Think of all the random rappers who did one verse on an east coast album in the ’90s. How many turned that verse into a career spanning three decades? Twenty-six years after his debut Doe or Die, AZ is back with his tenth album, a sequel that isn’t outright painful or begging for ’90s nostalgia to get your streams. This is an unfathomable feat for someone who made his debut during the first term of Bill Clinton. If you go on Old Head Rap Twitter like me, AZ’s name blesses the timeline on a weekly basis. Considering he last dropped a proper full length in 2009, it speaks to the weight of AZ’s work and the ironclad grip he has on a generation of rap fans that his latest album charted just behind Kanye and Drake.
Blessed with features from T-Pain, Rick Ross, a highly motivated Lil’ Wayne, and Conway, plus sporting a murderer’s row of producers that would well up the eyes of all former Fat Beats employees, Do or Die 2 is an AZ album. And an AZ album knows what it does best: stick to it’s guns. AZ can glide on jheri curl R&B. He can narrate stickups on trigger happy hardcore jams. He can visualize the realism of life with a pristine half-moon caesar while Idris Elba gleefully checks in just to serenade the Brooklyn sage. We spoke about his independent hustle, how he counts quiet money while running his own label under the same name, and how legacy artists navigate a time when dropping 3 projects a year is the norm. – Zilla Rocca
I wanted to know what your creative process is now making an album versus when you first started. Is your approach to rhyme writing the same? Do you think about production the same way? Or has your process evolved over time?
AZ: Well, I mean, when I first got in the game, it was it was weird, because I had no coach, no know how, and I was learning on the job training. I had to learn, you know, due to being in the streets and having a love of music, you know, who’s hot, who’s not, what’s poppin, you know, I really didn’t know too much about producers. I was more or less locked in on artists, and who was the best MC. When I first got in the game, it was like, just get an album done, you know, it was like any other any artist, that’s kind of how they got a name.
So I was going with what I knew and trying some new things. At the same time, I wasted a lot of money in the studio! Because I didn’t know shit! I was paying the money back! The label had me all the way, so I was very naive to that. So I’m in the studio wasting a whole lot of time, you know, writing but I have a verse a day and just smoking and drinking, just happy to be in a space where this has become my life and my dream has become reality. Fast forward, right now, I noticed it is definitely a business. And maintaining your sanity is key. And being able to express yourself in rhyme form, it’s a career now. So it’s like an automatic thing. But at the same time, when you build the project, you just want them to be fly. Now it’s just a different mindset, more mature mindset.
What is your writing process like now compared to then?
AZ: It was coming from a place of “let me just catch wreck, let me let them know who I am.” Right now it is coming from “this is who I am.” And let me not teach but let me educate and lead and more or less solidify and immortalize myself. You know what I mean? It’s about really a mental thing with the people that I know where I came from. And I know the mindset of my peers. It’s all about survival in reality — it’s a survival thing with me.
Do you write on paper still? Do you write in the studio? Like, how does it actually work?
AZ: No, no, now, I don’t do the phone shit. I’m still old school I’m on the paper. I got books on top of books that I found. Not too long ago, I got so many books I just write in. And you know I write chicken scratch. So my writing is terrible, right? But I got books on top of books and notepads and notepads.
When I was looking back at your catalog — like I have a massive playlist of your songs. I was thinking about your songs with Monifah, D’Angelo. Even on this new album, having T-Pain and Jahiem, it seems like it’s always been effortless for you from the beginning working with R&B artists. Was that natural for you? How did you make those decisions?
AZ: In the streets you had all kind of guys, right? A lot of cousins and a lot of homies and OG’s in my hood. They always was just smooth, calm, collected, fly. So when I came to the door, I tapped into that fly energy. It’s easy to just act a fool and make a bad situation worse, right? Because I’ve seen it so many times. And for my own self, I was doing dumb shit that put me in a fucked up position. I always acquired at an early age to move a certain way. You know, I’m saying like, it was always less said was best said for me, you know, more or less, keep your ears open, keep your eyes wide. Like, that was my M.O. you know, in the cut lay back, watch the play, watch the circus go.
So that really is my livelihood. So when I got in the game from just being, you know, young, and then your parents played them — disco music and classic music — I just feel like it can attract more more people to me, right? Because the women love music. And, the guys they listen to the words. So I figured, let me just always be the voice of reason. That has been my mindset. Because it’s so easy. It’s like, “yo fuck that, hold the gat”; I can do that all day. And we do need that, you know, I’m saying like, we need that shit, right. But I just always wanted to be the voice of reason. And I would just like putting it together. So it was clothes, or it’s words, or if it’s whatever it is. It’s just my lifestyle. That’s it.
