J-Zone was a different breed of artist, and that's because he's always been a different breed of man. "I still use a cassette Walkman," he says with pride. "I have a cassette player in my car, I have an outdated haircut, I'm just in my own world." His own world is one in which he refuses to do things just because the masses say he has to, and that world, including his career and views on mass culture, are summed up in his first book, Root for the Villain: Rap, Bullshit and a Celebration of Failure. "I wanted to show a refusal to kowtow," he explains.
In a way, J-Zone is showing how he fights the power, or more precisely, fights the power cords. He's not a fan of Facebook, doesn't use an iPod, refuses to have a smartphone, and thinks texting is somewhere between silly and rude. He is a hip-hop curmudgeon and he wears that title with pride. There's something to be said for the old ways, though, and this week RapReviews caught up with J-Zone to find out more about why he chooses not to move with the ebb and flow of the masses, what makes him the "villain" in his book's title, and how he defines success.
Adam Bernard: When I was reading Root for the Villain I felt a lot of people in our age group could easily relate to it. Some of the things you were saying about cell phones; we were always taught you didn't buy something new unless the old thing was broken.
J-Zone: YEAH! Every two years they're telling me I gotta upgrade and sign up for another two years. I'm like, I don't want the fuckin keyboard. I want the regular fucking phone that opens up. I have a T-Mobile dLite and it's this fruity, dainty, fuckin phone. It's a Japanese design so it has a lot of weird bubblegummy colors. It looks like a teenage girl phone, but it's the only goddamn phone they had that didn't have a keyboard. I don't want a keyboard. When I'm on the internet I'm on the internet, when I'm in the street I'm in the street, when I need to talk on the phone I have the phone. The good thing about it is when you have a clam phone it folds up so you can't dial people by accident, and when you hold it it's the closest thing to holding a landline phone because the shape of it is long, rectangular. I was like, I want a phone that feels like a phone, so they gave me this.
People feel like they have to assimilate and be cornered into accepting what the new social norms are when they were raised under different norms. The pressure to conform, in general, that's what the premise of the book is. An underlying tone is a refusal to play the game and the consequences that come with refusing to play the game, whether it's in the music business, dating, phones. We've been told in order to survive you gotta adapt and play the game, and I'm like, well, I guess I'll have to suffer for not adapting then.
AB: Is that what inspired you to put the book together?
JZ: Yeah, that was the main thing because people say you gotta change with the times, that's what everybody told me when I was making music. I came up in an era where Rakim made an album every two years. Public Enemy made a record every two years. A Tribe Called Quest mad a record every two years, and during those two years they probably went on tour for one year and they spent a year compiling ideas in the studio. I was a very album based artist and very much into taking time and putting together something cohesive where you listen to it and it sounds like a movie. While I was active guys were putting out mixtapes every week. How is it a mixtape when they're all original beats? To me that just means you're putting out throw-aways. It's like "you have to do this," "controversy sells, you gotta do this." It basically became the WWE of the music business from the rap side. It was like these were things you had to do to stay in the public eye, like go on YouTube and make an ass out of yourself.
I definitely did that, but I did it when I felt like doing it, I didn't do because "hmm, I've been quiet for a while and I need to keep my name out." That led to frustration in the music business. It is a business and I had to learn the hard way that when you don't play by the rules it can either work great for you or it can mess shit up. That's really what the music part of it is about, something that you love so much with rap, it's a hobby and it changes your life and you get into it and you keep those same values when you're in the music business and then the music side takes over and is like no no no, you can't do that. The Afros were your favorite group as a kid, but in 2004 nobody knows who The Afros are, you can't come out and do a cover of an Afros song because no one will know it. You can't have these artsy-fartsy quirky kind of beats but then talk about bitch this, hoe that, it's two different demographics that relate to each thing, you have to be one or the other. Refusal to play the game and get pigeonhold with the music, and then having bloated expectations, of course, led to things not being as fun, at times, as I thought they might be.
AB: Is your refusal to adapt why you consider yourself "the villain" in the book's title?
