There is something about Jay "J-Zone" Mumford that many people (myself included) admire and aspire to; He is unbelievably candid and genuinely expressive, which is almost alien in this day and age. It is refreshing to say the least and has not gone unnoticed by critics and fans alike.
His left-field productions coupled with his wonky, side-splitting lyrics have earned him a healthy fanbase of dedicated listeners.
It wasn't always this way though and the funky aficionado has seen his fair share of hardships that he has eloquently documented in his acclaimed novel Root for the Villain: Rap, Bullshit and a Celebration of Failure. Zone's commentary on his failures can be gut-wrenching for would be musicians, but it's a side of the discussion that we rarely see in hip-hop.
It's strange, but this one doesn't feel like an interview, but instead a life lesson from a reluctant guru.
Prox: You learned to play the drums much later in life. What were some of the challenges you experienced early on? What do you feel live drums can do that the MPCs/Programs just can’t?
J-Zone: The hardest part is telling people you’re taking up the drums at 35 years old, but not like someone would start cooking as a hobby with no plans of becoming a working chef. When I told people I was really trying to play seriously, they laughed at me because most drummers start as kids and I was 20 years behind. It started as a hobby, but after about a year I was practicing like a 12-year-old would practice. Maybe 4-5 hours a day. I had to approach it like a little kid, but with the bills, responsibilities and expectations of an adult. It’s easy to be discouraged by a young drummer doing amazing stuff. On Facebook people are always posting videos of 9 year olds going crazy on my wall and it’s like "Damn, what are you trying to say?!" [laughs].
The hardest part was turning that intimidation and people thinking I was crazy into motivation to get better. I think being a late bloomer in anything is a challenge, but you also have the advantage of experience and wisdom that a younger person doesn’t have. Being older, I know music isn’t a competition, so it doesn’t really matter that there are drummers with insane chops that I’ll never compete with. It doesn’t stop me from working. I have 35 years of musical experience in general and know how a good record sounds and why people sample the drums that they do, so that gives me a different angle as a drummer.
As for machines, I think they can do a lot of things drummers can, but a lot of producers never explore them. They get stuck on the stock quantization and work on a grid, so it never sounds as soulful as a drummer. I think that’s why RZA stood out - he programmed the human feel. J-Dilla too. Even early rap records that were played on drum machines by hand instead of sequenced, like Schoolly D’s PSK. It’s got mistakes and sounds human. The feel and dynamics are the hardest things to duplicate on machines, but I think it can be done. I play all my drums live now, but if I were to program drums again, they’d be better than before because I understand feel and dynamics more. You just need to have extreme attention to detail and get out of boom-bapping perfectly on 2 and 4 all the time.
J-Zone: I started with the organ riff - it was a simple Gm to F chord progression. I had it repeating, but I didn’t know what to put on top of it. Then I just randomly let a record play with it with the bass cut out and the singing on the record sounded crazy, it was like a chant. I chopped it up into pieces in the MPC and pitch shifted it into key with the organ and then I grabbed some strings and did the same thing. I had it all locked to a click and dumped it to Protools with no drums. Then I just played the drums live on top of it. I did the drums in one take and blew a few fills, but it sounded better raw that way so I kept it. After it was done, I had my friend run the vocal and string samples through a tremolo for me just to psych it out and change the texture and I topped it off with some Moog bass.
Prox: You’re quite an anomaly in the music business (especially hip hop) because you’re very honest about what can happen to artists who put all of their eggs into one basket. How has this mentality actually impacted your music itself? Are you sillier on your tracks now because you see that nothing is promised?
J-Zone: I’ve been in the music business since I was 17. I’ve watched it destroy people and it almost destroyed me. Timing, luck, nepotism and “playing the game” have a lot to do with your fate, so once you understand that, you know nothing is guaranteed and all you have left is your integrity and your love for your craft. When I left the music business, wrote the book and returned years later, I finally understood this. As far as hip-hop goes, I’ve always been an outsider, but at this point I’m so indifferent about my place in it that I just do whatever I want and let the chips fall. If it sells two copies, who cares? I did it for fun. I play gigs as a drummer and a DJ every week, but I haven’t performed live as an MC in 10 years. That part of it is over. I don’t even consider myself an MC at this point [laughs].
I make my living as a musician/composer and with my residency gigs. All I’ve made is funk records for the past year, because that’s where my heart is at the moment. I don’t care about being relevant. The whole idea of trying to stay relevant in hip-hop is bullshit to me; the publicists control the media and it revolves around youth and gossip. The artists team up and help each other out with touring, features and co-signing on social media. I’m a lone wolf and I finance everything myself, so it’s harder to stay in the limelight. It usually takes months or years for people to discover I’m still making music or that I’m doing different things now [laughs]. I have a small niche and I’m totally cool with that. Hip-hop became more fun when it stopped being my primary income and became a hobby.
