Hip-hop culture and rap music are now on the horizon towards 50 years of existence. Artists from the Generation X demographic are finally embraced and praised by millennial rap fans without being quickly dismissed as geezers in their dotage. Hip-hop’s longstanding ageist rationale has finally been eclipsed by quality of product released by forty-somethings and fifty-plus artists.
Is it fair to say that “50” is the new “20” in hip-hop? This streak for the middle-aged from rap’s Golden Era began with 51-year-old Dr. Dre’s Compton soundtrack in 2015, and stayed the course this past year: A Tribe Called Quest reemerged with arguably their best album since 1993’s Midnight Marauders; Kool Keith remains a respectable MC at age 53 with his latest album Feature Magnetic; E-40 continued his streak as a gold-selling artist while knocking on the half-century mark at 49; De La Soul’s crowdsource-funded album …And The Anonymous Nobody shot up to a brief No. 1 spot on the Billboard Rap chart; 44-year-old Ka’s Honor Killed The Samurai being lauded as of the year’s best albums; 46-year-old Fat Joe was as relevant as ever going “all the way up” to the top of the charts and winning Grammy nods with his Remy Ma-assisted smash single and remix with 47-year old Jay-Z of the same title. Meanwhile, Jay-Z’s 4:44 set the bar on how to define the “grown man’s rap era.”
Enter Masta Ace into this equation. The former Juice Crew Crooklyn Dodger returned in 2016 with his retrospective The Falling Season that was praised by his longtime fans. Ace celebrated his 50th birthday this year alongside a list of hip-hop icons to show him the love for his formidable catalog that’s going almost 30 years strong. A lot has changed for him since he dropped his legendary initial verse on Marley Marl’s 1988 classic “The Symphony,” but a lot has remained the same to prove himself as a respectable artist and producer. The once-signature sideways-worn houndstooth capped emcee spoke with UGHH about his unexpected entrance into the rap industry, being a former football player, the importance of his masterpiece SlaughtaHouse to Eminem’s career, settling old rap beefs, and why he avoids judging this current hip-hop generation’s music.
How Duval Clear Became Masta Ace
Talk about your pre-Juice Crew days and your experience trying to get on in the music industry.
There was no “trying to get on.” There was none. I was in college, I rapped, and I had no concept of making a demo. I didn’t even know nor understand what that was. I got into the game by chance. I was home from college on Christmas recess, and my boy was going to be in this rap contest at U.S.A. [rollerskating rink]. He asked me if I wanted to come along—I entered, I winded up winning the contest, and first prize was six hours of studio time with Marley Marl. That’s how I got on.
Being a student at University of Rhode Island, do you recall the dope old school and underground rap shows on WRIU 90.3 FM during the ‘80s and ‘90s?
Yeah, I was there in the mid-‘80s. I used to be an intern there, and I used to do rap promos for that station. I would love to hear some of those today if I could find them. I was up there a couple days a week consistently.
What did you learn the most from Marley Marl during those initial six hours spent with him in the studio?
In the early sessions, I didn’t really know what was happening. I was just rapping. I wasn’t paying attention to the button pushing or none of it. It wasn’t until we started to work on my album Take A Look Around that I started to learn stuff. What I learned in working on that first album was how to program and the “low end theory” secret, or what I call “the booming system” secret. On LL Cool J’s album Mama Said Knock You Out, there’s a deep undertone sound to every song that’s called a 40 hertz tone. Marley has that sound going through L’s whole album to give it this “low end” that nobody else’s records have. He taught me how to do that, and I took that knowledge with me. That’s when I started doing it for SlaughtaHouse, and really Sittin’ On Chrome is where I started to use that in my music to give it that bass. I was always talking about bass, jeep systems, and the boom to give it that knock.
How The Falling Season Examined Masta Ace’s First Love of Football
You have a documentary about your history as a football player and a high school coach. Plus, your latest album The Falling Season is centered around your teen years at Sheepshead Bay High School playing for their varsity team.
