Exactly when the East Coast Renaissance begun is a matter of interpretation. Whilst some could attribute it to earlier efforts, it's safe to say that the November '93 release of Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) signified the revitalisation of the then-waning scene.
Though modern hip hop itself had originated in The Bronx, golden age legends such as Eric B. & Rakim, Public Enemy and Big Daddy Kane had given way to West Coast innovations from Ice-T, Dr. Dre and DJ Quik. The smooth sound of Dre's G-Funk dominated mainstream hip hop, and the splintering of N.W.A. led to a variety of solo projects from Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy E and MC Ren. Wu-Tang's landmark LP presaged a swathe of East Coast records, many of which are still considered amongst the best of all time: Nas' Illmatic, Mobb Deep's The Infamous, Notorious B.I.G.'s Ready To Die, Big L's Lifestylez ov da Poor and Dangerous and Jay Z's Reasonable Doubt, to name a few. This series of acclaimed and oft-discussed releases overshadowed similarly acclaimed but commercially incomparable efforts from East Coast emcees such as Jeru The Damaja, Organized Konfusion, O.C. and AZ. In this instalment of Behind..., we're looking at the samples underpinning AZ's 1995 debut, Doe or Die.
The record arrived a year and a half after the Dominican emcee’s verse on Nas' "Life's a Bitch," an appearance which made him an overnight sensation. AZ was the only guest emcee on the era-defining debut, with Nas’ father, trumpeter Olu Dara, closing out the very same track with a smooth brass send off. AZ himself recognises the significance of that verse, which is frequently named as one of the greatest verses of all time: he invokes it in four seperate interpolations across his 12-track debut.
In celebration of the record’s enduring excellence, we’re breaking down each and every sample on the multi-producer rhymefest. Featuring guest appearances from Nas and production assists from East Coast fixtures such as Buckwild, Pete Rock and L.E.S., this is AZ's Doe or Die.
The intro to Doe Or Die incorporates the title via sample. Invoked by Black Moon member Buckshot, the phrase is actually the informal motto of the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood of NYC, though increasing gentrification has called this into question.
AZ compares his tracks to pure, uncut drugs, a common yet effective metaphor for powerful music. It also helps set the tone for the rest of the record, which is soaked in gangsta ambition and visions of mafioso excess.
As a session musician, Errison became a fixture at Motown, working alongside Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, Smokey Robinson and many more. His early records, as his own website notes, are favoured by "breakbeat hounds" referring to the electronic, sample-heavy genre of breakbeat.
"Gimme Your's" features the second appearance from Nas, who handles the intro and chorus. The track hosts the first of four self-interpolations from AZ, all of which are sourced from the same track: Nas' 1994 collaboration, "Life's a Bitch."
The plucked strings at 0:04 on "Gimme Your's" are lifted from Minnie Riperton's "Here We Go."
The first track on her posthumously released album, 1980's Love Lives Forever, it features vocals from Peabo Bryson, a singer best known for his work on Disney's Aladdin. The track's been sampled by the likes of Kendrick, Lord Finesse and The Roots.
Nas' opening lyrics - "give me, just give me" - are an interpolation of I Level's "Give Me." Whilst he doesn't contribute a verse, Nas also makes us of the interpolation on the chorus.
A short-lived UK R&B outfit, I Level produced two albums across three years. They're best remembered for "Give Me," their debut single, which has since been sampled by acts such as A Tribe Called Quest and Lost Boyz.
AZ makes a clear reference to his verse on Nas' "Life's a Bitch," the track that catapulted AZ into the spotlight. The self-interpolation works in these classic bars: "though we know, somehow we all gotta go / But as long as we leavin' thievin' / We'll be leavin' with some kind of dough..."
To this day, the feature remains his most lauded performance, and many, including Talib Kweli, consider it to be one of the best verses of all time.
"Ho Happy Jackie"
On this track, AZ spins a story about "Ho Happy Jackie," a deceptive and unfaithful gold digger who's never quite satisfied with her lot. It culminates in Jackie herself approaching AZ, who offers a harsh and upfront rebuke of her advances. The track is produced by Buckwild, a founding member of the D.I.T.C. crew.
The ethereal instrumental that underpins "Ho Happy Jackie" is lifted from Kool & The Gang's "Little Children."
A cut off one of the group's less successful efforts, Open Sesame, the track incorporates a more grand, orchestral palette. This sample also appears in Quasimoto's "MHB's," a track which also derides gold digging women.
The drums that run alongside the Kool & The Gang sample are taken from Milly & Silly's "Gettin Down For Xmas," a funky 1973 Christmas track.
Milly & Silly themselves are a mystery. The group has no official website, which is certainly not uncommon, but their only credit on Discogs is this festive single and accompanying b-side. The track is credited to Franklyn Smith and Bruno Clarke, but neither of those names help identify the pair.
One of AZ's more renowned tracks, "Rather Unique" finds the emcee celebrating his individuality atop an old school beat from jazz sampling pioneer Pete Rock. Originally released as a b-side to first single "Sugar Hill," "Rather Unique" has become one of AZ's more popular tracks.
The underlying instrumental that runs throughout "Rather Unique" samples the last five seconds of Les McCann's "Anticipation."
It was originally included as a fleeting interlude on his 1973 LP, Layers. That record showcased McCann's affection for the synthesizer, an instrument he used extensively throughout the record.
The quiet laughter and subdued ad-libs belong to - you guessed it - James Brown, legendary funk artist and sampling favourite. You can first hear his distinctive vocals at 0:03.
