An Interview with Oakland Rapper Azeem
by Rachel Swan
My name is Ismail Azeem El, otherwise known as Azeem. I'm a lyricist,
originally from New Jersey. I call Oakland, California my home.
What does your name mean?
The name Ismail means "heaven listens." "Azeem" is an attribute of the creator; it means "the great"
or "the most high." El is a surname from the moorish movement; we choose surnames of either "El" or "Bey" --"El" meaning one
who deals with critical thought, and "Bey" meaning one who subdues the earth, or makes the earth obey.
In what culture?
The name Ismail is Arabic, the surnames El and Bey come from the moorish
movement founded by the noble Drew Ali in 1913, as the Moor Science Temple of America. It's the oldest Islamic movement for
so-called "black" people on the continent of North
So I heard you just got back from touring?
Yeah, we just came back from Europe. We
were there for a month and we had 21 shows. From there we went to Japan. It wasn't my first time touring because I'd toured before with Spearhead, but it was my first time touring as myself,
and not somebody in the group. Japan really appreciates our music --no matter who you are, if you've ever
put a record out, chances are they're selling it in Japan. The people
there love underground music, they love overground music, and they'll buy two or three copies of the same record at one time.
So you have a new single, "Five Ooh"?
That's gonna be a trademark single because it's real catchy. When I do it live, and people hear
it for the first time, they're already singing along by the second course. It's something that I think people can really relate
to. I read an article in The Source that talked about how the FBI was running up on Shug Knight and Rapalot Records and all
these other guys with a name. They were saying that now it's gotten so deep that there's even been cases of certain rappers
giving information to the police about their competition --strictly based on business. The honor among thieves is really being
lost. That little blurp in the magazine is what inspired the lyrics "you rap for the government" --otherwise known as Five
O. How about the song about the thug surgeon? Oh, "Thug Macologist?" That song is on a record called Grand Theft Audio, which
is on Bomb Hip Hop --I think they're shopping it right now. That song is about how it's a big fashion statement to look like
you're a killer, and to look like you're from the streets. You don't even have to be black anymore --you can be Asian, European,
suburban, whatever. When you dress a certain way, it's almost like a uniform: you got your hip hop backpacker uniform, your
playa uniform, and your thug uniform. Because of MTV and corporate hip hop pushing this half-poison music at us, it's a statement
to look like you're on your way to jail.
Now that's cool; in fact, I'm dressed like that right now. But I still like to make fun of the
corporate hip hop/thug/club gangsta that seems to be so popular right now.
I heard you went to a lot of different high schools.
Oh yeah, I went to high schools all over the country --I was torn before
I knew I was rapping. I went from Franklin Township High School in New
Jersey, to Southwest Dekalb High School in Atlanta, to Pallisades High School in LA. I
shoulda gone to Dorsey because it was right down the street, but they showed me Dorsey and it looked like something out ofColors
or Boyz N Da Hood. They showed me Pallisades --it had dolphins, and it was right by the beach, so I said "I'll come here."
So I basically rode the bus to school for an hour every morning. I went from Pallisades to Miami Sunset Senior High, which
is the largest high school in Miami. It had no windows; it looked like a prison. But I never really went
to those schools; I was just enrolled. I would show up for field trips and pictures, so you can catch me in the yearbooks.
The day I moved out here I came to visit my brother who was going to college
in San Jose. It was the day of the Haight Street fair. We went right from the airport to the fair, and then I called my mother and told her I wasn't coming home.
She said "you need to come back and graduate from high school." I told her I'd call her back. That was about six or seven
years ago, and I still need to get back to her. So I'm still trying to get back and finish high school, but I want to drop
these records first. When I'm done with all this I'm gonna go back to high school and finish that --at Miami Sunset Senior
Was it difficult to adapt to all these different high schools?
Yeah, at first it was a big culture shock moving from New Jersey to Atlanta. When you're young you're just kind of like a piece of driftwood floating,
and trying to figure everything out. But in a high school culture everybody is kind of the same, and I figured out who my
crowd was. I learned how to work my way around, to find people who were like me --which usually were people who didn't go
When I moved to Miami
I found out where my high school was, so I rode a skateboard there, took some spray paint, and I hit it up. I did a piece
on the wall in blue, gray, and white, and one on the back patio where everybody hangs out. The next thing I know, I see the
police, and I'm like, "Aw shit." So I lay down and I start trying to crawl --well they saw me. I had a chance to dump my napsack
in the garbage can, so I'm like, "It wasn't me, I'm just riding my skateboard." And they're like, "well how come the same
thing written on the bottom of the skateboard is what's spray-painted on that wall over there?" So they found the bag and
they took me in. My tag said Ghost, and by the time I got to school -I didn't know it- but all the graffiti writers wanted
to know who Ghost was. One day a kid was at my house going through my record collection, and he saw a piece that I was working
on. He said "you're Ghost? Yo, everybody been wanting to know who that was."
