Masta Ace has one of the most varied and lengthy discographies in Hip-Hop. The Brooklyn rhymer has never allowed himself to stay in one place, from his early days as a Juice Crew member to his post-Y2K resurgence as an indie rap legend, the rapper born Duval Clear has had to navigate an ever-changing industry and reinvent himself time and time again.
One of his most noteworthy reinventions led to the emcee dropping his most commercially successful album. 1995s Sittin' On Chrome is the second album from Masta Ace Incorporated (the crew led by Ace which also included the trio Eyceurokk, Lord Digga, Paula Perry and R&B vocalist Leschea) and it featured Ace going in a decidedly West Coast, car culture-driven direction. It would change his career in ways Ace could've never predicted. It came on the heels of Masta Ace Inc's 1993 album SlaughtaHouse, and a chance remix of one of that album's tracks.
"The third [SlaughtaHouse] single was going to be...the title cut," Ace explains. "While we were in the process of mixing of that song, I decided to do a remix of 'Jeep Ass Niguh.' I stumbled across this record in a [record store] in South or North Carolina. I took it home and I sampled it and added a bunch of heavy 808s on top. I decided to take the lyrics from 'Jeep Ass Niguh' and use it over this new beat."
In a stroke of brilliance, Masta Ace melded "Jeep Ass Niguh" rhymes and the beat, (which comes from Original Concept's "Knowledge Me"). Ace believed the song had a feel that would appeal in different markets. The label rejected the proposed remix and sought to move ahead with a new single. Ace fought for this new remix, which he'd retitled "Born To Roll." The song became a runaway radio hit, particularly on the West Coast and in Southern markets.
"All of a sudden the song had legs of its own," Ace recalls. "Born To Roll" was initially only a B-side, but the radio airplay became so major that he shot a video for the song in Los Angeles.
"That was the first step of me doing something with L.A. as a backdrop," Ace says.
With the "Born To Roll" video and the song burning up in the South and on the West Coast, Delicious Vinyl began pushing Ace to craft more music that would capitalize on his sudden popularity.
Masta Ace Incorporated suddenly had a mainstream audience, and the label wanted Ace to take advantage. So next Masta Ace Incorporated album needed to sound like "Born To Roll."
"That was the challenge for me," he admits. "I don't think that was something I would've done creatively without that push from the label. I've always been an artist who went with what was the next thing I wanted to do. That wasn't it."
The song and video gave Masta Ace an entirely new audience. Once that record started to do well, Ace was thrust into a world I'd never seen that type of attention before. "The label thought 'we've got something here. For whatever reason it's resonating with car culture.' So they said 'your next record needs to cater to that. Can you deliver an album that speaks to that?'"
But Ace understood that it made sense to try and capitalize on his biggest success. "Most of the people who heard 'Born To Roll' didn't know my name before that. They didn't know Juice Crew or Crooklyn Dodgers or anything."
If he had to deliver the kind of album that Delicious Vinyl wanted, it was also imperative to create something that he could feel good about. Ace had no interest in being anyone's flavor of the month gimmick. This new project would feature some of the slow-rolling bass grooves and laid back beats that had become all the rave in the post-Death Row mainstream rap landscape. This would be an album for the jeeps. While the catalyst for Sittin' On Chrome was label interests, Masta Ace had to create a project that was still reflective of something sincere.
"I've often referred to that album as my 'compromise album.'"
"Because it wasn't made from a purely creative standpoint. There was outside voices that were kinda telling me that this is what I needed to do if I wanted to see real success. So I made the compromise."
Sittin' On Chrome dropped in May 1995, at a time when the media was fueling this narrative of East Coast vs West Coast in Hip-Hop. At the height of all that toxic hype, this Brooklyn native dropped a very California-leaning album. The result was his most successful album, but it was also his most controversial.
"I wouldn't say I 'regret' [Sittin' On Chrome] but I would just say it was a tough time for me as an artist," he says. "Being from Brooklyn, being an East coast artist, people don't understand the backlash I received from home due to the success of those records. The word on the street was that I had 'sold out to the West Coast.' That's what the streets were saying. That was a tough time. Because I was trying to do everything in my power to walk a tightrope."
