“Eat from the tree of life and throw away the verbal ham”

(Sadat X, “Show Business”, A Tribe Called Quest, ’91)

One of the things that make rap so unique in the field of music is its ability and willingness to face the mirror. Other forms of music may have their own discourses going on, where someone makes a musical statement, which is countered by someone else, but unlike jazz for instance, rap music is known to do that explicitly, with words. To understand this phenomenon, you have to start at the very beginning, when a Kool Herc would help establish Jamaican sound system culture in 1970s New York, and the urge to overpower rival systems and attract party people would introduce catchy breakbeats and call-and-response routines invented by DJ’s and the specialists they soon began to hire, the MC’s. Hip-hop’s competitive nature has brought forth verbal one-upmanship that goes on to this very day. When rap discusses itself, the most recurring theme therefore is condemning and criticizing competition in order to make yourself look better. By now the slang term, dis (/diss), has entered our everyday language, but what is often perceived as simple disrespect can actually amount to substantial criticism. There are only so many ways you can claim that your skills are superior. Yet once rappers started to talk about the hardships and the high life, as soon as moral, philosophical, and religious beliefs began to permeate their lyrics, the door was open for rap music itself being discussed. So from its inception, rap has been open to discussion. Rappers love to argue. Not just about who’s better, frankly about anything the other guy might say. It’s rap’s very own system of checks and balances. From old school pioneers trying to hold on to their style and sound during the new school, to the next school explosion introducing a myriad of new concepts, to hip-hop becoming mainstream and losing touch with its roots in more recent times, a reaction is always to be expected.

Throughout the years, the sub-genre of gangsta rap was probably met with the strongest opposition. But the list of rappers complaining about certain trends in hip-hop is long. Westside Connection talking about getting ignored in New York. 3rd Bass defending their hard-earned status as white MC’s against Vanilla Ice. Queen Latifah putting misogynistic peers in check. Too $hort mocking freestyling. Dr. Dre releasing “East Coast/West Coast Killaz” in the middle of bi-coastal beefs. 50 Cent expressing his frustration as a struggling rapper on “How to Rob”. KRS-One teaching new jacks “How Not to Get Jerked”. Benzino having issues with Eminem.

Oakland-based rapper Azeem joins in the well established gangsta bashing, but does it with a refreshing twist. On “Five Oooh” he asks a crucial question: who really profits from all these ex-cons confessing over beats? His conclusion: as a rapper, anything you say can and will be used against you. And not just you, but other rappers and quite possibly anybody who remotely looks like you. Let’s not forget that earlier this year, the police departments of Miami and New York admitted to using special task forces to gather intelligence and keep tabs on hip-hop artists and their entourages. Doesn’t that mean, Azeem asks, that rappers who make a living off an alleged criminal career play right into the hands of anti-rap forces? “You rap for the government, police run your record label,” he calls them out, and the longer you think about it…

“They’re lookin’ for you from the night to the dawn
Them award shows are comin’, you s’posed to informin’ ’em
For best video, show all your movements
on how to drug deal, obtain distributions
You wanna chart with a bullet, cruisin’
Spotted on the block, movin’ squat car units
Blue paranoia, they flashed when they saw you
They must’ve been producers, they had a beat for you
Three verses, 48 bars, and a chorus
You singin’ for the judge, you can get a deal for it”

For those who don’t get the message right away, Azeem stops speaking in riddles in the second half of the song:

“In the days of backspins, when rappin’ happened
before it meant soda, European fashion and actin’
it was action, actin’ on passion
Actual facts on wax caused reactions
Switched the factions, trick distractions
Truth subtracted, fast forward backwards
Days wasted, bubblegum pop songs
of sing-along thuggin’, you another Pac knock-off
Y’all just softcore porn with headscarfs on
plastic art frauds gettin’ the artform wrong
and twisted; the way we win Grammy’s
is to sell cheap sex, representin’ fake crime fairies
Don’t tell me you a street life trooper
Even to you lookin’ back you seem stupid
We spring from the movement, you dream of illusion
Fuckin’ up the ways, puttin’ pork in your music”

There are other songs attacking the status quo (“Platinum Trends”, “Thug Mac Ologist”), but none as original as “Five Oooh”. It is a divide that runs right across “Show Business”. Filler songs like the simple chest-thumping “Rest” or the half-hearted old school throwback “Non Stop” break the momentum of an otherwise engaging CD. The opener “The Experiment” introduces Azeem as a mad scientist handling “musical test-tubes” and setting the time machine to the good old days: “Step back, feelin’ kinda cocky and I’m up to it / loose-movin’ middle finger, just-us music / on shock, stay poppin’ like we Krush Groovin’.” For hip-hop, Azeem ain’t afraid to get his nerd on, proclaiming at the end of the song: “This ain’t a vocal booth, it’s a rocket!”

