The Return of the Only One
YZ was New Jersey’s rap ambassador years before anyone else came on the scene. He’s influenced everything in rap from business to its sound. He deserves his flowers.
Rap unlike other genres puts a premium on youth, discarding anything and anyone who doesn’t fit into what’s booming then. There are a few older rap figures who’ve felt slighted by the culture, taking to various platforms and sites to air their grievances. There are others though who instead take every chance they can to give props to the sound of the youth, choosing not to bring attention to their accomplishments despite all they’ve done. YZ would be in the latter group.
By the age of twenty-five, YZ, born Anthony Hill, accomplished everything a musician could, launching a successful rap career as a solo artist, owning a record label, and discovering once in a generation talent with the group Poor Righteous Teachers and rapper Yasin Bey formerly known as Mos Def to name a few.
He guided rap through the late 80s into the golden era of the early 90s, dropping classic records like “I’m Bad”, “In Control of Things’’, “Thinking of A Master Plan” “The Ghetto’s Been Good to Me” and “Return of the Holy One”. He was New Jersey’s rap ambassador, kicking open the door years before other notable groups and emcees like Queen Latifah, Naughty By Nature and Redman arrived. His entrepreneurial savvy was unlike anything else at the time as he brokered a 50/50 ownership deal with Diversity Records, years before other rappers thought to do so. His path is unlike anybody else before him, but as giant as his footprints are, the rap game has relegated his steps to a smaller mountain than it deserves.
In Control of Things
“I really was one of the youngest rap artists to own his label and production company. Don’t get me wrong, you had Andre Harrell with Uptown Records, but he had a parent label. I was totally independent. But I’m from Jersey and we don’t get credit for that.”
YZ’s demeanor reflects a calm but confident attitude. He’s not boastful, but sure of what he’s accomplished. At 18, he and his musical partner, Tony D, started a production company, Two-Tone Productions, as a nod to their contrasting complexions. YZ then brokered a deal with Diversity Records, an early rap label based in Trenton, New Jersey, which he used to promote his single, “In Control of Things” on the radio. Though he was young, YZ displayed a knack for business and an ear for music. Not long after acquiring Diversity Records, Tony D and YZ discovered a budding genius in the conscious rap group, Poor Righteous Teachers. “As soon as I heard Wise Intelligent rhyme, I said right then- he has to be my next artist!”.
Ultimately, friction between the group and YZ led to the group’s choice to leave Diversity Records. “I think Tony got into PRT’s ear and so next thing you know, I hear they want a release.” His partner, Tim Baylor, at Diversity did not want the group to leave, but YZ persisted, granting them the release they sought. As with all partnerships, you inherit the energy of your partner, and it wasn’t long before Tony D’s personal issues with other artists caused YZ problems. “Tony was really upset with folks that they were using samples that he was using. It never really meant much to me. Even Puff used our sample.”
Tony and YZ dropped the “Get Off My Rhythm” song in retaliation and YZ received the brunt of the anger from Poor Righteous Teachers, Naughty By Nature, Flavor Unit, Big Daddy Kane, and GangStarr. It was an unnecessary beef and an unfortunate consequence he suffered for being loyal, but it didn’t stop YZ from moving his career forward. He dropped his debut album, Sons of the Father, in 1990 with Tuff City Records, and changed rap with his singles, “Tower With the Power” and “Thinking of a Master Plan”.
The latter track contained gems of knowledge on a range of issues, including a foreshadowing of a black president and a notable appearance of Nelson Mandela at the 1990 parade in New York. “There was a lot of prophecy in that video. There are references to a.44 and as you know Barack Obama was the 44th president. Not to mention at the time of the video, Nelson Mandela wasn’t the president yet. That’s a hell of a coincidence.” YZ’s background with the Nation of Gods and Earths certainly played a role in the message of his music, but his delivery made him palatable to rap fans everywhere.
Return of the Holy One
By 1993, YZ was a burgeoning rap star, earning respect in the underground scene for his sound and skills. His hard work paid off, and they signed him to Livin Large Records. His first single, “Return of the Holy One” represented a shift in the aesthetic of rap records. “Return of the Holy One was about as gritty as a video could be. Before that video, there were no videos like that. Dr. Dre in 1992 had the shiny videos. This was before Jeru the Damaja, Das EFX, Redman, Wu-Tang Clan.”
A gritty, grainy video, the song represented a shift from the sound and feel of the first album as YZ embraced a more aggressive sound and outlook. “They asked me, you sure you want this to be the single?! Rap was in the middle of an identity crisis then as it embraced a more commercially driven message, but YZ persisted. It paid off when his single, “The Ghetto’s Been Good to Me”, was featured on the soundtrack for the movie Above the Rim.
YZ, ever the connector, gave a chance to an upcoming photographer and director named Daniel Hastings. Daniel is most known for doing the album cover for Wu-Tang Clan Enter the Wu-Tang 36 Chambers, Big Pun’s Capital Punishment, and Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, but YZ’s video was his start into the game. ‘’I brought him in and he shot the cover and video for The Ghetto’s Been Good to Me. He had never directed before, but after that, it launched his career.” Despite the success of the song, the album failed to translate to the commercial success it deserved.
Undaunted, YZ switched hats, moving into management with his 720 Entertainment. He crossed paths with some of everyone in this life and signed several acts including The Legion of D.U.M.E., 8-Off the Assassin, and a group known as Urban Thermo Dynamics. Yasin Bey, formerly known as Mos Def, was a part of the group Urban Thermo Dynamics, along with his brother DCQ and his sister Ces. “We knew from the door Mos was going to be a superhero. He just had so much class and charisma.”
Despite how talented YZ was at recognizing and nurturing talent, he became frustrated with the politics of the industry and the demands of artistry. Displeased with how things were, YZ took the best route for himself and stepped away from the limelight, focusing on producing and managing behind the scenes. As of recent, he’s managed everyone from Stic.man of Dead Prez to the Kentucky hip-hop group Nappy Roots.
We look at music as a young person’s game, but YZ’s impact on the game proves otherwise. “I am a part of the structure. My brick is a part of the building. And no matter how much they try to discredit me or Jersey, artists like myself have been of great service to hip-hop. We don’t get enough credit for it, but, I’m glad we aren’t out here begging for the credit.” Spoken like a true legend.