MUSIC: Masta Ace
Featured in Freestyle Volume 04 2008. Interview by Jason Jaram. Photography by Phil Cooper.
Longevity. It’s not a word that pops up too often in hip hop. Most rappers seem to have a very limited shelf life but Masta Ace ain’t your everyday emcee. A career that stretches back to the golden age of hip hop, Ace has gone from representing Brooklyn on the posse cut blueprint ‘The Symphony’ to the recent classic ‘Long Hot Summer’. Not one to stay stagnant Ace decided to create hip hop super group eMC with longtime collaborators Wordsworth, Punchline and Stricklin. Freestyle got a chance to catch up with Ace and the boys (minus Punch) on their recent tour.
I read in an interview where you said “There’s no New York sound anymore, most artists try to mesh with whatever is hot”. Do you view that as a good or bad thing?
Ace: That’s a bad thing. There was a point in time in hip hop where New York had its own identity and its own sound, and when you heard a record you knew it was a New York artist. Now the music you hear coming out of New York does not have any real definitive sound to it, it sounds like whatever the hot sound is. Down South is hot right now, so a lot of New York artists are putting that feel on their records. I think New York kind of got lost. Same thing happened to LA though. LA lost its direction too. Right now Down South rules the industry.
Are their any artists from the South that you’re feeling?
Ace: I don’t know if you can say Little Brother - they from North Carolina. I like mid west dudes like Common and Kanye. I’ve always liked Scarface, but he’s not really from this generation of Down South music, he’s from a different era of Southern Music. I think Ludacris is real talented, I like him. I don’t listen to a lot of it. I am noticing that they’re trying to do better on the rhyming and I’m hearing that more. I’m hearing that guys are really trying to spit and show some skill, so that’s a good thing.
Hip hop heads out there are always saying “it just ain’t the same as the ‘90’s”. Where did we get lost?
Ace: One of the key turning points was the emergence of Bad Boy records and the success of that label, the success of Puffy and the artists he was putting out. When he started to mesh and blend hip hop and R’n’B, that became the sound on the radio. Radio program directors wanted rap records that sounded like that, so every record label was pushing their artist to make that kind of hip hop. I think that was a real crucial turning point. Puffy was making so much money and selling so many records that other labels felt they had no other choice but to chase what he was doing and everybody got really lost. I don’t think we have recovered from that yet. We’re still struggling.
So who are you working with at the moment?
Ace: Well the next big project is EMC, which is Words, Strick, Punchline (and Ace). The four of us have collaborated on my last two albums on a bunch of different records and now we decided to combine our forces and put together the full length CD.
How did you guys hook up?
Words: Me and Ace had a mutual friend who was putting out our records. Ace had actually heard this EP Punch and I were working on. He liked what he heard, and we were basically invited to get on the album which transpired into us going on the road with Ace.
Strick: Ace heard me on a mixtape, contacted me and said “I know this guy that’s putting out a compilation CD and I think you should get on that project”. So I did a song called ‘The Booth‘ for that compilation. Ace shortly after that, was starting to record ‘Disposable Arts’ and he invited all of us to come down and do songs for his album. Based on that relationship we had - Ace actually did the production on ‘The Booth’ - we worked well together so we went in and did the songs for ‘Disposable Arts’, started touring together and the rest is history.
How have you found going from being solo emcees to working in a group?
Ace: For me it’s a little bit different because with my solo projects I’m very hands on and make pretty much every decision across the board on how my record is gonna sound or what songs are gonna make the album. Once you involve other entities in the project everybody has their opinion or their point of view - and I don’t want to be the dictator - so everybody has the opportunity to give their input. I always give my opinion and if everybody out votes me then I say “OK, that’s cool”.
Strick: You’ve got other people you can bounce ideas off of and kind of get the green light. Sometimes you have to fall back on what you feel should really happen. We come from the same perspective, so writing songs is pretty easy. It was a much easier process than I thought it would be.
Words: If you don’t like the beat you don’t gotta rhyme on it (laughs).
You recently toured Mexico, what was the scene like over there?
Ace: There’s a big language barrier over there because not a lot of people speak English but it was still cool. We were really exposing them to our music for the first time. I think there was maybe a handful of people that actually knew the records, everybody else was getting familiar with it, which is good. If anything we planted seeds out there so now maybe those people will go out go to the record store and pick up a CD or buy it off iTunes.
Do you get much time to do International collaborations while on tours?
