Most things in hip-hop can be taken care of in the studio, but true credibility is something that must be earned over time. Masta Ace has no trouble in that department. He’s been a Brooklyn fixture for nearly a quarter century, experimenting with different styles but always delivering narrative rhymes that inspired a whole new generation of rappers. Masta Ace returns this year with MA-Doom: The Son of Yvonne, which finds him applying his skills to beats offered by the enigmatic MF Doom. Masta Ace talked with Prefix about staying relevant in a changing world, the positives and negatives of collaborating with Doom, and why making records was just more fun back in the day.
Son of Yvonne was going to be a mixtape of your lyrics over Doom’s beats. What about his beats spoke to you?
I got my hands on those beats and I just drove around listening to them as background vibing music for about a year before I got this idea. I liked the beats mainly because they were different- quirky and a little bit weird. I listened to some of the stuff and I wondered how I would rhyme to something like that. I liked the challenge of seeing if I could match something to these off-kilter beats and pull something off. I wanted to make something outside of the regular box, and that motivated me.
Fat Beats got involved at that point, and you decided to make an album. You then had to transition from “rappity raps” to a more structured flow. When so much of the power of hip-hop is in its immediacy, why did you feel the need to do that?
If I’m going to ask people to spend their hard-earned money on something, I want it to be a product that I’ve put some time into. When people listen to it, I don’t want them to feel like they made a mistake when they made the purchase. If it’s thrown together, that shows. I wanted this to sound like a cohesive record that I put my heart and soul into.
How much of the album is redone? Do you have any plans for the original mixtape?
The beats are there on the album. I just approached the rhymes differently. The song writing became more in depth.
But do you have any of the original rhymes?
The rhymes you hear on the album are the ones that I made for the beats. The rappity raps that I was talking about was what I was planning to do; I was just going to spit- some rhyme and a bunch of bragging and whatever, “I’m hot.” and “I’m nice.” and whatever, but I never actually put any of those rhymes down.
What was the impetus to switch this over from a mixtape to a full-length album?
It was definitely the meeting we had with Fat Beats. We were there to meet about other stuff, and at the end of the meeting my partner Rich mentioned that I was also working on a mixtape over Doom beats. It was something I knew that I was going to do, but I hadn’t taken any steps toward recording it. Their excitement about the project was what led me to think that maybe this should be more of a record, and that I should take some time and write the songs.
Doom is credited as the producer on the album. How did the process of collaboration go?
The only work he did on this album was when he released Special Herbs for the world to get. He didn’t even hear the songs I had recorded- I had every song recorded except for the one with him and Big Daddy Kane on it. I did sit down with him much later. He had gotten wind of the project and knew some things about it via word of mouth, but he didn’t hear it until I sat down with him and played the whole album.
I’ve heard that his verse was promised for January but you didn’t get until March.
It was actually promised for September and I didn’t get it until March.
Given what you had to go through, would you do it again?
What he gave me was just fantastic. I was a little bit worried. I didn’t know whether he was going to deliver a throw away verse or something that he’d already used somewhere else. Some guys do that kind of stuff, but I was honored that he cared enough to write a special verse for my record and that it fit my record. He took time to do that, and I imagine that he doesn’t do that for everybody. I appreciate it, and I would do it again. It’s not my normal way of working; I try to be on point and on time, following schedules to get things done and in on schedule, but I would definitely work with him again.
Did you make any changes to things you thought were done when you were waiting for the verse?
All the songs were mixed. That was the only song that was holding everything up. I will admit that there were a couple points where I was just going to go forward with it without the verse, and I was talked out of it by Fat Beats, by my partner, and fans on Twitter. They were telling me to wait, but that’s not really my m.o.; I want to keep things moving. It had been a year since I had start talking about doing the record.
The other verse that will draw lot of attention is Big Daddy Kane, but you’ve talked about how that all went down over e-mail. Why is that?
The relationship is dope. I just did Rock the Bells with him and it was great. We did it over e-mail because that’s just how things are done these days. He lives in North Carolina; I live in New Jersey. If we would have waited until we were going to be in the studio together, it would have been a lot longer. The way we did it, he got me the verse in less than a week. I asked him, and then I had it- just like that.
Wouldn’t you have rather had him in the studio with you?
I do records like that all the time with people, so it’s not unusual. That’s the digital age. You press send on an e-mail and it’s there in an instant. That’s just the way we all do it.
But don’t you miss the old days? You’re one of the few guys around that can talk about it.
I definitely miss the old days, very much. Just being in the studio, talking, vibing- you never know what more can come out of a song if everybody’s in the room together. That’s one of the reasons we haven’t done another eMC record; I don’t want to do it if we’re not all going to be together in the studio.
You’ve collaborated with a lot of different people over the years. Why did you pick Big Daddy Kane over anybody in one of your other crews?
I didn’t pick Kane; he was already on the album. I referenced him on the song “Slow Down” and there’s a skit I wanted to use with him leaving a voicemail. I felt like I needed the verse because Kane was already tying the album together in a lot of ways. Because this record was about me and how I came up, I didn’t want to have a bunch of people on it. Kane fit because he was already so much a part of that.
You talked about thinking at least in abstract about a new eMC album. Are you pretty much open to anything at this point, or are you focusing on solo work going forward?
Right I’m preparing for the release of the ten-year anniversary edition of Disposable Arts. We’re putting that out as a special edition vinyl box set. There’s going to be a whole bunch of extra stuff in there, instrumentals and a cappellas. I’m really excited about that. There’s been some talk of a new eMC record; my partner Rich mentioned it to me the other day. We’ll have to just see where that goes. I also have a documentary that we’re putting together- the soundtrack is going to be put together by Marco Polo. There will be some things on deck and ready to go.
Last question. Hip-hop has always been a young man’s game, but you’re one of the true elder statesmen. When you make an album, who are you making it for?
Honestly, I’m making it for anybody that loves hip-hop. I think I appeal more to guys over thirty. I’ve heard it referenced as “grown man hip-hop.” I think that there’s something that the younger cats can relate to as well; a lot of what’s out there is just so much of the same. My music is a good change of pace for them. But I’m coming from the place in life of a mature man who has been through it and seen some things. Cats who are over thirty can appreciate that point of view.