About a year ago, I asked J-Zone if he wanted to do an interview as a reboot for my "Can You Dig It?" series. To give some new life to the series, I planned on talking with J about digging for cassette tapes instead of vinyl. What I got instead was an hour worth of audio gold that turned into something completely different than what I had originally expected. We talked about sampling off of cassette with an SP-1200, his experiences writing Root for the Villain, and everything in between.
After the interview, life got crazy. I changed jobs twice in a five month span and personal trials and tribulations got in the way of writing. I also struggled with what to do with all of the great material I had. It didn't work for "Can You Dig It?" or the other series on my blog. I considered turning the interview into an article for a magazine, but I didn't feel like a condensed, watered down piece would do J-Zone justice. In the end, I've decided to run the majority of our interview on my blog as a standalone piece. I should have known...I can’t fit J-Zone into a box.
To make the interview more accessible, it will be broken into segments. I hope readers appreciate the creative genius that is J-Zone as much as I enjoyed talking to him.
DJ Sorce-1: I have a friend who runs a tape only label. Some of the people he works with say that tapes, when done right, sound better than vinyl. Do you have any opinions on that?
J-Zone: I always say vinyl, but it depends on how it’s mastered. Anyone who’s a collector can tell you that Cold Chillin’ and Tommy Boy vinyl albums are notoriously horrible. My cassette version of 3 Feet High and Rising sounded better than the vinyl, obviously. Usually, I like the sound of vinyl the best. But if the vinyl ain’t done right...cassettes, when they’re in good shape, sound great.
I don’t even think store bought cassettes manage to get the full, maximum sound. On a lot of tapes, they were trying to avoid distortion when mass producing them. When I make cassettes at home, I get the good Maxell and record the vinyl to cassette. You can kind of control the volume and how you pump it. It sounds really dope. If you have a high bias blank tape and you have the record levels jumping in the red a little bit, you can get a really warm sound. With digital, you’re not getting the full dynamics. A lot of times I would sample stuff, and put it on cassette and then sample the cassette back just to get a little bit of warmth to it. I was using an MPC which isn't as warm as the SP-1200. So a lot of times, samples that were really clean, I would run them through a good cassette deck.
DJ Sorce-1: It’s interesting that you bring up sampling cassettes. In Brian Coleman’s interview with Da Beatminerz from Check The Technique, they said they couldn't afford a lot of big break records at the time Enta Tha Stage came out. Some of the samples they used for that album were cassette copies of big time records.
J-Zone: That makes sense. At that time, if you were trying to look for drums and go outside of the ultimate breaks and beats series, you were using drums like “Power of Zeus” or “Get Out My Life Woman”. If you went to the Roosevelt Record Fair, those records would be between 50 and 200 bucks. At the time, I didn’t have a DAT player and CD burning wasn't the thing yet. So I used to go tape samples from people. When I worked for Vance Wright at his studio, he had a lot of records I didn't have. I would tape shit from Vance, take it home, and sample from the tape. I still do that.
When I was making beats all the time, sometimes I would sample Indian music. A lot of Indian music is on tape. You can go down to Indian neighborhoods in the East Village and they have cassettes. There hardest thing about finding samples on cassettes is that you have to listen to everything. You can’t skip around the way you do with records. But then you don’t miss anything. Cassettes never ever fell out of my production process or the way I listen to music. I use cassettes as much now as I did in 89, 94, or 2002. It has never fluctuated or tapered. Obviously, as time went on, you get CDs more because they put CD players in cars. I use ITunes and Serato, so I embrace the other technology. But cassettes have never been obsolete to me.
DJ Sorce-1: I’m curious about sampling from cassette. Before reading the Black Moon interview and talking with you, that was something I hadn't considered. Is this a common thing for producers to do?
J-Zone: I would say now, it’s not as common as sampling vinyl. Back in the day though, a lot of albums would do small issues on cassette. They’d actually be easier to find than the vinyl. For instance, Dorothy Ashby, the jazz harpist, did a record called Afro-Harping from like 1970. I found the cassette for 2 bucks, sealed. This was probably in the early 90’s. It was used on the Mecca and the Soul Brother album. When Pete Rock was hot, everybody was going out and trying to snatch up shit he was using. They figured it had other stuff or they thought they could use what he sampled better. So his samples were in demand. I found Afro-Harping on cassette and I never found the vinyl until years later.
