Third excerpt from J-Zone's forthcoming book, Root for the Villain: Rap, Bullshit, and a Celebration of Failure . What happens when your rap career ends and money is short? You go the Tim Dog route and juice a woman for comeback album money, you go the Hammer route and launch another search engine, you occupy Wall Street while you starve and freeze, or you (gulp) get a J-O-B! A hilarious look at a foray into the foreign territory of the 9 to 5 world, post-rap career. The book is now available at Go Villain Go and on Amazon.com
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing after the high school basketball game I had been covering was over.
“Yo man, you J-Zone?” the point guard asked me before I could ask him about his 19 point, 8 assist performance.
I asked him to repeat his question. Not to flatter myself, but to make sure I’d heard him correctly. My ears weren’t bullshittin’.
“Ummm,” I stammered.
“Dude,” he cut me off. “The YouTube videos of you chillin’ in the drive-thru at White Castle and licking whipped cream off those foam titties are classic!”
I was part shocked that someone born after 1985 knew who I was by face, part embarrassed that my attempts to be professional as a sports reporter were trumped by being known as the Onion Ring and Titty Man, and part flattered that an obscure and pseudo-famous rap guy like myself was even remembered years after my modest music career had gone kaput. I guess that’s what happens to the quasi-successful middle ground rap man who’s teetering the top of a fence that separates two universes - he eventually falls over to the “real” job side. And it fucks up folks who fail to realize he wasn’t that famous in the first place.
Levels of status
First, we have the megastar. When the musical careers of 50 Cent, Lil’ Wayne, and Kanye West come to a halt, there’s an ice cube’s chance under a fat girl’s ass that they would ever work nine-to-five jobs. Imagine Wayne attempting to pass a piss test to become a second grade teacher and kissing Birdman on the mouth for good luck before taking the ATS-W exam. What about Kanye raking up $11 an hour to re-rack returned U.S. Polo Association shirts at Sears?
When the musical endeavors of megastars no longer hold any weight, they’ve already become big enough entities to make a living via movies, their own lines of wife-beater shirts, and unscheduled appearances at events where they break Moet bottles over the heads of artists who are hot at the moment for pay. They’d never dare step into a nine-to-five; it just doesn’t compute after that much time on top. If you’re naturally crazy or irresponsible enough to never stand a chance in the world of day jobs, God usually grants you success in entertainment so you won’t starve to death.
Next, we have the Recreational Indie Rap Artist (RIRA). The Raptionary would define him as such:
Recreational Indie Rap Artist : (reck-ree-ayshun-ul-indee-rap-ahrtist) noun.
1. A rap hobbyist who earns his living outside of the music business. Thus, he can typically afford to release music and perform for free.
The pinnacle of his career was holding down the opening slot at shows and churning out an album that was a compilation of all his 12” singles and mixtape freestyles. After his post-soundcheck performance, the RIRA broke out immediately because he had to work in the morning. Chances that he’ll ever be recognized in public long after he’s active are hovering at around zero and he’ll never have to field questions about why he never “made it” or why he’s no longer giving enough of a shit to still be trying. Through it all, the RIRA avoids the culture shock of entering the nine-to-five world in his 30s and 40s. Thus, his predicament is better than one would think.
I can’t forget about the “Golden Era” legends. Current releases from them are scarce, but they’ve laid enough hip-hop classics to wax to get placement in respected foreign music festivals or the Rock the Bells tour. Their aforementioned classic song catalogs also allow them to have their music licensed on a major scale and avoid getting laughed off the phone when they name their guest appearance fee.
But the most enigmatic of all is the quasi-successful middle ground musician. He got to enjoy his I-do-what-I-love-for-a-living phase, only to be awoken by a 500-foot drop into the working world that the other levels of entertainer don’t typically experience. He had potential, but never really got over the hump. His music is now largely available for free on various blogs and virus-laden bit torrents on the internet, but these days he’s got bigger fish to fry - like trying to get some overtime. By the time he gets home, he spends his hour of free time in the kitchen preparing tomorrow’s bag lunch and ironing his shirt and slacks.
