It’s May of 1995. It’s been a mere six months since Tupac Shakur was shot and robbed inside of Quad Recording studios in New York City. Biggie’s antagonistic “Who Shot Ya?” has been ringing off in cars and clubs since there was snow on the ground. Eazy-E has died of AIDS and a few months from now Suge Knight will throw thinly veiled shots at Bad Boy Records during the second annual Source Awards being taped at Madison Square Garden.
In the midst of all this palpable tension an MC from Brooklyn will attempt to bridge the gap and transcend the bullshit. Masta Ace, alumnus of the legendary NY-based collective The Juice Crew, has long since traded in his Biz Markie puppet and newsboy cap for a scullie and work boots. He is on the tale end of promoting his first album with Cali based hip-hop label Delicious Vinyl, Slaugthahouse, a decidedly dark and funk-laden groupthink which examined the growing popularity of West Coast gangster rap and the gun-toting boom-bap of his NY stomping grounds. He would eventually take a track from this album and give it a bold face-lift leaving old fans befuddled and new ones enthralled. The singular gamble would lead to creating a full album of lowrider friendly b-boy music called Sittin On Chrome.
“It does not seem like 20 years to me,” Ace says in awe. In a cream colored army jacket and specs, nothing belies his age. He’s clearly sipping whatever Pharrell and MC Lyte have patented. “It was like a second ago we was out in Cali promoting that record. We were shooting a video for ‘The INC Ride’ on Hollywood BLVD. I’m not keeping count but it’s a blessing that people still like the record.”
But to hear Ace tell it, that was not always the case. Here are some things we learned about The Masta and that album.
How it all started…
When I put out SlaughtaHouse in 1993 that record was a direct reaction to the first album and the single “Me And The Biz” and the puppet thing, there was a whole backlash with that. So I tried to make the hardest album I could make. Sort of in the middle of SlaughtaHouse, we were on the second single I guess, I decided to do this remix to “Jeep Ass N*gga” which turned out to be this song called “Born To Roll.” We actually put the song on the B-side of the single for “SlaughtaHouse” and it was a little bit of a fight with Delicious Vinyl, the label. They didn’t understand why I was remixing “Jeep Ass…” That song was over with, “We’re moving on.” But I fought for it to be on the B-side and all the DJs on the west coast, down south and mid-west flipped the record over and started playing “Born To Roll.” The record blew up crazy, like an avalanche. The video was getting crazy spins. We did an X-rated video with the bikini girls. Luke Skyywalker was playing it on his late night video show. Then Delicious Vinyl said people are feeling this car culture and “We need to chase this a little bit.”
The great compromise
Very often I refer to Sittin On Chrome as my compromise album. It was the album that the label asked for and I tried to give them what they wanted while still doing what I wanted to do musically. So I said I’ll try to give you what you want and make what I want at the same time and that was the birth of Sittin on Chrome.
Inspiration for the album cover…
The album cover was designed by this kid from Houston, Texas named Kid Styles. It was based on a photo that my mother had on the wall of her apartment when I lived in Flatbush, Brooklyn. It was supposed to be New York in a nutshell. There was a cab driver cutting somebody off, a dude doing 5 card monty, etc. I used to look at that photo every day before I went to school and that was the inspiration. So I showed Kid Style that picture and told him to do his best rendition of what that was.
The Masta Ace, Inc.
The idea for Masta Ace, Inc was that everybody might not like my way of rhyming, my flow, my style or what I brought to the table. So let’s bring other characters in to add bits and pieces. It’s kind of the way Dr. Dre put together The Chronic in a certain way. It was that kind of that same thinking. So when we got to the Sittin on Chrome record at that point, Ice and Unique, who were rolling with me on SlaughtaHouse, they had gotten these permanent jobs working with the Board of Ed, so they couldn’t roll. So that gave Lord Digga a bigger role. Paula Perry was that female MC to add flavor and Leschea was somebody who I was friends with from the neighborhood in Flatbush. She sang a little bit so that brought another flavor. That’s what the concept of Masta Ace Inc. was.
Ace vs Ase…
When I first signed with Delicious Vinyl I was writing graffiti at that time and I was writing ASE. That was my graf name. When they signed me I really wanted to change my name completely. They were like ‘No you can’t change your name, we signed you based on what you did.’ So I said I wanna change the spelling to Masta ASE. And they said no. People are gonna be confused. So we compromised and kept the ACE, but took off the ‘ER.’ I wanted to be as far away from the Cold Chillin’ era of my career as possible and that’s why the name changed and the spelling changed.
Also, I was producing a lot of these songs and I didn’t want people to know that Masta Ace was producing these records. So I came up with a new producer name, Ase One, my graffiti name. So you’ll see that on a lot of credits. I just create these personas so one character doesn’t in any way get in the way of the other character.
His early production…
I started making beats right around ’92 I guess. I co-produced my first album in 1990 with Marley Marl, I just didn’t know how to work the equipment. But I knew what I wanted to loop. I knew what kind of sounds I wanted. A lot of the songs on my first album were me bringing loops or records from my mother’s collection up to Marley’s crib saying, “Yo I wanna loop this, I wanna rap over this, can you loop it up?” Of course he would add his expertise in the drum programming, I wasn’t good at that yet.
