Zeph & Azeem: Rise Up

Almost a classic. Almost the best hip-hop album of 2007. A few more songs matching the level of the ones already here would've wiped that "almost" away.

Zeph & Azeem

Rise Up

Label: Om
US Release Date: 2007-05-22
UK Release Date: 2007-05-21
Doin' this ain't easy, man. I'm serious, man. Imagine meetin' your girl's parents or somethin', and they ask you, 'What do you do for a livin'?' Now how the hell do I sound, talkin' about, 'I'm a rapper'?…Now look at the frame you place yourself in right there."

-- Azeem, "Everything's Different"

I'll start with the bottom line on this CD and save my tangential impressions for later: As soon as you get an opportunity to listen to Zeph & Azeem's Rise Up, take it. Race to the record store, download it, order it through Amazon, whatever you need to do, as long it's legal. Seriously, you'll like this album, whether you enjoy old school or new school rap, or even if you're not much of a rap fan at all. It's good music. They are, as Azeem says in the title track, "paintin' orchids under plane crashes".

Zeph & Azeem take full command of the classic one-DJ/one-Emcee lineup that made us love groups like Gang Starr, Pete Rock & CL Smooth, and Eric B. & Rakim. Certainly, the greatness of those pairings wasn't solely due to the lineup; cranking out great songs had something to do with it. But Zeph & Azeem's spirited offering ranks right up there with the best in the genre, exemplified by the album's third track, "Come One, Come All". Containing a sample from Brand Nubian's "One for All" -- the part where Sadat X, then known as Derek X, says, "Come one, come all, we about to get hectic" -- this track matches lyrical acuity to beat quality, and showcases both, although Azeem's opening verse here is about as good as it gets in hip-hop. "Protest my shit", Azeem dares, "'cause I wrote a death sentence". The wordplay is effortless, and the imagery is crisp, almost like a seminar on How to Construct a Dope Verse.

The album's sonic diversity (thanks to Zeph) and adept lyricism (thanks to Azeem) remind me most of A New Dope by 7L & Esoteric. Both albums take an intelligent, fun, and unique approach, creating danceable tunes that are equally heady. However, where A New Dope incorporated runs at electronic and techno rhythms, Rise Up infuses reggae ("Rise Up", "Ten Steps Ahead", "Time to Wake Up") to "make a dancehall sweat", as well as Latin-influenced backdrops ("That Type of Music, "Ay Mami"). Additionally, you'll hear some grand vocals from Joyo Velarde on "Time to Wake Up". In fact, the singing is so sweet, Azeem doesn't even bother to drop his vocals until the song's two minute mark.

Rise Up also ventures into spoken word territory ("Alpha Zeta"), of which Azeem is a champion slam poet. Spoken word poetry put Azeem in a position to become a performance artist, taking his one-man play, Rude Boy, to the stage. Back to the album, you'll also find straightforward dance grooves like the percussive "Everything's Different", "Here Comes the Judge", and the instrumental, "Make Your Brain Swing". One of the most interesting tracks is "Play the Drum", featuring a sampled, nursery rhyme chorus ("We like to play the drums / In such a crazy way"), much like Jay-Z's Orphan Annie sample in "Hard Knock Life".

Quite frankly, this album should probably share the spotlight as a candidate for classic status with another California release, 2006's Heroes in the City of Dope by Zion I & the Grouch, which I've recently had the pleasure of hearing. Heroes in the City of Dope is worth checking out too. My problem, and the reason I assigned Rise Up an "Excellent" instead of a "Very Nearly Perfect" rating, is that there should be more songs.

You get a total of 16 tracks, counting a humorous hidden track about on-the-road shenanigans, attached to funky tune "One Moor Time". But that hidden track is like a deleted scene on a DVD; it's not really part of the action, it's more of a special bonus feature. That makes 15 songs. There are two unnecessary interludes, with running times under a full minute, that don't add much to the set, "Kush in the Bush" and "Last Call". That makes 13 songs. We could do without the unimaginatively titled "Bonus Beats", which really is what it sounds like -- extra beats, with no lyrics. That's 12 songs. Finally, the album probably should have excluded "Ay Mami" and "Make Your Brain Swing", both repetitive instrumentals that don't quite work without lyrics. And then there were ten. That leaves us with less than forty minutes of music. A leaner album avoids filler, that's true, but Rise Up is so good it seems to deserve a heavier load.

Like I said at the beginning, the conclusion is: "Great album. Find a way to get it." And I'm serious. Go on and do it. But now I want to explain why Rise Up caught my attention in the first place.

For one, there's the discographies of the artists involved. Azeem, specifically, has been busy building a reputation for operating outside the confines of "mainstream" hip-hop or, rather, the type of rap implied by the term "mainstream". There's nothing wrong with being pushed by a major label with major distribution and receiving major airplay. Like everything else on this planet, sometimes the results are good, and sometimes not. But where "mainstream" signifies a formulaic, cookie-cutter approach in which all the songs sound like everybody else's, problems arise.