It can take anything from a drastic plunge in record sales, kids, impending financial instability, a growing disinterest in the music business, or the realization that paying for an MRI with no health insurance costs what that gold toilet in Master P’s bathroom costs - any or all of the above can make the quasi-successful rap guy fall into this reality. This reality is now mine. I once trotted the globe, had the option of sleeping until noon, plugged women on different continents based on the perception that I was more famous than I really was, and landed on the cover of a skater magazine with a music article or two in it. In my current reality, those conquests hold as much weight as a copy of Bobby Seale’s Seize the Time at a Tea Party meeting. In this reality, I’m starting from zero.
A Job Ain’t Nuthin’ but Work: Be Careful What You Wish For
In 2009, it was painfully clear that it was time for me to make some real loot. Teaching a music course at my Alma mater was gratifying, but short-lived thanks to state budget cuts. My mother suggested that I go back to school to become a K-12 teacher, but what kids will listen to some guy telling them to read pages 17-31 for homework after they go on YouTube and discover he made a song about accidentally taking an underage girl to the movies and treating her to a box of Sno-Caps? After two years of matching James Evans from Good Times ’ yearly salary via random DJ gigs and beat sales, sports reporting, fruitless job hunting, and blogging for charity, I finally got my first “real” job in over a decade.
I landed the job due to my being humble enough to know that there’s no such thing as being “overqualified” these days. After Katie from Utah moves to NYC to live out her dream via an exorbitantly-priced Master’s degree in education, you can find her teaching alright... teaching the new girl at the bar how to pour a Guinness Stout and use the right amount of grenadine in a Tequila Sunrise. Therefore, I didn’t scoff at pushing gym memberships for my re-introduction to the working world. Eleven years after my small record label took flight and I told my boss at Automobile Club of America to go fuck himself, I was telling some wide and fried heifer she was a Milk Dud away from having a heart attack, and dropping $222 upfront and $36 a month was the only action that could prevent her caked-up arteries from slamming the breaks on her ticker.
“Look ma’am, you’re in trouble if you don’t lose weight,” I pitched on my first sale attempt. “Can I tell you about our summer special?”
Hey, don’t scowl at me. The only way to make any real money in America is via the next person’s fear. Ask the church, your mechanic, your lawyer, your shrink, the IRS, the creators of match.com, your HMO, or Suge Knight circa 1997. Fear-based income is recession-proof; I tried to get rich via making people fear fatness.
When you’re pitching a gym membership to every person who comes through the door like they’re a bitch with a fat ass and you just came home from Rikers, you tend to be pretty low on the respect meter in the eyes of snobs in Nouveau York. People ‘round these parts would rather drink wine, eat expensive cheeses, collect degrees like Garbage Pail Kid cards, and give you that bourgeois impression that they’re doing something significant when they’re doggy paddling in school debt. There are no real “qualifications” for sales jobs at gyms, so a dinner conversation with your girlfriend’s family feels something like a pleather turtle neck. To chat it up with some of the gym’s members about the life and times of “The Situation” from Jersey Shore can be a bit taxing too. It’s also worth noting that in an industry where many men have gone bald from pumping steroids, I was known as “the guy with the hair.”
“Jay, you can’t let potential members walk out the door,” my boss pounded daily throughout my first month on the job. “They can say they can’t afford the gym or ‘I’ll think about it’ all they want. If they walk out, you lost.”
I lost quite a bit. I did find moderate success tracking down due fees from members over the phone, but that prowess can be attributed to a decade of chasing dollar store rap moguls around for the remaining $4.50 owed on a $500 beat they bought from me. Nonetheless, when it came to meeting my sales quota and stacking that commission, I was a blown transmission. My last day on the job featured me angrily attacking the gumball machines at the front of the gym for no valid reason whatsoever. I realized then that I was in no shape to be working in the real world.
