The Brooklyn rap great talks about his jazz roots, Biz Markie, and 20 years of ‘Disposable Arts’
Masta Ace is a legend in his own right. The veteran emcee and producer, who came up alongside heavy-hitters like Big Daddy Kane and Kool G Rap as part of the Juice Crew, continues to leave his mark on music more than three decades later.
His latest project, “Home in America” is part of an upcoming collaboration project from the Analog Players Society—a Brooklyn based jazz ensemble created by Amon Drum with co-producer Ben Rubin, and an all-star line-up of session performers from all across New York City including Donny McCaslin, who plays tenor sax on the new single.
“Home in America” tackles the multi-generational impact and injustice of systemic racism in America, from the white slave owners who founded it and the promises of reparations, to the proud boys rallies and the angry mob of Trump supporters who attacked the Capitol Building in January.
Rock & Roll Globe recently caught up with Masta Ace to talk about his latest track with the Brooklyn based jazz ensemble, the upcoming 20th anniversary of the cult classic, Disposable Arts, his work with Biz Markie and MF DOOM, and plans for an upcoming sequel to his 2018 collaboration with Marco Polo, A Breukelen Story.
First and foremost, tell me a little bit about your connection to jazz music.
My connection with Jazz music partially dates back to my mother’s record collection. She didn’t have a lot of jazz, but there were some choice albums there. My grandfather used to listen to Nat King Cole, which isn’t exactly jazz, but right around the time I was about to go off to college, I started to listen to more of it.
It was partially because I heard A Tribe Called Quest were sampling a lot of jazz in their album. So when I would dig in the crates, I started digging for some of those types of artist’s music. Cannonball Adderley and things like that. I started buying those sorts of albums.
And then, when I got to college, I found out it wasn’t possible for me to study and listen to hip-hop at the same time because I always found myself getting caught up in what the rapper was trying to say lyrically.
Whatever the song was about, it engaged my brain too much. I found out that studying with jazz music in the background was a lot more soothing and allowed my mind to really just focus on whatever I was trying to focus on. So for those four years of college, I used jazz as my studying aid and it helped me get through.
What do you enjoy most about performing with a live band?
I just feel like a live band lends itself to a different interpretation of the music. A different feel for the music. And there is a lot more freedom in terms of if you wanted to extend the song and do some cool things with the audience, or just create some moments within the song that aren’t there naturally. It gives you that freedom.
It also allows you to hear your music in a different way, because with a lot of those performances with a live band, sometimes I get the chance to let one of the band members go off on a tangent and do their thing over one of my songs. Just hearing those new interpretations of a song that I worked on in the studio… It’s always a lot more interesting and it’s fun. There’s good energy feeding off the musicians. The eye contact. The timing. I can just decide that I want to extend a part and do another extra verse that wasn’t planned. Those kinds of freedoms are why I love to perform with a live band and live musicians.
How did the new single with Analog Players Society come together?
Ben Rubin reached out and mentioned that he had a project and was looking for a feature. I asked him to send me the music, so I could see what sort of direction they were going with the sound.
He sent me about four to five different pieces of music that were all parts of his jazz ensemble’s jam session that they had done leading up to this. I picked this particular one called “Starry Night.” I just wanted one that I felt when I heard it immediately made me think of a song.
I started writing to that beat. We wrote back and forth for a couple of weeks on the topic and the subject matter. We settled on this “Home in America” topic.
He had actually referenced the song from my most recent album with Marco Polo. I have a song on there called “American Me,” and he referenced that as kind of the direction that he saw the song going in and so I used that as a guide, in terms of what he was looking for. I tried to just deliver what he saw the song being about and the result was “Home in America.”
VIDEO: Masta Ace x Analog Players Society “Home In America”
Masta Ace made a major comeback in 2001 with his album Disposable Arts, almost six years after having dropped out of the music scene for a brief period in the late ‘90s.
Following the release of his radio-friendly album, Sittin on Chrome (1995), he went back to the studio to work on his next record, which his label at the time, Big Beat Records, decided was not up to snuff.
“Ultimately, what happened was I didn’t deliver what they wanted. It wasn’t the commercial record they were looking for, so they decided to shelf the entire project,” Ace said in a 2013 interview with 2DopeBoyz. “I became very disenchanted with the music game and I decided that if it were so easy for a label to throw away a project that I had worked on so long and so hard, that I needed to leave the game alone.”
Ace started to work more behind the scenes as a producer, until 2000 when he went on a tour of Europe and found there was a global community of people that came out because they genuinely enjoyed the music and wanted to hear more.
This October, it will be 20 years since you released Disposable Arts. Looking back, how has that record impacted you?
That record. I always tell people that it’s my favorite album of mine, but also the most important album of my career. I say that because Disposable Arts has been the single catalyst for the last 20 years of a career that I’ve had.
If I hadn’t dropped that album in 2001, I would’ve been a distant memory to the music business, [and] to hip-hop fans. They would’ve remembered me for “Born to Roll,” “Sittin on Chrome,” my debut, and that would kind of have been the end of a career. And amazingly because of one album, one release in 2001, I got an extension that’s going on 20 years and I owe it all to that one album.
Would you say that today you are in a much different place when you wrote it?
I am in a much different place. Yes, because when I wrote that album, my mindset was “this is going to be my last project.” I had pretty much come to the understanding that this was going to be the last hurrah. The last album. The last record. And so I tried to really say everything that I wanted to say to the hip-hop audience on that album. Songs like “No Regrets” and “Dear Diary” were just a few indications that that’s where my mind was at that time.
