It’s a gloomy Saturday afternoon and AZ is posted in Chicago preparing to hit the stage at Park West for the Classic Hip Hop Lives Unplugged Concert later in the evening.
I arrive during soundcheck and witness him rehearsing the classic “Sugar Hill” but there’s a newness to the record – a vibe that strips the street poet from the comfort of a backing track and places him in an unfamiliar stage environment.
Performing with a band? Nope, he’s never done that before. But it sounds good and smooth – a reflection of his lengthy discography.
“Rehearsal was cool, so you never know till you actually get onstage. But what’s the worst that can happen? It’s a new experience. That’s what life is about – hurdling over new grounds,” AZ would later tell me in the venue’s green room.
The show also featured Roc-A-Fella alum Philadelphia Freeway who kicked off his set with a glorious montage documenting his journey from his State Property days on through his battle with kidney failure and recent reunion and Roc Nation label signing with Jay Z; and West Coast rhymer, MC Eiht who took us to 1993 with a clip from his role in the cult-classic film, Menace II Society before coastin’ through gems from his catalogue including, of course, “Streiht Up Menace.”
EBONY was able to catch a few minutes with the emcee, who made his presence strongly known in the hip-hop game when he dropped the illest verse on Nas’ , “Life’s A B—h” off of his 1994 debut Illmatic, to talk about his rhyming beginnings, authenticity in today’s rap climate and what keeps the hunger alive on his journey.
EBONY: You’ve been able to completely stay true to who you are in your storytelling and also align yourself with a lot of artists that we look to as icons in the culture even from the production aspect with Nas, Jay Z, Premiere and Pete Rock, to name a few respectively. What is it that you look for when collaborating with different artists and producers?
AZ: I just want to feel the music. Even from an artist, I just want them to be able to talk their story that’s similar to mine’s or actually bring something to the table that I can’t bring. As far as producers, just something that hits me, that lines up with my core. That’s the best I could say. I’m just looking for that “S**t!”
EBONY: Since hearing you on Nas’ joint – Life’s a B, I rocked with you. What I loved was that New York, gritty storyteller, but your flow was crazy chill and fused elements of soul and jazz. Who introduced you to music and how did you later identify the way you wanted to construct your sound and your style?
AZ: You know hip-hop is a culture. It’s a way of life, so just growing up in the streets through the ’80s and just seeing everything that I saw going through the punk jams and then hearing the early records like Wild Style and then Run-DMC. That introduced me to hip-hop itself and the culture. Of course, like every urban person from the hood, you want to explain your story because we all have our own personal stories. So I just started taking hip-hop as a hobby. I wasn’t really even taking it that serious. As time progressed, I guess I got better, and people started to like it and then s**t, I got my shot. You know what I mean? It definitely was a blessing at the end of the day. I don’t take it for granted at all, but my story just comes from a New York way of life, that’s it.
EBONY: Right. Because you talked about the personal story aspect, which is one thing that I absolutely love about hip-hop – that authenticity that comes through. But now we have this conversation where we’re dealing with ghost writers. How do you view music today? Do you still feel that people are giving it that authenticity or more so looking for that quick hit, viral type of recognition?
AZ: Everything has a progression, and people see anything and exploit it so that it makes money, so I feel like it’s just more of a hustle now. It’s more [about] money. It’s not even of authenticity nowadays. It’s just a matter of like, “Okay, you could rap. I like your voice. I like your look. We got to get this guy to write …” R&B singers were doing it forever, so I guess rappers are doing it now. There’s a lot of things going on in rap that haven’t been going on, so who I am to talk? I’m not with it personally, but who am I? I am the voice of hip-hop, but at the end of the day, money walks, bullsh–t runs a marathon, and I don’t think it’s going to stop anytime soon.
EBONY: Word. From a poetic aspect, I know that you’re into Langston Hughes. What was your introduction to his work and what caught your attention?
AZ: It started in school. I had a teacher, I forgot her name, but she used to just have certain days where she’d read poems. I think she was very conscious and aware of what was going on and just being exploited as poverty stricken kids and things of that nature, as a culture. She more or less brought Langston Hughes and Baldwin and all these people to the table, and she introduced me to that. It was one particular poem that was crazy and really kind of opened my eyes. It was “Mother to Son.” That’s why I fell in love with poetry. I guess that’s when it really all started honestly.
EBONY: Being eight albums in, what would you say is one of your most definitive tracks, when it comes to the essence of AZ?
AZ: That’s the hardest question in the world because for one, each album showed progression, but they’re all a part of me. I love all my songs. You listen to them, there’s a jewel in each one. It’s like medicine. It prescribes for the sickness of that particular person that hears it.
EBONY: Is there anything that you miss about that era of music when it was you, Nas, Jay, Wu-Tang coming up, that you want to see circulate back?
AZ: Just us being sharp with wordplay and keeping each other sharp. That was the beauty of it. It was friendly competition then. Everybody just trying to get their story across. It was a learning experience for me. Just that energy. That’s what I want back.
EBONY: I know you need to run, but on a last note, what keeps the hunger now?
AZ: Right now, I’m just going to go. This is my life now. There’s nothing else I could do, and I love music, so now I want to elevate to the movies, put out books, and do other things. That’s my goal now. My last album will be this year. Hopefully by the end of the year, new ball game.
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