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Masta Ace: 'I'm Still Trying To Prove Myself'

Masta Ace in New York in July.
Polina Yamshchikov for NPR
Masta Ace in New York in July.

Masta Ace had his first drink at a Cold Chillin' Christmas party. This was after he graduated from the University of Rhode Island. The national popularity of "Born to Roll" in the mid-'90s — and an amount of drama related to tensions between the coasts at that time — was a wrench thrown into his career, but he responded with Disposable Arts, an album released in October of 2001 that included features from three different women rapping. He made the album in the year after he was told he has multiple sclerosis. "I wanted to go out on my own terms. I re-dedicated myself to the craft in a different way, and I made my best music, I feel, after that diagnosis." Ace spoke with Microphone Check about commercial radio, coaching high school football and working as a guidance counselor, and why he continues to write and record as a solo artist and as part of eMC, which released The Tonite Show in May.


MASTA ACE: What's going on?

FRANNIE KELLEY: This is a really long time coming.

MASTA ACE: I know. What's taken it so long?

KELLEY: I don't know.

MASTA ACE: We finally connected the dots, I guess.

KELLEY: Various people's travels, I think.

MASTA ACE: Yeah, that's definitely a part of it.

MUHAMMAD: Oh. Am I the guilty party here?


MASTA ACE: Can't blame you altogether.

KELLEY: Nobody's been in town. But yeah, I mean, I used to listen to you all the time.

MASTA ACE: What do you mean "used to?" Why does it have to be past tense?

KELLEY: Because when I was re-listening to Sittin' On Chrome and Disposable Arts, I was remember — I had very distinct middle school memories and college memories.


KELLEY: And I was like, "Oh yeah. I remember when this dude put me on to this song, and this girl put me on to this." We used to listen to "Take A Walk" all the time.

MASTA ACE: Oh, that was a little bit later.

KELLEY: Yeah. And I used to listen to "People In My Hood" all the time.

MASTA ACE: That's pretty cool. That's a little bit later still. You're actually covering some good bases there with the albums.

KELLEY: Well, thank you.

MASTA ACE: That's good.

KELLEY: Yeah, I mean, I'm not kidding. I've been listening to your voice for a very long time, and it's an honor to finally meet you.

MASTA ACE: Thank you. That's cool to hear. I need more female fans so please spread the word.

KELLEY: I'll get on our hotline. That would be great if we had a phone tree, actually. We'll work on that. We do have a Facebook group, but --

MASTA ACE: Let 'em know.

MUHAMMAD: What's a phone tree?

KELLEY: A phone tree?


KELLEY: This is how I know you don't have kids, Ali. A phone tree is when, like, on a soccer team, you gotta tell everybody that the game got cancelled. So I call you, and you call this other person, and that person calls the other person. And like that.


MASTA ACE: I'd never heard of that either, and I have a daughter. But that's good to know.

KELLEY: We will institute one in case there's an emergency ever. A hip-hop emergency. Which it seems there have been quite a few lately. Do you pay attention to all this Twitter drama?

MASTA ACE: Oh, I'm — definitely. I actually have no choice, because the guys in my group eMCWordsworth, Stricklin, a few other — Power Malu, he's our music director. Pearl Gates, guy who collaborated with us. We're all on the same group text on WhatsApp. So any time — as soon as something happens, drama, whatever, somebody's throwing it out there. And then you get five or six opinions, and then you gotta chime in. So, yeah. I'm dragged into it no matter what.

KELLEY: But privately.

MASTA ACE: Privately, yeah. I mean, my wife and I talk about stuff. She's definitely in the know, and we have good conversations about the stuff that goes on. And we give our opinions. Sometimes we butt heads on topics, but it's good, healthy conversations that hip-hop needs.

I mean, it's always been part of it. The drama's always been there. There's always been controversy. We're used to it, and for those that aren't, they probably haven't been in this long enough.

KELLEY: So, care to publicly weigh in on the events of last week?

MASTA ACE: Well, a lot of stuff happened.

KELLEY: Yeah, a lot.

MASTA ACE: Drake was accused not writing his rhymes, which I'm on the Drake side of that ledger.

KELLEY: What do you mean?

MASTA ACE: I mean that he's writing his rhymes. The fact that he brought somebody in to help him throw a couple of metaphors in — I mean, I think that the game is changing a little bit where it's going to become acceptable. Every other genre in music you have writers — artists go out and find writers, good writers, to come in. Hip-hop doesn't have that because we've been from that school of thought that if you're on the mic talking about how great you are and how dope you are and how nobody's as good as you, you have to be the one penning those lyrics.

To me Drake is a song-maker. He makes good songs. He makes popular songs. He makes catchy songs. And it actually didn't shock me as much when I found out that there were people helping him formulate some of the lines, because his output of popular music has been unprecedented. You can — there's no artist that you can name in hip-hop all the way up till now that has had that many records on the radio at the same time, that were good records, that were hit records, that were popular records. And I was starting to think he was a computer or a machine the way he was cranking out these records.

I feel like — it's a slippery slope when you start talking about having people come in and write and help write, because — I've worked with artists and helped artists write songs, but they haven't been artists that — there are artists that have people write for them. Like Biz Markie, great artist, great song-maker, legend. His hit records, all his hit records for the most part, were written by Big Daddy Kane. And that's a known fact. That's not something that's debatable. It's never even been a topic. It's just a fact. You can look at his credits; it says "written by Antonio Hardy" or A. Hardy. It is what it is.

KELLEY: But also nobody could deliver those songs the way that he could. He brings something.

MASTA ACE: He brings his character. He brings his character. He brings his delivery, his voice. He puts his own pronunciation of what Kane wrote, and he makes it his own.

I've actually collaborated in the studio with Will Smith. People don't really know that. He had an album; I think it was his sixth or seventh album. It was called Willennium. And we were in a writing session, myself, Will, a guy by the name of Kel Spencer, maybe one other writer.

And the way it worked was the beat's playing, everybody's in their corner writing lines, trying to come up with cool metaphors, cool lines. And then it's like, "OK. Let me hear what you got." "Alright. I got such, such, such. Such, such, such." "Oh, I like that one line. Let me get that. That's dope. And then I got this. What you got? I like that line. Give me that line." And literally the verses were pieced together taking bits and pieces of what not just — what Will wrote, what I wrote, what Kel wrote, what the other writer wrote, and we formulated verses with bits and pieces of what everybody was doing.

That's not the typical way stuff is done, but, like I said, every other genre of music, this is acceptable. And maybe we're — maybe hip-hop's going to grow up this year a little bit and allow that to be the case. If you step into that room of, "OK. I have writers," you can't be talking about how dope you are and lyrically the best and all that kind of stuff. You have to be — if you just making songs that make people dance and party, it's all good for me.

KELLEY: Right. But if you're selling a first-person story --

MASTA ACE: Yeah. Or if you're talking about — if you're spitting braggadocios, like, I'ma have a problem with that. Because you can't say you're better than this dude and that dude and nobody can mess with you if you didn't put all of that on paper yourself.

MUHAMMAD: I think that's where the line is drawn for me as well. If it's for entertainment, cool. But if it's about "you are the master of your domain," then it's just — that's a problem for me.


KELLEY: I would also have a problem if it were tales of bedroom prowess and conquest. I'm like, if that's four dudes combined output, OK, don't say it's just you.

MASTA ACE: That's — OK, ladies. She's speaking for the ladies. I got you. I'm with you. It's not all true.

KELLEY: What else? Ghost vs. Action.

MASTA ACE: Ooh. Pretty nasty. Alright, well, I think that Action knows — he knew at the moment that he said what he said on that show that he made a mistake.

KELLEY: Yeah, he f***** up.

MASTA ACE: And it was like, the words were coming out of his mouth, and he was like, "What am I saying?"

KELLEY: He was like, "I'm on TV! No!"

MASTA ACE: "Somebody stop. Rewind." He let it go. And, you know, it was clearly a mistake. He reveres Ghost. He's — Ghost was his, probably, inspiration for doing what he does. And now he's in a position where the guy who he modeled himself after now is mad at him, and that's a tough spot to be in.

