In Money Matters, creative people discuss what they're not supposed to: the intersection of entertainment and commerce, as well as moments in their lives and careers when they bottomed out financially and/or professionally.
The artist: J-Zone’s 2011 manifesto, Root For The Villain: Rap, Bullshit And A Celebration of Failure, is a hip-hop book unlike any other, a combination memoir/essay collection about a ferociously talented, idiosyncratic rapper/producer/would-be mogul who released a handful of critically acclaimed, cultishly adored albums—most notably 2002’s Pimps Don’t Pay Taxes, a hilarious collaboration with rappers Huggy Bear and Al-Shid—before giving up on rap after a series of personal and professional humiliations. It’s the rare memoir about not making it, about failure rather than success. It’s also one of the funniest and most honest books ever written about the modern music industry and its luckless casualties.
The A.V. Club: Could you talk a little bit about how the J-Zone persona evolved?
J-Zone: I worked with Vance Wright, who was Slick Rick’s DJ, so I came up under him and I was unofficially the in-house engineer and producer at his studio. We had a lot of talented rappers but they’d go missing from the studio for two weeks with baby-mama drama or “He’s in jail cause he got caught selling crack.” Guys were getting locked up. Guys were coming to the studio three or four hours late.
Then I got to college, and I was the producer but rappers still weren’t showing up. Nobody was showing up to the studio, and I would have shit booked out, so I thought, “I’ve always been a writer, I know how to write. I’m not the greatest MC, but maybe if I create this character I can rap that way.” I was always shy, but I thought maybe I could get out of my shell by creating this character who is inside of me, who I really want to be but never had the courage to be in real life.
But then the problem was eventually I couldn’t separate the character from my real life, so I’d be 27 and be in J-Zone mode all the time, and that’s when I kind of said “I don’t know if I want to do this anymore.” [Laughs.]
AVC: Hip-hop in the late ’90s was very materialistic, and your music rejected that.
JZ: I think a lot of that had to do with the fact that I grew up fast in hip-hop. There were a lot of labels that were lumped into “indie hip-hop,” everything from Fondle ’Em, to Rawkus, to Stones Throw to me, but I was one of the only true independents. Stones Throw started out independent and then [founder] Peanut Butter Wolf got a P&D [production and distribution deal] with a major. Rawkus obviously had that Rupert Murdoch money. Labels were considered indie because of their sound and because they weren’t part of the major machine, but a lot of them had backing. I eventually got a P&D with Fat Beats in 2003, but for the first three albums I made, I paid for everything out of pocket. I had a recording studio in my basement that cost money. Everything cost money.
AVC: Was the idea to get signed by a larger label or to build Old Maid Billionaires, your label, into a self-sustaining entity?
JZ: From a business standpoint, at that point I’ll be completely honest, I was looking at what Peanut Butter Wolf did with Stones Throw and what Mighty Mi did with Eastern Conference. I sent Wolf my record and he was like, “Yeah, I know who you are.” He used to give me little pointers. I had no interest in getting a major-label deal at all. I got interest from Atlantic Records. At the time, they were pursuing Louis Logic, Dilated Peoples, and Apathy. They were sniffing around the indies. I sat with them because my goal was to get production jobs. I wanted to do major-label production, but I knew there’d be no way in hell I could clear all those samples that were on my records. It would stifle the entire process. I had to keep independent, or I’d be up to my nose in litigation.
I did a remix for the Nappy Roots, who had just signed to Atlantic, but it never came out. They weren’t sold on Hug and Al-Shid [J-Zone’s partners in Old Maid Billionaires —ed.]. They said, “We need to get a couple more tracks for the club—maybe a Timbaland kind of beat or Swizz Beatz kind of a track.” I wasn’t rude about it but I said, “Thanks but no thanks. It’s not really what I’m trying to do, but I’d love to do some major-label production and we can work around it.” I did a couple of remixes, and then they just stopped calling. So I just kept moving with the plan, but I knew that I was going to be a tax write-off. I knew because they said, “Oh we can clear all that stuff.” I was like, “No, no, you don’t understand how many samples are on these records.” It’s not one main loop; it’s a matter of having a legal department clear thousands of samples from everything from the TV show Hazel to all kinds of other shit, just odd random shit that I just pulled out. I just knew realistically that Pimps Don’t Pay Taxes being re-released on Atlantic, which is what they said they were going to do, that was not going to happen, so I thought, “Let me continue independent,” and eventually that scene dried up, and I was running in quicksand after a while.
