Hip-Hop History Tuesdays: Producer Johnny Z Breaks Down His Vallejo Group N2DEEP's 1992 Hit Single "Back To The Hotel"

Posted by Billyjam, July 7, 2015 12:15pm | Post a Comment

23 hip-hop summers ago back in mid-1992 the song heard everywhere across the nation (including and especially in their native Bay Area where KMEL had it on constant replay) was "Back To The Hotel" by Vallejo rap group N2DEEP. The song, which these days is heard in regular rotation on hip-hop oldies or "throwback" stations like the Bay Area's Q102, became a global hit for the Bay Area group signed to prestigious New York hip-hop label Profile Records. The album of the same name was produced by founding member Johnny Z along with the two official group members/rappers James "Jay Tee" Trujillo and Timothy "TL" Lyon. In fact the "Back To The Hotel" single (one of three from the successful album along with "Toss Up" and "The Weekend") was such a big hit for the prolific North Bay crew, that it overshadowed all their other work and hence would garner them in later years that unfortunate tag of "one-hit-wonder" status by such outlets as Complex magazine and BuzzFeed. That is too bad since N2DEEP recorded so much more equally great music (before and after) as the beloved "Back To The Hotel" song, which the average pundit mistakenly believed was their debut single. That song wasn't meant to be a single, or even initially titled "Back To The Hotel" but rather "Telly" when it was released a year earlier in 1991 on Johnny Z's Vallejo-based indie label Rated Z Recordz. Hence for this Hip-Hop History Tuesdays Amoeblog, I caught up with mastermind behind the song, Johnny "Z" Zunino, to go back in time to the early 1990's and jog his memory about N2DEEP, their recordings before their big hit single, and to find out why they changed the title and their original group name ("3DEEP"). That conversation appears immediately below the video for the 1992 Profile single.

N2Deep "Back To The Hotel" (1992)

Amoeblog: Even before "Back to the Hotel" there was an earlier N2Deep release from 1990, right?

Johnny Z: "Work That Body" by N2DEEP was the first Rated Z Recordz release ever. I released it on 12” and cassette single in 1990. That was N2DEEP’s first release as a group. Before that they just had demo tapes and did live shows whenever they could. I was actually in the original group called 3DEEP and we did one show together for a Christmas talent show sponsored by KMEL. We lost to the up and coming rap group, Sway & King Tech.

Amoeblog: From dealing you from those early days it always appeared that you were very business-minded and saw the big picture, right from the get-go - even though you were still relatively young. Would you agree and you say that professionalism helped you in landing a record deal with a Profile?

Johnny Z: I had just graduated from Sacramento State University with a degree in Business Marketing & Management, so I had some business knowledge but very little experience. I saw what other rap groups like, Run-D.M.C., Beastie Boys, and N.W.A were doing as far as releasing there records, and kind of just mimicked them. I was pretty much winging it the whole way. Once we had a few songs that we thought were worthy, we put together an 4-song EP called Back To The Hotel. I was ready to release it through Walter Z at City Hall Distribution [San Rafael based indie label distributor] on cassette and 12,” when a friend of mine introduced me to a music consultant that said he could get our material to any label we wanted. I hired him and told him to send our tape to Profile Records. He overnighted our promo package to Cory Robbins at Profile, and Cory called him the next day and said he wanted to sign us. Three years of making demos and performing shows, and it happened that quick! The funny thing is that I sent Cory Robbins our “Work That Body” single a few months before and he passed.

Amoeblog: Okay so the original 12" in 1991 was entitled Back To The Hotel as the four song EP name but "Telly" was the actual song name, right? And then there was the later on Profile "Back To The Hotel (Telly remix)" track. So did you change name to make it more universal sounding to be understood (Telly being Bay slanguage for hotel) or what was the actual story behind this?

Johnny Z: Yeah the EP was originally called Back To The Hotel, but the song was called "Telly."  Cory Robbins suggested keeping the song name as "Back To The Hotel" which made more sense. We agreed and ended up calling the remix on the Profile 12”  release, “Telly Remix.” Yeah people weren’t too hip to the Bay Area lingo back then. I don’t think people today are all that hip to it still.

   Left is the 1991 Rated Z Recordz EP cassette cover. Right is the 1992 Profile cassingle cover

Amoeblog: From recently reviewing materials you had sent me back in the early 90's you mentioned that originally "Telly"/"Back To The Hotel" was not intended as the single or main track for clubs and radio but another EP track. So how did that go down?

