AZ On "Illmatic": "I Helped Build That House"
AZ reflects on his 20-year career following his guest appearance on Nas' "Illmatic." He also explains why The Firm failed, and chooses between "Takeover" & "Ether."
AZ's detailed his contributions to Illmatic scores of times. It’s arguably the question he’s received most frequently throughout his 20-year career. As told, Nas invited AZ to one of the now classic recording sessions. AZ attended with the intent to solely show support. While in the smoke-filled studio, L.E.S. dropped a beat and reflexively AZ began humming a hook he had stuck in his head. Nas liked it so much that he asked AZ to lay a verse on the track. AZ complied. Nas added his rhymes. “Life’s A Bitch” is born and AZ was immediately etched into the talisman of Hip Hop history.
“Honestly, if I wasn’t in the studio at that time and it never happened it wouldn’t have been no love lost because that was never my goal to be around Nas,” AZ explains in this exclusive conversation with HipHopDX. He continues:
“I was just being supportive. I came to a lot of his sessions prior to that record being done. Every time I came I brought a bottle of champagne. Now you’ve gotta understand, we’re 19, 20 years-old and I’m bringing bottles of champagne to every session just to say, ‘Yo, you did it. You making that move that we all would wanna make and I’m here to celebrate it and help,’ you know. Just to be there, just to be some kind of inspiration.”
The irony behind the lore is that, outside of occasionally spitting raps for his incarcerated homies and that fateful cypher conference call where he first met the Queensbridge lyricist (which he details in this interview), few knew AZ was an emcee. Even more surprising, AZ says he barely had rhyme ambitions at all.
“I didn’t,” he continues. “It’s crazy. I was like, ‘If it happens, it happens. It’s cool.’ If it didn’t, it wasn’t to die for. It wasn’t like, ‘Ah, I gotta get on.’ I didn’t have that at all. I didn’t have none of that.”
While this interview is timed around the twentieth anniversary of Nas’ revered debut album, it’s not about Illmatic. This is about Hip Hop’s quiet giant who captured lightening in a bottle and used it to power one of Rap’s shrewdest careers. 20 years later, AZ’s released seven albums on five labels and never been dropped. He evacuated the major label system before it became trendy. He’s always owned his publishing. He’s never lost respect as an emcee, never ceased in his mission to teach the masses. “Life’s A Bitch” may have made him famous, but it’s not what made him a man.
AZ reflects on it all in this conversation. He explains why The Firm was a failed experiment concocted by Steve Stoute and explicitly details the “bullshit” behind the independent model. He talks collaborations with Beanie Sigel, Little Brother and RZA. And in a moment of perspective synonymous with his moniker, The Visualizer dissects the historic battle between Nas and Jay Z and chooses between “Ether” and “Takeover.”
AZ Shares Pitfalls Of The Independent Music Model
HipHopDX: The thing that stands out most to me is how humble you remain. “A humble guy walks light and hits hard.” You say that quote all the time. Is that humility part of the reason why you’re underrated? In a sense, have you made it a choice to remain underrated?
AZ: It’s not a choice, but what it is is that it’s a music business. And the fact that it’s business first—then talent—you understand the business model only lets you move to a certain level. To be in that business circle, there’s a few things you gotta let go and there’s a few things you gotta add on. At the end of the day, with all the labels merging and people getting fired and you fall in and out of relationships, sometimes some people get stuck. A lot of people excel because they make certain decisions and they’re at the right places at the right time.
Through all the things that I’ve been through, I’ll say that I’ve landed at a certain position where we can put the humble umbrella over it. It’s like, “OK, I’m raw here, but I didn’t make this move or that move.” Not that I’m not talented, but there’s still a business structure to it and I’m at this level right now so I’m under that humble umbrella. Not that I’m underrated, but this is where I’m gonna be at right here because of the way the business is structured. That’s where all these things come to play like, “He’s underrated. He’s a humble guy.” This is the title I hold right now because it is what it is.
DX: It’s really surprising to think that you think that way. You’ve been on five different record labels. You’ve never been dropped…
DX: You were way ahead of the curve in moving into an independent space. I just never thought about you considering that type of ceiling [to your career]—especially now with the independent lane so wide open.
