Over a pre-concert spread of short ribs, fried chicken, waffles and plenty of collard greens at Toronto's Harlem restaurant, diehard East coast rhyme legends Masta Ace (Brooklyn), 43, and Edo G (Boston), 39, chat exclusively with Exclaim! on the trials and triumphs of a recording career in hip-hop that, combined, stretches 40 years deep. Fitting that the newly formed duo, promoting their new Arts & Entertainment album, are eating food for the soul. From Edo's "Be a Father to Your Child" to Ace's "Take a Walk" to their original link-up, "Wishful Thinking," their music has always been just that.
Many respected veteran rappers have at least one album or one song that can be viewed as soft or suspect, but the consistency of both your catalogues is rare. What is the key to that consistency?
Masta Ace: For me, it's continuing to be a fan of hip-hop and listening to the new guys. A lot of guys from our era get shut down and don't want to listen to new guys because they're new. But when I hear new guys with talent, that fuels me because rap is a competitive sport and everybody wants to be the best. So when I hear dudes that are really, really good, it makes me go back and write harder and sound current and be relevant.
Who have you heard lately that impresses you?
MA: Drake is one I've heard recently, and Jay Electronica is another who popped out to me. There will be a few more that emerge, but those two guys are dope.
Edo G: A lot of cats from the same era as me and Ace have a good ear for picking beats, first of all. If you're picking crappy beats, just because you've had some success in the past doesn't mean that [you'll stay on top]. To stay consistent lyrically, we're both at the top of our game. We got to a stage where we can rap with the best, but song-wise, a lot of people don't try to put whole solid projects together. And for us, we never really strayed from what we started out doing. So that consistency is throughout every album we've done. It shows in the music, and I think fans appreciate that because they know they're gonna get solid stuff from us every time.
You've both been in the game for approximately 20 years. Have you ever been tempted to stray from that sound and follow a hot trend?
ED: There's always a thought in your head. You might rhyme on a Southern-style beat and it just doesn't fit; you might find one that does fit. But it has to be organic. The thought crossed my mind, but nah, I've always stuck to the script.
MA: I've done it. Right after I had my squabbles with Delicious Vinyl, I got signed to Atlantic Records. And what was going on in hip-hop at that time was that Bad Boy/Puffy movement had taken over, and all the labels were looking for music that had a glossier, shinier edge to it. That disco-loop kinda vibe that could rock parties. I was on Atlantic, and they put it to me like I should make some records that could compete with those top records. I went to the studio and did some songs that to this day I think are good records, but some of the subject matter and the rhymes and the way I was rhyming was definitely out of character. It wasn't what I felt inside. I was doing it because I wanted to keep my deal and I wanted to make a living recording. I made some songs that are a little embarrassing to listen to now. I'm happy to say those records never saw the light of day. Who knows what direction my career might've gone in? It could've went up or down.
Where are those records now?
MA: I have 'em. I went up in Atlantic after I got dropped on some tough-guy stuff and I basically took all my DATs, so they don't have any of that music.
Ace, you debuted in 1988 on "The Symphony." Edo, you came out in 1991. Has there been a year since where either of you thought about giving up on rap?
ED: For me, it was '95, when I got dropped from Mercury while working on the third album. We had got the first half of the budget and started recording ― and that was real late. I was kinda gassed. I was so used to the cars picking me up, the plane rides, the whole shit. And I was real lazy in recording the third album. I sent it to them, and it wasn't done. They said, "Nah, we ain't gonna put this record out. Actually, we're gonna drop you." It was like, "Oh, shit." Ninety-five was real depressing for me. I was smoking a lot of weed ― actually, no, I wasn't smoking weed then. A lot of drinking and thinking what the hell was I gonna do. In '96, the light kicked in again, and I found the blessings of being independent, of being able to put records out that I really want to do without all the hoopla. We put out an EP [Dedicated] in late '96, and it was rolling again.
So you had a whole year of not writing anything?
ED: Nah, I was kinda depressed, kinda contemplating what I was gonna do now. Luckily, I've always been surrounded by a lot of great people. We came together and put out the EP and sold 12,000 to 15,000 and made a nice amount of money independently. I was like, "Shit! I can do this all the time." Since then I've been rolling.
How much does it help that both of you got your start on a major?
ED: I would hate to come out right now. I would hate to be a rapper in 2010 trying to make it. I really would.
MA: It definitely helped, and it taught us the game. What you learn from being in those major deals ― how the math works, how not to get screwed ― benefits you later on. And I'm happy to say a lot of those slave deals are gone away. Artists are more in control of their publishing. You have rappers that own their masters and stuff like that. They learned from the mistakes of us.
