AZ Shares The Stories Behind 15 Of His Best Verses
Brooklyn-bred rapper AZ is considered one of the greatest yet most under-appreciated lyricists to ever bless the mic. Widely known as the one who stole the show on Nas' "Life A Bitch," Sosa has had his fair share of hits throughout the 1990s. He's been in this game for years and it shows in memorable tracks such as "Sugar Hill," "The Format" and "Desperados." What's more, his chart-topping debut, Doe Or Die, established him as a well-respected MC in his own right. Now, AZ is preparing to release Doe Or Die II, with hip-hop heads on the edge of their seats waiting for it. But first, he's whetting our appetites with the second installment of his Last Of A Dying Breed series, which dropped Tuesday.
"That mixtape, it's not too many freestyles, but it's records that I know a lot of people overlooked," he says. "I wanted to pick songs off all my albums that I know that was overlooked but was great. And let the audience really grasp it and [be like], 'Oh shit, now I get it.'"
With another incredible run on the horizon, AZ sat down with XXL to share the thought processes behind 15 of the top verses from his career. He talked about rhyming from the perspective of a young kid trying to come up out of the projects, and also touched on his relationship with Nas and building up the anticipation of his new album with "Movin' On." Read on to hear some classic stories straight from the rap legend himself.—Imani McIntyre & Eric Diep (@E_Diep)
"Uncut Raw" - Verse One
Album: Doe Or Die (1995)
AZ: "Uncut Raw"? I was being rebellious. When you are first coming out as an artist, you got so much bottled in. I was young and it was just like a whatever. You know what I mean? So, I was saying a lot of things. I was speaking about me, my people, the things that I know and the things that I’ve seen and the feelings. When we grow up, we always grow up with our peers and just conversating and knowing the mindset of your peers and the era we was in. It was a whatever type of zone.
"Uncut Raw" was basically when you are dealing with drugs, the best drugs is the uncut. You know, raw. Because that’s the most potent. I was just trying being potent with my lyrics and my mindset. Being like—whatever. Poverty-stricken [rhymes], it was me being raw with it. I couldn’t see myself detaching from what I was amongst at the time. That’s what made me, and that’s gonna be the death of me. That’s my mindset coming through the doors and shit.
["Outta state connect, slugs, sex, drugs and grands."] I was in that zone. That’s the ’90s. ’94-’95. That’s all it was about was getting money and doing whatever you have to do to survive. That’s always around being from Brooklyn. And then me being around that Queensbridge energy. It was like, "Yo, whatever." We are New York. This is the energy coming from New York at that time.
"Gimme Yours" - Verse Two
Album: Doe Or Die (1995)
AZ: "So in God I trust, I lust for a 850-deluxe/And until I touch a million-plus, ain’t much to discuss/Diamonds and double-digits, Gianni Versace…” That was just me growing. Even though both of them songs was on the same album, it was in the process of me starting an album, being that “Uncut” was first and then “Gimme Yours” came down the line. It was like, "Okay, I got me a check now from the record company. I’m on tour." You know what I mean? And I am growing. I see myself touching that million. Until then, that’s my goal. My whole focus is now until this game. You can just see me in a whole another zone. That’s why I was like, "Gimme me what you can." I just want it all now. Now, I want it because I am in a position to get it. That was my zone.
When [me and Nas] are in the studio, we get into different zones. At that time--like I said, once again--that energy. People in the studio and their zones. When you are experimenting, art is art. There’s no right way. There’s no right sonic sound or no right way to do it. It sounded good [when Nas sang the hook] in the studio. That’s why I kept it. Me and him was in tune at the time, so I relate to what he was saying. Like, "Yo, we want it all." We chilling while we on this road because of where we came from and we put ourselves in this position now. Now there’s no looking back.
"Life’s a performance so players play with endurance/Cost for more cents, any villain’s willing to get more intense…” Meaning stay on your job, stay focus, stay doing what you are doing. At any given minute, someone else is ready to do what you ain’t willing to do to get where they got to go.
