Influential Brooklyn rapper Masta Ace’s last album MA Doom: Son Of Yvonne opens with a biographical skit where his 12-year-old self flicks through his mother’s collection of ‘70s soul records: Ohio Players; Curtis Mayfield; Al Green. It paints a vivid and accurate picture of Duval Clear’s (Ace’s birth name) earliest musical experiences.
“My mother was just really into her music,” he says. “Earth, Wind And Fire were her favourites. Those were the records that were always on – those were the records that played in the background to my childhood. There are certain records that can transport you to a time and place. We would pick a record and take it over to my friend Brian’s house – we had a little DJ setup there.”
Throughout the rest of that highly personal album, Ace says some things he wished he had a chance to discuss with his recently departed mother. “Writing that album was like therapy. It took me back to a time when my mother and grandmother were alive. It kind of bought them back to life.”
That LP, released in 2012, came a full quarter-century after Masta Ace’s recording debut on the Juice Crew’s posse cut ‘The Symphony’, produced by super-producer Marley Marl. Even next to such luminaries as Big Daddy Kane and Kool G Rap, the then 21-year-old Ace’s easy flow marked him out as an MC of particular skill.
“I met Marley Marl at a rap contest that I won in 1986. The first prize was six hours studio time with him but it wasn’t until spring of 1988 that I got to cash in my prize. So I got my studio time and he liked what I had laid down on my demo and he decided to make me a part of his In Control album.
“I learned from him a lot about how to use the studio, about production and sound. I watched him mix the LL Cool J album Mama Said Knock You Out. I watched a lot of the tricks he used to make the bass sound heavier and all those things.”
In the years between, Masta Ace, sometimes joined by different crews, has yielded seven albums of varying degrees of success. Many of these could be described as concept albums, including 2001’s critically championed Disposable Arts, which follows a young man’s release from prison and subsequent enrolment in the Institute of Disposable Arts. Bringing scenarios and characters to life through his lyrics is something Masta Ace excels at. Eminem, in his 2008 autobiography The Way I Am, praises Ace for his “amazing storytelling skills” and “vivid thoughts”.
I suggest that hiding behind a character allows Ace the freedom he needs to say things he might not be able to say otherwise. “I like to hide behind a character – that’s exactly what it is. I get to escape being myself by being this character on the record and I can get my message across without being preachy.” And how does he feel about taking time to make interesting, storyboarded albums in a landscape of sub-standard mixtapes and single track, shuffle-setting consumption? “I’m happy that cats take the short cut to throw things together because it makes my albums stand out more. I haven’t heard one artist in particular that is striving to put out proper crafted albums, but there are artists that I like what they’re doing musically, like Joey Bada$$ and Jay Electronica.”
Looking back on his 25 years in hip hop, Masta Ace is happy with his lot even if his talent suggests that he deserves more. “I feel like it’s gone the way it was meant to go,” he concludes. “I’m happy with my contribution to the game – whether millions know about it or not, that’s beside the point. If the fans acknowledge my contribution, then I’m comfortable with that.”
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