After a nearly four-year hiatus, AZ is finally gearing up to release his ninth studio album, tentatively titled “Doe or Die II.” His impact on the ever-evolving world of rap is difficult to quantify by hard statistics and direct influence. Despite never being the brightest star or biggest draw, even within his own freakishly talented circle of contemporaries, he’s one of the few artists that can honestly lay claim to be a “rapper’s rapper.” Somewhere between globetrotting with DJ Doo Wop and recording new material for his forthcoming LP, Sosa carved out time to discuss Scarface, Monopoly, and his tranquil demeanor. — Harold Stallworth
Your last solo album was released back in 2009. What have you been doing in the time since then?
I’ve been recording and doing shows. I’ve just been checking the game out, because it switches every so often. You have to let these cats that’s up and coming do their thing. The sound changes. You just have to get in the back of the line and take a number until it’s your time to shine again. I just been checking out the game and seeing where it’s been going. The south really took over and they’re doing their thing, which is good because we’re all a-alike.
There was a rumor circulating a while back that you married some billionaire heiress and retired from rap. Is there any truth to that?
Nah, I don’t know what they’re talking about man [laughs]. People make up all kinds of shit.
How old were you when you first started rapping seriously?
I never knew I wanted to rap professionally, even up to this conversation right now [laughs]. Hip-hop is a way of life. It’s just what we were living. When it came to the forefront, me being young, hearing Cold Crush [Brothers] and Run DMC and all that — I just knew it was the life. And I was part of that life as far as going to the parties and park jams; being a little knucklehead. When I got a little older and Rakim and [Kool] G Rap and [Big Daddy] Kane came out, they were wearing the clothes we wore and speaking the language we spoke. It was just a part of nature.
As I got older I bumped heads with Nas. I was in the studio just being supportive and happened to stumble on the “Life’s a Bitch” track. From there, labels started getting at me. I had no coaching, so I didn’t even know what it took to make an album or whatever. But it was something legal, so I ran with it.
Most fans heard your voice for the first time on Nas’ debut album, Illmatic. At that point, your style already seemed so mature and fully formed. Had you already started recording professionally prior to that feature?
Professionally, it was a new process. I mean, I used to rap on the block and back in school in the hallways and all that. But the studio was a brand new zone for me.
Were you in a local Brooklyn rap crew before your solo career took off?
Nah, I wasn’t with a crew or anything. It was just me doing my own thing. I did it because it was in me, but I never would’ve thought I’d be in the hip-hop game like I am today. It’s definitely a blessing.
The rise of mafioso-rap is often attributed to artists like Raekwon and Kool G Rap, among others. But you were one of the first artists to really smooth out the edges of that subgenre. How did Doe or Die end up having such a laid back, somber feel to it?
Because I was smoking a whole lot of weed [laughs]. I was a real pothead at that time. [The marijuana] just had me on some real laid back shit. I was always a smooth guy. I always felt I was dangerous, but I was more diplomatic with it. I was the type to try to cease something before it turned ugly. It’s so easy to do the wrong thing, but it’s harder to do the right thing. That’s always been implemented in my ways and actions. I’d take the smooth way out because anybody can go retarded. That’s the easiest thing to do in the world.
The title track for Doe or Die was produced by N.O. Joe, who at that point was known primarily for his work with UGK and Geto Boys. What made you want to reach out to a southern producer at a time when regionalism was so prevalent in hip-hop?
I heard him on Scarface’s joint. He did the track “I Never Seen a Man Cry.” I really dug his sound at that particular time. Although I was on the east coast, I was listening to a lot of Scarface back then along with Rakim and Kool G Rap. I just wanted that sound. That music was just raw and I felt it.
Not long after the release of Doe or Die, you made a brief cameo in Jay-Z’s “Dead Presidents” video. Who reached out to you for that appearance?
I knew Jay. We were all from Brooklyn. When I was working on Doe or Die he would come to the sessions. We actually went to high school together. He had me beat a couple of grades, but when I arrived he was the man in there. So we were cool. He invited me to come through, so I did. It was a good look.
Who won that Monopoly game?
Aww shit, man. All I know is I was real drunk! We had a couple drinking contests. I was out of it, so I know I didn’t win.
In the late 90’s you started working closely with Half-A-Mil. How did you guys link up?
I think one of the homies introduced us at a concert in Brooklyn. He started rapping right before my show and I liked the way he sounded at the time. I was like “yo, I’m over here at the studio, come through.” We linked up from there. He came to a few of my sessions and I put him on The Firm and Pieces of a Man.
Did you get a chance to see the documentary on the last few years of his life, Player Hating: A Love Story?
Yeah, actually I did. That was kind of mean. He was in the mix at that particular time. I guess things on his end were moving a little slow. He wanted to make his presence felt, so he was making his own moves.
Are you at liberty to reveal any of the producers or collaborations you have lined up for Doe or Die II?
Well, right now I have Statik Selektah on there. Buckwild, he was on the original. L.E.S., he’s the one that did the “Sugar Hill” cut. Me and Pete Rock are getting ready to record in a few. I’m waiting for DJ Premier to hop on it. He’s someone I wanted on my first album. I got a couple new producers that are real serious. It’s panning out the way I hoped it would.
You sound rejuvenated on your new single, “We Movin’.” It’s being received really well by your fans. Are you making a conscience effort to recapture the energy from the original?
It’s just me doing me. I got a great album coming. I’m almost finished and there’s a lot more cuts in the same vein as “We Movin’,” so if they like that joint it’s going to be a great album.
When do you expect to the album to drop?
I’m going to put out another single and video in about a month or so. We’re looking at the fall of 2013, but I’m going to keep putting music out until it drops. I just want to get the awareness up.
Being that this is an official sequel to what many consider to be your finest work, did you feel any additional pressure recording this time around?
Not at all. You got to understand this is 17 years later, so this is a more grown and mature AZ. My head is on stronger and I’m more focused. I think this will be my best music to date.
ZIP: AZ – Last of a Dying Breed (Left-Click)