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by
9 September, 2005@12:00 am
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By William Ketchum III

Even if AZ took the title of his upcoming album AWOL literally and left hip-hop without a trace, he would still leave behind a legacy that rivals many other MCs.  Since his memorable debut on “Life’s A Bitch” from Nas’ Stillmatic, AZ has become the subject of hip-hop folklore with his multi-syllabic flow and his literate street tales.  With several memorable—if not classic—albums under his belt (Doe or Die, Aziatic), he’s already made history.

Fortunately, AZ meant AWOL in a different way.  “In the hood, when they say A.W.O.L., that means somebody’s going crazy,” AZ said.  “I just felt like physically I’m there, but mentally, I’m gone.  That’s my absence without leave.  That’s the term I was using, and as time went on, my peoples came up with, ‘AZ Will Outlast.’”  In an interview with HipHopSite.com, AZ talks about his new project and timeless relativity.

HipHopSite: What made you decide to completely redo Final Call and make A.W.O.L.?

AZ: Three months prior to the release date, Koch wanted to push it back another three months.  We were debating, and I decided that if I wanted to do that, I’m going to go ahead and do a whole new album.  I hadn’t been out in two years, man, so I didn’t want to give my fans spoiled product.  They were like, “All right, if you’re going to do that, go back to the lab and do what you do.”  I kept saying to myself, “I’m about to go A.W.O.L. with this shit.”  I kept saying that word, and that’s why the album is called A.W.O.L. 

HipHopSite: Why had you taken so long between albums?

AZ: My last album was out 2002, Final Call was going to come out in 2004, but the process between those two years was me finagling my way out of the contract I was in with Motown.  I had to get away from them, because they weren’t doing the right thing at the time.  I put two albums out over there, which were 9 Lives and Aziatic, and they both were good albums  Motown was dealing with neo-soul and all that, and I figured they’d step their game up when it came to rap, but they didn’t know how to do it.  I had to finagle my way out of that, and that took about a year.  I didn’t want to lock right back in with a major, so I just needed a distributor.  That’s when Koch was getting their buzz with Death Row and No Limit, giving out good distribution deals. 

HipHopSite: You’ve gotten critical acclaim for virtually your whole career, but how do you think you’ve changed since that memorable verse on Nas’ “Life’s A Bitch”?

AZ: I’ve gotten better with time.  A lot of people, as time goes on, they slow down or depreciate.  The longer I go, the stronger I get.  Since “Life’s A Bitch,” I think I’ve stepped it up.  I’ve gave people more of me—I’ve actually gave them everything of me, as far as thoughts and ideas and all that.

HipHopSite: You’re already regarded as one of the best in New York.  Why don’t you think you’ve blown up like fellow NY MCs like Nas or Jay?

AZ: As far as the hood, I’m loved throughout every hood.  As far as sales, both of them had machines behind them for one.  For two, anyone who sells over two or three million copies, they tap into different cultures and ethnic groups.  The hood love is there, throughout the fuckin’ world.  I guess I haven’t done the crossover records that would cross me over.

HipHopSite: Is that important to you?

AZ: Not at all, you see me still here.  And I’m not stressed—I’m taking it easy, I’m all right.  I’ve got love for the game, man.  As long as I’m continuing to do what I want to do, and as long as my fan base is satisfied, I’m satisfied.

HipHopSite: The joint “Serious” with Nas is, well, serious.  Why wasn’t that released on either of your albums?

AZ: That was coming off his album, and I guess he had a double album, and there were some technical difficulties as far as release dates and getting things approved.  That’s why it just leaked and got out there, and that’s what it was.  It wasn’t nothing personal. 

HipHopSite: Who had made that beat?

AZ: Salaam (Remi).

HipHopSite: You’re already regarded as one of the best in New York.  Why don’t you think you’ve blown up like fellow NY MCs like Nas or Jay?

AZ: As far as the hood, I’m loved throughout every hood.  As far as sales, both of them had machines behind them for one.  For two, anyone who sells over two or three million copies, they tap into different cultures and ethnic groups.  The hood love is there, throughout the fuckin’ world.  I guess I haven’t done the crossover records that would cross me over.

HipHopSite: What do you think of New York hip-hop right now?