"Sugar Hill" - All
Album: Doe Or Die (1995)
AZ: "Sugar Hill” was just taking the bitter with the sweet. And I just wanted to be on top. A lot of people misconstrued it because sugar hill also was a movie and sugar hill was basically, you know, coke and all that. It had different references to it. It was basically for me taking the bitter with the sweet, getting it past the monotonous. Getting past the craziness. I see me somewhere else. I see me on top of, you know, for me being on the bottom somewhere just to see me on top. That was my mindset.
In that joint, it was my perspective of where I wanted to be. I was still in the struggle. “At times I window watch out the Mariott, zoning on owning co-ops/Foreign drop top coups, and yachts guzzling straight shots a scotch/Formulating up plots ta escape from Salems lock.” It was me being in the process of where I am going to be. When I am done with this, what I am doing? That’s what it was. The mafioso shit didn’t really stick all the way in yet, it was just the birth of it. That was the birth, them are the people that we seeing getting through it and just getting away at the same time.
"Mo Money, Mo Murder, Mo Homicide'" - All
Album: Doe Or Die (1995)
AZ: That was me and Nas back and forth. We were just being cocky and blacking out. I was just acting up. That was that mafioso zone. That’s where that came from. We just got into that zone. We were just referring to the whole game, just painting pictures. It was just something different at the time. You heard “Life’s A Bitch.” I don’t think they heard anything else from me and him until then. That was the second song. What are they talking about? "Mo money, mo murder, mo homicide." That’s life. More money, what’s coming is more murder and more homicide. You better have that alibi. It was like, "Wow. We were just ghetto prophets." Just speaking true into mics. It was just in that boss zone. That’s when everybody wanted to be bosses. We were just falling into that space. We were just trying to make the best of it.
We are the products of the environment. We come from the environment in order to speak it. Everything we was around, they was still living that life. A lot of brothers I was around and have them come up there, they are either dead or in jail. I don’t want to sound so stereotypical but it's just the life. If you came from Brooklyn, it's not how Brooklyn was right now, how it was 20 years ago. There were still a lot of programs going on worse than I am sure they are now. We are talking about welfare and housing and jobs and loans. It’s the access to certain illegal things. They didn’t have cameras like they have now. It was just really like only the strong survive type of energy out there 20 years ago. When you make it, it's like, "Wow, they made it out of this? Oh wow." You know what I mean? And to speak it, "And, they speak our language?" We just wanted to speak the language to the people.
"How Ya Livin'" - Verse Three
Album: Pieces Of A Man (1998)
AZ: ["VSin’, nothin’ less than how we steppin’/Coupes kidded, cuties wear the sleazy dress/See me flexin’ through the hood, d’s be stressin’/Illegal search, trying to find weapons for gun possession.”] I think that happened to everybody in my age bracket. At that time, Nas went double platinum. The Firm album was in process. We were just reflecting on life. We were just giving documentation on the life that we live. We in the music business, but we still have friends of ours still going through it, that was going through that zone at that particular time. We was just referencing. You know, “Chipped up, live by morals don’t get it mixed up/This what? Million strut, with the Crist cup/” We were just wildin’. We was [like], "Yo, we here. We made it. We representing for y’all-type of shit."
"Problems" - Verse Two
Album: 9 Lives (2001)
AZ: "But it seems, y’all would rather/See me hit than, see me rich/Get bagged over some bullshit and see me snitch.” I was just thinking out loud. That whole “Problems” record was just about how my mom was when she was dealing with problems. Just dealing with that duality. That good nature in you. That evil nature in you. Just dealing with hate from other people. Just dealing with problems and general. Sometimes, you can be your worst enemy. People closest to you can be your worst enemy as well. I was basically thinking out loud, getting my point across to the haters at that particular time. Because that album was after being a couple year hiatus, that was the 9 Lives album. Let me know I am still here with that 9 Lives. “Problems” is what we all got. We all got problems.
“Hopin’ some AIDS ho bitch’ll leave me sick like/I’m a sucker for love with some easy dick,” that’s the hate people wish on you. So devious and they just wish the worst on you. The fact that they don’t know me as a person, knowing that my head zone is in a certain frequency, they can never understand that. It ain’t gonna happen. I move under divine guidance. [Laughs] But they don’t know me, and I am going to expect them to know me. If you knew me, you would be like, "Oh yeah, you gotta keep it wishing all you want. It ain’t happening."
