Rachel: So tell me about Telefunkin'?
Azeem: Telefunkin' started out as a rap group with me and my man Roy, from LA. We were really about rhyming, and finding beats. Our first show was at the Oasis in San Jose. I entered a rap contest we wanted to be in, so we found this guy who lived around the way, and it was like `this guy will give you the beat, you got the rap?' I went and got the beat from him, and I won the contest.
Rachel: That turned out to be Peanut Butter Wolf, didn't?
Azeem, Oh, I told you this story already.
Rachel: No, that's okay, tell it again.
Azeem: Oh, okay, so I won the contest, and it wasn't one of his ---well, I brought the materials, the samples; I brought X Clan, and "The Funky Drummer," and I had him sample it, and I had him put it all together, and I wrote the song.
I won the contest, and I won a thousand dollars. Like a dummy, I never called the guy back, or gave him no money for his time. And yeah, that turned out to be Peanut Butter Wolf.
Eventually I moved out to the city of San Jose, and I found flyers in my bedroom that said "Unknown Johns' having a party, blas? blah." I went to the address, even though the party was two weeks past. I knocked on the door, woke somebody up, and I was like, hey man, you know, I'm lookin' for some musicians, you know, blas? blah -and that's how Telefunkin' the band really got started.
Within a couple of months, we had a record contract in our hands.
Rachel: So you went to this warehouse full of musicians?
Azeem: It wasn't really a warehouse; it was just house with musicians living in it. And I knew where it was at because they'd put out flyers when they were having a party -a fundraiser. Basically, the flyers had an address, so I went to knock on the door and politic with them. Said I'm looking for a place to play and a keyboard player and this, this, this, and that. And we just kinda became friends from there. And yeah, within about six months Om Records put us out on their very first compilation. The song did very well, and they wanted to sign us.
Rachel: It was a funk band.
Azeem: Nah, Telefunkin' wasn't a funk band. It was what they ended up calling -around that time- hip hop jazz, or whatever, but it was more raw than that -we wasn't trying to be jazz musicians, you know? It was never t hip hop jazz -even if that's what people call it.
Rachel: It wasn't like the Roots, then?
Azeem: Well, to me it was more like the Roots than hip hop jazz. To me, the Roots aren't hip hop jazz -they're hip hop. They mix live instruments with samples, and that's what we did.
You know, we started doing shows, and we were really good some times, and sometimes we really sucked. You know? We rarely ever rehearsed. Then certain people in the band developed drug problems, and things like that.
So instead of pursuing the record deal with Om, I ended up (joining) Spearhead.
Rachel: How did you meet up with Spearhead?
Azeem: I met Michael Franti at a spoken word/open mic type of thing in San Francisco -Paradise Lounge. This was back in the day, when spoken word was like, an underground type of thing. So most of the people you see were real poets -they took it a little more serious. It wasn't like now, you go to an open mic and the place is packed, you know what I mean?
Rachel: So what was your role in Spearhead?
Azeem: I co-wrote six of the songs, I was the hype man, and I performed the whole set -you know, I was on stage for the whole set. And I helped set up the stage, break it down, pack up the truck, you know, blas? blah. A little bit of everything, you know what I mean?
Rachel: So why did you leave Spearhead?
Azeem: Cuz I wanted to do my own thing. Even though I was really happy where I was, and I loved touring all over Europe and getting the love -riding those big tour buses, and all of those things, you know? I wanted to do those things for myself. I wanted to make my own name, not somebody else's name. And as soon as I quit, my career took off like wild fire.
Rachel: So what's up with your new album? You said it's oriented toward a more mature audience?
Azeem: It's a record that I use to say certain things that I feel like I can't say in hip hop, because they might be a little over people's heads. Most people listen to hip hop because it's entertaining -they don't want to hear about the problems of the world, they don't want to hear too much about spirituality, you know, and other things like that. They want to hear, you know, something they can dance to, something they can laugh to, something they can have sex to -you know, your basic low nature sorts of things. Which everyone needs, you know? But in this record, I wanted to focus on the higher nature, and higher sorts of thoughts, and still now be too preachy, and not be clich? : revolution, guerilla, white man, pigs.
Without being clich?, and without being preachy -or holier than thou- I just wanted to let my higher self write these songs. I wanted to keep all the macho-ism, sexism, hood-ism -well, not necessarily the hood-ism- just keep all the entertainment kinda things out, and build a sound on raw emotions. There's raw emotions in the lyrics, and there's raw emotions in the music.
