Issue 60 (2004)
With four albums, a gold single, and a starring role in one of the most highly anticipated collaboration projects in hip hop underneath his belt, AZ should be considered a bonafide hip hop superstar. Instead label politics, shoddy promotion and bad timing have relegated a powerful voice well below the surface of the mainstream. Although many fans would be hard pressed to name all four of AZ’s official titles, they can’t deny the impact of the man’s arrival. Back in the early to mid 90’s emcees like Nas, Jay-Z and the Wu Tang Clan started bringing criminology to the rap table embracing the rudiments of Mafioso lifestyle. Around that same time, Anthony Cruz was incorporating those same elements into his rhymes. It was this similarity in approach that first brought him and Nas together. Once they linked up destiny handled the rest.
“I knew a few cats from Brooklyn who knew a few cats from Queens and everybody used to get on the phone and rap,” reminisced AZ speaking on how he first met up with the QB lyricist. “It was at least six of us and the shit Nas was spitting was just like the stuff I was going for and he felt the same way. Everybody exchanged numbers and here and there he’d holla at me like my brother just got locked up and I’m like word my cousin just got locked up or my man just got killed and he’d be like word my man just got killed.”
The two continued building for a bit over the phone sharing war stories and family drama. During this time, Nas was carefully piecing together a collection of songs that would eventually evolve into “Illmatic.” He invited AZ down to the studio to chill and the result was an impromptu verse that would go down in history. When AZ hit the studio, Nas was still recording “Halftime.” Once he took a break from the song, L.E.S popped in a beat.
“He threw in that “Life’s a Bitch” beat and I was just fucking with it,” remembers AZ. “Nas was like oh shit that sounds tight hop on that and it went down like that. I been had that verse premeditated because my man Poe had just got killed and another close friend of mine had gotten killed. A lot of niggas were dropping around me and I really wrote that sixteen bars out of emotion. I used to say the hook in my head and when L.E.S started playing that record I was strong with it. Nothing was even planned. I wasn’t even supposed to be on it that was something for Nas to do. I didn’t really give a fuck about being on the album because that wasn’t even my zone at the time. I just came to show homie some love.”
The unexpected verse spurred Nas to include it on the album as the lone additional vocals. He even followed along with the concept AZ set forth and took the joint to the crib so he could work on his part. “He had to take it home for a couple days with that one because my shit was right on the money,” boasted AZ, which is short for Asiatic. “It was just one take. However, at that time son was crazy with it and I felt like people wasn’t even gonna like my shit. When they caught on, I was like wow there must be a spot for me. It took me by surprise.”
Fans caught on quick. The real surprise was how fast label execs started paying attention to AZ’s display of potential. As the buzz from “Life’s A Bitch” started to grow, offers to record a solo album started coming from companies looking to cash in. By ’95 AZ had a deal before he even had a demo. He chose to sign with America Records, a pop label under the EMI umbrella, known more for their new wave acts like Duran Duran, David Bowie, and the Pet Shop Boys than for their hip hop wing which at the time only included Gangstarr. Even with their lack of experience in the hip hop genre, the label had enough gumption to push the album’s first single, “Sugar Hill” to gold status riding the wave of it’s initial success to the tune of a quarter million album sales. Not bad for a brand new artist, but not good enough to keep EMI afloat in the midst of strong competition from Jay-Z’s “Reasonable Doubt” and Raekwon’s “Only Built for Cuban Linx.” With “Doe or Die” overshadowed by these more popular offerings EMI’s shortcomings became apparent.
“I don’t think EMI really knew the markets to tap into to blow up a hip hop artist,” reasoned the Brooklyn emcee. “They were learning just like I was learning. Then they folded and I had to keep it moving.”
Following the EMI situation and the surprising failure of the Firm (the hip hop collective consisting of AZ, Nas, Nature and Foxxy Brown backed Dr. Dre production), AZ returned to the solo path. His travels included stops at Noo Trybe for his sophomore release “Pieces of a Man” and at Motown for his last two full lengths “9 Lives” and “Aziatic.” Whether it was Noo Trybe’s lack of organization or Motown’s focus on the budding “Neo Soul” movement neither label proved to be a good fit for AZ’s brand of uncompromising gangster philosophy. Prior to his latest signing AZ released the self-bootlegged CD entitled “S.O.S.A (Save Our Streets AZ).” While this move didn’t garner him tremendous acclaim, it gained enough notoriety to entice Motown to sign him and demonstrated the viability of the independent route. After leaving Motown, he decided to put his energy into creating Quiet Money Records, a testament to his low-key nature.