"The Essence" - All
Album: Aziatic (2002)
AZ: Put it like this, “The Essence” got me my Grammy nominee and it was just me and Nas being on top of our game going back and forth. At the end of the day, it was like homies reunitin’. When you listen to it: “[Nas] Son, who laced you with the ill haircut/ [AZ] Lenny, he blessed me with the sharp blade, that nigga’s paid.” Yo, it was like, we didn’t see each other in a long time. We were on our journeys, but what’s up? We never lost a beat.
“Fo’sho, you hurt ‘em with the new Prada’s (true)/Check mines they royal blue,” you know what I am saying? We were just going back and forth. Complimenting each other. Checking up on thoughts. I love that record.
[Nas] is my brother. Regardless of who or what. We all set our own personal journeys in life. We all have to walk our walk as a man. So, we can’t always record music together. That’s not how we came in the game. He gave me an opportunity, and it's up to me what I want to do with it. He has his own life and his own music career he has to really keep up and maintenance and do what he has to do. So, I respect him and I respect him his journey doing what he has to do. He definitely carved himself into the hip-hop pyramid. His name is on the walls. One of the God MCs. I’m one of the God MCs and I feel great.
"The Come Up" - Verse Three
Album: A.W.O.L. (2005)
AZ: "’Pac is gone, the state of hip-hop is wrong/You want more then log on to A-Z dot com.” I was just painting pictures to the everyday struggle. Everyday struggles to the come ups. Like being a ghetto narrator. You want more, come check this out. The AZ.com. I got the website, AZ.com. I was just being a ghetto narrator, like, "Yo, this is how I see it. This is going on. This what happens on the come up." Whoever want to come up, just expect certain things and understand that its gotta be a certain mindset.
It’s just the come up trying to get from point A to point B. Anything is a come up. You wanna come up? This is the things that go on: “The jails is packed, the streets is wack/It’s even worse when your workers tappin’ your beeper sack.” It’s like, "Damn." For so those youngins that say to myself, "Yo, I’m about to get some money, fuck that." Understand that these are the pitfalls that comes with coming up. If you are going to do it, just prepare yourself.
"The Format" - Verse One
Album: The Format (2006)
AZ: "You know the chronicles, the shit that if mama knew/The street the drama do, the tecs phenomenal,” that was my joint. I was just laying down my blueprint. I was just laying down the blueprint of just my format. AZ format. “Well respected, jail connected/Got the method for the pretty females perfected/For sure, very few flaws, heavy Chevy 2 doors.” I was just laying my blueprint down. It’s my format. Instead of calling it the blueprint, this is the format. Keep your shit sharp.
"Young and gifted, my tongues prolific/In the beach bungalow is how I brung in Christmas/For the streets I’m going flow from the hungriest districts/Swiss kicks crisp when I come to them picnics.” You wanna do it? That’s how you supposed to do it. “Play slow, paper chase stack and lay low.” You know what I mean? It’s getting it. Longevity. The format to longevity. This is how you are supposed to rap. This is how you are supposed to live. This is how you are supposed to think. This is how you are supposed to breathe. I was just telling 'em how to survive. Fuck rap. This is survival.
“Well respected, jail connected/Got the method for the pretty females perfected.” My mindset was money, hoes and clothes. It’s being connected. That’s just on a lower level of coming up and just trying to figure it out. From the come up to the format. When you come up, you gotta have a format to come up.
"What Would You Do" - Verse One
Album: Undeniable (2008)
AZ: That was Lyfe Jennings’s brother [Jay Rush] singing on that. “What would you do?” Yeah, I was just blacking on that as well. I was just killing my thoughts and my feelings on it. You know? What would you do if you was in my shoes?
When you kind of listen to all the records, they kind of fall hand in hand at the end of the day. Honestly. They connect like puzzles. Pieces Of A Man, when it was all said and done with all my projects, you can put all the pieces of the songs together and it will form a body. It’s just like a diet plan and shit. It will form a whole body. You’d be like, "Oh, shit." I see this, and you think ignorant and that goes. When you think you are supposed to think, that happens. When you conduct yourself like this, these are the rewards you reap from that. You know what I am saying? It’s like a whole format. When you take all my songs and put the titles and put the songs together, it ain’t even over yet.
