When it comes to hip hop’s elite, one name that is not mentioned by enough hip hop heads is AZ. Most of the time he gets overshadowed by his former partner Nas, who he came up with back in 1994, although the quality of their music over the years has been strikingly similar. To his credit, and as he discusses in this interview, AZ learned to get past the frustration of not getting mainstream recognition and has consistently managed to put out quality music for over 15 years now. He’s someone we will always respect for not making commercial singles just for money, and for that reason in our humble opinion he remains a true hip hop legend.
YKIGS: Being in this rap game nearly 20 years, how does it feel to still be here when most of the people you came up with are nowhere to be found?
AZ: *Laughs* Pardon me for laughing, but I’ve been in the game 15 years. Those I’ve been around, they gone, the one fairly missed God bless the dead is B.I.G. But I mean Nas still around, Jay-Z still around, Mobb Deep still doing what they do, Wu Tang is still alive and doing what they doing. But it feels good to still be here and do what I do.
YKIGS: So you’re going to be releasing this “Doe or Die” 15th Anniversary edition pretty soon, what made you decide to put this out?
AZ: Well I was really working on “Doe or Die 2” and I just didn’t want to speed it, and I know that most of the music I did it stays relevant so I said you know what, let me just build this bridge between my last album and “Doe or Die 2.” And when I was working on “Doe or Die 2” it hit me that October was 15 years that I’ve been doing this and I was like wow. I was already releasing songs periodically through the summertime and I said you know what, let me just take a couple of songs off of “Doe or Die” and remix them and throw like five new songs and put out the 15th Anniversary just to keep the fans pleased and hopefully get some new fans at the same time, and that’s where we are at.
YKIGS: If you were say to release this “Doe or Die” album, say you were just starting your career today and you released the original album today, what do you think the reception would be like from fans of hip hop today? Do you think they would understand it?
AZ: Well I mean it’s a new era so I don’t think they’d digest it. Back then, New York had its foot on the game and it was about lyrics and beats and things of that nature back then. Not to take nothing from now, but right now it’s a different era, different fan base. So if I was to put that album out now, I don’t think it would really touch the peoples as it did then because the minds are different and the fans are different. But if we were rating it as far as music and lyricism, I’m sure I’d get the same love.
YKIGS: I definitely agree. You’re working on the “Doe or Die 2” album, how far along are you with that project?
AZ: Well I have a few songs so I’m just going to stay recording and hopefully by the summertime release “Doe or Die 2.” So I’m recording and recording, aint no stamped date on it yet.
YKIGS: I was reading that you had hoped to enlist some really big name producers on the project like Kanye, Dr. Dre, DJ Premier, and also the original production team from “Doe or Die.” Have you been successful with lining those up?
AZ: I mean everything is cool, all of them people is working as far as Kanye and Dre, they getting ready to drop albums and all of that. Pete Rock is on board, that’s like family, I got a lot of music from him already, and those that was already on “Doe or Die” I got music. So as far as the producers that I want, it’s just in motion right now, but the fact that I’m not rushing this album “Doe or Die 2” I’m sure I’ll be good by the time I release it.
YKIGS: You released the video for “Feel My Pain” over the summer. What was the reception like on that song?
AZ: Oh man I got a lot of love, a whole lot of love and I appreciate the love I got. And I just got finished wrapping up “Gimme Yours” video over the weekend, I’m going to release that this week coming so I’m just gearing up for that.
YKIGS: Is that a new version of it?
AZ: Yes a new version, 2010 of “Gimme Yours.”
YKIGS: So we’ve mentioned you’ve been in this game for a long time now, what keeps you hungry and motivated to still deliver such quality music?
AZ: I’m a lyricist at heart for one, for two I love the agme, for three self motivated man and the people that are lost in the game and those peoples that’s still in the game doing it motivates me. So it’s a combination of everything.
YKIGS: Many consider you a legend and one of the greatest rappers ever, but from my view it never seems like you get the credit you deserve in terms of record sales or anything. Does this get you frustrated and did it ever push you to the point where you wanted to just give up rapping?
AZ: Nah, like I said it’s the love of the game. Me being underrated was back then a title they gave me like in the middle of my career, and it was like wow, everybody is popping and doing they thing and wow, my music is not getting rated and played as much. But I understood the business part about it and a lot of these people that are on the top of the list had a machine behind them, and I kinda more or less was dealing with a lot of labels that were cool, but not real grounded in hip hop as Def Jam or the other labels that were. When I got the title, me being underrated, then it was a little frustrating, but like I said when I figured out the dynamics to me now it’s about doing what I do and stay pleasing my fans. I’m cool with it, I don’t even care now because that title, you get it, you get it taken from you, this that and the third. It don’t mean nothing being the baddest and all that.
YKIGS: Last year you released two mixtapes in “Legendary” and “G.O.D. (Gold, Oil & Diamonds).” How come you classified these as mixtapes and not albums because it was all original material?
AZ: Because they were like…my mindset was mixtape and I did both of those albums in one day, kinda, sorta. So I didn’t put that much love…when you hear this “Doe or Die” 15th Anniversary, you feel the love and hear the love. When you listen to albums that I say albums, you kinda feel the love. Like these was just like wreck, I was catching wreck on them, writing as soon as I heard the beat whatever come to my mind and just wreck. So you’ll hear the difference when you listen to something I call an album, but those are considered mixtapes.