Is there any downside of an artist being in too much control?
MA: Depends who the artist is.
ED: With the advent of the internet being what it is, anyone can put out music. Anyone can upload a song and put it out. It's a double-edged sword. For us, it's great. But you can have cats constantly putting out a bunch of shit, that kinda fucks the game up. But in another way, there's always quality where there's shit ― you just gotta seek it out.
If you could go back to the early '90s and give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would you say?
ED: I would have been way cooler with Mark Wahlberg. I shitted on him really bad in Boston. Real bad. Not because he's where he's at now and I'm where I'm at. I'm comfortable where I'm at. At the time, the whole culture was like, "Fuck Hammer. Fuck Vanilla Ice. Fuck Marky Mark." And now look what everyone's doing. Everyone is Hammer. Everyone is Marky Mark. Everyone is Vanilla Ice right now. These guys are doing the same kinda stuff that those guys were doing and that we were shitting on them for doing. I would have been a little more cordial. [Mark and I] were in the same ciphers and circles. Boston has this thing called the Boston Music Awards that they do every year, and when his album and my album were out [circa 1993], we were the top two guys going at it for this award, and this award is really coveted in Boston. I got Album of the Year and best song, so I beat him out. We could have done a lot more stuff together. He was doing huge stuff with touring, selling out arenas with his songs. That could've been an opportunity for me to open up.
C'mon. Your music is so different.
ED: It's so different, but if you have an opportunity to do a great show in front of people who might not be your audience, you can convert people if you're doing a good job.
MA: For me, I'd go back to '95 when New York had kinda turned on me and was upset that I was selling records on the West coast, and I would tell myself, "Fuck what New York says. Do what you're doing." I also would've told myself not to sign the Atlantic deal. Part of my reason for signing the Atlantic deal was because I needed to get back to New York, return to the East coast because everybody was killing me, talking about me. I spent all this energy trying to make New York re-embrace me when I could've stayed out in California and been rich as hell by now. I had produced "Born to Roll" and "I.N.C. Ride." There was a ton of West coast artists that wanted to work with me and make beats.
MA: It was word of mouth. Like, "You need to get with Ace. He's got the beats." I didn't care. I didn't wanted to do any West coast projects because New York was already talking [negatively] about me. So I would tell myself, "Forget what New York say. Go and do what's in front of you." I'd be in a mansion.
ED: Ninety percent of people we know who go to the West coast and stay there, they come up. They make a ton of money. There are so many opportunities in California with music, movies, television. It's more than rap stuff. You can do a ton of different things and make a shitload of money out there.
But love and respect from your own neighbourhood is crucial.
ED: Now? No. Back then? Yes. When we were younger, you did it for your neighbourhood. You did it for the people who were right around you. Not anymore.
Do you remember the first time you heard Ace rap?
ED: "The Symphony." I was a big fan of the whole Juice Crew. Big Daddy Kane is my all-time favourite MC, period. I love "Symphony," Marley [Marl]'s whole album In Control, everything. I thought they were the dopest crew in hip-hop.
Ace, I'm guessing the first time your head Ed was "I Gotta Have It."
MA: For sure. That was a huge record. You played that record at a party or a jam, the vibe went up a notch. People would scream and start dancing. I remember the video. I remember thinking, "Oh, shoot, these dudes are from Boston." Nobody that I knew about was from Boston. So that was cool to have somebody not from New York hit with such a big record. It was very rare then to have somebody not from New York put out a record and have New York embrace it.
ED: Thanks to my cousins, the Awesome Two, Teddy Ted and Special K, they're the ones who got me the deal. They were on New York radio and had all these New Yorkers that knew them, so that was a blessing to have family members who were into music. Believe me, I pounded their asses since '87.
MA: Pause. [laughs]
ED: Yeah. I was pounding at their door since '87. [laughs] This dude, man. So literally I was sending them my demos from '87 to '90, when they got the song that ultimately got me my deal. There were definitely rappers in Boston, but no one who made it big outside. I was in a group since '85. I was beatboxing and all that. Not Ed O.G. & the Bulldogs, but a group called Fresh To Impress, FTI. We were one of the top-tier groups in Boston.
What was the battle scene like in Boston?
ED: It was huge. Dudes would do whole routines. A big battle, crew against crew. The best battle I seen was this guy named MC Fantasy battling my man Marco from Made Men, my man Antonio, on this radio station. It was amazing to see. There was a lot of that going on. Everybody in Boston had some family member in New York, or they would go to New York, so we'd get the Mr. Magic tapes, the Red Alert tapes. We're only three-and-a-half hours away driving, so we'd get all that stuff.
