A Poetic Filament: An Interview with Writer and Musician Azeem
What you hear in Azeem's music is bluster and anger, a rage of words and sound. But at the very core of his sonic tirade is the enveloping silence of anagogic contemplation.
His tough love approach to hip-hop is often misunderstood. Perceived by many to resonate from a place of aggression and hostility, Azeem’s rhymes are, in fact, transmitted from the basis of compassion; his rhymes cut with the passionate force of intent, but all wounds are healed with the medicinal touch of true empathy. In Azeem's musical engagements, there is never the danger of a something-for-nothing exchange; listeners are certain to take away at least some strand of the poetic readings. And whether they agree with the artist's sentiments or not, the imparted soul of a gifted writer cannot be fully denied.
Music is almost something that just seemed to happen to him; like his flows over a set of ever-changing grooves of more than a decade now, Azeem has cultivated the chameleon attitude of a restless traveller. Whether designing rhymes over hard electro (courtesy of techno stalwarts like Meat Beat Manifesto), ragga-dub loops or bare-bones hip-hop, the lyricist always manages a poised balance of modulation; Azeem can throw rhymes, but he can’t be thrown. And it is this most amusing sleight-of-hand, a Houdini bend of the counterculture will, that has drawn listeners like moths to his always retreating flame. Indeed, Azeem’s in-your-face requisitions of musical space hide the more mystic rudiments of his blues and soul. What you are hearing in his work is bluster and anger, a rage of words and sound. But at the very core of this sonic tirade, in fact, is the enveloping silence of one man’s nearly 40 years of anagogic contemplation.
Little is known about the artist’s personal life. Any trajectory known to the public begins with Azeem’s first forays into music as a writer on Spearhead’s 1997 sophomore release, Supa Chocolate Highway. The Michael Franti-led project featured the young Azeem (credited as Azim) on the more soulfully twisted tunes and, on this album, the glimpse of a sagacious talent coming to fruition was caught. A few years later, Azeem would resurface as an artist in his own right with the release of his debut EP, Garage Opera. Stripped bare of any complicated fuss, Garage Opera’s sonic shapes are distilled to the raw material of a drum loop, a few spare samples and Azeem’s steely poetry. The EP’s stark minimalism and heavy atmosphere was appreciated by those often consigned to the private quarters of their living space; in Garage Opera, Azeem produced the thinking-man’s hip-hop and his mystic-obsessive rhymes carry with them the poetic filament of a soul brooding in isolation.
In 2001, the young musician would cast his net further and draw in a far more expansive range of sounds for Craft Classic, his debut LP. Unlike Garage Opera’s moody, navel-gazing introspection, Craft Classic was Azeem’s stepping out record, projected into packed clubs frequented by city night owls. Taking a more varied approach in production, Craft Classic employs a host of noteworthy DJs and producers to provide grooves of a deeper intensity. Charting the waters of an even stranger consequence, Azeem muses on the arcane experiences of consecrated and celestial operations; on the extraterrestrial throb of “God’s Rolex”, time and space continuums are dissected with a critical and discriminating eye. Heavier vibes radiate an almost Delphic verse of love, sex and poverty on “Palm Wine Two” and here the rapper articulates a dangerously frail bridge between empathy and rage with dexterous application. Craft Classic would, in retrospect, instate Azeem’s name amongst the hip-hop literati, establishing the artist as a lyricist of ample gifts.
Despite the calamitous troubles that would be befall the young musician a few years following his full-length release, Azeem would navigate the emotional spaces with the considerate approach of an artist dividing his soul with the definitive scripts of his pen. The metaphysical blues of MayhemMystics and the more raucous and brusque hip-hop of Show Business were delivered in 2004. These two works are exemplary of Azeem’s ability to galvanize his talents in almost any musical sphere, either sensitively transcribing the emotions of grief on MayhemMystics or throwing down rhymes with swift and thunderous force on Show Business’ controlled explosions.
In 2007, along with Dj Zeph, Azeem would refram his hip-hop within the scope of Latin and reggae music, shifting away from the socio-cultural focus somewhat to explore pursuits more hedonistic on Rise Up. Something of a party record with a few socially conscious messages thrown in the mix, Rise Up tips its wide-brimmed hat toward mainstream tastes. Connecting with an audience outside of Azeem’s small but dedicated following, the album, at the time, could be heard on various television programs to which it had been licensed. It also expanded Azeem’s profile, as he toured the album across the globe with the likes of Talib Kweli. While not exactly a household name, the rapper managed to find favour in circles outside of the perimeters of hip-hop, and his music would further evolve as it absorbed other influences.