"Funky Drummer" is a much-sampled song in hip hop, though many of those revolve around the track's famous drum break. Artists that have used this break include Public Enemy, Dr. Dre and N.W.A.. WhoSampled lists 1448 identified samples of the track.
The "rather unique" sample that's scratched throughout the chorus is sourced from Big Daddy Kane's 1988 track, "Just Rhymin' With Biz."
The cut features hip hop's clown prince, Biz Markie, and was included on Kane's classic debut, Long Live The Kane. That album is best remembered for the classic single "Ain't No Half Steppin'," which is often counted amongst the greatest rap songs of all time.
"I Feel For You"
This AZ solo cut features uncredited backing vocals from Erica Scott, a singer with this single assist to her name. The instrumental samples used by producer Amar Pep remain unidentified.
Pep himself is an enigma: he contributed to two tracks on Doe or Die before suddenly disappearing for seven years. He re-emerged in 2002 alongside Kool G Rap, and has since contributed to the soundtrack for 2002's Black Picket Fence as well as crafting a few beats for Pitch Black's 2003 LP. According to a particularly informative website, as of 2010, Pep sold real estate, worked out and occasionally dabbled in music.
On "Sugar Hill," AZ reflects on a life of drug slinging from his very comfortable retirement. The most successful single from Doe Or Die, it explored the mafioso themes that run throughout much of the record. The highly anticipated first single, production was handled by L.E.S., with whom he'd previously collaborated on Nas' "Life's A Bitch."
The "Sugar Hill" instrumental samples from Juicy's 1985 hit, "Sugar Free."
A short-lived duo comprised of a brother and sister, Juicy were active for six years between 1982 and 1987. The group's second LP, It Takes Two, featured "Sugar Free," their biggest commercial success. Their follow up LP, 1987's Spread The Love, failed to capitalise on the group's success, and they soon disbanded.
In yet another instance of self-interpolation, AZ repeats more lyrics from his feature on Nas' 1994 classic, "Life's a Bitch." He leads into his second verse with lyrics from the spoken word opening of that track.
AZ mentions Grants, Jacksons and Washingtons, slang for $50, $20 and $1 notes, respectively. They're so named for the U.S. presidents depicted on different denominations.
"Mo Money Mo Murder (Homicide)"
This prime example of mafioso rap predates Nas' sophomore album, 1996's It Was Written, which found the onetime poetic romanticist moving into an indulgently criminal lifestyle.
The prolific group have released 30 studio albums across their five-decade career, and are best remembered as pioneers of the Philadelphia soul genre, an important precursor to disco.
The sample acts as a kind of contention for the track - both Nas and AZ are plotting on a come up, much like the real-life gangsters portrayed in the film. The sample, regrettably, is unavailable online.
"Doe Or Die"
The title track finds AZ reflecting on life in Brooklyn, plotting on a come up as a hustling gangster. Though the track's instrumental samples are unidentified, it does include two obvious and notable interpolations. "Doe or Die" was produced by N.O. Joe, who remains best known for his work with Scarface, Geto Boys and UGK.
"It's like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder how I keep from going under" has since become one of the most memorable lines in hip hop, alongside the tracks other refrain: "don't push me, cause I'm close to the edge..."
The third self-interpolation from AZ finds him borrowing yet again from his crowing achievement, Nas' "Life's a Bitch." This time, he takes lyrics from the opening of his legendary verse:
"Visualizin' the realism of life and actuality
Fuck who's the baddest, a person's status depends on salary...."
"We Can't Win"
Like "I Feel For You," "We Can't Win" contains no identified samples. Coincidentally, the two tracks are by the same producer, Amar Pep. The spoken-word opening, steeped in AZ's Five-Percenter beliefs, is followed by Pep's guest verse. As he's primarily a producer, his vocal contributions to "We Can't Win" are undoubtedly his most significant feature.
The O'Jays make a second appearance on "Your World Don't Stop," following their instrumental contributions to "Mo Money Mo Murder (Homicide)." This time, AZ borrows from album track "Who Am I."
Though it first appears to be a direct sample, the vocals are an interpolation performed by a female singer. The original lyrics are "you're welcome, stop on by," but AZ's interpolation uses the same distinctive melody to deliver his own titular phrase: "your world don't stop."
"Sugar Hill Remix"
The remix of "Sugar Hill" pairs the original track with an EPMD sample. As in the original, AZ interpolates lyrics from his turn on "Life's a Bitch."
The "Sugar Hill Remix" takes instrumental cues from EMPD's 1989 track, "It Wasn't Me, It Was The Fame." The original track was included on their sophomore album, Unfinished Business. Despite only producing one charting single, the album was a commercial success and critical darling.
Destined To Live The Dream...
Doe or Die was met with positive reviews upon release. The Source gave the record four mics, which is no mean feat, especially considering the magazines early-'90s moratorium on awarding perfect five mic ratings. Despite this positive reception, AZ struggled to break out of Nas' shadow. The album was largely viewed as an impressive-yet-inferior companion piece to Nas' '94 classic, and it's since become a respected East Coast obscurity. Both Nas and AZ experienced diminishing returns throughout the late '90s, simultaneously recovering in the early 2000s.
One retrospective review called Doe or Die and Illmatic "twin sides of the same double-headed coin," but conceded that despite the inevitably unfair comparisons between the two, Doe or Die was "one of the strongest, most promising debut efforts of 1995, and probably one of the year's strongest rap albums period." The passage of time has only added to the album's aesthetic, rooting the strong boom bap palette in a much-revered time and place. Listening to AZ's Doe or Die is like stepping into the past: it's an experience you seek out, an album you're unlikely to hear on your local radio station or hip café. If you haven't already, spend some time with AZ's 1995 debut.