What I always remember is you were one of the first artists that had their own label. And I remember when you called it Quiet Money. You had Half a Mill — God bless him. I was always really fascinated by that name. Because that seemed to go against what rappers are about, like what rappers are about being quiet? That always struck me and I’ve noticed that’s always been your brand. Can you give me an idea of how you came up with that name? And then what was your vision for starting Quiet Money?
AZ: Like you said, back then it was like everybody was boisterous and speaking loud. And it’s like, the real bad boys move in silence, silence is golden, you know, these are the things that I grew up off. And it was like, you know, this is longevity, right? We just be quiet and just, it’s just handing your BI. That was my mindset. This quiet money we gettin it, but there’s nothing to talk about it.
So how is looking like now, 20 years later, still having quiet money?
AZ: It still is the beautifulest thing, right? Because even when I hit the bad spots, like we all had bad spots, you would never know because I was not there popping shit. So when I’m not popping shit, something’s wrong. So it just is what worked for me. Because when I was finding my way, I was still able to remain that. I kept the same mindset when I was down, you keep the same mindset. Even-keeled.
Being through the industry, and now handling more things hands-on and having those lessons and just maturing as an adult, where you’re more on top of every dollar you’re spending, how do you feel now being more in charge? Because some people just never want to deal with it. They’ll just let someone else take it, and maybe they get exploited or maybe they just fall off. How are you able to juggle that now?
AZ: One, it’s not easy. Two, I see why a lot of people will just be like “yo fuck it”. In hindsight, when you get to a level, you appreciate it more because going through it is the headache, right? You’re like “man i don’t have time for this shit” or, you’re just building a team and just having that motivation to really do shit. That’s the real key.
I’ve found that I’d never quit. Whatever I do, I just never quit. And I feel like that’s one of my strengths because it’s easy to say “fuck it” because you really do get frustrated. And you really get a lot of doors closed in your face. And I never really gave a fuck about that. And I guess that’s really one of my strengths. Like I’m pushing the snow over here, I can go over that way, I’ll go to the back and we’ll go through the back, go under, I’m gonna go through the roof. It was just like, I never give up on nothing. So that’s one of my strengths. And it’s a great thing. And I tried to tell everybody just keep going because we all get frustrated. Even the people that you look up to the most get frustrated.
Speaking of frustration, I remember with Pieces of a Man and all the delays. I remember seeing the ads in The Source for a long time. I recently replayed it, and then heard the new album. I feel like Rick Ross loved your albums, because a lot of what he’s done aesthetically, is really in debt to what you were doing back then. I feel like he is a direct descendant of the first wave of AZ albums.
AZ: We opened that gate of “get fly, get money”. We kind of opened that gate and those who represent that came behind us. They had to take a page out of our book. We lit the torch. Yeah, we we carried the torch. We turnt it up. I guess those behind us came and did the same thing.
Right. Who were the guys you were looking up to that you felt like you carry the torch more specifically?
AZ: Oh, man. I mean the greats to me. Rakim. I will say this every interview but like Rakim, G Rap, Kane, Slick Rick, LL, Chuck D. It’s like the superheroes of the game to me.
What’s interesting is any album of yours I’ve ever played doesn’t really occupy a space of “such and such was hot that year, AZ had 10 songs like that that year”. On this new record you’re not only working with legends you’ve worked in the past, you’re also expanding your reach with Dave East and Lil Wayne. How do you approach it like that where you want to stay true to what people like from you, but also experiment? How do you balance that?
AZ: I can’t even answer that question. Because I’m never really wanted to experiment. Maybe I did a little but then like, I had to stick to my guns and and sometimes it’s where the patience pays off, right? Because I probably would have never jumped out with this album. If it wasn’t for the Verzuz with The Lox and Dipset that brought the lyricism back, with the J Cole’s and Kendrick’s spittin again and really bringing that energy back, it loosened up everybody. So I was like, okay, now I can shadow it, I can come back and push the envelope and put this album out and peers or other artists that want to come out spitting lyrics, they probably can help push the envelope and really crack the ice. We got this over here and we stand strong on this. So thanks to everybody that really start kicking down that door and I kicked right behind that motherfucker!
What I really like about the new record is that you have people like Kaygee, who I think is one of the most underrated producers ever, next to Baby Paul, one of most underrated producer ever, next to Bink who is one of the most underrated producers ever. And you have people everyone loves in Pete Rock and Heatmakerz. So how did you approach people and give them the assignments for this record?