Ace, were you involved in the battle scene before your first album came out?
MA: That's pretty much all I was in the beginning. I had some rappers come up to my high school like animals and battle me in front of my school for an hour. There was a group back in the day called the Dis Masters ― three or four members ― and all they did was write dis raps. They had records that were all dis raps. I went to a party in Bed-Stuy [in Brooklyn], and word got over to the Dis Masters that I was one of the good rappers coming up, so he challenged me that night at the club. This was something that happened all the time. You find out someone raps, you battle him. Talk about his mother, his father, his brother. We went back and forth for six rounds, and this was his spot. We were surrounded by his people, and they couldn't definitively say he beat me. He would get me, I would get him. And afterward he came up to me and said, "I gotta give it up to you. Nobody else has been able to hang with me like that and stayed on the same level." So when I was coming up, that's all it was about. All the rhymes I wrote were preparing for when other rappers would come in my face.
ED: Come in your face? Pause. Very pause. [laughs]
MA: I would battle with writtens. Back then, nobody battled off the top of the head.
ED: Some people did. We had this dude in Boston named Orange Man who was a freestyle king, and he would just crack on you. But it was mainly writtens.
MA: If you wanted to just crush somebody, you had to come with writtens.
Do you freestyle these days?
ED: Yeah. The last freestyle we just did was in Paris with Slum Village, J-Live, Akrobatik.
MA: Compared to these guys now, they're on a whole other level with it. My man Wordsworth ― he can rhyme for 30 minutes straight. I've seen him do it, just rapping about different stuff. I'm too much of a perfectionist to rhyme straight off the head, because I want every line to rhyme perfectly. So if it don't rhyme right, I'm like, "Ah!" and I'll stop. It's not for everybody. I was better at it when I was younger than I am now. I was battling in the New Music Seminar back in , the one that Lord Finesse came in second place. And me and Craig G trained together to get me ready for that battle. He had me pretty nice off the top of the head from us training.
What's a training session like?
MA: Put the beat on and just rhyme, just rhyme, for as long as you can. Come up with key lines and lyrics and whatever. I did all of that training, got to the Seminar, didn't trust myself, and came with a written. And I lost because [my opponent] went off the head. That was it. He rapped about how much time was left on the clock and all that. He didn't say nothing crazy, but he said something spontaneous and won. His name is Serge from Cleveland. He never came out [with a proper record]. He won! Serge beat Finesse in the final.
ED: I never did enter any organized battles.
Let's talk a bit about the new record, Arts & Entertainment. A&E television network came after you for copyright infringement. Can you explain what happened?
ED: We shot a comic parody of one of their shows, First 48. We did a trailer pretending it was a real TV episode. We were the detectives trying to find the murderer of particular rappers. Once our trailer hit YouTube, they caught wind of it. We used their voiceover from the actual show and their sound effects. We did it good. Great job.
MA: And our logo looks very similar to their logo, and we had it in the bottom right-hand corner like a watermark. So it looked way too authentic, and they didn't want anybody thinking it was their thing, so they sent us a letter saying, "You gotta take this off the internet." And our distributor got afraid.
ED: Really scared. Panicked.
MA: He told us we not only had to remove the trailer from the internet but remove the logo from the CD, and we had already pressed up 10,000 CDs. They didn't want to put it in stores, so we had to repress the CD.
So do you have to eat the cost of those CDs?
ED: Of course. But we're selling them at the show tonight. So these are limited edition! Very exclusive. Once they're gone, they'll never be repressed. Being underground cats, we didn't think they'd even care. We're actually giving props to them. It worked out well for us, because our video, "Little Young," wasn't done yet, and that pushed the album back about a month. So it worked to our benefit, other than the 10,000 [CDs] we gotta eat, cost-wise.
The "Little Young" video is great. Whose concept was that?
ED: It was our total concept. The director, Steven Tapia, I had seen some of his work before and had shown Ace: "We gotta get this kid to do our video. He can bring to light our vision." He's a great director, and he has a great eye for detail. And if you look at the video, there's so much stuff going on, you have to watch it three, four times to catch everything.
MA: We wanted to have as many of the rappers who are named in the song make cameos as possible. I didn't know how [Tapia] would pull it off, but there's way more in there than I thought there would be.
Have any of the "Little" or "Young" rappers responded to the song?
