It’s the summer of 2015 and AZ is in Costa Rica wearing the sunshine like a cape. The hip-hop super hero is making his words manifest like a 3D printer, lounging in the villa he rhymed about on his 1995 hit “Sugar Hill” from his debut album Doe Or Die. He is using the envious backdrop for the new video to “Back To Myself,” a reflective new song that finds the BK rhyme vet bringing things full circle like the smoke rings from his favorite cigar.
“The more things change the more they stay the same,” AZ says of the song produced by frequent collaborator BpZy (aka Baby Paul). “I got rid of all the negative energy around and I been through everything that I had to go through. But it got me back into the frame of mind that I initially set everything off with. Baby Paul brought the track to the table and the beat without a hook at first. I loved the beat, it got me in a nice zone. I’ve been recording and this sounds like the AZ from day one. I don’t have to cater to what the industry is doing right now. I know I got a fan base out there so we set it off with “Back To Myself.” I still feel vibrant, I feel fresh and I’ve preserved myself well. So I just wanted to bring that villa back to celebrate the 20th. I spoke about it and now I did it.”
“I was inspired by the Eminem song ft. Sia, ‘Guts Over Fear’ and asked my friend the talented Soshy (artist/songwriter for Timbaland, Nelly Furtado) to write something inspirational that would reflect longevity and perseverance in a cynical music business,” producer BpZy adds. “Back To Myself” is a testament to both of our careers – him as a respected lyricist, me as a credible producer having been making hiphop records since the early 90’s.”
It’s been over two decades since the rap masses first heard AZ set off Nas’s “Life’s A Bitch” with what is still one of the most celebrated guest verses in hip-hop. The star-making turn lead to his own solo album Doe or Die being released a year later and the eventual formation of super group The Firm with Foxy Brown, Nas, Cormega and Nature. After the radio reverberated with the melodic thump of “Phone Tap” AZ went on to build an impressive catalogue of seven more solo albums, the last being 2009’s Legendary.
But now AZ is preparing to return to the chamber that started it all, celebrating the 20th Anniversary of Doe Or Die by recording its long-rumored sequel.
“It’s a little over half way done,” he says of Doe or Die 2. “I’m going into overdrive through the winter and I guarantee no later than first or second quarter of next year it’ll be out. As for the producers I’m trying to switch it up and add some new flavor. I’m gonna keep Buckwild, Premier and Pete Rock but I have a lot of new producers to bring some new flavor to the table. It’s so far so good. Remember I told you that. So far so good. I’m not gonna let anybody down. I get stronger as I go on.”
The anticipation for Doe or Die 2 is palpable because its predecessor was so good. Helping to usher in hip-hop’s mafioso era, the lead single “Sugar Hill” celebrated opulence over L.E.S’s flip of Juicy’s “Sugar Free” with Miss Jones caramelizing the hook. However, it was one AZ admits to not waning to do at first.
“It’s crazy because it went to show me that I don’t know anything. I started out in the park jams with a type of rapping and was like ‘I don’t give a fuck about radio’ but you have to pay the bills and it is a business. I learned that there’s a method to it. You can still express yourself but you gotta balance it out. It was shocking. There was a door opening when Biggie put out ‘Juicy’ (ironically the song by Mtume that the ‘Sugar Free’ creators named themselves after) and it’s only gonna be open for a while, and whoever got through was gonna get through. So the stars were lined up and I went through that door.”
However, the album was balanced by more rugged tracks like “More Money, More Murder, More Homicide” and the Pete Rock produced “Rather Unique.”