AZ: Now honestly, they approached me right, which was beautiful. They gave me the catalog to choose from, and majority of the producers on album like Alchemist who is a great, great, great producer, the majority of these producers, 90% [of the beats on the album] was the first record I ever heard that they sent to me. I said “that’s the one”. Like last 90% of them on the album. It made it easy for me honestly. Like it was weird, right? As soon as I heard it, that’s the one. I’m thinking about everybody. It’s weird.
That’s unbelievably rare to have. When I was like looking at Pieces of a Man and like all your collaboration over the years, you and Wu-Tang have this really fascinating relationship. You and RZA have worked together, and then you and Raekwon, and then you and Ghost. How does that line up with you guys?
AZ: That’s crazy yeah, I mean I guess we speak the same language. They definitely help carry on the torch with this poetry. So I know we all from the same umbrella we kind of more or less all idolized the same type of artists.
I felt like you guys were always like, wise men, even when you were young. All of you guys have this wisdom, whether it was you, Nas or Raekwon. I’m almost 40 and I just feel like even listening to you guys when you were 26, you’re were smarter than me now.
AZ: It’s coming from the streets. This is all about survival you know. We lost a lot of people that we looked up to, not just to death but to jail to drugs. The mental control the physical. The strong live off the weak. That’s the strongest muscle, the brain, so we always activated that. At least you know though we are not holier than thou, we all got our things that we did that was fucked up. But I’m sure the key was survival, the only way to really survive was willing to out-think, out-maneuver. You know what I mean? To stay steps ahead, you know, I mean, to play chess a lot. I say they play chess, but you know, they say life is like a chess game, which is true, but always just, you know, just stay steps ahead of the enemy. I’m saying you just got to always stand superior.
With this album, what was the message you wanted to convey now versus then? You could have titled this anything. So when you make Doe or Die 2 I feel like it carries a lot more weight to it, for obvious reasons.
AZ: I just felt like I completed a cipher because I’m looking for when I first signed a contract back in ’95. It said, “You have nine albums to complete”. I’m like, I can’t even get past the first one! I couldn’t even see doing the first one like, “Damn nine, I’m really locked into them!” Fast forward to now. This is my, this probably been my 10th album and I just feel like, we doing a one to two to complete the cipher and now let me show the maturity.
Let me show that the concept is still there, and I lived by it, and I’m showing improvement, you know what I mean? Like I’m showing improved, like, that mindset was really the key to not just success, but the key to just being at peace, I would say that right Okay, I said it from “Sugar Hill”. And I’m on Sugar Hill now, literally like I live on a fucking hill! I really came from the projects and I live on fucking hill and it’s to my liking and to my design and it was like prophesized. But you will prophesize it as long as you live by what you speak. So now everything else right now is from here on out is really like, predicting the next 10 years or 20 years right now. Like shit, we might really be prophets!
It seems like you don’t really do anything that’s frivolous. And so I wanted to ask this of you now too, in an era when me and you can open up our phones and get 4000 new rap songs a day from 2000 artists, you’re from a place of a build-up, a rollout. There’s a very conscious effort of letting people know you have this one record, and you may not get a new record for a couple years. So how do you juggle that in a time when people want to just kind of jam-packed their Spotify playlists?
AZ: I always wanted to put this Doe or Die 2 out in like 2013. That’s exactly what I was doing: putting one or two records out a year, but it was just like I had to do something in the process of me trying to figure it all out, but nothing I do is by design. There’s no blueprint to it. It’s a feeling, it’s a vibe you know I’m saying? But the way they consuming music now is… wow.
I listen to you as you were saying it like, like people making playlists and just pull a record. Even when I put the album out, with Drake and Kanye you know they both two powerful artists, for me to land in between them, Drake number one, Kanye was number two, no disrespect to him, but for me to come number two he going under me? I’m like wow. Like you said with all this music that’s coming out all this music it is out and how powerful they are. And I don’t have a machine behind me. I mean I have an impact. And it’s a blessing at the same time. So I’m appreciative and humble, but I don’t think there’s no blueprint to it.
Some people feel like they have to put a slew of records out. It’s like certain brands like Gucci and Louis Vuitton and Chanel, they don’t really have commercials but you know their brand is official. Then you got others right, you know that it’s constantly on commercials bombarding trying to buy the product not amazing. So I guess I guess it’s just like, yo, the quality speaks for itself.