AZ Interview: Nigga 4 Life

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by Alex Shtaerman

As one of Hip-Hop’s most respected and prolific lyricists, over the last decade and a half AZ has built a cult like following spittin’ his signature brand of refined street knowledge, blending the experiences of a hardened East New York native with the complex insights of an enlightened gentleman gangster. Always thoughtful, deliberate and deep, AZ brings his long-standing acumen for street life directly into the heart of racial politics with his brand new mixtape N.4.L [Niggaz 4 Life]. A joint project with DJ Absolut, N.4.L is a truly brilliant effort that finds AZ rocking over hardcore boom bap production and collaborating with the likes of Raekwon, Charlie Rock and Sheek Louch. Unlike 99% percent of Hip-Hop albums released today, N.4.L flows like a single symphony from beginning to end. Just pop it in, press play and enjoy. Not only is it great music, you might actually learn something.

Click here to listen to “The Secret”, insane new AZ joint featuring Raekwon & Charlie Rock.

RIOTSOUND.COM: With your new mixtape N.4.L [Niggaz 4 Life], you’ve mentioned how your intent for this project was to echo the whole movement put into motion by Nas and his much talked about new album, which was originally slatted to be titled “Nigger”. However, as we all know, the album name has subsequently been revised to Untitled. With that said, what kind of message are you trying to bring across on N.4.L?

AZ: Well, Nas was just trying to capture the awareness of what was going on in America right now with Obama running for president, the Sean Bell case and all of that. When I heard him with that title [Nigger], I knew that’s where he was angling. With me, my “nigger” was N-I-G-G-A and my [version] stands for Never Ignorant Getting Goals Accomplished. So, overall I know we both was trying to take a negative and make it into a positive at the end of the day and also take this generation through a little history lesson without really being Preacher Earl but just trying to drop a jewel like we always do in our poetry. So, what’s good about [both our albums] is that I’ll burn the candle from one end and he’ll burn the candle from the other end and I’m sure that we are going to meet up in the middle somewhere, and at the same time captivate the game.

RIOTSOUND.COM: Niggaz4Life is also the title of a 1991 album by N.W.A. Is your title for N.4.L also somewhat of a nod to N.W.A for really bringing that word to the forefront the way they did and getting the discussion started within the younger, more current generation?

AZ: When I was younger and they came out with it and they spoke they mind, that was crazy at the time. Lyricism was at its height and that’s when Hip-Hop was really exploding and then N.W.A came from Compton and they was just expressing theyself and they brought that expression to the table no holds barred, no radio play, they didn’t give a fuck. They came and just brought a movement and it inspired me. So in a sense I wanted to bring the same vibe to the table with this mixtape. It’s coming from so many different angles and I’m trying to speak from so many different zones; from a street perspective, from an intellectual perspective, from a political perspective. So I try to just do the whole 360 on this mixtape.

“With all the South stuff going on I just
wanted to bring that New York vibe back
to the table and still also be universal with
it. So I think that’s what inspired me to
go crazy with these beats”

RIOTSOUND.COM: Some of your critics have said that while you are an incredible lyricist, sometimes your choice of beats may be a bit too mellow. On N.4.L you really dispel that criticism as you rhyme over an abundance of hardcore boom bap production. What prompted the tone of this record?

AZ: With me being independent now and having no powers that be on my back, I can really express myself – which I always did at the end of the day – but on Niggaz 4 Life I felt like I had to really express it in that hardcore all New York zone. With all the South stuff going on I just wanted to bring that New York vibe back to the table and still also be universal with it. So I think that’s what inspired me to go crazy with these beats.

RIOTSOUND.COM: How did the creative process between yourself and DJ Absolut materialize?

AZ: Absolut supplied the beats and I hand picked the beats and I did all the interludes myself. Then once I was done, I gave it to him to put the scratches in and all that. But, when I sat back and I was putting it together, I didn’t want to be too strong on one side and too light on the other side, so I just tried to give everything a balance. And just the zone I was in, everything was ideally processed. I became a part of the project spiritually, mentally, and with that mindset we just knocked the whole thing out in like two and half weeks.

RIOTSOUND.COM: There are several powerful interludes on N.4.L that really compliment the music and the message of the record, how were those arranged?