“Pete did ‘The World Is Yours’ for Nas and I was around for those sessions,” AZ remembers. “So I wanted something melodic that I could get my talent across and people could hear my wordplay. Pete brought that to the table and me listening to the beat— I don’t think we had a hook yet. So I spit the first verse and you know Pete is just a producer genius. So he just started cutting up that Big Daddy Kane (from “Just Rhyming With Biz”), “Rather unique..could I be weak,” and I said it’s on now. Back then I was smoking a whole lot of weed. Every hour of every day was a blunt. So that high and that beat just mixed together…”
While AZ’s penchant for cigars and “sipping con-gi-ac” would become his calling card, it was always his complex lyricism that made him a stand-out, even adjacent to peers like Nas. The album’s lead track “Uncut Raw” featured lines like “Life is a struggle, that’s why n*ggas I know stay on the juggle/ Some hustle to double, others hug you to mug you..” which were a reminder that the have-knots still outnumbered the haves.
“Brooklyn in the ‘80s was just crazy,” he says of the song. “I think everywhere was crazy but it was so upfront and forward. If you wasn’t part of the inner circle then don’t come over here. For me, BK was known for being aggressive but I always wanted to be the thinker. The strong control the weak, but the smart control both. I was always attracted to the bosses of things because it takes more than to be strong. It’s too easy to do the wrong thing. It don’t take no brains to slap somebody or pull the trigger.”
Probably the only thing AZ gets asked about more than the follow up to Doe or Die is the possibility of reuniting with Nas. While the two have appeared together on songs like Stillmatic’s “The Flyest” and “The Essence” from AZIATIC, fans want to hear more from them.
“Me and Nas, when we first started in the game we had dreams to bring our talents to the table. As kids we were happy if we got a single out. But twenty years later it’s like wow, we both mean a lot to the game. Imagine just having conversations with “what if’s?” and then it goes way beyond what we even thought. Both being business men we took separate roads. We came together of course as The Firm and was on each other’s albums, but we have our own identities we want to bring forth. At the end of the day he’s moving in his direction and I’m moving in mine. We got a couple of songs in the can… if they come out, if they don’t…I’m not sure. We’re like one and the same but he’s happy doing him and I’m happy doing me. We cool.”
No matter how vivid AZ’s rhymes may be, it’s impossible fit an entire lifetime of experience into one album. So AZ has a memoir coming, “Jewels, Gems, & Treasures” which documents his mindset while creating his classics. The book and his future music will be distributed through his newly launched website QuietMoneyDirect.
“Me really being independent, I really wanted to totally get rid of the middlemen and deal with the fans directly. It’s [been] some trial and error. I’m putting out merchandise for my core audience and trying to get a new fan base, putting out music to see who is still riding with A.”
In the multi-media age having music, a book and a website can only mean that a full length visual treatment must be on the way as well, especially with Time Is Illmatic being one of the most celebrated hip-hop movies of 2014.
“My documentary is in play,” AZ confirms. “Me and BET are working on it right now. We’re shooting as we speak. It’ll be released by the time the album drops. I’m doing a lot of things trying to keep my feet wet and give my core what they want while getting a new fan base.”
Part of getting a new fanbase (and reconnecting with your old one) is trying new things. Last year AZ was on Ghostface Killah’s 36 Seasons album, appearing on five tracks as the crooked cop who was dating Tony’s girl “Bamboo” while he was in jail. His participation in the musical crime drama inspired AZ to try his hand at his own concept album, which will be released sometime after Doe or Die 2.
In addition to making quiet money on records, AZ makes sure he gets out and touches the people physically. So it was no surprise that on a Sunday night in Brooklyn he was among the boldface names in attendance at Milk River Lounge to witness Fredro Starr and Keith Murray engage in a first of its kind rhyme battle. It was a novelty to see two MCs from his era try something like this, and while AZ will only say that “it was good for hip-hop,” don’t expect him to be stepping on stage in that way anytime soon.
“People ask me [to battle] all the time. I don’t call myself a philosopher but I see myself as a poet. I’m not even in competitive mode. I speak life – what I’ve been through, what others have been through, what I’ve seen – and hope that I can help them with their life. So it’s crazy when people ask me if I wanna battle X,Y, Z. I don’t try to out rap nobody. When you get caught up in the trends of things you can lose love. Being an older guy trying to dress super young, you look crazy. My style is my style and the truth is the foundation. This is how you stand tall for 20 years. Just be yourself.”