Sunday, September 28, 2014

Return to tha Caliber: An Interview with J. Jonah of Tha Slumplordz

The Forbidden One

Here's another interview conducted by The Homie Alex, this time with J. Jonah of Tha Slumplordz. Enjoy!

    From Too $hort to Digital Underground to Hobo Junction to the Hieroglyphics, Oakland, California has produced some amazing hip-hop, but one group that often gets overlooked is the unique and elusive click, Tha Slumplordz. The five man crew, consisting of members Hard Rard, J. Jonah, Irahktherigor, Gravanaught and Dave Doses, officially formed in ’97 from a collection of smaller groups, and one year later dropped the amazing Adventures 12”. A self-titled album, released under the sub-group Sunnmoonsekt, featuring Rard and Irahk as Sunn and Moon respectively, followed and introduced the world to their spaced out, bass heavy brand of hip-hop, which they referred to as “slump.” While the Sunnmoonsekt album got the most attention, their strongest album was its follow up Don’t Worry About the Kaliber [Or Nothin Like That], released as Tha Yakuza, featuring Rard as Pokerface Tanaka and J. Jonah, formerly known as Freeman. This album took the production to the next level and was more stylistically advanced, with more seasoned flows and a harder edge.

    After complications with their label, Tha Lordz disappeared for a while, only to reemerge in 2006 with the independently released Sav City, under the name The Sweeps, featuring Rard and Dave Doses. A solo album by Gravanaught, entitled Searching, was to be their next release, but it never materialized and it seemed like the Lordz had released their final chapter. In 2013, however, J. Jonah aka JonaH HeXXX, now essentially holding the torch on his own, with some help from Irahk and Dave Doses on the production, released the dope mixtape Return to tha Caliber and gave listeners another dose of that Slumplordz sound. An EP, entitled New Pimpin, followed, and the Oakland veteran has more planned for the future. We discussed past, present and future in this interview which gives some insight into one of my favourite crews from my youth.

Before Tha Lordz formed, you were part of a crew called the Elements, going back to ’93. Can you talk about those early days?

    That was me, the Gravanaught and a friend of mine - he called himself Tha Lytist, and it was three of us, the Elements. We were called the Raw Elements, the OGRE (Original Raw Elements). It was me and my friend, that’s the Lytist, we sort of started the group. So it was me and him at first. And then my cousin, which, that’d be Gravanaught, you know, he joined on soon after. And then we were just, you know, doing our thing on the side, outside of Tha Slumplordz. And then one day Gravy introduced me to Rard and then it kinda went from there as far as Tha Slumplordz was concerned. But the Elements, we were already a group outside of Tha Slumplordz, so we just incorporated the Elements as well. You know, there’s five of us in Tha Slumplordz, but we have a gang of groups inside of our group.

So it was ’97 when Tha Slumplordz formed, right?

Yes. Officially, yeah.

The first release was the Adventures 12” which was a Sunnmoonsekt track, but you were on that one. You were calling yourself Freeman at that time?

Yup, aka The Forbidden One, yup.

Can you talk about Math Sound Workshop and Knock Factor? Were those just independent labels started by friends of yours?

Well, Math Sound Workshop, that was like in-house engineers... That was when we had a little spot where we made our little music and just chilled. It was this house on East 33rd in Oakland and that was just our style, we used to call it Area 33rd. And we just made beats, played video games, whatever, just chilled. That’s how the Math Sound Workshop started out. That was a group of good friends that had people in high places that invested in us. We came out independently. I mean, before it was Knock Factor, you know, before Knock Factor and before we had the deal with Stray Records aka Dogday Records.

In the credits for the Sunnmoonsekt album it says mixed by D. Phelan. So he was one of those people?

Yes, that’s Daniel Phelan, yeah.

So after that album you guys did the Yakuza joint on Stray Records. How did you guys hook up with Substance Abuse?

    Substance Abuse, those cats were Dave Doses’ boys from L.A., right? They were working for a distribution company, I forget the name of it, out here. They shared an apartment in Oakland. And Dave, you know, introduced us to them and just like back on East 33rd, we used to all go to John Heath’s (Eso'Tre). John, I was hella cool with him and we actually did a couple songs together but just picked that one for the Yakuza, “Spare No One”. They called the track “Anything Niggaz”, some shit like that. The track was actually called “Spare No One”. I go on it first, I say the title of the track in my first line.

Did tha Yakuza album sell very many copies? I did hear people talking about Sunnmoonsekt, but it seems like I didn’t hear much about that album.

    From what I’ve heard, Tha Yakuza was in a close second to the Sunnmoonsekt album, but the Yakuza album got the most acclaim in terms of the production. I don’t know about lyrics, I can’t remember back that far. But now, I believe, the next project is gonna be a whole lot tighter and it’s gonna have a wide range of music to it – instrumentals, samples, scratches, up tempo, you know, we always got to have the slump though, it’s gonna be some slow movin’, bass heavy tracks comin’ out.

You guys also worked with Zion I on that album…

    Yeah, that was Gravy. I was there when they were recordin’ it. It was a pretty dope session. It was nice. That was cool.

So what happened with Stray Records? I read there was some sort of contractual issue.

    Well, to my knowledge [laughs] – there’s a lot of little inside stuff. But what the company did was that they just bolted and went to the east coast. They didn’t tell anybody, you know, without warning, or anything, they just bounced on us and everything folded. Back when this happened, that wasn’t just us, it was other groups on the label as well. So I think the owners or whoever else had the money, they bolted and went to the east coast. And that’s all I heard about that, as far as the business was concerned. I’m sure other cats, like Rard or somebody, could tell you more. Everybody has families now, you know what I’m sayin’, but we still talk. You know, we wanna do more shit, I mean, you know, more music. So we gonna try to get together and do that very soon. I’m doing my solo shit.