Air Cartoons, a work Azeem maintains was put together more as a mixtape than an actual album, was released in 2008 and, once again, saw a transformation in the artist’s approach to hip-hop music. A crude set electro-hip-hop numbers, Air Cartoons is flushed with the neon glow of pop hooks deformed by the turntablist slice-n-dicery. Azeem’s caustic rhymes are sharply observed here and his steady flow navigates with ease the tricky, labyrinthine structures of the electronically morphing grooves. Air Cartoons is also the album that gave the rapper the kind of visibility he had not been afforded before. A number of attractively shot videos for the album were issued, two of which – “Open ‘Em Up” and “Latin Revenge” – have gone down as some of his well-known and best-loved works.
As Azeem’s profile amongst hip-hop’s intelligentsia continued to rise, so did his quest to perform his poetry through other mediums outside of music. Such poetic imprints could be found in his one-man stage show Rude, about an impoverished janitor who may be suffering from a mental illness. The show would earn critical plaudits and prompt the artist to further explore his work through drama and film. POSTERA, a short film (in constant evolution) written by the artist himself, premiered in 2014. The film continues to expand and develop as the artist further explores the medium of cinema.
At the time of writing, Azeem has just completed a draft for a planned novel. Tentatively titled The Misfit King, the novel is a thinly-veiled document of the rapper’s own picaresque life growing up in New Jersey and various other states. In many places, the story recalls the haunted, moody airs of French author Philippe Dijan’s 37˚2 le matin (known to North Americans as Betty Blue). Azeem’s fictional incarnate, Chris, is rendered with the poetic gaze of a man in his later years, observing a life’s worth of trauma and unexpected success. Much like the dolorous and headstrong protagonist of Dijan’s novel, Azeem’s Chris surveys his world with the stubborn resilience of a young man trying a step without the refuge of an emotional safety net. Drifting from city to city, Chris contends with near homelessness, betrayal and loneliness, looking ahead toward an uncertain future, but looking ahead nonetheless.
* * *
Your very first big musical interaction and collaborative effort was working with Michael Franti for his second album, Supa Chocolate Highway. Can you tell me how this came to be and what your experiences working with Franti were like?
I met Franti during an open mic at a spot called the Elbo Room in the San Franscico Mission District at a time when that area was a fun open drug market full of gangs and prostitutes. I lived on 14th and Mission St. The song on that album, “Keep Me Lifted”, describes my experience living there. It was also my first real studio recording.
Anyway, my friend Wrath from Philly was a kick boxer by day but on some bondage/S&M type stuff at night. He used to have all these women, like fans of his, who wanted him to tie them up and stuff. He told crazy stories and used to have white girls come out and rub him down with baby oil while he read sex poetry. It was fascinating and highly disturbing all at the same time. Nobody could say it wasn't art. Anyway, I didn't know who Franti was but my boy did and he introduced us that night.
About a week later, me and my brother Hanif are walking down a side street and this car full of dudes comes speeding toward us and somebody yells “Hey Motherfucker!” They roll up fast and Franti jumps out laughing. He had a camera crew with him and says to them “This is the guy I was telling you about, he's a dope poet”. They recorded me, then contacted me later and said they were filming a documentary for PBS and wanted to re-film my piece professionally. That's how I ended up in The United States of Poetry with my poem “It Is So Hot Today”.
The experience? It was cool. Touring Europe and the US two years straight. I paid my dues, learned a lot. As for why I quit, I could speak on 12 different angles but at the end of the day, it was time for me to begin my own career with the music I wanted to hear.
Shortly after the work with Franti, you got to work on your very first EP, Garage Opera. The album has a very stripped-to-the-bone feel, where the elemental base of the work is purely hip-hop (as opposed to the more elaborate work you would produce on later albums). Can you talk about the themes of Garage Opera and trying to get a certain sound and approach on tape for this first album? Also, you spent your earlier days as an artist performing onstage; you had just started learning the routines of a recording studio. What was the experience of working in a studio environment like?