The problem with sampling from cassette is that if you were using the SP, you can’t change the speed on cassette. You can’t speed it up so that you can sample more of it with the SP and you only have 10 seconds of memory. I used to high speed dub one cassette to another so that I could sample the tape’s high speed dubbing. It would sound like chipmunk shit and I’d slow it way back down. I’d actually be able to squeeze more time into the sample by doing that. With the high speed stuff it’s like (makes noise imitating speed up sound of high speed dubbing.) You sample it and slow it down little by little. You gotta piece it down because it’s really fast. I used to put samples on cassettes and just sample the high speed dub process. I would be able to squeeze two loops into the SP-1200, which was uncanny at the time.
J-Zone: Exactly. The sound quality would deteriorate, but during that era...There was a small time where sound quality was king in hip hop. I would say after The Chronic came out, everybody got overly concerned with sounds quality. Tribe’s albums were also really well mixed. But I was never competing on that level, so I didn’t care (laughs). By the end of the 90’s, you had Doom and all the DIY shit on Fondle ‘Em that was coming out. That was done on 4-track. Now were in an era where nobody even cares. We’re in an iPod generation. It’s not like you’re making music for jeeps anymore where you’re trying to EQ an 808 or filter something the right way. People just throw shit out. I always try to keep good quality to my music, but my sampling methods are very lo-fi. I never sample in stereo, I sample cassettes a lot, and I never clean my records off before I use them. I just like that whole raw approach.
DJ Sorce-1: As someone who loves listening to a lot of different producers, I do like a lot of stuff that people like Timberland and Kanye make. But I love the gritty sound. Some of my favorite RZA stuff is his early, grimy work. I also appreciated Company Flow’s style of sampling. I think there is an era of people who, if you grew up listening to it, you’re always going to like stuff that doesn’t sound perfect. I know Prince Paul has said that there’s something good about a dusted out sample that comes off of an imperfect record.
J-Zone: Yeah. Prince Paul, The Beatnuts, 45 King...those guys would take those imperfections and make it work.
DJ Sorce-1: The Beatminerz said in that interview I referenced that they were praised for the gritty, dirty sound of Enta Da Stage, which in many ways was due to the cassettes they sampled. They were definitely using their limitations to foster creativity.
J-Zone: Yeah, exactly...making something out of nothing. That album was full of hiss. You could tell they used a lot of cassette and analog. It was super bass heavy, but at times it was really quiet and you knew that if they would have tried to bump the volume it would distort. A song like the bonus cut “Slave” has so much hiss and it’s so low, but it’s bass heavy. If they would have tried to max the volume out, it would have pumped way too far into the red. “How Many MC’s” is probably the only song on the album that is the mix standard. Everything else sounds like it was done on a 4-track, but that’s what made it cool.
DJ Sorce-1: In your book Root for the Villain, you said that you had hung up your sampler. From our conversation, it still sounds like you still make beats.
J-Zone: I really just make beats when someone is like, “Yo J, I need a beat.” If somebody needs a remix or beat, I try to find the inspiration to do it. But it’s not like how it was 10-15 years ago when I was down there 24/7, cranking out shit. It’s very rare that I make a beat. But when I feel the creative juices, I go down and do it. It’s more like a hobby now. The rapping shit, I’m definitely done with. That’s over. But with production, when I feel it, I go down and too something. I’m trying to learn how to play the drums, so that takes up a lot of my time.
DJ Sorce-1: I felt bad for you when I read for you when I read about you giving up on music after so many setbacks. That was sad to read.
J-Zone: Yeah, I just do it for fun. I’m not trying to compete or make the Top 10 Producers of the Year list. I don’t view it as competitively as I used to. I just stay in my lane and do what I do. Technology is changing, the sound is changing, times is changing, but I still do J-Zone shit. I know that and I don’t have any expectations. Six or seven year ago, I would have had expectations. Like, “Why aren’t people feeling the shit that I’m doing?” When you’re trying to compete, you’re trying to make a living, and you want the accolades because you’re a musician.
Now it’s kind of like a hobby. I still take that antique approach to making music. I still have Pro Tools 6.2. I don’t use any MIDI. I have a Moog, but I play everything into Pro Tools. I don’t MIDI anything up. I don’t use any Ableton. I’m still mostly sample based. I didn't update with the times and I don’t want to update with the times. If you’re going to have that kind of attitude, you have to look at it as a hobby. I’m not trying to be with the hottest producers right now. I just do what I do, that’s it. And that’s fine, as long as you don’t expect to blow the fuck up. I don’t expect that.
Click here to read Part 2.