YZ – Taggin’ It Up

YZ tape cover

So, I already published the interview with Tony D that was part of a big Trenton retrospective that I wrote for Hip-Hop Connection. I’d forgotten until I saw the cuttings the other day, but it was a spliced up piece containing quotes from Tony, Wise Intelligent and YZ, rather than separate interviews. Which makes me feel even better about disinterring this stuff and presenting it wholesale.

For me, YZ didn’t quite hit the heights on the albums that his talent deserved. Sons of the Father and The Ghetto’s Been Good to me were more than solid sets, but just slightly held back by a touch of filler, not uncommon for albums back then. However, the YZ EP, for me, deserves to be discussed in the same terms as Intoxicated Demons or All Souled Out.

Of the three Trenton interviewees, I think YZ was the trickiest to pin down, set a date with and then actually get on the phone. But it was worth the effort, even if we ran out of time with about 15 questions left. Still, that’s a sign that he wasn’t monosyllabic. Of course, I was the ideal person to interview YZ because, with the weight I’d put on at this time, clearly the gateaux had been good to me.

Stay tuned for that Wise Intelligent piece coming soon to round off the Trenton Trilogy of Terror.

AE: Starting from the very beginning – do you remember the first time you heard hip-hop?

YZ: I do. The first time I heard a hip-hop song, I was probably around 8 or 9 years old. I was in East Orange visiting some cousins of mine. When we were walking back form the park, they started singing the Sugarhill Gang ‘Rapper’s Delight’. I didn’t know what it was that they were singing, so I found myself paying attention real closely as they were singing the song together. I asked ’em what it was they were singing and they looked at me like I was some kind of space cadet or something, like ‘how could you not know what we’re singing right now’. It made me feel like I’d been sheltered away from everything. My cousins who were both younger than me were up on something I wasn’t up on. As soon as I went home, I started to listen to the radio for this song that I’d known nothing about. Shortly after that I was involved in some gangs in New Jersey. I hate to use the terminology ‘gang’ because the word gang now is used so negatively. Back then it was a little different. I was part of this crew called the Zodiac Crew and we were a crew in Paterson, New Jersey that got together and fought and fooled around the city a little. Not sticking up candy stores but taking a little stuff out of candy stores. And we were also singing doo-wop and rap, a little like a Force MD’s kind of thing.

AE: Where were you growing up at the time?

YZ: Paterson. And to be honest with you, there wasn’t a real big hip-hop scene at all. By the time I was 13 or 14 years old I was more into hip-hop. Mr Magic had been doing some things in Lakewood, New Jersey, but when I was younger it was too early. New York had the block parties and the DJ’s out in the streets and all that. But the closest I had to any of that was my Uncle who was a DJ. He was the DJ Say What Kid. He DJ’ed in clubs and for the most part he’d play soul and funk and stuff like that. He wasn’t a hip-hop DJ but I can equate him to hip-hop because his look and style were very hip-hop.

AE: Did you have any names before YZ, or were you in any other crews?

YZ: Of course, we come from the era of the Gods and the Earths and just like any other child growing up in the inner city, we got curious and wanted to find out what was going on in our city. The 5 Percent Nation had become pretty prevalent where I lived and so I started to study it like any curious kid in the neighbourhood. I started studying 120 and Supreme Mathematics and Alphabets and such and such. I wanted to be up on everything. So, ‘Y’ in the Supreme Alphabet is a question often asked by those who don’t know. And ‘Z’ is knowledge, wisdom and understanding, or Zig Zag Zig, which is the answer to the question. So that’s what YZ stands for. But back when I was 9 and in the Zodiac Crew, they used to call me Small Fry because I was the smallest and youngest kid in the crew.

AE: What was your first time in the studio? Where was it?

