Status Ain't Hood

On J-Zone, Rap’s Great Disgruntled Comedian

At the beginning of his new album, Fish-N-Grits, the veteran Queens rapper and producer J-Zone lays out the two sides in rap’s great generational schism, the divide between the fashion-happy kids who clown ’90s rap and the aging ’90s heads who think rap should return to its perceived golden era. Here’s whose side J-Zone is on: nobody’s side. He hates everyone. He thinks it’s all bullshit, and he spends pretty much the entire album bemoaning the state of rap. The millennials have their priorities all fucked up: “The bloggers have bigger egos than the artists.” The elders who dismiss them or tell them their opinions are wrong are no better: “Just another jaded motherfucker who went out like Calvin Butts or C. Dolores Tucker.” (You have to be an old head to get that reference.) Nobody’s buying music, labels have found ways to make sure nobody gets paid even their piddling fair share, rap has become as gentrified as J-Zone’s loved-and-hated hometown, and “rap squeegee men” are out there disrespecting the music by accosting strangers on the street and trying to get them to buy their shitty slapdash DVRs. Fish-N-Grits is a deeply angry album, but it’s also a funny one, one made with joy and care and craft and engagement. In other words: It’s a J-Zone album.

J-Zone has been around since 1999, when he burst onto the scene rapping about scheming for sex over big, bright cartoon-funk beats that he produced himself. The term “comedy-rapper” seems limiting, but that’s basically what J-Zone was doing. He had a sense of humor somewhere between Prince Paul, the idiosyncratic mastermind behind De La Soul’s early masterpieces, and X-rated ’70s comedians like Blowfly. Back then, he was coming out with songs about attempting to start living as a gigolo, or about how cockblocking should be a crime punishable by death. This stuff was nasty and juvenile, but it was also very, very funny. And it was a weird fit for the late-’90s/early-’00s rap underground, where everyone was trying to be more intricately lyrical, more true to the culture, than anyone else. J-Zone also wrote online screeds about how, like, Master P and Bushwick Bill were unheralded rap pioneers, things that underground-rap devotees weren’t really trying to hear.

For a while there, J-Zone was a fixture on the underground, a sort of caustic-comedy sideshow, his lane so personal and specific that he could never turn it into a brand, if he even ever wanted to. He did production work for people like the Lonely Island and Danger Mouse, and he cranked out a steady stream of concept albums that, by his own admission, sold nothing. In 2009, he quit rap and tried to get a real-world job. In 2011, he published a bitter memoir called Root For The Villain, one that did better than any of his albums had. In 2013, he decided that he couldn’t stand working a regular job anymore, and he returned to music with an album called Peter Pan Syndrome. These days, he’s a one-man operation, rapping and producing, playing drums and bass and keyboards on his own records, posting stuff on his Bandcamp, pressing up his own vinyl whenever he feels like it.

Fish-N-Grits came out of a series of 7″ singles that J-Zone’s been releasing for a little while, and its bursts of rancor are fast and precise. There’s a song about going out on dates with middle-class Brooklyn transplants and then deciding to rob them. There’s a song about how New York needs a crime wave. There’s a lovely, sincere, emotional song about missing his grandfather and the 1979 Cadillac his grandfather used to drive. There’s a song about how aspiring rappers should return to their drug-dealing roots because there’s no money for them in music. Actually, there are a bunch of songs about that. There are too many rappers out there, and J-Zone wants them to go away. And he also sneers at the idea that he needs to do things that rappers do: “‘Yo Zone, you need to tour!’ Fuck it, what for? / I’m damn near 40, sleeping on somebody’s living room floor?”

And woven throughout, there are all these beautiful, painstakingly assembled breakbeat-funk instrumentals. To make those songs, J-Zone had to record the drums and bass parts himself, then chop them up the ways he wanted. It’s not the way he even necessarily wanted to record; it’s just that he knows he wouldn’t be able to afford to clear samples or to pay the settlement if someone sued. That comes up in the lyrics, too.

In a lot of ways, J-Zone is a deep and sincere music nerd, the type to devote his new podcast to things like his love of Masta Ace’s mostly forgotten 1990 album Take A Look Around. And his complaints on Fish-N-Grits are the complaints of someone who loves rap too much to watch its problems and stand idly by. They’re smart, sharp criticisms, and they remind me that I should probably read the man’s book. In a lot of ways, J-Zone is one of rap’s great critics; it’s just that he also happens to be really good at making beats and jokes. Do yourself a favor and listen to him.

FURIOUS FIVE

1. Aesop Rock – “Blood Sandwich”
I’m so used to thinking of Aesop as an abstract stylist that this straightforward story-song, one that involves Little League rodent-murders and Ministry concerts, is totally refreshing and even oddly touching.

2. Noname – “Freedom Interlude”
Chance The Rapper collaborator Noname used to be Noname Gypsy, but she changed her name because she found out that “Gypsy” was a racial slur. It takes empathy to make a move like that, and you can hear that same sense of empathy in this warm, woozy meditation.

3. YG & Nipsey Hussle – “FDT”
I like how one of YG’s reasons for not liking Donald Trump is “I love Mexicans, got a plug with Mexicans.”

4. The Alchemist – “By Any Means” (Feat. MC Eiht & Spice 1)
Most of the greats of early-’90s West Coast gangsta rap are still out there, still hungry, and still ready, when called, to get nasty on a jazzy, spacey Alchemist beat.

5. SD – “Paper Route”
Now that Chicago drill has turned into gurgling post-Future drug music, SD is probably the best person making Chicago drill.

IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO