“Visualizing the realism of life in actuality…” When a teenage AZ, born Anthony Cruz, uttered those opening lines on Nas‘ “Life’s a Bitch” during one of the Illmatic sessions nearly 20 years ago, everything changed.
AZ’s verse is forever cemented in hip-hop’s history. When Illmatic is brought up in rap circles, AZ is usually the name that comes up first after Nas. After all, AZ is the one who wrote the hook that sparked a whole movement about enduring personal frustrations to reach celebratory highs. His contributions to “Life’s a Bitch” took him from relative obscurity to becoming the most-sought after rapper by major labels once Illmatic released on April 19, 1994. As AZ tells it, the street buzz from “Life’s a Bitch” gave him the opportunity to sign with EMI for his seminal debut, Doe or Die.
Released 20 years ago today (Oct. 10, 1995), Doe or Die‘s anticipation was fueled by the radio-friendly single “Sugar Hill.” The L.E.S.-produced cut reached No. 25 on the Billboard Hot 100 and would eventually become certified Gold. While “Rather Unique” catered to his conscious rap fans, “Sugar Hill” connected commercially because it relayed the Mafioso lifestyle, an illustration of being a boss with excess luxuries. Apart from the singles, Doe or Die boasted more collaborations with Nas (“Gimme Yours” and “Mo Money, Mo Murder, Mo Homicide”) and featured production from upstart producers like Pete Rock, Buckwild, and L.E.S., who rolled in the same circle as Nas at the time.
In retrospect, Doe or Die didn’t achieve the same level of notoriety as Illmatic — it’s often referred to as an underrated classic. Still, loyal enthusiasts rank AZ’s project among other influential albums that came out in 1995, such as Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, Mobb Deep’s The Infamous and Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version. It captured the essence of the gritty boom bap of New York, perfecting the formula of hard lyrics and gritty production his peers have popularized. To date, the album has sold over a million copies.
On the 20th anniversary of Doe or Die, Billboard spoke with AZ about how the album came about. Doe or Die is glimpse of a young, hungry MC whose ambitions were to make it out of the hood and chase the good life.
Let’s take it back to ’95. During that time when the album was about to release, what can you remember about the excitement before it came out?
We put out “Rather Unique” and we put out “Sugar Hill.” At first, I didn’t like “Sugar Hill” cause we transforming to the B-Boy era of just drums, snares and lyrics and then at the same time, Biggie had that hit out “Juicy.” It was just that retro, disco feel that took hip-hop over. So my “Sugar Hill” was in that same vein, but I was kind of upset that we put that out.
I was cool with Pete Rock’s “Rather Unique.” I was happy about that because it was getting the underground love that I wanted to cater to. But then “Sugar Hill,” after we put it out for three months ’cause we dropped that in June, it didn’t really catch fire until August-September. Mind you, the album came out in October. So “Rather Unique” was just getting its underground love and me dealing with my peers, it kept me alive. But then “Sugar Hill,” I was feeling like I sold out. This is some real talk. I felt like I had sold out listening to “Sugar Hill.” I was like, “Damn, I sold out.”
When Illmatic first came out, it was leaked so much that it didn’t sell at all. Illmatic didn’t sell when it first came out. I feel like I wanted to bridge the gap between my homies. And I think the reason it didn’t sell a lot was because it leaked and everybody else was talking about it. You know, it was 10 cuts and nine of them was out already. The only they didn’t hear was “Life’s a Bitch,” I think, which got me the deal. And then August, “Sugar Hill” popped. August-September, it was going crazy. It was a hit, so it carried me up to the release on Oct. 10 of ’95. I think that’s really when I got excited, around September.
You thought you sold out when you made “Sugar Hill?”