AZ: It’s wide open, but it’s still just words. There’s still bullshit that comes with that independent game to an extent. When I was learning it and being a part of it, that’s a whole-nother world within itself. When you learn that, [you learn] there’s bullshit involved. The only way to be totally independent is to be your own distributor. That’s the only way to be independent because even the distributors have their ways of holding some of your reserves and things of that nature. Contractually, when you’re dealing with distributors, you’ve gotta move a certain way.
Me making the transition from the majors, I still had that major frame of mind and I went independent. Sometimes independent was just a title because they were still holding reserves. They were still charging for pressing [CDs]. So when we’re getting the money back, by that time we were like a [$1,050,000] in reserves and it costs this much to press this much, you’re still kind of in the red and we still had to figure out some shit. It was still bullshit. So now it’s another level to this independent game and I’m like, “OK, cool. I’ve got to become my own distributor. How can I figure this part out?” And that’s where I’m at right now. That’s my only main concern is being my own distributor. “OK. Do I press my own things physically? Do I just go digital?” The lane is real wide open right now. It is.
DX: Was that the reason behind your decision to start paying for everything out of pocket?
AZ: I was testing the waters with that, and just trying to find new angles. Who I was dealing with when I was independent, that was just a title once again, because of course they want to charge you for percentage of reserves, pressing up. It’s like, “Am I still independent? They’re still doing everything for me. I’m just adapting that title, ‘Independent.’” And then you’re like, “It sounds good, but is it really making sense?” So I had to reevaluate. Since then I’ve been dealing with digital and doing all my shows. It’s looking at the whole grand scheme of things and seeing where I’m at with this whole twentieth anniversary with Nas and Illmatic. I was a part of that. It’s like, “Wow, I’m a part of something that’s monumental as well.” I helped build that house, at the end of the day. It’s seeing the position that I hold and still try to maintain my integrity.
With so many artists all over the world, everybody raps. It’s really a thing to do now. You’ve gotta maneuver through all of this. I’m still in that position where I’m trying to hit my target. I got love for the culture so it’s gonna be in my blood forever until the day that I leave this planet. I still gotta be able to hit my target. I feel like I’m always in a great position and by my ways and actions you can tell that I’m blessed. That’s just my frame of mind. It’s a good thing.
AZ Says Bad Business Prevented The Firm Sequel
DX: When The Firm's The Album dropped, it shook my whole high school. We hadn’t seen a super group like that come together. It’s interesting to think about it because in retrospect, it feels like Dr. Dre was moving away from Death Row Records at that time and trying to find his next outlet for music. So he went to the East Coast and grabbed the flyest talent. Did that feel like an experiment when you guys were working on that album?
AZ: [Laughs] That’s some funny shit. It definitely was! It was an experiment because you’re mixing artists that have their own individuality and their own fan base. You were mixing producers from two different coasts. Dre do what he do and Trackmasters doing what they do. Then you had everybody’s managers and everybody’s majors involved, so it definitely was an experiment. So it was definitely an experiment. It was an experience as well—I’m sure for everybody. For me, it was definitely an experience. But it was an experiment, too, man.
They say we didn’t reach expectations though it sold 1.5 [million] worldwide. I guess with everybody that was involved, it was supposed to do 5 million or go diamond or something. That was the expectations. I felt that to put it together and complete it was a task within itself and we accomplished that. Once again, that’s where that business model comes in at. It’s a good look, but business didn’t pan out. That’s why you never saw The Firm II.
DX: How did that pitch happen? Everybody was so busy. Was it Trackmasters and Dre saying, “Yo, let’s do this?” Was it Nas saying, “Hey, this is an idea?” Was it just the success of “Affirmative Action” the song? I can’t imagine you guys sitting still long enough to say, “Yo, this is how we’re gonna do it.” I feel like someone must’ve said, “Yo, this pitch is on the table.”