And it could be potentially be career suicide. I'm actually curious to see how the next month or so plays out. Ghost made some pretty direct threats on his post about having the tour schedule and having guys ready to step to him and this kind of stuff.

And we know the history of Wu-Tang Clan. They've stepped to people before. Joe Budden had a problem for saying something about Meth, and that was like really small. He just says that Meth shouldn't've been in the Top 20, whatever they were talking about. He said, "I'll rap circles around Meth." Or whatever he said. But it wasn't anywhere near as incendiary as what — Action was straight up like, "Ghost ain't rhyming like this." Like, that, mm. But I'm curious to see how it's going to pan out.

I like Action. I think Action is a good artist. I like the stuff that he says. I like the stuff that he spits. It's funny. It's entertaining. His look is interesting. And I like Ghost as being Ghost. And I hear the similarity in their voices. I don't feel that they necessarily rhyme the same. I think people are caught up in the voice. Very similar to the artist Your Old Droog who sounds voice-wise a lot like Nas, but when you listen — when you look at the actual lyrics that are on paper. It's clear that he's not rhyming anywhere near the way Nas rhymes. So it's a voice thing.

The fans are ultimately going to decide Action's fate. If they can — if he has enough of a fan base that — they're loyal enough to rock with him through this — cause Ghost and Action are going to have some of the same fans, probably a lot of the same fans. And so there are going to be certain fans that go, "Oh, I ain't messing with Action no more cause he dissed Ghost." And there's going to be fans that say, "I'm still rocking with Action. I'm still rocking with Ghost."

We'll see. Time will tell. What's that tour schedule? You have a copy? I want to see so I can look at where they gon' be close.

KELLEY: We can look it up on the Internet.

MASTA ACE: I want to be there.

KELLEY: Yeah, right. I don't want to see that beard set on fire though, personally. Best case scenario: something about this pretty petty incident inspires Ghost to really lay it down.

MASTA ACE: He might go in the studio and just --

KELLEY: If he makes a full album that's just over Teddy Pendergrass, I'll be the happiest girl alive. That would end all beef for me.

MASTA ACE: I just hope he doesn't waste all his bars talking about Action. I don't think that's the way to go.

KELLEY: Yeah. True.

MASTA ACE: Put it all in one song. Get it out of your system, and then make a dope album.

KELLEY: Mm-hmm. What else happened? Who are your dudes though?

MASTA ACE: I am a huge fan of Jay Electronica, who is another person on the list of, "C'mon with the album already." Like his music a lot. Like what he's spitting. I like everything about him as an artist. Just want — he needs more output. He had a great swell of momentum for a moment there, but now that's like three years ago.

KELLEY: Oh, yeah. At least.

MASTA ACE: Maybe more now. It could be four years ago.

And I just — I understand that he's on Jay's label and what I'm guessing is that they're trying to figure out a single. The kind of music that he's making isn't going to be a — he's not going to give them a radio-driven record. It's not what he does. And they're struggling with that. They're trying to find something that's going to work on commercial radio, and I just don't think that he's going to be able to give them that. He's going to give them great songs. But it's not going to be what they're asking for.

Who's to say that it won't still sell a lot of copies though? That's the thing. Let's find out. Are they afraid to have a "failure?" If it sells 500,000 copies — cause I feel like he has at least a gold fan base right now if he does it right — is that a failure now in todays game? I mean, as long as you don't spend $5,000,000 on marketing and promotions, it could be a success. They got to let him stub his toe. They got to let him bump his head. Let him put out the records that he wants to put out, and then see where it goes from there.

See the problem is labels is too scared now to even take a risk on the artist and let the artist be the artist. They want to hold your hand. They want to guide you. They want to bring other people in. They want to bring outsiders in to sort of show you what you need to do to get to this place, and I just want to hear Jay Electronica rhyme. That's all I want to hear.

KELLEY: Yeah. Agreed. That's the thing that worries me about it becoming acceptable for there to be writers in hip-hop. Are we going to go back to pop-rap, having that be alright, having that be a thing that labels put their money into rather than taking a risk or building somebody's career or bringing somebody back from a difficult time.

MASTA ACE: I mean, even when there was pop-rap though there was always good music right in the same line with it.


MASTA ACE: When MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice were tearing up the airwaves, we had Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul, and there were solid artists making dope records that we loved regardless. It was enough to sort of make us ignore what was happening on pop radio. So I'm not worried about that. We're going to have good music coming out.


MASTA ACE: Don't worry. Don't worry.

KELLEY: I get worried. I do get worried. Hey, Ali. Are you going to make some music, coming out? Make it happen?

MUHAMMAD: I'm making music. I don't know what to call it, so I don't know. But yeah. That's a funny joke, Frannie. Yeah. It's coming out. I know you've been hearing that for a minute. But I don't really talk about what I'm doing because you weave yourself into that commentary of, "Oh, yeah. I'm doing something. I'm doing something." And then it doesn't come out and people get bored or they're not interested, so I don't talk about stuff I'm doing.

KELLEY: I know.

MASTA ACE: I'm like him.

MUHAMMAD: But when it's ready, then it's a conversation.

KELLEY: I get it. I know. Just from a fan perspective, we always want more and better. That's why we're here.

MUHAMMAD: Yeah, true but — I mean, I've just never been of — my art has not been this assembly line sort of product. I really care about what I put out, and probably more than the fans care. At times I think I over-care. But I just know that the body of work has such a high standard that it's kind of like, in my own head, I need to at least match it if not get over that, so that's the challenge.

KELLEY: Do you guys think that you share that a little bit and do you think that might be related to when you came up?

MASTA ACE: I mean, it's definitely a different time. The late '90s, early 2000s, we would hear artists say, "Well, we just went in the studio. We was in the studio for three weeks. We did 58 songs. We gon' pick the best 12." And I come from — and I think Ali does come from — a time where there was no throwaways. Every record you made was for the album. I mean, there was not a lot of stuff left over when you finished recording, because everything that you made you made for a reason and you wanted it to be on the album.

Maybe there's a song or two that didn't quite come out the way you wanted; the mix wasn't quite what you wanted or whatever. Or maybe the album was too — I had a situation with Sittin' On Chrome where it was like three songs — album was too long. The label was like, "It's too many songs. 18 songs is too many." So I had to drop three records.

But other than that, every record that we were making was because we wanted people to hear it, and we wanted it on the album. It's not just going in and doing five songs in a day. I never heard of that, five songs in a day. That's not what I'm from.

KELLEY: Also you guys have a lot of skits.

MASTA ACE: I'm into skits. I'm sorry. I'm into — I want to entertain people beyond the songs. I just — it just annoys me when an album's just kind of — song goes off, fades out, and then the next song comes on and there's no — there's nothing to connect the songs or make the album more than what it is. And nobody's doing it, so it really opens up the door for me to just be as creative as I want to be with it. And it helps my projects stand out a little bit more.

MUHAMMAD: You mention just the word entertainment a couple of times, like in talking about Drake and in talking about Action Bronson. How — and even now just talking about the skits. How important is that element of entertainment to your process?

MASTA ACE: It's hugely important. It's what — you know, when I'm making the songs, I'm making the songs. The songs stand on their own. They have to stand on their own. But once the songs are done, then I immediately go into the head or the mind of the listener, the person who just bought that — downloaded that album or bought that CD. They're getting on the train home from work. They're putting their iPod buds in, their earbuds in, and they're about to be on the train for 45 minutes, an hour. And they're going to play my album from beginning to end.

I want them to feel like the experience is like watching a movie or a TV show and that they don't want to skip a song because, "Oh, this song's boring." Or, "This is boring." I want them to want to know, "Oh, what's going to happen next? This is pretty cool." And so when I'm putting these records together, that's my thinking or my mindset as I'm doing it.

MUHAMMAD: In doing that, do you come up with the overall concept of the entire album before you record it or does it just kind of unfold as you're going through it?

MASTA ACE: The most recent album that I put out was with my group eMC called The Tonight Show. And we made all the songs. They were done. No concept in mind.


