Vision Quest: Poet and MC Azeem On His Latest Work, ‘Vision Teller’

Azeem returns to his roots of poetry to deliver Vision Teller, a collection of spoken word pieces that hum with the silk-spun lyricism of a speakeasy street poet.

Vision Teller
Feb 2018

Long before Azeem came to public attention with his contributions to the Spearhead album Chocolate Supa Highway in 1997, he spent his formative years immersed in San Francisco’s poetry culture. His appearance at open mics around the city caught the attention of a few notables, including Spearhead frontman Michael Franti, who ushered the young upstart on board for his sophomore album and subsequent tour. Following his stint with the alterna-rap outfit, Azeem would invest his talents in a solo EP called Garage Opera (1999), a sharp blast of underground hip-hop, full of thundering loops and buttonholing rhymes.

Garage Opera was an auspicious effort which led the way to many acclaimed solo albums. Experimenting with a variety of styles and genres within his brand of hip-hop, Azeem has explored skewed boom-bap on Craft Classic (2001), bassed-out turntablism on Show Business (2004), ragga on 2007’s Rise Up (with DJ Zeph) and electronica on Air Cartoons (2008). A series of one-offs and collaborative efforts have followed in these last ten years, which have kept him busy as an in-demand artist; a necromancer of words, Azeem’s rhymes have inspired some of the most forward-thinking musicians to take up the task of bridging his deeply sagacious and visionary world with theirs. His work with the German avant hip-hop production team Ancient Astronauts yielded last year’s Broken Puppets, which quickly became an underground favourite across Europe.

Taking a break from the club circuit, Azeem has returned to his roots of poetry to deliver Vision Teller, a collection of spoken word pieces that hum with the silk-spun lyricism of a speakeasy street poet. Backed by producer Kabanjak (one half of Ancient Astronauts), Vision Teller features a set of atmospheric grooves which provide the plaster on which Azeem fashions the quadratura of his poems. The effect is utterly mesmeric; a Gordian knot of poetry and soul that drifts like cirri in a moonlit sky.

A master of tone and timbre, Azeem redirects all the power of his usually aggressive delivery into the labyrinthine tunnels of mode and expression; Vision Teller offers a poetry of haunted confessions, whispered verse that explores all the concaves of his tenor. Numbers like the opening track “Sacred Drift” are coolly dispensed poems, furtively shifting strophes that are charged with the electric airs of danger. Azeem assuages the sense of foreboding with the paternal rings of his voice, suggesting resolution through the subtle spacing and patterns in his speech. On the blue-smoked hip-hop of “The Comet”, tension is reduced to a hush, the lines unfurling slowly and charily like the withered scrolls of precious, ancient scripture. Star-showered skies above urban cities are evoked on the confessional verse of “Brooklyn Tall”, where love and wonderment conspire to freeze a moment in time. His poems are an endless seeking and finding of cadence and measure, semantics surrendered with every turning of phrase and later returned in the new shapes of his ever-expanding lexicon.

In this mysterious world of ghosts, urban bards and lost souls, Azeem scans the latitudes of his poetry and unearths answers to riddles buried in the primordial lines of human rhythm. Vision Teller is the work of a divining misfit who projects into the supernal realms of both space and mind. The writer/musician/performer discusses with PopMatters the work of bringing these ideas to fruition and the messages behind Vision Teller.


You’ve mentioned before that the album came together very easily, no stress. Were the lyrics improvised, or written down? As well, did you record it with Kabanjak or did you send him your spoken word pieces and he put rhythms underneath afterward?

We recorded the songs differently. Most, I just sent a version of the piece raw and Kabanjak would send me a masterpiece back. A few others, he sent the music first and the words just spilled out. It was the easiest production process I’ve ever been a part of. I already tend to over-think songs and want every syllable in its proper mathematic place with a double meaning or connection to a previous word, etc. Real word nerd shit nobody cares about.

The album, like almost all your works, focuses on issues around the globe, particularly those concerning social unrest and injustices; some reference the issues of racial divide and the digital revolution. How tuned into media are you? How do you absorb information about the world around you?

I don’t own a television. I can’t even deal with the tone of voice adopted by commercials or daytime talkshows and news channels. They call them programs for a reason. Knowing that it’s much easier to interpret news and current events. Most media outlets are losing their addicts to alternative media sources on the internet which is why every tragedy is flipped into being an issue about internet control. As if FOX, CNN, etc. haven’t been out of control programming people from their inception. A few minutes of research showing major “news” outlets faking stories, using old footage, or filming “live” from a movie set said to be Saudi Arabia or Iraq should be enough for anyone to see they can’t be trusted for anything but social engineering.

