Azizi Gibson comes from a different world to most rappers. Born in Frankfurt as the son to a deployed U.S. soldier and spending his youth growing up between Thailand, Cambodia, Zaire and Singapore, he was always an outsider from day one. “I didn’t fit in when I was younger in Thailand. There was only a small crew of people who really related to me and that I was really cool with.”
At the age of 11 his family moved back to America settling in the state of Maryland, but his upbringing in Asia now meant he was different to all the kids back home. Obsessed with anime and video games he says, “We all soak up everything from where we are so I’m just everything and everywhere that I’ve ever been”. It was his older sister and brother though who began his love affair with rap and he cites his eclectic hip-hop influences as everything from Eminem to Outkast to Linkin Park. But after his teenage years were done, it wasn’t long before Azizi was back on the move, heading west to L.A. to pursue his love of rap.
Working for minimum wage late nights at Walmart, whilst releasing his music by day, it wasn’t long before he soon found himself chatting to Flying Lotus and signing to Brainfeeder upon a chance meeting whilst at the gym. Surely at this point Azizi finally felt like he had found his place in the world right? But they realised soon they had a difference in plans and so he broke his ties with Flying Lotus and decided to go independent down his own path. “I’m glad that I went to Brainfeeder. I’m glad that they invited me to their home and you know, everything’s cool with them but I gotta do what I gotta do. I don’t want to be under anyone’s wing. I had a vision and I wanted to collaborate on it but then they had their vision and their thing, so you’ve got to respect it. That’s why you fell in love with them in the first place, but like what the fuck can I do, you know? Sometimes not everybody knows what’s best for you other than you… so I was like “fuck that” I’m going on this tour and I made so many fans that stemmed and what started as a little plant, ended up as a tree”.
It was at this point that everything changed for Azizi Gibson. That tour was with The Underachievers and slowly he began to build a loyal fan base from his own brand preHISTORIC. “It means “before we make history”, so it’s all about this story we’re telling before we make history.”
Fast-forward to now and that same kid who never fit in, couldn’t be further in the past, but even now he still see’s himself as a hip-hop outsider. We’re sat in the warm sunshine of a West London apartment as Azizi relaxes before his first ever show in London, supporting R&B duo THEY. on the European leg of their sold out, “Nu Religion Tour.” He’s also just released his latest album ‘Memoirs Of The Reaper’, his 6th in the last 3 years so it would seem like things are all working out well now for Azizi Gibson. So when I asked him about the running theme of the Grim Reaper throughout his work, his answer was interesting “I feel like I get misconstrued as to who I am, like some people don’t know about me and my background overseas. Some people think I’m from LA and don’t know that I’m really from Maryland or even in personal situations like relationships or friendships, people don’t understand me. I always feel like I’m the Grim Reaper because you think he’s like some killer, he’s some bad guy or whatever but it’s like nah he has responsibilities. He’s not killing people recklessly, he’s only taking people when it’s their time to go, you know?”.
“And I also like that dark shit so I just chose the Grim Reaper” (LAUGHS).
See a lot is often made in interviews about Azizi’s upbringing and his previous musical affiliations with Brainfeeder, but his fans invest in him not for who he has worked with but for what he is creating. Although he may feel himself like an outsider from hip-hop, his fans feel like outsiders on that journey with him.
Which is also why apart from King Mez, Big K.R.I.T., Waka Flocka and DJ Paul from Three 6 Mafia, he has few other big name features over the course of his 6 albums. Literally the only other big collab he has is Christopher Sabat, the voice of Vegeta from Dragon Ball Z who lends his talents to a skit on his album ‘preHISTORIC Till Death’. But even that as a feature is what his fans love. They understand his love for anime and video games and by collaborating with someone such as Christopher Sabat, instead of trying to hang around with a rapper that’s hot right now, he’s putting the pieces together to create a new sonic world for his fans to invest in. When I ask him about this tactic it’s clear that he has things well thought out for the future…
“You don’t want to get popping under someone’s wing, you really want people to have a fresh mindset on you, so that the songs you choose to do with people, let it be because that song really needed that artist instead of trying to collaborate in order to excel your career, because that artist is popping at the moment. Like all the collaborations I’ve done, from my friends to like Big K.R.I.T, they make sense. Like I don’t hear the song in any other way. When I hear ‘Slaveship’ (with Waka Flocka), it wouldn’t sound the same without him… He added to it instead of me just being like “oh let’s just do a song with Waka”, he actually brought something that I feel makes it very special.”
