Masta Ace has always had a reason to rhyme. The Brooklyn, New York rapper emerged as crafty member of the Juice Crew, dropping thought-provoking rhymes that were an early incarnation of what would later be labeled edutainment. As his career continued, Ace evolved into one of rap’s greatest conceptual artists, delivering a steady stream of fully formed and executed concept albums, including 2001’s Disposable Arts and 2004’s A Long Hot Summer.
Masta Ace continues his concept album tradition with The Falling Season, which arrived in stores last month. On the reflective project, he retraces his high school years, providing insight into the creative mind that would deliver such revered projects as Take a Look Around, SlaughtaHouse, Sittin’ on Chrome and MA_DOOM: Son of Yvonne. Each project is filled with clever wordplay and thunderous beats, as well as stirring passages that feature Ace putting life’s highs and lows in perspective as he navigates the societal and personal roadblocks he encounters while trying to grow into being a better person.
During the interview, Masta Ace explains what outsiders think of rap when they take a peek from the outside, how he felt being “Young Black Intelligent” and living with living with multiple sclerosis, as well as the significance of being educated and the importance of the family unit.
Masta Ace On His Concept Albums: “I’m A Writer At Heart”
HipHopDX: On thing that you’ve become known for is the concept album, a tradition you continue on your newest project, The Falling Season. You also often have your songs and concepts tied together from one project to the next. Why is that something that mattered to you and made you want to make it part of your artistic push?
Masta Ace: I think that it’s always been in me. I feel like I’m a writer at heart. Writing fictional stories is something that I feel like I had a knack for. Since I was rapping and doing music, the only way for me to really express that sort of writing was through skits on albums and so it started off with me kind of experimenting early. SlaughtaHouse, I’d say, was the first attempt at it, but I wasn’t really sure what I was doing or how far to go with it. When Sittin’ on Chrome came out, that’s when it became more of a, “OK. This is something where I can try to tell a story.” I loosely did it on Sittin’ on Chrome. People seemed to react to it, but it wasn’t until Disposable [Arts] that I really kind of made my mind up that I wanted to really, really try to make a beginning, middle and ending in what I was doing.
DX: I understand what you’re saying with SlaughtaHouse and Sittin’ on Chrome, but I always thought that even though it was a little looser that SlaughtaHouse had that type of theme, even if it wasn’t a fully executed concept, which is to your point. I thought SlaughtaHouse had a theme or concept of this is what is happening to rap, to the ‘hood, to the black community.
Masta Ace: It definitely was. In SlaughtaHouse there weren’t characters or necessarily a script. But there was a message and a theme to what the album saying, but it wasn’t until later that I got to characters with names. It kind of started on Sittin’ on Chrome with the Cousin Jerome.
DX: Taking it back even further to 1988 and Marley Marl‘s In Control Volume 1, people often refer to your appearance on “The Symphony,” but with your song “Keep Your Eye on the Prize,” I think that was a foreshadowing to the type of commentary that you would include on your first album, Take a Look Around, on up. Beyond the story aspect of it, it always seemed like you had a reason to rhyme, that you thought about what you were going to say. From those early records, why did you want to have a message?
Masta Ace: It started with the first album. I felt like on the first album, me coming from the projects, the neighborhood that I came from and having really close friends go a totally different route in terms of what they decided to do with their lives, in a lot of ways I was talking to those friends. These are kids that I hung with pretty much every day, played football with in the neighborhood and all that. I just felt like they could have potentially did the same thing that I did and had the same direction that I did, but they decided to do something else. I sort of felt like it was my position to speak to them almost directly, but indirectly, about their path. I did it on the first album, but it was a little too preachy in the way that I was trying to get the message across. I realized that and after the first album is when I started to be a little bit more strategic with the way that I passed the message along. The “A Walk Thru The Valley” on SlaughtaHouse where I’m talking about the guy across the street and that he’s a threat to me for no reason and all of that, I decided to visit it in a different way after the first album. But it was always there, me speaking to my peers because I come from the same environment that they come from and yet we took different paths in life.
Masta Ace On “The Falling Season’s” Educational Theme
DX: What do you attribute that to?
Masta Ace: For me, it was having a family structure. My mother and my grandmother, them instilling the right kind of values in me at a really early age. I think that played a huge part in me making the right decisions along the way. There was definitely an opportunity for me to do different things, go a different route and I basically rejected those opportunities and went a different direction and I can only attribute it to being taught by my mother and grandmother at an early age what was right and what was wrong.
DX: You ended up going to college out of state, which you incorporated into Disposable Arts, and you have the MA_DOOM: Son of Yvonne album, which paid homage to your mother, both of which tie into The Falling Season, which has an educational theme. Why is the educational theme something you came back to?
Masta Ace: It felt like the right thing. I felt like I wanted to tell my story. Those albums and those messages encompass my story. The easy thing to do is just to talk about all your negative experiences in the hood and you saw this person get shot and these dudes sold drugs and all the negativity that was going on in the environment. I was around the exact same negative stuff that everybody else was around, but I just decided to take it a different route. That’s kind of always been my way of thinking is to go against the grain of what the obvious, normal rapper thing to do is. So, I just decided I wanted to speak on it from a different angle. We’re not all one thing. If you were to listen to most rappers, you’d just think that everybody from the hood has a drug background, a gun-carrying background, everybody shot somebody, saw somebody get shot and I feel like there’s more to us than what’s being put out there in music all these years.
