The Okayplayer Interview: Masta Ace Speaks On Working With MF Doom, Big Daddy Kane & More
It’s quickly approaching a quarter-century since we first heard Masta Ace spit over the Marley Marl classic, “The Symphony.” Today he released his first solo album in eight years, MA_DOOM: Son of Yvonne, which is already on iTunes and now getting its physical release from Fat Beats (on vinyl and CD respectively--stream it in it's entirety here). Okayplayer was fortunate enough to chop it up with the Brooklyn legend over the phone, and Ace spoke candidly on re-connecting with fellow Juice Crew alum, Big Daddy Kane and how difficult it really was to get a 16 from the elusive MF Doom (who indirectly provided the album with its instrumental backbone, all the beats being taken from his Special Herbs beat tape series). We also spoke on the reception of the new record, the re-release of his classic Disposable Arts album, his legacy and much more.
OKP: Since your last solo album, you’ve done projects like eMC and A&E, what was it like getting back in the lab by yourself again?
MA: It was fun. It was exciting. In group projects, you have to consider other people’s opinions, other people’s musical tastes, so it felt good to get back to doing exactly what I wanted to do every step of the way, without consulting anybody. I just got the chance to pick out beats that I like, and I didn’t have to consider anyone else’s tastes…and write the songs that I wanted to write. Now I will say this, when you’re writing a whole record, it’s a little bit more work on you. In those group situations you only have to write a verse, a half of a verse, and you’re not being forced to write full songs when you’re in a group situation. But it was definitely good just getting back to telling the story I wanted to do.
OKP: Is that anything to do with why you decided to dedicate it to your Mother, who passed away in 2005?
MA: It definitely lent itself to me, doing an album that was so personal and so much about my childhood. I wouldn’t have been able to do that type of record as a real, true collaboration project. Although people consider this as a collaboration project because Doom is involved, but he didn’t really have any say in the beats that I picked, or the songs and topics that I chose to write about. He merely provided the backdrop by releasing these instrumentals to the world, and I just got my hands on them.
OKP: You got these beats from Doom’s Special Herbs series, did you have a relationship with him prior to this project?
MA: We have met a couple of times, but we never really had a real conversation or talked about collaborating or anything like that before this. But I’m definitely familiar with what he’s doing, and what he has been doing.
OKP: Was there any issue getting Doom’s approval to use these beats?
MA: No there was no issue because the project was underway before he even knew about it. I didn’t go into it saying, “I need to talk to Doom first, before I start working on this project” because initially it was just going to be a free (mixtape) download for the fans. I wasn’t going to get into charging money for whatever. It was just going to be a kind of mixtape project where I just spit over some Doom beats, and give it away. But it wound up turning into more than that when Fat Beats got involved and started talking about money, wanting to sell it. That kind of changed everything.
OKP: After you decided it was going to be an LP, did it change the way you went about putting the project together?
MA: Yeah definitely. It changed the whole focus of the project from you know, mixtapes, spittin’, rappin’ talking about nonsense, just rappity raps. Once you start talking about money and the fact that people are going to be paying for this project, I felt like I owed it to people to give them a little bit more than just freestyle raps. I felt like I needed to do more with it, and plus if it was going to be for sale, to me it was going to fall under that standard of my previous releases.
OKP: Right, when people hear about a new Masta Ace album, they’re probably going to expect a pretty cohesive album--usually with a narrative. Is that what we’re getting with MA_Doom?
MA: Yeah, it kind of takes you through my childhood. There’s a character on the album that’s me when I was 12-years old, and there’s a few skits with him. And it kind of brings you forward a little bit with the lyrics. It’s definitely not as spelled out, in terms of the storyline, as Long Hot Summer but there is skits that you can follow and they carry you from one song to the next, the way I’ve done on past records.
OKP: You mentioned on twitter trying to get a verse from Doom, I don’t see him on the tracklisting, but I’ve also read he is, did you end up getting that verse?
MA: Yeah we got the verse. The song is called “Think I Am” and it features Big Daddy Kane and Doom.
OKP: Nice, what was whole story behind getting that verse?
MA: It took a lot of months. The verse was scheduled to be delivered by September, and we didn’t get it until March.
OKP: Doom’s sort of notorious for being reclusive, was it hard getting a hold of him?