MASTA ACE: Then we collectively said, "Well, we want the word show to be in the title of the album." Cause we had — the first album was called The Show. So it was like, "OK, EPMD had all those albums with the business in it. Let's try to do something similar to that. Every album, let's put the word show in it." And so we had a list of titles with the word show in it, and I looked at all of those titles and The Tonight Show, to me, lent itself more to a really cool, funny, interesting story line.

By seeing The Tonight Show, I got the vision right away that I wanted this to be about us as the musical guest on The Tonight Show. I wanted to have an actual person be the host of The Tonight Show. We chose comedian Russell Peters to be our character Jimmy Falcon. Then I said, "Well, we're going to need special guests on the album. What celebrities can we reach out to that'll do a favor?" Rosie Perez is a friend of mind from Brooklyn from way back. Known her since the early '90s. She was nice enough to do a favor and come in and record a skit for me. I reached out to Tony Rock who I had met at the Comedy Store in LA a couple years back. We actually had mutual friends. He grew up with guys I went to high school with. So that was — he did me a favor and jumped on the album.

And so I just built this idea of The Tonight Show around the songs. It gets tricky because the album sequence is still important, even though you're trying to tell this story, you can't have — you can't start the album off with a low-tempo record. So everything kind of has to make sense, and it's a little bit of — playing a little bit of a — I don't know — sudoku or something, one of those games, to try to mix and match the songs and the skits and have the right sequence as well as the skits making sense. And it tells a story from the very beginning to the very end of the album when we get snubbed at the end of the album and don't actually get to perform on The Tonight Show, which I gave away the ending but hopefully people will still go get it.

KELLEY: Spoilers.

MUHAMMAD: It's well — it's very complete. It's funny how — to hear the process because in listening to it, I really felt like I was in your guys' green room, in the presence of it. But there's certain songs that stand out that I think exist outside of obviously being on — booked for a television show, like "Moopies." Hilarious.

MASTA ACE: Thank you.

MUHAMMAD: It's — I like the fact that you approached that because, as an artist, you're on the road. You experience that. And I don't know if you deal with it in the same sort of — the song sounds aggressive at times, so — and I know you got --

MASTA ACE: You probably get it worse than us though. I can only imagine you.

MUHAMMAD: Nah, I'm sure it's the same. Like, I was picturing everything. And so how do you deal with that, outside of the record? Is your tone a little more calmer, or do you just kind of — is it as it is on the record?

MASTA ACE: Well, we tried to make the song feel light-hearted and funny. That was the goal. I hope we accomplished that. Don't want fans to feel like we're unapproachable. That wasn't the purpose of the song, but it was just to let fans know that some of y'all be ODing, and y'all need to just relax and chill. And — be aware that you've had too much to drink.

Some of our male fans since that record came out, they come up to get an autograph; "Yo, I'm not a moopie." I'm like, "Listen. You're not a moopie until you ask me for the tenth dap, and you've been standing here for 25 minutes talking about the same thing. You good." It's cool to come up. It's cool to take a photo. It's cool to shake hands. It's cool to sign something, buy something at the table, and keep it moving. Let the next person slide up.

So yeah. And also, since that song has come out, there's been people who don't pay attention to it at all and continue to "moop" out at the shows.

KELLEY: I can't decide if saying, "I'm not a moopie" is actually a total moopie move, demonstrating knowledge of recent work.

MASTA ACE: You mean like a girl saying, "I'm not a groupie?"


MASTA ACE: It's not, because most — overwhelming majority of the male fans are cool. They say what's up. They keep it brief. They want to give you their demo or their tape or their new album. They want you to sign this, take a picture, and it's over. And it's cool. I'm with all of that. I always, after the show, go out and hang at the merch table and want to meet fans. I'm with that.

It's just the guys that don't know when to chill and just go away now. And I have some experiences where it's like, you know, it gets a little crazy.

KELLEY: I think it's hard for people to deal with fame. That's the really obvious thing to say, but I think there's a conception of the world where some people are on a pedestal and some people aren't. And they're all sorts of ways that you can accept that that is true, and then you can't deal with reality if you think that somebody is, like, fancier than you.

MASTA ACE: Right. It's — I get it. You bought this person's music. You love what they do. The songs affected you in some unique way, and that's great. And it's cool to express that. But I don't need you to kiss my hand, buddy. I don't need you to grab my head and squeeze it and shake --

KELLEY: Wow. Wow.

MASTA ACE: I don't need — that aggression is not — I'm not with any of that. Where I'm from, you don't grab people's head and all that extra stuff. It's just not cool. Not cool.

MUHAMMAD: Yeah, people are overly excited. I don't think they realize sometimes how excited they really are.

MASTA ACE: They don't.

KELLEY: That's true.

MUHAMMAD: Question: Did Bob Power mix this album?

MASTA ACE: Nah. He didn't mix it. But the studio that we work --

MUHAMMAD: So how'd you — Yeah. Go ahead.

MASTA ACE: The studios where we work out of, we have one of the suites. We're on 27th St, and we have one of the suites. Bob Power has one of the big rooms in the same suite. So he's walking by our room all the time. With his dog and, "What's up, guys?"

So one day, I was like, "I need a voice for this part. I need somebody to play a security guard." And he just walked by the room, and my partner Rich was like, "Bob, come here for a minute. Can you --?" "What do you need me to do? Alright. I'm going to give you guys three or four, and that's it. I gotta go." And he knocked it out real quick.

KELLEY: Everybody's Bob Power imitation is the same. It's funny.

MASTA ACE: "That's all I got."

MUHAMMAD: That was special for me hearing him. I was like, "Wait. Bob sounded super tough." And for the listeners who don't know who Bob Power is, Bob Power mixed all the Tribe Called Quest records and a whole bunch of other great records. So just, you know, he's a really nice person.


MUHAMMAD: Hearing him like that, I was like, "What's going on?" It's pretty cool. Can you talk --

MASTA ACE: When's the last time you saw him?

MUHAMMAD: I saw Bob — man. Oh, man. I can't believe it. Like, just before I left New York for LA to make my move, and --

MASTA ACE: How many years is that?

MUHAMMAD: Nah, that was like nine months ago.


MASTA ACE: Oh, not that long. You saw him.

MUHAMMAD: Yeah, not that long. I mean, I've talked to him in the past few months, but the last time I saw him was just before I left.

MASTA ACE: I was trying to orchestrate a re-union. But you've seen him so it's cool.

KELLEY: We do need to get him on Microphone Check. That is true.

MASTA ACE: He's got a million stories.

KELLEY: Yeah, I know he does.

MUHAMMAD: He does. He does. So just going back a little bit, obviously, you say you look forward to meeting fans. You've been doing this for a long time, a lot longer than I have. What gets you excited about still making music after all this time?

MASTA ACE: I feel like I'm still trying to prove myself. I know that might sound crazy, but I still feel like I have something to prove. When I came up in the late '80s with the Juice Crew and being on that label with cats like Big Daddy Kane and Kool G Rap, super lyrical — MC Shan was a big star at that time. Biz Markie, big star. You know, it was tough to make your way with all of this — it was clutter; it was just a lot of good people around you, and you're trying to shine in that. And it's so difficult to do that.

And so I think my entire journey has been me kind of just proving that I belonged in that room with those guys. So I'm still --

KELLEY: In the saloon with those guys?

MASTA ACE: I feel like I'm still doing that. Still trying to prove that I belong there.

KELLEY: Well, yeah. OK. You took a break though.

MASTA ACE: I did. You mean right after Sittin' On Chrome? That break? Which break?

KELLEY: I was thinking of the '04 after Disposable Arts break.

MASTA ACE: Oh. Well, I was touring. I mean, when Disposable came out — Disposable Arts is my number one album that I've made, because it singlehandedly rejuvenated my career and extended my career going on 14 years. It came out in '01, in October of '01. And we're pushing 14 years now since that record came out. There's no way after Sittin' On Chrome and where I was mentally — there's no way that I should still be making records because I was really really done for real. After Sittin' On Chrome and all of the backlash from New York, all of the, "Oh, you went West Coast," and just being accused of all kinds of things, I was done.