DX: Now only in music, of course, but in entertainment in general. I think that’s why one of the skits that stood out to me on The Falling Season was “Team Tryouts” when you were talking about not fitting in with the other black kid. To your point, it address the monolithic perception that all black people are the same or have the same interest in stuff. Beyond music and entertainment, why do you think there is that perception?
Masta Ace: We’re talking beyond music, of course, but when we’re talking about artists, I think that the majority choose one message, one theme, one image, one visual and that becomes kind of the common theme. When people who aren’t that familiar with rap music take a peek at it, they get a glimpse of it and this is what they see. So, they take from those videos and those images a perception of what black people are. They don’t necessarily see other images of what black people are so they just kind of go with the flow of, “Oh, that’s what I see in all the videos so…” It’s almost like when I meet somebody in, say, a professional environment or even when I’m meeting one of my daughter’s teachers, the question comes up, “What do you do for a living?” I’m never saying I’m a rap artist. I’ll say, “I’m in the music business” because as soon as I say I’m a rap artist, they’re going to have an immediate perception of who I am, what I am, what I must be like away the school. It’s messed up to have to sort of dance around what you do for a living, but that’s the nature of the beast and the nature of people’s perceptions of rappers.
DX: That ties into the “Young Black Intelligent (Y.B.I.)” song, whose video came out yesterday (June 13), with the theme of trying to be unsure and trying to fit it knowing that you do have intelligence in an environment where that’s not necessarily either acknowledged or embraced or the norm. How did you decide to present that song in the way that you did?
Masta Ace: That song totally encompasses my existence as a young person growing up, the struggle, the neighborhood. That was the first song I wrote on the album. It all came from that record. The whole concept of the album was born from that song and those lyrics. The first time I went in the booth to spit those lyrics, I didn’t even get through the first verse before I had to compose myself, get some tissue, sit down, take a few minutes and compose myself before I went back and finished the lyrics. I was wiping tears away. It was me and my partner Rich, who was the engineer at the time, he didn’t say a word. He knew that there was something going on. He just turned the music off. He sat back. He said, “You alright?” I was like, “Yeah. I just need a minute.” I composed myself and eventually got back and spit the rhyme. When I listened back to it, I got the same emotion. That song is me. Apparently, it’s starting to resonate with other people around the country, which is cool. I’m getting kids from different high school’s reaching out to me on Instagram and on Twitter just saying they relate to the song. I had a teacher from Philadelphia who had his whole class write reaction papers after he played the song for the class and that’s a beautiful thing, that my story is resonating with other people. That’s my story. That’s who I am, who I was, what it was like. It’s really all in a nutshell in those two verses, essentially me navigating my way through Brownsville, the danger of my neighborhood verses the danger of the area around my school, playing football in order to avoid getting caught up in other things, having a coach that was more of a father figure that guided me in the right direction and away from street stuff. All of those things are encompassed on that song – and trying to make my mother proud at the same time.
DX: I think it’s one of the best, if not the best, song on the album and it provides a lot of perspective. Also, in “Say Goodbye,” you talk about saying goodbye to songs with heartfelt messages. I’m always torn with those types of comments because I think those songs still exist today, with your making music being a testament to that. I think it’s harder to find them than it used to be because there are 1,000 artists, not 100 like it used to be.
Masta Ace: I agree. That statement was me being overly dramatic about the topic. What I was trying to do in that song was talk from the perspective of somebody who is older and doesn’t necessarily relate to the younger generation and has this idea that everything that they thought was great and terrific and right and what life was about when they were younger is gone and they have to say goodbye to it. It’s not actually a fact, but it’s the perception of older people and that’s why the skit that leads into that is my coach speaking about back in his day how things were. It was like his generation in the early ‘80s is looking at us young teens. He’s like, “Look at these guys. All they know about is Walkmans and all this technology stuff. They don’t even fight anymore. They jump a kid and pull weapons out.” He didn’t come from that time and that’s kind of what I was trying to communicate. It’s generational. The same way he as a grown man is looking at me as a teen with my peers as being this kind of odd thing is the same way now how we’re, in our late 30s, 40s and going into 50s are looking at the younger kids in the same way our coach was looking at us.
DX: I think you have a lot of high quality guest appearances on the album, but I think Wordsworth’s verse on “Say Goodbye” is particularly powerful with the stuff he was saying about marriage, two-parent homes, being viewed as innocent before guilty.
Masta Ace: I agree. A lot of people have said that.
Masta Ace Praises Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Joey Bada$$ & Action Bronson
DX: To your point about the song, you kind of juxtapose that with the chorus where it says living in the present day, just glad to be in it. As someone who has always examined things in their music from a critical, and not negative, eye how do you find the balance of celebrating what’s happening now with in your life and in music with accountability for what people do? I was thinking about it how you’ve said on earlier records about how we’re our own worst enemy and that people need to take accountability.