AZ: From my perspective how I seen it: Me and Nas always had perspective when we first started out. On my first album [Doe Or Die], on “Mo Money, Mo Murder, Mo Homicide,” we spoke about The Firm and put something together. I always thought it would be just me and him, but I guess other players came involved as far as Steve Stoute being the president of Sony at that time. I think he was making the transition to Interscope. He was overseeing Nas’ management and Nas’ second album [It Was Written] did what it did. I guess him being in the studio with Dre and Steve trying to make that move and him being the manager of Trackmasters—I think they masterminded that. I say that to say that I was in a business frame of mind, but I was excluded from helping to mastermind that movement. In hindsight, I understand that, once again, this is the music business. These are the lessons I’ve learned. So I guess [Nas], Steve and Dr. Dre came up with that and it made sense for them with the musical chairs they were playing at that time—transitioning and trying to make power moves and build up their legacy. I wasn’t thinking legacy.
When I first started, there was a transition from the streets to the music. That was my blessing right there! That was my whole focus, like, “OK. This is it!” That was my claim to fame, making that transition. It’s like levels of school and grades. They saw another picture. They were like, “Yo, this is a culture and we gotta engrave our names on the pyramid walls.” That’s how they were thinking. I think Steve brought Nas to that mind, because me and Nas, we was just happy to get out of the confinements of poverty where we was and let our voice be heard and speak to the people and share our pain with the people. That was our whole claim to fame. I guess once again, Steve being in the position that he was in, he saw things and he felt that since he was overseeing Nas at that time—that was the closest thing to him—he pulled him into that realm. Once again, that’s where the music model come in at, so, there you have it.
DX: That make sense now, because Steve Stoute started working with Nas on It Was Written and that’s when Nas’ music made an intentional commercial shift.
AZ Explains Sonic Change Between Nas' Illmatic & It Was Written
DX: Was the way that It Was Written sounded surprising to you following what you saw happen with Illmatic?
AZ: It didn’t surprise me, because I had success with “Sugar Hill.” Here I am coming off a critically acclaimed [appearance] with “Life’s A Bitch” that got a lot of ears and eyes. People talk. I made that transition and once again I keep bringing it up, it was a business. We can always battle for our people and be local but I started to understand that music is universal. So Nas being a backpack guy at that time—lyrically and all that—I understood what [Puff Daddy] and them was doing. They was reaching out to the masses with [The Notorious B.I.G.] doing “One More Chance” and the songs that he was doing. So I said with “Sugar Hill,” I can still speak my language but sonically reach the masses. And once that wall was broken down, I guess Nas seeing that as well and Steve being the outsider seeing in and having access to Trackmasters—which was everybody’s music at that time and doing remixes for everybody—he capitalized off that. He merged the two. Nas still had those street records on there, but he also had the records with Lauryn Hill and Jodeci that was reaching different people.
I was there through the process of that album and I seen where it was going. I figured, “Yo, I’m a team player and it makes sense for the team. The further he get, the further I get, the further we get.” That’s been my mindset since day one. It comes out and they reached their goal in trying to help vault them to help take further steps and levels in this music business. It worked.
DX: What do you remember about “Phone Tap?” That song was so innovative. How long did it take to pen that?
AZ: We was just writing. Honestly, I think that “Phone Tap” zone, I came up with that. I was like, “What if we were talking through the phone?” With all the minds in there it just fell in place in one day. That record was done in four hours. The beat came up. We rapped. We wrote it right there. It was a song.
DX: That time period feels super competitive. You’ve got Biggie's “Kick In The Door” directed at Nas. You’ve got East Coast versus West Coast over everything. You’ve got Tupac and Nas encountering each other at Bryant Park around the MTV Music Awards. When you were writing rhymes, were you trying to be the best or were you just trying to express yourself?
AZ: I was expressing myself. I was trying to touch the people. I just wanted to get it out to the people that we all suffer the same and we’re all the same struggle but here’s the way to move. If you listen to my music, I was speaking to the criminals but I also was saying, “OK. We’ve gotta get out of that mind frame and use that to take you to the next level.” From “Sugar Hill” on I was trying to express that. It was never competitive to me. I saw no competition, honestly. I felt like when we came to the door, we was the best. I felt like our worst is better than most people’s best. That’s how I honestly saw it. I never seen no competition.
