Azeem is the greatest rapper you've never heard -- if you're a commercial radio, MTV/BET kind of person, that is. But if you're into local underground hip-hop, you've probably peeped his solo albums Garage Opera and Craft Classic, head-nodded to his cameos on full-lengths by DJ Zeph and Variable Unit, or marveled over his contributions to compilations like the Funky Precedent Vol. 2 or Deep Concentration 4. Or maybe you've witnessed Azeem live at a True Skool or Future Primitive event, or during his stints with bands like Spearhead and Telefunken. Furthermore, if you're into open mics and slam contests, you know that he was SF's National Slam Champion in 1994. (He is also a former Express contributor.)
But you might've also seen him at your friendly neighborhood bookstore.
Noticeably more intelligent than your average rapper, Azeem is also a voracious reader. He is currently working his way through Brian Aldiss' Dracula Unbound, a fiction title he estimates he'll have finished by the time you read this. Inside his North Oakland residence, you'll also find various nonfiction books ranging from Egyptian metaphysics to Koranic studies to Gnostic Christianity texts.
"I believe in those things," he says with a gap-toothed grin. "Unknown forces."
Azeem also believes that spirituality plays an important role in his music. From his back porch, he explains that making hip-hop is "a spiritual process ... not to get too deep or anything, but it's like a church experience, or going-to-mosque experience."
For example, he points to two of hip-hop's major themes -- venting and repenting: "It's confession for the Catholics, it's jihad for the Muslims, you know?" Unfortunately, both spirituality and positivity are suppressed in mainstream rap, but Azeem remains of the mind that "there is another Bob Marley or John Lennon out there."
Maybe it's him. Azeem's convictions come through loud and clear on Mayhem Mystics, his new album with SF jazz-funksters Variable Unit. The record grew, Azeem says, out of "Hologram Network," a track he recorded for last year's VU album Handbook for the Apocalypse. Bandleader Greg Howe (who runs SF indie label Wide Hive) was so stoked by the way the song -- a satirical commentary on politics and media -- turned out that he commissioned an entire album of Azeem's most conscious, spiritually enlightened material, backed by VU's shimmering organic musical textures. (See Down in Front for more on Variable Unit.)
The lyrical direction of Mayhem Mystics represents what Azeem calls his "higher self" -- a side he has allowed fans only brief glimpses of before. He fully bathes in that divine essence beginning with the Arab-esque background vocals on the opener "Seals," and continuing through the closing track "The Music Is the Medicine," which revels in the transformative healing power of sound. In between, he also finds room for uplifting odes to determination ("Yes We Can"), counterculture ("Rebel Music"), and freedom ("Liberation"). There also is a fair amount of political and social commentary, most notably on "Under Surveillance," less a paranoid fantasy than a look at the sad reality of living in the post-PATRIOT Act era.
On "Break It on Down," Azeem drops potentially inflammatory lines from We dealing with rigged elections, truth's a death sentence, war is free, peace is expensive to Illuminati symbols when the death toll rises. However, his agitprop stance mainly adds contemporary relevance to his often classically themed spiritual imagery -- this isn't merely a timely antiwar album. After all, the Bible first predicted Armageddon, not antiwar activists. There are also several sayings taken from the Koran embedded in his rhymes, which were inspired by his Islamic faith or, as he calls it, his "Moorish allegiance."
Even for those with no religious inclinations, Mayhem Mystics strikes a universal chord, one that should resonate with fans of indie rock, world music, spoken word, jazz-funk, turntablism, and alternative rap. The album is easily Azeem's most mature, realized effort yet. His fluid verbosity suggests a cross between Rakim and Saul Williams, with a dash of Kahlil Gibran. Though he is hyped and energetic on the mic, Azeem never sounds harsh or indulges in rap clichés. And truthfully, few other MCs around these days can evoke the subtle nuances -- varied vocal tones, slight dramatic pauses -- necessary to pull off the rapper-with-live-band shtick.
"When we made the record, I wasn't trying to make a spiritual record," Azeem insists, adding that he wasn't necessarily trying to make a political one, either. "I just said, 'Look, I have a different kind of music, with live musicians. Let me go ahead and say something that I don't feel I can say on a regular hip-hop joint.'" Working with VU's progressive jazz vibe offered Azeem an opportunity to explore this creative process, unfettered by the restrictive limitations of hip-hop.
It also marked his coming full circle, returning to the funky aesthetic of the '90s acid jazz era, when he first started rocking stages. "I think everything goes in cycles," he says, adding that he prefers working with a live band to rapping over prerecorded tracks. "You're opening yourself to a much wider canvas. With a live band, you can do more."
Having toiled in the Bay Area music scene for some time -- which he says is great for artistic development, but not so great for the pocketbook -- Azeem may finally start to reap what he has sown. At the very least, he should snag wider recognition for his artistic endeavors in 2004, with two other full-lengths scheduled to drop this year: a solo album on Bomb Records (tentatively titled Grand Theft Audio) and A to Z, a collaboration with DJ Zeph on Wide Hive. He is spreading his hustle by working with European producers on the Bomb project (using connections forged on tour last year), and is looking forward to performing live with Zeph at the New Orleans Jazz Festival in May, around the time of A to Z's release.
"I'd love to get to the level of baking music like chefs," he confides, even if he's not quite sure what he'll be cooking yet. "I don't even know what my sound is."
On a nice sunny afternoon, C2tE could shoot the shit all day with Oakland's underground avatar. But there are more important things to deal with, such as Azeem fulfilling his promise to his young daughter to take her out for an ice cream, a request she's interrupted our interview several times to reiterate. It just goes to show that, hey, even a hip-hop mystic has to come down to earth and deal with reality sometimes -- especially when it's staring him in the face with angelic, wide-eyed innocence.
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