What do you do when your rap career dries up? Start drumming. – Gothamist

Jay Mumford was closing in on 40 when he reached the last in a long line of final straws with hip-hop. He was on stage at South by Southwest, wearing a ski mask while playing drums and rapping for Super Black, a new group playing its first show. He was performing as his alter-ego, J-Zone.

“We were getting booed,” he said.

A wet tissue was thrown on stage, landing in a most sensitive spot: Mumford’s rap career.

“”The common denominator of my unhappiness,” Mumford said, “was I was known as a hip-hop artist.”

That was J-Zone’s last show.

Jay Mumford, however, was just getting started, and while this story began as an examination of what happens when someone ages out of hip-hop, it’s what Mumford did next that’s even more inspiring.

Before we get to how Mumford became a funk drummer sought out by Grammy winners, you need to know a little bit about his rap persona.

That would be J-Zone, an exaggeration of some of hip-hop’s most ridiculous trends. He was comically profane, oozing confidence and spitting punchlines – and the fact he never so much as winked at the audience is what made it work. He rapped about his fur coat “that look like I killed the whole Bronx Zoo” and how “you better lock up the Bacardi at your party when the ‘Zone rolls through.”

As J-Zone, Mumford had a loyal fanbase that was large enough for him to make hip-hop a full-time job. His fourth record, 2004’s “A Job Ain’t Nuthin’ But Work,” was featured nationally at Tower Records, but J-Zone never had a breakout hit.

He was more like your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper. Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse of Gnarls Barkley loved J-Zone. In fact, they hopped on stage at one of his shows in 2007, performing for a crowd of maybe 1,500 people at a time when they were selling out arenas because of their chart-topping hit, “Crazy.”

Dante Ross has been involved in hip-hop back since the late ‘80s. He first worked for record labels like Tommy Boy and Elektra before becoming a producer. He worked with De La Soul and Brand Nubian and oversaw Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s debut. He met Mumford at a party and immediately took a liking to him.

“Jay will be the first to tell you he wasn’t Nas on the mic,” Ross said. “But I thought he was really talented and different. It was funny. He was making fun of a lot of the clichés.”

Just one problem: Mumford didn’t really want to be a rapper. He only did it so people would notice his skills as a producer, yet he wound up getting more attention for the character than for the beats. By the time Mumford reached his 30s, his popularity was waning and he was sick of chasing down rappers to get the final $50 for the beats he’d made as a producer.

Aging isn’t easy for any artist, but it’s particularly hard in hip-hop. While jazz musicians can perform into old age and rock stars regularly cruise on the fumes of their glory days, it’s tough for rappers to survive as elder statesmen unless they were platinum-selling stars.

“Your fans grew up,” a sales rep from his distributor told him. “You’re basically irrelevant.”

For Mumford, it was even more difficult because he was best known for something he no longer enjoyed.

Mumford didn’t know what would come next, though. He was 34 and living in Queens, where he was the primary caretaker for his aging grandmother. He taught a music class at his alma mater SUNY Purchase and had a weekly gig as a DJ. He even wrote about high-school basketball, earning $50 per article.

“It stung too much to think about hip-hop,” he said. “So all I listened to was the music of my very early childhood because that’s what put me in a better headspace.”

More specifically: jazz, funk and rock. Mumford thought about picking up the bass guitar again, an instrument he’d played in high school. Instead, he bought a pair of drumsticks, which he’d use to tap on a couch cushion or pillow. His father must have noticed, because one day Mumford came home to find a drum set in his basement.

“Now, mind you, I’m 34 years old,” Mumford said. “So I’m not a kid. I’m a grown-ass man, but I felt like a little kid getting a drum set for Christmas or something.”

He practiced more than a year before he made a post on Facebook to ask if anyone wanted to jam. He heard from Pablo Martin, a sound engineer who’d mastered J-Zone’s albums. Martin was also a guitarist with the Tom Tom Club, and he and Mumford began playing together regularly.

Mumford started writing a column for the Red Bull Music Academy called “Give the Drummer Some,” interviewing musicians like George Brown of Kool & The Gang, his favorite band. He met Leslie Ming, the Brooklyn-born drummer who’d been in B.T. Express and played on Madonna’s first album. Ming became a mentor to Mumford, who accompanied him to gigs, set up his drums and recorded his performances.

Mumford resumed rapping as a way of introducing people to his drumming. He’d record himself playing the drums and rhyme on top of that. He released an album in 2013, and while some fans celebrated his return, he never toured or performed live. He was getting practice and exposure for his drumming, and generating some money. Then in 2016, he joined Super Black, a trio whose only live performance was that ill-fated show in Texas.

That show was a turning point. Mumford stopped trying to use rapping as a vehicle, and cut ties with hip-hop completely. Any fears he had about moving away from his fan base were tempered by the support he’d received from the veteran drummers he’d been interviewing and the music he was making with Martin. In the fall of 2016, they released a funk album as the Du-Rites.

“That showed me I could actually be happy, but in a whole different place,” Mumford said. “It would just take a s— ton of work, and being totally obsessed with one path, which in my experience always led to good things.”

From 2016 to 2019, Mumford took every gig he could. He toured, booked session work and released an album of his own drum beats.

“I call that my college,” he says of those three years. “Just paying dues.”

And then when the pandemic locked everyone down, he went to his basement and played for hours on end, posting a couple of clips per week on Instagram. That social media promotion led to a series of early wins: Questlove retweeted one of his reels. Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys also reached out to him, as did Adrian Quesada, the Grammy-winning guitarist of the Black Pumas. Quesada invited Mumford to perform “Boleros Psicodelicos” at Austin City Limits last year.

“He’s just funky as hell and plays just the killer stuff,” Quesada said, “nothing that doesn’t contribute to the groove or the song.”

And as Mumford came into his own as a drummer, he discovered something unexpected: The hip-hop career that had been so frustrating turned out to be something that really set him apart.

“The way that I’m tuning the drums,” Mumford said, “micing, hitting, it’s something that comes from not really being a drummer. The way I play drums comes from being a hip-hop producer.”

Putting a new twist on a traditional approach? Well, that’s about the most hip-hop thing you can do.

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