J-Zone Breaks Down Race, Yonkers, Zoning and the Wisdom Contained Within Lisa Belkin’s “Show Me A Hero”
About the Interviewee: J-Zone got his start in the music business by interning at Power Play Studios in Queens, NY in 1992 under Slick Rick’s DJ Vance Wright. He produced his first record during his three-year stint with Wright for the rapper Preacher Earl. Since then he has worked as a producer, artist, DJ and engineer for artists such as Biz Markie, E-40, Lonely Island (from Saturday Night Live), Gnarls Barkley (Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo), Masta Ace, King T, Pete Rock, Prince Paul, R.A. the Rugged Man, Large Professor, Tha Alkaholiks, Del tha Funkee Homosapien and Devin The Dude, to name a few. He has also taught a music business and production course and served as a guest lecturer at Purchase College in New York.
In 2011, he wrote and published his first book, Root for the Villain: Rap, Bullshit and a Celebration of Failure, which garnered rave reviews in respected media outlets like The Onion A.V. Club, SPIN Magazine and HiphopDX.com, as well as receiving public endorsement from the likes of ?uestlove, Chuck D, RJD2 and more.
His most recent album, Peter Pan Syndrome, was released in September of 2013 on Old Maid Entertainment.
Gino: I’m curious when you first heard about Lisa Belkin’s Show Me A Hero and when you first read it.
J-Zone: I was a high school sports reporter for a couple of different publications like Slam, Yahoo Sports, and Bobbito’s Bounce Magazine. I did that from maybe 05 to 2012. I was transitioning out of music, then I was away from music, and being a reporter was one of my million day jobs that I had. I was kind of doing it just because I always liked sports and I always played.
One of my areas of coverage was in Westchester. One year I was doing a feature on some kids from Yonkers. There was a kid was from Gorton High School in Yonkers, where I almost went myself but I didn't end up going, and another from Roosevelt High School, which was across town. I was just talking to a safety officer or somebody at a game and I guess he was a product of the school. We were talking about the desegregation thing and I was like, “Yeah. We used to play you guys in junior high school back in the day.” He’s like, “Where’d you go? You go to Emerson? You go to Burroughs? You go Mark Twain?” They called them the literary schools because back then, all the middle schools are named after literary people. Now they've closed them all down and changed the names.
That era was when they first put in the desegregation order that came down from Judge Sands in ‘86. So that fall, the fall of ’86 was when they first integrated Yonkers public schools. I was playing these guys in maybe 1991, 1992, so it haven’t been that long. The safety officer told me, “I heard there was a book about it.” I live in Queens and the Queen’s library is pretty immense. The library had it so I picked it up and I read it.
Gino: In many ways, as a kid, you had direct experience with the racial tension that happened when Yonkers received a federal mandate to integrate low-income housing in the city. Did the way that Lisa Belkin wrote about the integration have any impact on the way you wrote or thought about race when you were working on your own book?
J-Zone: No, because I read Show Me a Hero in 2011 or 2012, after mine was written. I remember my eyes were tired from proof reading. I took a month off, didn't read shit, and then my book came out. So I think I read it at the end of 2011, but my book was already out.
“It goes deeper than yelling epithets at somebody, throwing eggs, or saying you hate this, that, and the other.”
Gino: What kind of impact did it have on you?
J-Zone: It didn't impact me like The Autobiography of Malcolm X. It wasn't as entertaining as Donald Goines. It wasn't something I’ll re-read over and over like I did Ego Trip’s Book of Rap Lists, Soul on Ice or some of the books about drums and vintage drums that I’ve referenced.
But in terms of race always being a major part of my life and the events in the book taking place when I was growing up, I can recall some of the things in the book. When I read it, I almost thought, “Yeah, I remember that. My boy was one of those kids.” You know what I’m saying? You just feel like it brings you back in time to your own childhood.
Race has always been an issue with me and race is always a hot topic. Recently they have the whole Starbucks thing where they said, “Hey, go into a Starbucks and talk about race.” With social media it comes more and more to the forefront, but America still has yet to confront its race problem and probably won’t while we’re alive. It’s something that’s just too deep-rooted.
