Happy 10th Anniversary to eMC’s debut album The Show, originally released March 11, 2008.
A long and sustainable career in professional music is hard to earn. In a genre as volatile as hip-hop, it can be damn near impossible. Some from the first generation of rap stars still make a living from live shows on the strength of their back catalog: Big Daddy Kane, Rakim, Kool G Rap, and EPMD, to name a few. Others are fortunate enough to be invited to join veterans’ tours on the lucrative nostalgia circuit, such as Naughty by Nature, Lords of the Underground, and Keith Murray.
New music from these artists is few and far between, and when it does come it can often be stuck in a time warp. Finding true school rappers from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s who are able to tour and still release new music of quality today is more difficult, but there are standouts. Groups like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest aside, there are a selection of solo artists still shining bright today, and arguably brighter than before. There’s Kool Keith (formerly of Ultramagnetic MCs) and MF Doom (originally Zed Love X from KMD), and to a lesser extent, A.G. (from Showbiz & A.G.), Sadat X (of Brand Nubian), and Juice Crew rapper Craig G.
There’s also Masta Ace, an artist still releasing quality music 28 years after his 1990 debut Take A Look Around. He has also put in a lot of effort to evolve and learn how to navigate the modern music industry, with a solid social media presence, a healthy lifestyle, and a busy tour schedule.
Musically, Ace has been able to maintain longevity through several stages of reinvention. This hasn’t been achieved simply by jumping upon the bandwagon of the latest trend (although he was indeed accused of doing that to some degree with his Masta Ace Incorporated albums, 1993’s SlaughtaHouse and 1995’s Sittin’ On Chrome). It’s been done instead by a duty towards always giving the listener something new and exciting, avoiding the temptation to recreate past glories or play the role of disgruntled old rapper.
What Ace has excelled at most is an ability to write impressive and engaging concept albums. He really began to hit the mark with these on the classic Disposable Arts in 2001, his first album after a break from recording. This was followed by the equally great A Long Hot Summer in 2004. Both are semi-autobiographical, as are 2012’s MA Doom: Son of Yvonne and 2016’s The Falling Season. All of them prove Masta Ace to be an expert storyteller.
In between those albums, Masta Ace took time out to form a new group in 2005 known as eMC. In addition to Ace, the original lineup featured Stricklin, a relatively unknown rapper that Ace had been developing, and Punchline and Wordsworth. The latter two artists were already established on the indie rap scene having come of age in the Rawkus era as the duo Punch-N-Words.
The concept of their 2008 debut The Show is simple: the realities of life on the road for the working musician. The story advances by way of skits covering every imaginable kind of tour issue or annoyance, including unreliable promoters, hotel expenses, the grind of press interviews, angry merchandise sellers, and the impact of being away from family. It’s not as deep or thought-provoking as the themes of Ace’s best work, but the skits are entertaining enough.
The tracks around the skits are predictably strong, and the crew works best when trading verses back-and-fourth to create a throwback feel. Like Masta Ace Incorporated before them, eMC again showcases Masta Ace’s skillful ear for finding emcees that can gel together as a unit. The best example of the slick mic passing can be found on “Git Sum,” which also features a guest spot from one of the wittiest of all time, the late Sean Price.
The Show is arguably let down at points by bad beat selection. Masta Ace and the other members have flows better suited to rugged beats rather than the sparser instrumentals on tracks like “Who We Be.” Other beats haven’t aged well, like the Quincey Tones produced “Traffic.” That particular track does however feature Little Brother, instantly redeeming it. The harder, boom-bap influenced beats work better, especially the headnodders by reliable producers such as Ayatollah (“The Grudge” and “Borrow You”) and Marco Polo (“Once More”).
The lyric writing isn’t groundbreaking but that is almost intentional. The Show is about how unglamorous life can be for the artist who has to view music as a full time job if they are to put food on the table. The devil is in the details, and eMC aren’t afraid to give us an insight into tour life that is very far removed from the bottle-popping and expensive hotel suites we get told about in mainstream rap. The album is therefore refreshing in its honesty, and it takes skill to do that well.
Punchline left eMC in 2014, but Ace, Stricklin and Wordsworth continue to work together. Their last full-length album was 2015’s The Tonite Show, another decent effort. Masta Ace’s 2016 album The Falling Season also features guest verses from the other two members of eMC, and a third album from the crew hopefully isn’t too far away.