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Where is Jaap van der Doelen from? None of your business.
Don’t expect J-Zone to wallow in nostalgia. If there’s one thing to take away from our hour and a half of conversation, it’s that he’s proud of all his past work, but has very gladly moved on from it. “A lot of people went through high school and college listening to my music”, he says. “They were running around banging girls and smoking weed in the car, and my music was the soundtrack! It makes me feel great, that I was the soundtrack to this fun part of their life. Now they’re in their 30s, they have a shit job, a bad marriage or annoying kids, whatever it is, they don’t want to live in the present. And I get DM’s asking ‘Yo, why don’t you go back?’” His answer is blunt: “It doesn’t work that way.”
J-Zone is a lively talker. He’s the kind of guy who makes you feel like you’ve known him all your life, no matter if you’re Skyping from across the Atlantic, and this is only your second ever conversation with him. It’s mainly because he’s as open and enthusiastic as he is knowledgeable about any topic he broaches. And he can certainly speak with authority on what does and doesn’t work. After a slew of celebrated underground rap records, on which his outsized pimp persona would rock a huge fur coat, while spitting some hilariously foul shit over vintage samples and stomping breaks, he suddenly called it quits as a rapper.
“I was very serious about my music, but I didn’t take myself seriously as a rapper”, he says about the character he portrayed. “People took me as a novelty or a joke—and a lotta that fur coat shit, hurt me. But it’s not my fault they didn’t get it. If you can’t hear I’m serious about my music by listening to it, you’re not listening to the craft. I learned to accept that, and I’m proud of all that shit. But I don’t wanna live in my past.”
It was 2007 when he first decided to quit rapping, a decision detailed with equal amounts of humor and candor in his 2011 memoir Root for the Villain: Rap, Bullshit, and a Celebration of Failure. Two years later, he surprised fans with a return to rap on his album Peter Pan Syndrome, followed in 2016 by Fish-n-Grits. “When I did Peter Pan Syndrome, I figured a lot of the chapters in my book would make great songs”, he explains. “But I’m not a singer. It was natural to me to make a hip-hop record. But I wasn’t really feeling being a hip-hop artist, in my heart. So that was a strange time.”
In that regard, the book did end up as a capstone to the old J-Zone, and directly lead into him resurfacing as a funk drummer. “I look at the book as a halftime show for my career. I started playing drums, right when the book came out.” He sees those two albums on which he returned to rapping not as a comeback, but a transitional work. “I played drums on those albums instead of sampling them, but programmed the rest of the beats like I normally would. I added elements of live instrumentation, Pablo [Martin, the other half of The Du-Rites] played guitar on some of the stuff. I was moving towards where I am now, but still doing some of my older stuff, because that was what was familiar to me.”
Hearing those albums in succession, the direction in which he was moving becomes even more apparent. While Peter Pan Syndrome is still structured loosely like a concept album, Fish-n-Grits is an assortment of funky bits and pieces. “Half the album was instrumental. The drumming was stronger, I started to play keys more, Pablo played guitar. You could tell by the rap songs on Fish-n-Grits that I was transitioning out,” he reflects. “Every song I’m rapping about how much I hate rap. Every song! ‘Fuck this rap shit.’ I was enjoying it, but I enjoyed …hating rap. It was weird. Like when you graduate high school, get your diploma, and go to the principal’s office to take a shit on his desk.”
During the recording of his final rap album, his beloved grandmother passed away. “At the end of her life, she was asking me if I was happy, if I was enjoying myself. And I was happy to be back in music, but I felt like I was doing things because I could or had to. I didn’t have that focus I had back in 1998, when I made Music For Tu Madre.”
The bond he and his grandma shared is evidenced by the cover of that album, on which she flips the bird with a proudly zero-fucks-given attitude, while smoking a cigar and holding a 40 oz. “When she passed, I felt like I needed to overhaul everything. I was in a group called Superblack with Prince Paul and Sacha Jenkins, and we did SXSW. It was a disaster! A lot of things went wrong, we weren’t really prepared, and when I got out on that stage—I was rapping and playing drums—I hadn’t been on stage as a rapper in almost ten years. The minute I grabbed the mic, I just said ‘No’. I knew immediately that I didn’t want to do that anymore. My heart wasn’t in it.”
The experience did offer him an immediate alternative: “When I was on the mic, I wanted to blow my brains out. But behind the drums—I knew I had stuff I needed to work on, but I enjoyed playing drums live. I remember thinking ‘if there was a singer out front, or we’d properly rehearsed, it’d be a different situation’. I learned that I could enjoy being on stage again, but from the drum chair.” Coming home, he immediately gave Pablo Martin a call. “We’d been doing Du-Rites stuff, but it was like a back burner project. I told him I wanted to make it my priority.”