People think New York is a melting pot. It doesn’t seem like it to me personally, but people say it seems that way. Now it’s getting gentrified and people are moving into neighborhoods that weren't there before. Then people are being pushed out. Then people are forced to face each other and they have to deal with each other. So it’s something that’s still happening. I just feel like the book is timeless in terms of what’s going on now.
“With social media it comes more and more to the forefront, but America still has yet to confront its race problem and probably won’t while we’re alive. It’s something that’s just too deep-rooted.”
Gino: To give some perspective of how old you were when the events in the book were taking place, would you have been in late elementary school?
J-Zone: When the events in the book went down, I would have been in the fourth grade. I didn't start going to Yonkers to play against these schools and meeting kids from all over the place until maybe 1990, ‘91. When I was in middle school, we started to go around more. My mother was a college professor. She taught at Mercy College in Yonkers, which was in the Cross County shopping center. My mother would always have me aware with racial things.
When I was growing up you had Howard Beach and the killing of Michael Griffith and Bensonhurst and the killing of Yusef Hawkins. All that stuff was going on in the media while I was coming up. Once you’re a little older, you start asking questions. So my mother would teach at Yonkers and we’d be driving home and she’d be like, “Yeah, this is a neighborhood. They don’t like black people over here.” And she would be taking me through the east side of Yonkers which is where they were trying to build housing. Central Avenue had a lot of Irish and Italian people and the black and Hispanic side of Yonkers was Getty Square, which is west of the highway, so it was down by the Hudson River.
When you’re younger, 12, 13, 14, you know a little bit but you’re trying to figure it all out. And when you’re in school growing up and you hear about integration, you think about the south, the 50s and 60s, getting hit with hoses, and Selma. You think about all that shit. You think about the Mason-Dixon Line. You’re not thinking about Westchester County, one of most affluent counties in New York. It’s five miles away from where you live, right on top of the Bronx, New York City. This was modern day New York.
It’s just crazy how the city could go to such lengths to draw zoning so that people who live six miles away from a school go to that school, but can’t go to the the school that is two miles away. That’s what happened with Runyon Heights, which is an all-black area in the white part of Yonkers. They’re close to Roosevelt High School, but Roosevelt, where Steven Tyler from Aerosmith went, was mostly white back in the days. Gorton, which is black, is on the other side of town.
“And when you’re in school growing up and you hear about integration, you think about the south, the 50s and 60s, getting hit with hoses, and Selma…You think about the Mason-Dixon Line.”
Gino: The events in the book happened over 20 years ago, but like you said, it really seems timeless, like it speaks to the current racial climate in America. Could reading this book could help people realize that racism exists everywhere, not just in the areas we stereotype as being racist?
J-Zone: I think people should read it just because…nobody likes to think of themselves as racist. People think racist is the Klan. They don’t like to look at their own prejudices and deal with it. And we all have them. Anybody who says they’re not prejudice against someone or something is lying because you can’t live life, have experiences, hear things from family members or friends and watch the news without forming opinions about groups of people.
And obviously, not everybody is going to meet somebody who’s part of the group they have feelings about and say something fucked up. There’s a limit to how far you’ll go. I just think Show Me A Hero makes people take a better look at everything. These days you see people who are moving into parts of Brooklyn and saying, “I’m not like those racist people. I live in the neighborhood. My neighborhood is mixed and I don’t hate the people who were there before who are black or Hispanic.” But, did it ever occur to them to stop when they see a bunch of kids and say, “Hey guys! How are you doing?” Or is it like, “Hey I’m not prejudice, but I don’t have any reason to say anything to them, so I won’t. Even though I’m new in the building and we live in the same building.” You know what I’m saying?
It goes deeper than yelling epithets at somebody, throwing eggs, or saying you hate this, that, and the other. If your kid dated interracially, would you have a problem? If this person moved into your neighborhood, would you have a problem? If you’re moving into a neighborhood that’s gentrifying, would you say hello to people who are of a different class bracket, different race, and different religion? You know, they’re in your building, so do you say, “Hey, good morning”? Or is it just like, “You don’t fuck with me, I don’t fuck with you. No hard feelings, but I have nothing to say to you”?
