Hip hop in 2013 is an image obsessed culture.
In an era when up-and-coming rappers have a clothing line before a record deal, when Jay-Z is more empire than man, and the artist formerly known as Snoop Dogg can hawk everything from Hot Pockets to pet accessories, it’s safe to say hip hop these days tips the scales more towards style than substance.
But it wasn’t always that way.
It used to be the most influential rappers doubled as the best storytellers. The Slick Ricks, the KRS-Ones and the Rakims of the world could all paint a picture so vivid in their lyrics that it felt like you were actually living and breathing the stories they had put to wax.
A contemporary of those aforementioned wordsmiths is Masta Ace, a true icon of New York hip hop that’s stayed true to himself over a career spanning four different decades by delivering pure, unadulterated lyricism to his loyal and ever-growing fanbase.
Ace, born Duval Clear, has mostly eschewed mainstream success outside of a few hit singles in the mid-‘90s, delivering several classic conceptual records, like his latest LP MA Doom: Son of Yvonne, which would seem counterintuitive in an era where listeners’ attention spans are shorter than ever and music critics constantly bemoan the death of the album.
“I still have the desire to entertain people and the desire to transport people away from their regular lives into this world I create on these records,” said Ace from his Brooklyn home. “It’s actually fun to put these records together and try to make them cohesive and make sense.”
Son of Yvone, released in July, is dedicated to Ace’s mother, and is loosely based around his upbringing in ‘70s-era Brooklyn, with nostalgia-tinged beats produced by another underground icon, MF Doom.
Ace spent months driving around listening to Doom’s instrumentals until ideas for songs began popping into his head. The “quirky and strange” beats kept bringing Ace back to his childhood in Brooklyn’s notorious Brownsville neighbourhood.
“When I think about certain songs, certain eras of music, I become a kid again in my mind, and when that happens my mother’s still alive, my grandmother’s still alive and I’m just a kid in Brownsville going to the swimming pool, hanging out with my friends in the park listening to hip hop,” he said. “I’m always looking back musically and listening to things that transport me back because I can almost see and smell whatever I was seeing and smelling in 1976 when I was a kid growing up.”
An interesting trend in Ace’s music over the years has been his push towards more sincere, meaningful lyrics, avoiding the braggadocio of his musical peers. “Keeping it real” has been a mantra in hip hop for almost as long as the genre has existed, but very few rappers can actually put their true inner thoughts on the page in an insightful way. Masta Ace has been doing it at least since his fourth album, 2001’s seminal concept album Disposable Arts, which described the MC’s enrollment in a fictional hip hop university to escape his troubled life in Brooklyn.
“I’ve said I’m dope in so many different ways that there has to be more to talk about,” said Ace, “so it’s just time to speak from the heart about my feelings, about my life situation and what I’m going through and share that with other people.”
While Masta Ace is widely recognized among hip hop heads as one of the game’s purest lyricists and most evocative storytellers — Eminem has cited him as a major influence — he has slipped under the radar of many contemporary hip hop fans. Part of that can likely be attributed to the fact that Ace’s style — first displayed in frenetic fashion on rap’s first real posse cut, 1988’s The Symphony — has transformed entirely over the years, so much so that the Ace of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s is virtually unrecognizable to the MC we hear today.
To his credit, Ace isn’t bothered that newer fans may not be familiar with his entire 24-year canon; in fact, it’s something he’s dealt with for a while.
“My first big hit record was (1993’s) Born to Roll; that record was on the radio everywhere around the country, and when I started going out to do shows based on that song, I was doing interviews with radio cats who had no clue of any records that I had released before,” he said. “They were asking me questions like ‘What does it feel like to have your first record out?’ They were clueless. I had to understand that that’s what it’s gonna be like because I was being exposed to a whole new audience of people.
“The fact that in my career, which spans a little over 20 years, I’ve been able to grab fans from different eras is pretty cool,” he said. “When you get all those different fan groups into a room together, you get some crazy energy.”
For an MC that played such an integral role in creating the New York sound, he’s not convinced hip hop in the Big Apple is headed in the right direction nowadays.
“If I base it on what I hear on the radio, New York hip hop is completely lost and confused,” he said. “I know that there’s good music out there, with artists trying to champion a new sound, but until those artists make it to the radio and change what we’re hearing, New York is lost.”
Here’s hoping Masta Ace can help New York hip hop find its way, as the legendary MC did so many years ago.
Ace plays Moe Joe’s Monday (March 11) at 9 p.m. He’ll rock the mic alongside fellow MC’s Wordworth and Stricklin, with Vancouver’s Ill Tone opening.
Tickets are $10 in advance at Billabong, Moe Joe’s or online at www.ticketzone.com.