Alice Meets… Masta Ace

Categorised as INTERVIEW., MUSIC.

‘Brooklyn Bass Music, That’s All I’m Sayin’’

Bass-heavy, and just right. Booming sounds and astutely observed lyrics make the music of renowned emcee Masta Ace inseparable from jeep culture. Not only are his classic records, such as ‘Born To Roll’ and ‘Sittin’ on Chrome’, some of the most perfect driving anthems, suited to pumping through a car stereo as loud as possible, but, Ace’s wise wordplay also offers incredibly illuminative and intriguing depictions of real life and road scenes.

Originally from Brownsville in Brooklyn, Masta Ace broke out on the classic Juice Crew joint The Symphony, and released his first album Take A Look Around on Cold Chillin’ records, which featured the big track ‘Me and the Biz’. After experiencing and taking inspiration from the Los Angeles scene, Ace joined the Delicious Vinyl family in the early nineties and released the seminal albums Slaughtahouse and Sittin’ on Chrome with the Masta Ace Incorporated crew.

Described as a ‘real rebuttal’ to the heavy gangsta rap of the time, Slaughtahouse challenged various social issues of its day, provided a fresh alternative to hip hop of the time and became an underground classic. Sittin’ on Chrome similarly went on to gain cult status, remixing the track ‘Jeep Ass N***a’ into another hit, the 808-gasm ‘Born To Roll’.

The popular singles were accompanied by equally provocative and raw, guerrilla style music videos, which served to compliment the content and sound of Masta Ace’s brilliant music. The Sittin’ on Chrome LP also has one of the most slick, multi-layered and iconic album covers in hip hop, courtesy of the Texan artist Kid Styles.

It was a pleasure to meet up with Ace one afternoon in New York and chat in depth about his music, cars, music videos, LA vs. NYC and much more.

Cars are obviously very prominent in your music – how do you feel you drew inspiration from car culture? And what was it about the jeep culture of the time that inspired you?

Well, I remember getting my first truck in 1990 – I got my first record deal and I got a Chevy Blazer. Around that time in the early nineties, and late eighties as well, everybody was starting to get into rims and putting tints on their windows and just customising their cars – and the big thing was sound systems, in New York anyway. So when I got my truck in 1990 I had a friend build this huge speaker box for the back so I could have all this sound, and I got rims on the truck as well. It was really all just about cruising in the summertime in New York City and having a nice car with some shiny rims on it and getting girls to look at your car and wanting to talk to girls. That’s how it started.

Then I took my first trip to Los Angeles, probably around 1991, and the guy who was taking me around when I went to Los Angeles took me to Crenshaw, to the strip where they cruise every Sunday, and he also took me to Venice Beach where they cruise. I started seeing a different level of car enthusiasts in California – I started seeing low-riders and different kinds of rims that I had never seen in New York. We had our own style, but the West Coast had a whole different style of the way they did their cars. When I returned back to New York I had a renewed excitement about cars and being into cars – I started subscribing to all these different car books and truck books – I was getting 2/3 magazines a week. I would flip through and check out the best pages, the best cars. I just really got into it, and it was that trip to LA that just pushed it over the top for me.

What do you think cars symbolised at the time? If you saw them as a symbol – what did they symbolise to you?

Well, where I was from, in my neighbourhood, it symbolised success and status to a certain extent. You wanted a nice car with nice wheels because it kind of meant you had made it in some weird way – you had succeeded in life. You know, in my neighbourhood, the drug dealers always had the nicest cars – I wasn’t going to be a drug dealer but I felt like if I could have or somehow get a car that was on par with the ones that they drove, then hey, I made it and I did it without selling drugs. So that’s really what it symbolised for me growing up; you made it, you succeeded, you got a nice car – and now you can get some girls maybe, if you’re lucky.

Did you see music as a way to be successful legitimately?

Yeah, music was definitely my route. I mean, I went to college and got my degree – I had that, but I felt like music was an opportunity to take your shot, your chance to make it big, without going the traditional route of getting a degree, getting a job and that whole thing. The opportunity was in front of me so I figured I’d take a shot at it and see where it took me, and here I am twenty plus years later still able to do music.

In your music there’s often a political element when you depict cars and I was wondering whether you saw the road as a place where a lot of those tensions came to a head? A lot of the politics around race and police dynamics – do you think that it was on the streets that all that stuff really came out?

Well, the first record that I did, it wasn’t really political but it was definitely kind of preachy, uplifting, to-my-people style as the pro-black rap started to infiltrate into hip hop. A lot of it was a reaction to socially what was happening in the streets. To young people being stopped and frisked and illegally searched by police. There was a lot of negative things that were happening socially. So when I started to see groups like Public Enemy and KRS One come out and make political statements, it gave me the freedom or the feeling that I could make certain statements in my music as well, that it wasn’t just about making party music that was fun and for people to dance to, but to make music that said a little more. So, that’s why you hear some of those elements in my music.

So would you say you consciously wanted to raise awareness about certain issues?

