AZ Interview: Final Call

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by Alex Shtaerman

While many MCs rap about their exploits in relation to organized crime families and international drug cartels, AZ is one of the only rappers you could actually picture playing the part in real life. Just for the record, an honorable mention has to go out to Raekwon The Chef. Rae’s classic 1995 LP, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, pioneered the international drug cartel style imitated for years to come. But if you’ve ever seen a picture of Rae, you probably know that he does not fit the part nearly as good as does AZ. If I was watching The Godfather and AZ was one of the characters I wouldn’t give it a second thought; it would fit. More importantly, if you listen to an AZ record you get the distinct feeling that you are listening to the words of a man who speaks from experience and intellect rather than imagination. If Hip-Hop were a neighborhood with all different types of people living in it, AZ would be the sophisticated low-key mafia don who’s so smooth he would pass himself off as an art dealer.

Similar to the fashion in which organized crime kingpins attain mythical status among the public while having very little public exposure, AZ has remained a serious threat in the rap game for over a decade. In the aftermath of The Firm when everyone was throwing stones and putting their grippes with each other on wax, nobody said a word about AZ. And you know AZ had the hottest verse on Firm Biz anyway; but that was 1997. Fast-forward seven years and several record deals and we find a rapper who stands on the verge of redefining his career. With Final Call AZ hopes to follow up on the success of his 2003 Grammy nomination and forever show Hip-Hop that he is one of the best lyricists to have ever done it.

RIOTSOUND.COM: Your new album is titled Final Call. There has been a lot of talk that this may be your final album as a solo artist. How much truth is there to that?

AZ: Basically, I’m not necessarily saying it’s my last album; Final Call is more or less like I’m giving the people a last chance to recognize who I am and what I bring to the table. And if it’s not recognized than I’ma fall back and let my team come out and do what they do. I got my own label now; it’s called Quiet Money. Koch is distributing the album. I got a couple of artists signed under me, so if my album don’t pop off the way I want it to pop off, the way I perceive it; then I’ma let my crew come out and do what they do. That’s it.

RIOTSOUND.COM: After being in the game for a decade, how has your approach to making music changed since your first album and what was your approach like in making Final Call?

AZ: When you first start off you got a hungry mentality and you just can’t wait to lay everything down and speed through it and you never know what’s going to work. Through my years of being in the game I was fortunate ‘cause as soon as I came out with my first album, I hit ‘em big with Sugar Hill and it went platinum. That was big for me; I think I was one of the first guys on this side of the coast to go platinum but I never really bigged it up like that.

Since then the music business has been so diverse and been changing so much that there’s really no set way to do anything. With me going through making albums, this is like my sixth album, my whole perspective enhances through each album. So right now it’s natural for me to be in the studio. It took three months to lay this album down. I just go in the studio and try to touch every topic. At one point you damn near do touch every topic when you on your third or forth album. But there ain’t no ending to the music.

RIOTSOUND.COM: A lot of times when people talk about AZ they always remember you from being on Illmatic but you rarely hear anything as far as how you started rapping prior to that and what your original influence was.

AZ: Rakim, Kane, G Rap, Slick Rick, those were my influences and just basically the street was my influence. I was rapping but I wasn’t taking it seriously at the time that I met Nas. Up until I got on Life’s A Bitch I was just chillin’. It wasn’t my intention to get on Nas’ album. We was just chillin’ and the music was playing and I got on it and he was like – yo, what you were saying on that, say it on here – so I did it and everyone liked it and they put it out and that right there was the start of everything. From Life’s A Bitch, from there came AZ.

RIOTSOUND.COM: I heard that one of your interests out side of music is archeology.

AZ: (laughs) Where’d you hear that? Yea, when I was younger and in school, around that time they found that whole King Tut thing, that kinda touched me; you know what I mean. I appreciate all types of artifacts and things of that nature and the whole science thing. I am a science fanatic. I always wanted to go and do something like find my own King Tut somewhere (laughs).

I mean, I’ve been to museums; I haven’t actually been on archeological grounds or anything like where things were actually taking place. But just the museums and what I learned in school and from watching the movies; that’s what sparked my interest for that.

RIOTSOUND.COM: The rap game has changed a lot in the last ten years, do you approve of what you see today as opposed to when you first started your career?

AZ: I approve of everything because everything has growth, you know what I mean, as long as there’s growth involved. East Coast started it, West Coast ran with it and it’s like the Midwest right now got it in a chokehold. So it’s constantly growing and I could never be mad at it. Everything is a 360 though, it will come back around and will constantly keep on going around like the earth spin. As far as what I disapprove of, it would be the infrastructure of the music business as far as when it comes to contracts, paperwork and artists is signing they life away and then getting caught up in all the political blahzay blahzay. I would hope that would change and more artists become independent and do their own thing and acquire ownership of their masters and their royalties and publishing and all of that.

But as far as the change in Hip-Hop, it’s all a code of communication. So right now I know more about the West Coast then I ever would know, I know more about the Midwest than I ever did know; ‘cause they like to get it crunked out there, you know what I mean. They crunk it up and they also know what New York’s about, we ‘bout the gunplay and all that shit, you know what I mean. So it’s a good thing. It’s our code of communication.

RIOTSOUND.COM: You said you would like to see more artists become independent. You were independent once before, when you released the S.O.S.A. album. At that juncture why did you choose to resign with a label rather than follow the independent route?

