“I Got Tired of Playing in My Basement by Myself”: Pablo Martin and J-Zone Explain The Formation and Rise of The Du-Rites
J-Zone was ready to throw in the towel on a career as an independent rapper and producer after an especially rough year in 2008. When his Chief Chincilla: Live From The Liqua Sto album was greeted with tepid sales and Fat Beats destroyed his back catalog of overstock, it felt like the last straw. Then the unexpected happened after a brief hiatus: he wrote a successful book, taught himself how to play drums, and released a series of well-received solo projects and drum break records. It seemed as though his contemplated retirement was premature.
Though J had spent much of his career working as a one man operation, he finally decided to branch out and seek other musicians to collaborate with after his first year on the drums. “After playing for a year, I put a post on Facebook inviting people to come through and play,” he explains. “I wanted other musicians to play with — I got tired of playing in my basement by myself.”
Current Tom Tom Club guitarist and a seasoned sound engineer Pablo Martin was immediately intrigued by J’s post. The two already had a well-established working relationship due to Martin mixing several of J’s solo projects, so he decided to drop by for an impromptu session. As a fan of J’s unconventional style as an MC, Martin was even more impressed with J’s drumming. “I was surprised to see how much a person can learn from drumming in one year,” he says. “It was really amazing.”
“I wanted other musicians to play with — I got tired of playing in my basement by myself.” — J-Zone.
After the duo had a few initial sessions under their belts, it wasn’t long before they started recording together. “In the beginning I just brought those tracks home and finished them,” says Pablo. “J was doing his own album and I was like, ‘OK, I have time. Let’s see if I can do some funky shit with this stuff.’”
Using his skills behind the boards, Pablo started tweaking their raw funk sessions into more polished compositions. “I started building them up and sending them to him,” he says.
Progress was modest at first, but the recordings started to evolve into a serious project once The Du-Rites laid down their first handful of songs. “For a year we only had like four,” says Pablo. “We were still doing our thing and casually jamming. The chemistry came afterwards, after we had about five songs and we really started working together on the project.”
An important additional step in the group’s evolution came when Pablo asked J to drum for another band he was working with at the time. “That’s mainly when the chemistry got created between us as musicians,” Pablo says. “Once you know it’s a person you can hang out with, he meets your other friends, and you can play music and everything is cool — that’s when we learned we could work.”
“J was doing his own album and I was like, ‘OK, I have time. Let’s see if I can do some funky shit with this stuff.’”
— Pablo Martin
J agrees with Pablo’s assessment of the group’s organic evolution. “The first album, a lot of that stuff was built out of jams — because the whole Du-Rites thing started as jams,” he says. “We would just formally re-record them and build on top. A lot of bands are finding themselves early on. I think on the first album, that’s what we did.”
By the time their second album rolled around, they were ready to up the ante. “When we got more comfortable with our sound, we were able to put more focus on the writing rather than just gelling as musicians,” says J. “With Greasy Listening we did a lot of writing from scratch. The writing process was a little bit more deliberate this time.”
Though Pablo agrees with this sentiment, he is quick to point out that there is always an interesting mix of pre-planning and free-spirited improvisation with their work. “We tend to arrange the music regardless of it it comes from a jam or it comes from an idea that was pre-conceived,” he says. “I mean, that’s what I do. With composing, J was the one who went from playing to composing and learning that. But that was my thing before the first album. For me it was about keeping it consistent.”
“Hey let me tell you something Chad, you better go find my check. You don’t wait for your money, why should I wait for mine?” — J-Zone
For Pablo, keeping it consistent means embracing the inherent qualities of instrumental music, no matter how much you plan it out. “It’s instrumental music, so there’s always the idea of the jam behind it,” he says. “Yeah, on Greasy Listening the songs are a little bit more planned to be songs. There’s a little bit more song structure. But to me, it still feels like there’s the instrumental format — it’s loose, it’s jammy.”
Despite the loose vibes of their music, the funk duo has had the face the same difficult to navigate financial hurdles as other modern musicians. This means pursuing potentially lucrative licensing opportunities through film and TV, an experience they deliciously skewer on Greasy Listening’s “Life Is A Chitlin’ Circuit”.
Serving as a manifesto for today’s recording artist, J-Zone hops on the mic and eviscerates corporate shills that expect artists to make music “for the love” while referencing a particularly frustrating experience with NBC. Calling out a fictional young exec named Chad who asks Pablo and J to create a song on spec, J responds, “Hey let me tell you something Chad, you better go find my check. You don’t wait for your money, why should I wait for mine?”
“It’s like any other job. You have to eat a lot of shit.”
— Pablo Martin
Though there wasn’t actually someone named Chad at NBC, The Du-Rites dealt with plenty of people during their time with the TV studio that resembled the person described in the song. “It’s always some really bro-y, super duper fitness-obsessed, super clean cut guy with the VO5 shit in the hair,” J says. “Saying things like, ‘We’re looking for a song with energy. By the way, we don’t have any money for this.’ Then you go to the office and they have $8 coconut water in the fucking refrigerators in all the offices.”
Pablo, who seconds J’s frustrations, takes a moment to remind people that being a professional musician is not always fun and inspiring. “It’s like any other job,” he says. “You have to eat a lot of shit. For us, that means we have requests to do a certain style of pop that is very complex because we don’t have it, but we have to try.”
Incredibly, The Du-Rites recorded an entire album worth of material for NBC without a single song gaining acceptance. “For those NBC sessions, we were supposed to do a blues/rock thing,” Pablo says. “We did like 12 songs, they were all rejected. We have an all blues/rock record out of those outtakes. And making 30 second/one minute cues, it takes the same amount of time as three minute songs.”
“I was surprised to see how much a person can learn from drumming in one year. It was really amazing.” — Pablo Martin
These experiences working for a giant corporation can be soul-crushing, but they’re also necessary evil. “We don’t tour,” explains J-Zone. “To make money and compensate for that, sync work and licensing music for film and television is going to be a big part of our financial success. To get music that’s going to get used in a commercial, that could be a musician’s 401k. We don’t have retirement, but if you end up having something in a T-Mobile or a Honda commercial, that shit will change your life.”
Luckily, outside of work with NBC there are many positive experiences to counter balance the nonsense. The Du-Rites have already released two albums in the past two years, with more singles and a possible concept album planned for the future. And as an added bonus, legendary “NYC culture orchestrator” Bobbito García asked them to handle scoring duties for his upcoming documentary Rock Rubber 45s. “We put together the theme song,” says J. “We played and helped arrange it, and there are some Latin and jazz heavyweights playing on the song. It’s an all-star cast and he trusted us to come up with the groove and put it all together.”
Being entrusted with this delicate task was validation for J and Pablo that they’re gaining valuable momentum, despite the occasional roadblock or frustration. “I think this is gonna be great for us,” says J. “To have our music throughout this documentary, we’re real proud of that.”