When I call J-Zone, he’s in the middle of doing the dishes. I’ve got lesson plans and papers that need grades. But Fish N Grits dropped, a new J-Zone album, and that’s more important than both. J-Zone has never been the type of artist to just crank out an album of twelve songs, three skits, and some corny artwork and call it a day. To understand a J-Zone album is to fully grasp the many layered steps in the creative process. Rest assured that no detail is left to random chance, from the intricately-selected and placed audio clips down to the compression on the snare.
Fish N Grits finds J-Zone continuing his redefinition. Gone are the odes to dumping your girl before Valentine’s Day to avoid copping a gift or keeping a boombox on the passenger seat, replaced with aging in hip-hop culture, hipsters, and race. With his signature chops as well as live drums, a new skill Zone has recently honed, the music is just as dope, especially because it’s about where he’s at now and not a reproduction of what he’s already given us in celebrated underground classics like Pimps Don’t Pay Taxes and Sick of Bein Rich. Over the course of two hours, J-Zone details his musical evolution, family life, his new groups The Du-Rites and Superblack, and much more. The dishes can wait.
Your new album Fish N Grits is out and you’ve been doing it yourself, like most of your work throughout your career. What’s the process been like for you this time and how has the process changed over the years?
Well, I’ve never liked depending on people. I’ve never liked waiting on people. I don’t like people telling me how to do my music or what to do. Really, I’m a highly anxious person so once I finish an album, I don’t like to have it sitting around because I feel like the material is getting stale and I want the people to hear what I’m doing. Sometimes it works in my favor, sometimes it doesn’t, but when I finish something, I like to get it out and move on.
When I was dealing with P&D’s and record deals for that short period of time like Sick of Bein Rich and A Job Ain’t Nuthin but Work, that was independent but through Fat Beats and you gotta go through a committee and things take time and you’re a part of the system. I just want to give music to the people and it’s a pain in the ass to ship things yourself and it usually takes a week of 7-8 hour days to get through it all. It’s intense but a), you get way more of a profit, and b) a part of me likes it because I like to see who’s buying this. Who are these people?
As funny as it sounds, I’m still shocked that there are people who like what I do and it’s just crazy to see that there are people from all over the U.S. and places like Estonia and Malta and Australia, Europe. It’s just all over the place. I kind of like being involved and seeing where the stuff goes and you start to recognize who orders like four or five copies and wants me to make it out to someone. It’s just crazy that there are people who like what I do and even if I don’t have a large fanbase. I have a loyal fanbase.
That in itself is crazy because hip-hop has always been about mystique. Growing up, you would buy a rap album and there would be a fan club that you would write to on the back. There was a barrier between the artist and the fans, but the way things are now, that barrier has disappeared because that barrier was the music business – labels, managers, handlers, distributors – because music doesn’t make as much money and music isn’t selling like it used to. The only way to monetize is if it’s you and the fans. It’s even more hands-on now.
When I was early on independent, I used to bring it to a distributor. I would press it myself and bring it to the stores in New York and I would ship it to stores and any stores I couldn’t get, I let Landspeed or Fat Beats do it, but I wasn’t shipping directly to the customer. I wasn’t doing that until I put the book out in 2011. It’s time consuming and it can be a headache and it can remove the mystique, but you get a better understanding of who your audience is and I don’t mind doing it.
I’m surprised to hear that you’re surprised that you have fans still interested in your music.
Yeah. It’s always a surprise because hip-hop is fickle and it’s youth-driven and as an artist gets older, it’s harder to stay afloat. And there’s just so much out there. You’ll have people out there who say I’m underrated and surprised that I’m still around. If there’s anybody out there who appreciates what I do, that’s great, but as far as longevity, I don’t think of it that way. I just do what I want to do.
I think that a catalog is one thing. It’s its own thing. You might make an album and everybody loves it. The second album, nobody likes it. The third album, people think it’s all right. The fourth album, you have a hit again. The more albums you make, the more albums have a role. There are groups who have been around for decades and when they first came out, they weren’t well-received, they weren’t successful. But when they had success later on, people went back and rediscovered them and when you look at their body of work as a whole, their records had a role.
When Common did Electric Circus, everybody was complaining about it, but when you look at his entire catalog now, Electric Circus Makes sense because if every single record sounded like Resurrection, Resurrection itself wouldn’t be as potent. People have to look at the catalog as a whole. So now all the records that got lukewarm reception like A Job Ain’t Nuthin’ But Work, Boss Hog, well, Boss Hog had a weird love/hate thing, but To Love a Hooker, Chief Chinchilla Live at the Liquor Sto, those are records of mine that fell through the cracks but now people are asking me if I have copies because they want to buy them. I don’t have them but I wish I did.
They’ll never be as popular as Pimps Don’t Pay Taxes or Peter Pan Syndrome. But they all play a role so when I’m dead and gone and people want to read up on my story, all that music will tell a story. The first album was a college senior project. Then he had Old Maid Billionaires and went his own direction then around 2005, he just wanted to produce and work with other people so you have this string of records that weren’t solo records between 2005 and 2008. Then he left and retired and came back with Peter Pan.
Every record, you can fit it to what came out before the book and then after the book and you can say the book is like the dividing line, like it’s halftime, and everything after the book, I was playing the drums and before the book, I wasn’t playing no drums. Chief Chinchilla came in with the Liquor Sto. You can look at the catalog as a whole and see where ideas developed and got stronger with each album that came after and you can see where ideas were there and they disappeared little by little. Captain Backslap disappeared. By the time I started doing instrumental records, characters disappeared. When you want to learn about me 50 years from now and I’m already dead, then you can figure out all the things I did in my career. These albums tell a story and I think it’s not about having a hit record every time, it’s about following your artistic purpose and then just letting the rest figure itself out.
Looking at how characters have come and gone, the shit-talking has changed from being a cheap player to the game of music. Did anything specific prompt that stylistic change?
Well, yes and no. I developed Chief Chinchilla and Swagmaster Bacon as alter-egos to kind of continue that kind of humor. I’m always going to be silly. I have a silly side and I have a crazy sense of humor, a totally inappropriate, rude, lewd sense of humor, so I use Chief Chinchilla and Swagmaster Bacon to fulfill that.
But me as an artist and as a person, as I get older, I don’t want to rap about the same thing. I want to rap about different things because different things start to bother me and concern me and affect me and you can do music as a reflection of your life and music as entertainment and I’ve always tried to combine the two.
In my 20s, I was running around doing shows in a fur coat and being a lightweight and going out to industry parties and drinking even though I couldn’t hold my liquor and getting fucked up. That’s what my life was. Now I’ve dealt with death. I’m a music industry outsider who’s always been an outsider but I’m constantly fighting with finding my place in the music business. My patience for bullshit is at an all-time low. I’ve been through having my product destroyed. Been to rock bottom, career failure, so I thought, and trying to enter the nine-to-five world. That didn’t work out. I’ve been through all this. Tons of disappointment and been through success. Been through so many things.