It's like an LSD trip, that way. You know, when you take LSD there's certain conditions: you have to be in a good mood, you have to be comfortable, you have to be around people you like. That's what this record is: you can't just throw it in whenever you feel like partying; you gotta sit down, put it in, and listen to it. And it'll take you on a journey. Everyone tells me the more they listen to it, the more they like it -the more it talks to them.
I'm not trying to hit anyone over the head with any kind of message -I'm just trying to express emotion, you know?
I feel like I'm in a psychiatrist office.
Rachel:: That's because you're covering your eyes.
Azeem: I like it, that's how I feel comfortable. I feel like I'm in a confession booth, or something.
Rachel: Can you give me an example of the higher nature?
Azeem: I'll give you a perfect example. You know, men have two heads. Well, probably men and women have two heads. In rap music there's a lot of braggadocio; a lot of ego involved. And that's what makes it good, you know, competition. So that stuff is allowed.
But I wanted to extract all of that out of this record -and not go into the braggadocio, the ego, the typical scenarios. I initially wanted to do this record as if rap didn't exist. I had these live instruments, and these live tracks, and I wanted to see what I could do. But I kinda fell into a pattern with it, that I was comfortable with.
This is the easiest record I've ever done. It would be like, I would listen to it, and let my hand go. I'd let go, let my hand go, and just write, write, write. I'd always be focusing on some kind of emotion. And I would go like that, and it was tight. It all turned out good -some of my favorite songs that I've written are on this record.
Whereas in hip hop, you're so conscious of how people are breaking down every word, the style, the patterns, blah blah blah -there's so many things on your mind, that it becomes constricting. I didn't wanna have that on this record.
Rachel: So, you're a Muslim?
Azeem: Uh, yeah. My spiritual side isn't religious -I belive there's a big difference, even though I'm a very spiritual person. If you want to learn about religion, you know, open a book. Go to the church, the mosque, whatever. You know, I'm not really here to change the world, or put my religious beliefs out there. You know, due to labels, you alienate yourself by telling people you're into a particular thing. Even if I were Christian, Jehovah's Witness, Mormon, I still wouldn't want to talk about it. This is private to me.
Rachel: And your poetry has been published in two books.
Rachel: Do you often perform your rhymes as spoken word poems?
Azeem: Yeah, I do.
Rachel: So the poems in there are also rhymes that you use in songs?
Azeem: Nah, there's a difference between my spoken word voice and my rhyme voice. Spoken word, you know, some of it rhymes, some of it doesn't. But it's written to be performed without music behind it; it's written to be acted -you know, spoken word poems are more like monologues. Of course hip hop is hip hop, and the rhymes fall into patterns. So you know, I don't focus (when I'm writing) spoken word poems the way I do on rhymes. The poems -like, you know, "God's Rolex"- those are more like inspirations. The idea comes to me, and I know it's a poem, not a song. I don't know how I know that -it's just based on the idea, I guess.
And a lot of times I'll let the idea roll around in my head for a few days, and one day I just pop up, and grab a pen. When I start to work on it and I'll think I'm just jotting down a quick little line for a poem I'm gonna write one day, or whatever -a lot of times it will all come out. And then I'll be just as surprised that I wrote it as anyone else when they hear it. That's why I say it's an inspiration. Certain poems like "God's Rolex," and a few others that I have, I really can't take the credit for writing. I feel like they kinda came through me. I don't mean that in any kinda arrogant way. I mean, those pieces are universal:
Some of my poems are smarter than me, you know what I'm saying? And I can't claim them. But they came from me, I know that.
You know what I'm saying, that some of my poems are smarter than me? It be wisdom in some of them that I don't even follow.
Rachel: So you're a writer. What do you think about hip hop journalism?
Azeem: Well, like any other thing, it starts out with good intentions -people who partake in the culture; the scene. Of all the elements, including journalism -they start out real pure, but they get -commercialized isn't even the word- the boundaries and the guards go down. That opens up the gates for people who don't take the time that the earlier people took, and don't make the sacrifices that the earlier people made. This is true of all journalism, though.
It's almost like a restaurant that opens in a small town, or whatever. It's got good ingredients, and people love it, or whatever. And all of a sudden it gets franchised, all over the country -like a Starbucks or something, all over the country. And they're not buying the same organic sugar that they were, and all. Sort of like that. The bigger it gets, the less quality there is -the more quantity, the less quality. And it's like that with anything.
Rachel: So when you talk about guards going down, you mean this to be negative?
Azeem: I'm not presenting as negative or positive.
Rachel: You mean, principles?
Azeem: Yeah, well, the more accepted things become, the less principled, and the less firm they are on certain things. It's just like everything. But what I was trying to say though, I summed up, is: the more quantity, the less quality. But I don't think that's true with just hip hop journalists, I'm talking about all aspects of music -any kind of music you're talking about.
