Masta Ace‘s lengthy career in hip-hop can be attributed to one pivotal moment. Growing up in Brownsville, Brooklyn in the ’70s and ’80s, kids often went to roller skating rinks to socialize. One particular evening, a friend of his asked him if wanted to enter a talent show at the United Skate of American in Long Island. Although he was home from college visiting his family for Christmas, his mother encouraged him to go. Not only did he win the contest, but the grand prize was a studio session with famed producer Marley Marl, which took him a full year to finally claim. Once they got into the studio, where he met Craig G and other veteran hip-hop emcees, that was it.
Appearing on one of the best posse cuts of all time, 1988’s “The Symphony,” with Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap and Craig G, and Marley Marl ended up producing Masta Ace’s entire debut album, 1990’s Take A Look Around.
In 2000, he became disillusioned with the music industry and took a back seat for years until an experience overseas reignited his passion. He came back with the critically acclaimed Disposable Arts in 2001 and hasn’t put the mic down since.
Currently promoting his latest release, The Falling Season, Ace had some time to talk touring with Albuquerque emcee Wake Self, walking away from music and writing his story on the NJ Transit trains.
RESPECT.: How was your recent tour with Wake Self?
That was a very nice run considering we were in the US. It was a positive experience compared to some ‘tours’ I have done in the States. The turnouts overall were surprising and gave me hope that quality, non-commercial hip-hop tours were still possible here. Wake Self and Def-I killed it every night, and DJ Native, their DJ, held down the music for me and even the opener DeLaZoo on the last four shows.
RESPECT.: What did you learn on the road this time around?
I learned that all hope is not lost for US touring. If you get the right promoters in the right markets together, miracles are possible.
RESPECT.: There was a period in your career where you were kind of fed up with the music business. What reignited your passion for making albums?
It started in 2000, I did a 13 city tour in the UK and Europe. I wasn’t expecting much from it. To my surprise, the venues were packed with people who knew the words to my songs and wanted more from me. I came home from that tour and went in the studio and made Disposable Arts.
The Falling Season is out now. What was the album making process like for this one?
I took my time. There was a lot of emotion for me when writing these songs. It was like going back in time, reliving my experiences as a young teen and putting it into song form. I took the train into the studio almost every day. I was able to write during the commute. Many of my song ideas on this album were born on NJ Transit trains.
RESPECT.: Do you have a favorite track on the album?
It’s probably “YBI” because it was the first song I wrote on the album. The lyrics encompass my life growing up in Brownsville at that time and the friendships that I had with kids who decided to take a different route in life; thinking about us all as kids and reflecting on where we all actually ended up. The songs explains the fine line between who I became and who I very easily could have become.
RESPECT.: What does this summer look like for you in terms of touring?
I’m doing three of the major festivals in Europe, Hip Hop Kemp being the biggest of them. I am doing a few more US dates (a few of those with Wake Self) and towards the end of the summer, I am planning a US Midwest run and an Eastern Canada mini-tour, which should include Buffalo, New York, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, London, Hamilton and maybe one or two more cities.
RESPECT.: You’ve been blessed to have a very long career. What advice would you give the teenage Masta Ace if you could go back in time?
I would tell the teenage me, ‘Don’t be afraid of success outside of New York—embrace it. Don’t listen to the criticism. Success is success no matter where the support is coming from.’
RESPECT.: What does the music you make mean to you on a personal level?
It’s my life’s work. We all hope to leave something substantial behind when we are no longer around. Many people rely on the children they leave behind to tell their stories. I have a music catalogue that gives my story in an almost autobiographical form that can be heard 100 years from now.