That sonic world that he is creating is the world of “preHISTORIC” and as he previously mentioned it’s about putting together the pieces to the story “before we make history”. We’ve seen it from other artists from the likes of Kendrick with ‘Section 80’ who’s themes often return in his later albums, to Kanye who used the running theme of the bear mascot and the school references throughout his earlier works. It gives the audience a concept to invest in and lets them see consistently how the artist evolves as he grows in popularity whilst giving them a feeling of familiarity. See Azizi knows what it means to bide his time and create something bigger than just a hit record… “I feel like my time will come. I just have to wait until people take that time out to realise like “oh I didn’t know about this whole catalogue that you’ve had”. People don’t know who I am which is perfectly fine, but the people that do know, they actually pay attention to me. I feel like as far as my talent, like the Grim Reaper, he has the ability to kill anybody he wants but he doesn’t. I feel like I have all the talent in the world but you know I’m still gonna play by the rules. I’m not gonna get angry, I know everyone’s story is different”
But that doesn’t mean that Azizi isn’t aware of the current landscape of hip-hop. He knows full well that for all the need of a having a solid back catalogue, it sadly isn’t always about the music alone. Some of the best rappers never reach the upper echelons of rap greatness without playing the game and working the mainstream. In a reddit interview he once hosted, a fan wrote into him saying…
“Your music helps me through the day, but what helps you through yours?”
To which Azizi responded with…
“Wow nobody ever asks me that. I always feel lost. I make music to help others but my life is chaotic . I smoke to stay calm”.
When I asked him to elaborate on that and how he fits into the landscape of hip-hop he replied honestly by saying, “There is no such thing as a guarantee with music until I feel like you get over a certain hump. Like I’m good, I’m great but like getting over that hump is a scary situation. I’m never too comfortable, like I’m so grateful for where we’ve been but I know we could be doing so much more. It’s often like, how can we get this music to the world? I feel like the music is the last thing we’re worried about but like it’s not even all about the music now. The game has changed so much.”
It’s this strive to be “doing so much more” that gave Azizi the blind faith in his own ability and initially pushed him to move from Maryland to L.A. in the first place. It’s also this faith that might just push him on to achieve rap greatness. In a number of interviews and even earlier in our chat he expressed his appetite to be at the top of the game and how he thrives from the competition within the genre.
If you stick to it and you want it and you believe it, there’s no reason you can’t be the next Jay-Z.
Even in his own connection with The Grim Reaper as he said, he feels he can “kill anybody he wants” in order to take the throne. So when I ask what drives Azizi to be the best in the world he explains, “I mean the fact that no matter what we do it’s just trying to get further, you know we’ve never taken a step backwards. It makes me feel more confident that whatever is in store for me in this world it’s definitely gonna come and it’s gonna be wonderful because we haven’t had any major set backs. We’ve always been missing pieces to the puzzle so now that we’ve been gathering some pieces it really feels like it’s making a difference. More people are now talking about me, more people are saying my name, you know it really feels cool.”
“If you stick to it and you want it and you believe it, there’s no reason you can’t be the next Jay-Z. I’m not an old head yet I’m only 26 going on 27, there’s plenty of time to learn. All the people in the game really doing big things and really establishing themselves are past 30 and shit. Whether it’s 2 Chainz, Future, there’s so many artists (out there) that like age isn’t really a thing. It’s just about making sure your music is there every year, every time you drop it and you’re not going backwards. Then you’ll be good.”
It’s a theory that’s been working perfectly so far for Azizi, so when I asked him what his plans were for the future and what he wants to achieve out of rap he instantly had it all planned out, “I just want for this to be all I do for the rest of my life except from making movies and cartoons and writing anime movies. I just want the music to be like a fine well-oiled working machine. (Eventually) We’ll know our outlets to put our shit on, I know exactly the type of music to feed the people, I know exactly how to feed it to the people and once that’s good, I want to be able to focus on taking my career even further. Like stand occupied and do as much as I can, I don’t want to just do music, I want to get into movies one day like I’m just down to wait you know.”
It’s an answer that couldn’t be more fitted and true to what people love about Azizi. Sure the money and the fame is a draw, who wouldn’t be excited about that prospect? But Azizi just wants to do what he’s always loved since the days of being the same anime and video game obsessed kid that never fitted in. It’s exactly why people are beginning to pay attention to him and why his fan base is building stronger by the day. He is only being himself, not trying to portray someone else’s image of what is expected from a hip-hop artist and people are buying into it. So if preHISTORIC is all about Azizi telling us his story “before we make history” , then it might just be wise of us to pay attention now before he does.