Masta Ace: In a lot of ways, those same words are still poignant today. We still are our own worst enemies after all these years. I’m able to celebrate today’s Hip Hop in the name of cats like Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Joey Bada$$, Action Bronson. There’s some guys to me that are doing it in a way that I like. I wouldn’t say they’re doing it the right way, but the way that I like and that I can relate to, that makes me feel good. I’m able to celebrate those types of artists and feel like Hip Hop is moving in the right direction in some lanes and I’m happy about that. That’s how I’m able to balance the two things out. There are days when I hear other music that bothers me, annoys me. The popularity of certain songs just baffles me and gets under my skin. So I put on some Kendrick or some J. Cole or something else to sort of wash that palate clean.
DX: You mentioned Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole multiple times. What is it in particular about them do you like or is something that makes them artists you enjoy?
Masta Ace: I think one of the key things is the sound that they choose to rap over, the music they choose to rap over. There are aspects of it that feel like the current music, but there are aspects of it that feel like more boom bapish and I think that balance of the trap sound of the 2016 era, somewhere in between there is the right feeling of what stuff should sound like in my opinion for new artists, not myself. I think they do a good job of finding that balance.
DX: They’re obviously celebrated for having good lyrics and another song on The Falling Season that I really thought was good in that regard was “Labyrinth.” You have a powerful passage about dying over chains. Where did that come from?
Masta Ace: In my youth, jewelry was a big part of it. Wearing gold was a representation of accomplishment, in particular a name plate. Back then, some cats were wearing 14 carats. Some cats, they couldn’t afford 14. They wore 10. Those that couldn’t wear 10 wore the fake stuff and the average person couldn’t tell the difference. Gold was gold, and if you had it on your neck, you was potentially a target. Yeah, I don’t want to die for a fake chain or a real chain. I’m trying to stay alive, so you make the decision on when to wear those pieces and when not to, where to go when having those pieces on and where not to go. It literally governs your life and your movements based on trying to keep your jewelry. At least that’s what I did because there were some kids that had the sense that, “I don’t care. I’m wearing my stuff wherever I go. Wherever I go, I’m going to have my jewelry on. It’s going to be out.” That’s fine, too, but most of those people didn’t come home with their jewelry, or they came home with no jewelry and a big eye or a knife wound, a bullet wound. Who knows? I just was always a calculated thinker and always tried to avoid putting myself in harm’s way if I could avoid it.
DX: Toward the end of the album, you’ve got the “Coronation” record. To your point of not presenting just one side of the black experience, I think it’s important that you showed that you graduated. As a father, a student, a parent, a person, what is the importance of being educated?
Masta Ace: There’s a sense of pride that comes along with knowing that you’ve passed the tests that have been put in front of you by teachers, educators. To be able to say that you accomplished the act of getting a diploma, you have to understand and appreciate that there were many, many from our community who didn’t even have the opportunity to get an education, weren’t even given books in some cases and the fact that we have these books readily available for us to use and we don’t take advantage of it, to me is a slap in the face to all of those who came before us who didn’t have those opportunities. I always felt like it was important. My mother sacrificed her education for me. My mom didn’t get her college degree until after I got mine. She worked a regular job and with that job and the money she made from that job is how she covered my college tuition. She was taking classes, but because she was working, she could only take a handful of classes per semester. So it took her way longer than it took me. It took me four years. It took her way longer to finally get a degree, but she did it. I have the photo in my collection of me with her on her graduation day. It’s a pretty cool picture to look at now in hindsight, the fact that I already had my college degree and she was just getting hers, but that’s the sacrifice the people that came before us made. We owe it to them to get the best education that we can get and we owe it to ourselves if we really want to be productive members of society and do something with our lives. That’s not to say that every single person that gets a degree is going to go on to be a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, but that’s just to say that education that puts you on a path that isn’t necessarily a path of destruction. When you look at going another route, instead of getting an education deciding to sell drugs, what kind of path is that putting you on? I think we owe it to ourselves, our parents, our grandparents and our great-grandparents to get an education, to be educated, to be able to be in a situation and articulate our feelings without using a whole bunch of profanity, to be able to make a point without being overly emotional and using our brains.
DX: Switching gears a bit, back in December 2013, I interviewed you and wrote the story in which you revealed that you have multiple sclerosis. How are you doing healthwise?
Masta Ace: Thanks for asking. I’m doing great, man. I just came back from taking at Hiit Class at the Y. It’s high intensity, non-stop movement. It’s a lot of sweating. My sort of mantra to myself is to use it while I can, so I continue to be as active as I can possibly be, eat the right things and take care of myself. We just did 20 shows in Europe, some of them on minimal sleep and I was just as strong in Show 1 as I was in Show 20. Some of the nights, the rooms were filled with a lot of cigarette smoke, which was quite a challenge but getting through those sets and putting on a good show for people, I owe it all to being in shape, working out and taking care of myself.
Masta Ace’s new album, The Falling Season is available on iTunes now courtesy of hhv.de.