Because a great majority of history we learn from school (and Hollywood) is blatant misrepresentation or pure lies, I have been fascinated enough to study the subject my entire adult life. Being blessed to travel to so many countries helps to see the world how it really is, not how the pro-war corporate media projects it to be. For example, the kindness and humility expressed by people in most Muslim countries (at least the four I’ve been to) supersedes any experience in my travels everywhere else. The news would have us believe otherwise.

I think all of the poems/spoken word pieces on the album have a feeling of unrest and anxiety in a way that your other albums don’t. In the past, you’ve used humour to temper some of the more serious subject matters you speak about. Vision Teller has a more sobering view of these issues. “Sacred Drift” sets the precedent for the album because it is full of provocative imagery that evokes a sense of brewing violence and danger; lines like “I’ve got a 10,000 pounds of ‘I told you so’s’ in a box under my mattress; I’ll drop it off…”, sound like a threat, for instance. What kinds of themes/ideas are you exploring on “Sacred Drift” which opens the album?

It’s always interesting to hear how others interpret a poem. Sometimes, people’s ideas on what the poet meant are way more interesting than the reality. In fact, this was the most stress free project I’ve ever worked on. I will admit most of it was recorded in one day. That sometimes has an effect. “Sacred Drift” (also a book by Peter Lamborn Wilson surrounding esoteric margins of Islam) is actually about what people call the Illuminati, the Cabal, the Deep State, Orion Group, etc. and how all your life, you’ve caught a whiff, seen a glimpse, or felt something hiding behind the organized world but couldn’t quite put your finger on what it was. The end is more of a celebration than a threat. A ”welcome to the club” greeting because so many people are finally waking up. That’s why I say “If you don’t see it…you will, I promise.” The ending is a 10,000 lb box of information I can bring over to catch you up because, “I’ve been awake for the last 20 years, I need a nap. Plus, I could use the extra Space.”

Myth, religion, and metaphysics are discussed on “The Comet”… It seems to reference African creation myths, Sufism and Native American Creationism. All these ideas converge to become a lyric, strangely enough, about falling in love.

See? I like your interpretation way more than my own! In all honesty, it’s simply a love poem that wrote itself. It even saved me the trouble of naming it since it ends with the title. Otherwise, it would have been named after my lady Seti Mariam. Don’t she sound like a comet? The poem is how I feel about her.

I feel like you can’t plan a real poem. They have to happen to you. If you sit down and say, “I’m going to write a poem about Sally, just because,” it’s not going to have a soul. You have to be enveloped in the imagery and timelessness. Struck by a concept and suddenly stuck on it. That tool is so powerful, it can snatch “African creation myths, Sufism and Native American Creationism” out of nowhere and not even know it. I’m not saying, “I’m a great poet! I be transcribing creation myths from space and shit!” No. I’m just reminding people that the best entertainment system on the planet is in your own head. Don’t be afraid to be a weirdo sometimes. Imagination invents form — never the other way around.

You have a personal history with “Island President” since it concerns your own family. Can you further discuss the personal relevance of this track to your life and family?

The story has many levels but I can briefly sum it up by saying I was married in the Maldives to a woman from an honorable family. Her cousin Mohamed Nasheed was a guest and later when I heard he was arrested and tortured for political activism, I sent him The Autobiography of Malcolm X which he received and read. Later he came out of prison and became the President of the country. There was a military coup led by corrupt individuals and President Nasheed was jailed and then exiled. I admire him (and those around him) tremendously as they continue to put their lives on the line for justice. My daughter was also born there and returns every summer. It is a second home that I cherish and will always be connected to.

“Babylon & Money Magic” references racism developed on the back of Western commerce. The issue is heavily loaded within the two minutes of the track. I believe that you earlier recorded this spoken word piece many years back. Can you discuss the evolution of this piece over the years and also expand on the ideas you are speaking about regarding capitalism and racism?

