Longevity in the rap game can be a challenging proposition. Even more elusive for hip-hop veterans than simply maintaining visibility among fans is combining this sense of permanence with sustained creative viability, street credibility, and originality. A prime example of an artist who has been able to pull off this rare balancing act is Duval Clear, better known as Masta Ace, one of the most gifted and underappreciated talents in the history of hip-hop.
The 50 year-old, Brownsville, Brooklyn-bred rhymeslayer’s recorded repertoire is one of the most consistently solid and varied discographies in hip-hop. Spanning his early work with Marley Marl’s Juice Crew including his breakthrough debut LP Take a Look Around (1990) to mid-90s classic LPs SlaughtaHouse (1993) and Sittin’ on Chrome (1995) with his Incorporated collective to the early 2000s gems Disposable Arts (2001) and A Long Hot Summer (2004) to his laudable creative collaborations with Edo G, MF Doom and as a core member of the trio eMC, mediocre records are not to be found within Ace’s prolific catalog to date. And this also holds true for Ace’s most recent long player The Falling Season, released this past spring.
Speaking of Disposable Arts, the emcee’s fourth studio album celebrated its 15th anniversary in October. Arguably one of the most compelling concept albums in hip-hop history, the album is propelled by the loosely autobiographical narrative thread of a young man returning home from prison seeking redemption in his newfound freedom, and ultimately enrolling in the fictional “Institute of Disposable Arts.” More broadly, the album’s central theme is the antagonism between the more substantive and superficial strains of hip-hop at the turn of the century, and Ace’s struggle to reconcile the purer forms of the art form that he helped to cultivate with the more clichéd and commercially driven motivations that had engulfed the music he loves at the time.
In 2013, Below System Records reissued Disposable Arts with a special 2-hour DVD documentary featuring exclusive interviews with Masta Ace and the extensive cast of collaborators that brought the album to fruition. “That was an interesting time in hip-hop, 2001,” Ace explains in the film. “We were kinda in the middle of million dollar videos. That era where it had to be an R&B-sounding joint to get on the radio, it had to have a certain sound to it. You started to hear artists saying that they did ten songs in one night. That they recorded forty songs for the album and they’re gonna pick the best twelve. That’s kinda how the title Disposable Arts was born.” And the manifestation of Ace’s vision proved the antithesis of disposable. It’s an indispensable work, indeed.
Watch the insightful documentary below, and be sure to give Disposable Arts another proper, celebratory spin.