By: Sherron Shabazz
J-Zone is a rapper, producer, author, and entrepreneur. It’s ironic that his greatest success has come from a skill he learned late in life – drumming. As one-half of the two-man funk band known as “The Du-Rites” alongside guitarist Pablo Martin, Zone is living out his childhood dream to give us the funk.
“When I was younger I was an only child, so I was home alone a lot,” J-Zone explained. “What my mother used to do was buy me art supplies. I remember every Friday night in fifth and sixth grade my mother would give me oak tag and I’d sit by the TV making these fictional funk album covers. I’d be drawing album covers of bands and I’m in the band playing bass – that was my instrument.”
“I always knew I was going to be in a funk band, but when I got into Hip-Hop, I kind of got derailed from it. As a kid that was a dream of mine and I figured I would do it one day, but once I started making Hip-Hop I didn’t think I would ever go back to it. I didn’t think I would get back on an instrument, especially drums. It’s pretty cool to have it come full circle.”
J-Zone’s music career began in the late 90’s. In the early 2000’s, Zone released a handful of critically acclaimed solo albums that highlighted his unique sense of humor and eccentric production techniques. During that time rap music was divided by the flossy/gangsta congregation of Hip-Hop and the backpack/conscious types. J-Zone didn’t fit into either category.
In his 2011 book, “Root for the Villain: Rap, Bull$hit, and a Celebration of Failure” J-Zone details the ups and downs of his rap career in a comical yet cautionary way. While J-Zone may have put down the mic, music remained in his soul. He filled the void by picking up drum sticks.
“The rap game felt like a circus to me,” J-Zone told The Feature Story. “All I give a fu*k about is the music. I went and found work in other genres and that’s a different set of struggles, but at least the struggles I face now are new, so they don’t bother me much.”
“I’ll always love Hip-Hop,” J-Zone added. “The music and the aesthetics. They’re part of who I am and always will be. The music is beautiful. The problem is I never could f*ck with the business of Hip-Hop and how the artists and media operate in Hip-Hop. The cliques, the ageism and generational beefs, fetishizing one era and one type of Hip-Hop and guys talking about the 90s and only talking about the same five artists like nothing else existed — all that sh*t is wack. Rappers accosting pedestrians selling CD-Rs on the street like ‘Yo fam, you like Hip-Hop?’ That’s an embarrassment; you don’t see musicians in other genres doing that sh*t. I hate all that Hip-Hop hustle/rap game, crack game sh*t; it makes the music look cheap. You wanna hustle? Go sell weed.”
Disillusioned with the game of rap, J-Zone put most of his eggs in his drumming basket and it’s panning out quite well. Zone has found his second wind in the music business and is the happiest professionally that he’s ever been. J-Zone’s latest music effort alongside Pablo Martin as “The Du-Rites” is a celebration of Zone’s musical growth and is appropriately titled “Greasy Listening.”
“We started doing the funk and when it’s greasy that means it’s real nasty,” J-Zone explained. “That means it’s grooving. Grease is a term in funk that describes how the swing of the music is. If it’s greasy, it’s kind of laid back and hits you in a certain way. It’s loose and funky.”
Going from being a solo rapper to a member of a band has its challenges, but J-Zone has found his groove being a team player.
“We’re a group so we have to agree on everything that we do,” J-Zone said. “Sometimes we might differ and you kind of have to argue your point, but you have to trust your partner eventually. Pablo has a certain pedigree as a musician.”
“With a group situation you have to open up and listen to what people have to say and be respectful of that. Pablo’s thing is composition, that’s what he does. He plays guitar in the Tom Tom Club. He’s much more seasoned as a musician than I am in terms of composing. I worked in a world of samples, so I have a different pedigree. My specialty is drum, samples, and how a record should sound. His specialty is composition. He’d say, ‘Yo Jay, those chords are clashing,’ or ‘Yo Jay, those chords are too jazzy,’ or ‘Don’t put too many fills, play the beat straight.’ We gotta bounce things off each other and if there is something either of us feels strongly about we have to stick to the courage of our convictions. Sometimes you gotta let it go and meet somebody half way. We’re lucky that we have good chemistry and there’s not too much friction. We pretty much agree on everything and if we disagree we say, ‘Okay, I see what you mean. Let’s do that over.’”
Growth is essential for survival in life as well as in music. As a person who loathed performing on stage as a rap artist, keeping the beat for The Du-Rites has J in his comfort zone.
“As a rapper I performed for a long time and I got seasoned but I never really felt comfortable on stage,” J-Zone explained. “I never felt like I wanted to be there so I usually had to have a couple of drinks in me, put on that fur coat, and go into character. It’s no different than putting on your uniform and going to work, but because music is personal there is a personal connection to it that makes it a little more odd than just throwing on your uniform and going to a regular job.”
“I never really cared anything about the limelight so I don’t want to be the superstar on stage. I like the idea of working with other people and being part of a unit on stage. We go out as a team and we support each other. Rap is kind of like I’m in the forefront, which I don’t really want to be. I don’t have a lot of narcissism in my personality so being the center of attention on stage is something I never really liked to do. As a rapper you kind of have to do that. You have no choice. I think with drumming and my DJ gigs I finally enjoy live performing again. I enjoy playing for the people much more so than I did as a Hip-Hop artist.”
While Greasy Listening is first and foremost on the mind of J-Zone his love for Hip-Hop is never ending. With the 20 year anniversary of his debut album “Music for Tu Madre” on the horizon Zone hasn’t completely closed the door on rapping.
“One thing I can say I’m done with is live performing as a rapper,” J-Zone said. “Me getting back out there rapping as J-Zone, I can honestly say that that won’t happen again. But me coming out with a J-Zone record out of the blue? Anything is possible.”
“In the medium I’m in now, I get to meet other people that inspire me. I got to meet all the Hip-Hop cats that inspire me, but I also got to meet some of the musicians that inspire me from other kinds of music. Now it’s going beyond Hip-Hop and it’s touching all of my influences. I’m a Hip-Hop kid and I always will be but I work in other mediums. I work in rock & roll and I work in funk and soul. I’m not one dimensional. Indie Hip-Hop is where I got the most popular, but that’s not the only place that I exist. At this point that’s not where I’m making my living. I make my living doing other types of things and that’s okay. The key to longevity is being able to exist and be productive and creative in all these different arenas.”
“I’m disconnected from the music business and I just operate on my own plane,” Zone added. “I really can’t say, ‘This year I’m going to do the funk record, next year I’m going to do the Hip-Hop record, and the year after that I’m going to make a reggae record!’ Planning my career out by music industry standards is not my thing. I just have to go by whatever is motivating me on any given day and I’ll do it. That’s how I am.”