Happy 15th Anniversary to J-Zone’s fifth studio album A Job Ain’t Nuthin’ But Work, originally released September 28, 2004.
A Job Ain’t Nuthin’ Work was an exercise in rolling with the punches for Jay “J-Zone” Mumford. The Queens, NY born emcee/producer/DJ had conceived his fifth project as his production extravaganza. However, when his best-laid plans went askew, he was able to adapt. In the process, he released one of his best albums, if not the best. Fifteen years later, the song set reflects Zone’s uniqueness as a hip-hop personality.
J-Zone has long been a reluctant rapper. He was best known for his work behind the boards, where he was also most comfortable. For the first five years and four projects of his career, he was known for his quirky production behind off-the-wall concepts and heavy use of vocal samples lifted from ’50s/’60s era television.
But A Job Ain’t Nuthin’ But Work represented a shift in his musical identity. He began to modify his production style and fully committed to being an emcee. The 18-song, 47-minute album is a collection of tracks largely inspired by the obscure, often-regional hip-hop of his youth. The album is a love letter to the types of artists that never did get love in The Source or from hip-hop “purists” in general. At the same time, J-Zone is aware that this shift led to this album receiving a lukewarm reception by some of his biggest fans.
These days, J-Zone plies his trade as a full-time musician. He’s the co-founder and drummer for The Du-Rites, a modern funk duo that he created with his former engineer and current guitarist, Pablo Martin. Amidst preparations to release their fourth effort, the live album Soundcheck at 6, he took the time to sit down with me to discuss his thoughts on the creation of A Job Ain’t Nuthin’ But Work. We talked about the original plan for the album, reflecting on a career that didn’t satisfy his core audience, rappers who ball, and the time he rocked CBGBs with Gnarls Barkley.
How did you originally envision A Job Ain’t Nuthin’ But Work?
Well, it wasn’t supposed to be A Job Ain’t Nuthin’ But Work. $ick of Bein’ Rich was supposed to be the last J-Zone rapping album with me as the vocalist. My entire career, I was always reluctant to rap. I only rapped because I enjoyed writing songs. I’ve always been a good writer and storyteller, and rappers are very unreliable. All the way back to Music For Tu Madre, so many guys were supposed to be on that album and they just never showed up to the studio. Rappers have really volatile personalities and I just didn’t have the patience, and they’re picky with beats. Al-S.H.I.D. was the only one I could work with, with any consistency.
After $ick of Bein’ Rich, I had gotten some national distribution. I felt like, “Okay, I’m finally in a position where I can just be a producer. I don’t have to rap anymore. I can just focus on production. This is right where I want to be.”
I just said, “All right, I’m going to go back to producing, and just make a producer album.” Me being different and contrary, I was like, “Well, I’m not going to go get people that I’ve been doing beats for to be on this album. I’m going to make an album with all west coast rappers that aren’t even in my scene.” I wanted to get all the old ‘90s “Gangster rap guys.” Obscure rappers from Compton and shit. I just wanted to do an album with rappers that you just never would expect. You would expect them to rhyme on DJ Quik, or Battlecat, or Dre, and then put them on some J-Zone shit.
I was just always thinking outside the box like that. After $ick of Bein’ Rich came out, I took a trip to Los Angeles in the fall of 2003. I knew a guy name Med who used to run a website called theformula.com. He was down in Gardena, and he knew a lot of the rappers on the west coast that weren’t in my scene. He knew how to get in touch with Suga Free. He knew how to get in touch with Penthouse Players Clique. He knew how to get in touch with 2nd II None, and all these guys that back in New York I was the only one listening to that shit.
