Shifting gears for an artist is always tough. An artist becomes known for an album or a sound, and it defines their career. But inevitably many artists want to grow beyond what they are known for, and that can ruffle the feathers of their dedicated fans. An audience can come to an artist looking for one specific thing, and if they don’t delivery upon that expectation, issues can occur.
This is the situation that Jay “J-Zone” Mumford found himself in when he released $ick of Bein’ Rich 15 years ago. The producer/rapper was coming off his most successful release, Pimps Don’t Pay Taxes (2001), which had earned him a dedicated following in the underground hip-hop scene worldwide. The thing was, J-Zone had never seen himself as an underground artist, and he felt he was already moving behind the sound and the persona that he crafted for his previous projects.
Furthermore, the two emcees that had carried much of the weight on Pimps, Alpha “Al-Shid” Sesay-Harrell and Danny “Huggy Bear” Kerrs, had decided that they were going to move on to pursue their solo careers independently. That left a void to fill in J-Zone’s future recording endeavors.
J-Zone filled this gap to the absolute best of his ability, and, in my opinion, the results make $ick of Bein’ Rich one of his best albums (he disagrees, by the way). He created an album across which he’s able to both shine as a producer and create unique and witty tracks that most artists weren’t attempting to execute at the time.
As always, J-Zone brings his unique sense of humor to the album. Things work most effectively when he’s incorporating it into in-depth story rhymes like the ribald and outlandish “Ho Kung Fu!” or detailing his attempt to rock fake gold chains on “Bling Around the Collar.” But the album also is at its best when he’s detailing his everyday struggles with panache, such as maintaining a car past its prime on “5 Star Hooptie” or detailing his spend-thrift ways on “Chump Change.”
Sick of Bein’ Rich does feature a lot of guests, but it never feels like a compilation, even when J-Zone doesn’t appear as a rapper on a few of the tracks. Al-Shid does turn up on “38th and 8th” an ode to receiving oral sex while driving, and Zone gives time for other established emcees to shine on their own. O.G. Masta Ace turns up on the orthodox “Gimme, Gimme, Gimme,” calling out women who are trying to dig in his pockets, while “Prima Donna” is a two-verse exhibition by lyrical heavyweight Copywrite.
Later J-Zone teams up with Los Angeles Likwit Crew compadres J-Ro and King Tee on the album’s third single, the magnificent “Choir Practice.” He brings in his longtime friend and partner Dick Stallion to sing (?!?!?!) the outlandish “Too Many Babies.” The album closes with his initial team-up with Florida’s Celph Titled, “Eatadiccup.” The pair would go on to collaborate many times in the ensuing years, eventually combining to form the Boss Hogg Barbarians and releasing Every Hog Has Its Day (2006).
J-Zone recently took the time to speak with me incredibly in-depth about $ick of Bein’ Rich and his music career in general. He explains the process that led to him recording the album, his decision to change his approach, and his efforts to improve his game both lyrically and production-wise.
Jesse Ducker: So how do you feel about $ick of Bein’ Rich 15 years later?
J-Zone: It’s all a blur, man. I was an artist who made an album every year. So after a while like when you have a whole bunch of kids, like which one do you…They’re all my kids. I pay child support for all of them. They have their own identity and they’re part of the canon, per se.
But after a while, once you get to that point in your career where [you’ve made] your third, fourth, fifth album, at that point you’re just dealing with most of your stuff with fans. You have enough catalog to where they’re like, “Yo, man, I want you to go back to what you did on your first one.” [I was] trying to deal with the lifelong struggle of an artist who gets past their first couple of albums and their first taste of success, and are like, “Okay, how do I grow and do it to my heart, but then not alienate my fan base?” And then you realize no matter what you do, you’re screwed.
Now, twentysomething years into my career, I know that. So I just do whatever I’m going to do and let the chips fall. But back then it was my first time going through changes. So it was kind of like trying to find myself. It was fun to record, but then it was frustrating to promote.