The criticism Ace took from East Coast heads was countered by this newfound love he was getting virtually everywhere else. As an artist, he was deeply conflicted by it all.
"As far as I was concerned, music was music," states Ace. "Just because I was from Brooklyn and the East Coast didn't mean I shouldn't have success in other places. For me, this was the most attention I ever got up to that point in my career. The East Coast was messing with me, but the records weren't flying off the shelves the way they were when [Sittin' On Chrome] came out.
"I tried to run from it for a bunch of years; doing everything I could to solidify my East Coast connections and background. We did remixes for 'Sittin' On Chrome.' One was called 'The Rockaway Ave Remix' and one was called 'The Pitkin Ave Remix.' Where I tried to flip some boom-bap sounding music with the same lyrics. Trying to do the reverse of what I did with 'Born To Roll.' But nobody was really checking for those remixes. That was me trying to get the acceptance of everybody at once."
Things were further complicated by Delicious Vinyl pursuing a new distribution deal in the middle of what was supposed to be the campaign for Sittin' On Chrome. Because of the shift in distribution mid-stream, the singles from ...Chrome wound up not being restocked fast enough in stores. As a result, Masta Ace had two of the biggest rap radio hits ("Sittin' On Chrome" and the album's second single and biggest hit, "The I.N.C. Ride") but didn't get to see much in the way of actual singles sales or chart numbers.
"After that record, I said anything I do from this point forward is going to be what I want to do. I'm not listening to any outside influences. If I'm going to get a backlash, if I'm going to fail, I want it to be on the merits of what I've put forth. 100% and not with anybody influencing me."
So, after his most commercially successful album, Masta Ace dissolved Masta Ace Inc., and departed the West Coast-based Delicious Vinyl. Ace would land on Big Beat/Atlantic, but it was a brief and uneasy marriage. By now, Bad Boy Records and the so-called "shiny suit era" had ushered in an even glossier style of mainstream rap music, and Masta Ace was, once again, being asked to bend for trends.
"I worked on [that album for Big Beat] for two years," Ace says, recalling how the label had him meeting with R&B artists like Changing Faces and Brian McKnight for the purpose of crafting radio-friendly records. But it all just further soured Ace. "That album ultimately got shelved."
"The music that was coming out of Bad Boy had a lot to do with why I got dropped from my deal at Big Beat. I went back to my roots and was making a boom-bap, dope rap album. It was about lyricism and the beats was crazy. But Big Beat was like 'we need to be on the radio.' I still had people in my ear."
By the end of 1997, Ace had enough. Big Beat dropped him and he decided to put rapping behind him.
"That was when I removed myself from the artist side," he recalls. Ace began shopping his resume and attempted to move more into management and production. "I took almost a six year hiatus before I dropped my next record."
Of course, that next record would be Ace's masterpiece. Disposable Arts would be released independently in 2001.
...Arts arrived after Ace's unceremonious dismissal from Big Beat, after years of ghostwriting for major artists like Will Smith, and after a poorly-received performance during a Lyricist Lounge battle against Boogieman.
Ace poured years of frustrations into ...Arts, an album that would become one of the most critically-acclaimed projects of the 2000s. It kickstarted his career yet again, setting Masta Ace on the path to two decades of independent success and acclaim.
Sittin' On Chrome holds a major place in the discography of Masta Ace. Part of the man's greatness is centered on just how chameleon-like his run has been, but that particular album, for all of the attention it brought him, will always be a bittersweet reminder of how hard a legendary artist has had to fight to maintain his voice and his art in a business that chews up artists and spits them out.
"I definitely look back on it now with fond memories," Ace says. "They weren't so fond at the time when I was dealing with it. But for whatever it's worth, that was my best-selling album and the radio play that it did get. So that lets me know that, if things had been different, I would've gotten those plaques that I deserved to get.As far as the U.S. is concerned, I do more West Coast touring than anywhere else. A lot of people that were in high school and their early 20s when these records came out, and they come out today and support. Even the negative parts in connection to this record opened my mind up to how important being independent was and making the record you wanted to make was. Those new fans that I gained along the way, I owe to this record.
"I still owe that record a lot."