I just wanted to keep it strictly decent rhymes. I didn’t want nothing to do, up to this day, with radio. I guess what we grew up off of was Mr. Magic, DJ Red Alert and things like that, so it was just all lyrics and beats. “Sugar Hill” was more of a groove that our aunts and uncles listened to when we were growing up, but that wasn’t solely related to hip-hop. Hip-hop was drums, snares and hard lyrics. But at that time, we was speaking on the lifestyle. So I guess that music was enough so listeners can really understand the lifestyle that was going on because hip-hop started from the streets. It was rebellious. But at the same time in the ’80s, it was the crack era. We lived in that crack era for my peers. The Nas’ and the Wu’s and the Biggies. We ain’t from that era, so we had a different story to tell come the ’90s. I guess that music helped us get our story across.
When you were getting ready to put out Doe Or Die, Mobb Deep’s The Infamous was out. Raekwon’s Purple Tape was out, too. How would you describe the New York sound at the time and where does Doe or Die fit in?
I had the best of both worlds. You have to understand, a lot of people didn’t have the radio success. It was only certain people that had that, and I still had that underground connection as well. We had the game on lock at that time. Everybody was out: The Wu, The Mobb, Biggie, ODB. Everybody. New York had the game on lock at that time. So the West Coast was doing their thing with Snoop and Death Row, we had so many artists on this side that it was just dominating the charts, dominating the airwaves, dominating everything.
This album helped introduce Mafioso rap to the world. Do you take credit for that?
Nah, not necessarily. That was just a zone we all was in. We was just trying to portray that money and that lifestyle. [John] Gotti was from New York City. So, we were just trying to represent that life. That aura was in the air at that time. I think everybody contributed to that, honestly.
“Life’s A Bitch” was a really big look for you. When you were making Doe or Die, did Nas give you any guidance?
We were both in the dark training because he didn’t know anything as well. You gotta understand, his album came out just a year before mine, so he was just learning as well. I was around him when I was recording his album, so I seen the dos and don’ts. He was supportive. When I was recording my album, he was there, but he was also doing his own thing.
He was on “Gimme Yours” and “Mo Money, Mo Murder, Mo Homicide.” Do you remember his reaction when the album dropped back then?
He was excited and that motivated him to get back to business. He saw the success of Doe or Die, and he was like “OK.” Once again, Illmatic didn’t do well as everybody expected it to do because it was leaked so much. It was love, but it was leaked so much that everybody felt like they had it already. He didn’t get that success that I’m sure that he wanted. He got the respect that we all wanted, but he seen the success of “Sugar Hill” and Doe or Die. You gotta understand — I went Gold off top. I went Gold, and “Sugar Hill” was on its way to Platinum. He was looking at it like, “OK, cool. Alright, I know what I gotta do.” He got back in the lab and made things happen.
When rap heads go back and listen to Illmatic and Doe or Die, they always compare the two. When you were making the album, did you ever think that you were making an Illmatic for yourself?
I was trying to get an album done. Mind you, I didn’t have the concept of “let me get this album out.” An album to me only had 12 raps, so now I gotta write an album. To me, that was the biggest focus of it all. Yo, I gotta get an album done. I didn’t know that it was gonna catch fire like it did. I figured we rapping, he put me on the album. That’s cool. I didn’t know it was gonna get me all the love that it got. So my whole focus was just completing an album. That was it. I wanted to get it done because I was contractually connected and at the same I knew there was an audience waiting so I need to deliver. That was my whole focus.
You got signed to EMI off the strength of “Life’s a Bitch.” How did that record deal come together?
Everybody was looking for me at the time off “Life’s a Bitch.” I had every record label knocking down my door. I just wanted to narrow things down and make it sense for me. And they were going the hardest, as well as Sony was going hard. But I knew that was Nas’ home and I didn’t want to invade that. You know, that’s his home and they need to have his best interests in mind and I didn’t want to take away from that. I figured that EMI had power. It had money. And they didn’t have that many artists on there. I think they had Gang Starr, and everybody loves Premier and Guru. I figured you know what? Let me go this route and see where this takes me.
Do you think Doe or Die was marketed well?
