrestler who decided to start rapping but that shouting style really worked for him….
“You could tell he was the type of guy who used to wear his pants up way high (laughs). He was almost like an ex-Army vet with his general demeanour because even back then he seemed like he was in his forties or something and probably had some extra advanced mack game that he used to put on girls in their twenties, like “I don’t have sex baby, Willie D makes love!” (laughs).”
It was the fact that he was so serious and deadpan on tracks like “I’m Not A Gentleman” from the Geto Boys’ “We Can’t Be Stopped” album that made the lyrics even funnier. I mean, everyone knew Willie D wasn’t really throwing old ladies out of their seats on the bus so he could sit down but there was still something about those sentiments that you could relate to even though they were so wrong (laughs)…
“Because at one point or another we’ve all felt like doing things like that or saying some of the things that Willie D was saying (laughs). I was having a similar conversation recently with a girl I know who was telling me she’d noticed that a lot of the guys who’re really into J-Zone music are like stodgy, Ivy League conservative type guys and she couldn’t understand why. I was trying to explain to her that even though those dudes are probably really polite around her and other women, at one time or another there’s a mini J-Zone in every one of them that just wants to start cursing someone out when they get upset (laughs). Society has taught us to repress that type of stuff, so when you were listening to an artist like Willie D you could tell certain things really aggravated him in everyday life and he just let all of that out through his music. I mean, I still go to the gym and work out to this album all the time. If I’m in a bad goddamn mood I’ll still throw “I’m Goin’ Out Lika Soldier” on and play it from “Profile Of A Criminal” all the way through to “My Alibi”. It’s one of the best albums to listen to for stress relief.”
Willie D – “Clean Up Man”
3. Odd Squad – “Fadanuf Fa Erybody” (1994)
This is one of my all-time favourite albums from the Rap-A-Lot catalogue…
“This is self-explanatory really because I worked with Devin The Dude and obviously I’m a huge fan. But what stood out to me about this album at the time was that it sounded like nothing else that had come out on Rap-A-Lot either musically or lyrically. Obviously, they had a lot of sex rhymes on this album as well, but with the Odd Squad it was less alpha-male than the other Rap-A-Lot artists and more playful. To me, an album as humorous as “Fadanuf Fa Erybody” coming out on Rap-A-Lot was the equivalent of The Pharcyde’s “Bizarre Ride II…” coming out on Death Row Records. The Odd Squad album was the one Rap-A-Lot record that was entirely fun.”
I remember when Odd Squad dropped and I had friends who weren’t really feeling Rap-A-Lot like I was who still enjoyed this album…
“I think that was partly down to the production on the record because although it had some of that Southern gumbo funk on there it was definitely more of a New York-sounding album beat-wise than any of the other Rap-A-Lot releases up to that point. I mean, “Smokin’ Dat Weed” clearly has that gumbo feel to it, but then a track like “I Can’t See It” is a pure East Coast / New York record and has a real kind of Pete Rock flavour to it. I actually remember hearing “I Can’t See It” for the first time and not really like it that much because at that point I actually thought they were from New York and to me it kinda sounded like any other group out of NY at the time like a Mesanjarz Of Funk or somebody (laughs). Then my friend told me they were on Rap-A-Lot and it bugged me out. I borrowed the tape off him, thought the rest of the album was incredible and never actually gave it back (laughs). But I definitely remember thinking that as a first single “I Can’t See It” really wasn’t a good representation of the group.”
I think you’re right but it was probably chosen because it sounded so much like a generic NY record of the time and the label were perhaps hoping to catch the ears of the traditional Hip-Hop fan…
“Maybe. I mean Devin wasn’t even on that track it was just Blind Rob, so I also think part of the strategy was to use the fact that Rob was blind as a sort of marketing ploy. But really thinking back on the album there really wasn’t any sort of perfect single on there. Maybe they could have dropped “Here To Say A Lil’ Somethin”….
Musically “Fa Sho” would have probably worked but not if they were hoping for radio play even though that track has one of the greatest hooks in Hip-Hop history…
“Yeah definitely. I mean, that hook is so classic that Devin actually re-did it on one of his later solo albums. But overall I’d put Odd Squad’s “Fadanuf Fa Erybody” in the same category as that first Pharcyde album and even early De La Soul and KMD. They’re all similar in that they were all playful, inventive groups that were a little out of place in terms of what else was going on in Hip-Hop at the time they came out. Plus, I have to say that “Fadanuf Fa Erybody” was my favourite rap album of 1994, “Illmatic” and everything else that came out included. I believe it was the best Hip-Hop record of 1994 and you can put that in quotes.”
With the exception of the Scarface albums, “Fadanuf Fa Erybody” is probably the only Rap-A-Lot album from that period that could still stand up today as good music even without any of the nostalgia attached if that makes sense…
“I think you’re right because as much as I love albums from 5th Ward Boyz and Ganksta N-I-P, if you played those now to people who didn’t already know them from back in the day they’d probably just laugh at them.”