I actually made up a resumé. I started putting together beat tapes and shopping beats to labels. I was having meetings. I was passing resumés out to see if I could get a job at a label. So to go from that point to dropping Disposable and finding this whole new generation of fans that's followed since '01 — many of whom didn't know anything about the first three albums, bought Disposable Arts, and became fans from that day — that album, hands down, is the most important album of my career.

I toured for three years after Disposable Arts dropped, and then dropped A Long Hot Summer in '04. But I was super active in between those albums. And then after '04, the next record came out was eMC The Show, which was — when we started working on it in '06, but it didn't come out until 2008. And then right after that I was right back in the studio with Edo G, dropped the album with Ed. I've been consistently doing music since that time.

KELLEY: So, you're right. I guess I was asking if — and we can edit this if you want. I mean, I know that you've talked about your multiple sclerosis diagnosis. I don't know what there is to say, though, about it, other than if it has affected the reasons that you work.

MASTA ACE: It definitely had an effect. I was diagnosed in 2000, so it kind of put things into perspective, career-wise, life-wise. Didn't know what my long-term health was going to be like, and decided that if I was going to leave the game, I wanted to leave on my own terms. I didn't want to leave with my hometown saying I was a West Coast sellout and I --

I was actually, you know, making excuses for why "Born To Roll" blew up and did what it did, why Sittin' In Chrome was getting played in LA. And it took me a minute to realize that I didn't need to make an excuse for success of a record. Where ever they were going to like the record, that's where it was. New York caught up way late. I think Flex started playing it almost a year after it had already blown up in all of these other markets. He started playing some of the songs.

I just decided with that diagnosis that I wanted to go out on my own terms. I re-dedicated myself to the craft in a different way, and I made my best music, I feel, after that diagnosis. I started coaching football, high school football, after that. I wanted to — that was something I had been thinking about for a really long time but didn't think I would ever do it. That diagnosis made me want to go out and do that, give back to young people. Did that for nine years, actually 11 years. Nine years in Brooklyn, two years in Jersey.

But yeah, and the diagnosis has changed my life in terms of my commitment to fitness and health. I go to the gym three to four times a week. I run now, which I never thought I would ever run again.

KELLEY: I feel very shamed by your Twitter. When you're, like, waking up early.

MASTA ACE: Yo. That's — when you get that kind of news --

KELLEY: God dammit.

MASTA ACE: — you either go in the tank, or you change the way you think and do something different. I started eating very, very different. I'm definitely one of the only people in my circle that eat the way I eat, but they respect the fact that I'm doing it for a reason. I try not to preach. I can be annoying when I see guys getting McDonald's and french fries and all of that. I try not to say anything and let dudes live their lives, cause I know it can be annoying. But I just — food. Food. I feel like food is the reason I have what I have, what I've eaten in my life. And so I'm just trying to change what I put in my body. I've been doing it for the last ten years, little by little.

KELLEY: Wow. I started drinking a lot more water, and I think it's made all the difference.

MASTA ACE: You gotta drink water.

KELLEY: It's totally chilled everything out.

MASTA ACE: There was a point where I couldn't drink water with a meal.

KELLEY: Yeah, I know.

MASTA ACE: Like, it was like, "Ugh."

KELLEY: Totally.

MASTA ACE: "I can't drink water. Give me something sweet." But that's all about just changing your taste buds.

KELLEY: Right.

MASTA ACE: You do that. You fast for a while, and you'll completely change your taste buds and your desire for stuff. I know Ali could talk about eating well all day long.

KELLEY: I know. People are always like, "Frannie, why does Ali still look so good? Why does Saadiq look so good?" And I was like, "Why the f*** do you think they look so good? They take care of themselves."

MASTA ACE: That's what it's about.

MUHAMMAD: Yeah, that's true. But I think — I have to admit I have a really bad liking for chocolate. So --

KELLEY: But chocolate's good for you.

MUHAMMAD: It is good for you, but --

MASTA ACE: Dark chocolate.

KELLEY: Right.

MUHAMMAD: — it could be excessive in my taste at different points in time depending on how disciplined I am. But yeah. Last time I saw you Ace, you looked crazy young too, so whatever you're doing is working.

MASTA ACE: Thank you, man. Thank you. It's definitely my diet.

I can't help but look at some of my peers that we're close to the same age and know that they lived very, very hard. We all in the '90s was wilin' out. Everybody was staying up till four, five, six in the morning. Mad girls. Going to get some diner food, getting a steak and whatever. Eating wild crazy — whatever was open, you was eating that. White Castle. Whatever. Getting three hours of sleep, and then just being right back on the grind of just being in the streets.

And that stuff — not to mention the alcohol. I mean, I never was into drugs and all of that, but weed — I wasn't into none of that. But the drinking, that stuff takes a toll on you when you're doing it for 20 years. If you do it for 20 years like you can't be in your 40s and behaving the way you behaved when you were in your 20s. It's just not gon' work. It's going to show on your face and your body and your gut. The battle of the gut at 40 is real. It's real.


MASTA ACE: I look in the mirror every day like, "OK. I gotta --" that alone, just looking in the mirror, I go, "OK. Going to the gym today." Can't lose this battle. I refuse.

KELLEY: That's how you could get more female fans. You know, is like --

MASTA ACE: By having a gut?

KELLEY: No, sir. I wish that that — we do have our priorities. But if you were to make a song about the battle, cause that is some girl s*** right there.

MASTA ACE: The battle of the gut?

KELLEY: The battle of a lot of things over here. But yeah.

MASTA ACE: Alright. I'ma think about that. I gotta give you writer's credit on that now?

KELLEY: Mm-hmm.

MASTA ACE: Ghostwriter?

KELLEY: Just percentage. That's fine.

MASTA ACE: Alright.

KELLEY: I have a question. I would like to hear some stories, and I have heard several stories about "The Symphony," mostly involving something with Kane and a little gun.


KELLEY: But what was your story with that song? Were you on that school bus that went upstate?

MASTA ACE: Oh, I was on that bus.

KELLEY: OK. What were you doing on the bus?

MASTA ACE: We were on our way up to a dude ranch in the Adirondacks.

KELLEY: I love this story so much.

MASTA ACE: We were on our way up to the Adirondacks to a dude ranch to shoot — it was a two-day shoot — with — I believe Lionel Martin was the director.


MASTA ACE: And there were two busses chartered to take everybody up, all the artists, all the extras, all the crew, all the equipment. And we were going to stay the night upstate and shoot this video. Western themed. The whole bit.

And on the bus, on the way up, we were doing a lot of snapping, as we call it. Cracking jokes, talking about each other. You know, just funny stuff. Everybody — it was hilarious, some of the jokes. Like, G Rap was one of the funniest dudes. People hear his rhymes; they don't know about his funny side, but he had some good good good jokes.

So everybody's cracking jokes or whatever, and then somehow the jokes escalated to throwing stuff, like little balled up pieces of paper and then bigger pieces of paper. And then other random things started getting thrown, and it got out of hand. For real.

So Kane just stood up and was like, "I'm not playing no more. Don't nobody throw nothing else at me." And everybody was quiet for a second. And then one dude after he sat down threw one little thing at him and he jumped up, "You think I'm playing?" And, you know, a fight broke out. There was a weapon that was discharged by someone, and it ricocheted off a window in the bus and lodged in the arm of one of the extras sitting in the back of the bus.

We took the parties that were having the altercation and put them on separate buses, and the guy who got the bullet in the arm had to be taken to the hospital upstate New York. And I don't know exactly what he told, but obviously when you come to a hospital with a bullet, police get involved. I don't know what was said to the police, but the police came — actually, they came that next day right when we were about to film the walk-into-the-saloon part. We were right about to film that part. And they came and --

KELLEY: Meaning you were in costume.

MASTA ACE: We were in costume about to walk into the — about to film the opening of the door, one-by-one. And, like I said, I don't know what the guy told the police, but they said they needed to talk to Kane specifically. And so he — that's why he's not in the western scene at all in the video.

