Come Clean: The Metamorphosis of Masta Ace

David Ma speaks with the rap legend about the legendary Juice Crew and the vaunted solo work that followed.
By    November 25, 2018

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On a cold, swirling Czech Republic highway in early 2010, Masta Ace and his tour van were pulled over by uniformed police bearing cartoonishly big machine guns slung over brutish shoulders. “They tore the whole van up,” says a reserved Ace. “They opened up every bag, every zipper, ripped up the entire car floor just looking for drugs.”  When nothing was found, everyone was eventually freed; but not before Ace’s bag—syringes and vials—were left in the open, left in shambles along with everything else in the van.

“It was a real quiet ride back. We were all traumatized by what just happened. But everyone saw my needles and I didn’t want them thinking I was using heroin or something,” he says. “I was emotional. I came clean, I told them about my multiple sclerosis. And guess what? I didn’t go up in flames. I felt like a wall came down. It changed everything for me.” Outside of his wife and best friend, no one knew of his internal struggle, not an entirely a shocking surprise given Ace’s decades of quiet strength as an underdog champ. While many artists can barely cobble together a career for more than three years (even less in SoundCloud years), Ace has done so for three decades.

Ace bloomed as part of the Juice Crew, a pre-Wu-Tang assemble of rappers, all with superhero strengths and personalities. If Biz Markie was the clown and Big Daddy Kane the playboy, than Ace was the A+ student—the one who held the crew down with a steady stream of guest verses (lead-off hitter on “The Symphony”) as well as remarkable knacks for relatable, everyman rhymes minus pushy preachiness (see: all of Take A Look Around). While many rappers stake claims to regional dominance, Ace took his A-game from his turf of Brownsville, Brooklyn all the way to LA with Delicious Vinyl, lobbing huge hits and popular videos onto airwaves.

Between 1995-2000 while many colleagues of his were on their last legs or scrambling to flip their image, Ace released Sittin’ on Chrome, a project that cracked the Billboard 200. His most commercially successful album to date, it featured the “Born To Roll (remix),” his most bombastic and widely known track to emerge from that transitional era. Disposable Arts followed and served as another beloved notch in the Ace canon. While 2018 saw MA DOOM, a collaborative joint with MF DOOM, which served as a tribute to his late mother.

Over this past year, bolstered by a clear conscience and a newfound sense of freedom, Ace made an emotional yet triumphant return performance on NPR’s Tiny Desk series. Playing his hits, the set not only offered a chronological map of rap’s ebbs and flows, but it also reminded fans of his earnest poise and non-conformist streak. It was an impassioned showcase of joie de vivre from a spry impassioned veteran with years of gas left in his tank.

When you finally come clean about a secret, about something you spent time purposefully hiding, it’s more than a relief; it’s cathartic. I caught up with the recently transformed, recently channeled-in Masta Ace to embark on past memories of a dense career leading up to his recent emotional re-emergence  (including a new collaborative album with producer Marco Polo). Heartwarming and hot-blooded, heavy and historical, we reweigh salient moments of Mr. Duval’s long play of a profession.  — David Ma

Talk about how you got started and the impact Marley Marl had your career.

Masta Ace: I was in my second year of college and was on summer break. I’d just won a rap contest at a local skating rink and the first prize was six hours of studio time with Marley Marl. I called him for months all the way until Christmas break of 1985 or ‘86 and couldn’t ever reach him. I think he was dodging me actually but I finally was able to make contact. I told him I was the guy who won the contest and that the rink already paid for the studio time. All I wanted was to just record a demo and I’d been waiting for months by this point. Ultimately we made a time to meet and when I finally got there, Marley wasn’t home. I waited outside of his place for like five or six hours. Craig G actually showed up and was like, “Let me guess, you here for Marley too?” I guess lot of cats would loiter outside Marley’s wanting to meet him or to record or whatever.

Marley eventually showed up and I met [MC] Shan there that same day. Marley put us in the back bedroom of the apartment and had Shan do the drum programming for my demo. I found out years later he put me in the back because he didn’t want to give me his time or take me seriously because he knew I didn’t have any experience. We wound up recording a couple demos and apparently he liked what he heard and had me come back the following summer. At that point I was way beyond the initial six hours but he must of liked what I was doing because he wasn’t trippin’ about studio time any more.

For lack of a better term, was Marley a jerk? How’d he strike you?

Masta Ace: Marley struck me as a guy who wasn’t too street and who was real close with his family. The apartment I ended up meeting him at turned out to be one of his sisters’ apartments and that’s what he used as his studio. Overall, I think he was a cool dude. He helped me. But he definitely was a technical guy, was all about his equipment, and knowing what the hottest newest technology to use was. He was strictly all about that.

