My man Bill Heinzelman sat down with rapper/producer J-Zone, who has been a staple of the underground hip-hop community for almost a decade while quietly pursuing a career in his other passion, basketball.
Jay Mumford’s hip-hop career accidentally commenced in 1998 while he was majoring in music at New York’s SUNY Purchase College. For his senior project, Zone constructed a homemade album entitled Music For Tu Madre. With a penchant for quirky beats and comical stories of groupie love and drunken stupors, the producer who just happens to rap began to cultivate an underground following. Two years later, he released the best album of his career, Bottle of Whup Ass. The EP solidified his spot as arguably one of the underground’s best producers and funniest lyricists. Captain Backslap then went on to drop three more albums in his career—Pimps Don’t Pay Taxes (2001), $ick of Being Rich (2003) and A Job Ain’t Nuthin’ But Work (2004)—before putting the mic down to concentrate on producing.
Since then, Zone has worked with artists such as Devin the Dude, Masta Ace, King T, Biz Markie, Sadat X of Brand Nubian, Lil’ Fame of M.O.P. and Del the Funky Homosapien. Even with his accomplishes in hip-hop, basketball has always been J-Zone’s passion. His fascination with the NBA and New York City high school basketball lead to various freelance writing gigs at magazines such as Bounce, The Source, and a monthly column in the French hoops bible, Reverse. Slamonline.com talks with the best producer you’ve never heard of about his love of basketball, burgeoning writing career and his love/hate relationship with his hometown team, the New York Knicks.
SLAMONLINE: So you went to high school with SLAM’s Editor-In-Chief, Ben Osborne?
ZONE: Yeah. Ben was the quarterback on the high school football team. He was older than me, though. I got moved up my sophomore year when he was a senior, so I only played a few games with him. But I was on the JV [team] and after that I got hurt and it was a wrap. But he was in my physics class, too. He sat two seats behind me.
SLAMONLINE: Did you guys know each other?
ZONE: Nah, that was it. He had written a couple of articles and I was like, “Ben Osborne? I think I went to high school with that dude.” Then there was this youth counselor around our way. He worked up at the high school and I bumped into him. He was like, “You remember Ben? He’s doing basketball magazines.” And I was like, “Oh shit, it was Ben.” Then [a mutual friend] J-Buttas hooked us up. I IM’d Ben and he didn’t remember me at first. Then I was like, “Yo, I sat in front of you in physics.” He was like, “Oh, yeah!”
SLAMONLINE: Obviously, you’ve had a successful career in the underground hip-hop scene. But a lot of people don’t know you have a similar passion for basketball. Did you play ball growing up?
ZONE: Yeah, but I was no good. [Laughs] I played ball for my junior high-school team, high school a little bit, summer league stuff—just for fun, though. But I was always more into football and track. But then I had a back injury my junior year and I wasn’t able to play sports again. But a couple years later, when I recuperated in college, I got back into it. I didn’t really get fully back into it until 2000-2001. That was when I started going to a lot of PSAL games, ’cause I always loved high school ball. Even when I was in high school, I would go to other schools and watch the teams play. So when I got into the PSAL stuff, I was like, “Maybe I can get out here and play.” So I would start playing pick up games for fun. But I was always way more of a fan than a player. For a while, I was pretty good. There were a few years when I was out playing all the time. But I was always a 21 cat. I was never a good passer, I would always get lost when they were setting picks. But in a game of 21, you couldn’t stop me because I’d be all over the court. I was always the selfish individual player.
SLAMONLINE: So you were getting your Kobe on?
ZONE: [Laughs] Yeah, man. I was never a team player. I was always into individual sports, even though I played football. I was never good at team ball—setting picks and shit like that. That’s why it was always recreation for me. My pops is gonna be 60 next year and he still plays. So him and me used to play for money. It was always just for fun with me, man. I was never that good. I had a lil’ mid-range jumper and I had a lot of stamina, but I was never crazy dunking and throwing crazy passes. The Rip Hamilton game—the mid-range—that was me. I’ll take the 15-footer and I’d be pretty consistent. I was always quick, so I tired people out on defense.