AVC: Pimps Don’t Pay Taxes was your biggest success, right?
JZ: For a purely indie record, yeah. It came out on 9/11, which hurt it. The release date was 9/11, and I lost a lot of tour dates off that. I’m friends with Al-Shid to this day, but he decided he wanted to do his own thing, and Hug and I went our separate ways so the whole Old Maid Billionaires conceit imploded. I didn’t expect that, which is why I ended up rapping again, just because I had to. After that I had a certain style of rap that I was good at and that I liked to do, but the reason why it worked is because I had Hug and Al-Shid on the left and the right. Al-Shid was there to knock somebody out to let them know we weren’t a novelty act, and Hug was there to say, “Okay, we’re not stupid. We have some depth.” And they were able to come into my range a little bit as well: Al-Shid could have a J-Zone beat on his record and so could Hug, but I would always give them their own rap. I’d give Al-Shid his record and beat and have him knock the shit out of everybody, then I’d give Hug his solo record to talk about the fraudulence of religion, conspiracy theories or whatever. And even though it was all over the place, sonically I tried to pull it together and be cohesive, and that’s why I think people liked it.
AVC: Were you able to support yourself from music?
JZ: I tried to. After Al-Shid and Hug left, the next two solo albums I started taking really low-paying shows, but I said, “Well maybe if I do it in volume I can survive.” So I took a lot of Chitlin’ Circuit shows. I was doing a lot of beats for very little money, but I was doing a lot of vinyl, like a lot of shit that nobody even knows about. If my house wasn’t paid for and I didn’t already have a studio… I was basically lucky in my own situation because if I was any other person trying to live off that, I never would have made it. Like in 2006, I put out three albums and barely made anything, but then I landed a Super Bowl commercial that paid 30 grand, so I got lucky.
AVC: In the book you talk about the last tour you did as a rapper, which sounds pretty dispiriting.
JZ: I did a show with Gnarls Barkley, and after that I basically stopped performing. I just said, “I’m going to try to work behind the scenes and get more DJ gigs and see what I can do,” and out of nowhere I got a phone call from a promoter in California saying “We want to book you” and they were paying decent, good money—better money that I ever got in the state. This is a pretty major agency, but they didn’t know who I was. Somebody had apparently recommended me, and they had money to play with. So they booked me, and on websites promoting my appearances they actually had a picture of somebody else. It wasn’t even me! I think it might have been a reggae star, or it might have been one of those Southern rap stars, like a real, real dark-skinned dude with gold teeth and dreads. They didn’t even know who I was! So I didn’t feel good about it, but I needed the money.
It was San Diego and L.A.—it was a back-to-back, so I flew up to San Diego and I did the show. Dick Stallion, my partner, had just gotten married and moved out there, and he had stopped a long time ago. He was like, “Yo, we’re getting too old for this shit,” but he was like “I’ll join you for old time’s sake.” So we got up there in suits did our own thing, our Go-Rilla Pimps shit. We did all our stuff, and after the show he says to me, “I’m never doing this shit again. It’s over.” Everybody in the crowd was half our age, so there was this disconnect. We were hanging out with 18-year-olds after the show—we’re 30, 31, and we’re sitting there thinking, “What the hell is this?” The next day I went to L.A. I was staying with Danger Mouse, and I played the Knitting Factory in Hollywood’s main room. So I get there and the opening act—I don’t know who they were, but the place was totally packed—I could barely squeeze into the dressing room. I thought it was going to be interesting because I’ve never had a crowd like this in years. So I get in, I go backstage, I’m hanging with the guys, I poke my head out a half-hour later after the noise died down, there’s nobody there. I found out the policy is opening acts don’t get paid, but they have to bring X amount of people to get on the bill.