This era of the Juice Crew produced one of the most epic posse cuts ever, “The Symphony.” What do you remember about that day?

Masta Ace: If you look at the back cover of Marley’s compilation project In Control Vol. 1 you’ll see a bunch of us standing next to a Lear jet— “The Symphony” was recorded right after that photo shoot. Marley’s goal was to record one more song for his release. I didn’t find this out later, but I guess it was supposed to be a [Kool] G Rap and [Big Daddy] Kane song, like a cypher with them going back and forth.

After that photo shoot, I guess Craig weaseled his way to be a part of it too. They were cool with Craig so it was no problem and I was Craig’s ride that day so that’s how he ended up there. I was driving everyone at the time, it seemed like it was always either me or Marley driving since we had cars early. Shan was supposed to be on the song too, but I found out later he had no intentions of coming.

What was it like being in the room?

Masta Ace: I had no thoughts of getting on the song or nothing, so just being there was cool for me. I was already a big Kane fan and also dying to hear everyone else. When it came time to get on the mic, everyone was deciding who’d go first. And they were going round and round so Marley looked at me and asked if I had a rhyme ready, just to loosen the room up. I really had no intention of even keeping my verse. Back then it was about being the anchor leg and going last. No one wanted to go first that’s why on the song I was like, “I don’t care who went first or last…”

What is your writing process and has it changed through the years?

Masta Ace: My process then and now are completely different. Back then I was just doing verses and wanted rhymes ready for competitions or battles and stuff. Most of what I wrote were battle rhymes and punchlines Back then, you could walk up on a random block and see MCs going at it. I wasn’t about hooks or song writing back then. Now my focus is actual song writing. It started when I began recording and you realize you want different song types with substance and song structure. I felt like I wanted to just make stuff more with purpose. I think I became more regimented through the years.

On topic of song writing: “Me & the Biz” is the fake duet where you famously rapped as Biz Markie. What’s the story behind that? The video and Biz puppet is also an unforgettable touch.

Masta Ace: It was supposed to be a real duet between me and Biz. Originally it was a beat that Marley had in his stash. I really wanted the track but Marley was like, ‘No, I’m saving this for Biz.’  Fast forward a few months and him and Biz had a falling out. Biz was upset Marley was taking credit for all the production when him and his DJ, DJ Cool V, did a lot of the production work as well— which is true because Biz had a lot of records. So when I got word from Marley that Biz wasn’t gonna be in picture I brought up the beat again. Marley could remember it so we dug through tapes and tapes and finally found it. But when I finally heard it again, it really sounded a Biz beat.

I loved it and wanted to use it still so I reached out to Biz and he didn’t say no. He just said didn’t want to record at Marley’s and wanted to do it at his studio. At the time, Kane was Biz’s writer and I felt like I could do the same. So I wrote both verses and put it on a tape recorder. That’s what Kane used to do. He’d record a rap onto a tape recorder and Biz would walk around with it and memorize it. Since this was a back-and-forth rhyme, I did it with different voices and imitated Biz so he’d know which parts were his. But when it came time to record, Marley said he didn’t want to do go to Biz’s place. And Biz didn’t want to go to Marley’s so I was stuck. Marley was actually the one who suggested I do it as Biz. He was like, ‘No one’s ever done a different voice before! Let’s see who we can fool!’ For me, it ended up too playful and is just a gimmicky track.

I’m getting a sense of regret when it comes to this track.

Masta Ace: It was definitely something I was not super enthusiastic about. I was a young dude and it was my first album so I went along with it. Warner Bros. heard it and decided it would be the single. There’s nothing else on the album that sounds like that. I didn’t want people to think the whole album was like that. I didn’t want people to get the wrong idea of the type of artist I was. They wanted to push this because Biz was a proven artist in sales and major labels just want a light, easily digestible track to sell. So they wanted to push it based on Biz’s name, not mine.

I took that as disrespect and fought it, but ultimately the head of Warner Bros. at the time, his name is Benny Medina, put his foot down on a conference call, saying if “Me & the Biz” isn’t the single than there will be no other singles for the album. Even the concept of the video with the puppet was corny. While the rest of the whole album is serious lyrical stuff about responsibility, and community, and uplifting, and improvement.

How did you go from Cold Chillin’ in New York to Delicious Vinyl in LA? What was the transition like?

Masta Ace: It was ’91 or so and I was in the studio working on my sophomore album for Cold Chillin’. And we all get word that Warner Bros., who was distributing for Cold Chilin’ at the time, decided that our roster was too crowded and that half the roster would be cut. I’ll never forget, there was a sheet of paper that listed every artist on the label. At the time it was like twelve or sixteen. There was a line on the paper representing who was staying and who was going. Above the line was staying; below was getting dropped. I‘ll never forget my name was the first below the line. GZA, who at the time was just the Genius, and Grand Daddy IU and a few more of us were cut.