To be fair, there were some very real and sharp people at the gym. The experience gave me a take on some other folks besides hip-hop brats. One day I fell into a discussion with a woman who had spent some time in Europe. When I began to give accounts of my time spent overseas as a little-known musician, she asked me if I attended college. After all, how could a thirty-something year old black man with a nappy ‘fro and honey oat bread Subway sandwich crumbs on his gym staff shirt be educated and well-traveled enough to know anything about Iceland? The vibe only got more bizarre when she learned I graduated college with honors. Then, the elephant Crip-walked through the gym’s doors and farted.
“Jay,” she said flatly. “You’re a little overqualified to be working at a gym.”
No. “Overqualified” is a fancy synonym for “yeah, whatever nigga, just grab a broom.” The Raptionary would define a music degree like this:
Music Degree : (myoo-zik dih-gree) noun.
1. A laminated document from a university that is primarily used as a dustpan. It comes in handy when sweeping up paper shreds, pushpins, and random shit off the office floor.
When the gym’s basement flooded, that “overqualified” shit gave me an insane amount of leverage over the rest of the staff - I got to use the squeegee instead of the mop. Jobs in the working world share one parallel with the entertainment business - both are based on timing and who you know. A lot of people with music business connections don’t have many working world connections. That meant that I was the perfect candidate to change the gym’s TV channel when that whale-sized, party plate-ordering broad on the recumbent bike just had to watch the Goddamn Food Network when everyone else wanted World Cup soccer. I may have been the only person on the gym staff with a Bachelor’s degree, but the only piece of paper worth diddly shit in my reality was the sales sheet. Decade-old college achievements didn’t produce numbers. My ability to convince Big Shirley to stop eating mofongo and buy a personal training package did. That lucrative skill is typically learned sometime around high school, when you’re competing with drug dealers and jocks to pull girls. It’s called the gift of gab, and if you’re attempting to hurdle-hop in the real world without it, you’re fucked. Take your 30-page senior thesis and shove it up your ass.
Working in sales also made me more curmudgeonly than I already was, because constant smiling is a requisite.
“Jay, c’mon bro,” my boss would plead. “You need to smile more!”
My theory on smiling unnecessarily goes like this: Would you stand at the urinal if you didn’t have to take a leak? Would you just pull your cock out, stand there holding it, and gaze starry-eyed at the Koehler logo on the top of the urinal simply because you have the ability to shoot piss from it? Case closed. I was without a doubt the Homie D. Clown of the fitness industry for four months.
Today, I’m juggling a temporary support staff job in a financially-strapped school district and three low-paying side jobs. At school, the kids keep me sharp by testing my wits daily. (When my ex-barber zeeked my afro and turned it into an accidental hi-top fade, the kids gave me my current nickname around school: “House Party”.) My fellow staff members are chill enough to make work bearable, enjoyable even. (The principal breaks into the Kid-N-Play kick step dance whenever I enter his office.) My supervisor is a human encyclopedia and the greatest boss I’ve ever had. It’s also worth noting that he was Rakim’s sixth grade math teacher. Soaking up daily spills of knowledge from the man who taught arguably the greatest MC of all time how to put seven MCs in a line and mathematically destroy ‘em makes my days that much greater. However, policy says I’m not entitled to full salary and benefits for doing a job that I’ve even been told I’m “overqualified” for (yet the person I replaced got full salary and benefits) because I didn’t take a test that isn’t even being offered for another two years. Yeah, that makes as much sense as the girl with the Coke bottle body getting the record deal over the fat girl with the golden voice, but that’s just the way shit goes. The rulebook protocol of nine-to-fives and the dysfunctional protocol of the music business - neither is better than the other. Just pick your poison and develop an immunity to it.
Some of my music peers have been cornered into doing arbitrary freelance work and shooting social network pleas for relevance. Financially, the music world has become a barren wasteland for many, so some days it seems like squaring up for a 30-year bid in the world of “mature adults” is the move. After 10 months in that world, I can't say I endorse it.
To be continued in the book...