Understand this. I don’t think EMI was really hip hop-based though they had Gang Starr there. You know usually labels feed off artists. Like, you go to radio and you can pay and you get a discount and get certain love. Or even go to the publication, I have this person and that person and the next person. We pay this and get that love. That’s the way the game go. The fact that it was me and Gang Starr — probably one or two hip-hop artists there, but it wasn’t a hip-hop label like that even though they had money. I guess certain things didn’t transpire because of that, of the certain connections they had. Maybe they had higher connections that didn’t deal with hip-hop and things just happened. That’s all.
But you gotta understand within that year, they folded. So I knew it was problems internally because after Doe or Die came out, EMI folded because of financial problems. I could tell already it was problems because of that. So any love I got was off the strength of me and the music and my affiliations with who I was with and what I was doing.
Let’s talk about the collaborators. You had Pete Rock, Buckwild, L.E.S. and more behind the production. Did you reach out to them initially?
I was already in that circle with Nas and I knew these people and they was coming around. I guess producers know how to work the room, too. This is they job. They gotta find out who is hot, who is not, who is the next person. I guess we all bumped heads like that. I kind of knew Pete prior too because the manager I was dealing with, he was cool with Pete Rock. So I knew Pete prior and I guess other producers came around and we was hot on the block.
I want to talk about the album cover. It’s very literal with your face, a casket and a lot of stacks. Who thought of the concept?
I had the concept in my head and Daniel Hastings. He shot the album cover. I had the album cover in my head. It was either I was gonna get the money, or I was gonna die getting the money. That was my mindset, which one was going to last the test of time. Me being in that casket or me getting it, and that’s what kind of mindset I was in.
You’re thinking about releasing Doe or Die 2 this year. What’s been the hold up?
There’s a lot of politics. Just putting out music is not that easy. Especially when you have the samples. You gotta get certain things cleared. You gotta get certain artists cleared. Then you want to make sure you have the right home that’s going to take your work seriously as you take it. I narrowed down. That’s why I’m putting out my own store — Quiet Money Direct. Now, I have the home. Now it’s just a matter of knocking down these samples and getting these clearances done. Start putting the music out.
Do you still think Doe or Die 2 is your final album?
Yeah, this will be my final album. But I’ll still make music for, let’s say soundtracks or other artists that I’m gonna put out. I’ll be featured on their music. As far as for me, I had a good run. Twenty years.
Who have you been working with for the second one? You had a wish list like Dre and West. DJ Toomp.
[Laughs.] All of these people are very busy so none of that came into play. But I still got Buckwild. Pete Rock will be on deck. Premier will be on deck, and some new producers. It’ll be a fresh sound and a fresh start. It’ll be the Doe or Die 2 that I want. I’m not catering to the sound of 2015. I’ma keep it AZ, I’ma keep it New York and I’ma keep it for my fans. That’s it. I’m not looking to sell a billion or a million or a trillon and all of that. I just want to cater to my fans and go out how I wanted to go out. I did it my way.
What’s your relationship with Nas now?
We cool. I mean, he’s working. He got a lot of things going on. I try to remain cool with everybody that I had worked with that we consider family, [like] The Firm, as far as the producers I’ve been affiliated with. I try to be cool with everybody. It is what it is. It’s about the music. He’s a businessman as well so he’s doing him, so we catch up when we catch up.
Are you still recording songs?
I’m still recording songs, adding and subtracting. I’m trying to put music out to test the waters. I don’t want to just jump out there. So I’ll be releasing one or two songs or three songs between now and December anyway. So I’ll be releasing songs gearing up for the album.
Twenty years later, Doe or Die is considered an underrated classic. What’s your response to that now?
I mean, everybody got a part to play. As long as I am in the conversation, it’s cool. Somebody gotta be in the top. Somebody gotta be in the middle. Somebody gotta be at the bottom. But at least you’re in the conversation. So if it’s underrated, but it’s still being spoken about, I’m still here and I appreciate it. All I can do is keep putting music out.