ED: I seen something on Youtube about Lil Keke from Texas, but no one has said anything to us. We were chilling with Little Brother, and everyone thought we were dissing them and Lil Fame [from M.O.P.]. But they know what it was.
MA: If Lil Wayne came out and said, "Fuck Edo G and Masta Ace," that would be great for us.
ED: We'd love it. Please! Do it.
MA: But they're gonna be smart and pretend the song doesn't exist, and eventually it'll go away.
What's the best hip-hop name ever?
ED: You stumped me. That's a good question.
MA: I like Afrika Bambaataa. I don't know why. Lotta syllables.
What's the wackest name?
ED: Little Young Young Little Young.
Can you think of an example, besides yourselves, of someone who has aged with dignity and class in hip-hop?
MA: LL Cool J. He found his lane, which is the ladies, and he made shimmery, R&B-driven, female records. That's where his bread and butter is. Nobody wants to hear LL battle no more. So he's always been relevant, looks up to date, looks young, stays in shape, and stays in his lane.
ED: Redman has been consistent. I dunno… M.O.P. Their new album is great. Um… there's not that many dudes.
The song "Dancing Like a White Girl," featuring Chester French, comes out of left field. How did that make it on the album?
MA: That was the idea. We wanted to do something that was different for us. When you're doing your own solo project, you can get nervous about taking a chance and doing something crazy because it'll reflect on you a lot, but because each of us has somebody to lean on, it was easier to be brave about it. We wanted to do a record totally to the left of what people expect from us, and we talked about it beforehand.
ED: The response is more positive than negative. The super hardcore fan is gonna be like, "Ah, I hate that stuff." But we figured that this kinda record could draw in a fan that's never heard of Edo G and Masta Ace ever. Young college kids might start checking into who we are and what we do. We're shooting a video to it, so it'll be a big deal. Then we'll really see what's going on. We like the record; we're proud of it. People can have a good time with it at parties.
Another new joint, "Fans," featuring Large Professor, is dedicated to your long-time listeners. What's the strangest encounter you've had with a fan?
MA: I did a show in Vienna, Austria, back in 2001. We were doing a freestyle at the end of the show. It was me, Punchline, Wordsworth, Strickland, and we used to do this freestyle [exercise] called "Four and Pass," where we'd rap four bars and then pass the mic, like a freestyle round robin. There was a girl sitting on the side of the stage who had big, y'know, hooters. So in my lyric I said, "If I show you my titties, will you show me yours?" I pulled my shirt up. She went BLAOW! and pulled her shirt apart. And everyone just went crazy. She ended it on the right note. It was the perfect closing to a dope show.
ED: The craziest thing I can think of was in '91 in Philly at Brickfest. Met this girl, real fine girl, thought I had her in my clutches, thought she was going home with me. And I'm sure you remember [Philadelphia rap group] Three Times Dope's E.S.T. The girl knew him more. He was still relevant. So she bounced off with E.S.T. I was like, "Shit!" I came back to Philly to do a show a month later. Same girl. I come back to my room. The girl is in my room, in my bed, naked, when I come in at four in the morning, waiting for me. That was the craziest thing that ever happened to me, and nothing like that has ever happened again. Damn it.
There's always tonight, right?
ED: I doubt it.
Last year saw collaborative albums from you guys and KRS-One and Buckshot, Redman and Method Man, DJ Quik and Kurupt… Why the trend to form rap duos for one-off projects?
MA: It's a new revenue stream. You reach a point as a solo artist where you've kinda done what you've done, but it's gonna get stale. It's a way to excite people again, it's a little different, it's a little less of a workload because you're only writing half an album, and the combination of your two fan bases together makes for a bigger base to draw upon while performing.
ED: You gotta find ways to stay relevant without doing the same thing every time. Ace's last solo album was '04, and mine was '04. We both did group albums since then [Ace's EMC project and Edo's Special Teamz album], and now we did this duo album. It's just ways of being creative. So if we come with a full-on solo album after five years, people will be excited to hear that again. You want to keep that interest and build it up.
So what's next?
MA: More EMC.
ED: I'm working on another solo record, so it'll drop before the year's out.
With all you've accomplished, what would you like to do that you haven't done yet?
ED: I'd like to go to Africa.
MA: I want to go to Japan.
ED: There's a lot of spots around the planet we want to check out. To accomplish more things in music, of course I'd love to win a Grammy and be on every station. Who wouldn't? But I'm fine with how things are going.
Anything else you want the people to know?
MA: Check out the website: aetheduo.com. We have a lot of video content on there that we shot.
Might you guys collaborate on another album?
MA: Yeah. As long as people like this one.