Music

J-Zone’s Wild Ride From Rapper to Funky Drummer

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Jay Mumford was attending Mamaroneck High School in the early Nineties when he made a hip-hop demo tape that sampled the drums from “Midnight Theme,” a song by the Seventies funk band Manzel that’s known for being the basis of Cypress Hill’s “How I Could Just Kill a Man” and Kris Kross’s “Jump.” At the time, Mumford was living in Jamaica, Queens, with his grandparents, cultivating a hip-hop taste that he calls “all over the place,” taking in obscure Southern releases on Rap-A-Lot Records, familiarizing himself with the free-spirited West Coast Hieroglyphics camp, and developing an affinity for cult artists like Godfather Don and Hard Knocks. 

When it came time to craft his own demo, Mumford, who’s 41 now and still based in Jamaica, was taken by the way Manzel drummer Steve Garner’s kicks and snares seemed to possess a crusty, oxidized coating. Twenty-five years later — after launching, then quitting, an independent hip-hop career that produced seven solo albums released as J-Zone, bookended by 1998’s Music for Tu Madre and 2016’s sardonic Fish-N-Grits — Mumford has landed a spot playing drums on new tunes by Manzel. It marks a curious and unique career path that’s seen him travel full circle, from sampling Manzel’s funky drum breaks to learning to re-create those grooves himself.

Making a pit stop at the Judy & Punch bar in Astoria after receiving a drum lesson in Brooklyn, Mumford says his old hip-hop career was “like another time period, another person, a different life.” The period in question began with Music for Tu Madre, an independent release on his own Old Maid Entertainment label, which introduced the producer and MC’s knack for hooking up off-kilter samples and dropping humorous and self-deprecating lyrics. But despite carving out a self-sufficient corner — and claiming a series of albums that frequently appealed to critics due to his smart and sarcastic punchlines — Mumford always felt like a lone wolf in a scene that encouraged allegiance to a clique. So in 2008, he quietly walked away from hip-hop and just stopped making music. “My records are super niche — I’ll sell a couple of thousand and that’s it,” he explains. “What am I gonna do for the rest of my life?”

Figuring out the answer became a drawn-out process. Mumford self-published a book in 2011 titled Root for the Villain: Rap, Bullshit, and a Celebration of Failure that detailed his industry woes, and taught music production classes at SUNY Purchase, his alma mater. One day, while digging deep into a series of YouTube videos of drummers like Clyde Stubblefield, Buddy Rich, and Elvin Jones, he was inspired to pick up the sticks. Mumford had dabbled in bass guitar from fourth to tenth grade on a self-taught basis, but the drums were the first instrument he decided to “learn to play the proper way.” His father supported the endeavor, surprising his son with his first kit. “I was thirty-five years old and I felt like I was five years old,” Mumford says with a laugh.

Daily six-hour practice sessions in his basement involved deconstructing Bernard Purdie’s Soul Drums album, along with studying the grooves of the Meters. Mumford went deep on Joe Dukes, who laid down the drum pattern on Dr. Lonnie Smith’s “Spinning Wheel” that would later be sampled by A Tribe Called Quest for “Can I Kick It?” He worked on mastering Steve Gadd’s linear playing on Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” and supplemented his training with music theory books.

These drum boot camp sessions were funded by Mumford’s working a series of “oddball jobs” that included assisting wedding DJs. But when he was offered a gig delivering flowers for Edible Arrangements for Valentine’s Day in 2013, he did the math — $5 an hour — and decided the low pay wasn’t worth it. Instead, he decided to “make a comeback rap album talking about being in your mid-thirties, money’s tight, you had this rap career that didn’t work, you can’t find a job, and you’re learning to play drums and that’s your life.” Recording again as J-Zone, he called the 2013 album Peter Pan Syndrome.

The title track captures the essence of the project as Mumford admits, “Rap career dead, can’t hide, time to get a job/No experience at all in a 9-to-5,” and laments the prospect of applying to work at Starbucks or an ice cream truck. So he buys a drum kit: “Saw all my peers get promoted, get married, get grown/I’m home doing paradiddles in my basement to a metronome.” Crucially, Peter Pan Syndrome also had a subtheme of Mumford’s live drumming: Instead of scouring secondhand record stores for drum breaks to sample, he was playing them himself.

After the release of Peter Pan Syndrome, Mumford started showcasing his drumming chops via a series of transitional seven-inch vinyl records that balanced hip-hop songs on one side with instrumental funk workouts on the other. He began picking up the bass again and learning the organ while jamming with Pablo Martin, a recording engineer who had been mastering his rap albums for years. Then Mumford twigged that Martin was an accomplished guitarist who played with the Tom Tom Club. The rap tracks eventually formed the basis of 2016’s Fish-N-Grits, an album Mumford characterizes as “every song I’m rapping about how I hate rapping.” Tracks like “Rap Is a Circus…And We Hope the Elephants Trample Everybody” and “Go Back to Sellin’ Weed” reflect his disdain at what he saw the hip-hop world turning into. Over the twisted organ lines of the latter, he thunders, “Take the SoundCloud down and go back to selling drugs.”

That same year delivered the final nail in Mumford’s hip-hop career. While at the 2016 edition of South by Southwest, where he was performing as part of the group SuperBlack alongside producer Prince Paul and writer Sacha Jenkins, Mumford was hit with a revelation. “When I got onstage, I knew immediately my life as a rapper was over,” he recalls. “The same feeling I’d had in 2008 returned. I knew I’d rather be doing jury duty than doing this shit.” Mumford put in a call to Martin and said he wanted to turn the chemistry from their jam sessions into serious recordings. 

Settling on the name the Du-Rites — “It doesn’t mean anything, it just sounds like one of those old funk groups” — the duo released J​-​Zone & Pablo Martin Are the Du​-​Rites in 2016, and followed it up with last year’s Greasy Listening. Both instrumental projects fuse Mumford’s drum playing — which bristles with a gritty snap — with Martin’s compositional flourishes on guitar and keys. The tracks are studded with the same sorts of funky sections and breaks that hip-hop producers have been sampling for decades. In turn, Mumford’s drumming has been noticed by producers including Danger Mouse, Alchemist, and Marco Polo, who have all commissioned him to record personal drum break kits that they can sample from. But Mumford is also taking steps to avoid the Du-Rites’ being pigeonholed as a retro outfit. “It can’t be one of those super-nostalgic grooves like we’re gonna take 1967 James Brown funk and everything we make will be like that,” he explains. A third album, slated for release this fall, will head in more of a jazz-based and cinematic direction, “like the music to a lost cop show.”

Now that he’s become known as a drummer, Mumford has been connecting with his musical heroes via a drum-focused column titled Give the Drummer Some that he contributes to the Red Bull Music Academy. The opportunity has meant that he’s been given advice by Steve Ferrone (of the Average White Band) ahead of an audition for a drumming gig: “The drums are an instrument of service; just play the song and don’t be fancy,” Ferrone told him. Mumford also wound up sharing a cab with George Brown, from Kool and the Gang, where he received compliments on his cover of “Let the Music Take Your Mind” and was given the industry advice to focus on adding composing to his repertoire. “I got into hip-hop because of the samples and then went in this long circular detour,” Mumford reflects. “It took ten years and starting from zero to get to here, but now I’m meeting my idols.” Taking stock of the journey, he adds, “Usually when things feel right, they’re gonna go where they’re gonna go.”

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