JD: So how did you first approach the album? Did you start thinking about recording it right after you were done recording and promoting Pimps Don’t Pay Taxes?
J-Zone: What happened was Pimps Don’t Pay Taxes was the zenith and the bottom point at the same time. My first album, Music For Tu Madre, was kind of like I was figuring out who I was. So it kind of didn’t have an identity. It was all over the place. With Bottle of Whoop Ass, I graduated college. I set up my basement studio, moved in with my grandma, Huggy Bear and Al-Shid were like the designated emcees. I said, “Okay, these are the two guys I’m going to fuck with: Hug and Shid. This is the direction of the production.”
If you listen to me as a rapper on Tu Madre, it doesn’t sound like me on my later records. I’m kind of unsure. I was trying to figure out if I should rap or not. With Bottle of Whoop Ass, I set a template. Pimps Don’t Pay Taxes was a two-year mastery of that template. We took it as far as we can go, but then it kind of crashed because Hug and Shid kind of wanted to do their own thing.
You don’t want to be under anyone’s shadow, so they wanted to find their own production and do their own thing separately. The Old Maid Billionaires thing was more my brainchild and I would hit them up for ideas and they would add their flavor. But that wasn’t what they wanted to do. After Pimps the goal was to be a producer and focus on Hug’s and Al-Shid’s solo albums. But then they did their own thing. Al-Shid released two singles, “Ign’ant” with “Fight Club” and the “Big Hit” with “M.A.T.H.,” and then Hug with the “H.U.G.” & “Rebel Radio.”
I did singles with them through Fat Beats, but then they kind of wanted to do their own thing. So when they wanted to go their own way, it was kind of like “Aw man, that was my main thing.” And I didn’t know what to do. But then around that time Mighty Mi was hitting me up for beats for Eastern Conference. So in 2002 I did a bunch of tracks for Tame One. I did tracks for Cage. I did tracks for High and Mighty. And then I did “Chinese Food” for Biz Markie; it didn’t come out until 2003 but we recorded that in 2002. So I’m thinking like, “Yo, I just got on the Biz album, I’m doing all this Eastern Conference stuff.” I was like, “I’m just going to bum rush the shit with somebody like Alchemist or somebody like Nottz.” Just be that producer.
But I realized that people wanted me to continue to do the sound of my earlier albums, which was kind of like a circus. They used to call it the circus thing with the accordions and shit like that. I was like, “Well I want to try some other shit.” So usually the reason I made rap albums was because I couldn’t find rappers to do the stuff I wanted to do. So I was like, “Aw, I’m not going to do a lot.” But then after that, I wasn’t selling beats as quickly as I thought I would. I had Eastern Conference, I had Biz, but I was making a lot of beats and they weren’t getting used. People were like, “Yo, it’s too weird, it’s too different.” They would say, “You have anything like ‘No Consequences’?” I’m like, “I don’t want to do that. I did that already.”
I was beginning to experiment with different kinds of samples. I was beginning to use some live instrumentation. My sound bytes thing, I changed that up a little the way I was doing it. I was like, “I have all these musical ideas and I have nobody to rap over them.”
So in 2002, at the end of the summer, I had a decision to make because Fat Beats had a label deal with BMG, Razor and Tie, and they put out Atmosphere’s God Loves Ugly, and they re-released Pimps Don’t Pay Taxes the same day. They licensed it from me and put it in the chain. Because when I put it out in ’01 it was straight independent. When Fat Beats expressed interest, like “Hey we can get Pimps Don’t Pay Taxes distributed through BMG and get into chain stores.” So it got a major re-release in the summer of ’02. When that came out, it gave me an audience that I didn’t really have before. It had already been out for almost a year, and now it had a new set of legs underneath it.