I didn’t really believe that there would be a chance to do an album after that, let alone the seven or eight records I’ve released since then. So my mindset is different now, of course, because I’ve had those 20 years of success, of touring, of meeting and greeting new fans that became familiar with me because of that one album. There’s more of a sense of a fulfilled career. Like if I don’t do [any] more records after the one coming up, then I feel like I’ve left on the right note and I didn’t feel like I was leaving on the right note before that. So definitely a difference.
How do you feel it has held up over time?
I think Disposable Arts has aged really well. One of the indicators of that is, I still have fans occasionally that hit me on social media posting that album, saying “why am I just hearing this for the first time?” and how amazing the album is and how incredible it is, which means… they never heard it when it came out. They didn’t know about it. They weren’t aware of it. They heard it 20 years later and it still resonated with those fans.
That means that we did music that many would classify as timeless music. And that’s what you want. You don’t want music that feels like it belongs in a specific timeframe and wouldn’t be able to exist outside of that timeframe. I’ve always, my whole career, tried to do music that whenever you listen to it, whether it’s now or ten years from now, it will still feel fresh, good, real, appropriate, relevant to whatever time you’re living in. I never tried to do music that was going to sound dated.
Going back even further, what was it like to work with Biz Markie?
Me and Biz never officially worked together as far as doing songs, but he was definitely a labelmate. Somebody who I looked to for inspiration from the performance side and from the idea of just kind of being free and being yourself with your music and not trying to fit into a particular box. So I looked to him for those kinds of things.
We just did our first show together very recently. I believe it was 2016, where we were on a bill together in Brooklyn. First time in my career that we were on the same bill together. What a great night that was for me to finally get up on that stage and kind of open up for Biz and [have] him do his thing.
He had done countless shows with all the other Juice Crew artists. Kane. Roxanne Shante. Shan, of course, and probably even Kool G Rap. So this was my first time and it was a very memorable night for me because of that.
It’s interesting that you said you didn’t spend much time with Biz in the studio. Last month also marked the 31st anniversary of your debut album, Take A Look Around (1990), which featured the single “Me and the Biz.” How did he react when he heard the song? What did he say when he heard you playing his part?
He never reached out to me about it. The only feedback I got from Biz about that song was through other people. It was just a weird time because he was supposed to do the song with me and through circumstances beyond my control, he didn’t do the song and so we left the song how it is.
I never really got to, during that time, find out if he was cool with it [or] how he felt about it. I was kind of following Marley Marl’s lead. He was the guy who had already been in the game, who already had a name, was already established. I was just really trying to rock the boat.
But the right thing to do, I see now as a grown man. I was young, I was twenty-something. But the right thing to do now would have just been to say “we’re going to go with this version of it. Are you cool with it?” Just to get approval. I never got that. It was probably a regret of mine, but we got past it.
He never said anything directly to me about how he felt about the song. At least not that I remember. But we got past it. I was very tight with DJ Cool V and a lot of the guys in his camp embraced me. It was definitely water under the bridge.
VIDEO: Masta Ace “Me & The Biz”
You also did an entire project based on the Special Herbs instrumentals produced by MF DOOM. What was it about his beats that stood out to you?
His beats were very quirky. Quirky is the right word. Beats that I wouldn’t have chosen for myself necessarily, but I liked the challenge of rapping to something that is a little bit off the beaten path of what I was normally used to rapping over.
I knew that he had a ton of fans that loved what he did. It was just an opportunity to jump on a few of those beats and try to create songs or reinterpret these beats in a new way.
My original plan was just to do a mixtape. I had listened to a bunch of the Special Herbs tracks and a few of them really spoke to me and gave me ideas on songs.
I started roughly working on the ideas in my head at first and then as soon as we had the opportunity through FatBeats to turn it into a real official commercial release, that’s when I went in and decided to really make it sound like a full solid cohesive album and not a mixtape.
Then I decided to dedicate the project to my mother, thus the title, Son of Ivonne. It was a great experience. I’m glad that I was able to, for the most part, work with DOOM. Even though we weren’t in the studio together, there was still some collaboration.
He sent me a couple of beats that weren’t on his Special Herbs. I think I chose one for the album, but then he gave me a verse, of course. So as much as we weren’t in the studio working together it was still a great opportunity to collaborate with somebody who was loved by fans all over the world.
What’s next? What’s to come? Can we expect a new album in the future?
Marco Polo and myself are going to do a follow-up to the 2018 LP A Breukelen Story. We’re working on a new project. I’ve had the beats for over a year. Most of the beats.
I just didn’t feel compelled to write during 2020. There was just too much going on in the world and politically and otherwise. I just didn’t want to write during that time period because I felt that it was going to come out too much in the music.
I told him I was going to wait until the new year to start thinking about writing. It actually went a little past, into the new year, but that’s coming. That’s not on the calendar yet but that’s in the works.
I am also writing a hip-hop musical. I’ve combined with a theater company called Rhymes Over Beats and I’ve been working on this musical for about three-and-a-half years now, trying to put this script together. It’s coming along great.
We had a loose table read back in March 2020, right before the lockdown started, and got to kind of hear it with actors and hear what it sounded like.
Since that time in March of last year I’ve been working on that music, and now most of the music is done. The music is probably 75 percent written.
Now I’m going back to the script because I’m making the tweaks and changes… Those are probably the two biggest things on the horizon for me in terms of work and writing. I look forward to fans getting to check those things out.
Big up to Ben Rubin and Analog Players Society for allowing me to be part of this project and this single.
“Home in America” is available on platforms everywhere and coming soon on vinyl and look out for the video. It’s being edited and worked on right now. I can’t wait to see it. I haven’t seen it. I have no idea. I gave my performance on the green screen, so I have no idea what this brilliant graphics video director is going to create with all of this green screen footage but I’m looking forward to it.
AUDIO: Analog Players Society + Masta Ace “Home In America”