SLAMONLINE: Who usually won when you played your pops?
ZONE: He used to tear me up when I was little. And he’s short, he’s like 5’8″, but he’s real stocky. So he would just box me out all the time. But when I started getting back into it, around 2001/2002, I started getting better. Then it would be 50/50, ‘cause he’s perfect from the stripe. When we played 21, he’d take it out and shoot from the stripe. Unless I got a hand in his face, he would make it every time, eyes closed and everything. He just has a shooting touch, ’cause he’s been playing for 50 years. So it’s hard to stop that. But once I got the ball, he couldn’t stop me ’cause I had the height on him and I was a lot quicker. In the last three years, we must have played about 30 games and I won about 26 of ’em. The last time we played it was a shut out. [Laughs]
SLAMONLINE: Being from Queens and Westchester, were you a New York Knicks fan growing up?
ZONE: I was never a Knicks fan. Nah, I’m not gonna say that. I was a Knicks fan in the early ’90s—the year that Greg Anthony jumped off the bench in a Hawaiian shirt and jumped into the fight. That was a classic just ’cause he fought with a Hawaiian shirt on. That was great. When we had Greg Anthony, Charles Oakley, Anthony Mason and Patrick Ewing in the early ’90s I was definitely a Knicks fan. But it all turned when Reggie Miller came to town, I ain’t gonna lie. That game was like, “Wow!” When he came in here and lit us up and gave Spike the choker [sign], that was like, “Ah, man, he just came in and shitted on us and we didn’t do nothing about it.” After that, we had the doldrums of being over the cap and not producing anything. Even though I’m a New Yorker, I’ve always been a Seattle Sonics fan since I was a little kid. I’ve always liked the NorthWest—the Sonics and Blazers. In ’92, I was damn near crying when the Bulls beat the Blazers, ’cause I loved that team with Terry Porter, Clyde Drexler—all those guys. So I’ve always been a big Blazers fan. I’ve always liked a lot of the teams in the West.
SLAMONLINE: And why the Sonics? Was it Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton?
ZONE: Shawn Kemp, Gary Payton, Kendall Gill and Nate McMillen. Plus, they always had the nice colors, man. I like that shamrock green. But growing up, I was not a Celtics fan, at all. So you had to roll with the next best thing, which was the Sonics. I also liked the Rockets, ’cause I was always a big Clyde Drexler fan. I always thought he was crazy underrated. He’ll wham it on you, but he kind of had a smooth, old man game. In the Jordan Era, it was more about the youth and jumping out the gym. Clyde could hop, but I definitely liked his game.
SLAMONLINE: What intrigues you about New York City high school basketball?
ZONE: All of my life, music was my hobby and whenever I wanted to do something fun, it was music. But when I finished college, I kind of jumped right into my career and the music kind of became my living. So when your hobby becomes your living, you have to find a new hobby. Something you do that doesn’t depend on money and isn’t your livelihood. It’s just something that you love. So I’m like, “I’m in New York City, the Mecca of basketball and there’s probably a lot of talent.” So I would just go out and look [for players]. I remember in 2001, I was just getting into the scene at the time and I didn’t know his exploits before that, but I saw Sebastian Telfair play his freshman year at Lincoln [high school]. They played Westinghouse in a playoff game. He didn’t have a whole lot of points, he might have had 10 [or] 12 points, but just the stuff he was doing, I was like, “Who the fuck is this kid?” He was small as all hell, doing this crazy shit. That was one of the earliest PSAL games I went to. Two weeks later, the Village Voice had an article about him being related to Stephon [Marbury]. And when you follow him, you see them play others teams. You see Lincoln play Grady. And then you see Quincy Douby play. This guy shoots 18 of 21 from three-point range and scores 63 points in a game. Then you see guys like Gary Ervin at Roberson—he’s at Arkansas now. I saw him play his senior year in 2002. He scored 56 points in a game and 30 of those points were in the final four minutes of the game. That was some shit! So when you start seeing stuff like that, you’re like, “Wow!”
