What a year. Thank y’all…
Zo! Brings His ManMade Soul Music Back To His Hometown of Detroit This Saturday
The music of the Detroit born and raised multi-instrumentalist/producer Lorenzo Ferguson, known to all us as Zo!, brings back the deep soul music from generations past. Currently residing in Maryland, Zo! has been releasing his own projects for over a decade now and is currently a member of The Foreign Exchange collective started by Phonte Coleman (formerly of the hip-hop group Little Brother) and Dutch hip-hop/soul producer Nicolay. Recently, Zo! released the newest chapter in his vast discography with ManMade, a voyage into depths of real soul music, and he’s coming back to his hometown this Saturday, June 29th at the Elizabeth Theatre in downtown Detroit to present the album live in concert. I asked Zo! about the new album and his feelings about living a life in music.
How would you describe the progression of your projects from the early works to ManMade?
I think there’s a greater quality of musicianship from album to album because of the time that I get to put in on my instruments. Experience has played a huge part in being able to develop a sound that I feel is my own as well as just being able to apply music making in the studio to more of a live experience because I’ve been on the road more often lately and it’s been easier to pick up on what a crowd responds to. To me, live presentation and interaction with your listeners is just as important as your studio release. If you’re able to make the two work hand-in-hand, you have a much better shot at connecting with your people musically.
Why did you name your album ManMade? What’s the principle theme behind it?
ManMade describes the work ethic needed as a completely independent musician/artist. We’re booking our own shows, building relationships with our listeners, making the music, etc. — it is very much blue-collar work and you can’t be afraid to get your hands dirty in order to accomplish long-term goals. Even the cover art is a depiction of me walking to work, where “work” is in this dilapidated building that represents our music industry. I’m basically representing the “last of a dying breed” group of artists who has no management, plays 95 percent of the instruments on the album, helps to distribute the music while touring… and I’m walking into this broken down building/industry to shine my light on it as much as I possibly can.
Q&A: Zo!- Keys Open Doors
Ever since Henry Ford opened up shop in 1903, Detroit, Michigan has been associated with the motto, “Building from the ground up.” This means perfecting your craft as a “labor of love” at a perfectionist level, then taking your work to the people one by one to create loyal supporters. As a native of The D, Lorenzo Ferguson, better known as Zo!, embodies this motto. As a member of The Foreign Exchange Music family, a collective who represents “from the ground up” to the core, Zo!’s musicianship as been a vital piece of the +FE Music sound on record as well as on stage, while serving as the band’s musical director on tour. Now with the release of his sophomore album, appropriately titled ManMade, Zo! sat down with SoulTrain.com during a tour stop in Los Angeles to discuss bringing his latest labor of love to the people.
SouTrain.com: In your bio, it said as a kid, you aspired to be a Major League Baseball player and despised taking piano lessons. What was the moment that changed that and music became your passion?
Zo!: I think it changed almost overnight when I learned how to play by ear. Once I learned how to play by ear, then I was able to learn songs I wanted to learn rather than only classical pieces. I could turn on the radio, pick out songs and play them for other people. When you’re a kid, it’s important to you to be able to kind of show off and get your little praise. Once I was able to do that I thought, “Oh this could be something.” But at that point in my life, it had yet to trump baseball yet. It was there, but I never knew I would be making a living off it.
SoulTrain.com: For a number of years, while progressing in your career, you were a music teacher. Talk about the importance of music and other arts programs in schools, and how your experience as a teacher shaped you as a musician.
Zo!: . It helps you tremendously as a musician because you’re practicing all the time to teach your students. I think when you teach, you have to be on top of your game. This was especially [true] with the environment I was working in, which was kids with special needs that were also in and out of jail. They’ll come to my class, look at me like and go, “What do you know? What can you teach me?” And If I play on the piano and suck, then they’re really looking at me like, “Aw you’re garbage, now I don’t have to listen to you on any level, period.” So when you are on top of your game and answering all of their questions the way they need to be answered, then they are looking at you like, “he cares enough to answer these questions and is looking out for us.” The same applies with music education as a whole. If you are able to, for example, decipher different notes and signs while reading music, you’re able to unlock other types of reasoning that applies to other subjects and basic problem solving. Music and arts can be applied to math, English and science. When states get to cutting budgets, they look at arts as a hobby. I see it as a life changer; I’ve seen it save lives first hand.
