Detroit-native Lorenzo “Zo!” Ferguson never stays away from the Motor City too long. In fact, the indie R&B/hip hop multi-instrumentalist/producer has two stops planned here within the next month.
First, Zo! plays a solo show April 13 at The Shelter. Then, in May, he’ll return as part of the collaboration The Foreign Exchange for a show at the Magic Stick. And, he was just here last year to promote his 13th LP, “Manmade.”
Grown in Detroit
As a multi-instrumentalist (he plays the keyboard/piano, bass guitar, drums, and guitar), Ferguson is a master at blending all types of sounds to find the right chemistry. His music crosses a multitude of genres from R&B to soul, funk, jazz and hip hop, all of which he was exposed to by his parents growing up on the Westside of Detroit.
“My mother gave me the R&B and Motown side, and my father gave me more of the funk, the jazz, the bluesy side, so I was able to hear a wide spectrum of music growing up,” says Ferguson from his home in Silver Springs, MD. “That’s how I developed my ear, and once I started listening to hip-hop, that became my muse, so taking all these genres of music and being able to fuse it into an influence.
“I don’t look at it as a genre, I look at it as me just making good music.”
Even though he took piano lessons as a kid, music was not something Ferguson was passionate about. Ferguson had intentions of becoming a pro-baseball player and even earned a full athletic scholarship to Western Kentucky University. When his baseball career didn’t pan out the way he wanted, Ferguson began transferring all of his time and energy into playing music, practicing the piano and keyboards every day.
He released his first LP “Zo! Presents…Ablyss” in 2001, and since then has released 13 solo projects.
I have PLENTY of musical Dilla memories, but the one that probably sticks out the most is when I first heard Slum Village’s “Climax” from their album, Fantastic Vol. 2. So, let’s rewind back to the summer of 2000… My 12-year baseball career had just come to an end and I only had two classes remaining in order to graduate from Western Kentucky University. I was back home in Michigan for part of the summer and buying SV’s Fantastic Vol. 2 album was at the TOP of my to-do list at the time. I’m sure I probably looked through the latest issue of The Source magazine for an official release date, marked it down and made sure that when that Tuesday arrived, I was at the nearest music store, front and center at the cash register with a copy in my hand ready to purchase…
Already a huge SV fan off of tracks like “I Don’t Know”, “2U4U”, “Fantastic”, “The Look Of Love” and “Players” (later on, I’ll have to share that story as well), I was MORE THAN ready for a full-length album of theirs to be released. The date finally came… Tuesday, June 13, 2000. It was nice outside because I can remember driving over to Sam Goody with all of my windows down. Now, let’s also keep in mind that I had a couple of 12″ subs in the trunk of my car as well (I had them put in because of yet ANOTHER DIlla-produced track… A Tribe Called Quest’s “Find A Way”). I arrived at the spot, ran in, found and purchased the Slum CD, got back into the car and tore away the wrapping with my trusty “EZ-CD opener” they used to give us at the beginning of each college year and popped the album in the player. After the intro, “Conant Gardens” hit me over the head with a stand out bass riff that was perfectly complimented by those signature hard ass Jay Dee drums that SNAPPED, followed by “I Don’t Know” and “Jealousy”…… and then after a brief phone skit starring Jay Dee and a young lady, the phone convo broke away very quickly right into into Dilla saying,
“You ain’t gotta play hard to get….. I know you….”
The beat dropped in with this eerie, yet pretty atmospheric filtered out chords while the first clap hit on the “know”…..By this time I was already completely captivated by the first half of the beat… And then it happened….. I wasn’t ready for it at all. The first two notes of that thick bassline pushed through my subwoofers and my mind was absolutely blown and all I could manage to get out was, “YOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” …And JUST when I didn’t think it couldn’t get any better after Dilla’s verse…… The hook came in. Tina Marie Glover a/k/a Airasoul came in with….
“I want you right heeeeere in my worrrrrld……
…..beeeein’ witchu all alone, is like a dreeeam COME true, true, true….”