Fat Beats was like, “Yo, people really like it. They want another J-Zone album.” And I’m like, “Well the Pimps was Old Maid Billionaires, Hug and Shid are doing their own thing. That’s not going to work.” Fat Beats was like, “Yo, I think if we put you out with a proper push, not just a license, but from the beginning, get a publicist working the album, release a proper single. We’re going to get advertising so magazines like Urb and Elemental, they would have ads for the album. And then we’re going to get you press.” I never really had any press, especially in America. So they were like, “We think you could do very well as a solo artist because you have a funny personality and you’re kind of this jack of all trades.”
Ethan a.k.a. DJ Contact was my business partner and DJ, but he also worked at Fat Beats. So he convinced me to do another J-Zone record. Like Fat Beats gave me a little bit of a budget. Contact said, “Now you can go out and get the rappers that you like.” I didn’t have the clout or the money to get on a Bottle of Whup Ass and Pimps Don’t Pay Taxes, nobody knew me from a hole in the wall back then. But then once I had a release through BMG, I had three albums under my belt, and I got a budget from Fat Beats. So that enabled me to go get guests.
And I was like, “Okay. Cool. I can get guys I’m a fan of.” But then also if people hear these other rappers over my beats, like legendary rappers over my beats, then maybe that’ll lift my profile as a producer. So I was like, “$ick of Bein’ Rich, I’ll be your rapper, I’ll be up front, I’ll be the artist, and do my share of the album, but then I’m going to get guests on there, put different guys with different styles over my beats.” I’ll rap for fun and shit like that, but my goal was for people to hear notable, legendary artists over my beats and to finally be able to become a producer. And that actually never happened. I wound up being a rapper ’til the very end because nobody else could rhyme over this shit.
JD: So what was your experience recording the album?
J-Zone: It was exciting because I had just gotten my studio redone. I had a major renovation on my basement around that time. My basement was old. It was from the ‘60s, like my grandparents, so it had wood paneling on the walls. It had tile floors. And when I moved in there, I just threw some office carpet down and had my equipment in there and just turned it into a makeshift studio. When I was about to start working on $ick of Bein’ Rich, I had a guy come in and parquet the floor like a real studio. I had foam and futon, like egg crate on the wall for sound proofing. I went out and bought a couple of sound modules. And then I had been buying a lot of records and I had cassettes and records of just different kinds of music that I had never sampled before.
And I was very excited, because everybody was like, “Oh J-Zone with the accordion beats and 5,000 sound bytes in a song and yada yada.” [There was] the challenge of maintaining my trademark sound but then varying the sounds a little bit and tinkering with my trademark sound and doing a variation of it and then reinventing myself and then getting guys like King Tee and Masta Ace on board.
So it was kind of like a rebirth for me. The Old Maid Billionaires thing had ended. I was about to work with artists that were out of my reach prior to that. I had a new studio, new equipment, new approach. It was like a new beginning for me.
JD: So how did you come up with the album’s title?
J-Zone: Now that I look at it, it could be considered the result of the Old Maid Billionaires thing kind of ending. It could be seen as that, I just realized that. But it wasn’t that.
It was like people used to think, “Oh J-Zone is materialistic.” I don’t think they got that I was being tongue in cheek about it. Because I was looking at Cash Money Millionaires, and as much as I love that stuff, I knew that I was different, so I kind of wanted to show my appreciation for it, but be tongue in cheek and self-effacing about it. So I was like, “We’re going to be the billionaires!” And then it was like, “I got so much money I’m sick of being rich!”
So it was kind of like a whole hyperbolic play on all the excess that was popular in mainstream hip-hop. Like all the blinging and the big money and ostentatious XYZ, and cars. Around that time major label hip-hop was so fucking flashy. And those guys took themselves really seriously, I always thought Cash Money Millionaires, Mannie Fresh and them were funny. That’s why I liked them. Because they knew they had money, but then they were like “I just bought a platinum football field.” They were just crazy with it, and I admired that about it. They had a sense of humor.