So what happened was, I guess these kids had such a following at their college or whatever that they packed the place. As soon as they left, everybody left. So I’m looking out behind the curtain and I’m like, “Yo, there’s nooobody out there.” [Laughs.] I was like, “Oh shit.” So I looked at Bilal Bashir, he used to DJ for Divine Styler, and he did a lot of Ice-T’s productions, and he’s a friend of mine, so he went and set up and he DJed for me. Danger Mouse was there. Some guys from MADtv and some of Danger Mouse’s other friends from Hollywood were there. You had A-listers backstage with me and nobody in the crowd. [Laughs.] So I get out there and think, “Fuck it, I’m a professional. This is what I do.” I get out there and there’s five people there, and they’re texting. They’re not really watching the stage. Nobody’s watching me, and I’m there performing. I got to about the third song in the set, I finished it, and I walked over to the DJ booth and I pointed to the set list and I took a pen off the table and I crossed out seven songs—there were like 15 songs—I did three, I crossed out seven. I thought, “I’m going to do these last five songs, and I’m never doing this shit again.” So I went through the next five songs, by the end they were actually kind of into it, but it was too late. I went backstage, I got my shit, and I said, “I’m going for a drive.” Danger Mouse gave me the house keys and said, “Yo, come back whenever you want.” It happened in an instant: After that third song, something clicked in me and I thought, “I’m just not doing this anymore.”
AVC: So that was a real moment of clarity, when it just didn’t seem to be worth it anymore.
JZ: There were three stages. The first was the Chitlin Circuit tour. The second was that show. The third was when I had to destroy all my shit. After that it definitely all seemed to be over.
AVC: Can you talk about having to physically destroy your old projects?
JZ: This was back in 2010. At that point I was working in a high school and trying to get a full-time job, and they’re essentially doing the professional equivalent of trying to lead me into the friend zone. So I’m already frustrated at my job. I’m working this tedious desk job, not making any money. There’s no room for advancement. I’m working on the book, but the book is halfway done at that point, so I’m already in a “What the fuck am I doing?” and “This is going nowhere” frame of mind. Then someone at the Fat Beats warehouse calls me up and says, “We have a lot of your shit here, and it’s not moving. What do you want to do?” [Laughs.] I’m looking around in my basement, and I have all this vinyl and CDs and shit like all over the place, I tell him, “Man, I don’t have any room for any of that shit.” They told me, “We have to destroy it, but we can’t do it without your permission. You have to come down to the warehouse to sign a release that says it’s okay if we get this stuff recycled.”
So I thought, “Fuck, all right. Let’s just destroy it.” So I drive down to the warehouse and I sign off on it and that was it. That night I was DJing a show for Granddaddy I.U., Son Of Bazerk, and LONS [Leaders Of The New School], so I signed off on it on the way to my DJ gig. So I did that, and I was already in a bad mood. I DJed the entire night and made 30 bucks. I was supposed to get more. [Laughs.] I DJed for everybody, and I was supposed to get X amount, and they wound up overbooking, not selling enough tickets, because it was kind of near Christmas, so they put all these guys on the bill and nobody showed up. So I got 30 bucks and thought, “Why the fuck am I doing this?” I’m already depressed, and when I come home there’s a letter waiting for me. I guess my grandmother signed for it, and it was certified mail from my digital distributor and they said they were dropping me from the roster.
So the next day I call them up and asked what the letter was all about and they said, “This just isn’t working out. Your stuff just doesn’t sell.” And this drove me crazy because it was a digital distributor, so it wasn’t like I was costing them money with lots of unsold inventory. And they said, “Yeah, but we’re trying to work with artists that generate revenue and income, and we thought your stuff would do that, but it just doesn’t. There doesn’t seem to be any interest.” They told me in two weeks my stuff would be off iTunes if I didn’t find someone else to distribute it digitally. I just laughed and said, “I don’t give a fuck if it’s on iTunes or not.”
The day after that, someone was supposed to interview me for something and they called me up and said, “You don’t have a Wikipedia page,” but I had a Wikipedia page. I didn’t make it but I remember seeing it. So I said, “I got a Wikipedia page” and they were like “We went there and it says it doesn’t exist.” [Laughs.] And I went online and it turns out that Wikipedia deleted my page because it was a spot page, and they decided I wasn’t significant enough as an artist to justify having a Wikipedia page, so they went and wiped out my page.