DX: You must’ve been the only one! [Laughs]
AZ: And you know what, that’s crazy because, in hindsight that was my curse and my gift because if I had thought that, I could’ve turned the fire up on any and everybody! Me personally, my sword was always sharp. It was nothing to do that. But I was thinking so different when I got into the game and I thought my claim to fame was just making that transition, so now let me speak to the people so they can make that transition in life. That was my whole thing. But if I would’ve thought competition, guarantee I can be Top 5 at any given minute. I even think right now if I turn it up I’m Top 5. If it was an even playing field and we all got exposed at the same levels, I think I can be Top 5. I don’t even think. I know. I possess all qualities.
DX: What was the mood like in that era when everything was breaking so big? How did you feel about everything that was happening?
AZ: I felt good because I was big, too. I was the person to watch out for. I was good. The contract was right. My vibe was right. The living was right. I was that nigga so the vibe was good. It was where it was supposed to be: “We all standing tall. What’s up?” That kind of vibe.
DX: How did you stay away from conflict?
AZ: It wasn’t intentionally done. I wasn’t looking for it and if it would’ve came my way, I would’ve handled it accordingly. It was just something that never presented itself to me. It just never presented itself. I guess the aura you carry is what you attract and I wasn’t carrying that aura. But I was seen and heard everywhere. I was in the mix like everybody else, but I move with respect and I was getting that back. That’s what it was.
DX: Mind detect mind.
AZ: Mind detect mind all day. I showed my love and people showed their love back. I read The Art Of War and things of that nature and the way that I moved, I didn’t attract that. I knew when I was on unfamiliar ground and I moved accordingly. And even when I was on ground that I represented, I showed that love. I wasn’t putting pressure on people and making people feel a certain way. My thing is like, “We’re here. Let’s enjoy it. Let’s make it happen.” Maybe I may have been wrong for that because maybe other moves could’ve been made and the tide could’ve been shift, but I appreciate it. The position I’m in is a great position. It’s a great position. I own my publishing. I own the majority of my masters and I’m an independent artist. I can do what I want. I can sign who I want. We all have enemies here and there within the game but I intentionally never burned no bridges. At the end of the day, like I said, it’s a business. It’s like real estate. Your real estate has to be of value to be in certain positions to make sure it moves. I’m still building my real estate. But I see the game for what it’s worth through hindsight. It’s business, not personal.
AZ Says He Never Wanted To Release "Sugar Hill"
DX: Did you expect “Sugar Hill” to be considered as a classic?
AZ: Never. I never expected that. I kind of never wanted to put that song out honestly. I was upset at the label for even trying to go that route but they saw something I didn’t see and went with it. So it was all good.
DX: Why didn’t you want to put that song out?
AZ: That was the way the tides were shifting at that time—with B.I.G. dropping that same vibe with his first single [“Juicy”]. I just wanted hardcore beats and rap. They were like, “He has to make money. We’re in this to make money.” I’m like, “You know what, let’s see what this do. But if it don’t work, there’s gonna be a lot of furniture moving in here.” It panned out and it did what it did.
DX: You’ve told the Illmatic story your whole career. Here’s what I have: You first met Nas over a cypher-style conference call set up with friends. Akinyele was on the phone. You’ve mentioned that Large Professor might’ve been on the phone as well. That’s how you meet Nas. Later, Nas invites you to the studio while he’s recording Illmatic and you go purely to show support. L.E.S. drops a beat for what would become “Life’s A Bitch” and you start humming the hook—which sounds like you had it [before going to the studio that day]. Nas is like, “I like that. You got something for it?” And you were like, “Yeah,” and then dropped your verse.
DX: Is “Life’s A Bitch” really your song? It sounds like mostly your ideas.
AZ: Yeah. It was. You hit it on the head. I was humming the beat. He liked it. I had something cooked up and I laid it down. And the rest was history. I was surprised that he liked it that much that he put it on the album but I appreciate it at the same time.
DX: It sounds wild that you met Nas over call with Akinyele and Large Professor on the line. Did you have those type of cypher calls often?
AZ: Nah. Not at all. No way. I wouldn’t do that all the time. I did like to rap. A lot of people didn’t know that I could rap, honestly. But when I had the chance to amongst the homies I did it. That was one of the few. I think I rapped for one of the two homies in jails. You know, “They calling at jail time like, ‘Yo, my man get busy.’” I did phone wise once or twice for the homies that were incarcerated. But Nas and them and a lot of people on the phone, I think that was one of the only times I did that.
