For some, Masta Ace may be the most legendary rapper you’ve never heard of. Ace has done virtually everything–from his beginnings in Marley Marl’s Juice Crew (along side Big Daddy Kane, Kool G. Rap, amongst others), to his challenging of rap regionalism with solo LPs “Slaughtahouse” and “Sittin’ On Chrome,” and finally, to what appears to be the third and final phase in his illustrious career as underground sage extraordinaire. Not even a half-decade hiatus in the mid and late 90s due to multiple project-shelvings and industry politics could slow Ace down. In fact, he came back even hungrier. Here he talks about his education, being a responsible adult, his plans for the future, and even the Philadelphia Eagles. As Ace says on “Beautiful,” he’s “got a lot to say.”
DM: Ace, you’re a legendary veteran in the industry. You were, of course, featured on “The Symphony” as a member of the Juice Crew, and your place in history, as you alluded to in “No Regrets,” is well cemented. But you’re a pioneer in other ways, too. While it’s not uncommon to find MC’s nowadays, you were one of the first big name rappers to graduate from college (University of Rhode Island). Tell me a little bit about your education, your experiences at URI, and how it affected your career.
Ace: Going to URI was a major culture shock for me, coming from Brooklyn. For the first time in my life, I was living on my own and in a different state. It took some getting used to. Only one percent of the student population was African-American my freshman year. I felt a bit out of place and students were constantly assuming that I was there to play basketball or football, since most of that one percent were athletes. I was one of only a handful of [African-American] students there that was not on a sports team.
DM: You’re a BK MC all the way, and it comes through in much of your music. The particular ‘hood you grew up in is Brownsville—one of the roughest areas of Brooklyn. Some of your tracks like “Take A Walk” and “Block Episode” are detailed accounts of the violent and dangerous nature of your environment. But, you’re usually a passive observer; you don’t claim to be a gang-banger or a drug dealer. How were you able to transcend the various pitfalls of your surroundings and better yourself in terms of education and music?
“Thanks to a strong mother and grandmother, I was taught that education was most important. They gave me the values I needed..”
Ace: Thanks to a strong mother and grandmother, I was taught that education was most important. They gave me the values I needed to make it out of Brownsville alive and well and to prosper in the world.
DM: It seems, based on the satiric tone of Disposable Arts, that you’re a bit critical of the university experience. Most recently though, Kanye West released “The College Dropout,” which expresses a similar sentiment. What do you think about Kanye’s use of this theme? Why do you think it’s popping up amongst rappers?
Ace: I think there is a void in hip hop where rappers are afraid to explore other experiences besides slinging crack and busting guns. Kanye obviously had different experiences growing up in the ‘hood like I did, and he realized that these stories need to be told, too.
DM: One of the knocks on the contemporary Hip Hop is that it’s juvenile—not for the grown ass man, so to speak. You’re a married man in your 30s, and expecting a child. How do you respond to this criticism?
“Cats over 30 want to hear about experiences that directly relate to being that age […] I guess I make grown-ass-man Hip Hop.”
Ace: I think there are artists out there making Hip Hop that a grown ass man can relate to, then it’s relevant. I tried to do just that. Cats over 30 want to hear about experiences that directly relate to being that age—not about experiences they had when they were teenagers. I guess I make grown-ass-man Hip Hop.
DM: A notable trend on your last two albums is that you’ve enlisted the services of some relatively obscure guest rappers and producers. For instance, Jean Grae is just now starting to catch on, but you gave her a verse on “Disposable Arts” back in 2001. How important is it for you to help up-and-comers break through?
Ace: It has always been my goal to help expose young talent to the people. I have always tried to make my albums be a launching pad for up-and-comers in hopes that they blow up bigger and better than I ever did.
DM: A producer who laced two of the hotter beats on “A Long Hot Summer” is Dug Infinite (“Big City,” and “Wutuwankno”). Most heads outside of Chicago haven’t heard much from Dug since his days with Common Sense and No I.D. How did you two get hooked up?
Ace: I did a show in Chi-Town a while back and met Dug while I was in town. We wound up doing a couple songs together after I peeped some of his beats.
DM: Some of your critics say that you sound too bitter, too hackneyed at times, like on “F.A.Y. (Fuck All Y’all).” But you have a hot track on “A Long Hot Summer” that’s getting some buzz right now called “Beautiful,” which is actually the b-side to the first single “Good Ol’ Love,” where you list some of the great things in life. Tell me about this “silver-lining” track.
“I went with how the track made me feel inside. I wanted to give Hip Hop a much needed feel-good song.”
Ace: The beat, produced by Koolade, just sounded “Beautiful” to me. The beat just dictated the lyrics and the song. I went with how the track made me feel inside. I wanted to give Hip Hop a much needed feel-good song.
