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Studio Sessions | AZ talks recording with Nas in the ‘90s, ‘Doe or Die’ sequels, and staying true to himself

“The sessions were weed smoke and Moet. Back then, Nas had the weed, and I always had a bottle of Moet. That’s all the sessions were about,” legendary rapper AZ told REVOLT.

Nas and AZ Johnny Nunez

For “Studios Sessions,” we delve into the stories behind the long hours in the studio and all that goes into making an album by talking with artists, producers, engineers, photographers, and more who are intimately connected to the recording process with some of the biggest artists in the world. These are the stories that rarely leave the booth.

From his Illmatic beginnings to his current sequel to his almost 26-year-old classic debut album, Doe or Die, AZ has been part of numerous hip hop classics with the memories to prove it.

“The sessions were weed smoke and Moet. Back then, Nas had the weed, and I always had a bottle of Moet. That’s all the sessions were about,” AZ told REVOLT.

In this installment of “Studio Sessions,” the legendary MC explains how the pandemic affected Doe or Die 2, why Nas isn't on the album, and how many more albums he has left before he retires. Read below!

How long did it take you to make Doe or Die 2?

To keep it 100, it had always been in my mind since 2010. I wanted it to be right. Through the course of the years, I was still trying to figure out if I wanted to go under an umbrella or make my own umbrella. I was going through the motions, recording and releasing singles. But, I really locked in when the pandemic hit because I was like, “It’s on. I got to get this shit done.” It was an eye-opener.

You’ve been recording music for more than 25 years. How does an AZ recording session now compare to your recording sessions in the ‘90s?

In the mid to late ‘90s, I was smoking, ordering food, had girls coming in and out of the studio. I wasn’t doing shit, not even a verse (laughs). At the end of the day, I found out I was paying for all of that shit when it came time. Now, when I go to the studio, I’m in and out. I send the music, so when I get there, I lay my songs and I’m out. No playing, no smoking, and no one coming with me. I’m in and out. The phone is not on me. No one is there critiquing. It’s just me and the engineer I’ve been working with for years. I know my sound and how I want to and should sound.

So, what do you need in the studio now to make your best music?

Water, tea, and a good mic.

In 2013, you said Statik Selektah, DJ Premier, and a few others producers would be on the album that aren’t. How has the album changed? How many different versions of the album did you make over the last 10 years?

I was doing music with Statik and was sitting on joints I didn’t want to sit on. So, I started releasing joints through the years. With Preemo, we were in the works, but you know Preemo be mad busy. When I started locking in, I ran into Bink, who did a lot of work with JAY-Z. We had a good vibe. Pete Rock was a call away and he did a few joints on Doe or Die. I wanted him and we were going to do an album together, but it was so much going on. He gave me a track that was crazy. Buckwild did “Ho Happy Jackie” on Doe or Die, so I needed something from him because Buck and I have a good rapport. The album started to take on a form of its own. It wasn’t about who I wanted, it was about who came to me. Sonically, everything came together.

You said what’s on Doe or Die 2 is what came to you. None of the features on the album had solo albums out when the first Doe or Die was released. Was that intentional?

That’s crazy. I didn’t think about that. You fucked me up with that one. Wow. That wasn’t premeditated. Them even considering to rock with me is a blessing. I don’t see myself as old school, I’m true school. I stay true to my core and stay in my lane. I spit my knowledge and street hood stories. I got the right melodic sounds that catered to my voice. You know I have a light voice, so I try to cater to those melodic sounds. It’s a blessing to have those guys rocking with me.

You also got Idris Elba on the intro. How’d that happen?

That one was crazy. The album sounded so crazy like a movie, so I thought, “Who could I get to put the cherry on top?” I lived in Jersey and Sugar Hill Gang lived out here, and were on tour. They were like, “I know Idris.” I was like, “Word?” I know I met him a while back when I was on tour at Rock The Bells and we dialogued a little bit. I was like, “This shit is a movie and we need somebody with that aura to set that off.” I reached out to him and he was definitely reluctant at first like, “I’m not really with this type of shit. I don’t do this type of shit.” I said, “Just check the album out and then tell me if you want to do it.” He heard the album and was like, “Alright, I’m with it. Let’s go.”

I saw you ran into Conway The Machine at a Brooklyn Nets playoff game in late May. Around when did he hop on “Ritual?”