So all three of these things happened over the course of two days. I figured I could really get depressed, or I could just go down to Red Lobster, where I had a gift card from my boss.
I just went down there by myself and ate. By that point I had to laugh at my life. My musical career wasn’t a total failure because I got to travel. I got to do all this shit, but the way that the music business works, most artists are just narcissistic, and we make them bigger than they really are. I don’t think my struggle is unique; I just think that nobody wants to talk about it, so I just said there’s gotta be other people who have gone through something similar.
I thought maybe I shouldn’t put the book out because nobody’s going to give a shit about somebody who hasn’t made it big. Nobody’s going to care, and I don’t know if I’m ready for another massive failure. [Laughs.] But I might as well put it out because there are going to be people who think they’re going to blow up and they’re going to read it, and maybe they won’t do what I did, thinking that there’s more where that came from. Sometimes you get to a certain level, and you have to enjoy it for what it is. And had I done that when Pimps came out, it maybe would have been a better ride, but I always thought that I was going to go on to bigger and better things. Because you have these Cee Los and Danger Mouses and Just Blazes and Pete Rocks and Large Professors around you telling you how good your shit is, so you think they can’t all be wrong. You have to realize it’s not about the quality of your music; there’s a lot of factors that come into whether you “make it” or not.
AVC: You were always doing something different but it seems like now nobody’s selling records, whether they’re iconoclastic or not.
JZ: I think the record industry definitely had something to do with it, but I think it was just conflated with the fact that when the record industry is dying like that, the guys who have no affiliation are the first to go. Everybody’s a megalomaniac, so they can’t be in a group because the ego would take over, but you can’t be a lone wolf because everybody needs to lean on another person’s fan base to stay current and to stay relevant. Everybody helps each other, so I think that because I was a lone wolf after the Old Maid Billionaires thing fell apart, I was a solo artist where people thought, “All right, he’s too offensive and too misogynist for this, but then he’s quirky and nerdy so guys who listen to that ignorant thug shit will think it’s a joke. He’s talking about jerking off, but then he’s talking about slapping this bitch, but then he’s sampling kiddie records. Where do we put this?” So aesthetically there was nowhere to put it, and I didn’t have a brand in terms of a crew. Jedi Mind Tricks can take Army Of Pharaohs on tour together, but the only person I could really tour with would be Louis Logic because we’re two odd ducks. People buy into branding, so when the record industry took a big hit, it became about branding because even though the records aren’t selling, you can still make a lot of money doing shows.
I worked with everybody in the music business on that level but I wasn’t part of any team. I worked with Celph Titled, but I wasn’t in his group Demigodz. I worked with Cage and Tame One, but I wasn’t part of The Weathermen. I worked with Danger Mouse but never got to meet the Gorillaz. I worked with DOOM, who mixed one of his records in my house, but I never did a Zone-DOOM record. I brushed shoulders with everybody; everybody knew me and respected me, but I never had the branding or the affiliation that allows you to survive some of the hits the industry has taken.
AVC: How did Root For The Villain come about?
JZ: Initially it was just a collection of essays because I was writing for Dante Ross’ website. I was doing a blog post once a week, and people really liked them, but blogging to me is mixtape shit. I would never survive in the mixtape era because I'm an album guy, because albums are like books. I'd rather sit with something for a very long time and meticulously pick at it until it's right, which is what appealed to me about making a book.