At this point as an artist, I just want to discuss certain things. Like, I don’t drink anymore so for me to do Live at the Liquor Sto as J-Zone, that’s not going to work. But as Chief Chinchilla, I feel like I can do it vicariously that way.
And the whole slapstick Captain Backslap thing, I think a lot of it was that I’ve always been a very serious producer and I’ve always been very serious about my craft, the craft of making records, the craft of putting together good songs. Even a record as silly as Pimps Don’t Pay Taxes, if you listen to the production, it’s very detailed. I used to spend hours watching black and white television shows trying to find sound clips that could complement the lyrics and I would just be chopping up eight or nine samples and making them all unrecognizable and putting them all in key and putting them back together.
I took some time to study the drums seriously at 35 years-old, six hours a day, theory books, lessons. I took tons of time writing the book. I’m a very serious craftsman. When I was doing Pimps Don’t Pay Taxes, people looked at me as a novelty act. When they look at me against other producers, they look at me with an asterisk. People would love my beats but I would alienate them with the persona and then they would throw my whole shtick into this bag of novelty/comedy rap and I think that hurt me as a producer and an all-around artist. That’s their problem. If you can’t differentiate. It’s like differentiating between Kanye’s ego and Kanye’s artistry. You leave it up to a person who’s smart enough to differentiate between the two.
But I don’t think people had the patience with me so they said I was a comedy and novelty act and a lightweight and I wasn’t the real deal. I usually get a lot of that and people wouldn’t even give the production a chance because my reputation as a joker superseded everything.
But that’s why I started doing all those records like To Love a Hooker, Experienced!, and Gimme Dat Beat Fool. I started doing all of those records to remove my character a little bit from the records. It will always be there but maybe if I scale it back, they’ll pay attention to the production and the music. So when I left music and decided to come back, humor is always going to be in me but I made an effort to say, “Let me focus on the musicianship and craftsmanship and just showing my versatility as an artist and talk about my life.” When I came back with Peter Pan and then Fish N Grits, that was my focus. There’s funny shit on there and then there’s serious shit on there. I wanted to represent both sides of my personality and really let the musicianship come out because as I get into my 40s and 50s, I’m going to be making a living more as a musician than as a character. I don’t tour as J-Zone; the character won’t pay my bills forever. My bread and butter is being a producer, composer and a musician and a writer. I want to try to highlight that because that’s the direction I’m going.
Why is humor not typically appreciated in hip-hop?
Well, artists take themselves so seriously because artists have an ego. But in rock and roll, you have someone like Frank Zappa, who is hilarious, but nobody ever questioned his genius. You had George Clinton. Hilarious. All those Funkadelic albums were wild and hilarious. The space suits, all the characters George Clinton used, that kind of inspired me to do the same thing with Captain Backslap. I was heavily inspired by Frank Zappa and P-Funk. I just think that in jazz and hip-hop, it’s always been super-duper serious. Those two genres have been very serious. And jazz is mostly instrumental. But even in R&B, urban music in general, it’s just very serious and “I’m the best. I’m the nicest.” Ego-driven. And to come out on a record and say that a girl fronted on me so I jerked off, you can’t do that. But I did that.
I just think hip-hop is self-conscious. I think hip-hop is uncomfortable in its own skin sometimes. Guys are scared to be vulnerable. It’s just a very historically, not so much now, but it’s historically an alpha male, never admit defeat. There’s no vulnerability at all in hip-hop and if you show that or a sense of humor, all that stuff is kind of looked at as a kind of weakness. And that’s just how it’s been unless you’re funny and you shoot up the whole club and laugh about it kind of funny. But I went out with this chick and didn’t get laid, like who’s going to admit that on a record? Or I went out and spent all this money on a chick and she went out and took my money.
To make a record about that, most people are like, Fuck that shit, son. That’s hip-hop and that’s what it’s been and I used to try to break the rules and I called my album Sick of Bein’ Rich and I was anything but rich. People thought, Yo, you really think you got money like that? It was a joke! My grandmother has $50 in her hand and I have a fake gold chain and I’m wearing high socks. People used to really think I was serious, about being rich. It was Old Maid Billionaires like Cash Money Millionaires. The records sold 3,000 copies! It was ironic and stupid. It just never caught on. People just downplayed the entire thing, like the fact that Hug and Shid could really rhyme. The fact that there was a lot of attention to detail, everything from the artwork to the production. Even though the lyrics were goofy, they were still smart and tongue-in-cheek.
Hip-hop has always had a very strained relationship with humor and I’m always going to be humorous and funny but right now I’m very mindful of how I use humor because I got pigeonholed and that kind of fucked up my career, I think.
And now you’re getting props from guys like Questlove and Danger Mouse. Our first interview was probably in 2003, so I’ve seen how opinion has shifted, but it took a long time.
Yeah. Sometimes I think I could have used it back then. You know, before I went rogue and basically turned off the music industry and now I just make music for my own enjoyment. People like that about me but in terms of me being an industry insider and a major player, it’ll never happen because I just don’t kowtow and I don’t change my…I just do what I do and I don’t have any regard for anything else. But that came from years and years of going to meetings with A&R’s and they don’t show up, doing shows and nobody shows up, touring and realizing that it’s 100% political. It’s not as easy as just getting onstage and making the crowd love you. You have to be cool with the headliner. And all this is shit I went through.
And Questlove also gave me props when my book came out. Cee Lo Green did a show with me when “Crazy” was a big hit. He came and did my retirement show with me. People have maybe not been championing me every day, but there’s always been people co-signing. But it just never stuck. I don’t know why. Questlove gave me props on Instagram a couple weeks ago and I got 600 followers in one day. That’s what it takes sometimes. But because there’s so much shit out there, it’s like people have to constantly do it. People have to constantly…it has to constantly keep happening to stay on people’s minds because their attention span is so short. I’ll get something like that every three or four years.
Ironically, most of my praise comes from the pop world – Lonely Island, Danger Mouse, Questlove, RJD2 is a friend of mine – he’s done Mad Men and all that stuff, so even though we came from the same place, he’s more in a different lane now. But all the golden era legends and the boom-bap crowd that has bigger followings, I’m not popping there. The bigger indie rappers, I don’t work with them.
I think I just have an audience that’s all over the place because of that but it’s not solid enough to tour. It’s not condensed enough for me to really put out music on a major scale and have people give a shit. At this point I just make music for myself and people who enjoy it and the older I get, the more I’m looking into other genres like funk and doing film scoring. I play with a rock band. I’m stretching out as a musician because being in the indie hip-hop box, that’s where I started and I’m always grateful for it, but I never really caught there. I just have my immediate fan base but I never really had full-on clout in that world. I’d rather just spread out and just be my own entity.