“I was brought up to believe real bad boys move in silence and that silence is golden, that’s why the label is called Quiet Money,” explained AZ. “The real people who succeeded in this world and were making moves back in the days just did it.”
Thus far, the label consists of a stable of up and coming artists that will be looking to make a splash in the next year to help put Quiet Money on the map. The first order of business is the fifth feature from AZ. When word got out he was shopping a new disc several companies tried to lock the emcee into another contract but his past dealings with majors had left a bad taste in his mouth and he made it known he was only looking for distribution.
“When I got off Motown there were a few cats who wanted to sign me but I couldn’t go that route again,” admits the emcee. “I really wanted to test the independent waters and I guess everybody was just falling back off that. Koch was more or less like we’ll fuck with you. They wanted to lock me in but I was like nah I can’t do that. I’ll do one album and see how it goes down.”
The album in question, “The Final Call,” is due out this summer and AZ believes this is the one that will convince the non-believers that his claim to be one of the top ten emcees is not so far fetched. It’s a public service announcement directed at all of the fans that have yet to catch onto what he’s capable of on the mic.
“The Final Call is me giving people the last chance to recognize me, what I stand for and what I bring to the table,” he begins. “I consider myself the voice of the lost souls that never got a chance to pass on their lessons, like brothers who got killed or who are doing football numbers in jail. They never got to pass on their lessons to their cousins or nephews and I speak for them. I speak nothing but the truth and that’s what the “Final Call” is about. It’s me telling people that it’s your final chance. I’ll be honest and put it like this though, if they don’t latch onto what is going on right now I’m going to put my little niggas out and let them go crazy. I’ve been putting a lot of work in over the years and if I’m not gonna get recognized for it I’m gonna fall back.”
Although he alludes to retirement if the album isn’t successful the way he describes the new LP let’s you know there’s no need for alarm. “What I got on this album is crazy!” exclaimed AZ departing from his usually subdued demeanor. “From the opening to the ending it’s crazy. It’s basically just me on this whole album. I really vented and tapped into other zones. The only guest rappers on the album are my crew and CL Smooth cuz that’s my man. It’s really an autobiographical album. There’s a joint I did with Tony Sunshine called “Talkin’ Gangsta” and it was a little Spanish beat and I’m just kicking it letting em know the Latin side of me. It’s just a matter of getting it out to the public. I know that if I keep on they’re gonna recognize in a minute because they have no choice.”
In addition to appearances by Tony Sunshine and CL Smooth, the “Final Call” includes several spoken word pieces from Lemon, a posthumous performance from Aaliyah and a remake of the BDP classic “The P is Free.” At this point in the game AZ is making music because he enjoys doing it. This isn’t a comeback LP or a redemption album it’s a solid contribution from a true emcee set on finding his place and playing his position.
“I got so much love for the game,” says AZ. “My paper’s right, I’m chilling so I’m gonna do it regardless. The game is growing so much. Everybody has their story to tell. The Midwest has their story to tell, the west coast and down south got a story to tell. We in New York had it going for a long time so I’m never mad when another coast is eating because it’s what we all represent anyway. There are a few brothers like Jadakiss and Fat Joe that’s really bringing back over here and I think that with my album I’m going to just add onto that.”
In addition to the new album, AZ recorded a movie called “Envy” with Ray J and Maia Campbell, made a surprise appearance on Cormega’s “Legal Hustle” compilation project, and recorded a new track with Nas’ for his upcoming “Street’s Disciple” LP.
“Me and him did a joint last month,” AZ confirmed. “It’s crazy, but knowing Nas he do thirty to thirty-five records and then he picks them. I just do it and I don’t really be stressing it. If he put it on the album that’s good, if not I know we’ll do something soon.”
What most fans in the know have been hoping for is the much talked about Nas-AZ duet album. The chemistry between the two is undeniable and every collabo they have recorded has left fans wanting more. When they get down to putting a song together words don’t really even need to be spoken. They simply get the feeling and get to work.
“That shit is natural for us,” AZ admits. “We throw on the beat and me and him just lock in. We don’t even talk about the concept we just go. We’re just like oh we fucking with that beat? Aiight let’s write and that shit gets done same day, same hour. With me and him it’s just that magic. That’s the only nigga I know where with me and him it’s just automatic.”
“As far us doing an album together I think it has to do with the success of what I’m doing,” AZ continued. “He really already bust his nut in the game and he’s like it’s on you now to show and prove what you’re made of and reach that plateau. Actually, I’m also waiting for myself to hit that certain plateau. Hopefully this album will get me that love I’ve been vying for.”
Support the “Final Call” hitting stores mid August from Quiet Money / Koch Records