AZ: Vivid Visualiza
While he might not have ever been able to enjoy the commercial success of Biggie and Jay-Z, the fellow Brooklynites he sat at the table with in 95 as a respected equal in Jays Dead Presidents video, he is deserved of the same respect.
Unfortunately, rap fans read Soundscan, and the perception they form from it of whos hot and whos not becomes the reality artists must reside in. And although his debut single, 1995s Sugar Hill went gold, the classic album it was featured on, Doe Or Die, inexplicably failed to net a plaque, and therefore the light shining on AZs commercial career grew dimmer with each subsequent release. While his next three solo efforts (1998s Pieces of a Man, 2001s 9 Lives, and 2002s Aziatic) all came close to going gold, save for 1997s group effort with Nas, Foxy Brown and Nature, The Firm: The Album, AZ has essentially remained off of mainstream raps radar for a decade.
Thankfully, for fans of one Rather Unique emcee, AZ hasnt given up and called it quits simply because he never attained the same chart positions of B.I.G. or Jay, or even Nas, the man who introduced AZ The Visualiza to the masses on 1994s classic collabo, Lifes A Bitch. Instead, Anthony Cruz has soldiered on, destined to leave a lasting legacy of great music behind. A legacy he will continue adding onto in March with the release of his seventh solo effort, Undeniable [click here to listen to album sampler]. And in a surprisingly candid conversation with HipHopDX, AZ explains why he must establish his own musical legacy without the assistance of his onetime partner-in-rhyme, how he may have some competition on the mic emerging in his own family, and most importantly why hell never, never, never, stop giving us that Uncut Raw.
HipHopDX: My first question for you is actually a question Nas posed at a recent performance in New York, Wheres AZ at? So, where has the Visualiza been at?
AZ: Well, just trying to figure the game out. You know I been in the game for a minute. As you get a little older in the game, you learn a little more about the business. So I was just trying to get my business tight, cause I made that transition from major to independent. I been dealing with Koch since A.W.O.L. in 05, and that was the transition from major to independent. I had my problems with majors, from EMI to Virgin to Motown, and I just made the transition to being my own boss and I just been figuring it all out. So, thats basically it, I been trying to master my craft, the business side and the art side.
DX: I dont know if Im overstepping my bounds by asking this, but are you and Nas not in regular contact? Is he really unable to find you?
AZ: [Laughs]. Listen, hes on a cloud. Hes the one chillin. He got the better hand, so when you got the better hand you always can reach out and reach back, and make a certain move. So, Im accessible whenever, but at the end of the day he doin him and Im doin me right now. We had that chance to do that Batman and Robin thing, but I feel like that time has passed. Thats my perspective, I dont know about the fans and how he feel. I just feel that time has passed, cause that window was open and we aint really go through it. So, now I gotta plant my feet into the legacy of Hip Hop and get my story out there. And thats basically what this album is about. Like, Im not saying that any of my other albums been denied, but all Im saying is on Undeniable, Im touching on all aspects and speaking my mind. Im just doing me. Im trying to get my own light, so when its said and done I made my mark in Hip Hop, not because, Oh, what happened to you and Nas, or under that shadow.
DX: Didnt you guys just do a track together for Undeniable though?
AZ: No, sir.
DX: Theres a phony tracklisting out there I guess then. Its got a track called Visions of Gandhi that you guys supposedly did together.
AZ: Me and Nas have not recorded a record together since Me and Nas have not been in the studio for a while. Like I said, I would always love to get in the studio with him because its magic. I would love it, but once you get to a certain level, business starts playing a part and then other things start playing on the psyche of man, once they get caught up in certain zones or go through certain chambers. So, like I said, if the opportunity positions itself, Im here. And if its the right situation, Im here. But other than that, Im a man and hes a man, and Im gonna get respected as one. Thats how Ima die, respected as a man.
DX: Lets go back to Undeniable, tell our readers what they should expect from AZ this go-round.
AZ: Aww man, AZ get better with time like wine. I dont lose it because I stay grounded. I dont get mixed up in a lot of bullshit that go on out in the world, not even just the music business but the streets I came from. I try to stay grounded and deal with family and day-one peoples. And [this album] is just my story. Like, all my albums were episodes or chapters, and this one is that autobiography.
DX: And just for clarification, since theres some phony information out there, who all you got laying down beats on the album?
AZ: I got my man [Lil] Fame from M.O.P. He mustve been [studying] under Primo, because his beats are serious. I got Street Radio bringing that street sound to the table. I got Emile, he did a lot of Ghosts tracks. They each got about three tracks a piece.
DX: No Primo?
