Think of all the random rappers who did one verse on an east coast album in the ’90s. How many turned that verse into a career spanning three decades? Twenty-six years after his debut Doe or Die, AZ is back with his tenth album, a sequel that isn’t outright painful or begging for ’90s nostalgia to get your streams. This is an unfathomable feat for someone who made his debut during the first term of Bill Clinton. If you go on Old Head Rap Twitter like me, AZ’s name blesses the timeline on a weekly basis. Considering he last dropped a proper full length in 2009, it speaks to the weight of AZ’s work and the ironclad grip he has on a generation of rap fans that his latest album charted just behind Kanye and Drake.
Blessed with features from T-Pain, Rick Ross, a highly motivated Lil’ Wayne, and Conway, plus sporting a murderer’s row of producers that would well up the eyes of all former Fat Beats employees, Do or Die 2 is an AZ album. And an AZ album knows what it does best: stick to it’s guns. AZ can glide on jheri curl R&B. He can narrate stickups on trigger happy hardcore jams. He can visualize the realism of life with a pristine half-moon caesar while Idris Elba gleefully checks in just to serenade the Brooklyn sage. We spoke about his independent hustle, how he counts quiet money while running his own label under the same name, and how legacy artists navigate a time when dropping 3 projects a year is the norm. – Zilla Rocca
I wanted to know what your creative process is now making an album versus when you first started. Is your approach to rhyme writing the same? Do you think about production the same way? Or has your process evolved over time?
AZ: Well, I mean, when I first got in the game, it was it was weird, because I had no coach, no know how, and I was learning on the job training. I had to learn, you know, due to being in the streets and having a love of music, you know, who’s hot, who’s not, what’s poppin, you know, I really didn’t know too much about producers. I was more or less locked in on artists, and who was the best MC. When I first got in the game, it was like, just get an album done, you know, it was like any other any artist, that’s kind of how they got a name.
So I was going with what I knew and trying some new things. At the same time, I wasted a lot of money in the studio! Because I didn’t know shit! I was paying the money back! The label had me all the way, so I was very naive to that. So I’m in the studio wasting a whole lot of time, you know, writing but I have a verse a day and just smoking and drinking, just happy to be in a space where this has become my life and my dream has become reality. Fast forward, right now, I noticed it is definitely a business. And maintaining your sanity is key. And being able to express yourself in rhyme form, it’s a career now. So it’s like an automatic thing. But at the same time, when you build the project, you just want them to be fly. Now it’s just a different mindset, more mature mindset.
What is your writing process like now compared to then?
AZ: It was coming from a place of “let me just catch wreck, let me let them know who I am.” Right now it is coming from “this is who I am.” And let me not teach but let me educate and lead and more or less solidify and immortalize myself. You know what I mean? It’s about really a mental thing with the people that I know where I came from. And I know the mindset of my peers. It’s all about survival in reality — it’s a survival thing with me.
Do you write on paper still? Do you write in the studio? Like, how does it actually work?
AZ: No, no, now, I don’t do the phone shit. I’m still old school I’m on the paper. I got books on top of books that I found. Not too long ago, I got so many books I just write in. And you know I write chicken scratch. So my writing is terrible, right? But I got books on top of books and notepads and notepads.
When I was looking back at your catalog — like I have a massive playlist of your songs. I was thinking about your songs with Monifah, D’Angelo. Even on this new album, having T-Pain and Jahiem, it seems like it’s always been effortless for you from the beginning working with R&B artists. Was that natural for you? How did you make those decisions?
AZ: In the streets you had all kind of guys, right? A lot of cousins and a lot of homies and OG’s in my hood. They always was just smooth, calm, collected, fly. So when I came to the door, I tapped into that fly energy. It’s easy to just act a fool and make a bad situation worse, right? Because I’ve seen it so many times. And for my own self, I was doing dumb shit that put me in a fucked up position. I always acquired at an early age to move a certain way. You know, I’m saying like, it was always less said was best said for me, you know, more or less, keep your ears open, keep your eyes wide. Like, that was my M.O. you know, in the cut lay back, watch the play, watch the circus go.
So that really is my livelihood. So when I got in the game from just being, you know, young, and then your parents played them — disco music and classic music — I just feel like it can attract more more people to me, right? Because the women love music. And, the guys they listen to the words. So I figured, let me just always be the voice of reason. That has been my mindset. Because it’s so easy. It’s like, “yo fuck that, hold the gat”; I can do that all day. And we do need that, you know, I’m saying like, we need that shit, right. But I just always wanted to be the voice of reason. And I would just like putting it together. So it was clothes, or it’s words, or if it’s whatever it is. It’s just my lifestyle. That’s it.