It was after that meeting. We dialogued at the game. He and them Buffalo boys are putting that work in and I got to give it up. They’re carrying on the tradition. I had to respect that. They remind us of when we were popping in the era. He said he was with it. It took about a month and I was going to wrap the album up, but then he came through at the right time. We did that and I felt I needed something else so I said, “Let me reach out to Wayne.” I thought it was a long shot, but I got a lot of respect for Cash Money and I’m sure they have a lot of respect for us. He was like, “What’s good? Let’s get it popping.” It was a blessing.

What about this album makes it Doe or Die 2?

It’s really showing the growth of AZ from when I first came out and it completes the cycle for me. When we initially signed our first contract, it said to sign up for nine albums. It always shook me. I was like, “Damn, I can’t get through the first one.” In my mind, if I was still in that contract with the label I first started with, I would’ve completed that. It feels good to start something and then end it.

What is the oldest song on the album?

Probably the Baby Paul record, “Keep It Real.” That was done early, and it was so early and so hip hop I was going to put it out but decided to hold it for the album. Also, the T-Pain joint (“What’s Good”) that Rockwilder did. That was in the cut for a minute. That record was done around 2017/2018. I also had “Different” in the archives.

So most of the album was made in the last four years?

Oh definitely. Actually…(laughs). Two or three songs were from four years ago, but the rest were about a year ago. Most of them came in 2020.

You posted a throwback photo on your Instagram of you and Nas in the ‘90s with part of the caption reading, “Doe or Die 2 coming soon.” Were there intentions of having him on the album?

Yeah. After that, King’s Disease II came out and he was moving around, shaking and baking. I had to really get my thing cooking. The invitation was given but he was moving around, so it didn’t happen. But, I’m sure in the future we’ll figure it out. And if not, we have enough classics for the people to live off of.

I was hoping for a “Mo Money, Mo Murder, Mo Homicide” sequel, but you did collaborate on the surprise Firm reunion song “Full Circle” from Nas’s King’s Disease album. How did that come about?

That was crazy. It was in the stars. Nas reached out to me and asked, “Yo, where’s everybody else at?” I had a line on ‘Mega, so I reached out to him. He said he was down. I think I’m the one who stayed in tune with everybody. I told him ‘Mega to reach out to Fox[y Brown] and it all came together.

Back in the ‘90s, what was your recording chemistry like with Nas?

The type of person I am and he is, it was natural. He hadn’t dropped an album when I first got to know Nas, so that was just my boy. We had the same aspirations and dreams. It was natural with us. It was never competitive. The sessions were weed smoke and Moet. Back then, Nas had the weed, and I always had a bottle of Moet. That’s all the sessions were about.

Is there one studio session that sticks out the most to you?

Off the hip, it’s really “Life’s A Bitch.” Before that, I was probably in the homie’s house doing raps and shit. But, for “Life’s A Bitch,” we were in a professional studio and my thought was never to be on the song, I was just showing moral support to Nas by being in the studio. I just said my rap and when Nas heard it he was like, “Yo, lay that shit down.” I thought he was playing because he was that dude at the time with “Halftime” out and all of that. I was like, “Man, get the fuck out of here.” But, he was like, “Nah, that’s the joint. Lay that.” I laid it and motherfuckers liked it, and I was surprised. That gave me the inspiration.

A personal favorite of mine was “I’m Back” from Aziatic. What was your mentality making that album?

I was trying to stay alive and swim. I never had an official home. Some people are at Def Jam or Sony and that’s their whole career. The first label I was on folded because of financial situations. I went to another label and they evaporated for whatever reason. Then, I went to another label for a moment, and then the president went somewhere else so they let go of all of the artists. At the time of Aziatic, I landed on Motown and I thought, “This is where the hitmakers are at.” It put me in that zone to lock in and give it my all. My pen was sharp. I love that album.

Did the pandemic affect when you put the album out?

COVID shook the world up and pushed all plans back. You can’t travel or promote. They had us on lockdown. I was shook. Everyone was shook. There was a new plague on the planet. That shut everything down. I was recording during the pandemic. Ross and I recorded “Never Enough” during the pandemic. The “Check Me Out” record with Pete Rock was recorded in 2020. Some of the records were done in 2019 ready to rock off in 2020. Only three records were done prior to the pandemic.

Doe or Die 2 is coming out a little over a decade since your last album. How long will we have to wait for the next one?

I was going to end it with this album, but I think I’m going to splash out five more albums. I’m going to take it to Doe or Die 4 and then I’m going to call it quits.

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