JZ: Yeah. It's a refusal to play by the game and it's also, the book is kind of an anathema to what books about musicians are about. You're not supposed to talk about doing a show and three people show up, at the height of your career. You're not supposed to talk about your last album selling 47 copies on iTunes in the first month. Look at all the rappers who've published books - 50 Cent, LL, Jay-Z, Common, DMX - all their rough stories are at the beginning and then they get to the top and they have a struggle with one thing, whether it's drugs or the law, whatever, but nobody's ever talking about shit that makes them look bad as an artist, like not selling a lot of records, getting fronted on. I don't have anything to be ashamed of because I know the value of what I did and I can accept it for what it was. We're taught to embrace heroes, but how many times have we put a religious leader on a pedestal and found out he was fondling little kids? How many times have we had a community leader who was this clean cut great guy and you find out on the low he's doing something fucked up? How many times have we had these preachy rappers talking about all this knowledge and misogyny destroying hip-hop and they got nine kids by nine different women when you pull back the curtain? It's like alright, I'm gonna take my faults and put em on the table. I don't believe in repressing anything. I believe in lettin shit out, and we've kind of been taught that that's wrong. This girl the other day was like "you're educated, but why do you go around parading Tim Dog all the time?" I'm like because that shit is great. Would I go out in the street and do the shit that Tim Dog does? No.
People probably look at me as less than intelligent because I like ignorant rap music and I hate ignorance. They can't understand how that's possible. It's really about having a little balls to admit your guilty pleasures, own up to your faults, talk about the ups and the downs. If you feel something speak out about it. There's nothing wrong with having an opinion, you're not a hater. Everyone is kind of walking on eggshells and I just find it kind of odd, so I feel like being the villain is owning up to a lot of the shit that a lot of people would sweep under the rug and taking self-deprecation to a level where you can find humor in it and laugh at it as opposed to running and hiding from it.
Hip-hop is supposed to be no holds barred, unbridled shit. When I was growing up that's what it was. Now everybody's really PC and walking on eggshells. That's not what rap was. I used to listen to the Rap-A-Lot catalog. They were talking all kinds of wild shit. Willie D, who was clearly a brilliant guy, made a record like "Fuck Rodney King." When that came out everybody was like "how could you..." and I was like you know what, I never would have said that in public, but deep in my heart I was feeling the same thing. The cops just whooped your ass on TV and you're talking about "can't we just get along?" How much did they pay you to say that. When he came out with that I was like alright, you can be an anathema to all that PC shit, you can have an unpopular opinion and stand up for it. You don't always have to look like a hero. That's where the idea from that comes from.
AB: You had a large chunk of your unsold CDs recycled. If this book ignites an interest in your back catalog are you going to regret that decision?
JZ: It's nothing even really to regret because I just had no more space for it. I still have that shit comin out of my ears. All those CDs were almost a reminder of that situation. I had to move forward. It happens to everybody. It never feels good, but any artist in this business probably had to have their shit destroyed, but it's something you don't want to talk about. When you become a musician it's natural to equate your success with your personal worth because a lot of times as artists we fail to separate the person from the music. In my case I was guilty of that. Whatever J-Zone did, I felt that was the value of J. That's why I had to step back. J-Zone was my brainchild. Some people appreciated it, some people didn't. I don't have any regrets about any of the music I did. I wouldn't have done my career any differently. I can accept the level that it reached when it was active and I can accept the successes and the not so successful things.
AB: Is there anything specific you want people to get out of reading Root For The Villain?
JZ: I want us to redefine what success is. The part of the title that says "Celebration of Failure," I think a lotta people got that misconstrued. I know I'm not a failure. It was (originally) called Root for the Villain, Rap and Bullshit. The Celebration of Failure came when I was shopping the book. I shopped it to six people. Five of the six people loved it. They said it's a great book, you're a great writer, you have some stories, but nobody knows who the hell you are. We don't wanna do it. I was like Jay-Z wrote a book, LL wrote a book. They were like, they were commercial successes, you were a commercial failure, you just don't have that built-in audience and that built-in name. I looked at my career and I was like I got a chance to make a living doing what I love to do, I went to 14 different countries, I got to work with guys I grew up idolizing, we became peers. I didn't become a millionaire, it didn't last forever, I didn't get known by a whole lotta people. I had a good little run, but we're in a world of tangible results. We're in a world of numbers, Twitter followers, Facebook likes, how many downloads, how many hits, how many comments, how many YouTube views. In that world, yeah, I'm a failure. That's the way the world we live in works, but in my world it doesn't work that way. The failure part is basically a mockery of where we are today.
What is success? If I'm a failure then what is success? What's the cutoff mark? Is it a certain number of records sold? Do I have to own the Nets and marry Beyonce? What do I have to do? That's what I want people to get out of it, to enjoy things for the sake of enjoying them, to like them for the sake of liking them, and to not let other people tell you what's a success and what's a failure, and even if you don't meet expectations, in order to succeed and you have to fail, and there's nothing wrong with failing as long as you're alive to get back up and do it again. It's a failure in the eyes of the world at large, but you don't have to see it that way.