Sun-Ui Yum is bussin’ like a quick stroke.
The brilliance that’s arisen out of Los Angeles gangsta rap in the past two years often reads as fundamentally responsive and targeted — the effect to a cause. At its most sobering, its foe materializes into something tangible: for example, a legal enforcement system that’s already ensnared the careers of 03 Greedo, Drakeo the Ruler, and the Stinc Team. But even when the threat is less structural in its imposition, it lurks. The impermanence and insecurity that haunted Greedo’s music – drugs, violence – has become heavier in his absence. And there is always paranoia, the lurking force that led Drakeo to dub his genre “nervous music” – perhaps the best verbal artifact from a mind that speaks a different language.
There is another subset of L.A. rap – 1TakeBoyz, Rucci, Shoreline Mafia – that is more liberated. 1TakeJay and Rucci are both outsized, with smiles that you can see all the way from the SoundCloud waveforms, and even Ohgeesy’s grimace can’t hide his youth. This music is not sobering, nor is it sober. Exhibit A: Shoreline Mafia’s video for “Bands,” their most obvious and undeniable hit since the brilliant run that led to last year’s #ShorelineDoThatShit and a major label deal with Atlantic. “Bands” was spawned from mosh pit sweat but the video is blue skies reflecting off of cars worth houses, its indelible image a 1TakeJay milly-rock. It floats, and they are stars.
In that landscape, AzChike and the small collective he represents, AzCult (AzSwaye and AzBenzz are the other names it would be unforgivable to miss), represent an important middle-ground, rappers who unmistakably traffic in menace but a menace less weighty. Chike habits the same octaves that Drakeo does, a growl that occasionally dips so low it bends into a mumble, but he is an unmistakable centerpiece. He is never anything but. Chike is a vacuum, a gravitational force whose mere presence pulls the rest of a song into a tight vortex; multiple times this year, he’s out-smirked otherwise magnetic presences on their own songs — Rucci’s “Light It Up,” 1TakeJay’s “Bleed Em.”
March’s My World is AzChike’s first fully-formed release after a string of EPs, a tight exhale that doesn’t leave the lungs. It is a sinewy half-hour that listens as even shorter, compact in its movements, but without the claustrophobic anxiety that attaches itself to Drakeo’s music. This is the shortest the line between San Francisco hyphy and Los Angeles gangsta rap has felt in years, because Chike is quietly a purist: songs like “Licked Up” are fearlessly foundational, having upended all but the most essential 2005 sounds out of its mix. The earlier cuts from 2016 and 2017 were elongated trap, piloted by some version of 21 Savage’s drawl; pumping the accelerator and streamlining the music was the correct move. Now, the music is lasered, and Chike is one of L.A.’s most arresting presences on wax — Chike finds bubbles of air between the beat’s breaths, and he squeezes them all out.
Best of all, Chike is stunningly precise. His music is straightforward, so it’s easy to miss what you might hear if it was Roc Marciano saying the words instead. In technical terms, it’s all assonance and multisyllabic rhymes and other descriptors you never want to hear seriously associated with a rap song, but what it translates to, musically, are verses that stack upon themselves, become recursive. Chike’s words already come propelled by impossible momentum (he revs up with imperceptible effort), so at his most intricate, his words seem to fold back on themselves: phrases as shapes (“hella dummy in the club, I just licked up”) that resurface as recognizable patterns in unrecognizable locations.
They’re puzzle pieces, compact thoughts, short syllables that Chike will fixate on for thirty seconds before shifting on — he’s “tryna get faded on the fader,” or: “I ain’t like you because I know you broke — I ain’t your bro.” The effect is abstraction, songs that don’t allow themselves to be resolved into familiar structures. His voice does not get lost and you do not stop listening.
AzChike knows, too, that the bells are ringing: all eyes (especially major label eyes) are on L.A., even with Greedo and Drakeo in jail. He’s touring, featuring, sitting on a project with a producer who’s silently been one of rap’s most influential over the last half-decade (Cardo). Tuesday, he’ll open for Shoreline Mafia in front of a packed crowd at S.O.B.’s in Manhattan, an entire coast away from where everything began. Hard not to think about how things will be different the next time he’s here.