So I was like, obviously I’m not selling a lot of records. I’m nowhere near rich, I’m not that popular. But I kind of wanted to make a play on it and poke fun at this excess that we had in hip-hop at the time. But do it in the way where it’s not like, “I hate materialism, I hate mainstream, it’s about the culture.” It’s not like that. It’s like, “I’m so rich I’m sick of being rich. I’m so broke, I’m sick of being rich. Let’s just have fun with it.”
JD: So were you satisfied, production wise, with how the sound evolved?
J-Zone: I was. When the album came out it kind of threw people for a curve. As an artist one thing you never want to do is repeat yourself. And even if where you’re going isn’t technically better than what you came from, that’s not the point. It’s like you’re always trying to get to this sound. You spend your whole career in pursuit of a sound and you go through so many phases to get to it.
Look at my career: It’s kind of like a story. Not every album is great. Not every album is better than the last, but it’s kind of like it tells a story and it’s like it’s this search for a sound. And each album tells a story in the arc of my career. Looking at it from a whole career standpoint, it was like a good transitional album because that was the first album I ever had to avoid being pigeonholed. I was already being pigeonholed. And you’re lucky if you get pigeonholed because that means you’ve been around a long enough time to have developed a trademark.
So with Pimps Don’t Pay Taxes, I took that sound, that character, and nailed it to the wall. It was like, when it comes to weird accordion samples and dinner music and taking samples out of context, like vocal samples from The Brady Bunch or whatever and putting them into an X-rated context and shit like that. I had done that, but it’s like if you want longevity, you can’t be too predictable. But then you don’t want to lose people, either. So it’s like, how do I give them what they like from me but then still change the pitch a little bit?
So I was like, “All right, I’m being forced to evolve whether I like it or not.” So with $ick of Bein’ Rich, that was the first time I was tested. Are you going to barbecue or mildew? You have to transition into the next thing and keep moving. You can’t get stuck in 2001 and stay there. You got to move forward.
JD: So what part of the album did you enjoy recording the most: your solo songs, the songs with you and other rappers, the songs just featuring other rappers, or the skits?
J-Zone: The skits were fun, man, not because they were funny, but because of involving other people into your music. You feel like your pulling your family and your friends into your world. But even the girls back then, if there was a girl and I liked her, I would put her on a skit. And just flirt with her and a lot of that shit was real. I would do that stuff and they would take it in stride and do it in fun, but those skits were like snapshots of people in my life at the time. Like friends, girlfriends of friends, my relatives, girls that I was trying to get with, girls I was dating. Like when I listen to the skit, the skits are like a scrapbook for me. It’s like a photo album because it’s like, “Oh! I remember her. What happened to her?”
So it was kind of like the skits were always fun. But the original question: it was more exciting to work with other people. But ironically my favorite songs from that album were the ones where I’m by myself because my favorite beats were the ones that I did for myself. Because those are the beats that no other rappers wanted to rhyme to. So it was like whatever was on the beats CD and didn’t get picked, I used for myself. I never wasted shit.
JD: What was it like working with artists like King Tee, Masta Ace, J-Ro, etc.?
J-Zone: It was kind of like I wanted to be in those circles. I was part of this underground hip-hop scene, but I just didn’t fit in as an artist. I never was part of any of the shows or festivals. I didn’t really vibe with anybody. And I was like, I’m kind of part of that scene based on my distribution and the records I’m selling, but as a rapper I didn’t fit in. I wasn’t trying to hear that freestyle shit. I wasn’t trying to rap about the sun and moon and the Dungeons & Dragons and all this space stuff. I was just a regular dude.
I would be at shows with people, and the audience would hate me. So it was like, I would be better off working with guys who were King Tee and that thing because they came from an era that inspired me. So I felt like my music resonated better with their fans than it would with the kind of underground scene of the early 2000s.
It was just like everybody was either about battling or was some metaphysical lyrical miracle, spiritual. What I was doing was just so farfetched and I was kind of eager to get out of that shit because I just felt like I didn’t fit as an artist.
