Kaz Oliver and Tha Audio Unit remain calm, cool and collected on 'Aerial Vision'

Andy Downing
Kaz Oliver

Kaz Oliver has always been unflappable, a character trait that has led some to label the rapper mysterious, since his emotional state can often be hard to read. It’s an attribute that bleeds over into Oliver’s music, with the MC adopting a generally chill demeanor, rolling through his musical world as unflappably as the Dude negotiating the various ins, outs and what-have-yous that confront him throughout the Coen Brothers' labyrinthine “The Big Lebowski.”

But even Oliver isn’t completely unfazed by 2020, with new albumAerial Vision (North City Music Group), recorded alongside producer Jack “Tha Audio Unit” Burton, making at least oblique reference to the most recent round of Black Lives Matter protests that took over the city and country for weeks beginning in late May. Witness album track “Will Not Be Televised,” which is built around a pinging video game beat and a sample of Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and finds labelmate P.A. Flex rhyming about rising violence. 

In an early October phone interview, the Columbus-born Oliver said these more outward-looking verses were a first for him, brought about by unprecedented times. In general, though, the songs onAerial Vision serve as an escape, reflecting the shared mindset with which Oliver and Burton entered into recording in January, weeks before coronavirus-driven stay-at-home orders shut down much of the city and state. “I had a couple records I had worked on from beats he sent me, and from there we hit the ground running,” Oliver said. 

The rapper said this pace was unaltered by the emergence of COVID-19, and the two continued weekly studio sessions throughout early summer, establishing a continuity that allowed Oliver’s vision for the record to go largely unaltered. It’s a tone established from the album-opening title track, which begins with Oliver as a class-skipping kid before fast-forwarding “to the present day,” compressing hard times and friends lost to death or desperation into a handful of lines before resuming a more comfortably laid-back posture. “Smooth shit/Check the temperature/You know I’m always on some cool shit,” the MC raps in a series of blood pressure-stabilizing bars atop a silky Burton beat.

Growing up, it seemed inevitable that Oliver would eventually chart a course in music. His father, guitarist Kevin Oliver, formerly played with George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic and has more recently gigged with Hoo Doo Soul Band, and the rapper grew up tagging along to concerts at venues like Victory’s Live.

Rather than funk, rock or soul, though, Oliver gravitated to hip-hop after discovering pioneers such as Run-D.M.C. and Public Enemy, drawn to the form by its storytelling aspect, which felt more familiar to his own experiences growing up. “It’s like they say, hip-hop is the news of the streets,” Oliver said, referencing the words of Chuck D, who famously called rap “the CNN of the streets.”

Early on, Oliver created music alongside friends in a handful of hip-hop groups, which he said tended to adopt a harder pose somewhat removed from his upbringing. When the last of those groups broke up, the rapper, then in his early 20s, contemplated giving up music altogether, opting to record one solo song before making a final call.

“I decided that if I didn’t like it I would walk away,” said Oliver, who dropped his earlier posturing, recording a track that felt more reflective of his own realities. “And if I liked it, I would keep going.”

If you’re still wondering where Oliver landed with his decision, the rapper’s new album, Aerial Visions, will be available on all streaming platforms beginning on Friday, Oct. 9.

Jack "Tha Audio Unit" Burton