What I always remember is you were one of the first artists that had their own label. And I remember when you called it Quiet Money. You had Half a Mill — God bless him. I was always really fascinated by that name. Because that seemed to go against what rappers are about, like what rappers are about being quiet? That always struck me and I’ve noticed that’s always been your brand. Can you give me an idea of how you came up with that name? And then what was your vision for starting Quiet Money?
AZ: Like you said, back then it was like everybody was boisterous and speaking loud. And it’s like, the real bad boys move in silence, silence is golden, you know, these are the things that I grew up off. And it was like, you know, this is longevity, right? We just be quiet and just, it’s just handing your BI. That was my mindset. This quiet money we gettin it, but there’s nothing to talk about it.
So how is looking like now, 20 years later, still having quiet money?
AZ: It still is the beautifulest thing, right? Because even when I hit the bad spots, like we all had bad spots, you would never know because I was not there popping shit. So when I’m not popping shit, something’s wrong. So it just is what worked for me. Because when I was finding my way, I was still able to remain that. I kept the same mindset when I was down, you keep the same mindset. Even-keeled.
Being through the industry, and now handling more things hands-on and having those lessons and just maturing as an adult, where you’re more on top of every dollar you’re spending, how do you feel now being more in charge? Because some people just never want to deal with it. They’ll just let someone else take it, and maybe they get exploited or maybe they just fall off. How are you able to juggle that now?
AZ: One, it’s not easy. Two, I see why a lot of people will just be like “yo fuck it”. In hindsight, when you get to a level, you appreciate it more because going through it is the headache, right? You’re like “man i don’t have time for this shit” or, you’re just building a team and just having that motivation to really do shit. That’s the real key.
I’ve found that I’d never quit. Whatever I do, I just never quit. And I feel like that’s one of my strengths because it’s easy to say “fuck it” because you really do get frustrated. And you really get a lot of doors closed in your face. And I never really gave a fuck about that. And I guess that’s really one of my strengths. Like I’m pushing the snow over here, I can go over that way, I’ll go to the back and we’ll go through the back, go under, I’m gonna go through the roof. It was just like, I never give up on nothing. So that’s one of my strengths. And it’s a great thing. And I tried to tell everybody just keep going because we all get frustrated. Even the people that you look up to the most get frustrated.
Speaking of frustration, I remember with Pieces of a Man and all the delays. I remember seeing the ads in The Source for a long time. I recently replayed it, and then heard the new album. I feel like Rick Ross loved your albums, because a lot of what he’s done aesthetically, is really in debt to what you were doing back then. I feel like he is a direct descendant of the first wave of AZ albums.
AZ: We opened that gate of “get fly, get money”. We kind of opened that gate and those who represent that came behind us. They had to take a page out of our book. We lit the torch. Yeah, we we carried the torch. We turnt it up. I guess those behind us came and did the same thing.
Right. Who were the guys you were looking up to that you felt like you carry the torch more specifically?
AZ: Oh, man. I mean the greats to me. Rakim. I will say this every interview but like Rakim, G Rap, Kane, Slick Rick, LL, Chuck D. It’s like the superheroes of the game to me.
What’s interesting is any album of yours I’ve ever played doesn’t really occupy a space of “such and such was hot that year, AZ had 10 songs like that that year”. On this new record you’re not only working with legends you’ve worked in the past, you’re also expanding your reach with Dave East and Lil Wayne. How do you approach it like that where you want to stay true to what people like from you, but also experiment? How do you balance that?
AZ: I can’t even answer that question. Because I’m never really wanted to experiment. Maybe I did a little but then like, I had to stick to my guns and and sometimes it’s where the patience pays off, right? Because I probably would have never jumped out with this album. If it wasn’t for the Verzuz with The Lox and Dipset that brought the lyricism back, with the J Cole’s and Kendrick’s spittin again and really bringing that energy back, it loosened up everybody. So I was like, okay, now I can shadow it, I can come back and push the envelope and put this album out and peers or other artists that want to come out spitting lyrics, they probably can help push the envelope and really crack the ice. We got this over here and we stand strong on this. So thanks to everybody that really start kicking down that door and I kicked right behind that motherfucker!