The rapper, whose full name is Ismail Azeem, first hit the scene by collaborating with Michael Franti and Spearhead during the mid-to-late-'90s. He released his debut solo EP, Garage Opera, in 2000, following it with the acclaimed albums Craft Classic and Show Business, as well as two full-lengths with Oakland's DJ Zeph, including last year's Rise Up. His new disc, Air Cartoons, dropped this month through the fledgling Oaklyn Records.
The title of that new platter also describes Azeem's lyrics, in the sense that he's a very visual wordsmith. His raps have always been slightly left-of-center, whether he's spitting stream-of-consciousness–style or weaving detailed stories infused with off-kilter humor. On Air Cartoons, many of the beats follow Azeem down the proverbial rabbit hole. The music has a psychedelic, surreal feel, starting off with "Set a Blaze," which showcases his madcap rhyming ("Verbs so fly that I could chirp three verses/[W]rap like a mummy, I wear a 29 Turban") over fuzzy drums and distorted basslines. The vibe continues with "Road Scholar," a hallucinatory ode to marijuana. Guitar licks pulse through the track, with sounds, voices, and animal noises echoing throughout.
The lysergic feel came from his label, which hooked him up with producers who specialized in that sound. It's a direction he's comfortable with. "As an artist, I liked to be challenged," Azeem says. "I'll take a Dr. Dre or a Kanye beat any day of the week, but I also like rapping over stuff that the average rapper would shy away from and making it acceptable to the hip-hop audience."
Azeem flexes verbal gymnastics on tracks like "Welcome to the Serengeti" and "Truth Is," where he briefly eschews trippiness, opting instead for stripped-down beats. Air Cartoon's best track, though, is "Going Dumb vs. Going to Brazil," a response to misconceptions about Oakland from outside and inside the city. The song takes a few swipes at the hyphy movement: "This is where they filmed The Mack/Nah, fuck that, this is where the Panthers was at."
While the best rappers are also natural stage performers, Azeem's talents stretch beyond the recording booth. Last year he achieved national acclaim for his one-man show Rude Boy, depicting the daily struggle of "Jamerican" janitor Johnny Burke. The play originally ran in Chicago and New York; Azeem is thinking of bringing the performance back for another run in the Bay Area and on the East Coast. He also plans to help other rhyme-sayers and poets achieve longevity in the spotlight. He's trying to secure theater space in San Francisco, where he plans to reform the Secret Circus, an informal performance art crew he started a few years ago that offers workshops to writers and rappers from throughout the Bay Area.
Azeem is one artist committed to helping others achieve the same potential he knows he possesses. "Everyone's got their own fingerprint," he says. "I'm one of the lucky ones that figured out what mine is, and there's no feeling like that."