This week, Masta Ace’s Disposable Arts, one of the most treasured rap albums of the 2000s, finally gets a long-awaited deluxe reissue treatment that brings us the out-of-print classic along with a documentary on its making featuring new interviews with all of the parties involved. One of rap’s all time greatest comeback stories, the former Juice Crew member hadn’t released an album in over a half-decade, but then, in October of 2001 dropped, a groundbreaking album that was part-memoir/ part-manifesto that, in the words of writer Andrew Noz, “sonned a whole generation of back-packers.” To celebrate the occasion, we spoke to Masta Ace about the making of the album and how he feels about it today.
In 2001, Disposable Arts was your first album in since 1995’s Sittin On Chrome. Was it much of a challenge getting back into the album writing groove?
It was, but what I did was around ’99 and 2000, I did three or four one-off independent singles. I did a couple with J-Love, a couple with Jazzy Jeff, that’s kind of how I got my feet wet. Those records are what got me going again as far as writing, being in the studio and finding my voice again.
That lead to Disposable Arts which was a concept album, a rarity in hip-hop. Did you always envision the project as having its story from the jump or did it come together while making it?
I definitely knew I wanted to make a concept record while making it because that’s what I always did. Slaughterhouse, my second album, was a concept record. Sittin On Chrome was a concept record. To me, those records didn’t go the full length of what I wanted to do, which was tell a full story from beginning to end within the context of an album. That was the new challenge for me, so I went into it trying to tie a story together for a full album and have it make sense.
Which is something you also did with Disposable Arts’ prequel, A Long Hot Summer. In that regard, are you happy with how both of those albums came out?
Extremely happy. The most happy I’ve been with any project I’ve done within my record making career. Disposable was exactly the record I wanted to do with no outside info. You have to understand, when I was signed to Delicious Vinyl and, before that, Cold Chillin’ Records, there was always other voices in my ear suggesting I try this or try that, which dilutes the creative process. When I went into Disposable, I told my creative partners that I don’t want to hear from anybody. If you have a suggestion or idea, keep it to yourself. I’m not interested in anything anybody has to say. I might be thinking of it anyway, so just keep it to yourself. I wanted to go and do the exact record that I wanted to do, and they gave me that freedom so I have to give credit to them for knowing what I was doing and being the label behind it to not know what I was doing but let me do it and hope that it comes out good. That was a big risk on their part.
So you were the beginning and end of the creative control on that record?
The beginning and end. I sometimes refer to Sittin On Chrome as my “compromise album.” When that record was done, Delicious Vinyl had really pushed me very strongly in the direction of that type of album. They wanted me to chase the success of my song “Born to Roll” which was a huge single for them and wanted me to follow that song up with an album that followed car culture, so I went into that album compromising all the way through.
What stands out about Disposable Arts, especially considering when it came out, is how brutally honest you are about your situation on a lot of those tracks. Was there any hesitation on your part to rap about what you were going through?
Not at all. I’m a realest and I knew what my standing was in the game at that point. I knew what people were saying about me. I dealt with a lot of backlash from the east coast for being a “West coast sellout.” All of that was on the table, so I decided I was going to say it so everyone could just be comfortable with no whispering behind my back.
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There were rumors at the time that Eminem was supposed to be on the album. Any truth to that?
Yeah, he was supposed to be on the song “Something’s Wrong.” It wound up not working out. That would have been cool to happen, but I think Young Zee added the right energy to that record. I think it worked out perfectly.
Are there any other tracks where you reached out to a feature that didn’t work out?
Actually, yes. The other song was “Upfor the Game.” Large Professor was my first choice to be on that record because that record was originally based on Main Source’s “A Friendly Game of Baseball” where they used baseball as an analogy for police brutality. So, I took football and used it as an analogy for the drug game in the streets. He was my original choice, but unfortunately it didn’t work out.
In the past 12 years of the post-Bloomberg New York since Disposable Arts‘ release, are the streets and neighborhoods you describe on the album still the same or are things pretty much different now?
Things are very different. You talk about downtown Brooklyn where they now have an arena and highrise condominium buildings. When I was running those streets, downtown Brooklyn was nothing safe. On those sidestreets, you could get caught up in the wrong situation. I’d say that it has changed for the better, I don’t wish downtown Brooklyn was still dangerous by any means. I just know that it’s really, really different from what it used to be. Fort Greene Park, which is right on Myrtle Ave, was a Park when I was living in that neighborhood was a park where you really had to look over your shoulder when walking through there at night. Now, families have picnics there and walk their dogs. It’s way different, but it’s a change for the better.
What do you recall the initial reception for Disposable Arts being like?
I recall The Source giving it three and a half mics and the reason I remember that is because I said to myself there’s no way they’re going to give me four mics even though I feel it’s at least a four mic album. I said if they give me three-and-a-half, it means they knew it was worth four. I also remember a review in Vibe Magazine where the reviewer clearly didn’t listen to the album. He cited the album as have 23 songs on it, but while the album has 23 IDs, they aren’t all songs. It seems he listened to the first two or three and then wrote a review that said “nobody wants to listen to 23 Masta Ace songs,” real disrespectful.
And then, I went overseas to Europe to just tour and to my surprise, people knew the words to every song and the shows were packed. The album was a huge success and hit with a lot of people, especially people around the high school / first couple years of college age. That was kind of a big deal. Those are the things I remember about the reception to that album.
How important to your career was Disposable Arts?
It was immeasurably important. This album single-handedly extended my career for what’s going on 13 years. I’ve been touring off of this record for the last 13 years. It revived a career that was pretty much fizzing out and introduced me to a new generation of fans and a new millennium of hip-hop fans. It will always be my favorite record.
Where did the concept for the cover art come from?
The cover was kind of a mistake, a happy mistake. The photographer was known for these super-imposed photos where he shoots an image of you and super-imposes it over another image later. It wasn’t exciting to me as I didn’t know what the background was going to be, so, for me it was standing there with a white backdrop and [I felt] it was boring and not going to be good. The studio was next to an auto-body junkyard and on my way there I saw a car seat sitting on the sidewalk next to a pile of junk. I remembered that and halfway through I told the photographer I wanted to give something a shot. I brought in the carseat, which stood out to me because last record was Sittin’ On Chrome, so now that I’m not sitting on chrome, this might make sense some kind of way. We put the image over a street shot, and once I saw it I knew it was the picture.
Okay Ace, one more question before we rap this one up is: Considering how long you’ve been in the game, all the places you been and all the songs that you’ve done and all the cats you’ve worked with, is there anything about Disposable Arts you’d do differently? What I mean to say is, do you have any regrets?
(laughs) As soon as you started, I knew where you were going with it. Do I have any regrets? I really don’t think so. The album is exactly what I wanted it to be. For me, it came out perfect. I don’t think there was a beat, feature or producer that I would exchange.