I definitely became conscious. I was careful to tread lightly though because I feel like I didn’t go to school for political science, and so I’m really not that knowledgeable in politics. But, I did know that there were social issues happening all around me and the neighbourhood where I grew up that were directly related to politics. So I focused more on those social ills or social problems as a way to make political statements.

Personally, one of the things that I think is powerful about the way that you do that in your music is that it’s more suggestive through telling stories and parody rather than hitting people over the head with it?

Yeah, making people make the link for themselves.

Exactly. I’ve always wanted my listeners to figure stuff out for themselves, to be smart and to read between the lines. I’ve never been one to just lay it all out there. My first album was probably a little more preachy than I would’ve wanted, but I was learning – I didn’t really know what I was doing, it was my first album and I was feeling my way. I listen back to it and I cringe sometimes. But after that first album when I realised how preachy it was I decided to start hiding my messages and to be a little more subliminal. So my messages – I let people get it themselves. There was a certain amount of enjoyment from the people that did get it – I knew there was going to be people that it just went over their heads and absolutely did not understand it or what was going on, but I focused on the people that would and did get it.

The stories in your lyrics – are they mainly based on observation, or personal experience, or did you create scenarios to get those messages across?

Some of it is definitely based on personal experience – been there, seen it, know about it. Some of it is maybe stories I had heard other people tell, and some of it I added my own creative poetic license into creating a story or situation in a rhyme that I feel like could happen or could be realistic. So it’s a mixture of all of those things.

Being from New York, when you were in LA did you feel like you were on the outside observing things a bit more? Or was that something that never really kind of…

I always felt when I was in LA that I was an observer; that I was not really a part of what was happening, but was kind of just a spectator. You know, to be on Sunset and Hollywood Boulevard just to see all of the stuff happening – the cruising cars, low-riders hopping and all this kind of stuff. I knew that that wasn’t my reality, but it was cool to see it, to be around it, and it was exciting to go home and tell people what I saw when I was in LA. So in my mind I was always a spectator and a person who would take what I saw and go home and tell my friends about it.

Did the scenes in New York and LA differ greatly?

They differed quite a bit. I mean, it all came down to guys with nice cars wanting to get girls, but the actual street culture was very different. When I first visited LA one of the things that stood out to me was that if you were standing out in front of a club, this being the early nineties, every car that drove by the front of the club, everybody who was in line would turn and look at the car and watch the car because they had this whole drive-by thing that was happening in LA. I guess it wasn’t uncommon for a car to roll by the club and just start shooting at people, everybody in the line.

Then you have the whole red and blue thing, and you had to dress a certain way. In the early nineties if I had on something red somebody would actually say ‘yo man- you need to take that off’ or ‘be careful’, and I had never had to be conscious about a colour that I was wearing before. Being a kid from Brooklyn, New York those things didn’t register to me, they didn’t resonate with me, but I had to learn very quickly what it was about. The other thing is that in LA, for me anyway coming from New York, is that the neighbourhoods – or ‘bad neighbourhoods’ – aren’t so recognisable. When I drove through the hood in LA I was seeing rows of houses, single-family homes, houses with porches and front doors. In Brooklyn you know the bad neighbourhoods, you’ll see housing projects, you’ll see homeless dudes, you’ll see liquor stores, you’ll see dirt, grime. In LA you drive through the neighbourhood and there’s palm trees, it’s sunny, there’s people out on their porch cooking, and little do you know that’s the bad neighbourhood and if you aren’t careful something could happen and the next minute they could be shooting like crazy. That was difficult for me, I was used to being able to recognise just from my scenery: ‘okay this is a rough neighbourhood I need to be on guard’. That’s how it is in New York, but LA is not like that at all. You would really be lulled into thinking that you were in a cool beautiful neighbourhood – palm trees, sun – and just like that you could be in the middle of something.

I had a little chat with the artist Kid Styles who did the Sittin On Chrome artwork about the album cover, and he talked about how the idea was to show the cross-section of New York and Los Angeles, as there are elements of New York and Los Angeles in the image, playing on it being a street cross-section. Could you talk about what your idea was with that concept?

That artwork was inspired by a piece of art that was in my home for many years. My Mom had it on the wall and it was basically a cartoon streetscape of New York City. If you looked really closely at the picture there were all these different things happening – one kid dropped his ice-cream, some lady got her pocket-picked, another guy is selling watches – and all of this stuff is happening in one picture. There was even stuff happening in the windows of different buildings. It was a really cool picture. I don’t remember the artist, but that was the inspiration for the cover. We found Kid Styles and he was willing to do it – I sent him the photo, or I let him see the photo – I can’t remember exactly how I expressed to him what I wanted – but once he saw it he understood what I wanted. He just went in there and was creative, and gave me a classic cover.

Who directed your music videos? The four I was thinking specifically of are ‘Born To Roll’, ‘Jeep Ass N***a’, ‘INC Ride’ and ‘Sittin on Chrome’ – do you remember who directed those?