Ace: We’ve done collaborations with a few artists from different parts of the world. I’ve collaborated with a guy from France named Zoxea, DJ Hype from Berlin, Create and Devastate from the Netherlands. I recently collaborated with the Funk Oars, and we did some stuff with M-Phazes. If somebody reaches out and if the beat is hot, then cool. We can’t really concentrate if the lyrics aren't good ‘cos a lot of times we don’t understand the language.
Let’s talk about Brooklyn hip hop for a minute. What does Brooklyn hip hop mean to you?
Words: I think it’s really dealing with being witty and clever and getting your point across. Even Jay-Z and Biggie - no matter what style of rhymes - was always clever. You got people that try to copy the way Jay-Z and Biggie did it - you know flashy and flossy - and they’re not clever enough. I was more in tune with just making sure whatever I said had something that was clever. Also maintaining consistency is a big thing, ‘cos all them guys I mentioned have a sense of integrity on being consistent.
Ace: To me, Brooklyn hip hop is about aggression. It’s about swagger. It’s about appearance. It’s about how you dress, not just what your wearing, but how you wear it. Everything is very deliberate. It’s in your face, it’s very much “I’m better than you, and I’m ready to prove it”. Coming up in it, it gave me a lot of street knowledge on how to manouever my way through the music industry. Being in that aggressive atmosphere has helped me to survive in the industry for this long.
Who do you see as the future of hip hop?
Masta Ace: Little Brother.
Words: Honestly, I really don’t like too many people that’s out right now. I don’t like a lot of the new stuff. There’s a lot of hype on new people, but nobody puts their album out. They keep doing the mixtape scene and some of them come out with one good verse and then they’re declared to be so good and their other verses are corny! So it’s gonna take a minute before I decide.
Strick: I like the direction of Little Brother. I got a homie named Torae from Brooklyn. I like his work ethic and I think he’s gonna be pretty solid in the future.
You seem to be struggling to pull names out, is this any indication of the state of hip hop? Is it dead?
Ace: It’s not dead, but it’s struggling to stay alive. There are a few artists out there trying to keep the right vibe going on in the music. The problem is that there is not enough commercial radio stations that are willing to play that stuff, so it doesn’t get put out to the masses. If we can get the right people in high positions then maybe we can balance things out a little bit more.
Wordz: It will never die because you got the internet - you got worlds colliding. Like you got me and M-Phazes. Me and him is gonna start a whole new thing in hip hop to keep it alive. It will never die. It ain’t dead. It’s just different avenues that people gotta find to get it out.
OK Ace, there’s a couple of videos on your Myspace with you coaching high school football. Can you tell us a little about that side of you? Do the kids know about your rap career?
Ace: Most of the older ones know that I used to make records. Most of them don’t realise that I still make records and tour. They know that every now and then they don’t see me for 2 weeks. They know I’m doing something, but they don’t know exactly what it is. Luckily they haven’t really dug too deep into Youtube and seen the clips of me performing. If they ever saw me they would be like “I can’t believe that’s the coach!” They’ve never seen that side of me. I’m very straight laced with them, a father figure, trying to keep them on the straight and narrow path. They’ve never seen that other personality - me on stage in doorags and all kinds of crazy stuff flying around. As they get older maybe they’ll seek it out and find out about it.
Finally can you tell us a little bit about the New York car scene?
Ace: There used to be a pretty good cruising scene in Harlem on 125th Street on Wednesday nights. Amateur night at the Apollo would pop off, so everybody from all the boroughs would drive up to 125th and cruise out the front of the Apollo and show off their cars. I’m talking Nissan Maxima’s with a kit and no tint. Harlem was big on no tints. Mercedes 300E’s, BMW 325’s with the rag top and the Gucci interior. Back then it was BBS rims same colour as the car.
I was in a Chevy Blazer back then. Chrome wheel component rims, two 12’s and two 15 inch woofers in the back with my sounds on as loud as they could go, windows down, trying to holla at the girls (laughs). Now I got a family and it’s different. I’m not that same dude. I’m still into the trucks though. I’ve got a GMC Yukon, no rims, no extras – oh actually I do have the billet grill ‘cos I like to have that one little feature. I didn’t even put a system in it. I got a factory system. It’s loud enough. It’s amazing how you grow up and things just change, ‘cos shit couldn’t be loud enough when I was younger, now it’s like “man, could you turn it down a little bit!” (Laughs).
To find out more about eMC and Masta Ace, visit www.mastaace.com
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