AZ: No Primo right now. Its not a bad thing. We gotta skip an album every now and then so they can learn to appreciate Primo. He was on the last two joints that I did [2005s A.W.O.L. and 2006s The Format], which was a good look, and I would love to work with Primo [again] cause hes Hip Hop. But, I dont think my fans are gonna miss that because this is one of them albums where you get into AZ. It aint even all about the production, even though the production is serious, this [album] is more about understanding my story.
DX: I love the beats I heard on the album sampler. You always know how to pick them 80s R&B vibe tracks but with a modern twist to em.
AZ: Right, which works for me. Everything dont work for everybody. It works for me and helps me get my story across.
DX: I thought I read somewhere that you were grooming a new artist, is he on the album?
AZ: I didnt get him on the album yet. I didnt even hand the album in all the way yet, so he might jump on it. [His name is] StarKim. But if we throw that name out there I just wanna be sure that a few other names get out there like Y.G. [Young God], Fresh, and my man Animal. I just wanna keep those names out there because however it goes down them my peoples. Its one dream, one team.
DX: So is Quiet Money as a label still in effect?
AZ: Yes, sir.
DX: You looking to do anything beyond this AZ project to get them names out there more?
AZ: Oh, no doubt. We gonna mixtape it to death, see who the crowd gravitate towards and go with that person. We just gonna try to get everybody out there. Thats my main thing is to let other people shine.
DX: Would you ever take them, or yourself, to a major label? It kinda sounds like youre way past that, but would you ever go back to a major?
AZ: I mean, if its the right situation, if I could go to a major where we in business together, not me under somebody.
DX: And how many more indie AZ albums you think we gonna get? Do you ever think about the day youre not gonna be doing this no more?
AZ: [Laughs]. I thought about it a couple times, but I get stronger the longer I go, and thats the truth. I sit back and I say, "Damn, you know what, as time go on I start loving my music more and more myself." And so at the end of the day, I dont think I ever really wanna stop. But, like I said, Im my own boss and Im not contractually under nothing and so I can always say, "Fuck it," and chill, or put out three or four albums a year if I want to.
DX: [Starts rappin lyrics from The Game Dont Stop off Undeniable] The game dont stop/Til the player get knocked/Or the shit flip flop and you sittin on top.
AZ: Ya dig! Thats the anthem for 08. The game never stops, either you under the bus and someone else is filling your spot, or you on top of things and calling the shots.
DX: So outside of AZ solo albums, we gonna ever see any more collabo albums, maybe another Firm project?
AZ: Paul, Ima be honest.
DX: Its been a minute.
AZ: Its been a minute, and Im open to a lot of things because I feel we all grown now. So if The Firm present itself, I am here. If the Nas situation presents itself, I am here. As long as everything is real, and no games or no shadiness [is going on], Im good money. Im gonna hold it down.
DX: Have you spoken or written to Foxy since shes been locked down?
AZ: I wanna go see her. I did a song on her [upcoming] album. I dont know if she heard it or not yet, but I did a song on her album that hopefully makes the album. Im looking forward to seeing her, cause at the end of the day, even outside of music we all peoples, we A-alikes.
DX: Its ironic to me, and maybe it shouldnt be, that based on his sometimes strained relationship with Nas that you and Cormega would have a working relationship. You guys recently collaborated for Statik Selektahs album, so can we expect more Mega and AZ records to follow?
AZ: I know Megas doing him. Theres no qualms [to working together again] over here. We can work, the doors always open. I put it like this, I dont look forward to anything, but when the situations present themselves thats when Im open for em. Im never bitter or salty about nothing, cause Im a man and theres too much energy for that. I just never try to premeditate anything. Thats what angle Im speaking from, its like whatever. I dont look forward towards anything, but if it presents itself and its a good look, lets get it poppin. If its not a good look, love is always love.
DX: I wanna switch gears here and ask you about a few verses you spit on the new album, the first being from the title-track, Im a decade in, from my borough/Way wicked than Wes Craven/Then again, certain things I could never do. What things were you speaking on?
AZ: [Laughs] Just certain things, a lot of sucka shit that goes on. Like, I cant shit on my peoples. And Im talking about my real peoples, not somebody like, Oh, thats my man from high school. And, if Im gonna do the crime Im gonna do the time. Thats the type of person I am. Theres just certain things Id never do, go out the back door on somebody, Im not a thief. I dont steal. I dont take. Theres just certain principles I stand by. And theres just certain things that I would never do that would equate to a crab level because thats not in my nature. You aint gotta worry about me doing none of that sucka shit.
DX: I thought maybe you were referring to moves in this music business?
AZ: Including that. When I speak its all of the above. Its hard to differentiate the streets from the music business because the same type of people exist in both. Theyre mirror reflections of each other.