Prox: Your catalogue (particularly Fish-n-Grits) is… Intense to say the least. Why did you direct so much vitriol towards the new generation of rappers and millennials? Did you care if audiences would perceive this kind of honesty as being jaded?
J-Zone: It’s funny you saw it that way. The people in my generation [Generation X] felt I was directing too much vitriol towards the whole ‘90s revival thing. I’ve had people get mad at me because I said I’m not gonna waste energy dissing music that wasn’t made for me. It doesn’t matter if I dislike an artist that sells millions of downloads. Tomorrow he’ll still wake up and do that and I’ll still do what I’m doing. Nothing changes. Support music you like, ignore music you dislike. It doesn’t need to be more complicated than that. Just to clarify, Fish-n-Grits is lampooning all ages, shapes, colors and sizes [laughs]. I really wanted to make it like a bad boxing match and touch on the ridiculousness of generational music wars, but be tongue in cheek about it. I figured I made it crystal clear that I was poking fun at everyone equally and not taking a side. I guess not. [laughs].
Prox: Root for the Villain: Rap, Bullshit and a Celebration of Failure is well loved by just about anyone who gets ahold of it. Do you think the “left field” subject matter in your music helped to write something like this? Could you ever see yourself being an author?
J-Zone: I’m used to having unpopular opinions and unorthodox subject matter, so I felt comfortable discussing the non-glamorous side of the music business, which is something music memoirs aren’t supposed to do. You’re supposed to sell the dream, not tell people wake up and accept that you could end up messed up and bitter. I was also at a personal and professional rock bottom when I wrote it, so I really didn’t care what anyone had to say and I had nothing to lose. I don’t think I’d be able to write that book today. Life ain’t rosy, but I’m in a better place now. I can’t write books and music simultaneously. My brain has to focus on one or the other 100%.
Prox: Please tell us something about yourself that we may not know that influences your work.
J-Zone: I love ‘60s and ‘70s TV. I used to sample a lot of the dialogue from those shows, but now I just watch them and get inspired. I can’t explain how - maybe it’s an aesthetic thing. The music, the dialogue, the characters and the outfits - I’m obsessed with old detective shows from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. They get my creative juices going. Shows like Mannix, Ironside, McCloud, Banacek, Columbo, Harry-O, Cannon, Barnaby Jones, all that stuff.
Prox: Who are some of your favorite artists, business people, creatives or intellectuals?
J-Zone: Funk and jazz artists mostly. James Brown, Kool and the Gang, The Meters, Bernard Purdie, Slave, Funkadelic, Ohio Players, all the Stax and Motown stuff, etc. Even really obscure funk bands like The Counts, TSU Toronadoes and Warm Excursion. That stuff is a huge inspiration. I play the 45s on my weekly DJ gig all the time. Jazz drummers also amaze me, although I don’t play much jazz as a drummer. I listen and watch in awe of their dedication to their craft more than anything. Elvin Jones, Max Roach, Joe Dukes, Joe Chambers, Kenny Clarke, Philly Joe Jones, cats like that. I check out a lot of live jazz around NYC. That’s the only way you’ll get me to go out at night if I’m not working.
Prox: What are some of your favorite hobbies?
J-Zone: I’ve been into juicing for a really long time. I come up with fruit and vegetable juice combos that are unique. I’ll roll to a get together or somebody’s house with my Jack Lalanne Juicer and all this produce and people will bug out. I was also a known basketball fanatic for years, but not so much recently.
Prox: Any tips for aspiring artists, authors, and businessmen?
J-Zone: Don’t be afraid of trial and error. It’s the only way you’ll figure out what works for you. Never let an “industry expert” tell you what you should or shouldn’t be doing.
Prox: Would you like to give us any information on upcoming projects and releases?
J-Zone: My funk band with Tom Tom Club guitarist/bassist, Pablo Martin, is called The Du-Rites. Our sophomore album, Greasy Listening, drops this fall. The first single from it, "Bite It” b/w “Bocho’s Groove” is out now as a 7”. I also played drums on an upcoming single from ‘70s funk keyboardist, Manzel. I have a single out now with another funk side project of mine called The Zone Identity and I have a funk drummer interview series with Red Bull Music Academy called Give The Drummer Some. It will become a radio show this fall.
Prox: Final Thoughts?
J-Zone: Music business advice is mostly information from people who haven’t been in your shoes.
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