And it’s a lot easier and less stressful than trying to join a crew. Even though I’m cool with all these guys, it’s not like, Lemme join the Demigodz or Rhymesayers. It’s too late in the day for that, to try and join an elite hip-hop crew on my side of the fence. It’s not going to happen so I have to stretch out and start working in other fields and that’s what I’ve been doing.
What did it take for you to get comfortable expanding beyond hip-hop production and to dive in to follow this path?
It was a do or die commitment. Like anything else, I got into playing drums because of passion. Passion is always the initial motivation because you love it. But pursuing it beyond a hobby and going in with reckless abandon and being all consumed by it, a lot of that was passion also, but it was like it was 2013, the book already came out. The book did well but the buzz was dying down and it was like, What’s next? I knew I wasn’t going to write another book and I was blogging for Ego Trip, but that doesn’t pay. Money was tight. I was doing a lot of odd jobs, DJing here and there. I was going to go full-on with the DJing and I realized how political it is and if you really want to make it as a DJ, all the niches I wanted to explore like funk 45’s, there were already people who locked that down, so I was doing a gig once a month and I was like, I can’t do that.
I went to a career center with my resume with all my music shit and they were like, What the hell is this? I couldn’t find a job that paid shit and I had been playing the drums for a year, so I said I was going to do the craziest shit possible: make money doing odd jobs, come home and just play the drums all day. What happened was that I started improving a little bit and then as I started using it in my production, it gave me motivation to go back and start making records because now I had a new angle. It made me excited to make records again because it was a challenge to me do to the records as a drummer instead of sampling and programming or looping from another source. To come up and make my own sound, make my own patterns, to be able to play solid to a metronome and write, all that shit over time, it had to develop and when I saw all my hard work unfolding and I would play people beats and they would think I sampled that from a record and when I told them I played that, I realized that I had a lane, so when Peter Pan Syndrome came out and people were asking me about the drums, I was like, Damn, I think I’m onto something.
I know how to get them to sound a certain way so once it came out in 2013, I said now I was going to focus on being a better drummer beyond sampling myself and beyond hip-hop records. I want to play drums like if a band wants me to play drums, I’ll be able to do it. So I joined a band and in 2014 and 2015, that was my sole focus, getting better beyond just, Yo, play a breakbeat or Play drums for a hip-hop beat that I’m working on. To be able to play with a band and be able to carry a song, to do studio work for other people and they’re coming to me with their demands, telling me exactly how they want me to play, you kind of learn all these playing styles. You gotta get up on your recording chops and figure out what’s going to make you sound unique. It was a whole crash course. It was a lot of studying. It was a lot of technique. It was a lot of studio experimentation, like, What’s this miking technique? It was a lot of fun but it was a lot of work. But I enjoyed the process so it was a good thing for me all around.
It’s good to see you getting shows with guys like Just Blaze and Questlove. Do you feel like less of an outsider today?
I’m only going to become more of an outsider as time goes on just because I give a shit less and less about making friends. But I think where I’m becoming an outsider in hip-hop, I think little by little, I’m getting opportunities away from hip-hop in other genres doing other things. Or even if it’s hip-hop, doing film scoring. I’ve played drums on a whole bunch of soundtracks and film score work. It’s still related to hip-hop, but it’s not the boom-bap indie rap world. It’s not like, Yo, let me try and get on a tour with this group or, Let me try and be with this group. It’s not like Weathermen vs. Demigodz back in the day and I’m stuck on both sides. It’s not that.
But then in hip-hop, a lot of those guys hit me up for drums now. Cats I made beats for ten years ago hit me up now to get them around a sample clearance. Like Marco Polo, I just did a drum kit for him. 15 original breakbeats. He hired me as a sound designer. We’ve been friends for years. 7L and Esoteric had me replay stuff for the new Czarface record. Danger Mouse hit me up to replay some stuff. R.A. the Rugged Man hit me up to replay some drums that he couldn’t clear.
I’m still in that world but in a different capacity. I almost do more work in the hip-hop scene as a studio musician than as a producer or MC. People don’t usually hit me up for beats or verses. A couple of people have hit me for verses, like two or three, but not many for beats. But they’ve hit me up to replay drums. But that’s cool because don’t make beats like I used to.
Like if we’re doing a song, then I’ll make a beat for the song, but as far as, Yo, J, can you send me 15 beats and I’ll pick one? I don’t do that anymore. I’ll only make beats if I know we’re going to do a song. Every song on Fish N Grits was me making a beat for that song. It’s not like I had 45 beats on a CD and I just picked. I just did a beat for Vinnie Paz. I made it from scratch for him. He just told me what he wanted and I made a beat custom, just for Vinnie. And that was it. I don’t even make beats anymore just to make them. I only make a beat if it’s for a song because of the amount of time I would just spend randomly making beats. Now I spend that time whether it’s learning drums or composing. I got back into playing bass recently because I played as a kid. I’m just trying to sharpen the tools in my musical box because a lot of them are rusty. I’m just trying to get better and if someone hits me up and wants a beat, I’ll do it just on a one-shot.
But in 2002, I’d go to Eastern Conference with a beat CD with 25 beats and Cage would pick one, Tame would pick two, Eon would pick three, Copywrite would pick one. So my whole entire approach has changed in terms of being a freelancer. I’m working on my own projects making beats for my own projects, working with Al-Shid and Has Lo, who are family, and just doing the drum break records, studio work, film work for film and televisions. That’s where most of my time is spent.
I give beginner drum lessons to people first learning. I do my DJ gigs. I still write. I have a series with Red Bull Music Academy interviewing all the old drummers and stuff. I’m all over the place but I’ve always been all over the place. But the things that I do now are a lot different. Instead of my column for Elemental or HHC, now I’m doing a thing with Red Bull. Or instead of making beat CDs with 10 beats on them and trying to shop them to rappers, now I’m doing studio work. Instead of trying to get on somebody’s album, I’ll make two new beats and make a 45 myself. You don’t see me on other people’s albums anymore and it’s not that I have a problem with that. It’s just that I have a different focus. I made seven beats today! That’s not going to happen with me. I’ll just focus on my craft.
Has almost everything you made during the 2000s been released in terms of beats and music?
When I was working on albums, there’s two ways to make an album – make a whole bunch of music and pick the best fifteen tracks or whatever or just make the songs for the album. I would just do that so I don’t have any leftovers from back in the day.
Why do you think you took that approach to music?
Well, I’ve never been that kind of a guy because even when I was trying to be that producer and get on everybody’s album, I’ve never had more than 20 beats on a beat CD and I’ve never had more than 25 beats available at one time whenever, and that was 2002 when I wasn’t making an album. And if I was making an album that year, I would have ten available.
I was so busy in my own projects but to answer your initial question, I’m a stickler for detail. If I make a dope beat, that’s fine, but I want to know how to make it a dope song, so I’ll spend the rest of the day trying to build the song up. It’s easy to find a hot loop, throw some drums on it and program it to eight bars and sixteen bars and eight bars and put a drop every four and eight bars. I’m not knocking that but that’s not my style.