People are practically at a zero about you, knowing who you are and your background — so, you’re from L.A., did you grow up there?
AzChike: I grew up in L.A., South Central, literally the borderline between the east and the west.
What are your most vivid memories from growing up?
AzChike: Shit … learning how to do shit. Ride bikes, get in trouble, pop fireworks, get apricots off the fucking tree. It taught me how to be social, because the kids were bad. If you were a punk, you weren’t gonna last long.
Do you have any siblings?
AzChike: I got two little brothers, I’m the oldest.
What’s it like being an older brother for you? I’m an older brother, I’ve got a little sister.
AzChike: It’s hectic. [laughs] It’s smooth now, it’s smooth now, they’re older now. I know what to do now — or, I think I know what to do. As I get older, they’re getting older, so they go through their different stages…I don’t know how to deal with no eighteen-year-old [laughs]. It’s a learning experience as you go.
What were your high school years like?
AzChike: Ninth grade went up, that shit was wild. After that, shit was…[laughs] niggas were doing wild shit. It was good as fuck, I can’t lie. I had a good time in school — doesn’t mean I had good grades, but I had fun.
What have your last five years been like? High school is one thing, obviously, but now we’re both at an age where we’re not adults but not kids.
AzChike: Eye-opening. I was trying to work my ass off. I had two jobs, I was working in a mall and in Sprouts Grocery Store. I thought that was the way. I was trying to do it to support my music, but then I found out you don’t get your fucking check. I mean, you get your check, but with taxes, getting to and from work, eating lunch, personal needs — you need to get bills. That was eye-opening. Everything’s been a big-ass learning experience, especially the last five. I quit both of my jobs, and then the music shit started popping off.
When’d you quit your job?
AzChike: Beginning of 2015. I quit my last job February 13, 2015. I remember it like it was yesterday.
It is wild you remember that date.
AzChike: You know why I left?
AzChike: I left to do a tax scam.
AzChike: I left to go act like I was in college and get more money back on taxes with this one dude. Shit didn’t even go through.
It didn’t work?
AzChike: No. They gave us back three thousand, but we were supposed to get back seven. I’m happy with the three, though, that’s money.
That’s a pretty solid tax scam [laughs].
AzChike: I left work, I was still in my green Sprouts sweater, and we went to go scam downtown LA. I swear to God.
Was it scary for you to leave? I bet, when you’re supporting yourself…
AzChike: It wasn’t scary, because I was frustrated. I didn’t even care. I wasn’t scared, nervous. I was like — fuck it. I knew the ins and outs of my whole job, I knew how it worked, it wasn’t nothing I was missing. I was over that shit. At that point, I felt like I could get any job — I still feel like I can get any job.
You aren’t working right now besides rapping, are you?
AzChike: Nah, I’m on tour with Shoreline Mafia. Fuck all that. This is work.
When did you start rapping, and when’d you actually look up and think — this is actually something I can do?
AzChike: Honestly, been making music for a long time…I dropped my first songs at the end of 2013. That’s when I got my first boost of confidence, I’m putting shit out — boom. I said, for sure this is what I’ve got to do, in spring 2016. March. We went to SXSW and DJ Drama, Dom Kennedy, that whole generation now — that’s when Lil Uzi popped up with the purple hair, we were with him. After that, it gave me so much motivation it’s ridiculous. I started being consistent, I started making music my city can like. I wasn’t trying to do trap shit, you know what I’m saying? Things people will listen to, while still doing me. But I never did it for money and I never thought about money. The money I’m getting today, I never thought about. I can get shit in other ways.
What were you doing it for?
AzChike: For myself. Because I knew this was it, you know what I’m saying? This is all I wanted. I didn’t want to treat it like a last option, but this is all I wrote. Rather than all I got, all I wrote. I don’t want to do anything else. I’ll wake up, no matter how tired — this is what I want to do.