But that wasn’t the wild shit…. The WILD shit was, underneath her vocals they scratched in the “Space Intro” joint by Steve Miller Band, which at the time I had recently picked that same SMB album up in a dollar bin at a store in Nashville. I heard that piece and I LOST it, literally. With all of those contributing factors coming together at once, I tell NO lie… I almost ran myself off of the road……. IN MY OWN NEIGHBORHOOD. I wasn’t paying attention to anything but the elements that made up this excellence of a song and almost ended up in somebody’s ditch….Thank you, SV for damn near raising my car insurance in 2000.
Who would have known that I would be in the Barak Studios working with these kats less than three years later. They don’t know this story either… lol
“Maaan, the first time I heard…” is a series of blog entires I’ll be putting together where, you guessed it… I recall the first time I placed my ears on specific songs or albums. This should be fun as well as a test in how effective this daily dose of gingko biloba is that I ingest with my ‘bruffus’…
I distinctively remember the first time that I heard Jay Dee, and actually KNEW who I was listening to (I owned a some of his music at the time but never put two and two together). It was The Pharcyde’s “Runnin’ (Remix)” back in Late ’95/Early ’96 – I was a senior in high school at the time. My boy Dwight who was a classmate of mine at DePorres, hit me up and was telling me about his trip to the record store that day. He and I would always catch one another up on the latest store run to see who could take home the most obscure, yet dopest finds. It was almost a silent challenge, competitive and rewarding at the same time because it was our way of discovering new music. Anyway, included in his store run was the maxi-single for “Runnin'”. So he told me to check for the remix done by a kat named Jay Dee whom he had heard was from Detroit, which at the time was a pretty big deal. There wasn’t a lot of national exposure coming from the D around 95/96. So I was like, Bet! I’ma start keeping an eye on him for that reason alone. Things looked good from the break as I opened up my Labcabincalifornia CD jacket, read through the credits as I always do and quickly noticed that under all of my favorite joints I saw “Produced by Jay Dee”, “J. Yancey”, or “EPHCY Publishing”. Not too long after that, I heard about the Busta Rhyme’s “Woo Haa” single which contained the “Jay Dee Bounce Remix” and a “Jay Dee’s Other Shit Remix”. I happened to be in Record Time in Roseville when I heard the latter… It was purchased on the spot. THEN I bought the single for De La Soul’s “Stakes Is High” where he produced the actual song and the remix. Reading liner notes is what let me know that he was also a part of The Ummah as I would once again see “J. Yancey” show up in those writer’s credits. Well damn!! It looked to me like this kat was starting to build up a very solid body of work. So continued to keep my eyes and ears open for him. Then about a month before I went away to school, Tribe Called Quest’s Beats, Rhymes & Life was released and for a couple months it was ALL I listened to. When I heard “Get A Hold” for the first time??? That filtered bass kicked in at the end of the second bar and MAN I looost it… But a lotta folks felt that the addition of Jay to Tribe’s production team crippled their sound. …….NO. I never really understood the criticism that BRL and later The Love Movement received… I’m a big fan of both albums.
Sidenote: Hilariously enough, “Find A Way” from The Love Movement is the song that singlehandedly made me go and get a powered amp and a pair of 12″ speakers installed in my truck in 1998.
Sometime in 1997, while away at school I remember hearing from one of my boys back home that Jay was in a group called Slum Village. So, fast forward to around the spring/summer of 1998. I just so happened to be messing around in the school library on one of my favorite websites at the time, Sandboxautomatic.com and came across a new 12″ by Slum that I hadn’t seen before on the site. The joint had “2U4U”, “Fantastic”, “I Don’t Know” and “Players” AND instrumentals for all of them (except “Players” if I remember correctly). I proceeded to click on the link where I could listen to a snippet of the songs…….. And that’s when I heard “Players” for the first time and DAMMIT, my jaw dropped to the floor, literally…
WHOOOOOOOOOA. What. In. The. HELL. Is. THIS?!!?!!??!!?!!???