Well, ‘Jeep Ass’ was directed by Gary Gray, who’s actually a well-known Hollywood director now. He’s done a couple of pretty notable movies, Hollywood feature films with Denzel Washington, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinket – he shot ‘Jeep Ass’, and he also shot ‘Saturday Night Live’. But the other videos – you mentioned ‘Born To Roll’, ‘Sittin On Chrome’ and ‘INC Ride’ – all three of those videos were essentially directed by me. If you look at the way they’re shot, they’re shot very guerrilla style, hand-held camera just out into the street. Capturing what was naturally happening around us, and that’s what I wanted. It started with ‘Born To Roll’, we took a cameraman to the Los Angeles Super Show, the car show, and we basically just had him film everything that was going on. My direction was: ‘just catch everything, capture us checking out cars, and capture the girls, the cars, the sights and sounds of being in LA’. So there was no real director for that video, and we had so much success with that video that I wanted to do another one with that same style. ‘INC Ride’ – same thing, just out in the street, Sunset Boulevard, and just filming on the fly. ‘Sittin on Chrome’ – same thing, cameraman met us down in Virginia Beach, shot a bunch of stuff, and then came to Philly and shot a bunch of stuff. It was all just on the fly – spontaneously like ‘let’s capture this’, and that’s really how it was done.

Was that to reflect the content of the music?

With ‘Born To Roll’ I wanted to show that I was kind of a fish out of water being a New York kid out in LA, that’s what I was trying to express, because people were thinking that I was from LA and that I was an LA artist. So, I wanted to kind of clarify that and try to shoot the video in a way that made people think, or actually understand that I was from a different place.

The video opens with a shot of an aeroplane, and I always wondered if that was a reference to that?

That’s exactly what that was about. To show that I was coming to some place, that I was landing and I was going to go enjoy this new experience of being in LA.

To what extent did you try to tailor your sound to being played in cars? Not just about cars, but to be suited to that, to the sound-systems?

Very much so. I was influenced a lot by the LL Cool J song ‘Boomin’ System’ which was produced by Marley Marl. Marley Marl was my first producer, so being around him I got the chance to learn a few tricks as far as how to make songs sound big and loud. The LL Cool J song sounded really, really great in my truck, and I wanted my songs to sound big like that. So when it came time to produce these records I knew that the emphasis needed to be on the bass, we call the 808, because when you’re in a car with a nice big system it’s that ‘dooom’ that people hear from blocks away. As you’re coming down the block, they don’t hear any music, they just hear ‘dooom, dooom’. So, I wanted my music to have that element in it. It was a conscious effort to make all of those records sound really big and loud, and be fitted for big speakers.

I read quotes from Marley Marl talking about getting that sound right for playing in cars and I was intrigued because Marley Marl is East Coast, from New York originally as well, right? Was that production style different to in LA? How did that play out – being in LA and then that sound being an East Coast influence?

See the thing is the whole bass-y, the whole 808 sound really originated in New York. The early days of Def Jam, Rick Rubin producing songs like ‘Paul Revere’ for the Beastie Boys – that’s really where that sound was created. There was a drum machine made by Roland called ‘808’, and then they came out with one called ‘909’. But, all of the early New York hip hop was produced on these drum machines – the old, early LL Cool J – all produced on these kinds of drum machines. So, as New York started to divert away from that sound and go more into sampling, LA kept going with that sound, acts like NWA, kept making music that had those elements in it. It actually started to trickle down south and you got acts like 2 Live Crew, and they did the whole Miami Bass thing. But it was all based on those sounds, based on those same elements.

When you say ‘Rollin with Umdada’ or ‘Rollin with the INC’ – did that phrase stem from the notion of riding around with your crew in cars? Or is that not such a direct reference?

I mean, ‘rolling’ could mean that. It could also just mean ‘when we go to the club, everybody that’s with me – is rolling with me’. We would be three, four, five cars of dudes all going to hang out together. You know, some of that was based on safety in numbers, and the more of us there are the less trouble we’re going to have with anybody because there are too many of us. Safety in numbers if we get into a problem, that’s really what it was based on. ‘Rolling’ was four, five cars deep all going out somewhere.

Would you agree or see it as fair to say that your music kind of celebrates car culture whilst critiquing it?

I don’t know if I was ever critiquing it. I was definitely celebrating it; it was what I was into. I don’t know where the critique part would come in. I just wanted people to feel good riding in their cars, and I wanted my stuff to sound great in their cars. And I realised that there were so many people who that was what their existence was about. ‘Can’t wait till Saturday so I can get in my car, go out, hit the strip – turn my sound up as loud as I can – and meet girls’. That was really what it was about.

So there was never an element from observing that – you never felt you were seeing a negative side of that culture?

No, I never felt anything negative about that culture, especially being that when I was young, I was just into it, it was the best.

Having recently teamed up with none other than MF Doom, Ace continues to serve up signature complex and clever rhymes with this year’s Son of Yvonne release, the duo taking up the moniker MA Doom. A beat-maker and emcee both at the top of their games coming together is pretty much a sure-fire recipe for audible goodness; satisfying the intellect as well as your physical with Doom’s aural vibrations and Ace’s tongue techniques.

Masta Ace is going to be rocking The Jazz Café on the 28th May, so get your bodies down to Camden that night for a show full of insanely good hip hop.

Alice Price Styles

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