Publicity photo via Wild Hive Records

Dope Opera: Azeem Talks with PopMatters About His West Coast Hip-Hop Classic, ‘Garage Opera’

In 1999, Azeem recorded his underground classic Garage Opera, hip-hop's equivalent of garage rock.
Garage Opera
Caroline Distribution

Garage Opera is crudely shaped but gleams with the monochromatic sheen of steel-blue elegance.

Azeem disdains to call himself a rapper. But in truth, he is one of hip-hop’s most underrated artists practiced in rhyme. His adroit skill in channelling an urgent emotion into the surreal slipstream of his complex passages would earn him the enviable status of the “superstar rapper”, were he more known.Rhyming and writing as early as 13, the New Jersey-born San Francisco-schooled musician cut his teeth on the left-of-field hip-hop collective Telefunken, who earned themselves a slot on Lollapalooza in 1994. Steadily picking up steam, Azeem caught the attention of the like-minded Michael Franti, fronting his band Spearhead, in 1996. Franti invited Azeem to write on Spearhead’s 1997 sophomore release, Supa Chocolate Highway, to which he contributed a number of songs. Still somewhat of a cached identity amongst the hip-hop community (both sides of the coast), Azeem began work on what still remains a little-known but remarkably influential work of West Coast hip-hop.

Recorded sometime in 1999 and released in 2000, Garage Opera was the artist’s first proper introduction to a public who, until then, could only catch glimpses of his talent at open mics or vicariously through other people’s art. One of his contributions on the Spearhead album, “Keep Me Lifted”, hit the Billboard rap charts and showcased Azeem’s then-burgeoning rhyme technique. His flow on the track was indeed impressive but did not prepare listeners for the full-out personal storm that was captured on his solo debut.

Garage Opera, a nine-track EP (with very brief interludes, making its true bulk only six tracks), is an undiluted and concentrated instalment of hip-hop sound — hip-hop’s equivalent of garage rock. Throbbing with the lean muscle of unfussy, no-nonsense grooves (thanks to the straightforward but assured production by Fanatik), the EP is a distilment of breath and drums; all tension revolves around these two essential elements and they often vie for dominance. The beats are bare, minimal and compact, but they combust with enormous power. And when Azeem dispenses a rhyme, it explodes with the force of blown shrapnel.

At once sleek and rusted, the design here, as observed by Fanatik, is like beautified scrap metal. Garage Opera is crudely shaped but gleams with the monochromatic sheen of steel-blue elegance. Throughout the recording, there is the push and pull of hip-hop classicism and underground sensibility, always bringing the tension into flux; often, one denomination of practice will deliver its diametric currency. The only constant is Azeem’s bellicose and booming delivery, rising high above the sonic friction.

On the title-track, a steel-toed strut of industrial hip-hop, Azeem blows down doors with a clobbering edict of the perils of materialism; with the brute force of his rhymes alone, he turns the number into a highly-charged bomb of penetrating lyricism. And as the proper introductory track on an introductory EP (the preceding improvised “Recyclism” notwithstanding), it serves as example and augury of the rapper’s Art Brut appropriations of rhyme scheme.

In fact, the surreal transformation of his rhymes, from concrete-spitting verbiage to Jungian dream-speak, is just the kind of lucidity that distinguishes him from his peers. In the past, Azeem has referred to his multifarious technique as a sort of “medicine bag”. Like a lyrical apothecary, he’s particularly skilled in nursing a beat with a judiciously prescribed flow. Whether he’s discussing the poverty and struggles of the disenfranchised or the cultural infractions that perpetuate the racial divide, his is a rhyme-medicine applied to the dilapidated surroundings of his social environments — the musings formulated inwardly and then projected onto the everyday realities of a polemic society.

Prior to his life in music, Azeem was something of a drifter, travelling to either ends of the coast, between friends and family. In the ways of a cultural magpie, he’s gathered a wealth of experience across the country to be stored and shaped into the home space of his recording studio. Absorbing an East Coast tradition of steadfast hip-hop loyalty, his rhymes often propagate the rhythms of the five boroughs, with their rolling mechanisms of subways, trains and hurrying passerby; life on the East Coast has synergistically aligned its human heartbeat with the machinery-cadence of transport, the hum of daily routine and grind. And it is this sturm und drang of East Coast living that is re-examined and processed here through the very chi of West Coast life.

Garage Opera, as a result, is much like an appending thread, bridging the gap between two cultural ends. The beats pound with Brooklynite mettle, but they are sunned by the laissez-faire spirit of West Coast bohemia. On “The 27th Letter”, the rapper ponders the philosophy of possible worlds, the lexicons of his hip-hop exploring other lives not lived. Amidst the thickly compressed beats, Azeem’s verses move with dancerly cadence until a shaft of new rhythm redirects his flow, the fragments of rhyme and stanza blowing around in the lyrical storm.

On the one-two monster stomp of “Soniq Wars”, the rapper turns fractured poetry into a strolling lyric of social commentary, the at once soothing and bruising applications of his sonorous voice infusing the groove with even more thunder. “Algebra Wind” employs the lean essentials of street beat; a drum loop, scratches and the repetitive slips of a simple melody shoulder a cryptic diatribe of paisley verses.

