“Some of my poems are
smarter than me, you know what I’m saying?” says the East Bay lyricist Azeem, when asked
for insight into his creative process. “I’ll be just as surprised that I wrote those words as anyone else when
they hear them.”
The idea of using your mouth,
or your pen, as a portal for wisdom that actually comes from your soul, is nothing new to poetry. In fact, prophets, scholars,
and lyricists have, for centuries, ceded the credit for their work to higher powers, and treated the act of writing more as
a way of courting the muse, than displaying an individual capacity for knowledge. Same goes for hip hop, wherein, not surprisingly,
the word “flow” is more common coin than “lyric.” Rapping, after all, is more a visceral than an intellectual
experience of human language: words, phrases, and metaphors don’t come from you so much as they come through you.
Which perhaps explains why
Azeem can spit lines like “I’m liable to bunk up this whole English language,
and speak some Ja-mainglish ‘in tight si-chi-a-shun,’” (“Imma
Rmx”) as though they just occurred to him. What becomes paramount, in Azeem’s songs, is a love of language that’s
so ample and full-toned, it verges on being sexual. Listen to a track like “Simple Ting” (the opening number on
Azeem’s 2001 album, Craft Classic) and what you’ll hear, first and
foremost, is the sound, shape, and toughness of the words themselves, their edges roughened even more by the emcee’s
native Jersey accent. Azeem’s emphasis on verbal stylings outpaces not only the substantive content
of his lyrics, but the immediacy of his boombap, as well.
After all, Azeem is, apparently,
as unaware of himself when he writes, as when he raps. “Some of my poems, I can’t claim them,” he laughs,
“because it be wisdom in some of them that I don’t even follow. But they came from me somehow, I know that.”
Azeem claims he was a bad
kid –bad in a Boondocks-meets Pootie Tang-meets-Italian mobster kinda way. Meaning that from jump, he was the young
hustler who only showed up at school for field trips and pictures –incidentally, he says, you can catch him in all the
old yearbooks- and then slipped away too fast for anyone to catch hold of him. Asked what crowd he ran with at New
Jersey’s Franklin Township
High School, he quips: “My brother was the school president. Me? I was the
That Tom Sawyer-esque character
may be attributable, at least in part, to the emcee’s itinerant lifestyle. After all, he went to several different high
schools in different parts of the country: from Franklin Township High School in New Jersey, to Southwest Dekalb High School
in Atlanta, to Pallisades High School in LA (Dorsey High was closer to his house, but “it looked like something out
of Colors,” whereas Pallisades “had dolphins, and was by the beach,
and stuff”) to Miami Sunset Senior High –where he got arrested the day before school started, after riding his
skateboard to Miami Sunset and hitting up the back patio wall with his spray paints. Sallying from one city to the next, and
invariably finding different, more inventive ways of getting into trouble the moment he arrived at a new spot, the emcee says,
“I was torn before I knew I was rapping.”
But he quickly acclimated
to a kind of rootless existence, and even relished it. After all, why join the glee club or the student counsel when you’re
gonna be gone within a year? Fittingly, when Azeem wrote graffiti as a youngster, he used the tag name “Ghost,”
–indicating that he felt little incentive to establish any kind of permanence, or for that matter, class pretensions,
in any community. “In a high school culture everybody is kind of the same, and I figured out who my crowd was,”
Azeem says. “I learned how to work my way around, to find people who were like me --which usually were people who didn't
go to school.”
Of course, there are worse
things you can do to ruin your high school reputation than get arrested for tagging up the back patio –and the emcee
admits that, his first day at Miami Senior High, he had it going on. Yet, trouble was nothing new, or infrequent, in the life
of Azeem, who blames his lengthy juvenile arrest record on the fact that, in high school, he didn’t have an outlet for
his “special form of intelligence.” He says that before he discovered music, and writing, he would use that gift
in “creative ways” –which often involved vandalism. Only after getting kicked out of school and moving to
the Bay Area, did Azeem find more productive ways of channeling his energies.
The day Azeem came to San
Francisco to visit his brother was also the day of the Haight Street Fair. They went straight from
the airport to the fair and, at that point, Azeem called his mother on a payphone to tell her he wasn’t coming back.