YZ: If I had to take a wild guess, I would probably say 1985 or 1986. I had been doing different talent shows around New Jersey and Trenton. Or every weekend I’d go to New York, sometimes just to shop. Then what happened was I met this DJ at this party who used to play at a lot of the local Trenton parties and at this place called the Lawrence Center and he was DJ Tony D. Tony and I became cool and he would invite me over to his crib where he was just fooling around with beats and shit like that (excuse my language). One day I went to his house and he put some beats on and I quickly demoed right there in his house. There wasn’t even a booth, I took this microphone and he ran this beat back. We took this shell of a beat, ran ‘Trans-Europe Express’ over it and I rocked this song over it that I had written called ‘I’m Bad’.

It was my first demo, and what ended up happening was that right after that my demo was circulated around my town and ended up with this dude called DJ Woody Wood who was a DJ over at Power 99 radio in Philadelphia. He ended up giving this tape to DJ Jeff Mills who was Lady B’s main mix DJ. Jeff Mills was like, ‘I’ve gotta find out who this kid is’. Woody Wood set up a meeting between Jeff and myself and he came to where I live in New Jersey. We met at the Dunkin’ Donuts, I was probably 16 years old, I was still in high school. I remember my mother taking me to meet this dude – or it might have been my father now I think about it – I got out of the car, got into Jeff’s car. I remember Jeff waving at my dad and he had my demo in his car. He said he really liked my song and wanted to get me into the studio to see if we could make it into a record. I told him that I had a crew that I ran with. At the time I had a dude that danced for me called G Rock who I would write rhymes for and we’d do battles and routines at talent shows, and I had a DJ who was Tink. He took us to a studio in New York called Evergreen. Tony and I picked another track and we did an A and a B side. ‘I Am Who I Am’ was the A, and ‘I’m Bad’ was the B. Because Jeff Mills was on Power 99, the minute we had test pressings back he was running our songs on the radio. I remember hearing our song for the first time on the radio and running outside to see if G-Rock was listening to the song. When I got there he was already blasting it out of his window.

AE: Okay, what prompted you to start Diversity Records?

YZ: Well, I didn’t actually start Diversity records. What happened was that after the Too Def record, I realised that if I was going to do this again, I was going to take a different approach. It just so happened that Tim Baylor who started Diversity was looking to do something with some local groups. And I was smart enough even then to know that I could use this song I had on the radio as a bargaining chip. So when we met up, I was like, ‘I’m not just gonna be some guy signed to your label’. Here’s me, this kid, talking to a grown ass man about his label. So what I did was use that to acquire half of his label. He ended up splitting the label with me and then Tony and I went back to work. The next songs we recorded after that were ‘In Control Of Things’ and a song called ‘In The Party’ which I had G-Rock on and then ‘Thinking Of A Masterplan’. That was the first single that we ever pressed up on Diversity Records and at 16 or 17 years old I’m the co-owner of a label.

In control of things cover

AE: That made a good impact because it was showing some new styles.

YZ: To be honest with you, there was nobody else making that kind of music at the time. And I don’t think that we as artists and producers in New Jersey – including Tony D – really get the credit that is due to us. The truth is that that music of that particular time is what changed hip-hop. I don’t want to sound like some egotist, I’m just a realist on the situation. Tony D was on to something, and he doesn’t get enough credit in my opinion.

AE: He was certainly very early on the vocal sample as part of an instrumental.

YZ: There was nobody else doing it. If you could go to a record before that time, like, you would have things like ‘Whistle’ and a lot of people using cartoons as a way to express themselves. ‘Inspector Gadget’ and ‘Pee Wee Herman’, and everybody using these terms for their songs. When we did our first demo, Tony took a beat and took ‘Trans-Europe Express’ and basically blended that record to make my demo. And what I think it did was say, ‘look, if you’re gonna sample, we don’t just have to sample drums, we can do it this way’. If you listen to ‘I Am What I Am’ on Rockin’ Hard Records, even though it wasn’t a sample, it was a blend and it had the Beverly Hillbillies in it. And what it told Tony was, ‘If no-one’s bitching about this, why can’t I sample vocals, why can’t I sample something other than a drum riff to make a beat?’  I think he was experimenting, and at the time I didn’t give a shit what I’d rhyme to. He played me a gang of stuff, and out of all that I liked the ‘Thinking Of A Masterplan’ beat and I liked the ‘In Control Of Things’ beat which was James Brown ‘Funky People’. It spoke to me. We didn’t know what we were doing, it wasn’t like we were in the studio trying to come up with that, it just happened that way.