I've never told this story publicly. I've told this story a million times in the tour van and to the fellas. But I've never told the story — but he was the one who they decided to arrest. I don't know if they arrested him or they just brought him in for questioning, just to find out what happened or whatever. I don't know how it was settled.

We shot the rest of the video, and then we had to come back a different day and shoot separate scenes for Kane, just to make up for the parts that he wasn't in. And that's the politically correct version of that story.

KELLEY: It's OK. Marley and Uncle Ralph have told us those stories on mic, so it's OK. We'll be careful with it though.

MASTA ACE: So you know who did what.


MASTA ACE: And it didn't come from me.

KELLEY: What are some of your other tour bus go-tos?

MASTA ACE: Tour bus go-tos. We did a tour in '91. It was supposed to be the new Cold Chillin', cause at that point Cold Chillin', they went sign crazy. They signed Kid Capri. They signed The Genius, now known as the GZA. They signed Diamond Shell. They signed Grand Daddy I.U. They signed another group — I can't think — they signed about five or six acts, and they wanted to roll a tour out with these acts.

It was tour two buses. Now this is my first time being on a real tour bus with the sleeper joints, and the first show was in Newark, New Jersey. Or maybe it wasn't Newark. Might've been Asbury Park. That's where it was at. And it's kind of hood out there.

And the very first show, GZA, he was bringing ODB with him as his hype man. So they were going to go first. They were the least known out of everybody, so they went first. And he had ODB come out first to kind of get the crowd, you know, hype, allegedly. And ODB didn't like the way the crowd was responding to him, so he started cursing the crowd out.

"F y'all, Jersey cats." I mean, he went crazy, and a riot almost broke out before the first act even went on. He had to get rushed off the stage. They was throwing stuff at him. They had to get him off the stage real fast. And right after that happened, Fly Ty, who was the president of Cold Chillin', told GZA, "Your man's not going on the road with us. Send him home. He's not going on the road with us."

And so I missed out being on the road with ODB for like — we was out there for about a month, all around the U.S. Because of that one incident. But he was probably a little intoxicated, and he's from Brooklyn. He don't like Jersey cats for whatever reason, and he decided he was going to let them know that night on stage that he don't like Jersey cats. And it got ugly real quick, and he got kicked off the tour after the first show. And, you know, rest in peace, ODB.

That was — it was still a good tour. Well, I shouldn't say good tour. It was a cool tour, first experience. We found out at the end of the tour — cause this was a "promo" tour, so nobody's getting paid, right?

KELLEY: Oh, wow.

MASTA ACE: But we were getting per diem, and the hotel was taken care of and the expenses were taken care of. We found out right before the last show one of the promoters I think talked to — Kane wasn't on that tour. The tour was Biz Markie who was actually not performing but he was the host. The tour was Grand Daddy I.U., Kool G Rap and Polo, myself, GZA, Kid Capri, and that was it. I don't think Diamond Shell went. And we found out at the very last show that these guys was getting $40,000 a show.


MASTA ACE: For that tour.


MASTA ACE: And, like, it almost got crazy. Cause all of us like banded together. We was ready to flip on Fly Ty. He tried to say that, "Well, that's paying for the buses and that's paying for the hotels," and we never got accounted to.

But that's the kind of stuff that went on at that label and that's why that label, which — there was a point where Cold Chillin' and Def Jam was neck and neck in terms of prestige, in terms of artists, in terms of record sales. They were right there with Def Jam, but Def Jam did a better job of treating their artists the right way. Cold Chillin' decided to be backdoor, grimy, dirty, and they didn't treat their artists the right way. So one by one everybody jumped ship.

Craig G jumped ship first. Cause they signed him when he was 15, and they didn't have a legal guardian sign it, so he got out of his deal real easy. Kane left next. He didn't leave Cold Chillin', but he left their management. Cause they were managing everybody. He left and went to Rush Management. That was a huge, big deal cause they felt like they lost to Russell. And then eventually he went on MCA. And then I was the next artist to leave, went to Cold Chillin'.

KELLEY: Wait. You went to Cold --

MASTA ACE: I mean, I went to — sorry — Delicious Vinyl. I went to Delicious Vinyl.

KELLEY: Wait. Sorry. So just to clarify and I apologize if this is bringing back — so Delicious is an LA label.


KELLEY: So was that a part of the backlash?

MASTA ACE: Because the perception — I was on a label with Tone Loc and Young MC. Big pop artists from the West Coast. Sold millions of records, or singles. And I was now signed to that label, but the label was trying to re-invent itself and have more credibility. They didn't want to be known as just like this pop label. So they signed me, and they signed Pharcyde. And signed Def Jef. So they was trying to bring some more grassroots hip-hop to their brand, so that's why they signed us.

And the perception of the music that I was making was, "Ah, he's on some West Coast stuff." But I put out Slaughtahouse, which didn't have a West Coast feel at all to it. And New York wasn't paying attention. "Ah, OK. Y'all don't want to see what I'm doing over here. I'm doing something grimy and dirty and different. So I'ma make some other type of music that somebody else might rock with." I remixed "Jeep Ass N****" and turned it into a song called "Born To Roll." Immediately it blows up in the Bay Area. It spread throughout California, and then it spread its way East. Went to the South. Went to Texas. Went to the Midwest.

And before you knew it the record was all over the radio everywhere but New York. And I was — I turned into a household name for those markets that didn't know me before. They had no clue about "The Symphony." They didn't know anything about my first album or my connection with Cold Chillin'. All they know was, "'Born To Roll,' I like that song. They play it on the radio all the time. I like that guy, whoever made that song." And it was a new career for me.

KELLEY: I heard that song in the context of — first of all, I lived on the West Coast at that time. But I heard that as a Brooklyn song. So.

MASTA ACE: Did you think I was Mexican? Because a lot of people for some reason thought I was Mexican when they heard that song.

KELLEY: I don't think I did.

MASTA ACE: OK. A lot of people did.

KELLEY: I know that I do get that phrase, "I got music a grande yeah I got it going on," stuck in my head like every third day. But I don't think that I then translated that to --

MASTA ACE: Some people did.


MASTA ACE: And I had a video out, and people still thought I was --

KELLEY: And the video was also like --

MASTA ACE: I mean, I was showing low riders.

KELLEY: It's sunny.

MASTA ACE: I had Locs on, little dark glasses and all of that. I get it. But it was — all it was was a remix to a previously released song that had a video for it. All I did was change the beat. I didn't change the rhymes. I didn't change the phrasing. Everything was pretty much exactly the same.

KELLEY: Listen, man. As a rap fan myself, I can say that we get it wrong.

MASTA ACE: That's cool. That's cool. It's my cross to bear.

KELLEY: Yeah, I guess. Another thing that you do — and this may also help you with the ladies I guess is you've often had --

MASTA ACE: Do I need help with the ladies? Oh, the fans.

KELLEY: I don't know. I feel like you said — oh, I mean, I don't know. You tell me.

MASTA ACE: I did. No. No. I need fans. I need fans. C'mon. Give me more advice. I'm open.

KELLEY: Well, I think you've — maybe to remind our Microphone Check female fans — that you have often had female guests on your songs.

MASTA ACE: Oh yeah, that's — Disposable Arts was unique in the fact that I had three different female rappers on the album. Jean Grae, Jane Doe and Rah Digga.

KELLEY: First time I ever heard Jean Grae.

MASTA ACE: Really? That's cool. And I don't know if anybody ever did that before. But it was — it felt right. It was — they fit what I needed to happen, and why not? It was cool. It was great collabos.

KELLEY: Do you think that there's anything about that aspect, but other things that were going on, that made that album work in '01? It wouldn't've worked in like — I don't know — '97.

MASTA ACE: Yeah. It caught a lot of people off guard because that was already kind of — it was the tail-end of the Bad Boy radio — they were like ruling the radio for about five or six years straight with this R&B/hip-hop sound, and it hadn't quite died out yet. And I don't think anybody expected me to come with anything that was legit.

