The career of rap star Masta Ace has nearly spanned the life of the mainstream American hip-hop movement. With his streetwise wordplay, deep bass beat, and lyrics about ghetto life, Masta Ace is an East Coast rapper whose audience has spread to the West Coast and Europe. Early in his career, he was a member of the legendary Juice Crew—a late-1980s hip-hop “posse” that included such artists as Marley Marl, MC Shan, Big Daddy Kane, and Biz Markie. Although he grew disillusioned with the music business and took a three-year break from recording in the late 1990s, Masta Ace returned with 2001’s full-length album Disposable Arts, and remains a major presence in the world of hip-hop.
Born Duval Clear and raised by a hard-working single mother, Masta Ace grew up in the Brownsville projects of Brooklyn. In the late 1970s he joined a deejay crew; by the early to mid-1980s, Masta Ace told Underground Sound magazine online, he was “poppin’ and electric boogie dancing, and writing graf[fiti]…. I started writing my first rhymes probably in 1978 or 79.”
Masta Ace got his big break in 1987, when he won first prize in a rap contest: six hours in the studio of hip-hop star Marley Marl. At the time, he was on summer break from the University of Rhode Island, from which he graduated with a degree in marketing in 1988. It was a year after the rap contest that Masta Ace took his turn at Marley Marl’s studio. After proving his mettle, Marley Marl invited the young rapper to participate in his first compilation, 1988’s Marley Marl’s in Control, Vol. I. The album included two songs by Masta Ace: “Simon Says” and “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,” which also appeared on Masta Ace’s debut double A-sided single. Also on the album is the multi-artist track “The Symphony, Part 1,” in which Masta Ace raps alongside Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap, and Craig G. “The only reason I was even on “The Symphony” was because MC Shan backed out at the last minute, not wanting to ‘play himself’ by being on a song with a bunch of new cats,” Masta Ace told Underground Sound. “I was only there at the session to observe…. It’s funny because I could have easily not been there that day… it was pure luck… or fate.”
In Control— and especially “The Symphony”—garnered rave reviews; for Masta Ace, the album earned him membership in Marley Marl’s legendary Juice Crew—a posse of rappers including Biz Markie, Roxanne Shante, and others. The album was also a stepping-stone to a successful recording career. Soon after the release, Masta Ace signed a contract with Cold Chillin’ Records, Marley Marl’s New York City label, and recorded his debut LP, 1990’s Take a Look Around. Although the LP included the hit song “Me and the Biz,” which led to Masta Ace’s first music video, the Cold Chillin’ label did not give priority to the album’s promotion.
Take a Look Around was not a commercial success, and for three years after its release, little was heard from Masta Ace. The rapper quietly changed labels, signing with Los Angeles-based Delicious Vinyl, and teamed up with the group Brand New Heavies to record a track on their 1992 album Heavy Rhyme Experience, Vol. I.
Not until 1993 did Masta Ace—now billed as the trio Masta Ace Incorporated, with Lord Digga and Paula Perry—released his second full-length LP, Slaughta-house. Previously considered an East Coast rapper, with this new album he entered new terrain, fusing West Coast sound with an East Coast sensibility. Included was the hit ‘Born to Roll,’ which brought the album into the national spotlight. “With the success of ‘Born to Roll, ‘ a whole new audience discovered me for the first time,” Masta Ace told iMusic Urban Showcase, noting that he called his signature sound “Brooklyn bass music.”
In 1994 Masta Ace teamed up with Special Ed and Buckshot to record the title track to filmmaker Spike Lee’s Crooklyn. The following year, the release of Sittin’on Chrome kept him in the hip-hop spotlight. The album, with help from hip-hop artists Leschea and the Cella Dwellas, included the hit “The INC Ride,” a song about cruising in cars, which wove in samplings from the Isley Brothers’ “For the Love of You.” Masta Ace told iMusic Urban Showcase he hoped the song would promote cruising as “just a thing for kids to do that’s fun and nonviolent… Much of the current ‘staying real’ talk in hip-hop has to do with rapping about such negative
Born Duval Clear in Brooklyn, NY. Education: Bachelor’s degree in marketing, University of Rhode Island, 1988.
Joined a deejay crew and started writing rhymes, late 1970s; won first prize in rap concert, 1987; met Marley Marl, joined Juice Crew, late 1980s; released debut LP Take a Look Around, 1990; created the group Masta Ace Incorporated with Lord Digga and Paula Perry, early 1990s; released second LP, Slaughtahouse, with Masta Ace Incorporated, 1993; participated in title song to Spike Lee’s film Crooklyn, 1994; released Sittin’ on Chrome with Masta Ace Incorporated, 1995; took hiatus from
Addresses: Publicist— Score Media, 1680 N. Vine St., Suite 316, Hollywood, CA 90028. Website— Masta Ace Official Website: http://www.mastaace.com.
things as blunts, 40s, and guns,” the rap star continued. ‘That“s not for me. If the masses of hip-hop are saying one thing, I’m pretty much the type of person who goes in the other direction.”
After Sittin’on Chrome, however, Masta Ace split from the Delicious Vinyl label and spent the next few years producing projects for his Incorporated artists Leschea and Paula Perry. He also started his own street promotions company. Meanwhile, he took a break from recording full-length albums, and released only the occasional single. “I had no intention of putting out another album,” Masta Ace told Underground Sound. “I began to hate the industry and the politics. I had a whole album, two years’ worth of work, get shelved by Big Beat and I was not interested in recording for another label ever again.”
Yet, he did. After a very successful European tour in October of 2000, with club shows in Germany, England, Scotland, Italy, and Switzerland, Masta Ace returned to the United States ready to make another album. “Most artists feel like if they can’t shine here in the U.S., then they don’t want to shine,” he told Evil Monito online magazine. “I didn’t feel that way.” He signed with JCOR Records, which let him create a record on his own terms, and in 2001 he released Disposable Arts. The album includes Masta Ace’s signature observations of ghetto life, but also takes a hard look at the world of hip-hop and the need for songs about more than the pursuit of diamonds and expensive cars. “I feel like the average hip-hop fan is not well-rounded at all,” Masta Ace told MTV.com after the release of Disposable Arts. “Their musical diet is not a balanced one…. My job in this is to be one of the providers of balance.”
Take a Look Around, Cold Chillin’, 1990.
Slaughtahouse, Atlantic, 1993.
Sittin’on Chrome, Delicious Vinyl, 1995.
Best of Cold Chillin’: Masta Ace, Cold Chillin’, 2001.
Disposable Arts, JCOR, 2001.
“Acknowledge the Rep: A Conversation with a Hip Hop Icon—Masta Ace,” Evil Monito magazine, http://www.evilmonito.com/Spr10/mastaace/1.htm (September 2, 2002).
“Masta Ace,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (September 2, 2002).
“Masta Ace Article from June 1995,” DJ Toast, http://www.djtoast.com/articles/mastaace.htm (September 19, 2002).
“Masta Ace Incorporated,” iMusic Urban Showcase, http://imusic.artistdirect.com/showcase/urban/mastaaceincorporated.html?sr (September 2, 2002).
“Masta Ace Incorporated: Masta Ace Wants Hip-Hop Fans to Eat Their Veggies Too,” MTV.com, http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1450967/20011115/story/jhtml (September 2, Too, “MTV.
Masta Ace Official Website, http://www.mastaace.com (September 2, 2002).
“Masta Ace: The Interview,” Underground Sound Magazine, http://www.ugsmag.com/int-mastaace.shtml (September 2, 2002).