YKIGS: On these mixtapes, and on a lot of your albums over the years, I’ve noticed you’ve used a lot of soul samples on your beats. Was this done by design and are you a fan of old school r&b and soul music?
AZ: Oh yea definitely a fan of old school r&b, but I don’t think it was done by design, it was just the music I picked. I need to feel…it helps me write, so I guess it just happens to come out that way.
YKIGS: In your opinion, what’s your best album?
AZ: Hmmm…the best album is “Aziatic,” to me, “Aziatic” to me is the best album, and “Doe or Die.” “Doe or Die” being my first one, “Aziatic” was just then when I understood what this whole shit was about, I got to that point where I understood what it was about and the love been there, but it just amplified. And from there on I’ve been off to the races.
YKIGS: I would actually choose the “A.W.O.L.” album, I like that one a lot.
AZ: “A.W.O.L.” was gangsta too but I knew what started me into that zone was the “Aziatic.” That put me into that just stay focused and don’t get caught up in the business part and just stay true to my lyrics and from then on, to me, all of them albums, if you listen to “The Format,” “Undeniable,” it’s just been like that.
YKIGS: If you could bring back one rapper who has passed away to collaborate with, who would it be and why?
AZ: That’s a foul question. *Laughs* That’s a foul question! I would bring them all back and do one big collaboration, a song with everybody. All of the hip hop artists that passed I’d get them all on one song and we’d all catch wreck. *Laughs*
YKIGS: You and Nas were always rumored to have done an album together, to be working on an album together years ago. But if you had ever released an album, and we were talking about that album today, do you think we would be talking about one of the best albums ever in hip hop?
AZ: Guaranteed! Hands down guaranteed!
YKIGS: Why do you say that? What was your guys’ chemistry like working together?
AZ: It was automatic, the chemistry was automatic and that was the best part about our friendship was we’d get in the studio and just got into that zone and it wasn’t even a competitive zone, it was a good music making zone. So that’s why all of the songs we ever did was considered classics, all of them, from the ones that never was played on the radio, to those that was played on the radio. It was because of the chemistry.
YKIGS: With the way hip hop has changed so much since you came out, with the quality of the music declining and all of that, do you even listen to any hip hop artists who are out today? And if so, who?
AZ: I mean me being a fan of hip hop, you’ve got to listen to what is going on, and I don’t really study anything, but you listen to the radio and you go on the computer and you go on sites. I like the Wiz Khalifa’s, and the J. Cole’s, and I like Drake, and the artists that just really still got their swag and still a fan of lyrics. At the same time catering to not going too far, just reaching that medium of what’s going on right now, I kinda like them guys, probably a few more, but them in particular.
YKIGS: One thing I’ve admired about your music is you’ve never stooped to any gimmicks, you never really changed up your style too much to go commercial, and you’ve always stayed true. That’s something I’ve always appreciated. Have you ever been tempted to try to do that for the radio?
AZ: Even when I try to make those songs, it still came out with that type of lyrics structure, that’s as far as I would go, I don’t know how to do anything else so I don’t think my mind ever adjusted. Pop is just popular to the masses, that’s what pop means, so to be popular to the masses is having your music out there and playing consistently. Anything can be considered pop when it’s playing on the radio 20 times a day, anybody’s record from anybody. That’s how gangsta rap got to this level and got titled because that was all being produced and pushed out to the masses and that was popular at one particular time and a lot of people capitalized off of that. But then you know rap switched so much, you go through different seasons.
YKIGS: From all your years in the industry, if you could go back and change anything, would there be anything you would change and why?
AZ: Nah, everything is good, everything is designed the way it’s designed, I have no qualms with it. As long as I am able to just do what I need to do and want I want to do and take care of my family and have a clear mind at the end of the day, I’m cool and that’s where I’m at with it. I wouldn’t change anything.
YKIGS: As you continue to release albums and get older, do you see yourself giving up rap at any time, or is that just in the distant future?
AZ: I’m always going to write music, that’s what I love, music, so I’m never going to really stop. Stop putting out music? I don’t even really see no need to right now the way the internet is and to see…it’s not the same marketing plan as before to get music sold and all of that, so I don’t know. I know I took myself out of rap itself, like just the whole structure of it, so my mind is totally different right now, I just do music right now because I love it. I’ll put it out, if I don’t put it out it’s cool, so it’s not even a matter of I aint doin this shit no more, I’m going to do this because I’m my own man, I put out my own music, I’ve got my own distribution company and things of that nature. So it’s like I’m not looking for a deal, so it is what it is, if I do I do, if I don’t I don’t, but I’m not thinking about it.
YKIGS: Besides recording and doing shows and all of that, could you see yourself doing anything else, even getting into the business side like developing artists?
AZ: Well I’m developing artists as we speak, I’m never going to stop performing, performing is a whole nother level of the game, I love performing, so I’m always going to do that. The business part is growing on me, and I’m even going to start with the movies, start doing a few movies in a minute, that’s the next part of the game. So that’s where I’m at.
YKIGS: That’s all I had prepared, is there anything else you’d like to add?
AZ: Everybody go get that “Doe or Die” 15th Anniversary, it’s crazy, five new songs, five other songs from “Doe or Die” remixed. You will hear the love in it and it’s worth go getting. And get ready for that “Doe or Die 2,” I’m cooking it up. I’m here, I aint going nowhere.