Listening to Public Enemy and De La Soul albums kind of made me get bored of that approach so as it went on, if you listen to my beats on other people’s albums, it’s not the most bangingest beats on the album but it will have the most detail. I’m into detail. For awhile there weren’t any drum fills on beats. It was just kick, snare, kick, snare. But I used to sample drum rolls and collect them on disks and just drop them into beats randomly. Like if you listen to records all the way up from the beginning, all those old records have drum fills and people used to be like, Yo, people don’t do that anymore. And then I would want to find a drum fill and put it there and then I’m working an hour to get all the drum fills lined up and cutting up little pieces of comedy records. That shit used to take up so much time so who’s got time to make 50 beats? You make one beat and try to make a song and all the details took so much time that I didn’t have time to make a bunch of beats. And I just never really got a kick out of that, like making 50,000 beats.
I would just try and make something custom for you. I always liked the music to have personality and people would say they liked the sound bytes that I had in my shit and that became my trademark. I had a library of funny sound bytes that I would rip from old TV shows and instructional records and just archiving all those sounds was time consuming. That’s why the novelty act shit used to bother me so much because I spent a lot of time on stuff, you know, and it’s the same way today when I work on my music. It’s very detail-oriented and most of those tracks on the album, I played the drums all the way through, so if I want to put a fill here or play the snare a different way here, trying to tune up the toms right. I’m doing a beat now and it took me a half hour to get the drums tuned in the right pitch for the music. These are details that take a lot of time.
I used to have all those girls on my records. I used to have to pick those girls up from the train, have them come here, tell them to read this script and have them do it again, like nine or ten times, and then I would have to drive them back to the subway or I would go out with my little handheld tape recorder or I’d meet friends or my mother, like, Yo, Mom, say this, Yo, Dad, say this. There’d be a girl I was hanging out with and I’d tell her, Hang on, say this and I would go back and put that into the records. That shit takes time, man. Who’s got time to make a thousand beats when that’s a part of your production process?
What’s the most detailed you ever got on a beat?
I would say the most detailed I ever got was probably the To Love a Hooker Soundtrack because I had to tell a story without vocals, without lyrics. So that entire story was told with scripts that I wrote for people and just shit ripped from television and movies. I had to tell a story with sound bytes. And I had to put characters in there and my ex-girl played one character. My friend played another. Sadat X played a character on that. I’m just trying to remember because that album was so long ago, but that album was extreme attention to detail like to tell a story but there’s no MC on it, to tell a story with an instrumental record. That was probably the most intense it ever got, was To Love a Hooker.
It’s great to see the transition you’ve made from albums to instrumental projects. Have you enjoyed the shift?
Yeah. To me, it’s just everything is a snapshot of your life at the time so when I’m gone, you can go back and look at my catalog and see what I was about. And I might look at some of my old records and be like, Damn, I would never make nothing like that now but the beauty is that at that time, that’s what I was about. There’s no part of my catalog where I wasn’t having fun. Pimps Don’t Pay Taxes was a little stressful to make because of what was going on with the crew. It was an odd record to make because we all wanted to go in different directions. It’s funny that that’s my most popular album because it was made under duress, but it was fun. But I would never make a record like A Job Ain’t Nuthin But Work today. I would never make a record like A Bottle of Whup Ass or Boss Hog or To Love a Hooker.
But the beauty is at the time I made them, that’s what I was about and I’m proud of all of them. If I was 29 years-old, I would never make a record like Fish N Grits. At 29, I was going up to lounges, getting bent, chasing chicks all over the place, doing shows in a fur coat, walking around with different colored tube socks on and money in a headband. I look at photos of some of that old shit, I was 160 pounds soaking wet, and I’m thinking, Damn, what the fuck was I thinking dressing like that and rapping like that? But the beauty of it is that at that time, that’s what I wanted to do and I won’t downplay it. I won’t do that now and I don’t want people still asking me about Lucy Liu because I haven’t rapped about Lucy Liu in fifteen years.
But one thing I forget is that I for some people, that was their introduction to me. Some people got into me and then stopped listening to me so all they know are two or three of my albums. They don’t know that I have twelve albums. So I can’t get mad at that. Whatever your point of exposure and point of departure was from J-Zone in your life, the records in between there are the ones you remember so that’s why all my records have a purpose even though some of them I don’t like anymore. Most of them I would never make anything like that again. But they all serve a purpose. They all tell my story.
And Fish N Grits is no different. I’m in a group with Prince Paul and Sacha Jenkins called Superblack. That comes out next year. I’m doing a funk instrumental record with Pablo Martin, my longtime mastering engineer and the guitarist from Tom Tom Club. Our group is called The Du-Rites and that album drops in the fall. Will people who like my slapstick comedy and Captain Backslap be checking for a J-Zone funk album, essentially? No, but 50 years from now, it’ll have its place in my catalog and show my range. And even if you don’t like an album of mine, it’ll find some value because it’s different from the record I made three albums ago. It’s a balance of finding a trademark of consistency in your career but at the same time, being different and taking risks so you know it’s J-Zone but it’s a different side of J-Zone. Nobody’s one dimensional and building up a catalog, I hope that’s what my catalog shows.
Does the young J-Zone still make you laugh?
Oh yeah! I look at what I was trying to do and some of that stuff, I hear it and I cringe. But it’s never with anger. It’s more me cringing because I’m like, Yeah, doing stuff like that is why nobody took me seriously. But at the same time, I don’t have any regrets about it. At 24 years-old, that’s what I wanted to rap about and if I had done something different, I wouldn’t have been happy.
Now would I get on stage and perform “No Consequences”? Absolutely not! But the music is available if you want to check it out if you want to hear what I was doing then. The music is a part of my journey so it’s still valuable to me. All those records, all those songs, every one of them has value to me but at the same time, it doesn’t mean that I like it. You know how you could love someone and not like them? There’s always love because the music came from a genuine place, but I could listen to it and be like, Okay, I don’t like this.
But it’s fifteen years later and I’ve picked up different skills and my ear is different. It might not resonate the same way it did then and I think that’s okay. I think any musician would feel that way. I don’t think any musician could listen to their entire catalog and not cringe at least once, like, Damn, that was wack. It’s not that we hate the record. It’s just knowing what you know now and with the skills and experience that you pick up, every artist can has cringe moments. I definitely have some in mine, that’s for sure.
Even if you go back to some of your music, you’ve always addressed race from a serious viewpoint.
I used to talk about it in my lyrics, “Black boy or Spanish, you figure it out.” People used to always hear that line because when I first came out, I’m like I’m Black, but I look mixed. People would ask questions and my grandmother was brown-skinned and she was on my cover and I would have a photo of me and dad and he’s brown. People would wonder. I didn’t realize it at the time.