It’s just a mini-documentary of me telling the story of my high school team at Sheepshead Bay High School basically getting rid of the program. They changed the name of the school, the team colors, it’s like a whole new team now. It’s not even called the Sharks anymore, and I don’t even know what they call them now. But they had a sort of a going away party for the team, and I just thought that it needed to be documented. They brought back guys from the [year] that the team first started which is 1978. There were guys who were there from ‘78 to the early 2000s. They invited us all out, they bought us lunch, and they sent us all off on the last day of the season. It was a bittersweet experience, and I wanted some of the guys to talk about our coach. He doesn’t coach there anymore, but he was a huge influence on a lot of us. I wanted that to be heard and seen.
Were you trying to be recruited and join a Division 1 college football team before you enrolled at University of Rhode Island?
In my mind, I knew that I wasn’t D1-A, so I went to URI which at the time was considered to be a D1-AA school. So it was a step below 1-A, but I should’ve went D2. But in the mind of an 18-year-old, I’m like “D2, please!”
Your ego can get in your own way if you don’t manage it well as an ambitious, notable prep athlete.
It does, so that way of thinking honestly robbed me out of a college athletic experience. Because if I had gone D2, I probably would’ve gotten on the field and actually played. I would have probably played all four years at a D2 school.
The Influence of SlaughtaHouse On Eminem
Eminem has repeatedly cited you as one of his main influences in his career. What’s your take on that comparison of your songwriting and rhyme styles?
I think it’s really simple. My album SlaughtaHouse came out in 1993. [Eminem] explained to me that when it came out he was broke, just struggling like everybody else. He was in high school. He and his boys from D12 would ride around in a beat-up car, and that’s the album they played for that whole summer of 1993. And music is the kind of thing where depending on what was happening in your life when it came out, it has this influence on you, where every time you hear that piece of music, it takes you back to a happier time, or a time when “man, it wasn’t about money” or “we were just us chillin” riding in a beat-up car. I think people make too much of him listing me as his influence because he’s listened to other people. He’s listened to Kool G Rap, Big Daddy Kane, and other people. I think people gravitate towards me because I was an unexpected name for him to say. Everybody that he’s mentioned were kind of the typical influences, or cats that you hear sort of agree are the greatest. And then people are like, “Wait, Masta Ace? What?” That made people look more to what I was doing to see what the similarities were. I don’t think there was any, but [he] expressed to me that he loved that album as one of his influences as far as it goes.
Do you find it beyond coincidental that the supergroup in the second wave of Eminem’s Shady Records label is called Slaughterhouse?
That was interesting. I don’t know if he named them, or if somebody else did.
It seems like a natural transition for him to have that group title on his label’s roster.
I don’t know if he’s ever answered that question of how that group got that name, or what the science is behind the group with that name. I haven’t seen him or anyone from that group go on record that they got the name from my album. Until someone goes on the record and says that, I won’t say that it’s a fact.
When Masta Ace Went West To Bring G-Funk To Brooklyn
In the book Check The Technique: Liner Notes for Hip Hop Junkies, you briefly touched on how you had the same lyrics from “Jeep Ass Niguh” from SlaughtaHouse as does your song “Born To Roll” from your Sittin’ On Chrome album. What made you decide to keep the lyrics the same for both songs, and were you surprised they were both fan favorites?
“Born To Roll” was supposed to be a remix with the same lyrics but to a different beat. I was doing the lyrics to “Jeep Ass Niguh,” and when I added that Jungle Brothers sample “I was born to roll” [from the title track of their Done By The Forces of Nature album] I said, “Maybe I should just name it that.” But I didn’t think people would believe that it was a whole new song. When people heard “Born To Roll,” a lot of people didn’t know I had a song called “Jeep Ass Niguh” that came out before with the same lyrics. So it became a totally different brand new song to a lot of fans. My true fan base knew what it was, but my brand new fans that only knew me from the radio or strictly “Top 40” fans, they had no idea. They thought it was a new song, and they fell in love with it.
East Coast rap fans and artists knocked you for sounding like you were veering too much towards a West Coast G-funk sound. How did you feel about that?
You know, fans are very fickle. Arguably, I was the first East Coast artist to step out in that way to the extent that I actually shot my video in California. So that made it even more of a stamp that, “Oh, he’s really on some West Coast shit.” But bottom line is my record label at the time [Delicious Vinyl] was in L.A., so it was easier for me to shoot it there. I feel like I kind of took all the bullets for those who came after me, and took those risks. You know, Onyx had their video with bouncing cars and the whole shit in California for “Slam.” So I took all the shots; it opened up a door [where] there were no rules. Because as much as people persecuted me for going that route, they saw that it was successful and that they were loving that shit on the West Coast, the Midwest, and down South. So cats just tried to figure out their own formula, and how it would work for them.