I think — yeah. I used to work at a label, for a couple months, and what you said makes a lot of sense. It’s very important to not let money be your primary motivator.
AzChike: Because it’s so many ways to get money, and there’s so much money out here. Yeah.
Tell me about — you quit your job, you’re a scammer. You start putting out music — or, you had been, but it really starts rolling. Walk me through how things have been since 2015.
AzChike: The beginning of 2015, it wasn’t even personally for me when things started popping off. It was my boy, but I was there for it, and the opportunities came. I learned a lot. In 2015 I was a student, and in 2016, I got hella motivated, I started doing things on my own. No excuses. I was buying hella beats, I didn’t care — I had to make the music. From there, I just got consistent, I don’t know. From 2016, it was just doing shit.
When did you link with Swaye and Benzz, and end up forming AzCult?
AzChike: I linked with Swaye in sixth grade. Since middle school. We were the class clowns, that’s how we became friends. I met my boy Benzz in the ninth grade, the year I told you was the best year of high school. In 2010, we were just with each other all day, came up with the A-Z thing. Not an abbreviation, just A-Z, start-finish, alpha-omega, get it in the end. It was A-Z Gang, and remember I told you I dropped my first song in 2013 — that’s when I changed it. I didn’t like the “gang,” everybody was “gang” or “squad.” “Cult” is still dark, on some “I’ll smoke you” shit. It had a feeling to it, where if you hear someone say “cult,” you’d be like — you know what I’m saying? It became more official.
What’s your dynamic been like? Were you all equally serious, or were some of you more confident than the others?
AzChike: That’s a good question. At the beginning, to keep it a thousand with you, it was probably just a vibe and a feeling. It was just something there. You don’t know, but something was there. It’s 2018 now, it’s been eight years I’ve been with them, and we’ve been doing music successfully and consistently since 2015 — that’s three years. The other five years, we were big kicking it, conjuring up shit, and we were always just a group that attracted everything. I got a lot of freedom in my house. My mom’s not strict, she always said I’d find out on my own, but I tried to be as responsible as I could be at the ages I was. But my house was free, I had a lot of freedom, everyone would bunch up in my room. We were fifteen, sixteen, big licker, everything. As things got serious, it was just who stuck around. It was a lot of us, and people died off.
Question. I was going through your older music, and I feel there’s a distinct point in maybe 2016 where everything starts sounding really polished —
AzChike: Yeah, yeah.
… and everything starts coming together. It clicks, and it sounds like what I’m listening to now. I’m curious what your creative progression was like —
…tell me about it, I wanna hear it.
AzChike: I need all your information, you hear me? You got the questions, I like you, bro. You really want to know? I went to the fucking Bay Area and found the best engineer in the world. His name is Sean Sauce at the Grill in North Oakland. I gotta go see him soon, anyway. He is who I drop my official music with. I’ll drop music mixed by other dudes, and it’s regular, but when we come together, that’s what you get. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
I did not expect you to just give me a name. That’s crazy, makes a lot of sense. Were you working with him creatively, or you’re just sending him stems?
AzChike: My first time, ever, I was supposed to go to the Bay and I missed the whole first session with him. I was on a gram, my bus was delayed, I was seven hours away, it was over. I was sitting in the Greyhound, my manager at the time was like — yeah, we’re doing, he went crazy. He FaceTimed me, asked me how I wanted some things, and thirty minutes go past, and I get all the songs. I swear to God, I played every song the whole way. The first time ever, my managers just had my songs and I didn’t even do anything in the studio. Like you said, I just sent in the stems. But every time after that, I was with him in the studio.
Does he work with anyone else you know? Or is that just your guy?
AzChike: He costs. Ten hour sessions, it’s like $800. That’s why I fuck with him, because not a lot of people can get him. He’s under EMPIRE, so he’s their in-house guy. He works with Philthy Rich out the Bay, Gucci Mane, Kodak Black, Hoodrich Pablo Juan.