‘you need to come back and graduate from high school.’ I told her I'd call her back –well, that was about
six or seven years ago,” he says. “So anyway, I still need to get back to her, 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 High.”
Okay, so here we have that
old tall tale about the low class criminal with a heart of gold, who gets wacked over the head, one day, with a kind of spiritual
vision. In that devilishly vision-ish way, he decides, all at once, to turn over a new leaf. And yes, that story has its place
in literature. But -no matter what Azeem may say about divorcing his old, hooligan self from his new, ethereal self- in real
life, personal conversions don’t provide the same clean disconnect that they do in narratives. In fact, the underworld,
ruffian Azeem and the high, spiritual Azeem seem perilously close to one another –and more dependent on each other than
you might think.
It doesn’t really matter
whether or not Azeem is cognizant of this duality, or whether he consciously embraces it. In fact, the emcee sounds better
when you can tell that the idea of a bad Azeem or a good Azeem completely eludes him.
A case in point is Craft Classic, which is all about taking the spiritual, the criminal, the ADD, the dyslexia, the Jamainglish,
the leather kicks, the beetle-skin shoes, the black Mexican, the pro-ethno-terrorism, and the dope money, and realizing that
they’re all in a piece –and that Azeem sounds more honest, and edgy, the more he’s able to let all those
different elements of self get tangled up in one another. On the track “No Lexus”, for example, he raps: “Retract from the action/Come back with black riddims that echo/Slow like reflections from
puzzles/My penis; I use that word for the convenience/Cuz I’d rather mean to say nothing/Than to say nothing and mean
it.” When you’re hit with those snaggle-toothed shards of poetry for the first time, you think, “My
god, am I hearing him right? Did he say penis and black riddims in the same sentence?” Or maybe that’s the Jamainglish talking. Whichever the case,
you’ve never heard words blurted out in such an asperous and scronky way.
But Craft Classic -and the sleeper hit Garage Opera, which Azeem also released
in 2001- came several years after the artist’s arrival in the Bay Area, and subsequent induction into the local underground
hip hop and spoken word scenes. When Azeem first moved to the Bay, he formed the funk and rap outfit Telefunkin’, which
started out as a rap duo –the other half was RV Scal, Azeem’s friend from LA. Like many fledgling emcees, the
two got started by penning rhymes in their notebooks, scrounging for on-the-cheap beats, and occasionally performing at open
mics. Their first real show was San Jose’s Oasis 1991. That same year, Azeem entered a rap contest at Stanford
University, judged by a panel of local hip hop moguls that included Guerilla Funk
and Scarface Records czar, Paris. “I brought samples of X Clan and ‘The Funky Drummer,’ and we found this
guy around the way to make us a beat,” Azeem recollects. “He put those samples together, I wrote the song, and
we won a thousand dollars.”
The beatmaker around the
way turned out to be Stonesthrow’s current top banana, Peanut Butter Wolf. “I cashed the thousand dollar check
and we spent it on bullshit,” Azeem recalls, sheepishly, pausing to grind his left knuckle into his right eye. “We
never gave the guy his cut. Looking back, I realize if I’d just called the dude back, I might have taken my life in
a whole different direction –I could be Madlib, right now.”
became a full-fledged band once Azeem moved to San Francisco, and found flyers in his bedroom for a party and fundraiser at
Unknown Giants’ House on Haight Street --apparently, the house was a known
hot spot for local artists. Even though the party had happened two weeks prior, Azeem took the address down and “went
to knock on the door and politic with them. I 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.” Within six months, the group had a
song on Om Records’ first compilation, which met such a good reception in the underground, that Om
wanted to sign them.
“We started doing shows,
and we were really good sometimes, and sometimes we really sucked. You know? We rarely ever rehearsed,” admits the emcee.
But eventually, the vice-grip of drugs and alcohol took hold of certain group members, and ties in the band slowly disintegrated.
Instead of pursuing the record deal with Om, Azeem started gigging with the famous hip hop-agitprop
group, Spearhead. He’d met Michael Franti at a spoken word event at San Francisco’s
Paradise Lounge, and became the group’s hype man soon afterward. “With Spearhead, I was on stage for the whole
set. And I helped set up the stage, break it down, pack up the truck, you know, blahzay blah. A little bit of everything.”