I was pretty mad at the — was it The Source? It was XXL. It was XXL. No, it was Vibe. Vibe did a review. I don't remember the dude. Did a review and when you read the review, I knew immediately that he didn't listen to the album.


MASTA ACE: Because he said, "I don't need to hear 16 songs from Masta Ace," and it wasn't 16 songs on the album. There was a bunch of skits. But the skits were numbered. So he gave it like some low rating, but it pissed me off cause he didn't read the album. I mean he didn't listen to the album.

KELLEY: That's a fire-able offense.

MASTA ACE: It is, to me. To me. He may have skimmed it, but he didn't listen to the songs in their entirety.

MUHAMMAD: How do you deal with that sort of occurrence, in terms of — do you contact the journalist directly or do you take it onto your next record?

MASTA ACE: Nah, I just — I use it as fuel. I use it as a fuel when I go back in the studio. I've been slighted quite a bit throughout my career in those kinds of ways. Those little slights, those little oversights. And those are the things that keep me — you say what motivates me to keep making music? It's those kinds of little things that keep me going, keep that fuel burning inside of me to continue to prove myself and make people see the light.

KELLEY: That's funny. Cormega said the same thing in similar language, and you guys have Jerry in common.

MASTA ACE: Yeah, and we're on a song together.

KELLEY: I mean, yeah. We have felt that way at Microphone Check, honestly.

MASTA ACE: And what do you do about it?

KELLEY: We just win.

MASTA ACE: That's it. Just keep going.

KELLEY: I think we should probably — I feel like I could talk for longer.

MASTA ACE: I'm here. I'm relaxed.


MASTA ACE: Whatever bases you want to touch, let's do it. It's been — I've never been up here, so let's try to get it all out.

MUHAMMAD: You know what I want to talk about? I just want to talk about the state of America and where it is now. We're relatively the same age, so growing up — and both from Brooklyn. And I know how the — well, I don't know — well, you have song that you dedicated to your mom, and I don't know what your mother's background was in terms of civil rights and all that.

MASTA ACE: She did.

MUHAMMAD: I know that — I'm guessing that that had to have an effect on you in the way that she raised you. But then growing up through the '70s and seeing the changes in Brooklyn specifically, how Broadway was destroyed over a blackout. The entire commerce of one — it's more than a neighborhood. Broadway stretches through a lot of Brooklyn. And it took nearly 20 years for it to be kind of brought back to life.

And then came the drug era and the crack era, which again ruined the community. There's obviously a change in New York. But I don't want to talk about that. Just — there's police brutality. You've talked about it before in other records. And as it relates to the way artists are disconnected from what's happening on the streets and with the people, what're your thoughts when go into the studio at this age right now?

MASTA ACE: I'm actually in the studio working on my new solo record, which is dealing specifically with my — the four years I was in high school, which was '80 to '84. Talking about that time period, touching on some of the stuff you just talked about: how the drug era was ushered in and how the community was kind of dismantled by the influx of drugs, and specifically the black woman and how it was us, the black male, basically handing those drugs over to our ladies and basically destroying the family structure.

I had very close friends whose mothers went from working, healthy women to basically walking zombies in a matter of a year or two. And I went away to college; right after I graduated in '84, I went right to college. So I would come home and see people looking like a totally different person that lived in my building that was the mom of my boy who I hung out with.

So I touch on that on this new record a little bit. I don't know what the disconnect is with artists. I think that artists now, the younger cats, they really just want to "turn up" and get a record on the radio so they can make them some money, so they can buy them a little car and some little jewelry and have they little neighborhood fame for a hot second. Which is what we all maybe wanted when we first started making music, but the stakes are way higher now.

And I think — I have to put a little bit of the blame on commercial radio, because there's enough other music out there that they could play a better balance of hip-hop if they wanted to. It almost makes me feel like they're playing the ratchet crap, the trap, the ratchet, the shoot-'em-up, the drug-sling songs, because — I try not to be a conspiracy theorist, but it's like, I don't know what else to be when I'm looking at what's being played on the radio.

The other day — I posted a few things on my Instagram. I took my daughter to a concert, this group called R5. You know, real safe, white group. Teenage kids or whatever, and they're just singing kind of happy love songs, music or whatever. And it's crazy to me. Cause me and my wife were talking about it on the way home, and I'm like, "Is there a black artist making black music that I would be comfortable taking my daughter to go see?"

Because she knows what's popular. So what's popular is — turn on the radio and listen to what's being played, and then — you don't want to take your kid to these artists' shows. You wouldn't take them to see any of these artists that's being played on black radio right now.

And I'm glad that there's something out there, and that's what I put it in my post. I'm glad that there's some kind of music out there that's age-appropriate for her, that she can listen to. But it just so happens to be these white kids that are singing happy songs. But where's the black artist singing happy songs? There are none. Everybody's slinging drugs and singing about being trap queens and all that.

And that's no direct jab at Fetty Wap specifically, but I'm just saying I saw a video of — one of our friends sent a video of her son — he's about 11, I want to say — and he was singing that song; he was singing "Trap Queen." At 11 years old, he filmed himself singing it. And I'm looking at an 11-year-old talking about, "She's cooking in the kitchen. She's my trap queen." And I had a lot of problems with that, cause that's not age — he don't really know what he's singing about. It's just the point of like, he's 11 and this is all he has.

There's gotta be a way for commercial radio to put other music out there besides what they're putting out there. I love, you know, "I'm in love with the coco." That's a cool song. I like it. I get it. The beat. All that. But what's the balance. Tell me what the balance is.


MUHAMMAD: I feel like people really are not speaking up, and not to go on about Ghostface but the rant — no, I shouldn't call it a rant. But his communication was very reminiscent of the old days of hip-hop when you would address the b*******. And I feel like no one's addressing it in a very assertive manner.

MASTA ACE: Nobody wants to be viewed as a bitter old cat. So it's like, if I say something now I'm hating on the younger cats. And that's not really what it is. I'm asking commercial radio to do a better job of serving up a balance.

Because there's plenty of good music out there that ain't talking about slinging drugs, plenty of good music out there that ain't talking about threesomes with girls in the club. I'm — it's all good. There's many kinds of movies. You got Scarface, and then you got love comedies. There's a million categories, so we need to be able to hear it all. Not just one thing. And that's all they pumping.

KELLEY: Yeah, Ali has talked about this before in relation to hard sales numbers — really it was about Barter 6 -- which was like, "Look at the numbers and then come back and tell me that this justifies the number of spins it's getting."

I think there's a very quiet movement that confuses in particular the New York media, but that explains the actual real, backed-up-by-hard-numbers popularity of somebody like J. Cole. And I do think it is because people are looking for things that are — as sometimes kind of awkward and corny as they might be, still to the people who are choosing them, it feels age-appropriate to them or it feels relatable to them.

I think there are a lot of things happening that are either happening maybe in WhatsApp and not on Twitter, or in ticket sales and not in iTunes single sales, that give me hope that the existing power structure is a house of cards.

MASTA ACE: Yeah. Well --

KELLEY: But I don't think there's anything to do directly about it. I don't know. I mean, maybe we just need patience.

MUHAMMAD: I don't know. Well, maybe. But I think that in having patience, it's almost like just waiting for it to correct itself. And I think many times life requires that sort of a response, but I think — well, Ace, your story's interesting, because I could not — I don't have children. But I could not imagine having a child and the child not having a relationship with music that opens up their mind and their imagination and teaches them things.

Raphael Saadiq said to me, quite often, that Chuck D was his history teacher. And so he got a lot from the music, things that he wasn't getting maybe in school. And I feel the same way with regards to Earth, Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder. And to be in this time period where the truth of life is not being communicated and conveyed through the artist is troubling to me. And it's to me a sign that humanity is entering into an age that may — it may be very dark unless you become more proactive in at least speaking up about it or doing something.

