Interview: J-Zone’s post-hip-hop life

Sweet villain
By CHRIS FARAONE  |  April 5, 2012


J-Zone retired from hip-hop somewhere south of the middle. Neither a scrub nor a top-tier talent, for years the Queens-bred MC-producer straddled the space between notoriety and not paying bills. Harsh realities of rap life aside, Zone is a majorly respected beatmaker and character, and as a result of the latter he qualifies for at least one superlative: he's hysterical, perhaps the most strikingly satirical cat in hip-hop history. On that note, despite quitting the game years ago — and emphasizing his exit with a Gnarls Barkley-backed encore at CBGB — Zone picked up his ruminations on everything from rap poverty to trend-mongering in his new memoir, Root for the Villain: Rap, Bullshit, and a Celebration of Failure. In preparation for his Boston release bash at the Good Life with Mister Jason, we asked the rapper-turned-SUNY music biz professor about switching from hooks to books.

I THOUGHT THAT YOU STOPPED DOING SHOWS. WHAT'S THIS PARTY ALL ABOUT? This is just to come out, play some good music, and increase awareness about the book. A lot of people in rap don't read, so I need to let them know what's up. Some old fans have bought it [Root for the Villain], and have been telling me how much they love it, and that it's the only book they've read in the past five years. That's good — they won't see the punctuation errors — but there are still a lot of people who just don't know what I've been up to.

HOW IS LIFE DIFFERENT FOR J-ZONE THE AUTHOR THAN IT WAS FOR J-ZONE THE RAPPER? Not much really. I'm saying the same shit that I did as an artist, but with the book it's more personal and a bit more eloquent. It's still profane though, and I'm still a curmudgeon. In rap, when your time is up, it's up. You have to diversify your talents — who the hell can keep up with rap music, at my age trying to make a mixtape with Auto-Tune every two weeks while you're going bald? It just looks unnatural — especially when you're used to putting out an album every two years. When it's over, you get a reality show if you're lucky. The book's not a downer. It's just a reality check.

DO YOU STILL FEEL COMFORTABLE WEARING RIDICULOUS OUTFITS IN PUBLIC? I retired the fur coat because it had asbestos. All the PETA types were also getting upset — them and the people who want to save whales were showing up 10 or 15 deep. I couldn't deal with it anymore.

WHAT'S MORE DEMORALIZING — BEING AN UNDERGROUND RAPPER, OR BEING A SELF-PUBLISHED AUTHOR? They're both thankless jobs, but there's much more of a stigma attached to rap because people who don't know better just think, "He's like Lil Wayne — only he's broke." Older people especially don't realize that there's rapper A-type, rapper B-type, and rapper C-type. I'm a rapper from Queens, so I'm automatically 50 Cent with no money — the rap squeegee man in front of the store trying to sell you my CD for $10. On the other hand, there's a huge stigma attached to self-published books. In hip-hop, by the mid-'90s it was popular to go indie. But with books, there's still a real snobbery. For me, I'm just attacking subject matter that's not mainstream, so this is how I did it. I came from the school of independent hip-hop, and that attitude is embedded in my DNA.

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