As a personal document, Garage Opera also serves as a situational pit stop between a man leaving behind his youth and a man embarking on the strange and precarious journey of fatherhood. Deep down, beneath the bluster and boom, there are the unsettled emotions brought on by the daily tasks of parental duty. Azeem, then a new father, exerts an energy that is at once fresh and world-weary. In the early hours of a curtain-drawn morning, there is, here, the sense of a young man balancing on his hip a small child; in his free hand is a microphone, held ready at the mouth.

The rapper, looking back, admits that the work was created out of the two driving forces of passion and desperation, the need to come into form before time and youth ran out. Bristling with restless energy, audacious experiment and, in the far-reaching distance, paternal anxiety, Garage Opera remains charged with the electricity generated by crude invention. It was nearly 20 years ago Azeem released this miniature opus, where it would detonate in the undergrounds of L.A.’s thriving hip-hop scene. Nearly twenty years on, amidst the rise of new hip-hop hopefuls, the shockwaves from its blast can still be felt.

You’ve lived on both the East Coast and West Coast; Garage Opera was recorded in West Oakland. What, if anything, about that area you were living in contributed to the album’s sound?

There was an artistic energy in the Bay area at the time like no place else in the world. I was drunk off that vibe because I met amazing artists in the streets and there were groups like Living Legends, Souls of Mischief, the Coup, Mac Dre, labels like Stones Throw who had Madlib, world renowned DJ crews like Invisible Scratch Pickles, and even Kool Keith was operating out of there as Dr. Octagon.

There was so much happening, you couldn’t not get caught up in it. Everyone was pressing for position which forced you to stay sharp and work harder on your craft. You had to have real freestyle skills and make up lyrics on the spot, and most of all, you had to have your own style. Those two rules are what made the music of those days last so long.

This was your first album, which meant your first time writing lyrics for yourself (as opposed to writing for others, Franti/Spearhead, etc.). What matters do you discuss about on the album?

That album was all passion. You can hear it in the title song “Garage Opera Music”. One of my favorite lyrics is the opening line. “We Stay addicted to strangling life, tangling with the sky, brutally angling scars, fantasizing like time bombs…” I’m saying that we’re high on living life to the fullest, shooting for the stars while full of energy so powerful it could shake the world. That’s how I felt. The album was a tribute to lyricism and a rebellion against the dumbing down effect and over worship of materialism that began to manifest in the culture. Those things were always there. Sex, drugs, and anything that sells. They just weren’t the only dimension artists presented. I wanted to be considered a true artist who knew the unwritten rules. Most importantly, I wanted the respect of my peers.

Garage Opera is your barest work compared to all of your later works. While your later material has a lot of electronica, jazz and reggae in a base of hip-hop, Garage Opera functions from a space that is purely hip-hop. It’s just beats and voice, nothing else. Can you discuss the album’s sound design in this respect?

The sound of the album came from Bro. Ridwan who was known as Fanatik at the time. He was literally a one man record label. He did the music, took the photos, designed the covers — basically everything but the scratches, which were done mostly by DJ Design (one track was scratched by DJ Zach Twist). I just knew I wanted to begin as an underground artist and climb my way up like everybody else I respected did. I didn’t want to be as famous as Snoop Dog. I wanted to be a well known unknown dude so I could still go grocery shopping and hang out on the beach without being recognized. Now, later in life I’m thinking, damn, maybe I should have shot more for Snoop Dog type fame and I’d be a notch richer right now. No regrets though.

Much of Garage Opera‘s power lies in how it is mixed. It doesn’t have any of the expansive studio production of your later material. Much of the drum loops and beats are pushed up high in the mix so that the emphasis is entirely on the bass.

Also, your vocals are compressed against the beats so that they rival the intensity of the bass. In later works, you found other ways to express power; but power/intensity here is expressed mainly through the mixing/mastering. Can you discuss this approach?

This was my first album so whatever we did was based on experiments. We’d listen to a few different approaches and both decide on what fit. At the time of a first project most artists aren’t that focused on the technical aspects. We zero in on the aesthetic of it all. The producer and engineer are the ones tinkering with the snare drum for twenty minutes; you just want to get back in the booth and record. In this case Fanatik was the producer and engineer.

What do you remember of Garage Opera‘s reception by the public/critics at the time of its release?

I remember Benni B who owned ABB Records reviewed the album in URB Magazine which was a major music publication back then. He said the album was a letdown overall but lyrically I would be a problem in the future or something like that and it crushed me because I respected the dude’s opinion after coming up listening to Saafir’s Boxcar Sessions album.

One of my favorite parts on that album was when Benni B dropped the jewel: “If you follow a light down a dark path, the path can go anywhere eventually leading to a dark end. If you are the light you are the path. To all you bright motherfuckers in Hip Hop, keep shinning.” That album is one of the reasons I started writing lyrics. Rashinel from Hobo Junction had such an unorthodox flow on that album it should have won an award. So yea Ben B said Garage Opera was just aiiight. There were good reviews but that was the only one I remembered.

Garage Opera at one point slipped into obscurity when it went out-of-print. As you recorded more albums, it found other listeners, particularly online throughout the years. The album is still not readily available but is often mentioned when underground West Coast hip-hop is brought up. What do you have to say about the album now after all these years?

The only thing I can say is that other rappers have told me they consider the album a classic. In that sense, it did its job and I’m proud of that. The same thing that Boxcar Sessions and other grimy underground albums did for me, Garage Opera did for them. The thing I learned most from it all is always aim a bit higher than the target.