MA: Yeah it’s virtually impossible (to get in contact with him). He speaks through his manager and different people. It’s a little difficult. Not just difficult for me, it’s even difficult for people who work directly next to him (laughs). They were calling me, apologizing to me for how long stuff was taking because they couldn’t get him on the phone or get him to knock out things he needed to knock out.
Once he finally made the commitment and got in the studio and did it, I was pleasantly surprised with what he delivered. I know he’s a good emcee, and I definitely know he has the talent to pull it off, but I didn’t know if he cared enough about the project to go ahead and write something that was: a) specific for the record, b) that wasn’t just some throwaway verse. He really took his time to write something that fit the album, his lyrics reference what the album is all about, and so I was happy that he took that type of time to go in and give me a legit verse like that.
OKP: You also did a track with Big Daddy Kane, how was it reuniting with another former Juice Crew member?
MA: I mean it wasn’t as cool as it could’ve been because we did everything through e-mails. So you know how that goes. It’s not the same as being in the studio, vibing and talking, but Kane told me right from the gate that “Think I Am” wasn’t a beat that he would normally rock to. But he did it because I asked him to. So once you know that, you gotta take into account that the person is digging deep to deliver lyrics for you. And I know what it’s like to rock to something that I’m not too excited about, so I had to respect that from his standpoint. I was just happy that he did it, and he did it fast.
OKP: That’s good to hear there’s still some love in the Juice Crew.
MA: Yeah that was our first time being on a record since “The Symphony Pt.2” back in 1991.
OKP: Many of the beats on this have been floating around for a minute, are you at all worried some people won’t enjoy the album because they’ve heard the beats before?
MA: Nah I don’t focus on that. I wasn’t familiar with most of the beats, so I know that there’s going to be an overwhelming majority of people who have never heard any of the beats. There will be some people that have heard a few, and a few people that have heard them all. But I’m pretty confident the average person will not have heard these beats.
OKP: I noticed that “PBS” isn’t on the final tracklisting, why didn’t that song make the album, and were there other tracks you recorded over Doom beats that didn’t go on the album?
MA: The reason we threw “PBS” away and gave it out for free was because Doom and his people had explained that there was an issue with that sample when they put it out. The people from Sesame Street or whoever owns that master, they basically did a cease and desist, and they had to pick the records off the shelf that had that beat on it. And I don’t want to get caught up in that controversy. I’m happy (Doom’s people) told me ahead of time. I like the beat, I like the song, so let’s just give it away for free, so there was no issues.
OKP: A while back you talked about releasing a re-issue of the 2001 classic, Disposable Arts, and re-recording a couple of tracks. Are you still planning on doing that?
MA: Yeah I did it already. I re-recorded “Every Other Day” and “No Regrets.” It’s over the music of CSC Funk Band, and they played the music over, and I re-recorded the lyrics to the beats of the live band. And it sounds cool; it’s different.
OKP: So you just did those two songs, not the whole album?
MA: Not the whole album, nah, we’d still be working on it.
OKP: When do you think that will be released?
MA: I mean, we’ve obviously passed the 10-year anniversary now, which was October of last year. And we’re quickly approaching the eleventh anniversary, so maybe we’ll release the 10-year anniversary (of Disposable Arts) on year 11.
OKP: Over the past few years, you’ve collaborated a few times with Canadian producer Marco Polo and you two seem to have a great chemistry together. What are the chances that we get a Masta Ace and Marco Polo album?
MA: If we do something it won’t be a Masta Ace/Marco Polo album, it’ll be something else. I don’t know what it will be, but we’ve talked about doing a soundtrack for a documentary about my life. So it might be something along those lines.
OKP: Lastly, you’ve been in the game for a long time, how do you think your career stacks up against other artists who came out in the late 80s?
MA: I leave that to the fans, the media and the hip-hop press at large to make those decisions and determinations. All I really can do is make the music, and leave the rest up to you guys. You guys are the ones who sit and debate and discuss. And wherever you guys say I sit in the grand scheme of things, then that’s where I’ll be. I’m not one to wave a flag and say , Hey, look at me, look at what I did compared to what this guy did. That’s not what I do. I just do good music, and hopefully the rest just sort of takes care of itself.