I had just moved to West Oakland in a spot off Telegraph St. I met a producer named Fanatic who lived around the corner through Anti Pop Consortium who were signed to Warp at the time. When Fanatic got a deal from Caroline Distribution, he offered me a deal to produce my first album. Me, Bass One, Sub Contents (who were Dave Dub and Persevere), Planet Asia and Skool Yard Massive, Foreign Legion, Rashinel and Eye Que from Hobo Junction, and a bunch of other artists were all recording or just living at the spot. Those were days when you'd record a song and the 12 dudes in the living room had to shut up and turn down the TV till you were done with the verse. As an experiment, most of Garage Opera was recorded mad early, like 5:30 or 6am. The opening piece is a wake and bake poetic freestyle. I would sometimes be up writing lyrics till three in the morning. Then I'd set my alarm, jump up at 5am, walk over to the spot and record. I wanted to distance myself from any past Capitol Records type affiliation and begin my career in the underground arena where all my favorite artists came from, so Garage Opera was for respect of my peers and hardcore lyrical fans, not popularity or success.
Whether there is a mic, audience, camera, or all combined - if it's real and from the heart, based on truth, it will be felt. After the talent is cultivated that is. I only began with open mic poetry because I didn't have a studio or producer at the time and I just wanted to be ''on the mic''. So anywhere that advertised open mic, I’d slide through and sign up as Invisible Man. If it was a competition, and I knew I won, I'd sneak out and go home. I figured the mystery was great publicity. I've done all kinds of other stupid shit like that to sabotage my career. Probably still do.
The next album, Craft Classic broadened the spectrum on your approach and added a lot more colours to the palette. There is a freer approach to sampling evident here and where Garage Opera was a bare-boned and minimalist effort, Craft Classic is a work where other elements of songcraft enter the production - namely with hooks and refrains. By now, you had also made a name for yourself in some the small independent hip-hop circles with Garage Opera. Can you discuss writing and recording Craft Classic?
I got my first real advance from a label to record Craft Classic. Like any young rapper who believes his music will change the world, I blew it all as fast as possible. I did budget enough to pay producers so at the end, I had a bunch of great experiences, and a dope album. The label I was on had a sub category called Dog Day Records and signed a whole heap of gangster artists from Oakland, Richmond and Vallejo and eventually got ran out of the state because cats were literally trying to kill them over money. I got my advance though and they emailed me one day after they disappeared and gave 100% ownership of the album back over to me which was a decent thing to do. I wrote a lot of that album bouncing around LA with Rashinel, or staying in Inglewood with a producer named Protest; I had M. Sayyid and Hprism on that album. Most of it was recorded at Fanatic's spot. You can hear at the end of “No Lexus” where dudes come in from the living room and lay an impromptu skit after my third verse and I can't stop laughing in the background. Craft Classic was definitely one of the top 10 best underground albums of that summer.
Hip-hop has always been a political music, to varying degrees. Your music can never been accused of subtlety, as you've been known to be aggressively political in your music. It's interesting how rap is appropriated in different parts of the world. In the UK, rappers (with the garage movement like Dizzee Rascal and The Streets) turned discussing the mundane routines of their everyday life into compelling stories with their rhymes. In the US, you have one faction of hip-hop championing a lush life of glamour and money and another faction speaking on issues of disenfranchised members of society. Clearly you fit into the latter group. What are your ideas about this?
Fuck politics. Most are still in [hip-hop] for the money and perks. Some are legit though, I guess. On the national level like presidents and all that...that's all theater. At least here in the U.S. I'm also not a fan of over-politicized hip hop because it can come off more like a school project than a song. If there is true experience and emotion behind it, it can be felt on many levels but otherwise it sounds at best like a good commercial for a cause. If anything, my work is more spiritual in content without the 'do as I say' preachy element. I let the music dictate the tone and words. Sometimes a clear solid idea emerges, like “God's Rolex”, but usually it’s a string of images, feelings, and wordplay all combining, like on “Play the Drum” or “Latin Revenge”. When I said “Most of us don't know what else to do except the business/ we only went to school special days they took the pictures”, I really meant it. I never even graduated from 8th grade much less high school or college. What saved me is I got hooked early on the whole global conspiracy thing long before it was an internet phenomenon/charade, so I was actually learning history, religious texts, geo politics, science, philosophies (both standard and hermetic) , psychology, ancient myths , astrology, secret societies, UFO's -- all that. I bought books like crack and discovered I could memorize a lot of the material a lot more easily than I could the books they gave us at school. That's what you hear in my lyrics. Not politics.
Your album Show Business is probably your most straightforward album. Sound-wise, the emphasis is on full-bodied rhythms and implementing all the tropes of hip-hop music: DJ cuts, turntablism, samples, etc. In many ways, it’s a musical answer to the work you did on MayhemMystics, which has a more live feel, elements of blues and jazz; a bit looser in feel and a bit more improvised. Since both these albums were released the same year, can you tell me about how you approached both works respectively and talk about each album's style and influences?