DX: When did you start writing rhymes?
AZ: I think I always did write. As far as my influences, [Rakim] and [Big Daddy Kane] and them was doing they thing, I started around that time writing and trying to perfect it. That’s when it touched me.
DX: Did you have any aspirations to [rap professionally]? All of this sounds divine.
AZ: Right. It was like hitting the lotto. I had aspirations but it was like, “I don’t know if it can really happen, but let me in the mean time between time, for my personal preference I’m gonna write it and spit it because it feels good.” It feels good, so I’ma spit it like that.
DX: Let’s say you don’t get invited to the studio that day. Do you pursue a music career? Does any of this transpire if you don’t pull out a hook that you happened to have at a time when few knew you were writing? Are you known as AZ without that moment?
AZ: Honestly, if I wasn’t in the studio at that time and it never happened it wouldn’t have been no love lost because that was never my goal to be around Nas. I was just being supportive. I came to a lot of his sessions prior to that record being done. Every time I came I brought a bottle of champagne. Now you’ve gotta understand, we’re 19, 20 years-old and I’m bringing bottles of champagne to every session—I’m sure he would confirm that—just to say, “Yo, you did it. You making that move that we all would wanna make and I’m here to celebrate it and help,” you know. Just be there, just to be some kind of inspiration.
DX: But even away from Nas, though. If you don’t go to the studio that day, do you end up making an album later? The way you’ve described it previously, that verse sparked the bidding war between Sony and EMI, then Doe Or Die, then everything else. But it never sounds like you thought about a music career before that session.
AZ: I didn’t. It’s crazy. I was like, “If it happens, it happens. It’s cool.” If it didn’t, it wasn’t to die for. It wasn’t like, “Ah, I gotta get on.” I didn’t have that at all. I didn’t have none of that.
AZ Details Direction Of Quiet Money Records
DX: Rappers are really vulnerable these days. What do you impress upon the artists on Quiet Money that you’re preparing to put out?
AZ: For different times, there are different measures. When we were coming through the door it was about individuality. You didn’t need all the gimmicks to do what you had to do and display your talent. Now that the game has changed, I think it takes that for an artist to really [be successful]. There’s so much. Back then it was like, “OK. You have talent. You’re on.” Right now it’s not just about the talent. It is about the gimmicks. It is about notoriety. I wouldn’t tell my artists to use gimmicks to get one up. But I would always tell them to be talented at what they do. The game has changed. Society has changed. The fan base changed. Everything changed and my whole thing now is that legacy. It finally hit me. It’s the legacy. Now I see what everybody is chasing. I say to everybody, do I become the problem now that I see what they’ve been chasing and I have never chased it? Am I problem now that I’m still here? I know a lot of people wish I probably wasn’t or they’re probably not even thinking about it at all—which can still be a minus.
I’m developing some artists and I hope that they represent and they keep my name alive. That’s the goal now: For my name to echo through the centuries. That’s my whole goal now.
AZ Recalls Jay Z vs. Nas Battle
DX: One of my all-time favorite AZ tracks is “Whatever Happened (The Birth)” off of Pieces Of A Man, featuring RZA. To me, it always sounds like your most at home on gritty, grimy tracks. In my opinion, RZA was best at making those type of beats at that time. Were you two talking about doing something together for a while?
AZ: Back then, people make their rounds through the studios to get their work done. I think RZA came to one of the sessions and I knew he had the beats. At that time, he was stepping up on the rap side and I was like, “Yo, let’s make something happen.” He brought the beats to the table. That album was after Doe Or Die—which did good—me being a part of It Was Written and after The Firm. It was kind of in the mix. A lot of producers were coming around and there were so many beats. We just vibed off that one. I thought it would be a good look. That’s one of my favorites too, though.
DX: I always felt like 2001 was an interesting year for you. You released 9 Lives that year which had “That’s Real” on the album featuring Beanie Sigel. There’s “How Many Wanna” featuring Amil. You also went to Eli Whitney [Technical] High School with Jay Z. Was there ever a conversation about signing to Roc-A-Fella?