AE: Why was that your only release on Diversity?

YZ: What ended up happening with Diversity is that we signed Poor Righteous Teachers to that label. They were the second group including me that was signed. Now, at the time, I honestly think Tony was a little bit salty about the whole situation. Of course, when you talk to him he might say something different, and I’m not saying this to be disrespectful to him, because he is a friend of mine. But people see things in different way and I try to see them from a real perspective and an honest perspective without having to make shit up. I don’t remember things as a glamorisation. I try to keep it real and keep it funky.

What ended up happening was, Tony was an agitator. That’s the simple truth of it. He was an agitator before I met him and he was an agitator when we were business partners because Two Tone productions was me and him, Anthony Hill and Anthony Depula. When we started working on demo’s, I was like, man, we should start a company together. Ain’t no reason why we can’t put this project under our own production company. We went to City Hall and registered the company together. He was gonna be the music side and I was gonna be the business side. He may tell it differently, but I call a spade a spade. I think he got a whiff of this life and it changed him a bit or brought out more of what he was already and when PRT signed to Diversity, I think it pissed him off. If you speak to Tony, he’ll tell you that IQ or one of those dudes from Norfside Records took PRT to him, but that’s not the truth.

“Tony D was onto something and he doesn’t get enough credit in my opinion”

The truth is, Tony D and I were driving around Trenton one day, and we stopped at this cook-out. There was this DJ that had this equipment in the house and he was playing music, there was a microphone there and the guy asked if I would grab the mic and spit something. I did, then he said, there’s another guy round here, I’ll go get him and I want you to meet him. When he came back he had this guy with him. His pants were dirty, he looked like a hood kid, and he started spitting. And I loved what I heard. I knew where his inspiration came from, and it just so happened that he was Wise Intelligent of Poor Righteous Teachers. We hit it off real cool, but it wasn’t all smiles and stuff, he seemed real serious even then. He introduced me to the rest of his crew and we were off and running. We signed them to Diversity. And then Tony caused friction between Wise and myself because he knew that they were green and he was putting shit in their ear about this, that and the other. About how Diversity was going to fuck them. Just basically straight lying to these kids and causing friction between Tim Baylor and them which led to them having beef with me because I’m part owner of the label. Tim hadn’t done anything to them, and all he was getting was lip about what was apparently going to happen. I told him that if there was a problem, I would prefer to let them go because it’s not worth all of that. But even after they left, they’re working with Tony and I’m working with Tony. He’s playing my demo’s to them and, if you listen, you can hear flows from my shit in their shit.

AE: It always seemed strange that Tony D was in both camps.

YZ: He was the agitator. And for him, it didn’t matter where the chips fell because he figured it was gonna be a way to cause friction and sell records to make money or to give himself a name. It didn’t matter who was going to suffer the brunt of that. That’s when Tony and I had a falling out because I was thinking, let’s get it straight, you and I started Two Tone Productions together. You could have done that before on your own, but you weren’t savvy enough. So then don’t be mad at me because I’m on my business. I think Tony D had a lot of growing up to do. I mean, he’s a good guy and he means well, and I don’t want to sound racist or anything, but this is a white kid in a black community of people, trying to make a name for himself. Do whatever you got to do, but the devil will be the devil. Wise Intelligent ended up having mad beef with him later on, I heard even physical altercations, and me and Wise never ended up in anything physical. Don’t get me wrong, there were times when I thought we were very close to that, but we were always civilised enough to keep that from happening. That’s why Wise and I are real cool. The coolest thing happened just last year. I had a show up in Boston with X-Clan and Wise Intelligent and when Wise gave me a copy of his new CD, I asked him to sign it for me. When he finally gave me the CD, it had one line on it. It said: ‘To YZ, one of the reasons I rhyme’. It said it all to me. It buried the hatchet even further for me because he proved himself to be steadfast.