“Nobody likes to think of themselves as racist. People think racist is the Klan. They don’t like to look at their own prejudices and deal with it.”
Gino: That’s a great point. Many people want to believe that racism is always obvious and in your face, but there are subtle prejudices we all have that can prevent us from being decent to each other. I can tell this book made a big impression on you. Is there any way that the the book could have better told the story of public housing integration in Yonkers?
J-Zone: I only have a couple of criticisms about the book. I think that they kind of glossed over the school integration part of the story, because it started with schools. The were getting fined because of the schools. The court ordered housing came later. That was mayor Nicholas Wasicsko. He went in 87, but it started with schools. I remember the schools because a) I had friends in Yonkers public schools and b) I was there. I almost went to Gorton High in Yonkers. I was going to transfer there in my junior year, but when we played them in sports, I would see it.
Gino: Would could feel some kind of tension in the air? Would you see it on the court or would you like feel it in the crowd with the adults watching you play?
J-Zone: I think I was too young to feel it from adults. I didn't really know fully what was going on, I just said, “That’s kind of weird.” You know? I mean, even us, like our school was mostly white, but our team was half black. So back then, a lot of the black kids at the school played for the team.
I remember, telling somebody, “Yeah we played Mark Twain.” I was like, “Mark Twain is in a part of the town where they don’t like black people.” But the whole team was black. I didn't see any white people on Mark Twain. Obviously, there were some students there because of the magnet programs. Every school is mixed, that was what it was supposed to do, but it just wasn’t reflected in the basketball team. Obviously Mark Twain was probably just as balanced as all the other schools, but it was less reflected on their team than the other teams. This is what got me to ask questions.
You know, going back to the book, she called out Ice T, but she spelled his name Iced Tea. I was this rap nerd and I was like, “Oh that’s wack!” That bothered me. Like I’ve said, it’s not my favorite book in terms of how it was written. It’s not a book that I could go back to over and over. I just think it kind of took me back to a time. I was growing up in the general area and knew people who were part of the desegregation going to school during that time. Then when I was a reporter, I wound up working in a lot of these schools on the sports beat and there were hardly any white kids left by the time I started covering games. When I was playing there were white kids there. 15, 20 years later I became a reporter and all the schools were 10% white.
“She called out Ice T, but she spelled his name Iced Tea. I was this rap nerd and I was like, ‘Oh that’s wack!’”
Gino: Even though it might not be your favorite, I’m glad you chose to discuss this book. Books like this might not be as highly regarded as something that’s being read by a more visible audience or talked about on a larger website, but they’re very important.
J-Zone: I just think it goes beyond books. I think it goes into music. With music, film, and books, people will only consider something valid when it’s well known and when it has a machine behind it. Books that aren't super-duper in the forefront don’t get discussed. I just think people, in general, we only validate things that are Pulitzer Prize winners. It’s like, “What’s your favorite book?” Catcher in the Rye, Eat, Pray, Love, The Great Gatsby, and Autobiography of Malcolm X. Those are different books but they are at the forefront of their particular niche, genre, or whatever. And that goes with music or anything else. I just think a lot of people might be embarrassed or feel like something isn't relevant if it’s not super well known. And if this book wasn't getting a makeover for HBO, it would be even more obscure. A lot of other books that I like are more obscure than this and it’s like, how can I even get people to look it?
“With music, film, and books, people will only consider something valid when it’s well known and when it has a machine behind it…I just think people, in general, we only validate things that are Pulitzer Prize winners.”
Gino: I appreciate having a conversation about race with someone who is willing to have a conversation about it. Not having grown up in New York and being so young in the 80s, I didn't even know about all of the events you spoke about during the interview. Race is a difficult topic to have a discussion about, so thank you.
J-Zone: Yeah, I've been discussing race since I was five years old. The way I looked, I got questioned every day. So at this point, what are you going to do? I’m used to talking about race. I’ve had to answer questions about race every day of my entire life.