SLAMONLINE: Is it also the fact that high school basketball is a lot more innocent than the NBA?
ZONE: There’s politics on every level of basketball, from biddy ball on up. But you always have a feeling that high school is a little rawer. You know that all these kids aren’t going to college and most of them are not making the NBA, but they are just out there competing and having fun. It’s far from innocence, ’cause there’s a lot of bullshit going on in high school sports. But at the same time, it doesn’t seem as watered down as the pros. I just love the game, so it’s cool to go out and see people, even though you know they’re not going to go on and become stars. [You get to] see Douby play at Grady High in a small gym and now he’s on the Kings. You get to see Sebastian [Telfair], Gary Ervin…even players who stay with it for years. There is a guy named Richard Forbes from Far Rockaway. He’s a scoring machine. I saw him score 50 points a game. He kind of fell off the radar and all of the sudden he reappeared. Now he’s up at Binghamton [University] and he’s playing real well. It’s just cool to see that. Cool to see guys stick with their dreams and stuff. My number one love besides the music is checking out ball, especially high school ball.
SLAMONLINE: How many high school games do you normally go to?
ZONE: Doing this over the years my whole schedule was: I wake up every day at 7 a.m., I work in the studio all day on music, I finish up at 3 p.m., I go eat, run errands and then catch a game from 4:30 to 6:30. That was my schedule all throughout the winter. I was going to games three, four days a week. People were like, “Why are you watching high school ball?” Now, all of the sudden its becoming popular. Everyone is concerned with high school ball. You got guys doing high school jersey throwbacks. Kids are going to prep schools. There is a small group of people who always loved it, but now it’s becoming more popular. People don’t look at you as funny when you’re saying you’re going to a high school game as they did when I first started. So it’s definitely a good experience. To this day, from November to March, I know where my evenings are going to be during the week.
SLAMONLINE: Have you ever thought of getting into scouting?
ZONE: I was thinking about getting into scouting, but like I said, music was my hobby, but when it became my living, it kind of lost some of its innocence. It would be cool to scout, but if it became a job, it might suck some of the fun out of it. But I wouldn’t mind writing or freelancing for one of the sports papers. I tried to pitch things to the Daily News, New York Sporting Magazine, High Five, and places like that. ‘Cause I write for a lot of magazines. I’m a pretty good writer. So that’s something I think I can do for fun and kind of maintain the innocence. But when you get into scouting and recruiting, it gets real dirty. You start dealing with the parents, the coaches…it just sucks the fun out. That’s what happened with the music, from a business standpoint, and I don’t want that to happen with ball, too. So I think I’ll just stick to writing and we’ll see what happens.
SLAMONLINE: What magazines have you written for?
ZONE: I wrote an article for Bobbito [Garcia] and Bounce magazine. I pitched it to him and I was like, “Yo, let’s do something on the PSAL, ‘cause there’s over 200 public schools in the city.” Sebastian and Stephon made Lincoln popular. Grady has a little bit of history. Boys and Girls, Roberson, Cardozo—these are storied schools but there are also great ball players from smaller schools. There is a guy named Charles Jenkins who went to Springfield over here. People don’t know about this kid and then he explodes his senior year and now he’s going to Hofstra. And people are like, “Where did he come from?” I saw him play for years. There’s a lot of smaller schools that might have two or three guys on the team you may not know about. So I was like, “Bob, let me write an article and let me focus on some of these smaller schools with kids that might not want to go to a Cordoza or a Boys High or go to one of the powerhouses ‘cause there is talent everywhere.” It’s similar to music, not all of the greatest artists are always on Roc-A-Fella or Def Jam. There’s great music everywhere and it’s the same with ball.