In fact, Azeem co-wrote six songs on Spearhead’s album Chocolate Superhighway
before he decided he just needed to do his own thing.
At that point the emcee went
back to the shop to hone his craft, which meant merging his ornate lexicon with a unique lowbrow philosophical-ness. Hence,
the aforementioned Garage Opera and Craft
Classic, two albums that blend high-thinking cant with zig-zaggy turns of phrase.
It’s some the honest-to-dopest
hip hop you’ll find in the underground.
In 2003, Azeem was hungry.
He was broke. By the end of the year, his health was failing, and he had bills to pay. He signed three record contracts with
three different labels, but the advances weren’t enough to keep the emcee and his family afloat –“so I ended
up going from hustle to hustle and writing in between,” he says.
Apparently, that period of
hunger was salutary for his art.
Azeem describes the process
of making his most recent album, Mayhemystics, as a kind of spiritual defogging.
Normally, he’d catch an idea as it drifted across his mind’s visual screen and “let it roll around in my
head for a few days,” before he picked up a pen. In this case, though, “it would be like, I would listen to the
music, 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 –the easiest record I’ve ever done.”
The beauty of Azeem’s
previous albums was that he often belted lines that were just a little off-color, even for hip hop. His rhymes were, at the
same time, uncomfortably personal and too smart for their own good. Moreover, listening to all those pithy, self-deprecating
descriptions of the emcee with ADD, dyslexia, and a pro-ethno-terrorist bent was like hearing a bunch of wrong notes hover
in the middle of the song --the aural equivalent of strange, wandering zeppelins. But in the end, all those twisted, cantankerous
phrases resolved into something beautiful and clean.
In contrast, Mayhemystics is a product of what Azeem calls “his higher self.” It’s stripped clean of the
ego, and the competition that characterizes most hip hop, and Azeem trades his preoccupation with self for a protracted meditation
on all things, well, mystical –meaning “clay pigeons in ethers” and “Rosecrutians,” and a lot
of other things you’ve never heard of. In other words, he goes more in the direction of “God’s Rolex,”
which is, arguably, the most spiritual track on Craft Classic, and the one that
Azeem holds in highest regard. Variable Unit adds the gloss to this album, and Jacob Aginsky’s electric organ has a
glacial beauty that occasionally verges on being new-agey --probably calculated to match the emcee’s turgid prose. So
overall, Mayhemystics is not something you can dance to or have sex to (then again,
neither were most of the numbers on Craft Classic); it’s prettier, but also
less personal, so something is lost where something is gained.
What’s consistent throughout
Azeem’s albums though, is a sound that’s so underground, it seems like a limitation. He’s potentially one
of the most imaginative, most emotive, most visceral emcees you’ve ever heard, whether he’s galvanizing street
apostles or riding his spiritual hobby horse. At the same time, though, Azeem’s scruffy, Jersey-thickened voice and
quirky turns of phrase seem too tart to suit the average pop palate. When a friend heard the emcee’s verse on Rashinel
and Eye Cue’s single “What Type Of Pimp Are You?” for example, he characterized it as “the perfect
gangsta and spoken word tryst.” That’s delicious for the already-initiated, but it probably means Azeem will never
make it in mainstream hip hop.
For his part, the emcee doesn’t
seem to care: “Nah, nah. I’m not interested in mainstream. Don’t get me wrong, I listen to the radio, I
listen to Ludicrous 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 --so I can collect enough money to go to an island somewhere and be
done. You know what I’m saying?”
Well, Azeem was
always a free agent, hopping from one school to the next, one city to the next, one record label to the next (“I haven’t
met anybody who can afford me as an exclusive entity –I’m an expensive cat, you know?”). So in the end,
maybe the old graffiti tag still has resonance in his life; maybe he’ll fizzle out the same way he slunk in –like
a specter. Even if Azeem rises to the top of underground hip hop, but he’ll always prefer to be not quite right, and
not really in style, and maybe a little out of place. And then one day he’s gone; the same ghost as always.