The argument (cough, cough) discussion over hip-hop’s “G.O.A.T.” is never-ending. Die-hard fans throw artists like Biggie, Tupac, Rakim, Nas and Jay-Z into the ring to duke it out for the title on the regular. But what about those emcees who stay under the radar and stay out of the spotlight but deserve their shot at the title just as much (if not more)?

There are few emcees still around today with careers spanning close to three decades, but Brooklyn’s own Masta Ace stays on point with his cold chillin’ skills. Like many artists currently in the industry, Ace is always on the grind, knockin’ out albums as a solo artist, as well as with his crew eMC with Wordsworth and Stricklin.

The Kings County “Music Man” is set to take over Herbert Von King Park in Bed-Stuy on June 17 with fellow wordsmith Biz Markie as part of the Lyricist Lounge SummerStage 2015 lineup. Brooklyn Radio’s Lara Gamble met up with Ace in NYC last week to discuss his early memories of hip-hop and how we all need to help him and his eMC crew make their dream of performing on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon a reality.

What’s your earliest memory of hip-hop?

One of my earliest memories was, when I was around eleven or twelve years old, I lived in the projects called Howard Houses in Brownsville, Brooklyn. The thing that I remember as a child was when the older guys would bring their speakers and sound systems outside in the park and set up turntables and a mixer and DJ.

Back then, they were playing disco, to be honest with you, but cats were rappin’. It was like some of the dopest disco records they were playing. It was disco and soul, good mixture. But being around that park, seeing people dancin’, DJs spinnin’ and then every now and then, when it got late, a couple of the older guys would get on the mic and start rappin’. Those are some of my earliest memories.

Did you grow up in a musical household?

I grew up in a household that had a lot of music going on. Nobody in my family were musicians or anything, but my mom had this incredible collection of vinyl and 8-track tapes. My uncle also had a lot of vinyl as well, and all that stuff was right in my living room and right at my fingertips: 45s, 33s. I would go through those albums all the time and listen to them, put the needle down, listen to different breaks. And some of those same records from that collection actually wound up being used on my first album.

Who put you on to hip-hop?

I don’t know if anybody put me on to hip-hop. I just know that when we were kids, the cats uptown and in the Bronx and in Queens, they would throw these parties. They would rap and battle and stuff, and they would make tapes. And those tapes would get circulated all around the city.

Eventually, they would make their way to our hands, and we would listen to those tapes of the DJs scatchin’ and cuttin’, and it made us want to get those same break records and do the same kind of cuts and stuff. So, we would hear those tapes. Also, on the radio, as well, there was a station called WHBI. There was some cats called the World’s Famous Supreme Team that would come on late at night.

They came on at like 2am. They went from like two to four, and I would have to set my alarm because I would be in bed way earlier than that. So, I would set my alarm clock, wake up at 2am, push record and then fall back asleep. I’d wake up in the morning and listen to those tapes, and they would play these different breakbeats, and we didn’t know the names of the songs.

Eventually, there was a kid in my seventh grade class named Michael Moore – he became known as DJ Spark later – but he was the first dude that actually got his hands on some of those breaks. And he loaned me a couple of the breaks one time. I took ‘em home, all my friends was hype, crazy. We went out and got turntables and created a little sound set. We were cuttin’ those breaks up for weeks before I gave them back to him and borrowed some more. But yeah, that’s how it started.

When did you realize you wanted to make music your career?

I don’t know if I ever realized I wanted to make music my career. It kind of just happened. I just wanted to put a record out. It wasn’t something I really thought was going to be a career. I thought I was a pretty good rapper, and people were starting to put songs on the radio, and I was like, “I wanna be on the radio. I want to hear my voice. That’d be cool.”

So, when I finally got that first opportunity to rap on a record that came out, and they played it on the radio, I thought that would be the end of it. Never in my wildest dreams…at that point, I had already graduated from college. I had my degree in marketing, and I thought “I’m going to start going on interviews and try to get a job in marketing.” And lo and behold, it turned into a career, but I was not using the word “career” at any point. It was probably ten years before I was like, “Wow. This is kind of a career.”

Was Brownsville an early influence on your sound and your style?