DX: Now this next bar is from Superstar, which is like my favorite track on the Undeniable sampler, I was told they want the old God back, Im here. Do you feel you strayed from the AZ of old?
AZ: We grow, but yeah, I strayed a little bit from keeping it raw, keeping it one hunnid. But Im here now.
DX: On The Game Dont Stop did I understand the story you were telling correctly, your seed made you walk away from the game at 19?
AZ: That made me walk away from the street game. I left the streets and embraced the music business.
DX: So is there an AZ Jr.?
AZ: [Laughs] Yeah, I got a son. I got two sons actually.
DX: They found their way to a microphone yet?
AZ: I think my oldest one trying to work towards it, so well see what comes out of it.
DX: Word. Hey, put him on the album.
AZ: I know, right, see what he do. We might gotta experiment with that.
DX: He got a rap name?
AZ: He calls himself Lil AZ. He gotta find his own attribute. Thats what Im always trying to tell him, Be you. But for now hes Lil AZ.
DX: Were in this new era, man, where its really like second, third generation and were gonna see if the next generation can do anything with it.
AZ: Can they? I wanna see it. I wanna see some substance brought to the table. We know what it is, we know music comes in all different forms, but when we grew up it was substance and it helped sculpt us into the people we are. So with this second and third generation I wanna see what they bring to the table, because its experience thats the best teacher. This new generation isnt experiencing what we went through, so its hard to forecast whats gonna come from them musically.
DX: Some of the second generation of rappers get it, like Peter Gunz son Cory Gunz, but they dont get heard unfortunately.
AZ: You right. I like him too, I like Cory Gunz.
DX: Now I got a few questions here about stuff you spit on Life On The Line, the first being were you referring to L.L. Cool J when you said, Rap well, since Sugar Hill, homie ask L?
AZ: No, the L was for L.E.S., who produced Lifes A Bitch and Sugar Hill.
DX: The next verse from that song I wanna ask you about is, Im still rhyming/Im surviving on tour, with them war wounds on me/Yall dudes so corny, cowards. Who are the cornballs youre referring to?
AZ: [Laughs]. Just the muthafuckas that aint letting me in the game, thats all. Let me in. Lets stop the blackballing and the hating and just let me in. It is the music business and with business you got your positives and you got your negatives. Theres certain people in power that can make certain things happen or not happen, ya dig what Im saying? So, cmon, lets play fair instead of saying, Well, Ima lock radio down and make sure nobody else shit get played. Only play these artists, dont play these artists.
DX: Now this final line from Life On The Line I gotta ask you about is a pretty obvious one, Nas got rich and reached back, I aint rich yet. Can you elaborate on what you were saying there?
AZ: Its like this, like I said I got sons and they listen to Hip Hop and they hearing all of this beefin going on, like with 50. And he hears me on Nas album and is like, Whats up with yall? Yall not doing no more music?
DX: Hes interviewing you before I even get to you.
AZ: Ya dig what Im sayin! And Im like, Nah, hes doing him now. Im trying to explain it to him, and hes like, So, are you gonna start a beef with Nas? Like, thats how you can sell records. Hes thinking thats the way to sell records. And Im saying, No, you gotta be successful based on your own merit. He got rich and reached back, I aint rich yet and you see me still doing what Im doing. Be a man. And if I can reach him like that, [I can reach] everybody else thats coming into the game thinking thats the way it is. Like, No, you aint gotta do that to sell records. Show your talent to sell records. Be a man. And I know a lot of brothers will take that [verse] and misconstrue it. Nas got rich and reached back, I aint rich yet, like, Oh, the muthafucka just said fuck Nas. But thats not gonna stop me. I know the world want us to go to war. What you think, Paul, they want us to go to war?
DX: Nah, we want more [The] Esscence, more The Flyest.
AZ: You a good brother, because you know somebody reading this gonna be like, "Nah, fuck that."
DX: What would be the point?
AZ: Theres no point, thats what Im trying to show to the younger fans. He got rich and reached back, I aint rich yet, meaning Im still doing me and Im still being successful, yall can do the same. Altercation is not always the answer to everything.
DX: Well the final couple bars I wanna ask you about are in regards to this line from Now I Know, Few regrets, breathe through the youth/Ima seasoned vet, I need no excuse. What did you mean when you said I need no excuse?
AZ: Meaning Im doing me, and thats what it is. Everybody ask, Why you not selling this? Why you not doing this? And once again it goes back to just, Why you aint going at Nas? Or, If him and Jay went through that and got over it, whatever the bullshit you and him going through, cmon with you fuckin guys. Everybody got something to say, and Im like, "Man, fuck it, it is what it is." I got no regrets over what happened or whats going on now, and I need no excuse to explain to everybody whats going on. Just give me my lane and let me do me.