AZ: It is what it is.  Hip-hop is forever growing.  East coast started it, west coast ran with it, Midwest touched it, the south has it now.  It’s just on a 360.  it’s all about growth and development.  New York, we’re just sitting back.  We birthed it, so it’s like raising a kid—once they reach a certain age and go out into the world, it’s OK.  You know who dad and mom are.  At the end of the day, it’ll come back, and when it does, hopefully New York artists and producers are ready.

HipHopSite: Do you think it’s making you step your game up?

AZ: My game is always at its peak, so it’s not a matter of stepping my game up.  But I want to bring it back overall, and let them know that it ain’t really go nowhere.  I want to bring the vibe back from Illmatic and Doe Or Die with this album.

HipHopSite: Let’s talk about the album.  Tell me about working with DJ Premier.

AZ: You know what that is.  Buck is always digging in the crates, so you know you’re going to get something street from him.  Premier is legendary, you know you’re going to get that heat.  If you consider yourself a lyricist, you’ve got to go through that chamber.  If you ain’t dealing with Premo, you ain’t shit (laughs).  He’s legendary, and he only deals with those with that whole ammunition. 

HipHopSite: Forgive me for asking, but had you worked with DJ Premier before this?

AZ: Yeah, we had done the D’Angelo remix to “Lady.”  This was the first time we really locked in and went hat for hat.

HipHopSite: It seems you would have worked with him a long ago…

AZ: Yeah, but I was doing me, and he was doing him at the time.  It’s like a book—a book is never over till the last chapter.  Just because it wasn’t brought to existence yet doesn’t mean it’s not going to come to existence later on, and that’s what’s going on now.

HipHopSite: You also show love to a few new cats—Emile, Heatmakerz, Disco D.  What made you choose them, along with these other veterans you enlisted?

AZ: Because the veterans are veterans, and these (new) guys are hot.  Heatmakerz are hot, they’re doing their thing with Dipset and all that.  Emile dealt with Freeway and Ghostface, and Disco D just had some 50 Cent songs.  These guys are putting in their work, but they aren’t getting their notoriety.  Hopefully, with me, they get their notoriety and keep it moving.

HipHopSite: As far as guest MCs, you recruited artists that were hip-hop veterans just like you—Ghostface, CL Smooth, Slick Rick, M.O.P.  What was it like working with them?

AZ: I’ve also got Raekwon, and my man Half-a-Mil, God bless the dead.  I like lyricists, I like people to go sword-for-sword.  Those were the people I felt could keep up.

HipHopSite: Which of these stick out to you the most?

AZ: All of them, there was a different zone for each one.

HipHopSite: I know you get asked this all the time, but are there any hopes or plans for a new Firm album?

AZ: (laughs) I’m not sure about that, I wouldn’t even lie to you.  If it does, I’m here with it.  If not, it is what it is.

HipHopSite: Would you like for it to happen?

AZ: I’m here, I’m with it.  It sounds good, man.  There are a lot of reunions going on, and I feel like that would be a good one.  That would be an excellent one.

HipHopSite: All right, check this.  You finally worked with Premo for this album.  You work with Nas, and it comes out dope every time.  You ever think about this—an AZ and Nas album, produced entirely by Premo?

AZ: Wow, that’d be serious.  That’d be something terrible right there, I couldn’t have it man.  That’d be fucking crazy, a nuke bomb.  What, you trying to end the game?  That’s serious right now.

HipHopSite: You’ve got to make that happen.

AZ: Yeah, that is serious.  I ain’t even ‘gon lie to you.

HipHopSite: We were just talking about the veterans on your album.  Do you think veterans nowadays get the respect they deserve, or do you think they’re overlooked?

AZ: The respect is there, I think.  I don’t know about overlooked, I don’t know what that means.  When I see new, up-and-coming artists, they show love.  There’s a lot of love in a lot of areas, besides New York.  It’s a lot of people.

HipHopSite: How do you think you’ve maintained your longevity?

AZ: Just staying focused, internal vision, and staying true to myself. 

HipHopSite: It seems like a lot of cats—and I won’t say any names—but a lot of cats are veterans, but they aren’t even dope anymore.  But they still get respected, but only because they’re veterans.  At what point does it get to you to be respected for your actual material, and not just your veteran status?

AZ: You’ve got to respect the vet for the work they put in.  You can never take that away.  If you respect the vet that much, being a fan or a friend, when (the veteran) is not at their best, “Breathe easy.”  You’ve got to pass that word.  Slip it like a whisper.

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