Brownsville was a huge influence, especially in my lyrical content. I came up in a time where drugs were real prevalent, violence was pretty prevalent in my neighborhood, and I was one of the only kids that actually got out and went to college and went on to see the world a little bit. And so, in my lyrics, I wanted to speak to my neighborhood.

So, if you listen to my first album, in a lot of the songs, I’m very preachy, almost trying to tell people what to do in a way. My approach wasn’t so smooth. I’ve become much smoother. Back then, I was kind of preachin’ and telling them, “Yo, you need to do better and not do drugs and not do this, not do that.” And so yeah, definitely, my environment was exactly what I was writing about on my first album.

Masta Ace 1

What was it like working with the Juice Crew so early in your career?

It was intimidating being around cats that had hit records that were considered on the streets as some of the most lyrical dudes. I mean, Big Daddy Kane and Kool G Rap were on everybody’s top five list or whatever. And having to try to be labelmates with those guys and prove that I belong…I mean, that’s pretty much what I was doing in my early career. I was trying to prove that I belonged in this circle of emcees. So, every rhyme I wrote was me trying to just wreck and kill as much as I could to prove that I belonged in this circle.

So, a lot of people often say that you’re left off the list of G.O.A.T. Thoughts?

I mean, that’s what it is. That’s who I am. You know, I’m one of those guys that falls between the cracks because I never really had that gigantic hit record or that gigantic selling album. But the music was always good, and people respected the music – those that heard it. But because I never had that big success, the masses never really got to check me out or hear what I was about.

There’s many people, to this day, that I run into on the streets of New York City, my hometown, that only relate to me from my first album. They have no concept of anything that I released after my first album. So, for those reasons, my name doesn’t necessarily pop into people’s heads. But I will say that there is a group of loyal, kind of cult, fans of mine that continue to spread my message and let people know about the music that I do. And I’m happy for those fans, those real true fans of my music.

When did you, Wordsworth and Stricklin come together to form eMC?

When I dropped my album Disposable Arts in 2001, I did a tour, and I brought along with me on the road, Stricklin, Words, Punchline, and we toured the world together off that album. They were featured on that album, and then I dropped A Long Hot Summer in 2004, and I also featured them on that album, and again they went on the road with me.

So, it was really people got used to seeing us on stage together ‘cause on those tours, I would bring them out with me. Like, Stricklin was on stage with me, but I would bring out Punch, bring out Words. We would do a little freestyle at the end and do some cool songs together. So, people got used to seeing us on stage together, interacting with each other, and I think that it was almost a natural progression into that.

In 2006, there was some talk on the internet about, “Oh, we hear you guys might be doing a group.” And it wasn’t even something that we really had thought about, but we were like, “That’s kind of not a bad idea. Let’s do a song and see what people think.”

So, we did one song, put it out, and the response to that song was so overwhelming that we decided to go in the studio. We started working on the album in ’07, it came out in 2008, The Show, and here we are today. 2015. Brand new record.

Your latest album with eMC, The Tonite Show, dropped on May 4. How is it a departure from the group’s debut album, and how is it similar?

It’s similar ‘cause the rhymes are still dope. It’s different in a weird way. The music is more musical, but it’s still boom bap. There’s more, I don’t want to use “commercial appeal,” but I feel like it’s going to appeal to more people than the first record did. At the same time, I don’t think it’s going to alienate our core fans and the people that loved that first album.

I think this record brings more female fans to the table with some of the songs and content. We have a song called “Signtology” about the zodiac signs where we’re talking to women. Another song called “I Like You Like” and another song called “Away From Love.” Those kinds of records, I think, speak to our female audience, which we didn’t really do a lot of on our first album. So, those are the similarities and the differences. The rhymes are still ill, and the production is still on point. It’s just a little bit of a different feel musically.

Masta Ace 3

You posted on Twitter asking what people thought “Y. B. I.” stands for. Did anyone get it right yet?

No one.

I did some research.

What? By standing the studio?

No. I mean, after hearing the track, now I know. But when I was doing research, I came up with a few possible answers. I won’t spoil what it is.

Don’t put it online. If somebody guesses, I’m going to follow them.

I think that’s fair. What can you tell readers about the M3 label?