SLAMONLINE: What about the other basketball writing you’ve done?
ZONE: I wrote for The Source [2006/2007 NBA Basketball Preview] and I write a monthly column for a magazine called Reverse. It’s like the French equivalent of SLAM. It’s a real dope magazine. I do a lot of blogging, too. I kind of slacked off on it ’cause I’m focusing on teaching and DJing. So I kind of stepped away from it, but now I’m back up on it. I really wanna do something for high school ball this year.
SLAMONLINE: What’s the column about in Reverse?
ZONE: Every month I just speak on something in particular. I spent one column defending myself because they [ran a poll on your] top five [NBA] players. And you know me, I love shooters and I’m a Sonics fans. So I had Ray Allen in my top five and I guess a bunch of people got mad. Well, not mad, but they were joking on me. So I had to take a whole column to defend my Ray Allen support. I did stuff about when Kobe [Bryant] put the foul on Manu Ginobili and he got suspended and the next [Lakers] game [was] in New York. Everybody was waiting for him to come in here and drop 50, ’cause the Knicks were terrible. But Stu Jackson put down the suspension the day of the game. So I did a whole thing about how the NBA is a slave plantation for Stu Jackson and David Stern. How it’s a fucking travesty and how Manu can flop all over the court and get away with murder. Pretty much how the NBA has gone soft and if guys like Bill Laimbeer were around today, would they be able to function in this capacity? Basically, how after Auburn Hills, everything really went to shit. I did an article about Dirk [Nowitzki] choking in the playoffs against Golden State. That got a lot of people pissed off, cause the magazine is European. To me, it’s all fun. Everybody is gonna have different opinions. So it just blows my mind how many people get pissed off. If I have an opinion, I’m gonna say it. But it’s always in fun. It wasn’t to attack Dirk, it was to attack the fact he’s looked at as a franchise player and he didn’t show franchise heart in that series. He kind of laid down. Just because you’re a top scorer doesn’t mean you’re a franchise player. Rashard Lewis can score points in bunches, but he wasn’t the franchise player in Seattle. So that got a lot of feedback. Of course I did something about the [San Antonio] Spurs being the most boring team in the NBA but you just can’t do anything about it ’cause they’re gonna win. They made boring basketball an art. Pretty much what’s pertinent at the time or what’s getting under my skin.
SLAMONLINE: You’ve also been quoted in the Seattle Times, right?
ZONE: There is a guy named Percy Allen who writes for the Seattle Times and covers the Sonics. He quoted something I wrote in my [MySpace] blog. He was talking about the Carmelo incident [When Melo fought the New York Knicks] and when I said, “stop moon walking,” he took that. He said, “As a guy out of New York named J-Zone says, ‘stop moon walking.’” It was like two weeks after my blog went up, so it just tripped me out ‘cause you never know who’s reading. That’s the good thing about the Internet. You can say something and it becomes viral. Before you know it, you can be getting quoted in the New York Times or something. And being that I’m a Seattle fan, that really made my day to read that shit.
SLAMONLINE: What do you think of the Tim Donaghy scandal?
ZONE: I’m not saying it’s widespread, but with all the money that’s involved, why wouldn’t you think somebody would be on the take? This is stuff that happens on the low. Is it the majority of them? Absolutely not. But there are definitely some people who are in this for themselves and in this for financial gain. There’s money to be made in everything. It’s a capitalist society. It’s America, man. Is it upsetting? Yeah, it sucks. I don’t know what the future holds or what’s going to happen to this guy. He’s got all types of mob connections, so that goes real deep. But I’m not surprised at that. I’m definitely not. It wouldn’t surprise me if it happened again. There’s a lot of questionable calls that goes down. There’s always favoritism; you can see that. On every level of sports this happens and they do their best to keep it disguised. But every once and awhile it comes out. And when it comes out, don’t be surprised. You can be disgusted, but you can’t be surprised