It didn't take long for Omar Azizi to establish himself as the biggest presence in a room. He easily outweighed his fellow newborns in a LA hospital nursery, tipping the scales at 12 pounds.
Twenty-eight years later, the Irvine rapper known as "Big Oz" towers onstage, thanks to an imposing 6-foot-6, 285-pound frame. The Afghan-American rapper now stands poised with outsized ambitions to chart a continental reach with his rhymes.
But Azizi's pathway hasn't been without its obstacles. His father, who fled Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion, loves to sing and play accordion but didn't want his son to live a musician's life. He raised Azizi to be cultured while priming him for a future in politics.
"As a kid, I wrote a lot of poetry," Azizi says.
His dad introduced him to the 13th-century poet Jalal ad-Din Rumi. "He's one of the most amazing, inspiring poets to ever come out of Afghanistan."
Growing up in the Bay Area, a teenage Azizi started writing rhymes, too, listening to all the big-name rappers emerging on the scene. "The Luniz's 'I Got Five On It' remix pulled me in," he says.
But it wasn't until the big man from the bay moved to OC at 17 that he experienced being a true master of ceremonies. "I'm hanging out at a place called Coconuts with my friends, and they called me up on the mic," Azizi recalls. "I started freestyling, and all of a sudden, everyone's live. It was the same reaction I saw my father get when I was at family gatherings where he'd sing."
Azizi started recording two years later with Aliso Black in a local group called Xtort Clan. Then tragedy struck: Off-duty Department of Homeland Security agent Douglas Bates shot group member Bassim Chmait in the head after confronting him and his friends, Azizi among them, in February 2005. "He died in my hands," Azizi recalls.
Xtort Clan split up, and Azizi stepped away from the mic. But a few years later, hip-hop came calling, helping to pull him out of the malaise. Azizi started spending long nights in the studio prepping music that would land him opening gigs for Planet Asia and Wu-Tang Clan members.
But then death descended once more. "My older brother passed away two years ago. He had muscular dystrophy," Azizi says. "When that happened, I went through months of being depressed. A moment came when I realized I need to take all this sadness and turn it around into something positive."
On Palm Trees, an eight-song collection that dropped in May, Big Oz delivers battle-tested, feel-good rhymes. Afghan percussion meshes with synth beats, melding the modern with traditional and clever rhymes with mainstream appeal, such as on "New Daze." And then there's "Welcome to the Juice," a banger that's all about OC.
"I tried to create something to put our county on the map," Azizi says. It's also a bridge to the music he's currently fine-tuning in the lab. Fellow locals Kadillak Kaz, C4mula, Emcee Classiq and Supreme Cerebral lend verses on songs that, even as rough mixes, showcase a power to establish OC as a hotbed of hip-hop. Azizi plans to call the effort "The Revolution," and it sure doesn't sound like a dress rehearsal.
He has also rapped in English and Farsi for a song on Afghan superstar pop singer Habib Qaderi's upcoming album. Azizi's following that effort up with a solo track sampling Ahmad Zahir, the Elvis Presley of Afghanistan. Previewing the songs, they're primed to propel Azizi to stardom among audiences of loyal "Afgoonz" throughout the Ummah.
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When that happens, Azizi will be OC's unofficial hip-hop cultural ambassador to the world; not quite the statesman his father wanted, but it's a fate he can accept after the Sufi mystic saw a little Rumi in his rhymes: "He looked at me one day and said, 'Son, this is a meditation, a prayer.'"
Big Oz performs with E-40 at the Observatory, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 957-0600; www.observatoryoc.com. Wed., 8 p.m. $15. All ages.