Up to that point, I hadn’t heard anything that sounded like it. The simplicity of it and the way it utilized space. The claps, the almost “airy” texture of the song created by the ambiance of the “Claire” sample floating in the background… and that bassline?! BRUH…. THAT. BASSLINE. Look man, I was hooked. I was so hooked that I would head BACK up to the library after lunch, right before baseball practice, or in between classes STRICTLY to hop online, go to Sandbox and listen to that same 60 or 90-second snippet of “Players”. This went on for a few weeks until I actually bought the 12″. As a matter of fact, being as though I had no credit card of my own I had to use my boy’s card and give him the cash. That wasn’t an obstacle to me, I didn’t give a shit… I had to have that song (I still have that 12″ in the collection to this day). When those joints showed up two years later on SV’s Fantastic Vol. 2 (except for that OG version of “Fantastic”), I was ALL IN. “Conant Gardens” Dope. “I Don’t Know”. Yep. “Jealousy”. Solid… And then it happened again…. This time I heard “Climax” for the first time and that shit was simply a MASTERPIECE. I was so far in a zone when this song came on that I damn near ran my car off the road in my own neighborhood. How much does a song have to effect you to run your ass off the road??!!?! It was almost like I had found “the answer”. THIS is what I’ve wanted to hear music sound like… This is IT.
I wasn’t fortunate enough to have worked with him on any music, but I did meet Dilla on just one occasion in 2003. I’ll never forget it – February 14, in the middle of the afternoon and I was in Barak Studios in Southfield, MI. As a matter of fact, we were ALL at Barak Studios that day. If I remember correctly, T3 from SV was in there, Young RJ, Black Milk, Nick Speed, and Que D. Most of us were just hanging around in the lobby cracking jokes, talking shit, whateverthehell… The door opened up and in walked Jay Dee with Karreim Riggins. I was just standing there, probably with a blank look on my face like, “Oh wow.” Here comes damn Jay Dee holding a bag of McDonald’s with this huge grin on his face. I’m pretty sure that at the time he had just gotten over being sick because RJ Rice (Barak Records’ founder) kept commenting on how healthy he looked. RJ was actually the one who introduced me to him… and anyone who knows RJ, knows that was an interesting introduction. …Be sure to say the following quote in your best “RJ” voice.
“Yeah mayne, this is Zo…he plays keys for Slum! …….This nigga bad mayne!” © RJ
As I stood there giving Dilla a pound along with a “what up”…I started thinking to myself…Damn, this is the same kat who did (name your favorite joint here). Even with all of the accolades, the credits, and the genius shit he was doing, he was as humble as anyone I’ve ever met – famous or not.
February 10, 2006 was the same day that I moved out here to Maryland… It was an exciting time for me because I felt as though I was moving on to start building a new foundation on the East Coast. Little did I know, the word ‘transition’ would reveal itself as having a double-meaning.
After being on the road pulling a full U-Haul trailer for about nine hours on pure adrenaline and NO sleep whatsoever (yeah, yeah, yeah…unsafe, I know this), my phone started BLOWING UP at about 4:30p or so with all types of text messages and calls. I was in the middle of moving boxes and furniture into my new apartment in MD with my uncle, so I couldn’t get much of a break to even look to see what was going on. Finally, it just became too much and I stopped what I was doing to pull my phone out and see what it was that I was missing. I looked at the phone and saw that I missed about 7 or 8 calls and had 10 new text messages. Wow, I had only been gone from Michigan about 9 or 10 hours… Kats must be hitting me up to wish me well on this new journey! ….Nah, not the case. When I checked the first text, it read, “Did you hear Dilla passed?” Hold on….. what?? …The second wasn’t much different, “I’m hearing Dilla died, have you heard anything? Tell me it’s not true.” I was literally numb and thinking, “This has to be a rumor… Gotta be.” But it was only a couple months prior that Questlove posted some video clips on OKP of Jay performing overseas …….in a wheelchair, due to his health. And when I say that was some of the most heartbreaking footage to watch. The voice was there so it was definitely still him, but he was frail and almost a shell of himself – it hurt to see him perform like that. To this day when I hear “Baby” from The Shining album I think about watching those clips simply because Dilla doesn’t sound like himself on that track at all. He sounded tired and worn down… You could tell he was fighting to continue to create. Another thing, most of us as fans didn’t know how much his health had taken a toll by that point so the news hit us all over the head a bit hard. BUT in the days after those clips were released here in the States, we were all assured that Dilla’s health was improving. So, I even thought back to those videos, “But credible sources have said that he was getting better…” I still didn’t believe it. ANYTHING to discredit this shit. Then almost right on cue, my phone started ringing again…. It was a friend of mine from high school. I answered the phone and I could just tell – I heard it in his voice when he started talking. I didn’t say, “Hello”, “What up?”…nothing. It was just,
Me: “Man, is it true?”