So the next day you were Mr. Popular?
Next day, I had it going on. I did some of the wildest things I ever did when I was going to high
school in Miami. It wasn't until I moved out here and started living by myself that I discovered music, and that I was meant
to be a writer. In all the cities I'd lived in, I always got in trouble, got arrested, and would end up calling home from
the police station. But when I moved out here by myself, started writing, and started getting into music, I haven't been in
trouble since. When I didn't know that I was good at writing, I didn't have an outlet to use my special form of intelligence.
I used it in creative ways, and at times I would get in a lot of trouble for it. But now that I have this outlet I can use
it properly, and it's a natural high.
Do you feel like the creative process of journalism is different from the process of writing lyrics?
Yeah, I'm not that interested in writing journalism, because it follows too many rules. Poetic
license, I love that. Why? Because you could spell something the way you damn well want to spell it, or you can move things
around. Your creativity is stifled in journalism because it has certain rules, whereas writing lyrics, poetry, or short stories
you can fully give in to the creativeness. Writing stories or writing rhymes is like how a painter would paint a picture --he
can go abstract, he can follow no rules at all.
But you're dealing with the most competitive medium of writing that there is.
Which is lyricism --which is hip hop. We're dealing with a constantly changing and evolving language.
We're dealing with reality --so we claim, at least. The only reality that there is is change. We're dealing with unspoken
laws, and a saturated market --if I threw a rock, I'd hit a rapper, guaranteed. To even get to a point where somebody three
blocks away knows your name is an achievement, much less to be at a level where people want to invest in your artform, press
up your record, and put it out. That stress is what feeds a hip hop artist. You have to have a hustler's heart to make it,
unless you're Jermaine Dupri's little brother or something. But if Russel Simmons isn't your uncle, and you can't just hit
him on the speed dial and call him Russ, then you gotta struggle. Bring the street to the office and the jungle to the playground.
I've heard you say in previous interviews that Bush-
-Is a gangsta.
-And a known Luciferian.
And that him being in office is good for hip hop?
Oh yeah. If believed that voting was a real thing that really mattered -especially in presidential
elections- I woulda voted for Bush. Why? As I said before he was elected, if he were to be elected, hip hop would get a lot
better. In the eighties, we had Reaganomics and the crack epidemic, and that's when all the classic hip hop was being made.
It was conscious, it was revolutionary, it was life-changing for people. Then you get to Clinton, and Clinton's up there smoking
blunts, playing saxaphones, everybody's getting loans, people are driving lexuses, and hip hop turned to garbage --cash money
millionares. Everybody was blinging.
Now that Bush is back in -little Bush, I mean- he's bringing back that old eighties Reaganomics
kill-or-be-killed mentality. Look, nobody's getting no loans, the banking rates are up, there ain't no jobs, cocaine is back,
racism is back, gang violence is back --it's the eighties again. Why? Because Bush and them is back in power, and they big
cult dudes. Because of that, nobody wants to hear the cash money millionares right now. When people are suffering is when
hip hop artists like myself get to be heard --from a sufferer to a sufferer; not from a sufferer to somebody who is wearing
a fake Rolex, trying to get in the club and pop some crystal. That person's not trying to feel you. But now that we're all
at the same level, they want to listen to artists like Azeem and all the other great ones --like Michael Jackson and stuff.
That's very eighties of you.
Exactly. But you can't pigeonhole me. Sometimes people try to say, "Oh, Azeem is like a conscious
rapper," --whatever, like that. To me a "conscious rapper" is someone who is alive and breathing. I just talk about my thoughts,
and because I don't talk about fucking groupies -do I? Okay, maybe in one song- driving cars, and dealing drugs, they want
to say it's political rap. How would I sound rapping like Chuck D? It's not gonna sell. I got stuff about the police, because
that's something I can relate to, and I know other people can relate to that. I'm not trying to run for office, but I have
political lyrics too.
So what's on the horizon for you?
Big things --'04 is my year. Can I elaborate?
I got a single coming out --"Mirrors on the Sun Remix" with DJ Design on Fatbeats, a single with
Mikah9, a single with Architect, and a full-length record called Mayhem Mystics on Wide Hive, which is Azeem featuring Variable
In 2001, you released two records within six months of each other, on two different labels. How
does that work?
I consider myself a free agent. I lend my
talents to different labels to do certain projects. I think I set a certain precedent in 2001, because in 2003 I signed two
contracts for two labels basically at the same time. That's really something that labels don't like to do, but hey --I need
to eat. And they didn't have it in the contracts that I couldn't. So I was working on two records at the same time --two different
dimensions, two different dynamics. That's what I have to do business-wise. I'll abide by any contract, but as an artist,
I have to hustle.