Tue, 29 Apr 2008 07:24:58
AZ never stops hustling. Even at this very second, he's on his way to DJ Kayslay's studio to drop some rhymes. "I'm heading to the studio to do a track for his album—he's the drama king [laughs]. He's got an album coming out on Koch, so I'm doing a song with him." AZ's one of the few MCs from the early '90s East Coast scene that hasn't thought of hanging it up. He's still got the passion for rap, and his cuts are as fiery as ever. His latest release Undeniable (Koch) brings hip hop back to the streets, but with a classy, soulful flare. AZ's rhymes cover New York, from the hood to the high rises, and he doesn't show any signs of stopping. He spoke with ARTISTdirect about his career, the game and why you're going to look back on his work and be like, "Damn!"
Undeniable is definitely your best record so far.
You know what? I think so too. I'm at a chapter in my life where I've been in the game, and I've seen it all, but I still have the passion and the love for it, regardless of what's going on. Everybody's saying, "The South is dominating." Everyone gets his, or her, run. The East Coast started this. The West got a hold of it, and then the Midwest had their moment. Now the South's doing what they're doing. It's good, because everyone's eating now, and everyone has a chance to express himself. So I guess the hate will be at an all-time low soon, and it'll just be good art.
You make a strong point starting off the new record with "The Game Don't Stop." No matter where the rap scene migrates, everyone is still hustling.
Indeed. That's why I set it off that way. Not only that, it never really stops until you consider it being over. That's why I start off with "The Game Don't Stop."
You incorporate a lot of classic soul and R&B elements into this record that give it a distinct vibe.
When I came out, I was on "Life's a Bitch" from Nas's Illmatic. That song had an O'Jays' sample. I got such a good response on that track, and that record went platinum. I found inspiration on those types of albums. The old R&B records were all classics. They were always soulful and moving. I always want to move people. Even if it doesn't have that effect right now, as we speak, when you listen to these albums, five or ten years from now, they will become classics. Everyone will be at different places in their lives, and that's where I'm at now. Some times some people say I'm ahead of myself. When you do catch on, whenever that will be, you'll understand where I was coming from [laughs].
Also, Undeniable still tells some pretty vivid stories about what life's like on the streets.
Yes sir, that's my life. That's where I'm from—Brooklyn. I just try to stay in my zone and my lane. I listen to the radio, here and there. I also listen to a lot of mixtapes. I really just stay focused on my life and what I've been through. I try to keep my circle small. Energy is transferred in the circle that I keep. So it never really escapes.
What's behind "Life on the Line" and "Dead End?"
"Life on the Line" was given to me with the hook on it. I just felt that I put my life on the line as a young man, on the streets, in the hustle game and in the rap game. You can try to escape, but you've got to live through it. You know what I mean? I just put my life on that track. I tried to speak to everyone on that particular track—my people and my peers. I love "Life on the Line." At the end of the day, anybody that's doing their thing for a change, or a positive movement, is putting their life on the line in front of all the haters and all of those doubtful ones. There it is. There was a selfish aspect to it. No one wants to be around, when shit is fucked up, but when shit is good, everyone wants to be around. That was my whole thing. Make good decisions, because at any moment, you could be in the other person's shoes. humble, and have an open mind, when you're dealing with life. That's what I tried to get across.
It's a positive message you're getting across.
Indeed, but the funny thing is that I don't aim for that. I just feel it when I write and when I get into that process of creating a record. I get into that zone.
“The old R&B records were all classics. They were always soulful and moving. I always want to move people.”
It's a good place to be in, because you keep creative, and you've put out a lot of music.
I'm going to continue. I do it, because for some reason I feel—not like I'm black-balled from the game—but I just feel like a renegade at the end of the day, because I'm not with a family. A friend of mine said, "You're so underrated, but is it because you're not part of a family?" Meaning, I don't have the Roc-A-Fellas or the G-Units of the game behind me, making those powerful movements. I believe, as a solo entity, I'm also a bit of a threat. I'm a standup man; I'm intelligent—just everything that makes a man. I might be a threat to some people. I know it's a business at the end of the day. I'm going to keep creating, because I know the powers that be don't want me around. You know what I mean? That's my motivation [laughs].
You've been an independent artist in this game for a long time. There's something to be said for that. You didn't just get a deal, because you were part of someone's crew.