Azeem's challenge, which he's risen to with the resolve of a champ, has been to mold the things he's passionate about -- rap and spoken word, thought provoking lyrics and head nodding beats, stylistic fusion -- into accessible compositions. It's easier to describe than to accomplish, but if you've experienced Azeem's previous releases (such as 2004's Craft Classic and Mayhemystics), then you're aware of his talents, though I think Rise Up is much more fun. If crafting innovative hip-hop records could ever be an Olympic event (The 200 Bar Relay? The Hip-Hop Freestyle?), Azeem would be in contention for the gold. And with his production, cuts, and scratches, DJ Zeph wouldn't be far behind.

The other reason Rise Up grabbed my attention and wouldn't let go: the album cover. It shows Zeph and Azeem dressed in black suits and hats reminiscent of the Blues Brothers. That's not the attention-getting part. Behind the two men, there's a montage of images -- studio equipment, Louis Armstrong, figures with raised fists, warriors in active poses. At the top center, an ornate seal, composed of a fist shadowed by a five-pointed star, bears the words "Rebellion to tyranny is obedience to God". Okay, that's still not it. I'm almost there. Near the cover's left corner, there's an airplane that looks like a World War II warplane, apparently dropping bombs. Now comes the clincher. The bomb trail leads to the image of a man who resembles Noble Drew Ali. That's what got me.

I consulted a few books to refresh my memory, and I conducted an online image search for "Noble Drew Ali" and came up with the very picture of him used on the Rise Up cover. But who, you might ask, is Noble Drew Ali? Well, here's my over-simplified version.

In 1913, Noble Drew Ali, born as Timothy Drew in North Carolina, established the Moorish Science Temple in Newark, New Jersey. The Moorish Science Temple sought to counter the effects of racism by indoctrinating nonwhites, but mainly "Black" people, into an amalgam of Islam and Eastern philosophy. Ali's teaching of Islam differed from the "orthodox" tenets, sort of a customized, do-it-yourself religious and social worldview. Ali was referred to as "The Prophet", The Moorish Science Temple conferred holiness toward Morocco rather than Mecca, and called its followers and their racial group "Asiatic". The term "Asiatic" acted as a replacement for "Negro" and other identifiers that were considered pejorative, though not considered as such by everyone (kind of like how the NAACP hasn't changed the "colored" part, and there's still "Negro" in the "United Negro College Fund"). I'm quoting from C. Eric Lincoln's The Black Muslims in America here:

"[Ali] became obsessed with the ideal that salvation for the Negro people lay in the discovery by them of their national origin; i.e., they must know whence they came, and refuse longer to be called Negroes, black folk, colored people, or Ethiopians. They must henceforth call themselves Asiatics, to use the generic term, or, more specifically, Moors, or Moorish Americans."

Incidentally, it was the spelling of "Moor" (you know, like Shakespeare's character Othello) in Zeph and Azeem's "One Moor Time" that suggested I was on the right track about the use of Ali's portrait. In any event, those who adopted the Moorish identity received official "Nationality and Identification Cards", endorsed by "The Prophet", bearing "the Islamic star and crescent, an image of clasped hands, and a numeral '7' in a circle". Again, from Lincoln:

"[Each card] announced that the bearer honored 'all the Divine Prophets, Jesus, [Muhammad], Buddha, and Confucius' and pronounced upon him 'the blessings of the God of our Father, Allah.' The card identified him as 'a Moslem [sic] under the Divine Laws of the Holy Koran of Mecca, Love, Truth, Peace, Freedom, and Justice' and concluded with the assurance: 'I AM A CITIZEN OF THE UNITED STATES.'"

You might recognize the "Asiatic" designation in the belief systems of the Nation of Islam and the Five Percenters, plus it is sometimes referenced in hip-hop names (the "Kane" in Big Daddy Kane was an acronym for "King Asiatic Nobody's Equal") and rap lyrics (like when LL Cool J rhymes, "I'm Asiatic, acrobatic, charismatic / You don't want no static" in Walking with a Panther's "1-900-LL Cool J"). Attempts to change or reorient labels and terminologies (or even slurs) can be viewed, perhaps too easily, as methodologies for establishing racial identity and coping with oppression. In other words, if your identity is different, you'll receive different (and hopefully better) treatment. As we know, however, the strategy hasn't been an overwhelming success.

Nevertheless, who cares, right? Maybe. But while it's possible the inclusion of Ali's picture wasn't meant to be significant, I found it particularly satisfying that the image appeared on a rap album, backed up by genre-blending, expressively intense music, in an era where rappers are so often characterized as existing without histories, or at least as operating in ignorance of history. Rappers are vulgar and violent, detractors say, and their music is incapable of contributing anything meaningful to the popular dialogue. Rise Up's album cover and music, for me, rejected those stereotypes, illustrating how exclusive and categorical we can be in our consumption of music, but also in our perceptions of people and politics. You rarely, if ever, hear about Noble Drew Ali during Black History Month, along with a zillion other unmentioned figures. Moreover, there's a wonderfully vast amount of information to be learned about so many cultures. I think it's special that we can actually share and receive some of this knowledge through music and art, sometimes in profound ways that we are unable to explain with words.

Once I listened to Rise Up, I was hooked. Zeph and Azeem seem to be striving to expand boundaries, to exist outside of established paradigms. Rise Up represents independent thinking, the type of music-making that goes beyond agreeing or disagreeing with a viewpoint or a message or image. To quote the duo, it's that type of music, the type you have to turn up loud.







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