Johnny Z: Yeah we thought [EP track] "N2DEEP (We’re Who?)" was going to be our single, but everybody who heard Back To The Hotel instantly knew we had a hit! It was cool how everybody reacted to that song as soon as it came on. Cory Robbins said he knew he wanted to sign us 30 seconds into hearing it.

Amoeblog: Speaking of Cory Robbins of Profile Records, how was that whole experience for you as an unknown group from Vallejo landing a deal with the NYC label known for Run-D.M.C. and all those other legendary hip-hop acts?

Johnny Z: Once Cory from Profile wanted to sign us, everything happened so fast. While negotiating the deal, we went back to KLOU Studios in Richmond, CA to finish the album. By the way the whole album was recorded on an 8-track reel-to-reel tape machine. Once the deal was signed, we flew out to NYC to Profile, then had all the photo and video shoots, had the album mastered, and before we knew it, KMEL was breaking the record to radio. We were also on YO! MTV Raps. The first album with Profile was a great experience. Bruce Reiner was their radio rep and he hated the record, but he was a major force in breaking it.

Amoeblog: So specifically just how successful was "Back To The Hotel" in terms of chart and radio play and video play - both in US and overseas?

Johnny Z:  BAM Magazine said it was the most overplayed song in the Bay Area in 1992. I guess that’s good!? The single was outselling the album and reached about 800,000 units when Profile pulled it to push album sales. Officially the album and single went Gold, but it sold at least Platinum. I still collect BMI checks for radio play. It was a big record mostly on the Western side of the US, although everybody knew about it. The craziest thing about it, is that they still play it regularly on radio stations and clubs around the country.

Amoeblog: Yeah just last week my buddy Bay Area DJ DnZ, who is now based in Tokyo Japan, was relating how he met a DJ from Baltimore living in Japan who associated the Bay Area first with N2DEEP and that single ("That's my jam" he told DnZ) which further proves its impact. So how did the huge success of the single affect your personal career? Did you get more gigs, offers of remixes, etc.?

Johnny Z: It really jump started my career. It allowed me to open Rated Z Studioz in Downtown Vallejo [used to be on Marin Street] and work with all the Bay Area artists including E-40, Spice 1, Mac Dre, and Potna Deuce - Baby Bash’s [aka Baby Beesh] first group. I also got a deal with Profile for them. I even got to work with Run-D.M.C., our Profile label mates.

Amoeblog: How was the whole sampling scenario by that stage in the rap game, as the rules and copyright laws were changing, when you released the single? IE in terms of the main sample of Lafayette Afro Rock Band's "Darkest Light" etc. Was it a hassle in anyway?

Johnny Z: Let’s just say we cleared some samples and didn’t clear others.

Amoeblog: If you were now today, two and a half decades later in this current music environment, at the same stage as back then - beginning your music career, and with your music and business knowledge, do you think it would be easier or more difficult in this Digital Age to break into the music biz as you did?

Johnny Z: I think it would be more difficult in today’s world, mainly because there’s more competition now. Back then, there weren’t as many artists recording hip-hop, because it was still relatively new. It was also a completely different business model. Labels were starting to take notice in the rise of hip-hop and were signing groups to old school record deals. Today, you have to either be part of an already established team, or self promote and make your own noise before any record deals get offered. If "Back To The Hotel" was released now, it probably wouldn’t be as big of a hit. But if the Internet was around back then, I think it would’ve still took off like it did. It just would’ve reached people in a different way.

Amoeblog: Thanks for going back over all this Bay Area rap history related to "Back To The Hotel" which is really only one small part in your long prolific career. Before going can you tell me what your current and/or most recent music projects are?

Johnny Z: I live in Burbank now and still have a studio where I like to work with up and coming artists. I work with a few rappers from the Bay Area: Get Ricch, Daryllick, Dirt, and Paige Raymond. I also work with old school homies like Coolio Da Unda Dogg, and a country hip-hop artist named Raytona. I just completed a six-song EP with a reggae artist from San Diego named Nathan Darmody. It’s different than most projects I’ve worked on but it’s got a nice feel to it. I love music and meeting and working with various artists. Once music is in you, it’s not that easy to just walk away.

N2DEEP "The Weekend" one of three singles from the album Back To The Hotel (1992)

Relevant Tags

Run-d.m.c. (12), Bay Area Rap History (6), Johnny Z (1), Rated Z Recordz (1), Bay Area Hip-hop History (12), Vallejo Rap (2), N2deep (1), Cory Robbins (1), Profile Records (2)