Before the beginning of today’s Pro Era crew and the invasion of the Flatbush Zombies, in the mid-90s there was another legendary MC grinding hard in the streets of Brooklyn, New York. While his laid-back persona somewhat strays away from the beaming spotlight, Anthony “AZ” Cruz’s classic layered lyricism and hard-to-the-core flow continues to ring in the ears of true hip-hop heads all over the world.
It’s been 20 years since AZ released his debut album Doe Or Die on EMI Records. The 12-track studio LP dropped on October 10, 1995 a year after we first heard AZ on Nas’ iconic Illmatic album with the hit “Life’s A Bitch.” With Doe or Die’s production from legends such as Pete Rock, L.E.S., and Buckwild, the die-hard Brooklynite made history with his premiere body of work, which went Gold and held the coveted #1 spot on the Billboard Top R&B/Hip-Hop chart in 1995. Two decades and eight studio albums later, AZ is still content and humbled by his monumental accomplishment.
“People are the ones who really make you who you are,” AZ said. “My title really doesn’t make me. As long as I keep my pen sharp and I do what I do, I’ll always feel like I’m #1 regardless.” He’s definitely kept his words pointed with a most recent guest spot on Ghostface Killah’s winter 2014 album 36 Seasons. AZ filled the role of Raekwon as Ghostface’s partner in rhyme crime, serving verses on 5 of the 14 tracks. Thus, taking us back to his original street scarred rhymes over rugged tracks.
Before signing his contract with EMI back in the 90s, AZ already had 10-15 tracks ready to master for Doe or Die. He didn’t waste any time releasing the singles, like the Pete Rock produced “Rather Unique” and the chart topping hit “Sugar Hill.”
Two decades later, AZ is focused on continuing the legacy he started with his new online store Quiet Money Direct, which will be the distributor for his merchandise and the long-awaited sequel Doe Or Die 2.
We caught up with AZ to revisit the making of the album and talk about the one song he wasn’t a fan of. He also reflected on his working relationship with Nas and revealed the due date for Doe Or Die 2.
VIBE: How did you feel after the album hit the Billboard charts?
Business wise, it was a good look. But you got to understand; my mentality was still like a hood mentality. So being able to make music in that atmosphere was an accomplishment for me honestly. But being #1 and being on the Billboard charts and the single and the album went gold at the time was a good look. I’m sure now it would just be platinum, both of them. But it was all growth, just growth and development. It just means a lot when you look back at it.
Did you expect that kind of successful reaction to your music?
Nah, I was happy just to make the single and the album. I’m happy with that. I’m humble, you know what I’m sayin? I was ecstatic. It definitely made me the man a I am now. So it feels good.
What was the one song that you weren’t a fan of on Doe Or Die?
The one I didn’t like the most was “Sugar Hill” at the time. It was like I was catering to radio. I didn’t like it when I first heard. I didn’t want to release it as a single. I was fighting with the label… it was crazy. But it [ended] up being one of my best songs off the album. It’s crazy.
How is your relationship with Nas now compared to back then?
You know, we were coming into a new world and was trying to master that world with no hesitation. We just wanted to get out of the hood. That was our whole focus. You know we came up with The Firm supergroup. But as time went on, we were still individual artists so when we hit that fork in the road we went our separate ways. But the comradery is there and it will always be there.
Describe your studio sessions with LES, Pete Rock, and Buckwild. What was your most memorable session from the album?
Yo, all of them. I was fresh and brand new in the game. All of these producers, like one or two of them, they had been around and [had] their style already, so it was good dealing with them. I had locked down Electric Lady [studio] down in SoHo [Manhattan]. I was there and a lot of producers came through and played music. But with those who I dealt with, it was great vibin’ with them. It was a good look.
Amongst the entire team who worked on the album, who do you still call on today?
Man, I still speak to everybody. I still talk to Buckwild. We did a joint called “I’m Back” on the Aziatic album. Pete Rock I still talk shit with. They’re like family. Someone that did do well on that album that I want to mention was DR Period. He did the “Mo Money, Mo Murder” track. We’re both from Brooklyn so I was dealing with him and making music at the same time. And he was on the Aziatic album to so I still deal with everybody since day one.
You released an updated version of your debut on the 15th anniversary of Doe or Die in 2010. What was that experience like?
Back then, I wasn’t going to even do anything, but it was both of my kids who thought that a 15-year anniversary was a big deal. So I took a couple of songs and did them over and I put a video out…it was a good look. But for this one, it’s going to be a re-release of the album, but it’s going to be a little bit different. There’s going to be a couple of instrumental covers on it. No remixes, but it’s definitely going to be a collector’s item.
How did you change as an artist after that album?
I became more of a businessman. On my journey, I was used to the majors when I first came in. But as time went on, the infrastructure of the business took a turn with people folding and companies folding and merging. Vinyls were turning into CDs and then went digital. You just learn so much as you grow in the business, man. You watch what you sign and try not to sign your life away. Then, at the same time, you become a father and live a separate life, which makes you mature and take things more seriously for what they are. Through everything, I became more of a businessman and more focused.
How is your label Quiet Money doing now?
Great, Quiet Money has been doing great. Right now the new thing in 2015 is Quiet Money Direct. Since everything has gone digital, it’s going to be Quiet Money Direct dealing with the consumer direct. The new album will be on Quiet Money Direct, so you can buy it directly from me, as well as everything else I’m doing. It’s a good independent move.
Are we going to get Doe Or Die 2 on there?
You can guarantee it. I’m pushing for December but worst-case scenario, the first quarter of next year.
That’s great because we’ve been waiting for that one for a hot minute.
Yea, but I kept putting out music. When you do something, then you try to make it a hit and put in extra time. You want to make sure you’re doing the right thing and have the right sound. You could rush something and hurt yourself you know? That’s why I kept putting out singles every six months or [a] video just to let my fans know I’m coming.
You were also all over Ghostface Killah’s 36 Seasons album. Describe that experience in the studio.
Well we all move around now. It’s not like back in the days where you would just be in the studio with somebody. Nowadays, we just like to record and send via email rather than having to go to the studio. It was one of those. But Ghost is definitely a poet such as myself so it was a good look overall.
Are we ever going to get that joint Nas project?
Hopefully man. Hopefully we both find the time to make that happen. We are always politicking here and there. But I’m sure when time permits, we’ll be back in the studio.
With your extensive catalog and accomplishments, I would think that you’d boast a lot more, yet you remain humble. You’ve got the label as the most underrated. Why not live like the best rapper alive?
Look everyone’s got his or her part to play. You’ve got the “best rappers in the world” or the “best storyteller in the world.” I’ve got the title of “most underrated”, but I understand it. At the same time, it’s still a business. If business wasn’t intact, these things couldn’t have happened. Those who in the top five and do what they do, they’ve got this machine behind that’s pushing their brand right there in your face. But I’m cool with it. I’m happy to be here 20 years later and am celebrating right now. I want to make it to [a] 25th anniversary. I made history. I’m happy.