The Poetry Question

Discovering the Relevance of Words

INTERVIEW: Masta Ace on Catcher in the Rye, 6th Grade Poetry, and the Dumbing Down of Lyrics.

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Masta Ace is one of the most influential emcees the hip-hop game has ever known. He cut his teeth in the late 80’s with Kool G. Rap, Big Daddy Kane and Marley Marl, and was a guest in the JUICE Crew. His no-nonsense approach to lyricism allowed him to rise above the Gangsta Rap of the 90’s, and focus much more on the storytelling aspect of rap. Even Eminem cites Masta Ace as one of his biggest influences. The Poetry Question had the opportunity to sit down with the underground legend, and the full, unedited interview is found below.

 

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TPQ:What are your earliest memories as a reader? Were there books that you remember being read as a child? Was there a favorite reading moment? Maybe a light bulb moment where you realized that you were reading a text that would define your life?

Masta Ace: my earliest meaningful reading memories go back to high school. there were favorite books when i was much younger but in high school i read ‘catcher in the rye’. that was the first book i recall reading that transported me to another place. reading it was like watching a movie. the story had me riveted to every word. for the first time i wasn’t counting pages hoping the end of the book was near.

TPQ: Do you remember your first lyrics? How old were you when you started writing? When did you begin to develop the style upon which you’d build your career?

Masta Ace: i wrote my first poem in the 6th grade i think. my grandmother kept it in her nightstand drawer for years. her affection for that poem made me feel like i was good at it. it fueled me. then in 7th grade i took an anonamys state writing test that asked students to make a story using about 25 random words. my imagination soared and i wrote this elaborate very detailed story. a few weeks later our teacher mentioned the exam to the class as she was one of the people responsible for grading the tests. she mentioned to the class there was ONE story out of all the ones graded that stood out. the teachers passed this story around one by one reading it and being thoroughly entertained. when she described the story, i realized it was mine. i never revealed it was my story either. but that experience fueled me.

TPQ: Who were the lyricists that most influenced you when you were starting out? What was it about their work that made them an influence?

Masta Ace: The first was LL cool J, because he came out using multi-syllable words as rhyme links. Eg. he rhymed ‘discussion’ and ‘percussion’. 3 syllable words were not being used by rappers before that. The next was Rakim who showcased multiple (3-4) words that rhymed in a single line. While cats had probable done this before him, he STOOD OUT to me. Then finally Big Daddy Kane who took what Rakim did and went further. He rhymed 6-8 words in one line rapid fire style and then added “punchline’ to that delivery. All these guys were ground breaking when they dropped and they each effected how i approached rhyming.

TPQ: How has the culture of hip-hop changed over the now 20+ years you’ve been in the game? Is it a good change, or a bad change?

Masta Ace: The big change is there is much less emphasis on ALL the elements than there was in the early 80s. the element of rapping has been by far the most lucrative so it has been the most exploited and developed. but the aspects of fashion, language, music, dance and art are all still relevant and prevalent in our culture.

TPQ: Would you consider rap lyrics to be the new Poetry? Why or why not?

Masta Ace: absolutely! all it is, is poetry put to music and given a specific cadence and rhythm of delivery. many raps if u took away the music and spoke the lyric would EASILY be translated into a poem.

TPQ: As the media visibility of rappers continues to grow, how do you feel that has changed the approach to writing? Do rappers need to write more mainstream lyrics because they are in the spotlight, or are they still able to write conscious hip-hop, and gain notice?

Masta Ace: rappers CHOOSE to keep their lyrics dumbed down so they can be more accessible to more fans. That is a double edged sword…it diminishes the creativity of our culture but it allows our culture to be more ‘far-reaching’. all it takes is for a commercially known artist to make a “Marvin Gaye, Whats Going On” kinda record and outsell everybody. the result would be more cats trying to chase that success with a socially conscious record of their own.

TPQ: And finally, how do you see the hip-hop culture evolving over the next decade?

Masta Ace: i am encouraged by artists like jay electronica, joey badass and others that a new Renaissance is coming. i believe hiphop is on the cusp of something BIG.

About Christopher Margolin

Chris Margolin spent more than a decade in Education as a high school English teacher, and is now an Instructional Coach for the Longview School District. He is also the founder of The Poetry Question, an online journal which focuses on reviews of small press poetry publications, and runs a regular series called "The Power of Poetry," where notable poets share their personal stories of how poetry has affected their lives. Margolin resides in Vancouver, Washington with his wife, and daughter.

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