Straight up, 1995 was a great year for hip-hop. From New York artists alone, we were blessed with Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, Big L’s Lifestylez Ov Da Poor & Dangerous, Mobb Deep’s The Infamous, KRS-One’s KRS-One, ODB’s Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version, GZA’s Liquid Swords and LL Cool J’s Mr. Smith, to name just a few. And beyond the northeast region, seminal albums from 2Pac, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, The Pharcyde, 8Ball &MJG and Goodie Mob all dropped.
Back in the Mecca, though, another young MC was beginning to make a name for himself, as well. His name was Anthony Cruz, better known as AZ, and he astonished listeners with his performance on “Life’s A Bitch,” from Nas’ 1994 debut, Illmatic (the disc’s only rap feature). The neophyte’s smooth flow and intricate wordplay helped create one of the most memorable guest verses of all-time and planted the seed for what would become AZ’s 1995 debut album, Doe or Die.
Released on October 10 of that year, the 12-track disc built on the rep that the Brooklyn-bred MC had gained with his appearance alongside Nas. Spawning the hit “Sugar Hill,” Doe or Die reached No. 1 on the Billboard Top R&B and Hip-Hop Albums charts and helped to inaugurate a mafioso-influenced sub-genre, aided by production credits from Pete Rock, L.E.S., Buckwild and more.
Next month, Sosa will be releasing a 15th anniversary edition of the disc, fully equipped with five of his favorite tracks from the original—with new production twists from Pete Rock, L.E.S., Statik Selektah and others—as well as a collection of new tracks. Now a decade and a half removed from the original release, AZ spoke with XXLMag.com to recall his unlikely record deal, the year leading up to the album, his favorite joints and more.
Keep it real, son. Count this money, you know what I’m sayin’…
On His Favorite Records from the Album:
Of course “Sugar Hill,” because that was what made the whole Doe or Die album to me. That went platinum. It was a good look for that era. Being ‘90s hip-hop and the fact that I got love from that era—that was the Golden Era to me and most people would say that was the Golden Era—but my presence was felt, so that was good. As far as “Rather Unique,” that was just hip-hop! Me and Pete [Rock]—that was just hip-hop. When I do shows, I [still] get a lotta love when I do them songs. “Your World Don’t Stop,” that was actually one of the first songs I released before “Sugar Hill” and “Rather Unique” was the singles. It was a leaked song before I put anything else out. So that meant something to me; it was my first record of my own—because the first record was “Life’s A Bitch” on Nas’ shit.
On Coming Out During a Flourishing Time in New York Hip-Hop:
I didn’t [feel any pressure]. I was part of that. I was part of building that whole infrastructure. So, I just felt honored, actually, to be a part of that era when everybody was into lyrics and really just representing what they was representing. We was representing that criminology lifestyle and just the life that we seen. I was happy to be a part of that, cause I know my presence was felt. From “Sugar Hill;” from “Rather Unique.” It was cool.
On Helping to Usher in Mafioso-Style Lyricism:
Back then, we was just emulating the life that we seen. Everything was street-oriented and around that time, that’s when all the Scarface and Carlito’s Way and Casino’s was popping. At the same time, it’s entertainment. So we entertained and added our realism to it, so that was the beauty of it all. Not necessarily everybody was stone-cold killers, but it was that vibe that was in the air at the time, and that’s what everybody catered to. It was good to have a focal point and that’s what we all did around that era. And now, people still emulate it, in a sense, because everybody’s representing what they representing and it’s hip-hop.
On the Unfamiliar Experience Recording a Debut Album:
All that was a whole new zone for me. It was like entering into a new world. It was exciting for me, as well. Being younger and being reckless—we was reckless—the family wasn’t business, it was, Let’s represent what we have to represent. Every session you’d bring people that you brought on the journey with you. That was special to me to have homies that, what we listened to all our lives and we lived our lives—because hip-hop was a culture—and now being a part of it, and being able to travel, and get the passport for the first time!? That shit was—it all was an adventure. It was a learning process, as well. Learning the business [and] friendships. Seeing how far people was taking it, because with the loss of Biggie and Pac, that was deep in the game. It was a life within a life.
On Harboring Any Regrets in Retrospect:
I felt like I made a mistake to the extent that—you know, most people who put they first album out, they’ve been recording it forever. With me, it was the people that was in the record label already seen the window of opportunity and thought, We need this album done. I had to learn the politics of the game, as well as me learning, Okay, this is my first album, let me put my love into it. That’s where a mistake I think came in that, because my love was involved, I didn’t have a chance to be like, I did these four songs, lemme sit back, relax for a minute, and do four more that cater to that, and from there I can add two more that cater to that. From there, I put “Sugar Hill” out, and when I put it out, that shit blew up so fast that it was like, Yo! I caught that window, ’cause Big had “Juicy” out, and “Juicy” and “Sugar Hill” was more or less kissin’ cousins at the end of the day. It got so much love, I think pressure from the label came at that time it was like, Yo, we gotta have an album. So I was tryna fulfill the contract and commitment of getting an album done. But, I have no regrets at the end of the day.
On the Whirlwind Between “Life’s A Bitch” and Doe or Die:
[“Life’s A Bitch”] was ’94. Then I went on tour with Nas for that Illmatic. When I came back, that’s when I got the deal, which was the top of the year in ’95. It took at least about eight months [to record the album]. With me—I was rapping [before], but it kinda fell in my lap at the same time. ‘Cause it wasn’t like I got a demo and then I got a deal. You gotta understand the process of me getting a deal—I was one of the first artists to get a deal without a demo or searching for a record deal. It all came to me. Here I am, with “Life’s A Bitch,” that’s my demo, and it’s the hottest shit out. That’s it. I never had a demo. [But] don’t get it twisted, I knew the process of what it took, but I didn’t get in that [typical] route. I got in just by having a verse, and now every label is coming to me. Now it’s like, Yo, you gotta do a album. I didn’t have no teachers, no people I could sit and build with to tell me, This is what you do; This is how you do it. It was a learning experience. It was some on-the-job-training type of shit. So I’m like, Okay, y’all want 12 songs? You got radio songs, street songs. I was learning as I was recording, which made it interesting to me. I was learning song structure and everything. Now I’m in big studios I’m not in the homie’s house or anything. I put my first single out and it hit and climbed the charts. To hear it on the radio was another crazy experience. All of this is hitting me within one year.
On the Album’s Lasting Impact:
Most artists that achieve certain status, I can relate and they can relate to what goes on. Nothing lasts forever, but it feels good; maintaining is an even better feeling at the end of the day. Nobody’s on top forever, but to bust that nut, it’s a beautiful thing. You can’t take that from a nigga. You can pop all the shit you want, [but] at the end of the day, it went platinum and I was on the radio all day, everyday. When I do the songs from Doe or Die [in concert], I get crazy love. —Adam Fleischer