So I started off taking a lot of the blog entries and using them for the book, but then while I was working on that, I went through this situation with the Wikipedia page and the distributor and Fat Beats destroying the shit. Because I wasn't really planning to write a whole lot on the music side. And then I just felt that unless I put it on paper, it's always going to bother me. I was extremely bitter. At the end of 2010, I was extremely bitter and angry at the music business and pissed off and curmudgeonly. So I said if I just sit down and write this stuff and find some humor in it, that might help me cope with it. It wound up being therapeutic for me. At that point the first half of the book was born. When I went through that shit I wanted to write about it because I'm tired of books about artists and the only struggle is in the beginning when they lived in the projects. And then towards the end they might have a quick bout with drug abuse or they might get falsely arrested and accused of something. But there's nothing where their ego takes a hit. It's usually something circumstantial, like, “Yo, I got arrested. I got beat up by a cop, either this or that, my wife did this and baby mama this.” There was never, “Yo, there was a point where I felt I'm not good enough. I stood around and I said, you know what? I didn't make it.” I know a lot of musicians that that's happened to, but it's never in any book.
In America, nobody wants to not make it. Everybody is going to make themselves bigger than they are. So I downplayed what I did a little. I did a lot of great things that I’m proud of. I got to experience a lot. But in America it needs to be more than that. I have a friend who’s a literary agent, and she shopped the book. I let her shop it, but I thought it’s a niche book so no one’s going to bite. They all said the same thing: “We love it, but nobody knows who the hell he is.” We're in an era of you're not allowed to have an opinion, not allowed to say your opinion, you can't share your own stories. You can't say anything unless you're making money and you can prove it. That made me a little hesitant about the book. I haven't made it. My Wikipedia page is gone. Nobody knows who the hell I am. Times have changed. Do I even have a right to put out a book? Maybe I should just save myself the embarrassment. Nobody wants to hear from somebody who didn't make it. Why would anybody want to hear that? But then I was talking to some friends and some family and they said people might want to hear my story.
The average musician will go through what I went through before they go through what Jay-Z went through. I wanted to show people you can be the best at what you do and work hard and believe in yourself and persevere and still not make it. And nobody wants to admit that sometimes that just doesn't happen. Sometimes the stars just don't align, and you have to be able to accept the level that you get to. I got to a certain level, which is more than a lot of people, but it didn't match up with the amount of work I put in, and I got frustrated. But that's just the way this music business is, and if you come into it like I did, all passionate and wide-eyed and can't wait to have your first record, the goal is to meet all your heroes growing up, that's all I wanted to do. I didn't realize that I wanted to make it until much later, probably around when people started liking the albums around 2001 to 2002. In ’99 I was just happy to be on record, but after that the expectation just kept getting higher. You’d think, “Okay, this album did this. Next one we're going to do that.” And sometimes it plateaus like where you're at now is the highest you're going to get so enjoy it. After this it's all downhill. You have to be able to enjoy it for what it is. So that was the whole idea that I wanted to put out there.
AVC: Are you happy with the reception the book has received?
JZ: Yeah, I did 300 copies to start and I was concerned I would have more stock in my basement. [Laughs.] And in a week they were gone. I probably sold about 2,500 of them at this point. It did a lot better physically than it did on the Kindle. I went into it as a different person. I was hardened by the music shit. I knew it was a good book, but I also know that nobody wants to read about a failure, a rapper who never got love in the black community despite being black and living in a black community, because who wants to hear about the guy who didn’t get the push? Nobody wants to hear about that shit. You put all this time and money and sacrifice to do rap and it didn't work and now he's lingering and in limbo. Nobody wants to hear that shit. But I found out a lot of people might feel that way but they’re ashamed to say they went through the same experiences. A lot of people hit me up and are saying, “Yo, you're talking about my life, you wrote my story.” A lot of people have gone through it and a lot of people will continue to go through it. And I thought that that angle was going to be what made it work. Because eventually reality is going to hit you in the face. Everybody has to face it in the music. You can't run from it. Because then they're always going to say, “Whatever happened to this guy?” And if you pry into it, you're probably going to find a story similar to mine.
It’s been great having guys like Chuck D and ?uestlove talk about it on social media, to have ?uestlove publicly endorse the book and my back catalog. When he put a link to my iTunes page, the sales for my book and my music both spiked, just from him mentioning it twice. That’s what I needed when I was doing music! It was like when ?uestlove gave Little Brother a boost and then others co-signed. To have people like Chuck D and Slug and Vinnie Paz and RJD2 and WW Norton Publishers and Danger Mouse and Prince Paul and Dante Ross all putting the word out about the book made me feel that it was all worth it.