I grew up in New York and New York is diverse. It’s a racial powder keg, but it’s diverse. You’re used to seeing different kinds and of course being Black, you go to a family reunion and you got people from Heavy D’s complexion to Akon’s complexion. My family’s like that. My grandmother on my mother’s side is my complexion and my other three grandparents were dark-skinned. To me, I’m just going by my life experience growing up.
Most of my friends were Black also growing up, so it was never an issue, but when I started making records and being a public figure to a degree, I used to get the questions and I thought it was so stupid and so silly that I would just kind of fuck with people. I was like, Really? Y’all are concerned with that? That’s a big deal to you? What does that have to do with the music?
So I would kind of like toy with people about it because I just thought that people were that ignorant, but then as time went on, I felt like just educating people or just addressing race. It’s the root of all the problems. Like, everything goes back to race and religion and class, one of the three, but race is by far the biggest elephant in the room and in 2016, it still is.
And I think me looking the way I look and dealing with what I’ve dealt with, I have a lot of stories, just the dynamics of dealing with race. It’s all these experiences and with Superblack, we just put them all together. People say if you’re dark-skinned Black your life is harder than if you’re light-skinned Black. You can have Black Americans and they have problems with Caribbeans and Africans. Now they’re all considered Black, but they all consider each other different and have problems. Growing up, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans had problems. They’re both considered Hispanics and at the end of the day, all of us came from Africa. It’s just a different boat stop.
It’s funny how all of this breaks down. I was giving people too much credit. And then it was like, People are this stupid? Let me fuck with them. And people just don’t know. They haven’t been exposed to it. Especially indie rap. The part of rap I was in, a lot of those people have just…I had a lot of fans I met where they didn’t grow up in areas that were very diverse but then they got into hip-hop when it kind of crossed into those territories. So I just thought that was an interesting dynamic so I just started to discuss it openly after that.
How do you deal with people today who might not have bad intentions but are more ignorant?
Well, initially it was hard because growing up, I had some problems in school because I went to a school district that was mostly white. They would look at my complexion but then fuck with my hair and ask questions because I would have a crazy high-top fade or a fro or have it in cornrows. So you’re getting this weird dynamic. But when you’re young, you’re pretty much in a bubble. All my close friends were Black and we all knew how diverse Black people are, Black Americans are, in terms of complexion.
I wasn’t sheltered from racism, but in terms of people asking crazy questions like the fans used to ask and they used to debate about it on message boards, that kind of took me by surprise because growing up, I was just a light-skinned dude and it wasn’t ever a question of what is your race or being mistaken for white. I was like, What? It was foreign to me. I think Ice T was saying the same thing. Growing up, he was in South Central, a Black neighborhood and you go to a Black neighborhood, you see all different complexions.
So all these things in a Black neighborhood is whatever, but when I’m getting out of there and I’m doing shows in parts of New England or the Midwest or Europe, or people are on a message board and I don’t know where they’re from, people would have a 50 response-long debate about what ethnicity I am. I would just make these statements on record to fuck with them, thinking they’re stupid, then one day it was like, Maybe they just don’t know. They have no idea.
One thing somebody said to me once, was that I don’t rap about Black things, and that kind of took me by surprise because you take a song like “Black Weirdo” that I did on Peter Pan Syndrome where you have an ambiguous kind of look but you’re also into different shit. You have things that are stereotypically Black and if you’re not into those, people use that against you. I’m rapping about jerking off and making silly ass records and I was told Black people don’t make records like that.
And when somebody told me that, that was the final straw. That was like, Okay, let’s talk about this. Because Kool Keith used to make records like that. It’s like you said. They’re not overtly trying to be racist but by having these preconceived notions that if you’re a rapper and you’re Black, you’re going to rap about this and this and that. And if you’re white, you’ll rap about his and this and that. And if you’re Black and you’re rapping about other shit that you’re not supposed to rap about, you’re a nerd and if you’re white and you’re rapping about something hardcore, then you’re a wigger.
You start to realize it’s more than race. It’s about what your subject matter is and what your content is and having the look that I have and the subject matter and content, it just kind of confused people and they couldn’t put it in a box and I think that that was also part of it. I think my entire career, I think everything about me is impossible to put into a box. And I think I just confused people in a lot of ways. People like to know what they’re dealing with. If you’re a new artist, who do you sound like and who are you down with. What race is he? Where is he from? No one’s gonna listen first. They’re gonna ask the questions first, or if they ask the questions first and one of the answers isn’t what they want, then they’ll shut it down.
I heard people say, “Word? Your Old Droog is a white dude? Oh, fuck that!” You already know going in that people want to categorize you without listening to you so when you have things that are conflicting or are confusing, whether it’s your look, your approach, your sound, whatever it is, your personality, too much conflict is just too difficult for people and I think all those things played a role in my career. They definitely played a role from the comedy element to the race thing to the whole Big Tymers ig’nant thing to the whole nerdy sample-based production. All that shit being thrown into a blender makes it difficult to put my music in one place or to put me in one place. I think it’s just too much work for a lot of people and as my career went on, I started to address these things more and more, particularly with Peter Pan and Fish N Grits and Superblack is 100% about race except for one song. I feel like it affects me so much I have no choice.
“White Privilege” came out on the heels of Macklemore’s song with the same title, but I thought you guys did it right. Did you surprise anyone with that?
I think a lot of people didn’t even really know it was us at first, even though all of the signs are there. But everybody dug it. But again, I think it goes back to my catalog. If I came out with that Superblack “White Privilege” thing in 2003, then people would be like, What? But I think with Peter Pan and records like “Mad Rap” and “Time for a Crime Wave,” like Fish N Grits and a bunch of 45’s that came out this year and the year before.
I think that by me doing those, and I think my book as well, because I address race in the book, I think having Root for the Villain come out and set the tone and I think musically, I addressed race a bunch of times on Peter Pan Syndrome, so I was already on that wave, so now it’s not a shock. It’s the same thing with me playing drums and instrumental stuff. It was gradual. Each album, like Chief Chinchilla being an integral part, but when I was doing Gators N Furs radio shows, that kind of prepared you for it. It got you used to hearing me and him going back and forth, and then when you heard Live at the Liquor Sto, Chief Chinchilla was officially a part of what I do. I’m talking like it’s not me. It started off as an idea and it eventually works its way in. People weren’t shocked because it’s been a part of my artistry for five years now, so not at all.
In looking at so many victims of police brutality, especially recently, what does this say to you and to people of color?
I interpret it like KRS said, “You can’t have justice on stolen land.” It’s never going to be there, but every once in awhile they have to have one because of all the people who have gotten off, every once in awhile they have to…There’s a documentary that Sacha was involved in with O.J. Simpson. It’s the same thing there.