I wrote both albums at the same time, literally. I remember being stressed out because my personal life was crazy at the time. I was depressed, but busy so I just got lost in the work and distractions. The deadlines for each record were a few months apart and, at first, both labels were worried about release dates but we worked it out. For Mayhem, I knew they wanted that high spirit/poetic alternative type lyrics for the project. That's what they asked for - like a work for hire. I didn't have much control over that album other than my vocals. For Show Business there wasn't really a budget to pay producers. Plus, like I said, things at that time were crazy in my life on every level, so that's what those albums were: me, lost in my art, trying to drown out all the bullshit around me. But they still turned out strong. Both have classic songs on them.
Rise Up expanded the influences (everything from electronica and Latin music to reggae). Even more so, it took the "sit-down-and-listen" approach of your earlier albums to the dance-floor, since much of the rhythms on Rise Up are in 4/4. It also employs a lighter, more playful touch. Can you discuss meeting Zeph and working with him to create Rise Up?
I don't even remember how me and Zeph met, to be honest. I think it was at a show. But yeah, the sound of that album is all him. He definitely gets that credit. Our first joint was called “Rubber and Glue” and it sat on the CMJ (college radio) chart for weeks. I arranged the deal with OM Records for us to do Rise Up and basically we went all in 50/50. Zeph beats, me lyrics. We had some fun tours with that record. We did the US and Canada with Souls of Mischief and Australia with Talib Kweli, a bunch of other shows that kind of all blend together. But we had a great run with that album.
Then there's Air Cartoons. You’ve mentioned in the past that this more of a mixtape. There is a harder, electronic edge to this album and it actually gave you wider presence since you filmed a few music videos for the album, which gained much traction on YouTube. As well, compared to the fun and more easygoing feel of Rise Up, the lyrical content on Air Cartoons is far more angrier and confrontational. You could say that the album a bit of a cross-over effort on your part; normally your rhymes have been rooted in a mainly hip-hop base. Air Cartoons introduces your work via electronica. How did you get involved with this project and what are your thoughts about the kind of material on the album?
There used to be a warehouse in West Oakland that was a huge marijuana grow spot and community. Anyway, some of the people who lived in there used to promote Halloween and New Years Eve parties and hired me for a show. One thing led to another and a year or two later Oaklyn Records was born. We came to a favorable agreement. I moved in and started recording. Like the MayhemMystic project, they wanted to use a certain kind of electronic sound for the record. I was cool with trying something different. Some of those songs came out brilliant, like “Latin Revenge” and “Open ‘Em Up”, both of which have high quality videos. “Going Dumb vs Going to Brazil” and “Goose Bumps to Speakers”, produced by Ztrip, are on there too. That was a fun time. I can't go into too much detail, but I will admit that all the rumors are true.
I notice that your rhymes seem, in many ways, rooted in/influenced by jazz than it is rap – perhaps a lot closer to scat and beat poetry than straight ahead rapping. What are some of the literary and jazz influences that have found their way into your work?
Nah, my parents are Jamaican, so I didn't get much exposure to Jazz. It's the old school dub poets like Mutabaruka, LQJ and also Peter Tosh that were major influences. Later, I found groups like The Last Poets, Watts Prophets, Shahid Quintet, Tom Waits, Lou Reed, etc. For my live shows my inspirations were The Sex Pistols and Fishbone mixed with dance hall artist energy. I like to break rules and climb on top of things while I perform and always keep it unpredictable with a lot of energy. Those are the type of shows I remember as a fan. My first real show was seeing Jane’s Addiction open for Love and Rockets as a kid in Miami when we had fake ID's. Those types of shows and groups influenced me just as much as Public Enemy and X Clan.
What projects (musical and otherwise) are you currently working on, as Air Cartoons was your last full-length effort?
I wrote a short film called POSTERA with film director Zak Cedarholm. It won a few awards is showing in a few international festivals. I'm proud of it and it has some great Bay Area hip hop footage in it.
I just finished my first spoken word album called Vision Teller which is possibly my favorite out of my whole solo collection of work. It's timeless. Then a project with Ancient Astronauts called Broken Puppets that's also completely finished. Both are produced by Kabanjak from Cologne, Germany. He's an angelically possessed musician who plays almost every instrument known to man. He's been my main producer since I moved to New York. I don't know what we are gonna do with the albums but I'll let you know as soon as I do!