Craft Winner: Azeem’s Underground Opus, ‘Craft Classic’

On Azeem's Craft Classic, listeners get a window into an odd, shape-shifting pandemonium, in which the view on display is a sort of glamorous anarchy.

The Keith Mallett-inspired album cover, done over as pop art, depicts a psychedelic chorus of violence and chaos. Painted by artist Norm Maxwell, the artwork features a scene of a riot in which Azeem, front and center, appears to be the gravitational pivot of the mass confusion. Quill in hand – and preparing his rhymes – the MC’s open cranium reveals an oversized brain, grown with the pressure of semantic chemistry. As its surreal packaging suggests, Craft Classic (Stray Records, 2001), is a miasmic swirl of explosive hip-hop and mind-expanding, psychotropic imagery.

Azeem has had plenty to cut his teeth on. As a spoken word artist barely out of his teens, he made many rounds on the Bay area club circuit. Later, after being awarded a spot on Lollapalooza in 1994 with his hip-hop band Telefunken, Michael Franti of Spearhead fame caught a whiff of the talent and came running. Brought on board for Spearhead’s sophomore release, Chocolate Supa Highway, Azeem injected the album with some heavy lyricism, giving heft to Franti’s Daisy Age granola applications.

Restless after a couple years from touring with Franti’s troupe, the rapper opted to continue writing without the Spearhead collective and got down to work on a solo project. The efforts resulted in an underground EP, the starkly minimal but heavy Garage Opera (2000). It went down nicely with L.A.’s hip-hop underground and set the precedent for his follow-up LP.

A readily able organ of which he’s been gifted with a supernatural nimbleness, Azeem’s mercury-tipped tongue often expounds socially conscious matters with blinding velocity. On Craft Classic, the rapper’s poems scan a lyricism rife with heat and electricity that radiates like neon against the weighty productions. His verses are on-point and maliciously articulated, as with the sharp, sinuous draws of a scalpel; no word is wasted, each one placed in its meter with great care. Pressed into the craft of rhyme and coded lexicons, his lyrics (though they are true poems) are often expressed with a texture that seems more like the impassioned designs created with oil paints.

Azeem isn’t a producer twiddling knobs and powering up MPCs. But he is an artist with a judicious ear who understands dynamic and sonic pressure. As a respected mainstay of San Francisco’s underground hip-hop scene, he has pick of the litter in his choice of beatmakers. Craft Classic features some of the Bay area’s most renowned hip-hop producers, with no less than seven of them contributing. Choosing amongst friends to provide him with the grooves, Azeem cultivates an atmosphere that is communal and insular, building a world of sound and poetry in which all inhabitants speak a language known only to them. Listeners get a window into an odd, shape-shifting pandemonium, in which the view on display is a sort of glamorous anarchy.

Cracking wide open the album’s dawn is the Mafioso-pump of “Simple Ting”, full of brass screams and hi-hat shuffling. Azeem draws a narrative on the facets of b-boy culture with a slippery rhyme-scheme that accelerates by fractions the moment one gets a comfortable grasp on it.

Finding other points of contention for his rhymes, the MC also pokes fun at the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses lifestyles of the middle-class. “No Lexus”, a rubbery, horn-accented jam with a bruising low swing, lambasts the mindless suburban race for material upgrade. “You ain’t got no Lexus, you can’t afford it,” he taunts with a humour so sated with embarrassing truth that, for all its wit and hilarity, it really can’t be laughed at.

The song was initially released as a 12-inch at a time when the “bling” insurgency of hip-hop was reaching its peak and its left-of-center contumacy has survived much of it. With this unabashedly high-handed call-out, the rapper continues his run at the ruling elite. Counting stereotypes off his fingers as fast as he can mic-spit them out, Azeem delivers a circuitous itinerary of every label he’s been affixed with. “Maybe I should be on MTV,” he reasons on “Imma RMX”. “I’m an Afro-Japanese-Muslim, a communist, a terrorist guerrilla-trainer, a Black-Mexican, a border-crosser…and I’m looking for a job – anybody hiring?”

