Azeem is a man on the verge of drowning in words. They enter his brain in surges -- through books, which he devours "like a crack fiend smokes crack," and through a more direct conduit, God. As a seasoned spiritual seeker with Islamic leanings, he says many of the words arrive directly from the Creator. "That's all I do, is just write," he says on a weekday morning in his East Oakland apartment. "I stay in a half dream world." Then he interjects with a laugh, "Well, the herb might have something to do with it. But I'm constantly writing and constantly reading -- educating myself."
The words accumulate in seventy-page Mead notebooks that spill out of his closet, fill the trunk of his car, slip out of his drawers, and mingle with his daughter's toys. Some of the words emerge as what he calls rhyme songs, some of which he's shared a cappella at spoken word slams. Others he's passed on in written form via two books of poetry. More recently, he's transferred words to CD and vinyl as a rapper, funneling the deluge of literary ideas that are backed up in his head into songs.
As a result, his lyrics are often richer and more arresting than the average MC's, sprinkled with the grab-you-by-the-neck images that are the lingua franca of spoken word artists. I wrote this with blood and ashes, he proclaims on "Algebra Wind," a song from his 2000 debut solo recording, Garage Opera. He also describes himself as rare, like fresh cave meat and depicts his inner turmoil as a fistfight between an anthropomorphized vision of anger -- a little being who lives inside your heart -- and the two twins, reason and logic.
And while he loves hip-hop -- it's what got him reading in the first place -- it's not his raison d'être. For one, he doesn't listen to a lot of it (he favors reggae). He also has a few strong criticisms of the lifestyle, such as the myopic aspirations of the locally focused underground rapper and the boundless greed of the flossy set. And unlike just about every MC alive, he talks about enjoying a life after hip-hop. "I really have a calling to do a bunch of short stories, maybe work all the way up to a novel," he relates. "I'm probably going to grow out of [rapping] one day. If and when I do, I'm going to use the training I've done from writing hip-hop and apply it to other things." The hypercompetitive pressure cooker that is the MCing racket, he believes, is churning out a whole class of extremely polished wordsmiths who are prepared for all manner of writing vocations. "If you're a hip-hop artist for a number of years, you don't realize you've trained yourself to be a journalist, a commercial writer; you can write public service announcements, you can write anything, because you've trained yourself better than any college can. We're Jedis in what we do -- self-trained masters of writing."
Azeem's lyrics blend comedic bits, arty poetic images, and raw battle rhymes. He's also funny. His recent collaboration with DJ Zeph, "Rubber & Glue," is probably the first hip-hop song to open with the phrase I'm so wack. Plunging headlong into the still largely untrodden territory of rapper self-deprecation, he goes on to confess that he's getting over on the same old lyrics I've had for ten years/at the bar trying to get free beers and that he grew up having but I front like I'm hella poor. Then there's the times he gets straight goofy, as on "Imma RMX," from his 2001 LP Craft Classic, on which he proclaims he's a black Mexican, crossing borders/ID-snatcher, an ex-postal worker with bad body odor, and a Mormon Rastafarian.
If versatility is his main asset, then it stands to reason that his recorded output would vary. He's done the requisite indie EP -- Garage Opera -- with all the quaint, hissy production values of an underpowered studio. Now he's moving into a possible broader appeal with Craft Classic. Bay Area producers including Heretik, Architect, and DJ Design made Craft sound as if they had a proper studio budget, cooking up a few of the multitextured, crunked-up beats that are suitable for radio. According to Azeem, Stray Records reportedly moved 20,000 copies, although he hasn't been able to confirm the number (he does have CMJ charts showing that college radio stations were playing the album for months).
Now that he's signed to San Francisco's esteemed Bomb Hip-Hop label and has a new album in the works, Azeem is poised to shake off the "local" tagline he disdains. "I really don't see myself as a local artist," he says. "I see myself as a global artist. That's why I don't write songs about Oakland. ... You think local, you stay local. Unless you're a Too Short and you can make it sound like Chocolate City Mecca Capital of the World. Then people from other places want to hear about your city; otherwise they don't care."
Plus, even though he's lived here for more than a decade, Azeem's nomadic teenage years left him with a sense of transience. He was born in New Jersey, the youngest of eight, to Jamaican immigrant parents, whose careers -- his mother worked for the airlines, his father was an accountant -- required frequent relocation. In his high school years, he lived in Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Miami before settling in Oakland.
Azeem's listening tastes took a similarly wandering path. He was taken first by dub poetry, especially the political styles of the form's two heroes, Mutabaruka and Linton Kwesi Johnson. From there he found his way to the revolutionary screeds of Gil Scott-Heron and the Last Poets and the outsider verses of Lou Reed. He even dabbled in the Ramones and the Sex Pistols before discovering hip-hop.
Azeem's earliest written verses came from the nebulous area between rap and poetry -- he says he didn't see the difference between the two at the time -- and one day decided to perform them in public. He was living in Oakland and didn't have access to a studio or instrumentals to rap over, so he picked up the newspaper and found an open mike listing. "It just so happened that that night it was hosting a [spoken word] slam to be on the San Francisco poetry team that was going to compete in the nationals," he remembers. "I didn't even know what to expect -- I went because it said open mike. But that night, it came down to myself and the inventor of slam poetry, Gary Glazner. We battled each other, and I won. Everyone was like 'who the hell is this kid, and where'd he come from?' I came polished, I guess, and I won."
He found himself on the San Francisco poetry team, which went on to slam against cities like New York and Washington, DC, before making it to the national finals. In the individual category, the championship came down to Azeem and two women. He took third. "I think the only reason that I got so far is that I didn't know what was going on, I didn't care. I just jumped in, and I guess that attitude carried me to the end."
That showing brought him to the attention of Mark Pellington, who directed Pearl Jam's "Jeremy" video and was filming what would become the widely celebrated PBS documentary United States of Poetry. Pellington included Azeem in the show alongside such poets as Amiri Baraka and former president Jimmy Carter. A publishing deal followed, and it looked like Azeem might be destined for the coffeehouse and college campus circuit.
Luckily, he ran into Michael Franti of the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy at a slam -- "lucky" because he was beginning to see spoken word as a dead end. Franti, then recording the first Spearhead album, took him under his wing and taught him the record business from the inside. Azeem appeared on the second Spearhead record, Chocolate Supa Highway, and toured Europe and the States, which allowed him "to learn from other people's mistakes without them affecting my development," he says. After parting ways with Franti, he signed to Stray.
Now his goal is self-sufficiency -- "just paying rent and being able to eat" without day jobs, which is pretty much where he's at already. He continues to spend large chunks of time and money on books, mostly about "secret societies, so-called esoteric information, and religion." And the notebooks keep piling up. "I don't know why I can't let them go," he muses. "I guess it's that I wish my grandfather would have left stuff like that for me. I'd spend a year just bugging out on the stuff he wrote. So I guess I'm going to leave it for my grandchild or something, to let him know the type of cat his grandfather was."
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