AZ: Well, back then I wasn’t really independent. All I did was just make some music, press it up and put it out. I sold a good amount of CDs on the streets but I didn’t have the minds and the people around me that I needed to get it catapulted and get to the next level. I mean, I had that motivation, I had that outer tiger but no one man is a movement. I needed certain people around me and I was moving so fast at the time when Motown put stuff on me after they saw the S.O.S.A. and they came out with a nice amount of money, so I was sucked in.

I knew I was playing with time but my whole thing was still like a chess movement because I said – ok, with them, I’m not going to lock myself into doing a whole bunch of albums. I’ll just use them to get where I need to go and then get back to where I’m at right now; which is doing this independent. But, in the process of that Motown fucked up because they did not really know what to do as far as marketing and promoting the album ‘cause they really didn’t deal with rap.

I went with them hoping I would be like Christopher Columbus and discover new land and open up a new market over there but it didn’t work. In the process of that I asked for my release. Once I got released and I was looking for a home to distribute the album and Koch stepped up real fast and agreed to distribute it. So I got my own label that Koch is distributing; as of now it’s only for this album right here. So we’ll see which way this goes and I might be looking for major distribution in a minute.

RIOTSOUND.COM: You recently collaborated with Cormega. Over the years there have been rumors of a Firm reunion as well as a Nas and AZ album. As it stands right now what possibilities do you see in the future?

AZ: Well, The Firm is up in the air; I couldn’t really talk on that. Everybody is cool to me, everybody is good and everybody is trying to do what they do. But I am really trying to get this Nas and AZ album done; so you could print that and tell Nas – ‘cmon let’s get this poppin’, let’s get in the studio – it’s not a financial game to me, it’s just love for the game. I want to do this for me as well as for the people because through the years me and him sounded the best together. I want to try and get this Nas and AZ album done.

RIOTSOUND.COM: You had a cameo role in Belly, any future plans as far as acting goes?

AZ: Yea, right now I got a new movie coming out called Envy. It’s starring me, Ray Jay, Lisa Ray and Chico DeBarge. The movie is more or less me being a drug dealer and trying to get out the game and Ray Jay is my little cousin. He trying to follow in my footsteps and he wants me to leave the game to him. But then I got crew members who I been with ever since I been in the game and they like – ok, if you leavin’ the game, we want the spot. So they raid my little cousin and that’s when all the drama take place and all that. But at the end of the day the whole movie just goes to show that nobody really wins at the end. And that’s with a lot of games you deal with; nobody really wins. To me the movie is like a cross between Belly and State Property. Nobody really wins at the end of the day. But still everybody wants the American dream.

RIOTSOUND.COM: Is acting something you are looking to do more of?

AZ: Now I am looking to do it because it’s exciting and it taps into another part of the brain that gotta open up. As long as the roles is official and it’s what I want to play. I mean, I don’t want to go left with no role; I only want to play certain roles and then I think I can make it happen.

RIOTSOUND.COM: What’s the one thing you want people to understand about you as an artist and also, what do you want people to take away from the new album?

AZ: That AZ is definitely one of the top ten. I just always want my music to either be motivation or to help someone else in they life. My music has basically been for the streets and that’s really a lot of our listeners and I just want my music to be uplifting, in whatever way, I don’t know; ‘cause I’ll always spit a jewel here, a jewel there and I’m sure there’s a lot of people living the life that I’ve led and they can take something out of it to help them in they life. But overall I know I’m one of the top ten. Throughout the rap game, being that there’s so many artists, I would say I’m top twenty as far as when it comes down to the lyrical assassins, I know I’m one of ‘em.

RIOTSOUND.COM: How did the album come together and who were you working with in the studio?

AZ: With this album I tapped into so many zones that I just wanted the vibe to take its own course. I also produced four tracks on the album and then my man Baby Paul he produced a few tracks. He’s the one that did the Grammy nominated song with me and Nas on AZiatic. Also, some new cats from Canada, they got off. On the album I also got Tony Sunshine, we did a Latin beat. Also my man from Roc-A-Fella, he was on another joint that was real crazy. I also got one joint with CL Smooth that’s crazy. Pete Rock has always been a part of my life as far as when it came to making albums and giving me his point of view on things. So CL Smooth had paid me a visit in the studio and heard the track and he liked it and he hopped on it and the shit is crazy. We just took it back. Other that, I got my crew on it, The Quiet Money Anthem; and the rest of the album is all me.

RIOTSOUND.COM: Besides the music and movies is there anything else you have been working on?

AZ: I have a little store, a soul food spot, it’s under construction right now. We trying to get it back poppin’. It’s in Brooklyn, East New York on Williams and Sutter; it’s called Mama’s Soul and I’m trying to get that back off the ground. When it takes off it’ll be something small for the community, nothing big as of yet. But once it takes off we are going to step it up.

Other than that I am trying to do the regular clothing line, hopefully I can get a sneaker deal somewhere once I get it poppin’. Traditional, that’s all. Right now I’m traditional (laughs).

RIOTSOUND.COM: What should the fans be lookin’ out for?

AZ: Look out for Final Call the album in September. The movie Envy is coming at the end of this year; and look out for Quiet Money Records; there’s a lot of big things going down.