As soulful multi-Instrumentalist and producer from Detroit, Zo! has had the pleasure of working with rapper Phonte from Little Brother, The Foreign Exchange, and more recently with singer Sy, who is also a back-up singer for Sheila-E. You’ll know him from the breathtaking beautiful track ‘If she breaks your heart’ which features in The Foreign Exchange album ‘Leave it all behind.’ I caught with Zo! last year to see what we can expect from his latest project ‘Man Made’ due to release in spring, the most unusual instrument he has used whilst producing, and why he doesn’t want to go to his grave without passing on music. Margaret Tra writes.
Are you just currently on tour, or are you on a break?
We just came off. We just did like a weekend. Three cities, three days, came back yesterday.
How was it?
It was…those joints are tiring! You’re driving, you’re performing, same day, but it’s all, it’s all worth it man.
Sounds like one thing after the next. A lot of shows backed up?
Like 3, 4 hours of sleep each night.
Music moves so much that some of us have a handful of songs that we can’t even listen to in public explaining to others why you’re looking crazy by holding your eyes wide open in an attempt not to drop those tears that have been gathering since the music started is never quite on anyone’s ‘to do list’.
Music moves us to get our asses up and running in the morning…
Music moves you into a place of peace in order to avoid putting hands on people at work who you want to choke the absolute shit out of on a daily basis. Sometimes it serves as a necessary part of simply getting through your day…
Music moves us to reflect and to reminisce. It’s crazy how you can hear a song and quickly be dropped off at a very specific time in your life. How many times have you found yourself saying, “Oh woooow, this takes me right back to……”?
I’m gonna share this particular story about how music moved me one day while I was still teaching in the classroom – but not in the traditional “I heard a song and was moved”-type of way. This was actually via a student of mine, matter of fact… He was my best student. Like everyone else who came through my classroom, he knew that I was a working musician who toured, released music, etc. and he would always inquire about my shows and the music, in general. Remembering this, at the end of one school year, I surprised him by passing him copies of three of my albums (Passion & Definition, Re:Definition and Freelance). I let him know how proud I was of his successful school year in the music room and encouraged him to keep up his great work. We chatted a little while longer before he headed home for the summer… And to be honest, I didn’t think too much more about it after that… I mean giving praise to kids who are doing a good job in the classroom is all in a day’s work, right?
During that summer, I was in the middle of taking more classes at George Washington University for my Master’s degree in Special Education Children with Emotional and Behavioral Disorders. It was actually dope the way it was set up. The professors would come to US at OUR school and teach so convenience was completely in our favor in regards to not having to travel down overly-congested ass Connecticut Ave. to GW’s campus to attend classes. The thing was, I took my summers off every year so in order to continue with the degree and graduate on time with the teachers I started the program with, I would have to spend some of my time back at the school. Maaaaaaaan, I didn’t want to do that!! Didn’t y’all hear what the late, great Bernie Mac said?? “When Black folks ‘break’… We BREAK!!” He was telling jokes, but he wasn’t joking… I wanted NO parts of that school during my cherished summers off. Eh… With that being said….. my ass was right back at the school taking classes with everyone else during my summer break. Well, this one particular day after one of the classes was over, I decided to head downstairs to the music room just to check on things and make sure my spot was still in order. I got a knock at the door….. I thought to myself, “Dammit, who the hell is this?! I’ll bet it’s someone who saw me come into the room and now they want to try and come in here and bang on the drums…” ……Opened the door and saw that it was the student who I gave all of the music to. Helluva relief…. We chatted for a second to catch up, but I could tell that he was a little hyped up about something. He wasted no time cutting the conversation short with, “Hey, Mr. Ferguson, I want you to listen to this!” He proceeded to plug his guitar into one of the amps on the floor. I responded with, “Ah ok, what you got? You been working on some new material?” …Not quite. BUT, what he began to play rendered me absolutely motionless and speechless. My jaw damn near hit the floor as I realized that he was playing parts of songs from the albums of mine that I had given him a month prior! I’ll tell you what, after experiencing this level of extreme humility I have realized that it will automatically diminish your vocabulary, because all I could come up with to say in response was the SAT-vocab section worthy, “Yooooooooooooooooooooooo!!!!” …while repeating, “Come on man… Come ON man, really?!” It was CRAZY. He told me that he had been using the CDs to practice on during the summer. WOW. Listen man, lemme tell y’all something real quick… I’m not a crier, but this damn near got me good that day. Do you understand what it means to have a student of yours who has pretty much changed his life around because of the music instrument you put and helped keep in his hand and now he wants to get better by learning music you wrote….???!! And he plays back to you what he has taught himself by ear??!!?!? Not only was this a highlight in my teaching career, but a highlight in my LIFE.
Once again, Music. MOVES. Music is moving… Allow it to work in you.
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)