So the main point of $ick of Being Rich was to show my range. I could work with Ace, I could work with Copywrite or Celph Titled. I could work with King Tee or J-Ro. Or I could do my regular J-Zone shit. I’m not a one trick pony rapping about Lucy Liu and sampling accordions. I can do more than that. So $ick of Being Rich was this is my chance to show and prove that I can work in other circles.
JD: So how do you feel about your solo tracks?
J-Zone: As an emcee, I thought I stepped it up 20-fold between $ick of Being Rich and Pimps. I was atrocious on Music for Tu Madre. I had moments, like “Inauguration Day” where I really wrote some cool shit, but I just wasn’t confident. My delivery was not there because I wasn’t a rapper. I was a producer. I was rapping because I had to finish my senior project and nobody’s around. But I was stiff.
And on Bottle of Whup Ass I began to develop this personality. It wasn’t quite there yet, but I was developing the J-Zone persona. So it needed some fine tuning. And with Pimps, I developed it, but the emcee part of it, like in terms of delivery, beyond being funny: Execution of the lines, actual storytelling, things like that. A Job Ain’t Nothing But Work and $ick of Bein’ Rich, as an emcee those were the top moments of the first half of my career, because I was forced to rhyme. I had to be better than I was on the first three albums if I’m going to be the focal point of this album and not turn it into a compilation and actually be front and center as J-Zone.
JD: When you look back at $ick of Being Rich, do you think, “I did what I want with this album?”
J-Zone: From a production standpoint, yeah, because I was able to branch out and work with other people later on. After that, I started working with a wider range of artists. But in terms of my solo career, it didn’t do that much for me, because people just remembered me from Old Maid Billionaires. That’s what they wanted. There was a void that Hug and Shid left by not being on there, because Shid brought this no nonsense, crazy punchline aggressive, but smart approach. Like Shid is the greatest emcee I’ve ever worked with. You can print that. Al-Shid is just a force of nature. Al-Shid to me was the best of that era. And he’s in my personal top 5 emcees of all time. You can print that, too. But nobody on my albums ever was on that, and could do what Shid did. He could also tell stories. He was versatile, but he was just a hammer.
Hug was just totally unique. There weren’t that many people between the voice and his range, his ability to tell stories. So those guys were so dynamic and so present that when they weren’t around it kind of left a void, since they had kind of balanced out my jokes. Like Hug would have social commentary, Shid would punch you in the face. So all that shit would balance out my comedy shit. And you wouldn’t think it would work, but it did, because it kind of gave you the whole gamut.
But when they left, I was just kind of left to my own devices, which was to make these super funny, out there, crazy, zany kinds of records. And the guests definitely brought some balance, but you always got the feeling listening to the album that the guys kind of stopped by the party and said what up to everybody, had a drink, and left. They weren’t hosting the party. Ace, King Tee, J-Ro, they came to the party, made it loud for a second and said peace.
So ultimately the tone of the album is dominated by me being this super outlandish, over the top, tongue in cheek, humorous guy. And if you’re looking for the depth that H.U.G. brought it wasn’t there. Even though Shid had a song with “38th and 8th,” that punch-you-in-the-face Shid like “Recess” or “First Day of School,” that element was gone. So there was definitely some holes in $ick of Being Rich that could only be filled by those guys or me changing as an artist and diversifying, but I went more into the comedy lane. So the album was probably one of the funniest, but at the same time people looking for that depth and that versatility, it just wasn’t there.
And with all the guest appearances, it was liberating to do it and to break out of that shell that I was in with the first couple of albums. I didn’t want to be the accordion Lucy Liu guy. I didn’t want to do that shit: The jokey J-Zone. But at the same time, it was liberating to get away from that with $ick of Being Rich. But then as an album, it’s kind of like you have to really be a fan of my persona and my beats. You can’t just be a casual J-Zone fan because it’s just going to be all over the place. You got to be a diehard to appreciate that record.
