HONEST NICHE: Punchline, Stricklin, Wordsworth, and Ace rap about day jobs, fights with
girlfriends, and broken dreams.
Since Masta Ace got his start with the legendary NYC Juice Crew (Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap, Biz Markie, etc.), he’s had only a few minor hits. It’s not that he hasn’t released some of the more critically acclaimed hip-hop of the past 20 years, just that mainstream success has eluded him, as it has the rest of the underground group eMC — whose members include Lyricist Lounge veterans Wordsworth and Punchline, and Milwaukee rapper Stricklin. Lots of MCs claim to be your favorite rapper’s rapper, but in Ace’s case, it’s true — to the millions of Slim Shady Fans, in any case, since Eminem calls him a major influence. But Ace (who was scheduled to come to Great Scott with eMC on March 26 before the appearance was cancelled) seems okay with toiling in near-obscurity.
“I just kind of figured out where I fit into this big picture, and I’m just going to ride that out,” the 41-year-old reflects over appetizers in midtown Manhattan. So does eMC’s debut album, The Show (M3, due this Tuesday), focus on coming to terms with what might have been? His answer — like the lyrics he spits in a versatile, workmanlike flow — is considered and self-effacing. “That certainly applies to me in terms of my career path. I think the jury is still out as far as Stricklin, Punch, and Words. Those guys are all younger than me, and they still have opportunities to ascend to levels that I didn’t get to as an artist. But it definitely applies to me.”
Ace’s disarming ingenuousness carries over to The Show, an album already proclaimed by a handful of music bloggers as the best rap disc of 2008. Clocking in at about 75 minutes, it offers tracks dating back to 2004, around the time Ace invited Punchline and Wordsworth to put verses onto a song called “Four Brothers” that he and Stricklin had intended to place on Ace’s previous solo album, A Long Hot Summer. From the success of that track, eMC was born. The group’s debut CD arrives after the deaths of two members’ mothers (discussed on “U Let Me Grow”) and a hard-drive failure that destroyed some of the tracks they’d been working on. The album also addresses everyday topics like day jobs, fights with spouses and girlfriends, dreams departed, and frustrations with record labels. Perhaps its main selling point is its honesty.
“It’s a sad statement when being honest is your niche,” says Ace. “For some reason, rappers feel like they need to create this fake persona and lie about their lifestyle. It’s the popular thing to do. They’ve got 17-year-old kids talking about Bentleys and Learjets and stuff like that.”
Ace’s day-to-day life may not fit the mold of a hip-hop legend, but it sounds comfortable enough. He grew up in Brooklyn; recently he moved to a nearby New Jersey suburb with his wife and their young daughter, and he works — under his real name, Duval Clear — as a high-school football and academic coach.
Of course, now and then one of his students will catch word that he’s an MC. “A couple of them know my music, but I have a really strict rule about discussing that stuff. You need to keep that respect level. The last thing you want is kids coming up and trying to battle you, or giving you demos. Every kid thinks that they’re a rapper.”