I don't know what that something is, but in terms of radio, knowing how it's managed and the purpose of radio as a commodity, no different than us putting records out. Our records are commodities. We're looking to make a sale. The radio stations are looking to get the advertising dollars. The end. But at the same time, there's such a power that the radio station have in distribution of information and specifically of truth, and when that's not happening it's no different than having a politician sit up in office and propagating something that's untrue.

At some point, the people have to take a stand. And maybe with regards to music, it may not be that serious to some people but for me, again, I learned a lot from Earth, Wind & Fire. I learned a lot from Stevie Wonder. And to know that the generation now, they don't have those sort of teachers, I don't know what it's — where we draw the line of just being complacent and saying, "OK. This is where we are now, and it's cool." It's not cool with me. But I don't know.

MASTA ACE: It's going to take — in this popular culture that we live in, it's going to take an artist that's in a position of power that has the attention of the masses to help bring about change. It's not going to be one of us. We don't have records on the radio right now, so our voices kind of go unheard.

It brings me back to Jay Electronica and him dropping a record. He's an artist that potentially in a short period of time can be somebody who has the attention of people, that people are — he potentially can be that next guy, and he actually is speaking about some things that are a little bit deeper than turning up and partying and threesomes and drinking and cocaine and slinging.

His message has more to offer than what we been hearing, and it almost makes me wonder — again not trying to be a conspiracy theorist — what's taking his album so long to come out. Is that the reason? He's somebody, I think — it's going to have to be somebody that's of the now generation that comes out, that sells a whole bunch of records, and then says the right things.

Other artists that are already on, they're too afraid to step out because they got their position. They don't want to ruin it. They don't want to get any sort of backlash. Kanye. Jay. They're not going to say something about the radio right now cause their records are getting spun. But we need somebody of that level to speak up about it and make a stand.

KELLEY: Without disagreeing with you, I'm pretty sure Jay Electronica's 34, 35.


KELLEY: Is there anybody who's maybe 24, 25 that has potential?

MASTA ACE: I just don't know who they are. There may be. I can't rattle off every up-and-comer, but is there somebody in their 20s that is conscious enough of our state, that is brave enough to speak on it, that's going to have a sales base that people will pay attention to? You mention J. Cole. The only thing about J. Cole is that — on the way here, I was actually listening to one of his records. It was on satellite radio. And he — the record has something to do with having sex with a girl.

KELLEY: "Wet Dreamz?"

MASTA ACE: No, it wasn't that. It was actually off of the Tribe "Electric Relaxation" loop, the same loop.

KELLEY: Oh yeah, I remember that one.

MASTA ACE: He's somebody who potentially could be that guy, but he's almost being ignored a little bit. And at the same time, he's feeling the pressure to speak on topics like sex and — he has little elements in there. It's almost like, "I gotta say this. I gotta throw some of this in there if I'ma get these spins and keep it edgy."

KELLEY: Oh, I agree.

MASTA ACE: "Keep it edgy. Talk about getting brain. I gotta do some of that."

KELLEY: I think he's like the PG — like on an intellectual and analytical level, he's the PG version of himself right now. He's not going as hard as he can.

MASTA ACE: Yeah, well, there's pressure to not go there.


MASTA ACE: Cause he wants to sell records and he wants to be popular and he wants America to embrace him.

KELLEY: Maybe you gotta build the base first.

MASTA ACE: That's definitely it. That's definitely it.

KELLEY: The 10-year plan. That's why I'm talking about patience though. What gives me hope is that I see all these little things that could be people setting things up.

MASTA ACE: I remember — this brings to mind — what you were just saying brings to mind, Bernie Mac, when he was on — I want to say it was on Kings Of Comedy. When he was speaking about how the other guys on the show all had TV shows and they won't give him a TV show because, "They think I'ma say something. America, I ain't gon' say nothing. I promise. I'ma be good. I ain't gon' do nothing. Just give me a chance, America." He was basically saying, "I'll tone it down if you guys let me in the door." Because he thought that America was afraid of him cause he was dark, and he had very strong opinions. And that he had a nasty mouth, and that America wasn't going to let him in.

And it kind of feels almost parallel to perhaps the position that J. Cole might be in.

KELLEY: I feel like in general that's a thing that, yeah, keeps happening. One way to say it is that people get co-opted. The other is that people get comfortable. You just get in the door. You don't want to leave that place. But I think the same could be said for these white executives at 105, Hot 97, any of the Emmis companies, any of that. You were young once and you loved this music. What are you doing today?

MASTA ACE: Kendrick Lamar comes to mind. Another good artist to bring up because maybe he's the guy. Maybe it's not J. Cole. Maybe it's him. He seems a little bit less — he seems more fearless to speak his mind. He said some stuff on his new record — and he has a lot of white fans. And he said some stuff on his new record that are very edgy and could potentially turn off his white fans, but they're rocking with him. Maybe he's the guy.

His delivery might not be super clear and concise, so his message — it's almost like you gotta listen between the lines to get what he's saying a lot of times. But he's definitely saying some stuff. He's another guy that I think could potentially be that guy. There's going to have to be somebody. He's selling a lot of records. I'm hoping that if he gets his foot in that door all the way that he doesn't tone his message down but even turns it up even another notch.

KELLEY: Yeah, well, his song with your girl Taylor doesn't really bode well for anybody.

MASTA ACE: You had to bring that up, huh?

KELLEY: Yeah, it's my job.

MASTA ACE: I was trying to not think about that.

KELLEY: I know. I know. I think we should all put bets down. I think it's going to be somebody even younger. I think that kids like in their late teens, early 20s right now, though they do not have the history, though they need to do a much better job educating themselves --

MASTA ACE: Who's smart enough though?

KELLEY: I'm not naming names; I'm not saying I even have heard of this person. But conceive of the world in a different way than --

MASTA ACE: They're going to have to be like a brilliant genius, like a prodigy at 19. And just be so worldly. Who's their father? Somebody's going to have to have guided them.

KELLEY: Seven. Seven going to do it.

MASTA ACE: Alright. OK.

KELLEY: That's my money.

MASTA ACE: I'm with you. Somebody. Speak up. They're not listening to us.

KELLEY: Yeah, but we can prepare them too. We can prepare the audience to be ready for them when they come.

MASTA ACE: Absolutely. There is — a change gon' come.


MASTA ACE: I believe it.

KELLEY: Well, thank you, sir.

MASTA ACE: Yo, thanks for having me. It's cool. It's very intellectual, very — I feel smart. Thank you.

KELLEY: That's that NPR air. We pipe in the pretension. It's cool.

MUHAMMAD: I mean, to just kind of big you up on another aspect which we didn't talk about, but there aren't many — maybe I'm wrong and I'm uneducated on this. I'm ignorant on it. But I don't know how many MCs have finished school, college I mean.

KELLEY: Yeah, I thought about that.

MASTA ACE: It's gotta be a couple. It's gotta be a couple. I can't rattle off any. I feel like for sure I'm not alone.

KELLEY: What was your major?

MASTA ACE: Marketing. I started off as a chemistry major freshman year, and then I took that first calculus class and I was like, "Nah. Calculus? Nah. I'm good. Let me switch this up."

KELLEY: I failed math in college also. I got a 13%.

MASTA ACE: Damn. 13.

KELLEY: I was like, "I gotta go." University of Rhode Island, right?


KELLEY: What was Providence like back then?

MASTA ACE: Providence was cool. That was actually like the cool place to go to party. We would go to Brown University and party with the Brown girls. They actually had more brown girls than URI did. So we went up to Brown to party with the Brown girls. They actually had a couple of black fraternities up there, so it was just a better representation of color at Brown. And so we went up there to party. Who would think an Ivy League school would have more black kids than URI, but believe it or not they were definitely doing they thing up there.

Providence was cool. It was definitely some good parties up there. Some good times. I went through my whole college, four years of college, without having an alcoholic beverage.


MASTA ACE: Yeah, I didn't drink until after I graduated from college. I had never tasted alcohol until I graduated from college.

KELLEY: What happened when you did?

MASTA ACE: It was cool. I started off with wine coolers.


MASTA ACE: Bartles and Jaymes.

KELLEY: Ease into it.