AZ: No, not at all. That Beanie Sigel song was on the Light It Up soundtrack and I took that song from there. That Amil with her on the hook, I was working on a song at that time and someone had access to her. I wanted a female on that track and we just did that. It wasn’t like I was trying to be on Roc-a-Fella. But their brand was good and I was right there and I was working.
DX: Later that year, you were on “The Flyest” off of Stillmatic. In between 9 Lives and Stillmatic, The Blueprint drops and now the Jay Z/Nas beef was the only thing Rap was talking about. Did you ever have conversations with Jay and Nas while they were tossing bars at each other?
AZ: Me and Nas built but, at the end of the day, I knew it was Rap. Following what happened with BIG and Pac, I knew these two guys were smart enough not to go there. Nas, he’s to himself a lot. I didn’t have to tell anybody his movements about how his attack plan was gonna happen. We all knew that. Everybody was just waiting. I think he was indecisive on how he was gonna attack it himself. I guess he came to a point like, “You know what, you gotta do something.” We built on it a little bit but it wasn’t a daily topic. But the world knew and I knew it was something he was contemplating.
DX: Did you ever you talk to Jay Z about it? Your album came out in June of 2001, either right around Summer Jam where it all started.
AZ: Me and Jay never built on that.
DX: What did you think about how it all played out?
AZ: It was great for the culture. I knew something had to take place because Biggie wasn’t there and I know both of them wanted the crown. After “Ether,” that “Super Ugly” was definitely unnecessary, but it was necessary because Jay is a Brooklyn guy and at the end of the day he wanted the last word. I can understand that. But it was necessary for Hip Hop. The battle is always necessary every so often and it was a good one. Listen, they’re both cool now. They’re both alive and the end result is that they’re both getting money together now, so try that one out.
DX: If you had to pick between “Takeover” and “Ether,” which one do you pick?
AZ: [Laughs] That was a dirty question! You know what, I’ll go with “Ether.” And not because that’s my man, but it was like playing the dozens and he just went all the way in. Jay didn’t play the dozens on “Takeover.” He just threw a slug. He bust a shot. Nas just did the dozens and went in. We all can relate to the dozens as kids growing up.
AZ: They were doing business with people I was dealing with as far as the studio. Their name came up like, “Yo, I can make this happen.” I had always been a fan, as well. It just happened like that. I pitched the beat, I think. They sent their verses and it was crazy. I love that record as well. I was glad that one made the album, too. They were doing their thing. Everybody loves them. That’s my joint. You’re gonna make me go listen to that shit.
DX: Your ear for production has always been super solid.
AZ: You know what it is, I always stay true to what I like. Once again, I’m glad this keeps coming back to the business model. The sounds change yearly. We’re talking about sounds that can surpass the local airwaves and go nationwide. If I don’t do that, then it’s like, “Your beats is still regional. It’s not going over here or going over there.” I can’t step over to Pop and I need to sell a million because it’s a business model. So I guess me staying true to what I do, I’ll always be underrated. We just went 360, but I’m gonna always stay true to what I do. And if everything’s 360, I’ll be here when it comes back.
DX: Your stuff with Statik Selektah holds true to your sound.
AZ: Big up to Statik! That’s my man.
DX: We see a lot of Illuminati theorists in our comments section. Looking around the world and seeing Great Recessions and consolidating currencies, I always immediately think about “We Can’t Win” from Doe Or Die.
AZ: [Laughs] “A million minds in one body designed to decline society.” [Laughs] That’s what it is. In my mind, that’s what it was. It’s one nation, one government, one everything. That’s all they want. That’s when I was just feeding myself with all types of information. I was a book fanatic and spawned with a lot of likeminded people. I just felt like that was a topic I wanted to touch on to show some diversity and to plant that seed. That seed has definitely been planted! [Laughs]
DX: Do you ever feel like you were right? Since you wrote that verse, financial institutions and media companies, for example have undergone massive consolidation. There are only three major record labels now. Do you ever feel like you were right?
AZ: Right. That’s why they call me The Visualizer. I was seeing it before it came into existence. It was something that I was put on to and I just wanted to share with everybody. As you can see, the mission is still on.