His first production lesson from DJ Premier…
Somewhere around ’91 or ’92 DJ Premier told me which equipment he had and I bought the exact same stuff. He showed me how to basically work it. I actually still have the notes that I took the day he showed me how to sample something, how to grab it, to truncate it, etc. I have all of those notes that I took at his crib that day. From that day forward I started making tracks. I got lessons from Preemo. The basics. He said listen, I’m gonna show you the basics and then you’re on your own. Don’t ask me about records or what parts to sample. That’s all up to your creativity. I said I’m with you 100%. In exchange for that I gave him a couple boxes of 45s.I gave him about 6 or 8 boxes in exchange for him showing me the ropes. I wonder to this day if any of those 45s were used in any known DJ Premier production. It’s a good trade off. I haven’t made a beat since about early 2000s. I did a joint called “Revelations” on Long Hot Summer, that’s probably the last song that I did that came out. But a good majority of Sittin On Chrome I produced. I produced “INC Ride,” “Sittin On Chrome,” “Born To Roll,” a good portion of that album.
“The INC Ride”
“INC Ride,” the version that everybody knows is really the remix. People don’t realize that the original version of that song was made by a Louis Phat Kat. His version was more Dilla-ish. He had rhodes and it was a vibe with dope ass drums. It was way underground but in a good way. The label was like this is a dope record but this ain’t really gonna pull in the crowd we’re trying to pull in. So I went in the studio and put together a couple of pieces. I grabbed the same loop that Dr. Dre used on “G Thing” took a little piece of that record for the drums and grabbed the Isley’s (“Living For The Love of You”) and put them all together and it worked. I didn’t really play keyboards but I knew what sounded good so I kind of one-fingered it and threw a couple of extra sounds in it. The label heard it and said “No we’re going with this version. We’ll make the Louis joint the alternate version.” Very few people have the Phat Kat version but I personally to this day still love that version.
“The No Ends Remix” of INC Ride
That was a big fight. The President of Delicious Vinyl Mike Ross always kind of fancied himself a producer. Always felt like he knows what people like. So he on his own grabs my a capella and goes to the studio—I don’t like people touching my music without asking me—he went in and made this version of “INC Ride” based off the Loose Ends record (“Hangin On A String”) and put that one out as the single. I didn’t even know it was on the single….it wasn’t like a’ fight’ fight but I told him it was wack to do that.
Jay Dee’s Remix To “Sittin On Chrome”
There’s a Dilla Mix of “Sitting On Chrome.” Dilla was always around when I was on Delicious Vinyl. He was messing with The Pharcyde and was around all the time but I wasn’t really aware of who he was. He was still kind of coming up. He’d say through other people that he wanted to do something with Ace. I wasn’t even aware that he did it. He spoke to Mike Ross and did this really dope mix of “Sittin On Chrome” that somehow got by me. I didn’t hear it until way later in life, it was never on anything so I didn’t hear it.
Turn It Up
I wanted to do “Turn It Up” because I really loved that Roy Ayers “Everybody Love’s the Sunshine” record and it was a way for me to showcase Leschea and her voice. It was really a way to set her up as an artist and position her to get a deal. It worked out because she wound up getting a deal with Warner Brothers and put out her album Rhythm and Beats.
When we did “The B-Side” that was supposed to be the jump-off record that wasn’t on the album. Back then you’d put out a single and then make a whole new song for the B-side of that single that wasn’t on the album to make DJs more interested in buying that single. So we put together “The B-Side,” which was basically a posse cut. And it again was promoting the Brooklyn Bass. We’re from Brooklyn but we still got that heavy 808 and bass. So that tried to push that agenda along. It wound up being a dope record, the problem is that within the same month that it dropped—and we were getting spins on it, Hot 97 had added it and started playing it—but within two weeks Jermaine Dupri and Da Brat dropped a song called “B-Side” [with The Notorious B.I.G] and immediately my song went away. She got added, she was already platinum and all that. I guess they couldn’t play two records with the same title so my record got pushed to the side.
Sitting on Chrome sits in a weird spot for me career wise. When that album came out it was my best selling album but it created issues in my social interaction with my own hometown. You got to remember at that time there was this whole East Coast/West Coast dichotomy going on and you had to pick a side back then and I wasn’t picking a side. I was trying to ride the middle. “Yo, I’m from Brooklyn and I’m making records that appeal to people in the west, but I’m still rocking for y’all.” So I created this sound called Brooklyn Bass music and forced both coasts to rock with me. But what wound up happening really was I’d get approached in Brooklyn like “What’s up with all this West Coast stuff?” or I’d get “What are you doing out here? I thought you lived out on the West Coast now?” and the misconceptions started happening. I started to get the label of “West Coast sell-out” and all of this was created by me making this album Sittin’ On Chrome that appealed to both coasts, or maybe it didn’t. Maybe it only appealed to one. But I just know that I garnered a whole new fan base of people out West, Down South and even the Midwest that did not know my career up to that point. To this day I still tour more on the West Coast than I do on the East Coast, that’s just what it is. I embrace my place in history. I definitely feel like I opened up doors for other artists from the East Coast to be more daring and experiment with sound and embrace other sounds. Maybe now it’s a little bit TOO far, but I feel like I was one of those people that blazed that trail. I may have gotten assassinated for it, in a certain way my character. But that was my cross to bear. I’m happy with what I did musically on that album.