If Drake and Kendrick have both officially breached rap’s pantheon, Azizi Gibson is a formidable opponent for whomever is on the next wave doing it. From Southeast Asia to Maryland and now Los Angeles, Azizi’s life trajectory makes for an interesting rap journey. He sings and he raps about regular rap things like weed and women, but there are references to reading manga and trying to learn heel flips sprinkled amongst the melodies. Something about his style of baritone rap-singing, full of charisma and off-the-wall ad libs, channels the energy of an Eminem and Nate Dogg duet.
A chance run-in with Flying Lotus on a gym treadmill resulted in his signing to FlyLo’s Brainfeeder label as one of its only rappers. And at 23 years old, Azizi’s DatPiff-crashing Backwards Books EP has earned him a spot as one of the most buzzed-about newcomers of 2k14.
Azizi, what does your name mean?
It means ‘precious’.
Really? How did you get that name?
My parents kinda did a drawing of names with my brothers and sisters. They wrote a bunch of names down and put them in a pot. And they pulled my name out. They just wanted to give their kids interesting names.
You grew up in Thailand, right?
How’d you end up there?
My father is part of the military and the embassy. So his job got us traveling around.
You lived in other places, too?
Yeah. I traveled a lot but I only lived in Thailand, Singapore, Zaire and Cambodia. Then, I moved to America.
What kind of music did you grow up listening to in Southeast Asia?
I listened a mixture of what my brothers and sisters were playing. It was a mixture between some R&B and some rap. MTV on television would only play really, really mainstream shit. There weren’t too many rap songs on television.
So there wasn’t a big rap presence then?
Nah. It was pretty random to see or hear. It was definitely not the orthodox type of music.
When did you first hear rap?
I mean… people forget that I’m still a nigga. I’m still African American. My family is still from Harlem, New York. My folks are still from Washington D.C. So as soon as I was born, my closest sibling [in age] was like 10. When I came out the womb, my sister was 16 and my other brother was 14, so already they’re listening to whatever’s poppin’ at that point. They already lived in America, so they already had the music sense. Hip-hop, R&B – they already knew what they wanted. So I wasn’t just sort of flicking through channels. I feel like children really aren’t worried about music until a certain point in their lives. I was still playing basketball, soccer and tag outside. By the time I was 10 or 8 years old, my sister was moving out of the house to go to college and shit. That’s when I started listening to Eminem, Outkast and Linkin Park. When everybody left was the time I started finding out what I wanted.
Linkin Park was huge to me. Even though they weren’t rappers or whatever, they were universal in the world. They had that little bit of rap. Then they had sick music videos. I feel like I don’t give them enough credit, but I think listening to Linkin Park was huge for my style today because I don’t feel like I have an orthodox rap style. I’m always incorporating something else, and I feel like Linkin Park back in the day really brought rock and rap and this semi-maybe-R&B style together in the early 2000s. They don’t get as much credit as they should get.
So was Linkin Park one of the first CDs you ever bought?
One of the firsts, for sure. That’s what I was saying, I always say Eminem because that was, like, the biggest rapper. I bought that cassette tape, and my mom took it back because it had a parental advisory thing on it, and she read about Eminem in the paper when Eminem was a fuckin’ American terrorist. My mom was one of the “Don’t buy this for your children,” people. But my sister had it, and we were still using cassette tapes back then. So I just recorded the whole thing to a cassette tape so I could have it.
But the first records or CDs I ever bought was the Gorillaz’s ‘Clint Eastwood’. That’s also my favorite group of all time. I was young, and I saw the ‘Clint Eastwood’ video. There was rap with that rock, and that shit spoke to me. I don’t know. That shit was tight as fuck to me, and it was a cartoon. So I was like, “This is it! I can’t even not fuck with this.” I watched that video damn near every day.
You’re really into manga and anime, right? Which do you prefer: manga or anime?
I’m going to say anime – only because I be smokin’ weed and shit. I just be trying to chill with the homies. Manga is too fast. It’s right to the point. It’s still exciting, but it’s just like sometimes I just want to kick back and watch an episode versus reading for like five minutes. I can see all the motion for 30 minutes.
What’s your favorite anime?
Hunter × Hunter. It’s complex. I don’t even want to go there… It’s just the best shit I’ve ever seen. Every episode is exciting. Every character, they build up, and you have an attachment to them. Even the enemies, you fuck with. It’s weird, usually you don’t fuck with the enemies, but it’s like you’ll be following the story, and the bad guys gets sick, and they give him reasoning. Even though he’s the bad guy, they give him reasoning so you kind of know where a nigga coming from. They set it up so that you don’t just like one character. You love everybody.
Is there any specific character from anime you would compare yourself to or identify with?
I don’t know. I doubt it, but I’m the main character of whatever show I’m on. I guess I’m trying to be the Goku of my story.
How old were you when you guys moved back to America?
I was about to turn 11 when I we moved to America.
And you guys moved to Maryland?
Moved straight to Maryland.
So, that’s where you grew up?
That’s where I spent mostly all of my shit until I moved here to L.A. I was in Maryland for 10 years, Baltimore area and D.C. a little bit. It’s all connected, really, in the DMV (D.C., Maryland, Virginia). I never spent too much time in Virginia. But Maryland and D.C. were definitely my grounds. But when I moved to L.A., I was just like “Fuck it.” The people [in Maryland] were wack as shit. I don’t know, everyone was wack as fuck. Everyone was trying to do what I was trying to do. Nobody was trying to do their own shit. Everyone was wearing the same clothes, same shoes. It was just wack, and I needed to get the fuck out of there. Then, I came to L.A., and everything has just been good.
