Masta Ace Breaks Down Debut Album ‘Take a Look Around’ on 25th Anniversary [EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW]
When thinking of Brooklyn rappers, names like Big Daddy Kane, the Notorious B.I.G. and Jay Z are usually the first to come to mind. But save for those rap legends, there are few MCs from Medina with a legacy that matches up with that of veteran rhymer Masta Ace.
Bred in the borough's notorious Brownsville section, Ace rose from his hectic beginnings and has managed to put together a catalog that trumps many artists with bigger names. He's also been noted as a major influence for various rap stars, most notably Eminem, who credits the cunning lyricist as someone who inspired during the formation of his own lyrical style.
Platinum success may have eluded him over the years -- he has 10 studio albums to his credit -- but Ace is among the most respected MCs and if his recently released LP, The Tonight Show, with his group eMC, is any indication, Masta Ace won't be running out of gas anytime soon. He's on a mission to deliver dope music for years to come. But to truly understand Masta Ace as an artist, you would have to trace back to his days as an aspiring rapper in the late '80s.
Originally bursting on the scene with the Juice Crew on the landmark 1988 posse cut, "The Symphony," Ace followed that high-profile appearance with his own debut single, "Together," which set the stage for his 1990 debut, Take a Look Around. Released on June 24, 1990, Take a Look Around was chock-full of complex lyricism, fresh topics and air-tight production courtesy of Marley Marl and Mister Cee.
Today marks 25 years since the release of this hip-hop gem and to celebrate, we got Masta Ace on the phone to give us some insight into the making of Take a Look Around and how it set the tone of his career.
The Boombox: How did you become a member of the Juice Crew and what's the full story behind that?
Masta Ace: That actually started way back in like '86, '87. I entered a rap contest in Queens, N.Y., at this skating rink called United Skates of America. And I wound up winning first prize in that contest and first prize was six hours of studio time with Marley Marl. So about a year after I won the contest is when I actually met Marley Marl and went to his home studio in Queensbridge Projects.
I took the train from Brooklyn, went out to Queensbridge and recorded my demo. And after I recorded that six hours of studio time, he actually was feeling the way I rhymed and the songs I did. So he asked me to be a part of his compilation album that he was putting out, called In Control, [Volume 1]. I ended up having two solo songs on Marley Marl's In Control -- ["Keep Your Eyes on the Prize," "Simon Says"] -- and then I was featured on a third song, which ended up being the classic cut, "The Symphony" and that's how it all got started for me.
Being around all of that talent and one of the youngest members of the Juice Crew, did you feel any extra pressure to deliver on your debut album?
There was definitely pressure because I'm around a lot of talented MCs, but I definitely wasn't the youngest. I was the newest, but I definitely wasn't the youngest. When I first went to Marley's studio, I had graduated from college already. I had just graduated from college that same year, which is the same year I stepped in the studio. So at that point, Craig G was way younger than me, he was like 16 or 15 when he started. So I was older than pretty much anybody in the crew.
I'm listening to the rhymes that Kane is putting down, [Kool] G Rap is putting down. I'm looking at all these hit records Biz [Markie] was doing and Biz was probably one of the most popular dudes. MC Shan was rated as a very talented MC and songmaker. So Marley had put his signature on all of these cats' careers and I just wanted to make sure that whatever I was doing was gonna measure up to what those guys were doing 'cause I didn't wanna look like the cat that couldn't hang out with them. So yeah, it was definitely pressure.
The album cover features you sitting on a ledge with two high-rise buildings in the background. Are those projects in Brownsville and if so, which one?
That was actually taken on Coney Island on the Coney Island beach. The idea was inspired by a Curtis Mayfield cover [for his Curtis album]. He had a similar looking album cover and that was one of the artists that when I was making the album was in my mom's record collection. A lot of those records from her collection ended up being samples used on Take a Look Around.
So that Curtis Mayfield cover, when I looked at it, it just kinda inspired me and I wanted a cover that looked like that. It looked like he was sitting on a hill or something so I was basically trying to duplicate that album cover and I told the photographer, Geroge DuBose, that that was the look I was going after. He chose Coney Island as the location because it had the buildings jetting up from behind the sand so it just worked out. But yeah, that was done on Coney Island beach.
You're also wearing what appears to be a linen suit with a matching hat, a yellow shirt and shoes. Do you remember why you chose to wear that outfit or wear you got the clothes from?