Just a quick look at Azeem’s career reveals a man who we can assume knows what he’s talking about. His first band, Telefunken, attempted a combination of live instrumentation and hip-hop as early as 1989. In the ’90s, Azeem’s spoken word performances earned him a spot on Lollapalooza, which in turn led to an appearance on the PBS special ‘United States of Poetry’ and two poetry books. In 1997, he joined Michael Franti’s band Spearhead, spending two years on the road. In 2000 he put out his first solo venture, the EP “Garage Opera”, followed a year later by the full-length “Craft Classic”, gradually leaving his past as a spoken word artist behind him and turning into a confidently flowing MC.

After having worked with two producers exclusively (Fanatik and DJ Zephir, respectively), this time he hits up different dealers of dope music. Almost every track has another producer. Collectively, they provide Azeem with tracks that are up to today’s standards, minus the ones that are supposed to take you back in time. The Architech’s “The Experiment” thumps like some Foreign Legion track. Gettic’s “Oakland to Brooklyn” with its and hard riffs and punching drums would fit on any MOP album. Paul Nice found an equally mean, just more earthy groove while digging for “Show Business”. Foreign Legion’s DJ Design serves up his own brand of melodic funk with “Platinum Trends” and “Thug Mac Ologist”. Musically, this album covers a wide spectrum, from the standard dramatic soundscape favored by mixtape DJ’s (Sapone’s remix of “Let’s Go”), to more thoughtful tracks (Anas Cannon’s “Don’t Do It”). DJ T-Rock and Hydroponic Sound System finally take you back to afros and platform shoes with their respective remixes of “Platinum Trends”. “Family Man” stops at 1993, Hydroponic Sound System contributing a track laced with thumping drums, guitar licks and horn stabs probably all lifted from ’60s funk records, while Azeem tongue-twists his way through the hook nine-trey style and exhibits a knack for inventive song-writing. This one’s about the close relationship he enjoys with music:

“I remember them days long past
She was a simple woman and we would just hold hands
There wasn’t one care in the world that we had
Just me and music, chillin’ alone in the pad
Now she’s an all-night tweaker, smoke more reefer than a top-notch dreadlock Rastaman preacher
Still I get with her and got no choice neither
Can’t please her, she’s always sayin’ love her or leave her”

As mentioned, “Show Business” tends to be a hit-or-miss affair. There’s not much more to “Oakland to Brooklyn” than some rarely clever wordplay with hip-hop names (“I’m smokin’ Mary J. up in a 50 Cent Phillie (…) Scar your Face, make you P your own Diddies”) and Azeem’s proclamation that he wants to add his name to this VIP list. But “Don’t Do It” and “Blood, Water and Wine” are both well executed songs with a message, the latter a touching examination of the “void between friendship and business.” Speaking of business, another noteworthy cut is the title track, where Azeem humorously details his hate/love relationship with the game:

“Stoppin’ for some donuts 80 miles outside of Dallas
on a tourbus, everybody thinks I’m Lenny Kravitz
We laughin’ up in Denny’s, causin traffic signin’ napkins
and hats with Lenny K. – with a peace sign after it
It just so happens I haven’t showered in like 48 hours
A rollin’ rapper, someone booked this tour backwards
Tonight we in New York, then circle to Atlanta
then up to Philly, and then some joint in Alabama
Dressing room smellin’ like a fresh can of anus
There’s a fly in my potatos and the soundman is ancient
talkin’ ’bout a show in ’88 with Rick James?
He loves reggae music, it’s “irie” we came?
In the middle of the set my speaker get to mufflin’
My DJ soundin’ like some alley cats fuckin’
over feedback, believe that, it always happens with us
And the worst four letter word I’ve ever heard is show business”

It’s nice to see how Azeem’s love for his wife music has proved strong enough to last past the honeymoon and withstand the daily grind of the show business.

Azeem :: Show Business
7Overall Score