Odd Squad – “Here To Say A Lil’ Somethin'”
2. Too Much Trouble – “Player’s Choice” (1993)
I remember thinking nothing could be as raw as the Geto Boys until I heard Too Much Trouble…
“Too Much Trouble were probably Rap-A-Lot’s most entertaining act just because I’ve always had an adulation for that over-the-top, extreme pimp sh*t (laughs). Ever since I was a kid I was just fascinated with that way-out-there pimp stuff. Their first album was probably funnier than “Player’s Choice” because it was similar to the Convicts debut in that it was so over the top with tracks like “Invasion Of The Purse Snatchers”. But on this second album they just went 150% pimp. They had one track on “Player’s Choice” about family issues and another one about people not fist-fighting anymore, but the rest of it was allllll pimpin’ (laughs). They had the greatest female emcee of all-time Big Black rhyming on “Pimpin’ Ain’t Dead” which also contained the very first hook Devin The Dude ever sang on a Rap-A-Lot album. But the pimp talk on the album was crazy. I mean, the recording engineers who were in the studio working with these guys must have thought they were buggin’ (laughs). A lot of it was so foul and misogynist, but in a real pimpish way. The production on the album was a little more polished as well because Rap-A-Lot had the distribution deal with Priority by then. “Player’s Choice” wasn’t funny in the same way that the Odd Squad album was funny, but in terms of my sense of humour it really appealed to me. I mean, if you played the average person the Rap-A-Lot catalogue they would probably say Odd Squad was the funniest, but to me “Player’s Choice” is the funniest album Rap-A-Lot ever put out because I find that pimp sh*t hilarious.”
This album is funny in the same way that an old blaxploitation flick like “Willie Dynamite” is funny – it’s offensive, over-the-top and morally corrupt but you can’t help laughing at elements of it…
“Exactly. I mean, even my father likes this album and will still listen to it in the car today (laughs). You know it’s going to be over-the-top just from looking at the cover with the pistols and the pitbulls and then they’ve got that old-school Rolls Royce with all the girls. Aw man, it’s so bad (laughs). But as far as my sense of humour goes, it’s the most entertaining album Rap-A-Lot put out.”
Do you think the comedy element in some of Rap-A-Lot’s most extreme tracks was unintentional or do you think the artists were aware of it?
“That’s a good question. I really believe that the Geto Boys guys knew and were saying a lot of what they did purely for entertainment and shock value. But when it comes to acts like Too Much Trouble and 5th Ward Boyz, they didn’t get enough exposure for you to really know what type of people they were so it’s hard to tell. I’m sure someone like Ganksta N-I-P must’ve known that a lot of what he was saying was funny because it was so extreme. It would be really interesting to talk to someone like a Mike Dean or an N.O. Joe as producers and engineers who were in the studio working with these guys to get their insight into that question. ”
Too Much Trouble – “Pimpin’ Ain’t Dead”
1. Scarface – “Mr. Scarface Is Back” (1991)
This release would definitely make it into my top ten Hip-Hop albums of all-time. “Mr. Scarface Is Back” literally blew my mind the first time I heard it…
“”Mr. Scarface Is Back” is almost like the Odd Squad in that it’s a Rap-A-Lot album but it was totally different from anything else they’d put out at the time. It had that Rap-A-Lot sound to it and it was raw, but there was no novelty element to the album like most of the label’s releases had. Scarface was literally just rhyming his a** off on this album. I mean, the other guys on Rap-A-Lot might have been able to rap but there was often an element of campiness to it, but Scarface was just all about straight rhyming on this. You knew you were listening to a dope emcee and not just an entertaining rapper. I mean, to me “Mr. Scarface Is Back” was on the level of Ice Cube’s “Death Certificate”.
I remember the review in The Source saying that musically “Mr. Scarface Is Back” was how “Death Certificate” should have actually sounded in terms of that sonic rawness…
“Mr. Scarface Is Back” is the only album on Rap-A-Lot were literally every track was lyrically dope and I’m talking objectively here not just talking in terms of my adulation for off-the-wall extreme sh*t (laughs). But what Scarface was doing on that album as an emcee could sit next to Rakim, Chuck D, Ice Cube, Kool G Rap, artists like that. Every artist or label from another region has a record that breaks in New York and for Rap-A-Lot those records were “My Minds Playin’ Tricks On Me”, “A Minute To Pray…” and “Mr. Scarface Is Back” and two of those three records were on this album. Those were records that I heard at parties in high-school. I mean, one of my best friends is a stauch supporter of New York rap and even now he will still say that “Mr. Scarface Is Back” is one of the greatest songs of all-time. This was the album that you could use to prove Rap-A-Lot wasn’t just a novelty label when you had those arguments with people who really wanted to get into it about artists with lyrics and skills.”
Plus, production-wise tracks on the album such as “Born Killer” and “Body Snatchers” were largely based around familiar breakbeats which probably widened its appeal in comparison to other Rap-A-Lot albums…
“Yeah, it was an album that could appeal to every Hip-Hop fan at the time. “Mr Scarface Is Back” really validated Rap-A-Lot as being a serious label and made them valid on a general Hip-Hop scale.”
I think part of the brilliance of the album is that Scarface’s talent forced potential critics to discuss the album on an emcee level without him ever really rapping about how dope he was at rapping…
“That album was one of the ultimate story-telling albums in Hip-Hop because every song had a concept to it. I mean, even Slick Rick had straight up braggadocious rhymes. But “Mr Scarface Is Back” was conceptual from beginning to end and I know that record definitely had an impact on me as an artist and inspired me.”
Scarface – “A Minute To Pray And A Second To Die”
J-Zone’s book “Root For The Villain” will be available via all the usual online outlets or catch a preview and order directly here.