Rap & Books: Underground iconoclast J-Zone ‘Roots for the Villain’

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If life were fair, J-Zone would be famous. He’d have been the Prince Paul of the late ‘90s underground, with rappers forking over real cash to rhyme over his psychedelic collages of old VHS cassettes, pimp culture, funk and early ‘90s boom bap. Frequently joined by his fellow Old Maid crew, Al-Shid and Huggybear, Zone made music like De La Soul summoning the spirit of ‘90s Bronx rapper Tim Dog.

At his prime in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, the rapper born Jay Mumford was an American iconoclast, a true curmudgeon and proud. But unlike most of the perennially ornery, he wasn’t stiff. He celebrated the gleeful tomfoolery of Too Short and Suga Free, rocked everything from a high-top fade to a ‘fro, while deploying a lacerating wit that ransacked everyone from lyrical/spiritual/miracle rappers to gold-digging women. His first album sampled ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and featured a cover of his septuagenarian grandmother drinking a 40, smoking a blunt and flipping off the camera. It was pretty awesome and wholly uncategorizable.


To make matters worse, J-Zone came into hip-hop at the worst possible time for a rapper of his ilk. By the time he dropped his 2002 opus, ‘Pimps Don’t Pay Taxes,’ the heyday of the Rawkus and Fondle ‘Em boomlet had already passed. The rap Internet, the place that would have embraced a cult artist like Zone, didn’t exist on a meaningful level yet -- though on message boards, he was a favorite. Among his peers, he earned the reputation of an artist’s artist; one had to be in on the joke to understand. His idol, Prince Paul, along with Danger Mouse, Cee-Lo and The Lonely Island, counted themselves among major fans. The latter even coaxed him out of retirement to produce ‘Santana DVX.’

Abandoning the pro rap game roughly a half-decade ago, Zone has had stints doing sports journalism, teaching and occasionally dropping knowledge at Ego Trip. He has also written a new memoir, ‘Root for the Villain: Rap, ..., and a Celebration of Failure.’ Like his albums, it’s equal parts hilarious, self-effacing and sharp. He’s the sarcastic older brother putting you up on game. It’s a love letter to rap laced with sulfur, the flip side of Dan Charnas’ similarly excellent ‘The Big Payback.’ There are tales of the joys of ignorant rap, the perils of the industry, and what it’s like to meet Suga Free. And the story of what happens when all balls don’t bounce, complete with anecdotes about getting beaten up by seventh-grade girls due to his love of rapping along to ‘Fake Hair Wearin'.’

Like his records, he has released it himself on his Old Maid imprint. It’s available on audiobook cassette tapes hand-dubbed by Zone. That’s a very J-Zone move, and we are so much the better for it.


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-- Jeff Weiss