“Me and Wise Intelligent never ended up in anything physical. We were always civilised enough to keep it from happening”

AE: That’s a long way from ‘Crocodile Dundee’ when you dissed PRT.

YZ: The funny thing is, when I did ‘Crocodile Dundee’, I’d done it as an album track called ‘Diss Fe Liar’ with two verses because I didn’t want to get too deep into it. And then when I heard PRT’s album, I was like: First of all, you took my flow and tried to diss me with my own flow. I wasn’t feeling that. And then you’ve got this guy Tony behind all of the bullshit, and you’re believing all the bullshit instead of coming to the source. So when I recorded ‘Crocodile Dundee’ I went very deep into the situation on the third verse. But before anyone heard that record, I wanted them to hear it. I went to them.

Me and B-Fine went to Trenton and met them in some abandoned house. I’m not bullshitting you. It was on the 3rd floor with no power and no-one else in the house except this little studio set-up and I played ‘Crocodile Dundee’ to them. I remember clearly Culture Freedom getting real pissed off and looking like he wanted to fight. However, he left. I just wanted to be straight with them. I didn’t want it to be no surprise or I was working behind their back. We were in the middle of Trenton, Trenton is known for jumping people, and the truth is we could have been set up in there. But Wise and I always dealt with each other in a civil manner and we walked out of there safely. If you knew anything about me then, I never walked anywhere without a gun, so if it was really gonna be on, it was really gonna be on, not that I went there for that. I mean, I got jumped in Trenton, but I don’t think that had anything to do with Wise Intelligent. That’s just Trenton, and that’s why I wouldn’t go there without my piece because that’s how they get down.

AE: Everyone seems to have a good Aaron Fuchs story – how was your experience on Tuff City?

YZ: Remember, I’m 17 years old. Aaron got in touch with Diversity Records and we met him. I didn’t know much about Tuff City to be honest with you. However, I did my homework when I learned that Mark the 45 King was on there, Lakim Shabazz, a few other dudes. I don’t want to be cocky, but I thought that none of that stuff was me. I thought I could make the label. I told Aaron, I’ma come here and make this into a label. I guess he liked my cockiness and we signed a deal. Everything was cool, we did 4 videos off that first album, which back then was almost unheard of. We were doing shows and I was taking my crew ESD everywhere.

Before us you has the tight Levis, the B-Boy look, we brought the baggy jeans and the coloured clothes. We made hip-hop fashion what it is now, and that gets overlooked too. Anyway, I was in Texas touring, and Aaron had called for our 2nd album and he hadn’t paid me for the 1st album yet! I told him, if you want the 2nd, pay me for the 1st. He went to Tim, he convinced me to go back in the studio and he’d convince him to give us the money that was owed to us. So I started recording, and that money never came. Aaron tried to stop me taking the tapes out of the studio he had us working in and I was like, ‘Fuck that. If the dude isn’t going to pay us, I’m not going to record for him.’ I hate to say there was a bad altercation at the studio, but there was. I got my shit and I was out of there. At that particular moment, if I saw Aaron, he could fuck off, because I wasn’t really having it with him. There were several times I went to see him about it, and he became very nervous of me.

Aaron is the epitome – and I hate to say this – he’s the epitome of what people think of typical Jewish people. I hate that they have that stigma, but people think that Jewish people come in and take full advantage. Well, Aaron is the epitome of that. Tuff City could have easily become that label like Def Jam, but instead he let his simple-ass greed get in the way of him becoming a powerhouse in this business. He was too Jewish for himself, if that makes any sense. What major will want to fuck with you when you fuck all your artists over?

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