Response: *sigh* “Yeah man………………. This shit hurts.”
And he was right…. it did hurt. I mean, I didn’t even know Dilla like that. We never made music together …we never hung out. Matter of fact, I only met him that one time …but damn if hearing about his passing didn’t affect me like we came up together. Hell, it took me such a long time to get all the way into Donuts (which was released only four days before his death) because the album felt almost like a eulogy to me… damn near equivalent to “the end.” He was the only one of my musical heroes who I felt I could actually reach out to. He was a huge part of the reason why I could take Detroit music out of town with me and be proud of where I’m from. He was one of the dudes whose musical work ethic I patterned my own after. I wanted to work just as hard or harder to build up a consistent discography like he did. This is why I always say that music is one of the most intimate, emotional, and personal things you’ll ever experience because connecting with a person’s music is like connecting with a part of that person. When you create timeless music, to the music fans and listeners… you are never gone.
This is a celebration of life and music. We miss you, Dilla Dawg….
(02.07.1974 – 02.10.2006)
“Me & Those Dreamin’ Eyes Of Mine (Jay Dee Remix)” D’Angelo (1996)
“Get A Hold” Tribe (1996)
Word Play” Tribe (1996)
“Players” Slum Village (1997)
“That Shit” Tribe (1998)
“Don’t Nobody Care About Us” Phat Kat (1999)
“Look of Love Pt. 2” Slum Village (1999)
“Look Of Love (J-88 Remix)” Slum Village (1999)
“Let’s Ride” Q-Tip (1999)
“Eve (Jay Dee Mix)” Spacek (2000)
“Climax (Girl Shit)” Slum Village (2000)
“Nag Champa” Common (2000)
“Fall In Love (Remix)” Slum Village (2001)
“Without You (Remix)” Lucy Pearl (2001)
“Fuck The Police” Jay Dee (2001)
“Shake It Down” Jay Dee (2001)
“Let’s Take It Back” Jay Dee (2001)
“As Serious As Your Life Gets (Jay Dee Remix)” Fourtet (2004)
“Love It Here” Elzhi (2004)
“Move Pt. II” Oh No (2005)
“E=MC2” Jay Dee (2006)
“Won’t Do” Jay Dee (2006)
“Nasty Ain’t It?” Phat Kat (2007)
“Move” Q-Tip (2009)
This past Wednesday we had a tribute concert and fundraiser honoring the memory of the late GREAT Jay Dee a/k/a James “J. Dilla” Yancey at Club Liv in Washington D.C. Those headlining the bill included his younger brother John “Illa J” Yancey, longtime collaborator and former A Tribe Called Quest member Phife Dawg, and Dilla’s mother Maureen “Ma Dukes” Yancey.
This was actually the 4th event done in D.C. in honor of Dilla and the first that I have been a part of. The band for the night…
Jon Laine – Drums
Dennis Turner – Bass
Brock Smith – Guitar
Nila Kay – Guitar
Dre King – Keys
Zo! – Keys
The results? Honoring the music of Dilla Dawg, raising money for the Lupus Foundation, and providing some good live music and a damn good time…
Here are some video clips shot from that night… I’ll add more as I find them.
Phife Dawg performing “Check Tha Rhime”