I mean, you look in a magazine, you can tell when you're reading someone who takes writing seriously. It's the same thing when you're listening to music -you can tell the difference between someone who's doing it as a hobby, and someone who's doing it because they're striving to perfect their craft. And when there's less -when things first start- it's more of those people who are really trying to perfect their craft. And as time goes on, it's allows fads. Things start; there's no fads, it's just people who live it.
Rachel: So talk about your involvement with Future Primitive.
Azeem: Zeph and I have a (tk record?) coming out called A-Z. Actually, that's all I'm allowed to say about it; you gotta wait til it comes out; yeah, it's hot. There's other producers on it as well. But I'm not telling nothing about that record; there's no copies being made. When it's done, then, it will be heard. We gotta really sit tight on that record.
But we're doing the Saint Louis Jazz Festival with Future Primitive. It's gonna be me, Zeph, and Quest. It's gonna be dope, it's gonna be live.
Rachel: Future Primitive is a collective.
Rachel: Cuz you -I mean, kinda sign with a lotta different labels.
Azeem: I'm a free agent.
Rachel: Yeah, the "free agent" thing is very much a part of your itentity. You know: `fuck you, fuck you, I have to get mines.'
Azeem: Yeah, I have no choice. If you want anything exclusively, you know, you gonna have to pay for it. It's one thing if I've got a record, you know, you can do whatever you want. But if you want me as an exclusive entity -I'm an expensive cat, you know? I haven't met anybody who can afford to have me as an exclusive entity?
Rachel: But do you feel more of an allegiance to Future Primitive than to other labels you've worked with?
Azeem: Not necessarily. I mean, I feel an allegiance to whoever is pushing the product out there, as well as getting us out there -people who I think are working with me, and I'm working with them. So far I have records coming out on three labels -Bomb, Wide Hive, and Future Primitive. They each have their own strengths.
Two thousand three was the worst year I've had in a long time. That was the year I was so broke, that I had to sign three record contracts. That means a lot to me; now that I've signed these contracts, I have to fulfill them. I couldn't be a rock star and just take my time, or turn in bullshit. I take it seriously. In 2003 I did nothing but write those records. There's a lot of hunger on them, because it was a rough time for me. Even though I got advances for the records that helped me out through the months, it definitely wasn't enough to do everything that I needed to do -pay rent and all that stuff. So I was really going from hustle to hustle and writing in between.
When I was done, I looked up, and everything was falling apart, you know -my health, my home, I had bills, I had all kinds of stuff that I had not paid attention to. But now I woke up from that, because now I'm reaping the benefits of that sacrifice. All that suffering is turning into sunshine, and I wake up every day, and there's something new going on. So '04 has been all roses so far.
Rachel: So your sound is really underground. Or, maybe I should preface this. My sense is that -and I don't think you'll agree- you've made this tryst of gangsta and spoken word styles. I've played your records for people and they've said that this is really awesome; that it's really visceral, and cool. But it sounds really underground. Like, this is gonna be the top of the underground, but it's not gonna be mainstream.
Azeem: Nah, nah. I'm not interested in mainstream. Don't get me wrong, I listen to the radio, I listen to Ludicrus and Jay Z. I would do a Neptunes track, or a Kanye West track in a minute, no question.
But honestly, I'm doing this so I can disappear. I'm not doing this so I can be famous, and noticed, and recognized, everywhere I go. Honestly, I'm doing this so I can collect enough money to go to an island somewhere and be done. You know what I'm saying? Without people seeing that, or whatever. Written words are just laying there, sleeping on a dead piece of paper.
But you see, songs can come to life any time you play them. Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder songs -generations later, them words are still alive. So if I can make good, strong music like that, then I can just disappear. That's what I really want to do. I don't wanna be Snoop Dogg, I don't wanna be Jay Z, I don't wanna be recognized. I just wanna be able to go to the store, and have nobody know who I am, and yet still make my money off my music. A lot of underground artists are like that -if Atmosphere were walking down the street in Oakland, ain't nobody be tripping, they don't know this cat. And yet, he's making a lot of money. That's how I wanna be.
Rachel: But that's very much everybody's thing, right? That kind of lifestyle. Since you've been in California, have you lived anywhere else?
Azeem: Yeah, I've lived all over San Francisco and Oakland. But out of all those cities I've lived in, Oakland is the place I consider home. Although, you know, people always ask me "where you from?" based on the way I talk. Oakland, I lived here long enough, and I just get it. Reminds me of Jersey, you know, reminds me of Brooklyn -places where I have family. I just get it here; I understand the mentality, I recognize the kids.
