J-Zone J-Zone is no stranger to the rap world. After solidifying himself as highly sought after producer, he switched sides and just recently dropped his 5th LP “A Job Ain’t Nuthin But Work.” Check out J-Zone as he talks about the changes in hip-hop, his production, and his own views on the industry.
Interview by Rob Schwartz
WHO?MAG: You just dropped your fifth album, “A Job Ain’t Nuthin but Work”. What does J-Zone do to stay in the game? J-ZONE: I just please myself. I don’t really pay attention to what is popular, I don’t really care what people want, and I don’t care what is hitting. Music is more therapy than anything else and every album is a reflection of what I was feeling at the moment. I just feel lucky enough to keep the juices flowing in making the albums. Over the years, some things about my style have changed and some have stayed the same. To stay in the game I just live life and get inspired by stuff musically and as a producer. I always try to challenge myself and come up with new stuff. I keep part of my trademarks, but keep reinventing myself at the same time, which is a difficult thing. That’s the way I try to stay on top of things and stay fresh.
WHO?MAG: How did you get your start in the music industry? J-ZONE: I have been in it for a long time, the music making part. My first step into the game, I was a teenager at high school, I was interning at a lot of studios. When I was 15, I was interning at Power Play Studio’s in Queen. My first experience was watching Akineyle and Large Professor working on the Vagina Dinner album. At that time I wasn’t really doing anything cause all I had was turntables and a little bullshit sampler. I really didn’t know much. I just new a lot about records and music in general, but I didn’t have much on the technical level. All I really did on the internship was run errands, get pizza, get donuts, and sweep floors. Folding cables was probably the most musical thing that I did. But I got to watch those cats work including Roxanne Shante, Kool G Rap, Grand Daddy I.U. They were all up in there and I was always a fan of their music, so to see them work kind of blew my mind. After that, I got my own equipment. Then in 1994, when I was a junior in high school, I started working at Vance Wright’s studio called V-Dubbs. Vance was Slick Rick’s DJ back in the day. When I started working at his studio, I became an engineer. It became really hands on because it was a small studio, but I got to meet Grand Puba, Greg Nice, CL Smooth, and that’s how I got my chops. I learned all my tips with the beat making. Basically, it was those two internships, the first one got me interested in doing this as a career and the second one is how I really learned my skills. After that is when I went to college and started my own albums.
WHO?MAG: You’ve produced for various artist including High & Mighty, Cage, Tame-One, and Biz Markie. How do you shop your tracks? J-ZONE: I have been trying to shop more to majors trying to get my sounds out there. For the first few years, I came in the game not really knowing too much. Then Eastern Conference came at me after I have been in the game for a year to a year and a half. They were the first people to call me and then I started doing work for all the Eastern Conference stuff. Then my partner Contact works at Fat Beats and he has a lot of connections through his people at Groove Attack and that’s how I got the Biz Mark joint. I have always been tight with Danger Mouse since I first came out. He’s the one who got me on the Prince Paul record. A lot of my production gigs come from my partner or me just meeting people. Now that my name is a little bigger, I can go out and meet people and have my album as my business card and be like “This is what I do. If you like what I do, give me a call.” But earlier, my albums were mad unprofessional looking and I didn’t have any kind of a name yet. As I was making more and more albums, then I would step to people and it would be that we knew of each other shit, so all that was out of the way. You knew you would be getting something good either way. Now I have been focusing more on my own projects, but shopping beats is really a pain in the ass.
WHO?MAG: In the studio, what are your weapons of mass destruction? J-ZONE: MPC-2000 is my main piece and always has been for the last 7 years. I recently got Protools a little less than a year ago. Up to that point, I still have been using tape machines like DA88’s. I’m crazy old school. I was petrified of computers until I got Protools and that made life a hell of a lot easier. I still use analog gear and some analog outboard gear. I have a CDJ800 turntable, a TR rack synthesizer, and an Oxygen 8 mini keyboard. Besides that, just the basic standard stuff like two compressors because I like to warm it up because Protools brightens shit up. I use some outboard gear and I put all my sounds in my CDJ so I can manipulate them better. I start with vinyl and work my way down to that. That’s become a big part of my set up too.
WHO?MAG: What is it that separates J-Zone from other artists? J-ZONE: I’m probably still the only one who lives with his grandmother. I don’t have my own place and don’t give a fuck. (laughs) It would be cliché to say I do what ever I feel because I’m not saying that other artists don’t do what they feel, but I really just don’t care. I talk to a lot of artist and they’re like “yo man, I gotta make a new album and I gotta make these people to like it.” My approach to music has always been for myself. It has always been therapy. Every record I make, I hope people do like it, but my mind set in the studio is that I have no regard for anyone but myself. I don’t care who I offend, I don’t care who likes it, I don’t care who thinks I fell off. If I end up doing career suicide one day, then I end up doing career suicide. I just come into the studio and be like “I’m gonna make what I wanna hear, that’s it.” A lot of artist I know will ask for a lot of reassurance on some songs and I just don’t care.