AZ: On one interlude I’m speaking. On another interlude, I got that from one of the Muslim speakers. And the intro I just put together from different pieces from here and there of [news clips relating to] like Yusef Hawkins and [Amadou] Diallo, the Jena 6. I just took all the news bites and pieced them together.

RIOTSOUND.COM: Speaking of the Sean Bell case, Sean Bell was shot 50 times by the police; which is insane to even think that something like that could happen. The officers in the case were obviously acquitted but we didn’t see the type of reaction in the community like we did, for example, with the Rodney King case. King was beaten very badly but wasn’t killed. On the other hand, Sean Bell was killed and there were much more tragic circumstances surrounding his case because he was about to get married the very next day. What do you think the difference in reaction to the two incidents shows? Have people just gotten so used to these things happening over the years that they have grown immune to it?

AZ: Yea, I mean that’s what I take from it. There’s just been a consistent occurrence of police brutality that the hood itself just got immune to it. And it’s like we accepting it and it’s a sad thing because we supposed to be uplifting each other and fighting towards the cause. So it shocked me that nothing really went haywire. But I guess, like you said, people are just getting immune to the police brutality. And it’s not a good look at all and I guess it comes with us not staying in tune and sharpening each other and dialoging and really being unified.

“I have my own mind and my own vision. I always
always spoke my mind, so at the end of the day
I felt like I was always a threat. So, the powers
that be would keep a threat behind”

RIOTSOUND.COM: Speaking to another current issue, how do you feel about Barack Obama’s historic candidacy for president? Do you support Barack or do you still perhaps have some questions you’d like to see him answer?

AZ: Well, I mean, I do support him and I wouldn’t question him at all because he already has enough pressure on him. And to be honest I just hope that I’m not in this generation to be a witness of a President assassinated. And, you know, that’s how I feel deeply. It’s kinda deep and it’s historic, like you said, but the possibility is at an all time high [of Barack Obama possibly being assassinated should he become president], and I just don’t want to be part of a generation that witnesses that. So, it’s like I’m supporting him but I’m praying at the same time.

RIOTSOUND.COM: Over the course of your career you have developed a cult like following. While you may not have sold 20 million records, you have an extremely loyal global fanbase. What do you think your fans see in your music that others may perhaps overlook or not be in tune with?

AZ: I stay true to rap and I stay true to what I speak and what I live and the music that I put out; I never try to go mainstream or try to go a certain way. I just try to stay focused and just always keep my lyrics sharp. And I know for a fact that the reason I didn’t sell all these millions is because at the end of the day it’s a business. Its music but it’s a business at the same time and I know the powers that be always going to keep a threat back. And I felt like I always was a threat. I have my own mind and my own vision. I always spoke my mind, so at the end of the day I felt like I was always a threat. So, the powers that be would keep a threat behind.

RIOTSOUND.COM: As far as Hip-Hop and its influence on fashion goes, you’ve always been somewhat ahead of the curve. You always had that sophisticated old style gangster swagger, and you were doing it in the ‘90’s when everybody was wearing Timberlands! Today so many people try to emulate that same look and persona that you’ve already had locked down for fifteen years; how do you see it?

AZ: I always took it into consideration to stay fresh to death because I come from an era where when I was growing up, if you stepped on somebody’s new sneakers you might get killed and they kept creases in they clothes and kept a brush for they suede sneakers. So I’m from the era of staying fresh and I just grew that vibe with me. By the time I got into the music business, I mean, I was always getting money but when I got into music I was just able to bring that across and I just added on. And everything is an add on, and I guess other people took it and ran with it. It’s just constant elevation, that’s all.

RIOTSOUND.COM: You got N.4.L in stores now, what else should everyone be looking out for?

AZ: I got the Undeniable album that came out in April, I got the N.4.L out, and in November I’m trying to drop a movie called Silent Wars and a soundtrack also called Silent Wars and I’m piecing that together as we speak.

RIOTSOUND.COM: Any last words for the fans?

AZ: I just want to say that AZ will always be here in the music business in some form, shape or fashion and I’m always going to bring that lyricism to the table. And I will never disappoint the peoples, because I’m for the peoples.

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