MASTA ACE: Yeah, I had to ease into it. Started off with Bartles and Jaymes.

KELLEY: It would stain your mouth. You were like, "Nah. Nah, mom. I wasn't drinking."

MASTA ACE: I tried some champagne. Actually, the first — I had champagne at a Cold Chillin' Christmas party, and I got a little tipsy from that. And then Bartles and Jaymes, then I went right from wine coolers right into screwdrivers, but --

KELLEY: Well, sugar.

MASTA ACE: Yeah, it was a big jump. I'm good now, man. I really rarely even touch the stuff now. Super rarely.

MUHAMMAD: Do you think that continuing education should be mandatory in this age?

MASTA ACE: Mandatory for artists? Or just period.

MUHAMMAD: No. Well — period.

MASTA ACE: No, I don't think it should be mandatory. Because I've gone to school with people that just — it wasn't their thing, but they did have a gift in some other way. Some guys couldn't wait to get out of high school, but then they went to like a trade school, and they became electricians. They became plumbers. They became mechanics. And that's where their gift was.

So, I don't think you should — definitely shouldn't force college on somebody, certainly as long as they have the proper — I want to say guidance. Cause at school we have something called guidance counselors. As long as the people that are speaking to these young people are telling them the right things, then OK.

When I was coaching in Brooklyn I was actually the academic advisor to the football players. Not only did I coach them but I was the academic advisor. So they were actually coming to me instead of their guidance counselors to get the real on what they should be doing with their lives going forward. And I absolutely did not recommend every single player that came to me, "Yo, you need to go to college." That wasn't the message for every single player because some kids — some of these kids had like 61 averages, and they were failing every class.

But I would definitely give them what the other options were. Listen. If school is not your thing — the other thing I wasn't doing is telling kids to go into the armed forces. It just — I didn't feel comfortable telling a kid, "You need to go to the service." Cause I wouldn't want my kid to be in that situation. But we would talk about trade schools. We would talk about the city tests, you know, bus driver, train conductor, sanitation. I let them know like, "Listen. I got friends of mine that graduated or barely graduated from high school. Soon as they got out, they went and took the fireman test, the policeman's test, the sanitation test, and they gon' be 30 years in and have full pensions and they might be making more money than me down the road."

When you let a young person understand that there are other options, then they don't lose hope. Because a lot of these kids, they graduate; they saying, "I hate school. College ain't for me. If I'm not gon' be a ball player or a rapper, then I'm done. I'm hopeless. I'ma be on the corner." And you gotta help them understand that those aren't the only options. There's other things that they can do.

And you gotta help them see the long term picture. And that's what I've always tried to do is try to sit down and, "Let's talk about where you gon' be in five years if you go this route." And, "if you go that route." And when they see it, hopefully it helped some of them make the right decisions.

KELLEY: Why'd you stop doing that work?

MASTA ACE: When I moved to Jersey, I was still doing the commute back and forth from Jersey to Brooklyn, which was pretty much the entire school year.

KELLEY: That's two full albums.

MASTA ACE: Yeah. And so I was not touring while I was coaching. So from pretty much late August all the way until Thanksgiving — that's football season — I wasn't touring. I was like turning down tours. That job, the coaching job, it pays like nothing. It's like peanuts. And so it was about nine years straight of turning down tours — or 11 years straight really of turning down tours.

And I got to a situation where I just — the school I was at in Jersey wasn't a good fit for me, and so I stepped away because it wasn't a good fit from a coach's standpoint. And I said, "Well, let me step away. Maybe in a couple years I'll find a new school, a better fit, and I'll do it again." I believe it's something that I'll go back to at some point, because I really enjoyed what I was doing. But I feel like the situation is going to present itself. And in the meantime, I can start really focusing on this music. Since 2012, I've just been grinding and doing music.

KELLEY: What was the name of the school in Brooklyn?

MASTA ACE: Canarsie High School.

KELLEY: And did the kids know about your other careers?

MASTA ACE: They found out. Some of them found out. But it was taboo --

KELLEY: What do you mean?

MASTA ACE: — to bring up music around me or to talk to me about music. I wouldn't engage them in anything about my career.

KELLEY: Oh, you told them not to. OK.


KELLEY: Why is that?

MASTA ACE: Because once they view you as a rapper, and half of them rap, they almost view you as a peer. And now they want to spit verses for you. And I had to keep that clean line of discipline and respect there. "I'm not your peer. We not on the same level. We not trading bars, none of that. I'm here to guide you in your life."

And I didn't want them to research my career and listen to my music or any of that. I wanted to just focus on football, school, and your future. I'm very regimented in that way, and that's how I treated them. And once they saw that I wasn't playing they respected it and left it where it was.

A few kids come up to me, "Yo, listen to this. I got this new song." And put the headphones on and it's my song. And I be like, "Oh yeah. That's a nice song. Yeah. Go back to working out."

KELLEY: See. Teenagers are crazy.

MUHAMMAD: Can I jump back a little bit to just the music for a moment?

KELLEY: Yeah, Ali.

MUHAMMAD: I know we're at like two and half, and we probably gotta shut it down.

KELLEY: Yeah, that's what I was going to tell you.

MUHAMMAD: I just wanted to know in terms of — you work with so many different people and specifically to your present group, what has been the key — what do I call it? What has helped you keep a relationship with your group members?


KELLEY: WhatsApp.

MASTA ACE: No. Not just that. We're generally friends, and we respect each other's space. We respect each other's energy. We don't try to get in each other's way, you know what I mean?

We had a fourth member that we actually had to remove from the group, so I guess it hasn't been totally perfect. He was kind of the oddball out. He was the odd man out. He had a different agenda all the time, and everybody else was in harmony. And this fourth person was just on his own thing. It just didn't work with him.

And now that it's just the three of us, we're in perfect harmony. Everybody does their thing. Everybody understands their role. Nobody's outside of the realm of — we would always — we're always kind of in line with our thinking and our beliefs, and whenever there's a little bit of an issue or something where somebody doesn't quite disagree, we have a conversation about it. And we vote on it. That's what it's supposed to be.

I think all of those things — keeping it democratic is a big thing. I don't throw my weight around just because I have maybe the most known name or whatever. I mean, Wordsworth is a great artist in his own right. Stricklin is a great lyricist in his own right. But I don't throw my weight around and say, "Well, what I say goes." And, "This is what it is." And, "Y'all gotta listen to me." I've never been that way. It's always been democratic.

And they've outvoted me on many things. I be like, "I think we should do this." And the two of them go, "Nah. I'm not feeling that. I think we should do this." And I be like, "Alright. Yup. That's what it is. That's what we doing." I think all of that plays a part in why things work.

MUHAMMAD: Just a little advice. Wanted to get perspective for those other aspiring artists who are in groups. Just to get a taste of it. Cause you as a solo artist, you seem like you push for the group where usually it's the other way around. People in groups and they can't wait to break — to really just focus so much on solo works.

MASTA ACE: Yeah. I love both, man. I love the group aspect, the energy. And I love — when it's my time to do me, I love that too. That's fun too. And I bring those guys with me when I do my solo stuff there on the stage with me. I bring — one of them usually rolls with me.

MUHAMMAD: Well, I'm loving the album. These skits sort of remind of early 3 Feet High And Rising.

MASTA ACE: Yeah. Thank you.

MUHAMMAD: And this album, it's a good album.

MASTA ACE: Thank you, man. Spread the word. Let people know, man.

KELLEY: Thanks, Ali, for calling in.

MUHAMMAD: Salute you, legend.

MASTA ACE: Yo, man. Same here. Let's link up at some point when — I don't know how often you come back this way.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit

Ali Shaheed Muhammad is a world-renowned producer, songwriter and musician, and a founding member of A Tribe Called Quest, Lucy Pearl and production group The Ummah. He cowrote D'Angelo's "Brown Sugar" and has worked with John Legend, Maxwell, Mint Condition, Angie Stone, Mos Def and Gil Scott-Heron among many others.
Frannie Kelley is co-host of the Microphone Check podcast with Ali Shaheed Muhammad.
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