This is an old piece. I enjoy doing it live and still feel it’s relevant so I went ahead and added it to the album. It was actually on the cut list along with other tracks that didn’t make the list but Kabanjak thought the production was a good match with everything else, so we let it live again. Regarding the title, I enjoy the poetic jewels available with the actual “magick” taking place with words, money, authority, and I visit it often. For example, on the Broken Puppets album I said, “Possession? Don’t you need a priest for that? / How you charge me with possession when y’all the ones that’s evil / In your black robe ceremony summons me like a Demon to APPEAR like some jinni/this shit is ritualistic/slamming Thor’s hammer while you bond another victim,”(from the song “False Charges”).

And look at this: Spell-ing, curs-ive , (w)Rite, Vow-el, Syllable comes from Sibyl. Words are a trip. As for money, it gets deeper. Literally. Money is based on maritime law, therefore it’s all about water: Cash-flow, currency, (river) bank, loan shark, float a loan, bail out, insurance, main stream, C-note, sale. I’m sure you catch my drift. Look up the definition of jurisDICTION. Words got levels for real.

You speak unflinchingly about apocalyptic ideas on tracks like “Los Fantasmas”, “Sacred Drift” and “The Comet” (you also did this on the Air Cartoons album). Can you elaborate on those ideas here on Vision Teller – what knowledge, personal ideas and theories would you like to offer about these themes?

Every great empire of the past is in dust. Egypt, Babylon, Greece, Rome, Atlantis, Lemuria. This one will be too. Hard to imagine, sure. It was that way for the ancients walking around in high tech pyramids. Not only in Egypt but all over the world. All the drama happening on the planet would seem like a great movie/ ultimate sports championship to an entity who isn’t from here. I feel like I’m not from here. I’m just here to watch the game and to help raise people’s vibration in any way I can. By a smile, a joke, a song, poem – whatever. That’s it. Then I’m out. Not coming back. Been here already too many times.

I plan to resolve all kinds of contracts during my next review. Plus, I went to Catholic school as a kid. They put all kinds of apocalyptic visions in my head and they still stick with me. Angels having wars in the heavens and all that stuff. Some Marvel Comic type stories to daydream about while stuck in religion class five days a week.

“Brooklyn Tall” sounds like a very open letter to your home city on the East Coast, though you’ve lived and worked much of your life in the Bay area. It’s probably the most intimate and personal moment on Vision Teller (and also all your other works). What are your feelings about your life in this part of the country? You move back and forth between the east and west coast quite often.

Oakland, California will always be where I’m from because that’s where I became the me I am today. But even in Oakland, my Jersey accent always made people ask, “Where you from?” New York was always a home base for me as we spent so much time there as kids at Grandma’s or Uncle or Aunty’s house. I got cousins falling from the sky out there. Lots of refrigerator doors open to me. No place on earth like the Oakland I came up in, though. It’s different now.

Vision Teller is not directly a hip-hop album, but it still retains a sense of that culture; the album is still rooted in many hip-hop traditions. What influences outside of hip-hop do you pull from when making your music? What other musical and literary influences are always present in your work?

I’m glad you mentioned musical influence. This album, for me, is really all about the sound and production. Some of the music on songs like “Los Fantasmas”, “Beleaf” and “Magdalene’s Return” are brilliant compositions. I think what Kabanjak created is what makes the album classic and worthy of collection. Not the poetry. Although pieces like “Beleaf” and “The Comet” are timeless and deserve recognition. The music on Vision Teller is pure poetry too. The sound version of it. I really can’t emphasize enough how talented the guy is. On the Broken Puppets album, “Words Can Kill” sounds like a classical orchestra and hip-hop took mushrooms and recorded a song. My influences are too boring to repeat.

I’m a product of Golden era hip-hop and everything that influenced that. I listen to a lot of dancehall music mostly for the flows and lyrical innovation. There is no music on earth like reggae/dancehall, except its bastard child called hip-hop.

What kinds of projects do you have coming up in the future? Are you considering another full-on hip-hop album?

Just finished Garage Opera 2. That’s just the working title but whatever we’re going to call it, On Beats (formerly known as Fanatik) who produced the original Garage Opera really brought that old sharp-toothed Azeem back out of me. I time-traveled back to those days in West Oakland and revisited my spirit there. He was ready to go! I tackled a few things most artists are afraid to touch nowadays and just really had a hot pen throughout the process. It’s barber shaving Al Capone focused. A homeless guy once asked me, “What’s the best nation?” Then pushing a cup into my puzzled face he said, “A Donation!” I laughed. Actually, it’s the Imagination. But I felt where he was coming from…