Was there a contingency offer? Did you just walk out? What happens to tracks you already recorded?

Masta Ace: They actually offered to release my next album on their little offshoot label, Prism. But Prism only put out singles and didn’t have good distribution. I felt that Prism was below me. I had a manager at the time and he tried to look for a landing place for me and he had a relationship with Delicious Vinyl and there was some interest. Delicious Vinyl at the time was more a pop label. Their big releases were pop records: Young MC and Tone Loc. I think they looked to me for some more credibility from heads. I was told there was a record with the Brand New Heavies and they wanted me to feature me on a track off their Heavy Rhyme Experience (Vol 1) and the reaction was really good.

When “Born To Roll (remix)” was released it quickly became a West Coast favorite. How did it come about and why do you think the West embraced it so much? And it’s self-produced.

Masta Ace: Yeah it’s a remix for “Jeep Ass Niggas” off of another album. The original was more of a New York record; hard drums, jazz bass line, and it just fell in line more with what my first album sounded like. I was doing in-stores in North Carolina and was in a record shop and saw a record with a Def Jam label on it. The track was “Knowledge Me” by Original Concept and I remembered the joint had a fat 808 beat so I bought it for .99 cents.

So were you producing a lot too at one point?

Masta Ace: I was producing at the time, mainly for myself, and just looped it up and did the lyrics to “Jeep Ass Niggas” over it. Kind of just messing around but then I thought it turned out great. We were already moving onto the next single, and Mike Ross, who’s one of the owners, was like, “What are you doing?” He wanted to focus on the next single, “Slaughterhouse,” not a remix of an old track. But he knew I was passionate about it so we compromised and threw it on the b-side as a compromise.

Back then, they’d mail out like 600 pieces of vinyl to radio stations across the country. So the DJs were the ones up one it first. It started in the Bay Area first for sure. Then it spread to LA, San Diego, Dallas, Houston. Nobody was playing “Slaughterhouse,” everyone was just playing the b-side. So then Delicious Vinyl wanted to shoot a video and I was like, “Word? At first you guys didn’t even want the damn song.” Once the video dropped it became wild fire. I did tours based off that song alone.

After the radio hits you kept active with Sittin’ on Chrome (1995) and Disposable Arts (2001). Then things were quiet and a few years later you reemerged and announced you have MS. What made you decide to share such a personal ordeal?

Masta Ace: Nobody knew about it besides my wife and my best friend. After I went public it was like a wall came down. Now there’s people outside of my small circle know and they don’t look at me any differently. Plus, coming out and telling people might help others who felt the same way.

Recently some people might’ve seen you on NPR’s Tiny Desk. Describe what it was that like being there and how everything came about.

Masta Ace: It was great to be there. I had recently performed at the Blue Note, this world famous Jazz Club in New York and they were doing this series where they have rappers do their hits with a live band. It was a one-time thing but went real dope and was sold out. I stayed in touch with the band and we were asked to perform on Sirius FM as well. So when NPR approached me, I was already working with this live band and with guys I had a rapport with. We weren’t going in cold. So I took the band to DC for Tiny Desk.

You seemed seriously grateful and happy to be there. It also seemed like an emotional performance.

Masta Ace: The reason I was emotional is because my mom was working in DC when she passed. She lived in Virginia but worked in DC, so I’d always visit her when I was in the area. I knew for a fact she would have been there that day and would’ve got off work early to see me. That’s why I probably looked emotional while I was performing, I couldn’t get it out of my head.

Eminem recently said that you’re one of his biggest heroes. How does that make you feel when the scope of your influence is brought up these days?

Masta Ace: It’s a great thing but definitely not something I pay too much attention to. There’s too many of my contemporaries who get caught up in people telling them how great they are. It’s like in sports, there’s a term about ‘reading your own headlines’ and that’s what that feels like to me. It’s nice to hear nice things from someone as talented and popular as Eminem. But if I focus on it too much, then I feel like I’ve reached the top of the mountain, and I never want to feel that way.

How’s your health these days? How you feeling?

Masta Ace: I’m in the gym three or four days a week. A lot of cardio, a lot of movement, those are things that keep my body strong. It’s very strange because with this disease, inactivity is the worst thing. If I don’t work out for a few days, my extremities feel weak. But when I work out, I feel strong and I want to keep working out, so there’s something to it. I changed my diet dramatically too over the last few years. I stay active. I feel good man.

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