When O.J. was acquitted, I remember I was in college and I was in a writing class and the verdict came out and it was 11:30 in the morning and I’ll never forget, the verdict came out and the class was split down the middle racially. And all the Black people, we were on one side celebrating and giving high fives. The Juice is loose! And the white people on the other side of the class were like, That is so fucked up. It wasn’t because O.J. got off, it was like because we finally got one. Whether he did it or not didn’t matter. It’s just that the scales tipped in favor of the Black man and that alone was enough to celebrate.
And is that fucked up? Yeah, it’s fucked up. But every once in awhile you have to have one because if the scales tipped that way 100% of the time, all hell will break loose. Does it mean that things are on the upswing and things are going to change? No, I don’t think so. And I just use the O.J. case as a point, like every once in awhile you gotta get one ‘cause even if O.J. was wrong, it doesn’t matter. If another Black man is convicted and it comes off the heels of the Rodney King verdict, things were still kind of fresh. It was like, Okay, we won one now. But the justice system has to do that every once in awhile. But it’s still racism and police brutality, these things are still so deeply embedded in our national fabric that they ain’t gonna change, not while we’re living. I don’t see it, at least.
But talking about it is something.
Oh, definitely. Awareness has to be there because a lot of people act like this stuff doesn’t exist or that it’s a figment of your imagination, and that’s preposterous.
You, Sacha Jenkins, and Prince Paul have all had very different experiences in the game. How do bring the different ideas and perspectives to the table with Superblack and make it work?
Well, I’m the only vocalist on there. Really, a lot of it has to do with race, class and dating, relationships. There’s only one song on the album that deals with relationships but not race. It’s like a lot of things are about race and gentrification, but a majority of the album is how race, class and dating combine.
Really, what happened was that I was on OkCupid for a year and I dated all kinds of women of all races, class, backgrounds. I was serial dating. So I just took the ten most fucked up experiences that had class or race undertones and made songs out of them. There was gentrification, like, Oh, you live in Queens? If you don’t live in Brooklyn, I don’t want to date you. If you move to Brooklyn and you want to date a native New Yorker, it’s a different kind of vibe and a different kind of approach to life. You move here from Michigan, you’re gonna wind up dating another transplant because you’re both looking to absorb this new, great city and you’re going to want to live in the familiar and cool neighborhood everyone is moving to.
Someone like me, who’s lived here forever, doesn’t want to be anywhere near Brooklyn. I don’t want to be anywhere near urban revitalization. I want to be in a quiet-ass neighborhood off the grid because I’ve been in New York my whole life. When I want to see the city, I’ll go to the city. When I come home, I don’t want to be anywhere fucking near the city. I don’t’ want to go see the fucking Statue of Liberty. I’ve done all that shit already. It was just like all these dating experiences and Paul’s always getting a kick out of my dating horror stories, he’s like, Yo, man, you gotta tell me another one because I’m the youngest one in the group and these guys are all in committed relationships and married. They don’t really contribute anything, but they just kind of egg me on to go there. I’m like, This is a really fucked up story and they’re like, No, do that shit. Do that shit. So we’ll do that.
But the group was Sacha’s idea and Paul is the brain behind the music. Sacha and I play the music but then Paul strings it together. We all have our roles. But the main personality of the record in terms of lyrics and content was just my experiences. They just encouraged me. I was like, I don’t know if I should talk about this and they were like, Nah, talk about that. Fuck that. It’s all part of the process.
On “White Privilege,” you talk about women not understanding who you are. Is that based on true experiences?
Yeah, yeah. All the songs on the album are based off experience. There’s one about complexion. I dated a Black woman who said she only liked darker-skinned guys and a white woman who only liked darker-skinned guys. (laughs) Even being Black, it’s like, Yeah, but you’re not dark-skinned. So I made a funny little song about that. It gets deep. I don’t want to give it away, but there’s stuff on the album that goes pretty deep, issue-wise. It’s all funny. There’s some humor, but there’s some issues on the album that I’ve touched on that have never been touched on before. So we wanted to not just make a blanket statement about race but tell stories and talk about things that we might have all thought before but we never said out loud.
It sounds like the album is done.
Yeah. It’s been done for a couple of years. It’s just management and we’re all busy trying to find the right situation for it. We’re dealing with that right now. We gotta rehearse. When you’re dealing with a group it’s not as simple as throwing it on BandCamp.
Like my records, I could make a record tonight and put it out tomorrow. When you’re dealing with a group and you’re dealing with a record that you feel has value, you want everything to be right. I’m a throw it to the wall and let it stick kind of guy, but we have management and booking agents, Sacha’s big in the media, Prince Paul is a legend. Having those things involved, having me say, “Hey, let’s just throw it out there,” I’m going to get outvoted. We just have to come together on where and how it’s the best situation for it to come out.
What was it like working with Prince Paul in this capacity? How did you become a better musician?
Well, the whole time I was, like, in awe. I had to pinch myself. I’m working with Prince Paul! I’m still in disbelief. But he made me better. He gave me a lot of freedom, you know, which is a testament. The fact that he trusts me artistically, especially with the drums…I played all the drums. There were times when he let me play the drums better and other times he said I could do it technically better, but it wouldn’t sound as good. He said to do what will make the best record, not being the next Buddy Rich and trying to impress drummers. Make the right choice for the song. And I had to do that.
Me and Sacha basically recorded. We had four sessions of us just jamming for like an hour each time and Paul just looped up the best parts, built the skeletons, I wrote the songs and he built the whole song around his bass and guitar and my drums and by him doing that, he had to work with whatever we recorded on those sessions. And you know, once he bpm’ed everything out, I could easily recut the drums to a click track and match them back up, but sometimes the mojo just wasn’t there. There’s a magic. It wasn’t perfect, but there’s a magic in some of those original takes because we were just playing. We weren’t thinking about being perfect. We were just jamming.
And a guy like Paul, that’s what makes him who he is. He’s able to say that take is better with the drums than the one where I played it perfectly on a click track because I did all these funky fills on there. I’m not making a record for drummers. I’m making a record for the people. So trusting him more on that. I knew I could play it better and he was like, Trust me, it sounds better that way. I can’t argue with Prince Paul. I learned from him. And just cutting out the unnecessary parts. He cut whole hooks out of songs, just making it short and sweet and just cutting things out, like less is more. Sometimes you just want to put everything out on the record that you think is good, but you want to make the record strong and to the point. I’m used to having all the control on my records because I’m the last line and I have say over everything, but this is the first record where from a production standpoint, I had to hand over the reins to somebody else. So what better a person than Paul?
Especially with his classic body of work and how his compilations tell stories and the way you craft your narratives on each album. That had to be cool to work with someone who is in a similar lane as far as creativity and storytelling, where the album is a narrative and not just a compilation of songs.