That outfit was a suit actually; a suit with a hat to match it, with the same material. That suit was actually made by a custom-designer and she designed several suits for me during that era when I was coming out with the first album. She designed like three suits for me and the hat cause I wanted the hat to match. She actually wound up being the lead designer for 4Play, which is the store that was run by Play from Kid 'n Play out in Queens years later.
But yeah, she custom-made those suits and we wore those on the album cover and actually wore another one of them suits in the "Me and the Biz" video and that's how those suits came about. I just wanted something that was fly, but looked like it had a little edge to it and the hat going with it is was what made it really kinda work for me. I wanted that hat to match and she was able to pull it off.
Watch Masta Ace's "Me and the Biz" Video
Was there a reason for not having any Juice Crew members on the album?
You gotta understand, features wasn't a thing back then; it wasn't even a big deal. I was gonna have Biz on the album, that's the only artist that I actually asked to be on the album and he actually declined to be on the record because he was going through some feud with Marley at the time. So I ended up doing the "Me and the Biz" record where I was impersonating him and that's a whole different story. But back then, it really wasn't a thing, that happened years later where you would get a bunch of cats featured on your record. Back then it was about holding your own on a whole album so that's what I was doing, it wasn't even a thought.
Marley Marl was known for producing a majority of the albums released on Cold Chillin' records, so having Mister Cee on your album was a bit unique. How did he come into the fold as far as the working relationship and him working on the album?
See, people didn't know Cee had beats; Cee was making nice beats back then. And he was a friend of mine and he was obviously [Big Daddy] Kane's DJ, but he helped me out a in a lot of different ways. He was actually instrumental in me going on certain tours with Kane just tagging along with those guys. They always showed me a lot of love on the road, letting me roll with them. I think it was maybe a little bit of a Brooklyn thing cause everybody else in the crew was Queens so it was like, "Yo, this the only other cat from Brooklyn, we need to show him some love."
They would bring me on the road. They brought me to Canada one time, my first time in Canada. They brought me to Puerto Rico, so that's how me and Cee kinda got cool. And then him being a DJ was one thing but he was making some really nice beats and he presented a couple of really nice beats for the album. Marley, at that time, wasn't really too keen on having other people producing on his projects, but I talked him into it. Marley kind of gave me a little more leeway than the other artists that was signed. I'm not sure why that is, maybe it was the way I presented it to him or spoke to him.
We had a mutual respect. He obviously had some sort of respect for me 'cause he gave me co-production on the album, which he had never done with any Juice Crew artist to that point. When I told him that Cee had some beats that I really wanted to record to, he said, "Aight, cool, we can do it," but he ain't want any other producer's names on the album. 'Cause there was actually production from my man Uneek of Eyceurokk on that record but 'cause Marley didn't want no unknown cats on producing, Cee actually got credit for a track that my man's Unique produced. "As I Reminisce" was one of them.
Your first single, "Together," was released in 1989. What made you debut with that song in particular?
At that moment, that was all I had and I didn't wanna come out with that record because I felt that was the perfect record for me, like, vocally. Like the rhymes, every line was crazy and I told Marley, "I wanna save this record. I don't wanna put this record out. Let's save it for the album." And he was like, "You're gonna make better stuff." I was just afraid that I was gonna waste a good record lyrically. That loop is by the Younghearts. That's from my mother's record collection and when I laid the song down, I was like, "Man, I don't wanna waste that record."
Marley talked me into letting it be the first kinda lead-off single on Prism and it worked out. Just a little side story, if you listen to that song, there's some bothers singing "together" on the hook. Those are the guys singing on LL Cool J's "Around the Way Girl." I always call 'em "The Together Brothers" 'cause I never remembered what their name was, but they had a name [Flex]. But that was their debut musically as far as being on a record was "Together," so that was a cool experience for me and for them.
"The Other Side of Town" begins with you imitating a panhandler on the train begging for change. What made you include that bit on the song and address the topic of homelessness?
Growing up in New York City, you see a lot of different walks of life and as a kid I would sit on the train with my mother and I would see these homeless people coming through asking for money and just looking real bummy, poor and I always wondered what their story was. I just figured that people didn't care or give a thought to what these people's story was or how they got to that position. So I decided to make a song where I was rapping from that perspective of being that homeless man just trying to get a few bucks and tell that story form his perspective. So on that record I'm just rapping about being that homeless guy, just giving you my background and how I got to where I'm at, how people treat me and how I feel about that. Probably one of the first songs that deal with that topic in that way.