Album: It Was Written (1996)
AZ: I always try to be the one, if you think about it, on all the albums to introduce and set the stage. For “Life’s A Bitch,” “Ayo, put the Grants over there in the safe you know what I’m sayin’/Cause we spendin’ these Jacksons.” Or, even on “The Essence,” “Yo, son what’s going on? Yo, it’s going down.” We always try to introduce the records. Let me try to set it up and grab the attention of people and ready for the verses that’s gonna come.
"Niggas don’t understand the four devils; lust, envy, hate, jealously.” That controls society. So, let’s get the attention of society and then we lay down what we got on our mind. From then on, it was ball game. That’s my joint. “Affirmation Action.”
"Aristocrats, politickin' daily with diplomats.” Meaning we was politickin' with people on high levels. We was the one getting it. We chilling. We the aristocrats, politickin' with the diplomats that gives the order. We want certain privileges in the world that an average person don’t got. We want to be able to not get pulled over and licenses is checked and all that. We politickin’ with the diplomats. Diplomatic immunity. Leave us alone. Blue collar can’t fuck with us, type of shit.
"Phone Tap" - All
Album: The Firm: The Album (1997)
Shit, the phone tap right now! I don’t see it everyday, but I am sure the phone is tapped. Why wouldn’t it be? We talkin’, the phone is tapped basically right here. They want to know. They want to monitor. So, it’s cool. But, back then we were just painting the picture of shit going wrong and these spot phones are just tapped. If you want to speak, speak in person. We were just painting from that ghetto portraits. That’s what we were doing. “What’s the deally, I just touched grounds down in Philly/Brought a pound with me, Feds floating around silly.” We just spitting that prophecy man.
Album: The Firm: The Album (1997)
AZ: "Desperados,” that wasn’t even my record, honestly. I don’t who it was. Nas record? I don’t know who record it was. We was recording that Firm album, we did that record. I just wanted it to be on my album. I don’t think it made The Firm album. I just wanted to use my album because it had everybody on it. That was on Pieces Of A Man, too. And I just wanted to catch a wreck. I already heard everybody’s verse, and I was trying to see where I fit in on it. I just went in on that record. I did what I did from my angle. Spit my thoughts on it. “Snatched up, in Supreme Court, eyes half shut/co-defendant caught a life sentence, seem him crack up/React what...” I was just trying to keep up. Do what I do.
"Life's A Bitch"
Album: Illmatic (1994)
AZ: That shit started a trend. Life’s a bitch when everybody rhyme. Life’s a bitch. Life’s a bitch. We started a whole new movement with "Life's A Bitch" and that’s how we felt when we first entered the game. “Life’s a bitch and then you die/That’s why we get high/Cause you never know when you’re gonna go.” So, we just gotta live it up. Ain’t no remix on life. You only got one life. Whatever. You know? “Visualizing the realism of life and actuality/Fuck who’s the baddest, a person’s status depends on salary.” Get money and live. Get married. Enjoy life until you sit back home. That’s the paradise.
[Me and Nas] had an energy. I think we both held it and balanced that record out. 'Cause without him, that record wouldn’t have been what it was. Without me, that record wouldn’t have been what it was. We was speaking the same language, but coming from different angles again. It just meshed so perfect that it got our point across. It got our point across so beautiful with that harmonic balance that really reached the target that we was aiming for.
Album: Doe Or Die 2
AZ: The movement is still going on. I’m moving and those are moving with me. We movin’. I’m just speaking from a grown man perspective. Just speaking from where I am in life now. Eating healthy. Thinking healthy. Just moving in a healthy vibration. Still grounded though as well. You got those that do all that, but they are not grounded. I’m still grounded and it's a blessing within itself that I’m able to still be grounded and think on a different level. But know where my roots is from. Knowing what I still represent.
I love that record because it fits me. Melodic. It’s able to let me use my verbal syllables. How I use them. You know what I mean? And get my point across as well. I think I achieved that in that record right there.
[The song] is getting a lot of love and its continuing to still get more love. I am glad it's getting receptive like that. I’m just trying to put the finishing touches on this album and if like that then they’ll love the album. There’s a lot of that. Thought-provoking.