JD: So, looking back, are you satisfied with how the album come out?
J-Zone: At the time it was the beginning, it was my first exposure to “Okay, you kind of had a formula that was working, but now it’s not going to work moving forward because you won’t have the parts to do it and you’re getting pigeonholed and you don’t want that.” So I think A Job Ain’t Nothing But Work was the end result of what I was trying to do. I needed two albums to figure it out. $ick of Being Rich was the first step I had to take, and A Job Ain’t Nothing But Work was me in the first half of my career polished as an artist. But it was like you got to take that first step.
You look at a group like Kool and the Gang. They had this raw instrumental sound and then they had these hits with “Funky Stuff” and “Jungle Boogie,” so you look at a record like Music is the Message, which is kind of working towards that, but it’s not as raw as the first. It’s kind of like you can see where it makes sense. They’re working towards something. Not quite Wild and Peaceful, but it’s more nuanced and dynamic than the first album in terms of songwriting and adding vocals.
It was a gradual process to get there. I think that $ick of Being Rich was one of those albums that helped me break out of the producer mode and expose me to other artist’s fan bases. It was the first album I did that had national, worldwide distribution from the release date, not like a later reissue. It was the first album I did that had a machine behind it, quote unquote. As much of the machine as you could have as an indie artist in 2003. It was my first chance on a big stage.
JD: So, we’ve asked you before about your five favorite albums of all time, so how about what were five albums that inspired $ick of Bein’ Rich or that you were listening to while you recorded it.
J-Zone: Sylk Smoov’s Sylk Smoov. Love this album. Great samples, great Blaxploitation vibe, but the sequencing and skits were a huge inspiration for $ick of Bein’ Rich. The two skits in a row thing early in the album Sylk did here, and the “Bitch-B-Gone” was a take on Sylk Smoov’s “Bitch Haven” skit. It’s subtle, but I got a lot from this album for $ick of Bein Rich.
Big Tymer$’ I Got That Work & Hood Rich. Mannie Fresh and Baby were hysterical. They were ostentatious, but they never lost their sense of humor about it. Most guys took that stuff way too seriously. The whole money, jewels, cars and hoes thing is rooted in the alpha male rapper persona so many major label artists had, and most of ’em wouldn’t dare give off the impression they may be exaggerating. Being an indie artist not making a whole lot of money, I parodied all that stuff and Big Tymer$ was fuel for how much fun you could have with it. Plus their music really sounded good in the car, so I would A/B my mixes to theirs to compare low frequency even though Mannie was more synth-based and I was more sample-based.
The Beatnuts’ The Originators. The Beatnuts are the most underappreciated producers in rap. Their whole not-too-serious approach to rhyming is an obvious influence, as well as the zany samples, but this album in particular they did an amazing job chopping the samples. Like I said, I was trying to avoid sample drama because of the issue I had, and the chopping on here is really crafty. “Yae Yo” was actually the beat that directly inspired “Eatadiccup,” with the flute samples and bass hits.
Dayton Sidewinders Lets Go Down To Funksville. I always have some funk/soul in rotation when I’m working. Now that I’m making funk it’s obvious, but even when I was making hip-hop albums I was heavy into funk. I wouldn’t sample it, just ride around bumping it in the car to make sure I had that internal groove going. I was bumping Dayton Sidewinders often during the making of the album—that band just kicked ass. It had just been reissued and I picked it up at Sound Library records in the East Village.
Tha Alkaholiks’ Coast II Coast. Obviously with King Tee and J-Ro being guests on the album, I was listening to their stuff a lot leading up to the collaboration. “Bottoms Up” featured J-Ro & King Tee, so I zeroed in on that. And like The Beatnuts, the sample chop wizardry on this album is amazing. E-Swift was really a scientist when it came to piecing beats together from small bits of sound. I studied Coast II Coast really closely during the recording of $ick of Bein’ Rich, even more so than I did in ’95 when it came out.