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Azeem, of Zeph and Azeem

Bay Area Duo Rises to the Occasion

After living in New Jersey, Georgia and Los Angeles as a youth, lyricist Azeem settled down in the Bay Area and embarked on a spoken word/hip hop career that has taken him around the globe. His latest project, the LP Rise Up, was created with San Francisco producer DJ Zeph under the moniker Zeph and Azeem. The duo will perform at Slimís on July 6th before going on tour with Souls of Mischief.

SF Station (SFS): When you moved to different communities when you were younger were you an outsider or did you assimilate quickly?

Azeem: I was always an outsider and Iím still an outsider, really. The only difference is now Iíve learned to use it to my advantage. When I was younger it was a lot harder. I didnít assimilate well at all because it was always a huge culture shock. I went from Jersey straight to Georgia, which was a real interesting time in general.

From there I went to Los Angeles at the height of the whole gang era after the movie Colors came out. It was always one culture shock after another, and Iíve always been the guy on the outside looking in.

SFS: What was the biggest culture shock for you?

Azeem: It would have to be that move from Jersey to Atlanta. Growing up in a Jamaican household, I had never seen chitins before. The slowness of the South and all the unwritten laws were also different. The internet has changed it now -- this was back in the 80s -- and people were still really set in their ways and close-minded about stuff. I experienced racism really intensely there, too, for the first time in my life. I had come across it slightly in Jersey, but it was mostly words out there and in the South there was more to it than that.

SFS: What is your view on the South now? Did it leave a bad taste in your mouth?

Azeem: I did for a long time, until I went back and discovered other areas of Atlanta that I really enjoy. I also went back as a performer, not just as some kid. Youíre always treated differently when you come into a town or a new country and you are a performer. But, I love the South now. I love the hospitality, the ladies, and the weather, most of the time.

Iím able to use my outsider-ness as a tool now. Iím never scared to ask questions and Iím not really intimidated by anybody now, either. Iíve been through it all. Iíve met the richest of the rich and poorest of the poor because Iíve moved around so much. Iím comfortable with all of them -- princes, thieves and everybody in between.

SFS: How are you an outsider now?

Azeem: Musically, I feel like our group is on the outside. Musically and lyrically, Iíve always been that way. Iím not into following trends and fads and things like that. I look at my music as a timeless thing, a career that I am building over time. Itís not necessarily a big hit that you are going to hear that everybody is going to jump on. We are not in it for that.

Also, communities are always kind of close knit. Iím out in Oakland with these guys that have known each other for a long time and have been going to the same places their whole life. Iíve never really had that because we always moved. Iím not feeling sorry for myself, by any means, itís just a difference. Other than that, we are all outsiders in one way or another.

SFS: Your Jamaican heritage shows itself in your music. Have you spent much time in Jamaica?

Azeem: Yeah, thatís home to me. My father made sure that we went there every summer for most of my childhood. He also always told us, ďDonít worry about where you were born, you are a Jamaican.Ē I didnít really get it until I was older. Itís important to have a culture that you can claim as your own outside of America. Otherwise, as far as black America goes, if we take the Africa out of our culture there is nothing to it. Itís all based from slavery forward. If you weave Africa into it, now you have a timeless culture. Itís the same thing with West Indian heritage; it goes beyond the slavery experience. Itís important to have and itís important to teach your children.

SFS: Musically, you have said that you prefer reggae over hip hop. Did you ever consider making reggae music?

Azeem: I wouldnít say I prefer reggae over hip hop. To be honest with you, I donít see the difference. I see dancehall as the West Indian version of hip hop. Their rapping is just a little bit more melodic because the language is melodic. Especially nowadays, if you look at the trends in dancehall and hip hop, they are all talking about the same subjects. Even roots reggae has a lot of the same messages as the hip hop that I grew up listening to. They say burn Babylon and we say burn Hollywood -- itís the same thing.

SFS: Did you and Zeph intentionally incorporate a lot of Caribbean sounds into your album?

Azeem:We did think of it, but we didnít try to put a heavy emphasis on it. We wanted to find a sound that was different that would stand out. The groups that we grew up listening to had their own sound -- A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and Public Enemy. They had sounds that went with them, and thatís what we tried to do. But, it wasnít a contrived thing at all. It just came naturally.

Zeph and Azeem headline the Scribble Jam MC and Producer Battle at Slimís on July 6th. The show starts at 9pm and tickets are $16.