20 years ago today, AZ released "Doe or Die." We take a look back for Classic Rotation.
New York City has no shortage of classic hip hop albums, especially when dissecting the mid 90s. Officially out of the underground, rap records were moving serious units and catching the attention of people everywhere due to its undeniable rhythm and modern feel.
A Tribe Called Quest's first three albums, released from 1990-1993, helped to put the art form of hip hop on the map across the country. Their smooth blend of jazz and rhyme was accessible enough for the mainstream, but hardcore rap heads ultimately pined for something harder.
Wu-Tang’s 36 Chambers was one of the first records to deliver a really raw, hardcore hip-hop style. Apparently mashing Kung Fu culture with inner city know-how was the recipe for success, because they moved serious units and launched dozens of successful solo careers out of the movement.
A year latter, The Notorious B.I.G. released his debut Ready to Die, and rap got even bigger. Tracks like “Juicy” and “Big Poppa” saw serious commercial success, while “Gimme the Loot” and “Suicidal Thoughts” touched on much more serious content than fancy meals and lavish living. Biggie’s ability to melt his poverty-stricken struggle into his newfound success created an album that has an incredible range of emotions.
A few months before Biggie’s debut, Nas released Illmatic. The forty minute release was immediately heralded as perhaps the great rap record of all-time. It was hardcore, but also hopeful. It kept it real, but was also really catchy. The lone feature of the album, AZ’s verse on “Life’s a Bitch,” introduced a new character into the thriving NYC hip hop scene. AZ had a smooth flow, not totally unlike Nas’, with top-notch wordiness and a story to boot.
“Visualizing the realism of life in actuality
Fuck who's the baddest, a person's status depends on salary
And my mentality is money-orientated
I'm destined to live the dream for all my peeps who never made it”
You might read this along to the flow AZ sculpted the words to fit, and it would make sense. The young'n crafted a perfect verse on a perfect album. Nas’ father played the trumpet bit on the end of the song and it’s nestled in their as track #3 on hip hop’s most perfect offering. But for a young, aspiring, Queens MC, there is no way that would have been enough for AZ.
“No need for Lactose's, pure straight out Bolivia,” AZ describes his cocaine at the beginning of “Uncut Raw” before describing the intricacies of his operation. “Gimme Yours” boasts a luxurious beat a good 10+ years before Rick Ross started rappin’ about crack over instrumentals that wouldn’t be out of place at a Michelin-rated restaurant. Nas is featured on the track, but takes a backseat to AZ’s all-star verses. The legend just handles the chorus instead of stacking up next to the bars from our subject.
The smoothness of AZ’s flow is something to be noted. He’s effortless with the bars, and it really assists the easiness of the listen. Some rappers are in your face with their lyrics, and others make you feel like their yelling at you, but AZ is amongst the smoothest with the rhymes. Artists like Curren$y and Devin The Dude have employed this effortless – some call it lazy – flow, and even if AZ wasn’t the first to try less with the mic, he helped to perfect the style.
The album’s centerpoint has to be “Mo Money Mo Murder (Homicide),” a 6-minute epic that samples the 1991 movie Mobsters before Nas and AZ alternate verses of the flyest 90s hip hop you’re nostalgia-pining mind could ever wish for. The duo paint a picture that can place you in the back of an Italian restaurant during a Mafioso dining experience, in a similar way that Scorsese may have done on The Godfather.
The effort landed him a spot with The Firm alongside his partner Nas and Brooklyn’s resident chick badass Foxy Brown. The group released their self-titled album in 1997, but even Dr. Dre’s guidance wasn’t enough for the Firm to see widespread commercial success. That doesn’t matter much, though, to Mafioso hip hop enthusiasts, who will join the ranks of Reasonable Doubt, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, and of course Doe or Die as a piece to the only blip Italian mob culture sparked in rap history.
Since Doe or Die, AZ hasn’t quite been able to live up to the success of the debut, like many rap artists before him. Nevertheless, his work has actually remained relatively potent through the years, and he’s often regarded as one of the more underrated MCs in New York hip hop history, if not of all time. About.com actually listed AZ as the number one most underrated rapper of all time, and even if they aren’t exactly The Source on the subject, it’s still a reason to dive into his lesser known catalogue if you haven’t already. AZ even spoke to The Come Up Show on the tag of being ‘underrated’, saying, “I made the transition from the majors to the independent…I own all my publishing and my masters, so I’m in a good position, you dig?” We can dig it.
Later on in that interview, AZ also spoke on Doe or Die 2, the follow-up that has been anticipated basically since the debut dropped. AZ assures us that ““Doe or Die 2 is on a whole other level. That’s 15, 16 years in the making. It’s going to be a little more big boyish, but it’s gonna be a good look, ya dig?”
If his work on Ghostface Killah’s 36 Seasons is any indication, Doe or Die 2 should indeed be the second best release amongst his nine studio records. AZ’s ability to channel a character on Ghost’s project wasn’t unlike the Mafioso persona he took on while crafting the LP that brought us here today. The 2012 track “My Niggas” is allegedly off of the upcoming effort, but we’ll have to wait to be certain.
AZ can handle his own amongst New York’s elite, because he is one of them himself. He might not have Jay Z money or Nas numbers, but on the mic he can keep up with the best of them. Doe or Die still stands today as a NY masterpiece and an east coast rap classic due to its ability to tell stories outside of the normal rap landscape. There are plenty of rappers who have adapted characters since, but AZ’s debut full-length remains one of the first potent examples of this style.