J-Zone’s Root For The Villain: Rap, Bullshit And A Celebration Of Failure
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If you’re lucky, you can pinpoint the exact moment you gave up on your dreams. For rapper, producer, curmudgeon, and all-around character J-Zone, that moment came in the form of a phone call from his distributor over at independent rap label Fat Beats about the thousands of unsold J-Zone albums currently taking up space in their warehouse. J-Zone faced a grim professional and personal reckoning when Fat Beats presented him with two options: He could take the thousands of unsold CDs back and try to transform dead product into something saleable, or he could concede that his career as a producer, rapper, and all-around entertainer was a failure and let the CDs die an unmourned death in a landfill somewhere.
J-Zone was about to learn exactly what happened to a dream deferred. It didn’t dry up like a raisin in the sun, nor did it fester like a sore and then run; that motherfucker got crushed by the dream-killing machines over at Fat Beats. For J-Zone, there was something strangely purifying about watching his life’s work get annihilated. It represented a clean break. There was no going back. You cannot preserve what has already been destroyed.
J-Zone’s crushing of his back catalog represented just one step in the journey from true believer to cult hero to has-been to dropout to premature retiree. In Root For The Villain, J-Zone’s memoir/essay collection, the former rapper writes sadly and movingly of stepping onstage in some little shit dive in the deep South and discovering that his passion for performing has been extinguished, leaving nothing in its place but a gnawing, empty feeling and thoughts about what to eat after the show. What do you do when the passion that burns deep inside you dies? What do you do the day after you give up on yourself?
Root For The Villain gives a giant “fuck you” to the notion that you have to be successful or famous to put out a memoir, to commercial considerations, to the prevailing trends of the publishing world and, really, to everyone and everything. But underneath all the vitriol and sneering cynicism lies a big, squishy heart. As an ex-girlfriend sadly laments, J-Zone loves hip-hop but hates the business; in the end, his hatred of the business outweighed his love of the art. That is unfortunate, if not an outright tragedy if you believe in hip-hop as passionately as J-Zone does, or at least once did.
Once upon a time, J-Zone was a true believer whose soul was riveted by the grooves found in his parents’ old ’70s funk albums and especially the outrageous, flamboyant peacockery of the funk bands whose images adorned his favorite LPs. The records were wild. They were funky. They spoke to him on a profound level, so he began learning the grooves on a bass guitar.
Growing up, J-Zone became a quintessential connoisseur of shit others don’t care about. Let other rap cats sample James Brown and look up to Rakim and Big Daddy Kane. J-Zone used his primitive beat machine to sample French accordion records and antiquated sitcoms and flew the flag for lesser-known hip-hop roughnecks like Tim Dog of “Fuck Compton” infamy. If something hasn’t been at least half-forgotten, it’s way too fresh and new for J-Zone to take an interest in.
J-Zone came of age in a hip-hop New York that’s forever lost to time. He interned for Large Professor, learned just how Greg Nice liked his turkey sandwiches, and mastered the mysterious ways of some of the most primitive and powerful samplers known to man. Little by little, J-Zone developed an aesthetic as an incorrigible smartass who lived with his foul-mouthed grandmother, sneered at hip-hop’s ridiculous codes, and pinched pennies until they became copper wire. Hip-hop couldn’t figure J-Zone out. Was he white or black? Was his sexism genuine or an act? And why the hell was he still rocking headphones long after everyone else abandoned the technology?
J-Zone made his masterpiece with Pimps Don’t Pay Taxes and the majors came calling—or rather, he got a nibble from a major that wanted him to put out an album with some songs for the clubs, some songs for the ladies, and some tracks custom-designed for pop radio. In other words, they wanted J-Zone to stop being J-Zone and become just another cog in the machine.
J-Zone stayed true to himself and followed the independent route until his album sales and fan base dwindled to nothing. Around the same time, a buddy and fan of J-Zone’s named Danger Mouse begin to make a name for himself mashing together vocals from Jay-Z’s The Black Album and The Beatles’ White Album for a bootleg project he called The Grey Album. Danger Mouse’s rocket ride to the pinnacle of commercial success threw his buddy’s professional flailing into much sharper relief. They were both uniquely gifted producers with big brains swimming with ideas. So why is Danger Mouse pop royalty and J-Zone’s a dude hustling three day jobs just to pay the rent? Luck has an awful lot to do with it, but J-Zone has also never shown much interest in negotiating the tricky waters of the music business. Danger Mouse conquered the world and J-Zone gave up, but not before experiencing a few more brutal reality checks, like getting dropped by his digital distributor and selling something like 43 copies of his Madlib-like conceptual comeback album Chief Chinchilla: Live @ The Liqua Sto (which I highly recommend).
Root For The Villain isn’t for everyone. In fact, it would be difficult to imagine a book with a smaller built-in audience. J-Zone stopped rapping because audiences didn’t care about him or his music anymore. So it takes enormous chutzpah to imagine that the same people who couldn’t be bothered to pay six bucks to download your debut EP will pluck 15 bucks for a book chronicling your life story. But J-Zone wouldn’t be J-Zone if he didn’t do everything the hard way. That includes releasing the audio version of Root For The Villain on homemade audio cassettes. Yes, audio cassettes. In 2011.
As I wrote earlier, J-Zone cares passionately about shit other people could care less about. In 2011, that includes J-Zone himself. There is something deliciously perverse about putting out a project with no audience whatsoever, but thank God J-Zone threw caution to the wind and told his funny, sad, funky, wildly non-commercial story anyway story anyway. A modest but essential contribution to the canon of hip-hop literature from one of its most brilliantly warped losers, Root For The Villain is ultimately a bittersweet meditation on the death of a beautiful dream, but it’s also an intermittently sweet and funny look back at hip-hop’s de-evolution from a man with a unique perspective on how and why it lost its way.