Even though rap dominates sales charts, radio and video play and has
infiltrated the fashion and film industries, some hip-hop artists
are less than pleased with the typically myopic, materialistic message of
many chart-topping songs.
"I feel like the average hip-hop fan is not well-rounded at all," said Masta
Ace, whose recently released Disposable Arts album makes keen, pointed
observations about the current state of hip-hop. "Their musical diet is not
a balanced one. It's a problem and it's unfortunate. There's nothing wrong
with having some fun on a given night — I have fun like the next man. But
it needs to be about more than that at the end of the day, but unfortunately
not enough of our people have figured that out yet. My job in this is to be
one of the providers of balance."
Indeed, the follow-up to 1995's Sittin' on Chrome exhibits the balance
that such hip-hop acts as KRS-One, Outkast, Talib Kweli, Dead Prez, Mystic
and the Coup provide. Disposable Arts contains several interwoven
storylines that include one in which Ace enrolls in IDA, the Institute of
Disposable Arts, where he studies hip-hop. Through skits, Ace's journey at
the school is detailed, while the songs feature Ace's signature brand of
clever phrasings, punchline-heavy lyrics, gripping tales of ghetto life and
insightful political commentary.
Greg Nice delivers the chorus on the festive hip-hop commentary "Don't
Understand," while the somber "Dear Diary" has Ace questioning his place in
hip-hop's pantheon. The latter is a rare hip-hop moment, one where an
artist portrays himself as vulnerable and confused. "Eh, yo, Ace/ Don't
tell me you thinking about a return," Ace raps on the cut, assuming the role
of his diary. "I'm kind of concerned/ When will you old cats ever learn?/ It's time to hang it up."
"It was self-analyzation," Ace said of "Dear Diary." "The lyrics on that
song are the way I feel some days when I wake up. 'Why are you even
considering making records anymore? Nobody's really checking for it
anymore. You're wasting your time. There's maybe 10 cats that are going to
buy your record.' I wake up sometimes and I feel that way. I'm being
honest about my feelings and maybe saying some stuff that people might be
Looking back at his career, which includes collaborations with
Kool G Rap, Big Daddy Kane, Marley Marl and others, Ace offers the thankful
"No Regrets," a reflective history of sorts where he gives praise to all of
those who contributed to his better musical memories.
On a less explicit narrative line, Disposable Arts explores the
relationship between Ace's character and his roommate at IDA, portrayed on
the album by MC Paul Barman, a white, Jewish, Prince Paul affiliate. Some of
the interaction between Ace and Barman was inspired by Ace's own trip to
college. He graduated from the University of Rhode Island and interacted
with many Maine and Vermont natives who had never been around black people and
had a cursory knowledge of hip-hop, at best.
Barman's character actively pursues hip-hop, though. In fact, he's even performing a freestyle rap when Ace first meets him in their dorm room.
The interaction between Ace and Barman is sometimes tense and always
entertaining. Like the songs on Disposable Arts, these skits provide a
riveting story of their own. "When people spend their $15 or $16.99 to buy a
CD, I think they want to feel like they bought something that's valuable,
that something was a good purchase, that somebody actually took time and put
together a project," Ace said. "They didn't just put anything together,
throwing some songs back to back and put a label on it. I really respect
the buyer, the fan, the listener because I'm one and I know that I want to
be entertained. I try to look at it from that perspective and try to make a
record as if I was going out and buying it."
As a fan of hip-hop, Ace hopes to encourage fans to respect the art form and
its architects. When he attended a recent Run-DMC
concert, he was disappointed with the lukewarm response fans gave the
legendary Queens trio.
"They deserve a certain amount of energy, a certain amount of love," Ace
said. "They should be made to feel like they are some of hip-hop's pioneers. When people talk about them or when they're mentioned, people that really know give it up, but a lot of people could care less.
"I look at rock and roll and I see cats that don't do an album for 10 years
and then tour and sell out stadiums," he continued. "I feel like we need to
reach that point in hip-hop. Fans need to embrace their past heroes, still
uphold and respect music that was from 10, five, three years ago."
Masta Ace, who has released albums in three different decades, hopes that
Disposable Arts as well as other releases from like-minded artists will
help hip-hop regain its balance. Coming from an era where such disparate
artists as Biz Markie, Public Enemy, N.W.A, Too Short and the Geto Boys were
all popular, Ace knows that it can happen.
"We have to reach a point where people want to hear more than one thing,"
Ace said. "From a fan's perspective, people are just feeding more into the
pursuit of ice, platinum, cars and rims, and that's all that it's about.
"Sometimes I get depressed and wonder, 'What's wrong with people?' We all
would like a nice car and jewelry, but you want people to be a little more
well-rounded than they are."