Yeah. I mean, in terms of the kind of way that I make albums, because he’s the same kind of producer. Paul’s not the kind of guy that’s going to play you a beat CD with 30 beats. He’ll customize something. He doesn’t even really do freelance production. He does albums. We’re very, very similar. Not just as producers, but as people. It’s scary how we think so much alike. So that’s why it wasn’t a difficult…it’s easy to work with him because we’re already so alike anyway, but he has something I don’t – experience. I have experience but he has another level. Like he’s worked on Peabody and Sherman. He’s worked on cartoons. He’s produced platinum albums with De La Soul, Stetsasonic, Gravediggaz, and Handsome Boy Modeling School. Look how far that stretches. As a live performer and producer, as a DJ and as an artist, he just has over thirty years of experience. Even me, with experience, he has an extra ten, fifteen years on me.
It’s amazing. I had no problem shutting up and listening to him when he said something and I trust him and his decisions pertaining to the album, pertaining to the live show. You know, I trust his decisions and it’s easier to accept that coming from somebody who thinks like you because you know he’s not going to let me do something that’s not a good fit.
Huge condolences on the loss of your grandmother. I’m really sorry to hear that and everything that you’ve been going through. How do you put that in perspective today?
It’s been hard just because life has been so different. I was her caregiver since I was 20 and I’m 39 now. We’re eighteen, nineteen years of being a caregiver and prior to that, she took care of me as a kid. This is somebody that I was very close with and I lived with more than half my life. And she played such a big role in my music and my life. Everything I did, my grandma was a part of it and just coming downstairs and not seeing her, I’m saying, there’s definitely a void in my life with her being gone. She was my partner in crime but towards the end, she had some dementia and she went into a nursing home for the last three months of her life.
It was hard seeing her in the nursing home and she kept asking when she was going to leave and telling her that she’s not gonna leave. That was painful. Am I going home? Yeah, Grandma, you’re going home. That was hard, knowing that you’re lying. It was hard. I saw her decline, the whole way. I lived with her through it. But I didn’t like seeing her suffer and I didn’t like seeing her be a shell of herself.
Because of that and because she lived such a long life at 92, I was able to get her involved in my music. After my grandfather died, I was able to keep her spirits up and give her a new purpose. I didn’t let her be alone. I stayed with her. Just, you know, she had people all over the world that knew who she was because of the videos, the albums, skits, the album covers, magazines, they would come here and take photos of us for magazine articles. That made her happy. She always used to joke around like, I ain’t got paid yet!
But it was like she had a second life after my grandfather died with the music and me making her a part of it. The Old Maid Entertainment caricature and logo is based on her. She’s always a part of everything I do and she always will be and that’s what enables me to deal with it, that she’s not suffering anymore and that she can still be a part of my music and everything I do, she’s with me all the time. So it’s hard, but I’m able to keep going because I know she’s gonna be a part of everything.
Before the interview started, we were saying how cool it was that your grandmother was able to be a part of your career. I don’t know anyone in hip-hop who’s involved their grandmother more than you have.
Yeah. I wanted to do something different. I lived in the same house with her. I saw her every day. I thought she was a funny character. And I wanted to get her involved, you know. I wanted her to get a kick out of being on the album covers. That gave her some extra life. That gave her something to look forward to but also, I’m not going to be on an album cover looking hard, but I’ll get my grandmother to look hard on the album cover. That’s just the way my mind works, just to do something unorthodox.
I figured for my first album, what’s going to make somebody pick this up in the record store? If you got an elderly woman smoking a joint with her middle finger up and holding a 40. They’re going to at least stop and pick it up. That was the marketing savvy in me. I don’t have much marketing savvy, but I knew that in 1999, when you went into Fat Beats, every record on there had a sticker with graffiti or a photo of an MPC, the microphone, and the turntable, or somebody with a backpack full of rhymes. It’s like, How am I going to look different and on the major label side, it was all pen and pixel. What can I do to not be a part of either thing and no matter where you put my record, whether you put it next to a Cash Money record or a Rawkus record, I want it to look different and the answer was right here in the same house. I’ll get my grandma and dress her up. It was mutually beneficial.
Prince recently passed away. How do you put that in perspective and what does his passing mean to music?
I think the most underrated thing about Prince was his drive to create because if you look at Prince now, he has vaults and vaults of albums that will probably never come out. The guy was constantly creating. He had to create to breathe. That’s what a pure musician is. You have to make music or you’ll die. If you’re a writer, you have to write or you’ll die. If you love basketball, you have to play basketball or write about it. That’s why guys retire and become analysts and announcers and coaches, or they own a team. They do something because if they’re not involved in basketball, they die.
So anybody who has a passion, that’s how you do it. You have to create and I know this because when I stopped making music in ’09, I died inside. Not making music for those three years killed me. It took a part of me away.
I think young artists can learn from Prince’s mentality about music because when I do interviews now, even for Fish N Grits, the last question they ask is “What’s your plan? Are you going to go on tour? Merchandising, a buzz? What about your brand?” An artist doesn’t give a fuck about that. I think musicians telling you what makes money and what artists have to do to be big time, we’ve lost sight of the most important thing, which is creating. Okay, what’s your goal? My goal was to make an album and put it out! Mission accomplished!
I don’t tour because of reasons I discussed earlier. I didn’t make Fish N Grits to go on tour. I made it because I had something to say and I had musical ideas that I had to share with people. And I had to because if I didn’t, I would go crazy. I was dealing with my grandmother dying and a lot of messy shit in my personal life. Making that album kept me sane. That’s my reason for creating and I think people can learn from Prince and the reasons why he created are so important. Artists, don’t worry about your branding and your tour. Just make the fucking music. (laughs) You have ideas, just make it. Express yourself. And he was that kind of an artist, whether he was going to release it, tour it, promote it, or not, he just made it and that’s, to me, one of the strongest points of his legacy and in terms of what does it mean, I mean, Billy Paul died yesterday. We lost Maurice White earlier this year. We lost Phife. We lost Natalie Cole. We lost David Bowie. We lost tons of musicians and if you’re a Generation X’er in your mid to late 30s or 40s, it’s a wake-up call. All of our heroes from childhood…Vanity died a week before my grandmother. A lot of the people who inspired us to be who we are today are going to start dying. That’s the life cycle. All of our heroes from childhood are going to start dying and it’s like hip-hop is so young, but you have hip-hop guys dying of health reasons, poor health. Like that goes to show you that when we got into hip-hop, it was such a young genre but for those guys, Phife to have diabetes, it just shows you that as we get older, we gotta take care of ourselves. All that partying and drinking and smoking, that shit catches up to you and a lot of the people we looked up to lived hard lives and a lot of them are passing. You know, and even the ones who died of natural causes or other reasons in old age, you know, they’re passing so it’s a reminder that life is short and while you got time on this earth and you’re healthy enough to create, you gotta keep creating.
Again, it goes back to catalog and when you’re gone, what do you leave? And these deaths all inspire me to be a better musician and to keep creating because I could die in a year or I could die in 50 years. I don’t know how long I’m going to live but the bottom line is when I do go, I’m going to have all that music in my system out there and that’s a reminder to do it today. And also when you have legends who are still alive, make sure that you give them their due. Don’t just R.I.P. the hell out of them later on. That’s why I’m doing this Red Bull Music Academy thing where I bring in all these old drummers that have been sampled millions of times and have never been paid. That’s why I’m interviewing all of them. These guys are getting up in age and then when they die, when you Google their name, I want my article to be at the top so you could read that article and you could hear their story because they deserve it.