Listen to Masta Ace's "Brooklyn Battles"
Who was that chanting the hook on "Ace Iz Wild?"
That's actually me, Marley, Craig G might actually be on that too. I think DJ Clash, there was a couple of us. 'Cause Craig G was always around during the recording of my album, we were actually recording our albums around the same time. There were days where we would split the session where he would do morning 'til the evening and I would do evening til the wee hours so there's a good chance that Craig's on there in some way.
That song is actually the last song we recorded for the album, the very last song. It was one of them nights when I was up late before anyone else and I was going through Marley's collection, just listening to songs and I put the needle down on the "Ace Iz Wild" loop. I was like, I don't know, I just found this. He immediately looped it and I wrote some rhymes to it and that's the last joint that we recorded.
What made you take a second crack at "The Symphony" beat with "Four Minus Three"?
Truthfully, it was 'cause I felt I didn't hold it down on the first version. To me, that rhyme wasn't a true representation of what I had to offer and the streets was always like, "Only [Kool] G Rap and [Big Daddy] Kane really came and killed it." And that was just the little talk on the street and I just wanted to be clear to everybody that, "Yo, okay, they definitely killed it, but that wasn't a rhyme that I wrote for that song." I wasn't supposed to be on that record, that wasn't like a plan, that was just something where I just happened to be at the right place at the right time and Marley was like, "Why don't you go in and warm up the mic," and I just went in and spit a verse that I had in my mental Rolodex. So it was a way of me to basically make the statement of "Don't sleep on a brother, I got rhymes over here."
One of my favorite tracks on the album is "Movin On." What inspired that song and how did it come about?
The first part of that story is the beat itself. That beat was supposed to be a beat for Bell Biv DeVoe. Marley made it for Bell Biv DeVoe along with other beats and that was one of the ones that they didn't choose and I'm glad they didn't. I wanted to tell this story because right after high school, we started going to the clubs in New York City. The Latin Quarters and Union Square were the two big clubs that everybody would go to and party and there was always a crew of dudes at these clubs waiting to rob people for jewelry and beat people up. There was always some type of turmoil at these clubs. And I was right there in the midst of all of the madness that used to go on. So I decided to tell that story, as I was an observer of these incidents. I wanted to write a story of an observer of these incidents. So I tell the story of a dude being outside of the club and seeing things go down violently, but this is the stuff that used to happen back then.
"Brooklyn Battles" is one of the more serious tracks on the album. Did you tap into your days coming up in Brownsville when you were writing that song?
Definitely, that was purely influenced by Brownsville, growing up in that atmosphere. When I heard it, the beat, 'cause it sounds so sinister, it made me write what I wrote. To just basically break down Brooklyn in a nutshell to outsiders or people who may not be aware of how it is in my borough. So I just wanted to kind of paint that picture over that beat to show people this is what it's like where I'm from in Brooklyn.
"As I Reminisce" finds you waxing poetic on the past, which is a constant theme in your music. Have you always had a thing for nostalgia and what do you think spurred you to make that track at such a young age?
I think I'm just a very nostalgic person. I'm always longing for the days when, like that's just my spirit. I realize as an adult that my childhood was probably some of the happiest times of my life, the amount of fun that we had running as kids running around Brownsville. Playing during the summer, the summer felt like it was five months long, that's how much fun we used to have. So I find myself reaching back to those times to tell stories about my childhood in one way or another and "As I Reminisce" was a cool collaboration.
My man Uneek produced it, like I mentioned, but it was an opportunity for us to talk about when were kids. You know, we were still pretty young and still in our 20s when we wrote those records, but we were reaching back to talk about how things used to be. Before the guns came into play, people used to fight without hands and we just told a bunch of different stories from the perspective of how things were when we were 9 years old or 8 years old in our neighborhood and the differences from then to now.
"Take a Look Around,' the album's title track, was basically a spoken word poem. What made you take that approach with that song?
Another influence from my mother's record collection. Gil Scott-Heron was one of the artists that she had in her collection. He had a poem or a spoken word kinda song over that [same] beat talking about, "the revolution will not be televised." And if you go back and listen to that, you'll hear the influence right away, I just basically looped the same music and just talked about neighborhood and asked people to take a look around and see what's happening around you.