Craft Classic reams the listener out on a number of topical matters, whether in earnest or in jest. But it’s also every bit the stepping-out album that the grooves assure it to be. An artist whose agency has always been the sheer charismatic force of his personality, Azeem divines a germane dynamic and rhythm found in his musical companions; producers who will, blow for blow, challenge his hot-blooded demeanor.

Hip-hop grunge and po-faced humour mark the Dj Spin production on “Duragz”, the low-end rumbles shouldering rhymes about former female inmates. On “Thunderground”, an anthem celebrating hip-hop’s underground movements, pounding gladiator drums and ringing percussion come courtesy of Protest; Azeem’s fierce and agile rhymes ride humour and aggression here in equal measure. Protest later compresses the throb of his production to the animal-on-haunches groove of “Organic Food Revolutionaries”, the low-riding boom of his beat only outmatched by the even heavier boom of Azeem’s vocal timbre. Listen closely for the rattles of a spray-can that accent the story of a riot gone belly-up.

A pre-9/11 diatribe on the Bush administration is sized up squarely on the loopy and polemic “Bush is a Gangsta”. The track runs like a border through the album, in which the second half of Craft Classic surveys a spiritual flip, a kind of poetry the MC has honed and fine-tuned in the more recent years.

Examining the discarnate properties that may exist on our earthly planes, Azeem rhymes an endless and poetic fall on “God’s Rolex”, a spoken-word piece that waxes mystically about time-space continuums. A poem deployed with the cool and quiet surges of summer winds, “God’s Rolex” offers a karmically-twisted think-piece on the sidewinding culture of hip-hop. It stands as one of the MC’s most notable works, having embodied many forms, either as poem, song or film, since its creation more than 20 years ago.

Elsewhere, the narratives explore personal relationships, such as on “Palm Wine Two”, a cold blue funk of bumping hip-hop that details the rapper’s struggles in love. It isn’t a sweet paean to a significant other, but rather a sobering look at how finances and hard times can drive wedges between the closest of couples.

That focused and temperate dissection of life is at once sidelined by the eerie and serpentine “Northern Lights”, a hallucinogenic, Morpheus-nightmare that smoulders and roils like a lake of acid. Affecting the somnambulant panic of a mystic hophead, Azeem imprints the groove with a language that is telesthetic and cryptic. And closing the album on its most accessible note is the turntablist funk of “Rubber Glue”, a near-hit in 2001 that reaped critical accolades, though not enough air play.

Craft Classic is Azeem’s first official full-length album which provided him a slightly wider audience beyond the one that knew him as a local spoken word poet on the Bay Area’s artistic fringes. Later works (the gritty Show Business in 2004 and 2007’s party-banging Rise Up with Dj Zeph) provided heavier doses of fuel for the ghettoblaster, taking the MC on world tours with like-minded rappers such as Talib Kweli. His subsequent albums would also help to expand his profile in the underground, earning him spots on many envelope-pushing projects by electronic luminaries like Meat Beat Manifesto. But Craft Classic remains Azeem’s most uncomfortably unified work, a precariously shifting platform which first introduced the dangerous ideas that would later be refined on 2004’s Mayhemystics, (his joint effort with Variable Unit) and Air Cartoons in 2008.

The rapper reportedly had difficulties promoting Craft Classic at the time of its release; so contentious was its subject matter, radio programmers feared it and only the curious few ventured to explore its delightfully wicked and volatile charms. Always one to turn a leaf as the fancy takes him, Azeem would later deliver his most poised effort in the atmospheric and mystically-soaked The Vision Teller (2018), revisiting the fears and passions of Craft Classic with the probity of a spiritual “Dede”.

Azeem’s dâstâns have always been anomalies within genre conventions. They are a touch too abstruse for hip-hop lexicons, his rhymes reaching arcane heights while forming double-helix structures of cadence and rhythm. Listeners who ignored Craft Classic when it first reared its strangely Sanakht-like head more than 20 years ago might do better to listen this time around; it’s a work that was prescient for its time and a work that continues to echo an inventive faculty of poetry, far into an undetermined and speculative future.