Brooklyn rap veteran AZ may be best known for his contributions to The Firm — the ’90s hip-hop supergroup which also included Nas, Foxy Brown, Nature and at one point Cormega — as well as his iconic guest verse on Nas’ Illmatic cut “Life’s A B-tch.” But the hard-hitting rhymer behind 1995’s Doe or Die album is back to remind the rap game of what it’s been missing.
Before performing at New York’s B.B. King’s as an opener for Das EFX‘s 25th anniversary celebration of their debut Dead Serious, AZ reflected on his past career, and teased his upcoming album Doe or Die 2 with VIBE. Read the full interview and listen to “Save Them” in full below.
VIBE: What were some of your issues with labels back in the day?
You know, back then, that’s when the merger started going on — before we even knew what the merger was about, going from cassette to CDs to digital to streams and what’s going on now. Record labels were merging. For the record, I’ve never been dropped from a label, and I’ve been on five. I’ve been on EMI, financial thing [happened], then I went to Virgin. From there, I went with Electric. For a minute I was on Transcending [Records]. Then, I went to Motown and from Motown, that’s when I started dealing with [the independent label now known as EOne] Koch. I wanted to do my own thing going indie, and I’m here now. I kept it moving, trying to figure it out as time went on.
In between changing labels, what was it like creatively? How did you stay creatively sharp?
I was just trying to stay afloat. Nine Lives, I think that was the Motown one, because in the process of me doing that, they folded, and it was collapse after collapse. I guess I was just writing what I lived, and I knew I had to get it done, and it was off sheer talent. It wasn’t like, “Let me sit down and make a masterpiece,” it was, “Let me put something out to stay afloat, because you know the fans are fickle.” They are with you now, then they’re over here. I respect it — that’s just how it is. So you have to stay on top of your game.
That “Problems” single encapsulates what you just said.
Yeah, you right. That’s what went on at that time, and thank God for that particular [song], because it helped me go to [make] AZiatic, which I was more comfortable with on Motown. But they were going through their own infrastructure issues. The blessing is each label saw my struggle and knew [the problem] wasn’t me per se. Some of them didn’t know how to market you [as an artist]. A lot of cats get shelved and it’s a wrap, and I’ve never been dropped from a label. I’ve been blessed to consistently create and put music out.
Where are you getting inspiration from now?
Now I got love for the game. I love creating, feeding the people. I feel like the narrator, and I know I got a core fan base out there that listens, and they know I’m going to drop a jewel or two.
You had the book Jewels, Gems and Treasures drop in 2015. Could you tell the people about the book?
The book is like a memoir. Those that know me and really wanted to know the intricate parts of AZ, I put in there. My learning was really from the streets and family — the lessons I’ve learned through the game as far as performance, respecting the art and the craft. Then, learning the business and respecting the business.
The book led into you doing the 20th anniversary run of Doe or Die, and the merchandising aspect. What’s it like for you now to collaborate with brands?
Now, social media is everything. So when you create your own [platform] and sell your own merchandise, it’s a good look. I guess my name being out there makes it better, but even someone coming from scratch, they could make it happen and make it happen in a big way as well. It’s a blessing at the end of the day, now that I see how the whole thing works. We’re going to keep expanding and growing. That’s my goal. We got one book out and getting ready for another book. I got this Doe or Die 2 ready to come. I collab with Azad Watches, got the Brooklyn edition. Things are constantly going on.
For a while, we heard this might be the last project, but now it seems you got this new energy to kick in.
Things shift and I was like, “I could really do this on my own,” seeing how the store is going. I’m in a better creative space.
It’s wild that this is the 20th anniversary of The Firm. What was that whole experience like working with Dr. Dre and being on Aftermath?
I mean you got to understand, we all were popping before that, so dealing with Dre, I was appreciative and I could respect it, but at the same time, the family thing was better. We all could connect and had love, especially me and Nas, and [Foxy Brown] was doing her thing. So to come together and do a project — it was a blessing. Of course Dre was going through his transition at the time too. He represented that West Coast so crazy. I just wanted to really get some of that Dr. Dre music, and that “Phone Tap” really set it off.
That crew solidified two strong MCs. It put a blueprint together. What do you think The Firm brought to the game?
We brought something together that some people probably have never thought of. As of now, a lot of powerhouses come together, even in R&B. I think we set that off. Usually, groups came in the game [already together]. It never was people coming together individually. We were the first ones to get together after having our own lane.
Are you still collaborating with a lot of people from the era?
Yeah, [my new single] “Save Them.” The sound was shifting. A lot of brothers in the street were [telling me], “You got to save us.” And I’m like, “Save y’all from what?” So I took that title to save the people, then [producer] Buckwild played a joint in the studio called “Save Them,” and I was like, “This is it.” I just wanted to bring some brothers who I know respect the craft. Raekwon — that’s my brother from day one, and Prodigy [of Mobb Deep] is from that era as well. I just wanted to put something together that I know that audience will appreciate. Even the shorties will say, “Oh that’s what this about,” and they will gravitate towards it. So that’s the goal: We want to save the people and save them from themselves.
Are there any new artists that have caught your ear?
I dig Meek Mill, Wale, Drake, J. Cole, Kendrick [Lamar] — they’re new but not that new. Every year, there’s a new crop, but those cats I respect. As far as right now, I been trying to stay away from the radio and lock in and get mine out the way, and do what I do.
There’s certain artists when they hear a beat, they say that’s the AZ sh-t. You have your own sound and if you had to define it, how would you explain it?
I’m not complicated. I’m like the saxophone creating a relaxing tone. I’m from that era, so I’m going to send that music out with a relaxing type of vibe, a thinking type of vibe and a chill vibe. I respect all the vibes, because all of them create [something different] and it’s all needed. But I’m trying to get you to that one place where you’re going to wind up regardless. Like if you’re off the hook [going crazy], you’re seeking for calm and peace. That’s at the end, you start off calm as a baby not knowing what’s up, then you go through your trials and tribulations in life and then you want to relax with the kids and take it easy. I’m already there.
I’ve always been there, since I was a youngin’. That’s what we’re seeking. Some people just take the long route. That’s always been on my mind from day one. I want to get the money, I want to chill out and do what I want to do. Y’all could have all the headaches in the world. Even as a young guy, I used to tell the homies, “You need to take it easy.” You don’t want to get locked up and it plays out like that. Only the strong survive.
You’re doing a show tonight in New York. Let the people know your anticipation and what it’s like to give back to the crowd live.
I’m back in the hometown, so it’s love. But any show that I do, I just try to represent the art and give the songs the people want to hear and the songs they’ve never heard so they could appreciate that, and just have fun on that stage.
Your son is entering the industry as well. Speak on your feelings about his budding entertainment career.
My son is trying to do the music thing. I really want him to get focused and be more scholastically motivated. There’s a lot that comes with the game. I try not to knock him and lead him the right direction, and let him go where his heart wants to go. But of course everyone wants to gravitate toward the light, everyone wants the light. That light will blind you sometimes. I try to tell people stay away from the light, but who am I? Everyone has to walk their own path.