DM: It’s no small secret that you have mastered the art of concept albums. You’ve told interesting stories with unforgettable characters like Paul from Saskatchewan and Fats Belvedere. Tell me a little bit about your affinity for story-telling albums and why you chose to place “A Long Hot Summer” as the narrative prequel to “Disposable Arts,” even though it was actually released three years later.
Ace: I chose the prequel idea so that all the people who didn’t get to hear “Disposable Arts” would be tempted to go back and peep the rest of the story. “Disposable Arts” never got a fair chance in the market place and this was a way to give it new life. We are re-releasing it on CD later this year. As far as the concept albums go, I am a writer beyond rhymes. I have written short stories that have been published. I love creating characters and storylines. As I write, I get excited because not even I know where the story will go. It’s a passion that I would like to pursue after music.
DM: You’ve just started your own label, M3, under which you released “A Long Hot Summer.” Describe some of the different challenges you face as an executive, hustling to get a label off the ground, as opposed to just writing and producing tracks as an artist.
“It’s hard for me to mix the two because which ever one I am doing, I have to go hard, 100% on that task.”
Ace: It’s a similar hustle, just with different challenges. It’s hard for me to mix the two because which ever one I am doing, I have to go hard, 100% on that task. As an artist I am focused on MY beats, songs, ideas, features, etc. Now, as a label executive, I will be doing the same things but for other artists. And now I must include marketing and promotions ideas, and do it all in collaboration with another person’s input—the artist.
DM: What artists do you plan to release on M3?
Ace: Stricklin and Leschea. That’s it, so far.
DM: The internet is playing an increasingly large roll in Hip Hop nowadays. Now we have sites like OkayPlayer which foster online communities—you even have your own at MastaAce.com. But you were in the game way before the advent of the internet. How have you seen the game change since the internet became so popular? Is it good or bad?
“…with all the file sharing going on, there is an incredible amount of free promotion happening.”
Ace: For an indy artist, the internet can be both positive and negative. It’s positive because with all the file sharing going on, there is an incredible amount of free promotion happening. But the problem is when the people doing the file sharing don’t go out and make the store purchase after hearing the music on their computers.
DM: Ace, where is Hip Hop headed?
Ace: Towards a major change—I don’t know for sure what that change will be, but there will be a group, song or album that will be so different than what’s out there that it will sell millions. At that point, the major labels will shift their attack to chase the new trend.
DM: Alright, enough of these heavy-handed questions—except for one I’ll save for the end.
I’ll keep the following short and sweet.
Who’s your favorite rapper?
Ace: I don’t really have one favorite. I’ll give you a few though: Canibus, Kane, Jay-Z, B.I.G., Eminem, Chill Rob G.
DM: What are some of your favorite books?
Ace: “Coldest Winter Ever,” by Sista Souljah.
DM: Pete Rock or DJ Premier?
Ace: Wow. Primo, but I love Pete, too.
DM: Timbo or Dre?
Ace: Definitely Dre, hands down.
DM: “The Low End Theory” or “Midnight Marauders?”
Ace: “Low End Theory,” for sure! I even shouted it out on “Jeep Ass Niguh.”
DM: I know you’re a big football fan. Who’s your squad? Who will win this year’s Super Bowl?
“My squad is and has been, since 1980, the Philadelphia Eagles. If everything goes well, they will win it all.”
Ace: My squad is and has been, since 1980, the Philadelphia Eagles. If everything goes well, they will win it all.
DM: And on the sports tip, I have to admit Ace: You gave a shout to The Yankees on “Beautiful.” But I’m a Mets fan. Tell me it ain’t so. I mean, Brooklyn? That’s The Dodgers’ old stomping grounds. You can’t like The Yanks.
Ace: I am an avid football fan but only a casual baseball and basketball fan. I root for all the local teams in those sports—The Mets, Yank, Nets, Knicks. If we could have a Subway Series every year, that would be hot. I would probably root for The Mets then because you know I always like the underdog in those situations.
DM: Which of the following Brooklyn MC’s would you most like to work with: Kweli, Mos Def or Jay-Z? Or is there another?
Ace: Any and all of them. They’re all talented in their own ways. Kweli was actually supposed to be on “Disposable Arts” and “A Long Hot Summer,” but we couldn’t work it out either time.
DM: And finally, I saved the big question for last: I know you’ve been hinting at it since you dropped “Disposable Arts,” but has Masta Ace released his final solo LP?
“Yes, this is the last LP, unless something totally unexpected happens with this album where it would be stupid not to do another one.”
Ace: Yes, this is the last LP, unless something totally unexpected happens with this album where it would be stupid not to do another one. I will still do features and side projects though. I’d also be open to doing a group project if it was the right situation.
DM: Ace, congratulations on a great career, best of luck in future executive endeavors, and thanks for your time.
Ace: No problem. My pleasure.