Med set it up for me to meet some of these guys and do an in-store out in California. Between that, and the connections I had already made with the Likwit Crew, and J-Ro, King Tee, I decided to book a flight to LA, stay with a friend for a week, and just do collaborations with these guys. I had some money put away to pay everybody. Then I was like, “I’m going to get Devin The Dude on there from Texas.” Because I was a huge Devin fan. I knew a guy Matt Sonzala who used to write for Murder Dog Magazine, and Matt had a line on Devin, so I said, “Okay, I’m going to get Devin The Dude from the Houston Rap-A-Lot thing. I’m going to get all these west coast guys.” I was trying to get JT Money from Poison Clan.
I get out to LA, and everything fell apart. I did an in-store with Suga Free; it was amazing. He was hysterical. He picked a beat from me, which ended up being the beat for “Greater Later” with Devin, and he was like, “Yeah, I’ll talk real bad about a bitch over something like this.” He was just in full pimp mode. He was just super cool.
I gave him a beat CD, whatever, and I found out two days later that the amount he wanted for the verse, I just couldn’t afford it. He was like, “I don’t hold back, pimp, and I give you the mustard, the mayonnaise, the pickles, and the relish.” I was like, “I know you won’t and I know you’ll give me all those condiments, but I just can’t afford it.” Suga Free was my favorite artist, and it broke my heart. I couldn’t get it done, but I’m also a businessman and I also have bills, and I’m independent. I was like, “Yo, I respect you, and if I could afford to pay you I would, but I just can’t.”
Danger Mouse was a good friend of mine. He was in LA at the time and he had a home studio. I blocked out a week of studio time in Danger Mouse’s studio, and I had a session on a Friday night and all these different people were supposed to come through. Nobody showed up, and me and Danger Mouse were just sitting there, and I was like, “Yo, I’m sorry man. I didn’t mean to waste your time.” He was like, “Yo, don’t worry about it. It’s all good.” We were just sitting there like, “Damn, everybody flaked on me.”
I came back home from LA with nothing. The only thing that was positive, was when I came home there was a verse in my mailbox from Devin for “Greater Later,” and I was like, “Okay, I got a Devin The Dude track. What are we going to do?” I just said, “You know what? Fuck it.” That was the only time in my entire musical career where I actually just said, “Fuck it, I’m going to rap.” Not be reluctant about it. I embraced being a rapper.
Rapping was always the second or third priority on every J-Zone record, but that was the only record where it was like, “Okay, I’m going to sit down and be a better writer. I’m going to write better hooks. I’m going to have diverse subject matter. I’m really going to focus on being a better emcee. I’m going to do shows when I go on radio, when they ask me to rhyme, I’m going to have four or five rhymes memorized. I’m going to kick those rhymes.”
In that winter 2003, 2004 that winter right there I just had a routine. I would get up every day, collect sound bites early in the morning, make beats. Then, I would watch a high school basketball game. That was always my thing in Queens. I was big on high school basketball, so I would always check out the games and stuff. Then, I would come back and in the evening I would write rhymes, and I would watch NBA basketball, and go to sleep, repeat. Between Thanksgiving of 2003 and tax season 2004, I made that entire album. It was a daily thing. Write lines every day, make beats every day.
How did your production approach change?
I think that A Job Ain’t Nuthin’ But Work was the final result of what I was trying to start on $ick of Bein’ Rich. I had gotten pigeonholed early on, even with the type of samples I used. Like, “J-Zone? He’d be sampling accordions, and church organs, and ukuleles.” I was just known for sampling this 1950s dinner music and then flipping it into beats. It was pretty unique at the time, and people grew to love that about me, but artists are constantly moving forward. I was like, “What if I take my approach to production, but then I start chopping up Hungarian Prog Rock, or heavy metal, or chopping up even library stuff?”
I opened up my palette to different kinds of music in 2003. The kind of records that I was sampling started changing. The execution of production was pretty similar, but the sounds themselves were changing. You didn’t hear accordions and all that shit anymore. You heard a lot of weird, erratic stuff. I was really heavy into fusion around that time. Jazz fusion and weird, weird Kraut Rock.