Well, all of my records since 2001 have come out on M3 – all of the eMC records, and the Arts & Entertainment record with me and Edo G. We just signed our first artist officially, a cat from Michigan named DeLaZoo. He’s from Kalamazoo, Michigan. He’s a very talented dude who writes his own music, produces most of his own music, sings his own hooks.

He’s multi-talented, and we’re really excited about him being kind of like that next step. I have to look at what the future’s gonna hold ‘cause at some point, I know I’m not going to be the flagship artist. We need other talent, other artists, carrying the torch for M3, and he’s going to be kind of like one of the first cats to do it. I’m excited about it.

What are you currently in the studio working on?

I’m working on my solo record. I don’t have a title for it yet. It’s my first official solo record since 2004 when I dropped A Long Hot Summer. The whole album is produced by a guy named KIC Beats who is from the West Coast. Super talented dude. He actually produced two songs on the eMC album, “Signtology” and “Fly Thoughts.” He produced both of those, which are both singles and both videos. So, that kind of tells you his talent level.

He’s just giving me some really beautiful, brilliant tracks that have been inspiring me to write. It’s really about hearing the music and immediately wanting to write a song to it. I can hear a dope beat and be like, “That’s a dope beat.” But it doesn’t mean that it makes me want to write. And the stuff that he’s been giving me is immediately inspiring me to start writing a song to it. And that’s how I know that he was the right pick for this album.

Are you assigning a theme to this album like you have to your previous releases?

There’s definitely a theme to the album. The album is going to take you through my four years of high school. It’s going to take you from freshman year to senior year, and it’s going to tell that story from me at those ages, from fourteen to around eighteen, what’s going on in my life and what’s happening around me and all the stuff that kind of happened during that time. It won’t be what really happened, but the story will be based on what really happened.

Is there anyone that you haven’t worked with yet that you hope to in the future?

Me and DJ Premier still gotta do something together. It’s been a long time coming. I really like Kendrick Lamar a lot as a new artist. He’d be somebody cool to collaborate with. I’d like to work with Joey Bada$$ and some of the newer cats like him. I like Jay Electronica a lot. So, those are some of the people that I would be definitely down to collab with.

How’d you get involved with Summerstage this year?

It was very simple. I got a call from Lyricist Lounge. Danny Castro asked me if I was down to be featured on the Lyricist Lounge SummerStage day, and I was like, “Absolutely.” I worked with those guys in the past. I’ve done stuff with them.

I used to always attend the Lyricist Lounge, and when they said it was going to be in Brooklyn, that made it even more attractive to me. When they said Biz was going to be on the bill that made it even more attractive. I can’t tell you the last time me and Biz were performin’ on the same…I don’t know if we ever—yeah we did. Yeah we did. We performed in the U.K. but definitely nowhere in New York City area. So, all of those things made it attractive to me, and I’m looking forward to seeing how Brooklyn responds to the show that we’re going to put on.

I was going to ask if you knew what the science was behind having you and Biz on.

Well, he told me it was called, “Me & the Biz,” which is kind of cool. I have a song called “Me & the Biz,” obviously. So, they picked me. They picked Biz.

Masta Ace

Are there any other projects that you want to mention?

Well, look out for my man Wordsworth’s solo record. He’s got a couple projects coming out, solo project and a group project. Those will be coming out in the next year…end of this year, beginning of next year. Stricklin is also working on a solo project. Those are kind of the things creepin’ in, and of course, DeLaZoo.

Is there anything else that you want to add or promote?

Yes, we have a campaign to try to get on The Tonight Show. The actual real Tonight Show. It’s called “eMC Date With Jimmy” – as in Jimmy Fallon. We have a website, which is www.emcdatewithjimmy.com, and we’re encouraging fans to go there to leave a comment or post some sort of encouragement for us to get on the show. Definitely watch all the episodes because we’re dropping an episode every week.

So, it’s sort of like a reality show where you’re actually going to get to see us go through the steps of trying to get on the show in real life. So far we’ve got four episodes out right now. The fifth one should be coming out in the next couple days, so look out for that.

(As of yesterday, the campaign is now five episodes deep. Check the latest episode here.)

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