WHO?MAG: You just finished your first international tour fresh after you finished the Warped Tour. How does an upcoming artist go about getting bookings? J-ZONE: I’ve been in the game for years and this has been my first real tour. It’s all about knowing people who know you. I got the tour because they knew they could book me because I have product and I have done a lot of spot dates overseas. It’s not like I haven’t been there before, but I got the tour off of Luis Logic. It’s like a friend for a friend because I knew Luis for a long time and he got his way in there and when he got his foot in the door and had a good repoire with the tours, he said “well listen, I can get J-Zone.” They were like “oh yeah, his records do well and he’s does shows here. Lets get’em .” Then Rockill has never toured over there before so when I was in the door, I was like “yo, let me get my man Rockill on.” So it’s all about knowing people who know what you can do and have confidence in what you can do. I don’t have too many allies in this game, so the ones I do have, we just try to help each other out like with Danger Mouse getting me all kinds of gigs production wise. Boo helps me get a lot of shows. Then I turn around and help Rockill. It’s all about just helping people you respect. I still haven’t done a full US tour. Touring is not an easy thing to do because it cost money and everyone is scared that the shows aren’t going to sell. Everyone is using soundscan numbers to do shit and were doing a lot of mom & pop sales, so it’s hard to gauge what a tour is going to do depending on how you market it and where. A tour with me could be a total success or a total failure and everybody is scared to take the risk. Touring is really tough and tricky, especially for hip-hop. I would say get as many spot dates as you can, get as much exposure as you can, create as much catalog as you can, and when you meet somebody who is already on, do a favor for a favor to try to get your foot in the door.
WHO?MAG: You have your album for sale on various stores and sites. How do you go about distribution? J-ZONE: When I just started, I was pressing and distributing by myself. I didn’t know shit when I started putting out records. My first record I took it to Fat Beats and anywhere I can get it in. When people know you have good product, the buzz will create itself. It was a little different back then than it is now. Now the market is really flooded and there is a lot product out. It’s a lot harder to get recognized, but when I first came out, the independent market was a lot smaller. When I put out a product with no promotion, it still got a lot of buzz because we had the right people playing and carrying it. Other stores were then like, “well why don’t I have this?” Then I get it to other distributors and they’re like, “why don’t we have this?” I ended up building a repoir with Fat Beats over the years and eventually, Fat Beats took over all of the pressing and distribution. Eventually Fat Beats got a label deal with BMG, so by the time I got to my 3rd or 4th album, they were able to get me in the chain stores which before I wasn’t able to do. It’s along process. My first two albums didn’t even have barcodes on them. The third one was independent with midlevel distribution. They licensed it and got it in the chains, but the last two were in the chains and all the websites. It’s all about having a good product and doing it over time. I was fortune where I made enough material where every album can be better than the last.
WHO?MAG: What need to happen for hip-hop to go to the next level? J-ZONE: People gotta stop worrying about what everyone else is doing. When I first came out, I had a lot of commentary of where hip-hop was going. At that time, Puffy was big and everyone was jiggy and I had my funny little pokes at it. As time went on, I realized I couldn’t change that. Everybody is like “aww, everything is about crunk now, or everything is about this or that.” In order for it to any further, people have to do what they do best and not worry about everybody else. If everyone just did that, then they would be just making good music instead of being so pretentious about it. Then it would go to the next level without even trying. People have to take more risks and experiment.
WHO?MAG: If you could change one thing about the entertainment industry, what would it be? J-ZONE: I would say if it could be more about the music and not who I’m down with or who I’m rolling with. My music can’t really be categorized. They say he does experimental “back-packer” or gangster shit. I wish people could judge it for what it is instead of categorizing it. When people can’t group things, they tend to overlook them. It’s either gangster, crunk, back-packer, or that’s it. I don’t make crunk sounding music and I don’t rap about battling or freestyling. I have subject matters and beats. There’s safety in numbers, so all the guys in crew tend to get more recognition and guys who are stragglers get overlooked. I wish people would just judge the music for what it is and not categorize it.
WHO?MAG: What’s next for J-Zone? J-ZONE: I got a remix album coning out in February called “Give Me That Beat Fool.” It’s a little remix project that I did. I remixed some of my favorite artist. It’s kind of something to showcase my range and versatility and different kinds of artist that will sound good over my beats. Check for that. Also I am doing an album with my man Celph-Titled coming out later this year.