That album was the very beginning of my pilgrimage back into funk. If you notice on A Job Ain’t Nuthin’ But Work, all of a sudden the bassline started getting really funky. I really started getting in touch with my funk shit, and I had no idea that I’d eventually become a funk drummer and be working exclusively in funk. They used to say, “Yo, your beats are mad ill.” It went from “That’s ill” to “Yo, that’s funky.”
Were you successful in doing what you set out to do and were you satisfied with how the album came out?
I think I was definitely successful. Obviously, hindsight is 20/20. I would go back and edit a few songs or change a few things, but at the time it was released it was the exact record I wanted to make. I was very happy with the results. Now, was I happy with the reception? No. Was the record label happy with the reception? No, not really. Were my fans happy with it? Some loved it, some did not. It was a commercial failure, and critically, it was lukewarm. The general consensus was like, “It’s aright, but Pimps Don’t Pay Taxes was better.” At that point, I knew I was in trouble.
The only official tour I ever did was the “Sleazy Listening Tour” with Vakill and Louis Logic. It was basically the tour for that album. I was headlining, and the album came out September 28th. On September 30th, we flew to Europe and started the tour. A few times in the tour, people came up to me and let it be known that, “Hey, man. Congrats on the new album, but I don’t really like it.” I got that at a couple of shows. I still sold them, got my merch and shit, but nobody was saying, "That's your best work." It was more like, "Okay, yo. It's cool." Or, “Yo, you're consistent. You're doing your thing." Or, it was like, "Yo, I like The Old Maid Billionaires. I like Pimps better." Lucy Liu, accordion beats, Captain Backslap. At the time it was kind of frustrating, but in my heart I made the best record I could make and I really poured everything I had into it.
Okay, let’s break down some of the tracks on the album. First is “Spoiled Rotten” with Celph Titled.
I like to think of “Spoiled Rotten” as the very first entry in The Boss Hog Barbarians canon, because “Class Clown,” “Eatadiccup,” all that stuff that we had done prior, it still had that boom-bapidy indie rap kind of sound. “Spoiled Rotten” was straight funk. It had that “Humpty Dance” bass. Like I said, I was all about basslines on that album, so it was super funky. That, to me, was the initial ascent into The Bo$$ Hog Barbarians. It was the beginning of a working relationship with Celph from 2004 to 2006, and then intermittently. After that we did a lot of work together. It was always some funk shit after that. It wasn’t no boom bap. Every time we got together, it was almost some P-Funk. It just got funkier and funkier.
“Spoiled Rotten” was one of those things where we made that shit in a day. I made the beat, and then we wrote that shit in a day. We kick the lines back and forth over the phone, and he’s like, “All right, I’m going to track mine and I’ll send it to you tomorrow.” Back then, there was no file sharing. It was like, you have to mail a CD. I still have all the CDs that he sent me with the a capellas on them, and on the CD it says, “Putting Hoes Pimperarily Out of Service.” He’d be drawing pictures on the back, and all that shit on the CD in a sharpie. He just had that kind of artistic chemistry around that time. We did that in our sleep.
“A Friendly Game of Basketball.”
I was a big time basketball fan. I was a junkie, man. I was into the NBA, I was into college. I was huge into New York City high school basketball, it was like a subculture. At that time, I was watching Sebastian Telfair in high school. I was watching all his games while I was recording that album so I got a little check out of that, and it was just me having fun. I know that Master P and those guys are actually really good ballplayers. They can actually play, but some of the guys? I used to look at those guys like, “I’ll bust his shit if I play him.” That was just kind of like my attitude. I used to see Snoop and Bow Wow, and I used to be like, “Man, don’t let me get out there.”
It was all good-natured fun, and it was kind of like 50 Cent’s “How To Rob.” I kind of took a cue from that, because I was always a big 50 Cent fan. It was me taking a page out of 50’s book, but doing it in the more tongue-and-cheek way. I was like, “All right. Well, we’re going to make it fun.” At the end, I said, “Just make sure it’s televised so I can sell some records.” Just so they know it was kind of a joke.