What made you move to L.A.?
I just thought it would be challenging and beautiful at the same time. You need to move to a place where you’ll accept the challenge because it’s just beautiful. When you’re down, you can just go outside, take a walk and just be appreciative of the fact that you made a move. You’re not just sitting at home in your parents’ house. It just helps me to know I’m in L.A.: the land of fucking money. And I’m surviving. I’m not thriving, but I’m definitely surviving.
What’s the worst job you ever had to take?
Walmart overnight, and it’s not the worst job because of the people or the organisation. It’s because of the hours. Working late at night 10.00 pm to 7.00 am., struggling, minimum wage. Shit is crucial. When you work those kinds of hours, you’re scared to sleep and scared to be up. Because you don’t want to over sleep, and you want to make sure you get enough sleep. It fucks with your mental. It really was the worst thing ever. I couldn’t imagine having a family. Having to come home and do the family and figuring out when I’m gonna go to sleep because I still have to go to work at 10 o’clock tonight.
How old were you when you did that?
That shit was like 4 or 5 months ago. I quit my job to go on the tour with Underachievers. I reached the point where people would start to recognize me. So, I was just like, “Man I don’t want to be seen working certain places, I’ll just work overnight.” And I did it for a year. Just thinking about it now… [Exhales.] It was the most hectic thing ever. There’s no way to describe working 12 hours at night.
I heard you met Flying Lotus at the gym. Is that right?
Yeah, I met him at the gymskies.
You were just working out, and he was there?
Yeah. It was just, like. It was low-key just destined to be. I went in, and he walked on the treadmill and I asked him if he knew who Flying Lotus was. He was like, “Yeah.” Then, I asked him if he was him, and he was like, “Yeah.”
And then you gave him a demo, right?
What’d he say?
He just hit me up on Twitter, and was like “Yo, I really fuck with your project.” He just wanted to hang out and shit. And we hung out, and, eventually, a couple months later, he just slid me the contract.
Is what he listened to out?
Yeah, It’s called Phuck Deluxe.
What’s the best and worst thing about being signed to Brainfeeder?
Best thing is it’s real chill and real low-key. The worst thing is I wish we would all just come together. We don’t come together to collaborate as much.
Yeah, I feel like all your artists are so different.
Yeah, they don’t really take advantage of that with tours, like a Brainfeeder tour. It’s just shit that someone is slacking on.
Do you have any songs with Flying Lotus coming?
We probably will. He’s a busy man. He’s definitely a busy guy.
Had you ever been on tour before the tour with The Underachievers?
That was my first. Those are my boys. I love those guys.
What was the inspiration behind Backwards Books?
They’re reading books backwards in certain countries. I wondered if maybe people are understanding things backwards. I just am infatuated with that anime/manga lifestyle. The previous mixtape was called Ghost In The Shell because what the main character in that is trying to figure out and has been through I kind of compare myself to a little bit. If it’s listened to very slowly, the intro is the ending and the ending is the intro. I just want to put people on to a different culture. I don’t want to stuff it down people’s throats. Like, don’t judge me for liking anime, but it’s like when Breaking Bad is over and you never watched it. Then someone’s like “You ever watch Breaking Bad?” And you’re like, “No, I don’t watch TV.” Then, you watch it, and you’re like, “Damn, there’s eight seasons of this shit?” You’re just psyched because there’s a whole bunch of shit you haven’t seen, and that’s how anime is. As soon as you find your niche, you’re busy.
Did you set out to prove anything with Backwards Books?
I just wanted to prove my versatility. That’s the main thing. I ain’t trying to do a crazy dance. I ain’t trying to do a gimmick. I ain’t trying to say “Fuck the world,” or “Fuck George Bush,” or anything. I’m literally sticking to the old-school. I just bring raw music. Fuck what everybody else is doing. I feel like a lot of music is trendy. Not to say it’s bad, but it’s trendy. I just want my shit to be refreshing. It doesn’t have to sound new. I’m just trying to make my voice an orchestra. I’m trying to use, literally, what God gave me: my voice. People say I can’t sing. Fuck that. I’m going to try it.
If someone had no idea who you were, what would be the best track to give them the best idea of who Azizi Gibson is?
‘Ghost In The Shell’ from Ghost In The Shell. When I made it, I was just like, “This is it.” There are certain songs, as a musician, you’re dumb happy you made. That was the beginning of my starting to tap into my mind.
How did you come up with your rap style? Does anyone influence your style?
Man, everybody influences my rap style. I just don’t listen to new rappers because I feel like I’m good at taking something and making it better, but I don’t want that to be my style. I don’t want that to be anybody’s style. I don’t want to speak for a Chance The Rapper, but I wonder if he stays current on everybody’s music. If an A$AP something or other drops a track, I won’t hear it for a week or two. But if The Underachievers drop something, I’m on it on the drop of a dime. I feel like I’ve just honed in on who I am, and I don’t want to mess that up by listening to other people.
Are you already working on your next project?
Right now it’s all album time. That’s all that’s on my mind is “album.” I feel like I’ve procrastinating on the world, but I want the world to know that I wasn’t ready yet. Like I said, I was just working at Walmart. People might see me and think I’m somebody, but I’m still a real person. I’m taking the long way. I’m looking for substance, I don’t just want to try to get famous.
Listen to Backwards Books below.