I speak about the ills of the hood, the positive, the negatives, the yin-and-yang about what's going on around me. And I think I speak from the perspective of being a little worried and concerned about where my neighborhood is going and how things could be better than they are. So it was definitely inspired by Gil Scott-Heron and his spoken word piece called "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" and from that point I said I'm going to do a poem on every single album. I ended up doing something similar on SlaughtaHouse and Sittin' on Chrome, but after those three albums, I stopped doing the poem thing.
What made you stop recording them?
No reason. I just guess it had ran its course. It was cool to do, I did it. After those albums, I started to focus more on the narrative of the skits and telling the story that way. But it's something I would still consider doing on a future record.
What are your three personal favorite songs off of this album?
Definitely "Brooklyn Battles," without a doubt. "Can't Stop the Bumrush," which is produced by Mister Cee and that's just 'cause I'm just flexing and just ripping and just going at it and flexing skills. That's all that was, flexing skills, you can't mess with me. And then I'd probably say "Music Man," the loop itself, the feeling of that song, the fact that we shot the music video to it. Everything about that record just spoke to me. That title, "Music Man," was influenced by a song from my mother's record collection once again.
Watch Masta Ace's "Music Man" Video
It all goes back to Mom. That's ill.
Yeah, it absolutely does 'cause her record collection was a backdrop for my first album, Take a Look Around.
Three favorite beats off the album?
I mean, it's really those same records. It's "Can't Stop the Bumrush," which was definitely influenced by Rakim rhyming over [and] just ripping fast beats. He had a song called "Competition Is None" on his first album, I believe and the beat was flying and he was just riding over it and spitting mad crazy over the fast beat. So "Can't Stop the Bumrush" would definitely be one of them. You know what, maybe "I Got Ta," produced by Mister Cee also, that joint was a big record in England when I went out to perform there the first time, having no idea what to expect. Then, I'ma say "Letter to the Better," because again, London. That was another record that was huge in the U.K. When "Letter to the Better" dropped out there, it went to another level.
The original version or the remix?
The original. I know the album has the remix, but that original joint.
One of them was how the "Me and the Biz" record came about because when we first started working on the album, Marley was playing some beats in the background and I heard that loop and I immediately was like, "Yo what's that? I want that right there," and he was like, "Nah, that's for Biz, that's for Biz." And I was so upset he said I couldn't get that beat and then I forgot about it.
Then fast-forward, like, three months later, he never used the beat and I was like, "Whatever happened to that beat that you had for Biz?" and he was like, "What beat?" He didn't remember it and he had to go through a whole bunch of these tapes to find this beat. And then I was like "That!" and he was like, "Biz ain't using this." And I was like, "Yo, I want that beat. I'll put Biz on it, I'll let Biz feature on it" because to me it sounds like a Biz beat anyway. The fact that I never forget the beat and came back to it three months later and was asking about it again kind of shows you the fact that I was really connected to that beat.
What's your favorite memory of recording Take a Look Around?
That's definitely one of the memories. I would say another memory would be the way "Ace Iz Wild" came about. We were completely done with the album and content with what we had.
How does it feel to be 25 years removed from your debut album?
It hasn't registered to me that it's been 25 years, a quarter century since I put that record out. It's pretty amazing to know how far I've come from that record, which I consider, for me, from a content standpoint, a little preachy, a little bit judgmental in terms of telling people what to do with their lives and "Don't do it this way." I've just evolved in so many ways as far as my approach as far as getting the message out there. But to hear that record 25 records and to know it kinda set the tone for a long career is pretty amazing.
You and your eMC brethen -- Stricklin and Wordsworth -- have a new album out, The Tonight Show. Tell the people about that.
It's the evolution of me going from Take a Look Around all the way in 1990 [to] all the way to 2015, doing records with younger cats that have hunger and forming this group and putting this album out. It's our second album as a group and we're super excited about it. It's featuring B-Real from Cypress Hill, Xzibit, Sadat X on records and then we've got guest appearances by Rosie Perez, comedian Russell Peters, comedian Tony Rock, all adding their name, their cache, their talent to the album. It's just a great album. It's one that a lot of people might sleep on because it doesn't have the huge backing, but we're continuing to work it and expose people to this record. We're going to Europe this November and then Australia in December to tour in support of this record. It's definitely a must-get and definitely support eMC.
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