Can any of the rappers in the underground scene hang with you?
Yeah. There were guys who could play. Obviously, Bobbito was a pro. Breezly Brewin. PackFM used to ball. Actually, Hug, Huggy played college ball. I forgot where he played, but he had a scholarship somewhere. Huggy Bear is like 6’4, he could play. My boy Metropolis from the Demigodz, who’s my best friend. He had a hell of a jump shot. Me and him used to go out there, and we used to tear cats up. He’s going to laugh if he reads that shit too, because he’s still out there playing,
“Greater Later” with Devin the Dude.
“Greater Later” was an important song for me. When I came home from that west coast trip, I was totally defeated. At that point, when I came home I hadn’t even decided to do a solo album yet. I didn’t know what I was going to do. That shit was waiting for me in my PO Box. Even if you listen to the premise of the song, it’s just about having a bad day and then just trying to stay optimistic. The song actually cheered me up after the west coast trip. It was like, “Okay, it’s going to be fine. I got a song from Devin.” Odd Squad’s Fadanuf 4 Erybody? That’s my favorite album of 1994. I like that shit better than Illmatic for that year. He’s just an unbelievably creative and brilliant artist. When I came home and had a song from him, it was kind of like, “Wow.”
He wrote the chorus and the verse before I did anything, except the beat. My verse, I was just following him. He came up with the concept, he came up with the chorus. I got to give him all the credit on that. He basically wrote that song, and then I did the beat. He wrote the whole song, and then I wrote my rhyme last. Even the beginning where they’re talking. He was talking by himself. We didn’t have that discussion. He was just on the CD like, “Hey man, these turkey necks are kind of nice.” He was just talking, and when I got it then I ad libbed on top of him, so he laid down all that shit by himself.
Next is “Xactly,” word to No Face.
That was a silly ass song. In retrospect, I probably would’ve cut it because it was just unnecessary. It was me doing tributes to rap records nobody knew existed anyway. A lot of these are just my spin on records that I love, that people didn’t know. It wasn’t like I was doing a spin on “Fight The Power” or “Mama Said Knock You Out.” I was doing a spin on these very obscure album cuts from obscure artists, and it was my way of paying homage. People who actually knew those records would be like, “Wow. You know that album?” I’m like, “Of course, I know that album.”
“Disco Ho” with Dick Stallion.
“Disco Ho” ended up being the sleeper hit of the album. It was never a single, but it gained infamy when Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse came to my retirement show. Cee-Lo loved that fucking record man. Danger Mouse called me up like, “Yo, Cee-Lo is on the tour bus. He keeps playing that song over, and over, and over.” I was like, “Yo, I don’t fucking believe you man. Not Cee-Lo.” He’s like, “Yo, you got your retirement show coming up in New York, right, you were talking about?” I was like, “Yeah.” He was like, “Yo, we’re going to be there.” I was like, “Yeah, right. Get the fuck out of here.”
Yo, they pull up to CBGBs in a fucking limo. “Crazy” is number one on the pop charts, and these guys pull up in a limo and come downstairs to my show, and there’s 100 people in there. It was me, Louis Logic, and The Juggaknots, at the final hip-hop show at CBGBs. It was so small, it only fit 100 people. And people are like, “Is that Cee-Lo?” He came on stage, and he had a bunch of girls with him. One of them was Dawn [White], who ended up managing Questlove for a while. Al-S.H.I.D. brought a bunch of girls with him and shit.
When we did “Disco Ho,” there were chicks all over the place. Danger Mouse is more quiet, so he was playing the back, but Cee-Lo was doing Dick Stallion’s part. That was probably one of the greatest nights of my rap career, when Gnarls Barkley came and did that live with me. Of course, in the world of independent hip-hop in 2004, nobody cared.
Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo were telling me all these celebrities who love this song. People with platinum plaques, and people who were in Hollywood, and Box Office smashes, “Yo, they were cracking up. They love that song.” But then, in the underground world, Fat Beats, ughh.com, all the boom bap indie rap world? They didn’t get it. They wanted to hear grimy loops and weird J-Zone samples, and boom-bap and shit like that.
I think if it had the right marketing, I think it could’ve been a hit, I really do. I think it had potential to be a hit, but it was sandwiched on an underground rap record on Fat Beats that was marketed to an audience that really didn’t care.
“Heavy Metal” with Al-S.H.I.D.
That might be my favorite song on the album, period. That’s definitely the best collaboration with me and Al-S.H.I.D. We made about 20 songs together over the years, and that was the best.
He was living in Far Rockaway at the time, and I picked him up on Thursday morning, like 9 A.M. He was hungover as shit. I’m like, “You sure going to be able to rhyme?” He’s like, “Yo, man. Yeah, I got it. Let’s just get it done.” I got him down there, I put the beat on. He woke the fuck up, kicked that shit in one take, and he’s like, “All right, take me back to Far Rock. I’m not feeling well.” I took him back home, and he went to sleep.
When it comes to braggadocious shit, that might be my favorite verse of all time. I don’t think there’s ever been anything that hard, or that vicious. Nobody rhymed like that. Nobody. He’s a once-in-a-lifetime talent.
“The Zone Report.”
I never had any kind of candor in my music. It was always balls to the wall, J-Zone pimp persona, “Fuck you, pay me.” I never had moments of candor where I’m like, “Well, okay. I feel like I’m losing my fan base, and I’m losing touch with what my fans want.” It’s the old adage of the artist wants to continue to grow, and the fan wants the artist to stay who they got to know them as, and I’m still dealing with that today. In a total different package, in terms of being a drummer and not even being in hip-hop anymore.
I lost a lot of my core following with $ick of Bein’ Rich and A Job Ain’t Nuthin’ But Work. Most artists are like, “Yo, fuck that. My new shit is hot!” But for me to acknowledge, “Yo, fans don’t like where I’m going, but I don’t give a shit.” That was something that I had never shown as an emcee before. The self-awareness to say, “Okay, I’m alienating my fans. I’m losing my fan base. They think I fell the fuck off.” I’m acknowledging it. Like, “All right, I fell the fuck off.” That was a bold move, and that was from writer shit, and I don’t think I would’ve written that way if I wasn’t feeling like, “Okay, I got to do this for real or not do it at all.”
Do you ever wonder how things would have turned out if everything had gone as planned and all the West Coast guests came through to Danger Mouse’s studio?
No, I never looked at it like that. A lot of people felt alienated by A Job Ain’t Nuthin’ But Work, but if I had a done an album with all west coast gangster rappers, I definitely would’ve lost my core fan base. [Laughs] Any artist who says they don’t want people to like their shit is lying. We all want people to appreciate and like what we do because it’s an extension of us. When people don’t like it, it stings. At the same time, I’m not thinking about whether my audience likes or dislikes something. It’s never on my mind during the creative process. The only thing on my mind in the creative process is, “I’m feeling this.”
Every time I sit down and work on a new Du-Rites record, I’m sure there’s people out there who want me to go back to rapping and making beats, and I’m totally aware of that shit, but it’s like, it’s not going to change what I’m doing. If I had done that west coast album, I think it would’ve been interesting, but I’m actually glad it happened the way it did because I think A Job Ain’t Nuthin’ But Work, mixed reviews aside, was the capstone of the first chapter of my career.
I felt like it was my best work out of the five records, because it was a highly personal record. That’s the only time in my whole career where I was like, “Okay, I’m going to be a producer, an emcee, and do both. I’m not going to be reluctant to rhyme. I’m going to rhyme and I’m going to make beats. I’m going to be a complete artist. I’m not going to lean on any guests. And if it fails or succeeds I’m going to take all the weight.” Just because of that, it has the most meaning to me out of the five records in the first chapter of my career.