You wrote a great book, Root for the Villain, which I read the moment you sent it to me, you’ve been a writer for many sites, and have been a sportswriter. What’s it like approaching music and culture from a journalistic perspective?
One thing I’ve always done is written about what I like or what’s bothering me. And that’s part of the reason why I haven’t been more active as a writer because a lot of the times when you write, like when I wrote for a basketball publication, I would have to write about the best players in New York City or wherever I was covering. I had very little freedom about what I could write about. I just had to write about what’s going to get clicks.
But with music, I have to be passionate about what I’m writing about. So when I write from a musical standpoint, I usually write about something that’s bugging me, like when I did the Medium article about crowdfunding with TLC. The word “hater” and I wrote all those pieces, the generation gap in hip-hop. I did that one for Ego Trip. Those are pieces of mine that are more well-known. Those were things that were bothering me.
But with the Red Bull thing, I’m just interviewing guys that I’m a fan of that I’m enjoying every minute, interviewing them, coming up with questions, typing it out. Even transcribing it is fun because I’m hearing these guys talk while I’m transcribing and I’m pinching myself like, I was talking to this motherfucker about his drumming and I’m typing this out, listening.
It’s fun but I’ve never been a regular writer, like writing for XXL or Complex or HipHopDX, reviewing another artist’s album. I’ve never had any desire to do that because I’m also an artist and there’s a conflict of interest. I can’t critique another artist’s work. That’s why I never did album reviews. I did the funny ones, like the ig’nant column, where I’m judging it based on how ignorant it is, but doing a regular album review of another artist’s work, maybe five years ago I could have done it when I wasn’t making music and I was strictly writing.
But now that I’m back making music, I can’t be a musician and critique another musician. To me, it cancels itself out. Like if they were like, Yo, man, review the new Kanye record. I couldn’t do it because just don’t feel I have the right to. I’m in a creative space as a musician so there’s a conflict there judging another artist’s work. So my writing from a musical standpoint is usually based on the music business or it’s writing from the perspective of a fan, like specialty thing with the drummer thing or when I wrote appreciation pieces for Mob Style and Tim Dog. I can write that because I can talk about who inspires me, but being objective about somebody’s album, like something like that I could never do.
Do you see yourself doing another book?
Ah, man, not now. But you know, who knows? That comes from experience. So I mean, maybe, how I’ve been doing these Red Bull things, maybe compiling those, but in terms of me writing autobiographical things, I mean, no. I have to live another 30 years.
Al-Shid is back out and hearing him is dope. Is he putting something together?
Yeah, he is. Shid has always been an amazing talent. I think he just had to see that he could do it himself. He was in Old Maid Billionaires and then he was in a whole bunch of crews and I used to tell him, Everywhere you go, you’re the best in the crew. You know how to make beats. You know how to put together songs. If you need beats, I’ll help you. I did some drums for some stuff he’s producing for himself. I think Shid is a self-contained solo act and he’s probably my favorite artist to work with. I’ve worked with some legends and nobody, nobody to me was as natural as Al-Shid. He’s the best MC I ever worked with. Period.
So with him, the sky’s the limit and he’s seeing it now. He’s seeing that he can be independent and BandCamp his own stuff. He doesn’t need to be in a crew and have people on stage with him. He doesn’t need a team. We came up in New York in the late ‘90s so when you did a show, you had to roll 30 deep if you were going to do street rap. You had to have a crew. If you do a mixtape, you gotta have nine of your boys on it. Back then, it was the only way to survive, with the crew mentality. Nowadays, you don’t need that. You can just put music out, find out who wants it, and then just sell it to them. You don’t have to be in anybody’s crew anymore.
I saw an old picture of you and Celph-Titled. Even though you said you could never be in the same mentality of the Boss Hog Barbarians project, could you guys do another project in the future?
Well, Celph is a friend beyond music. He’s one of the few people in this business that I consider a friend. He’s one of my favorite people in the music business. I think we can always have chemistry because we did “Hog Slop” on Peter Pan Syndrome. I think we could always…I think Boss Hog Barbarians is like a reunion thing. Every once in awhile how the old timers come out and they play a basketball game and they shoot from 50 feet out but they don’t run or play defense. That’s what Boss Hogs is. Every once in awhile when we really need to wreck shit down, I just come with a real gorilla beat and me and Celph just talk shit and it’s fun. But to do it for a whole album, musically it might be a little bit harder and Celph is more on the business side of it now. He’s a businessman. And I know he made 19 Ninety-Now and he does verses, but he’s a very good businessman and he’s a very good visionary.
Even him, he doesn’t make a lot of solo material. I make a lot of solo material, but I’m going more down the road of being an instrumentalist, so I just think if we were to make a whole album, it would probably take 20 years because we’re on so many different pages, but, you know, for a song, definitely. And that’s just to show that it’s not a personal thing and I think artistically, we could both do it. We both got the skills and we’re good friends. All we would have to do is hang out together for a week and come up with a bunch of good ideas, but would it be natural to do a whole album again? It would take a long time.
We did Every Hog Has His Day in a whole year because we were on the same shit at the same time. But now it’s like we could come up with a real dope song but for me to come up with seventeen beats that we both like between us, I would be on there trying to do drum solos and shit. (laughs) It would probably, for us to get the right amount of material, it would probably take us about 30 years at this point, based on where we are.
Same thing with Louis Logic, another guy I’ve worked with and we’re still friends. When this rap shit is all done and we’re all in the nursing home, Al-Shid, Celph Titled, and Louis Logic will still be my friends. But it’s just that musically, we all go all over the place and we all have our own things. I’ll still work with all of them, especially Shid. Me and Shid are working on stuff now. But just to get a full album, (laughs) that’s a stretch at the moment.
Looking at your album cover for Fish N Grits, is that you on the left during your childhood?
Yeah. That was me in my backyard. My Uncle Fred used to tell jokes at family barbecues. He was like a hero to me because he used to curse and talk all crazy and he didn’t have his teeth in his mouth and I just thought he was so interesting and dynamic. Whenever he would do that I would run up and get real close because I was so fascinated and somebody took that photo and I found that. That was my grandmother’s brother. It all kind of comes together. In that room with the boombox plugged in, that’s her room and that’s my office now. That’s my house. That’s the backyard and I was maybe four years-old. That was a picture from my childhood and to me, it represents family and my roots and everything where I came from, this house, the barbecues, the records in the basement, having all the instruments in the basement, grandmother and grandfather around, that’s my foundation, so I think that photo just captured everything that made me what I am now.
Read J-Zone’s interviews with drummers here.