The J-Zone of that era he describes as a ‘Jack of all trades, master of none.’ Tired of being all over the place, he decided to start trimming the fat from his career. “I told myself to focus on one thing that could pay the bills, one thing I loved whether it’d make money or not, and one thing that’s a hobby. Composing pays my bills, drumming is my passion whether it pays or not, and writing is something that’s inside of me, that I’m gonna do when I’m 90 in a nursing home.”
Focusing his passions soon paid off. “I started letting things go, and once I did, I started getting better at what I kept” he notes. “If you look at some of the people that are great at what they do—like with drummers, Buddy Rich for instance. Or Clyde Stubblefield, or Bernard Purdie. All they did was play drums.”
J-Zone and Pablo Martin released their self-titled debut album as The Du-Rites in October 2016. It’s follow-up Greasy Listening took a little under a year, and their third album Gamma Ray Jones followed in November last year. Their productivity is noticeably higher than it was during J-Zone’s earlier semi-comeback, but Gamma Ray Jones does have something in common with his earliest work: his penchant for concept albums is once again on full display.
“I’ve always really been into ‘60s and ‘70s cop shows. I grew up watching those”, says the man behind the record billed as the soundtrack to a lost 1972 TV detective show. “Everybody that was into my old hip-hop stuff used to hear soundbites that came from those shows. It was twofold; I’d be archiving bits of dialogue to sample into my music, but I’d be watching and actually liking those shows. I’d eat breakfast or clean my studio watching them. And I’d have the DAT machine running for samples. That was part of my production and my daily routine.”
While searching for a concept for their third album, that same routine offered an answer. “I was watching those shows, and the music was just so good. I remember the music being good from back in the day, but then I was making beats, trying to find something to sample. I wasn’t thinking as a composer. I saw it I a whole new light watching those shows now. Now that we play instruments and compose stuff, I’m not just looking for soundbites or samples. No, it inspired me to compose new music.”
The result is a much more cinematic sound. “There’s strings in it, the way the chord changes are, the music was composed with scenes in our minds. ‘This is where they’re chasing villains down in a car. This is wear the junkie nods off in an alley. This is where they’re looking for the suspect!’”
The Du-Rites recently scored a Levi’s commercial, and J-Zone intentionally mixes their records in a way that makes them attractive to sample. “That might be a mortgage payment for somebody, if someone’d be using it. My start as a hip-hop producer definitely comes in handy, knowing how to mix those records”, he says. And his involvement with hip-hop doesn’t end there either. His drums are already ending up on a myriad of beats, in several, surprising ways.
“Earlier last year, I lost a residency gig as a DJ, thinking I would have that money every week. And it paid well. Then I get a phone call saying ‘You have one more gig and it’s over’. I was looking to have surgery done, that would have me laid up for four months. So I panicked. I made Guerrilla Drums, just to have some revenue coming in. I recorded it in 12 days. 24 breaks on a double 7” vinyl.”
He pressed up 500 copies, and sold those through Bandcamp. “At this point, I’m into playing drums on songs. Playing changes, and playing all the way through. I’m not gonna loop up a breakbeat for my own music. So for me, playing a breakbeat, it’s not like ‘Ah, I could’ve used that on my own record!’” His experience as a beat maker makes him well versed in the types of breaks producers like he was are looking for though, which is why he released his two dozens of breaks royalty-free, asking only for a credit in a song’s bylines.
Guerrilla Drums sold out in a matter of months, revealing a void in the market to him. Of course J-Zone knows there’s always a slight possibility somebody’ll make a hit record with it, but he’s not really concerned about that. “If you get a record that gets a frickin’ Grammy and generates hundreds of thousands in revenue, yes, it’d be nice for you to pay. Get me a bit of publishing, or a writers credit. But people that put stuff up on Soundcloud, press 200 cassettes or 500 cd’s, to do their little hiphop thing? I know how that is. I was an indie rap artist. There’s no money to clear a sample! I’m not gonna go after what’s not there! What am I gonna do? Sue somebody over 50 bucks?”
“I don’t want no royalties. I just want a credit”, says the former rapper/producer steadfastly. “I’m trying to get work as a drummer and expand my name doing that. So, the more people that sample me, the better. That can lead to somebody saying ‘hey’—which eventually happened. I wound up doing stuff for Alchemist, Danger Mouse, Marco Polo. I wound up doing personal breaks for these guys. And that started from those break records.”
So now the man once known for fur-coated hi jinx and inventive sampling, has turned composer and session drummer. “I’m adjusting to the fact people are caught off guard by that”, he says. “A lot of people think it’s dope, but a lot of people are like ‘Yo man, Old Maid Billionaires!’ And I’m like ‘Damn, that was twenty years ago’. Musicians are constantly moving forward.”
J-Zone certainly did, and by becoming a source for samples himself, has come full circle in the process. “I had to take a risk. I’m going this route, and nobody might give a shit. To me that’s part of the journey and part of the fun.”
This interview was translated from Dutch to English with the kind permission of Hip-Hop Injesmoel.