I’m glad you are, man, ‘cause the stuff you’re putting out, it still has that sound.

    Yeah, I’m tryin’, man. It’s hard to get in the studio. I’m goin’ out to the garage these days, just to record lyrics and stuff, so some of my stuff isn’t as mixed as it should be or it doesn’t sound as high end as it used to be because I’m the only one, basically, doing the production. But me and Irahktherigor are doin’ a little something. I got a couple of his tracks, he’s got a couple of mine. We just haven’t hooked up to put our ideas on paper and spit it out and give somebody the microphone. That’s usually the issue these days. Over these months and years, we can’t hook up to get an idea out and put it out and run with it, you know what I mean? Everybody’s still with it though, as far as I’m concerned.

Well, I really liked that New Pimpin EP you put out recently. Who is 9 Continents? Is that one guy? 

    That’s me, man! [laughs] That’s my alter ego. I got a lotta alter egos, I’m sorry. It’s the 9 Continents. It’s always been my alter ego, to tell you the truth. But we always did our music on some shit like that. You know, The Sweeps, that’s just another episode. Tha Yakuza, that’s just another episode. Sunnmoonsekt, that was the first episode, you know what I mean?

Well, I saw that name on tha Yakuza album, but I didn’t realize that was you. Those beats are really dope. That’s cool. So who is Black Male Suspect then? He did some beats on tha Yakzua album.

    That’s Irahktherigor! Yeah, that’s his alter ego.

So, after tha Yakuza, it seemed like it got kinda quiet, but then the Sweeps project came out. That was an independent project, to my knowledge. But you weren’t really on that one.

    I was having legal issues at that point [laughs].

So same thing with Gravy’s LP? You were supposed to be on that one too?

    Yeah, I was supposed to be on The Sweeps album a whole lot. I was supposed to be on the Gravy album too. He wanted to do his thing solo. I respected it. There was a track on there, actually, that was supposed to be for me. The last track, it was just an instrumental. That was actually my track, you know what I’m sayin’? We still wanna do something with that track. A lot of beats that I’ve done, solo stuff, a lot of other cats have liked ‘em. Well, we might as well make some remixes or something. If cats wanna go off on some of the beats I’ve composed, or even something they’ve composed, let’s do it. You know, it’s, four or five minds is better than one, knawmean?

Well, you told me a while back that the Return to tha Caliber mixtape was actually supposed to be a Raw Elements album. Can you talk about that?

    Originally and then my boy, my cousin, Gravy, he started… I don’t know man, I mean it’s hard to explain. The best way I can explain it is he started getting in trouble [laughs]. And he hasn’t come back from that yet, but it was supposed to be a mixtape featuring Gravanaught on most of the tracks. Some of them sound kinda choppy and stuff ‘cause that’s the only verses I had so I just put ‘em on the tracks and called them songs. I just wanted to be able to, it was supposed to be me and Gravy on that, a Raw Elements album and I just called it a mixtape.

There was one track on there, “Don’t Lose Ya Mind”. Was that an older track?

    Yup. That was an older track. That was a 2006 track, right before they came out with the Sweeps. Irahktherigor made that beat. I was fresh out of the penitentiary. I just had to get it off my chest. I always wanted to record it. So I finally did it. I put it on Youtube, and then I just made it to an mp3 and put it on the album, to throw it on there.

Your rhyme patterns remind me a bit of, like, Kool Keith and a lot stuff that came out of the Good Life. If a person was just listening casually they might not hear that you’re rhyming. Like, it’s a lot of internal rhymes. You were always, to me, the most unique in the crew. Who influenced that style?

    Oh, man. Chuck D. Yeah, Chuck D. And I always liked Erick Sermon and I also liked Sadat X of Brand Nubian. I always liked the way he rhymed, you know what I mean? I first started writing rhymes when I heard Public Enemy for the first time. I was like, “Hold on, man.” They motivated me to really write some rhymes, for real. But, you know, I came up in the era of, like, the Hieroglyphics and stuff. We all went to the same high school. So, they always used to battle. We all battled each other at the Skyline High School. But it really didn’t dawn upon me that we could actually do it like that. But at the same time, I knew I had my own little style. That’s where we developed our styles, when we were really young, in the first place. You know, I was writing rhymes back then.

So, in terms of the future, do you have anything lined up right now? I know you wanna do another Slumplordz project, but in terms of your solo stuff?

    Oh, yeah! I got a couple of things on the horizon [laughs]. I got my big cousin, Kenneth. They call him Sumpin Else. I got some nice beats and some nice lyrics. Like the one, I dunno if you heard, on New Pimpin, the one where it says “Ridin' the whale that ate Jonah” and it’s with Irahk on the hook or whatever. That was the first track I heard [Sumpin Else] do and I was like, “Damn, you made that? Wow!” And then I started rhyming on it. That’s a Sumpin Else track. But yeah, there are two tracks though, that are produced by Sumpin Else. Also Irahktherigor’s got some tracks that we’re gonna do. I got another mixtape comin’ out. I’ve got some songs produced by my older son. It’s gonna be pretty cool.

So it’s mainly just you and Irahk who are releasing music right now?

    I dunno if [Irahk]’s actually releasing anything, but he’s putting out beats. I’m pumpin’ out beats. He’s pumpin’ out beats. Dave Doses is doing beats, but he’s doing it really low key. I don’t get to hear much of that. It’s hard to manage the group still [laughs], you know what I mean? Because everybody’s older and has responsibilities. If we were around each other every day there’d be a whole lot more music. I mean, we hook up every now and then. I see everybody like twice a month. I do see my dudes. We gonna get it together, man. We gonna put out some music.

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