How Today’s Hip Hop Generation Is Finding Their Way Like His Days of Youth
Many rap artists today don’t want to be defined as “rappers.” Is this breed of artists devaluing the importance of the artform of emceeing or do you believe otherwise?
I don’t really know what today’s generation is trying to do. I’m trying to not judge because I feel like it’s young kids trying to figure out what it is that they’re doing. Maybe for them the plan wasn’t to look back and see what everybody else did, and then use that as the model. Maybe they want to do their own thing. I get that. When we were young, we were doing weird shit and people who were older than us didn’t understand what we were doing: big giant fat laces; the Kangol hats; the Lee patches sewed on. We did a lot of weird stuff that was weird for that time. So that being said, I don’t think what I have to say—with regard to what this new generation of rappers, emcees, or artists—of what I’m trying to do because they’re not cut from the same cloth that I’m cut from. There’s nothing I can say that can frame what it is that they’re doing.
Ace Clears The Air About Past Rap Beefs and Power of Forgiveness
“Acknowledge” is a pinnacle battle record that became one of your underground classics. Have you ever later made amends with anyone that you have battled with on record?
I made amends with the High and Mighty right after that record came out. It was really a misunderstanding. The people who said that [they] dissed me got it wrong. Yes they were at this event, and yes they were onstage rapping, but the lyric that was said wasn’t said by them. They had brought this other rapper onstage, Cage, who said a rhyme and had my name in it. The mics weren’t that great, so people didn’t quite catch what he said. But since my name was said in some kind of metaphor, and it sounded like a diss. So the guys that are there who are friends of mine heard it, and looked at each other and were like, “Yo! Did this dude just diss? Yeah, I heard it? I heard the same thing.” And they all came back with that story but they didn’t know that Cage wasn’t part of High and Mighty. They told me that they’re three white dudes up there and one of them dissed Ace, so High and Mighty dissed Ace. After it happened, and I got the real story, Cage even sent me the rhyme to show me, and I said, “Oh, this is not a diss at all.” I actually apologized to them on the radio. I told them I would, they didn’t ask me to. I told people it was a misunderstanding. But we never got the chance to sit down and talk on that level. I haven’t had many beef issues like that, but I made a song about Fat Joe called “10 Top List.” And then he and I wound up face to face having a conversation [where] nobody got jumped or beat up. We kind of just mutually respect each other and left it to where it was at, if you want to call that making amends. And I had an issue with Onyx that I just cleared up last Summer.
How long did that last? Like 20 years?
Yeah. It started in 1993 when I dropped SlaughtaHouse, and endured until this year. We saw each other in ‘93, and allegedly squashed it. But it was never really squashed because anytime I would see Sticky Fingaz he would avoid me or not look at me. We stayed on opposite sides of the room. There was always tension. But we started having shows together. The last three years or so, we were on festivals together and sometimes sharing a backstage area. And so we’d be in the same green room, like I’m over here and he’s over there. Me and Fredro have been cordial since then. But once again this year, Sticky Fingaz and I had another festival together, and I went over to his room and said, “Yo, let’s talk this out. This shit is stupid. What’s the tension about?” I laid it all out, and I had never gave him dap until that day. I had never dapped him from the time Onyx came out until this August.
Masta Ace Reflects On Successful Middle-Aged MCs In This Era
Ka is a fellow Brownsville native like you and Sean Price. Does it make you feel proud that Ka and many other middle-aged MCs like yourself are holding their own against younger competition in hip-hop?
For me, hip-hop never really had an expiration date. I feel like that because I’m in that age group. it was only for the young people that said you can’t do it past a certain age. I never felt that way or believed that. To see Ka come out to do his thing, that’s what it is—if you’re a good rapper, you’re good regardless of your age. If you can rhyme, let’s go. I’m all about skill level. When I see his thing reppin’ for the ‘Ville, there’s a few people from Brownsville that I didn’t even know where from Brownsville. So big-up to him, and obviously Sean Price, Rest In Peace.