It’s not 1994. “Life’s a Bitch” is not blaring out of car speakers in the hoods of America. The South has a stranglehold on the game and some fans and critics alike are saying that hip-hop, as we knew it, is dead. While Nas is using his sentiments as a jump-off point for his Def Jam debut, AZ is cultivating his own path by going independent.

Before establishing his own label, Quiet Money Records, AZ the Visualiza introduced his format to the world on Nas’ classic debut, Illmatic. Their chemistry led to a bidding war, which resulted in AZ signing to Virgin Records. It was there that he dropped his 1995 debut, Doe or Die, which achieved Gold status. After having uneven commercial success with his subsequent solo efforts, as well as The Firm’s collaborative album, AZ continued to strengthen his fan base with a string of critically-acclaimed work, like 2002’s Aziatic, which earned a Grammy nomination for the Nas duet “The Essence.”

With his new album, The Format, hitting stores next month, Sosa spoke with XXLMAG.COM about how the game has drastically changed, why his door is always open to Nasir Jones and why his format is the blueprint for survival.

AZ "The Format" (2006) (video)
AZ feat. Nas "Mo Money Mo Murder" (1995) (video)
AZ feat. Miss Jones "Sugar Hill" (1995) (video)
D'Angelo feat. AZ "Lady (Remix)" (1996) (video)
AZ feat. Coko "Hey AZ" (1997) (video)
The Firm "Phone Tap" (1997) (video)
AZ "What's The Deal" (1998)(video)
AZ "I'm Back" (2001) (video)
AZ "Problems" (2001) (video)
AZ "The Come Up" (2005) (video)

On “The Format,” you spit, “It's obvious that I'm real/Rap skills remain/I took a little change but I'm still the same.” How have you redesigned your own format?
I made some paper, yet…I am still myself. A lot of brothers get money and they end up changing their whole aura. I have the talent. I mean, people are in charge of themselves. Some change for the good and some change for the worse. I’ve never got caught up in anyone’s zone. I try to stay in my own world, my own circle. I don’t really vibe well with peoples’ rules.

Do you think that you can still have an affect on the game?
At the end of the day, everything is going to evolve and change. We have ghettos across the planet. Even though we’re the originators, the outside definitely absorbs the culture. Right now, the focus is in the South. It’ll be back here [in New York] one day. The South is doing it big with the dancing and the whole chorus singing vibe. It’s involving the kids. When we were coming up, we were the intelligent thugs. The whole culture is evolving. But a true artist is going to survive through drought. If you’re truthful with yourself and with your art, you’re going to survive. Like with Premier and me…we have an interesting chemistry. In the end, he’s hip-hop and his beats are constructed for those who are lyrically inclined.

The music has changed so much, even since the Firm days. Since then, it seems that everyone has taken their own paths. Do you still stay in touch with everyone?

Hip-hop is the culture. It is a way of life. We were speaking to a certain people at the time. You have to understand that we come from a different generation. The generation that came after us went somewhere into another zone. There are a lot of “hustlers” now, but there aren’t a lot of artists in the game. As far as the [Firm] crew is concerned…we speak periodically. But there is no bad blood between us. It’s just that there are a lot of things going on in everyone’s life. I feel that home is seven digits away and I’m right there for anyone who needs me.

Foxy Brown especially seems to have an uphill battle on her hands, with her legal and medical issues getting in the way of the music, while you and Nas still get favorable fan response. Why do you think that is?
I think that for Nas and me, we’ve been the most consistent out of the crew. I heard that Foxy has an album that’s ready to come out. But for me, I know what my role is. With Nas, he’s somewhere between the mainstream and the underground. He’s doing him right now. I’m going to let him to handle his first experience with Def Jam. I’m going to handle my first experience of being independent. At the end of the day, my door is always been open for those who are down with me. I’m a gentleman. I’m interested working with Nas, but are the fans even interested in a Nas and AZ collabo? There has been a gap between the last time that we’ve done a song together. Plus, the fans change their interests so fast. They move on to different things. But I know that Nas and I have perfect chemistry. I want the people to know that it’s never me. I’m always here. He has more pressure, more hurdles, to overcome, especially with his new ventures. Me, I’m my own boss and I know that my door is always open.

azpress3.jpgYou’re one of the most respected MCs, but you haven’t had very consistent mainstream success. Are you trying to be a part of the Billboard charts?
I’m good. I’m going to hold the fans down. Billboard means nothing. I’ve done the majors. Independent is more financially lucrative, no matter what the hype is right now. My feet are planted and I have nothing but love around me. I’m in a great position. I have a few artists. One in particular is Fresh, he’s serious. He’s on two cuts on the album. I’m trying to see how the fans embrace him. I’m sure that it’s going to pay off. And when I say “financially,” I don’t mean money-wise. I want to see how this will work for the family. I’m just making sure that something hip-hop-oriented stays alive.

St. Louis rapper Jibbs said, “No one wants another Jay-Z… they want something new.” But a lot of fans and critics alike are saying that there is very little new going on in the culture. With more than 10 years in the business, do you think there’s anything new you have to offer?
Ah, man. I feel like I’m a manufacturing company. I put jewels in my poetry. Jewels are priceless. Especially when you’re trying to pass them off to the people; I bring that substance to the table. I consistently bring water and air to the table. That’s why I named the album The Format, because I feel like that I am that blueprint for survival in this industry.

One of the most memorable moments in hip-hop was Jay and Nas squashing their beef and joining forces. How do you think that partnership has affected hip-hop and your own career?
I mean, it’s a good look on hip-hop. We were getting bad reviews. There was a lot of violence going on in the industry, [it was good] to let people know that there can be a better outcome that just beefing on wax and burying friends and relatives as a result of it. People are using beef as a gimmick tool. Business-wise, I don’t know the outcome of that yet. I hope that that’ll be a positive as well. As far as me, it has nothing to do with me to be honest [laughs]. My door is always open for Nas to come holler at me. But if not, life goes on. You can’t get money and beef with the world at the same time. By me being a businessman, I know that being that way you’ll never feel truly comfortable.