I never get recognized for it. I never get appreciated for it. I never get noticed. So I'm going to keep doing it until I'm appreciated for it and noticed. I want my peers, and those that love music, to see it. I want to leave a legacy like that. It's like, "Yo, he always kept at it. He never asked anybody for anything. He just did his own thing, regardless. He went from major to independent." If someone's willing to be a part of what I'm doing, I'm with it, and my door's open, but I never really had to bow all the way down, and sell my soul, to salvage the pursuit of happiness. That's why it just feels good.
That's the vindication at the end of the day. You followed your own path, and you didn't need anyone else.
Yes sir, and that's the best part right there.
How'd "Go Getta" with Ray-J come about?
[Laughs] Ray-J and I go way back. We shot a little street movie in Detroit a couple years ago called Envy. He's like my little cousin in the movie, and we've been cool since then. When he came to Koch, I was like, "Let's get in the studio and record something." It's a great track, and it was a good look on his part, so we put it on the album. He's doing what he's doing right now, so it's a good look. I needed that fly sound in the middle of the album. I need it to be diverse and show my many faces.
The title Undeniable fits the record, because there's something there for everyone from the casual rap fan to the diehard. It's undeniable.
That's why I titled it that, because I felt like I crossed all topics. Not to say any of my other albums were denied, because everything is for that particular moment in time. Right now, I just felt like, listen, we need some substance in music. This is what the East Coast is doing, and here it goes.
The East Coast needs that right now, because no one is really holding it down over there.
I know! I don't really understand it at all, because this what we do. It's a beautiful thing. This is a big dollar industry. We all can have some fun, and make some money. So let's continue making good music. Why stop? I'm waiting for the Jadakiss album. I'm waiting for the new Nas album. I want Jigga to do his thing. I love what 50 Cent is doing. There are just so many other people that are talented from this side that represent East Coast to the fullest. I'm like, "Listen, man, let's form and do what we do. This is what we do."
There's so much history to East Coast rap, and you've been there since early on.
Now, try that! You're right. I've been here since the golden era—the early '90s and the changing of the guards. That's when it went from Rakim to Biggie, Nas, Wu-Tang Clan, Jigga and AZ. I was from that era. I feel like it's important that we keep that going. So the generation that comes up on the East Coast doesn't lose that focus and they keep their musical penmanship sharp. The game is in one direction. It's only for a moment. I try to tell them, "Stay in your lane, because everything will always 360."
It's crazy how the game's changed. Mixtape trading has gone from parking lots to chat rooms.
Everything is a growth and development process, even in life. It's a good thing. It has a yin and yang to it, but it just opens up music to a broader audience at the end of the day. It opens up the market.
When you get to spit on mixtapes is it more creative because there are no rules?
There you go. It's excellent. There are no rules at all, and you can just express yourself to the 10th power. The mixtape game has been slowing down a bit, because there are so many artists out there. It's ridiculous. If you're not rapping, you're producing mixtapes. While everything is taking on a new life, and the game is changing, everything is at a bit of a standstill. However, everyone's going to keep making music and going on. It's saturated so much that I'm hoping the talent comes. Everybody's hustling now, so when you're hustling, it's not even looked at as a talent or an art form anymore. You're just trying to make money. It's, "I'm going to start my company, get a few artists, sell a few records and get it on iTunes." That's what the purpose is now, to be honest. The purpose is not really for the culture and for the love of the game anymore. It's like, "Hey, I'm hustling who cares?"
That's why it's important you drop a record like Undeniable.
There you go. That's why I said it on "Superstar"—it's embarrassing that I still spit lyrics [laughs]. People look at me like, "That's so '90s." [Laughs] That's what I get. They tell me I'm "So '90s." They can call it whatever they want to call it. At the end of the day, I'm not going to stop over here.
Is there anyone else you'd really want to collaborate with?
I would love to do something with Snoop Dogg, just because he's a force out there in Cali. I'd love to do something with Ludacris. He's one of the artists I appreciate. There are a few more. As far as production, I'd love to work with Pharrell or Kanye West. I just want to make a super album some time with all of the best producers and like three features that are just crazy. I think it'd take me to another level.
You're still excited about music.
This is life, man. We breathe life into these mics. It's so beautiful. I look at as a legacy. We're not here forever. I know I'm supposed to be writing about the past. Everyone's probably thinking about now, and I'm just thinking about the future and what I'll leave behind—hopefully the jewels I'll leave behind—will be my testament. If somebody can learn from what I'm spitting, and it moves them, it'll be a good thing. At that point, I have done something on earth [laughs]. I'm a peaceful brother at the end of the day. I've seen it all. I've been around it all. I've got two sons now. I'm just trying to do the right thing and do what I do.