Rachel: So you've lived all over the country. But you were born in Jersey, and
parents are Jamaican?
Azeem: Well, my mother's mother grew up in Panama, but she was Jamaican too -you know, a lot of Jamaicans went there to build the Panama canal.
Rachel: So how did that immigrant perspective affect you growing up?
Azeem: Oh, it affects everything. You know, it's not a laughing matter when you're dealing with being black in America, and you realize that, to say `I'm black,' or to say "Negro" or something like that -there's no flag that goes with "black." There's no real traditions that goes with that particular name right there. You know, you say you're from a particular African country, you have a knowledge of where you're from.
But this "black" has no land, no flag, no real traditions or culture -black starts with slavery, you know what I'm saying? If you're another nationality, you can say "yo, this is my culture, my culture is this, my people come up under this particular flag, this is the food we eat, this is how we say this, this is how we raise our kids -you know? It's important to have those things to rely on. That's why my father always told me: "yo, don't worry that you were born here, you are a Jamaican."
I didn't get it at the time, you know, it didn't make a difference to me. Actually, I used to always get teased, whenever those "Go back to Jamaica" ads came on television. As a kid, I used to get teased for being Jamaican, so I was kinda funny about it. I was embarrassed by my parents accents. You know what I mean? Haitians was like that too, you get teased a lot as a kid. So I used to hide it. Once I got older I realized, nah, that's my foundation. And that's the foundation for my principles, my self-respect, my pride, and for my music too. Because I grew up listening to more conscious kinds of music than your average radio stuff.
Rachel: Like what?
Azeem: Like Wukka Wukka, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Lim Kwizie Johnson, Linton. The OGs. These is all the old dub poets. I heard them in my house, this is what my parents would play at parties. My house was a mad house -there was always parties going on; poker games til 2 in the morning.
Rachel: So the community you grew up in was heavily populated with Jamaicans?
Azeem: I lived in an all black neighborhood, I mean, that's Jersey, you know? But my parents didn't want me going to the public schools, so I got bussed to private Catholic schools. Which was cool, even though I eventually got kicked out in the seventh grade. My brother was the president of that school. Me? I was the anti-president.
Rachel: So what is this thing with Himalayan goatherders?
Azeem: (laughing). Why, I said it twice?
Rachel: No, you haven't said it in this interview at all.
Azeem: No, that's just a lyric in one of my records.
I went to the Ganges River once, on a trip. I've been to 27 different countries. I was in that part of the world, and I was bored. I wasn't on tour. I knew somebody who had a travel agency, and pulled some strings. I'd prefer not to go into all the details of how I got there, but I will say that when I got there, I was treated like a king. I had my own chauffer, I posted in this place called like, the Masamba Palace -it was ridiculous- I had scholars take me to places like Taj Mahal, you know, some day I'm gonna write it all down in a story.
I've done a lot of things like that, which I would love to describe in detail, but I can't, really. But some day I'll write them all down in a story.
Rachel: When did you first hook up with Zeph, and how did that result in this love connection?
Azeem: I hooked up with Zeph through Raw B Music -he was a DJ for KUSF Beatsauce. Zeph was doing a record for Wide Hive, and our first song was "I'm Wack" (on Craft Classic.)
Rachel: So he's like, your partner in crime?
Azeem: I work well with him, because he's a real producer. A lot of guys sample a beat, leave a beat, or whatever. And then they say, "Okay, write the song, rap to it, and bring it over when you're done" -and then they want to be a producer. That's not a producer; that's a guy who sampled a song. A producer is not only a guy who not only makes the music, but usually writes the course too. And they give you the idea of what the song should be about. And you know, they give you a rap to work with. They don't just give you a blank canvas, and a paintbrush, and say "go." Which is what a lot of people do, at the level we're at right now. It's like, okay, this guy got a gang of beats, and then you say, okay, I wanna rap to 5, 6, and 7, and then it's all up to you to come up with the course and the drop out. And then if you're interested, you can do a little extra. But, you know, Zeph, DJ Design, and whoever -they're real producers, they're more involved in the song. They pay attention to your tone, your delivery, and the aesthetic of the song. They're paying attention to the chorus -they're DJs, so they're a little bit more thinking about how people move, or how people feel, when they listen to certain songs.
Rachel: Is there anyone you're feeling in hip hop now?
Azeem: I don't pick favorites, you know. I like everybody you like -I like everybody everybody likes. Anything that speaks, you know. Or anything that's so, so , bad that it's entertaining -but that's more a guilty pleasure, than anything. We will not speak of particular acts. You know, I like smash music a lot.