Ace in the Hole

Hip-hop's Aceyalone looks for ways to climb up from the underground.

Eddie Hayes's nom de plume -- Aceyalone -- suggests that the man himself doesn't mind walking the path less traveled, and neither does his music, an intellectually stimulating blend of distinctive, often jazzy hip-hop with lyrics that reject the themes of material lust commonly spewed by too many of his peers. But that doesn't mean he's uninterested in earning a living. He's past thirty now, making him a craggy veteran by rap standards, and he's got a two-year-old daughter, Zahra, whose stomach needs filling on a regular basis. For those reasons, says the California-based MC, "I'm learning to compromise."

Critics tend to view such sentiments with contempt, as if any performer who displays the slightest unwillingness to suffer and die penniless for his art is pissing on the grave of Vincent Van Gogh. But Aceyalone understands, as anyone even tangentially involved in the entertainment industry should, that popular music is inextricably bound with commerce. The trick, figuratively speaking, is to find a way to serve the gods of inspiration and the guardians of mammon simultaneously. "My whole idea with this music besides being creative is to be successful," he says. "So I try to take the best route."

On Aceyalone's new disc, Accepted Eclectic (issued jointly by San Francisco's Nu Gruv Alliance, the independent imprint Ground Control and the musical coalition Project Blowed), the emphasis is placed right where it belongs -- on his voice, a marvelously fluid, criminally underappreciated instrument. But the CD also focuses on accessibility, an element that wasn't as large a part of the mix on A Book of Human Language, a hip-hop album as deep and complex as any put out in 1998. Whereas Language was a virtual concept album in which Aceyalone probed a vast array of cultural, societal and interpersonal conditions, Eclectic is dominated by mildly boastful offerings such as "Microphone," in which he declares, "This microphone helps me not be broke/This microphone helps me feed my folks."

Independent hip-hop head Aceyalone is an open book.
Independent hip-hop head Aceyalone is an open book.

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Aceyalone is just as straightforward in discussing the album: "I didn't set out to make a masterpiece," he says. "It wasn't designed to be a big statement. I still consider this to be the beginning or middle part of my career as a solo artist, and I wanted to establish my diversity. So this is more what I like to call studio music. We just sat around in the studio, pulled up tracks and created -- and this is what came out."

Nonetheless, Accepted Eclectic still manages to hint at the contradictions that added so much richness to Human Language. "I Can't Complain," in which Aceyalone seems to be giving himself a pep talk (the chorus turns on the phrase, "I'm healthy/I'm alive/I can't complain"), could hardly be more different from "I Never Knew," an unflinching look at a world gone wrong that sports lines such as "I never knew fightin' 'til I got my ass kicked.../And I never knew people killed people so quick." Yet even during the latter, a few hopeful moments surface, particularly in regard to the transformative power of music. At one point, Aceyalone declares, "I never knew that I'd put my life on tape/And I never knew that hip-hop would be my escape."

Although he's a native of South Central Los Angeles, Aceyalone doesn't go out of his way to play up the bleakness of his background: "I didn't have a messed-up childhood. It was pretty normal -- school, parents, whatever." But then, he goes on, "the spirit of hip-hop took me over. I got goosebumps at times listening to records, going, 'Goddamn, I want to do this.' I didn't know it would fully take over my life, and I didn't know I would be a rapper until I was out of high school. But I saw the industry, this billion-dollar industry, form, and I realized -- I have potential in this."

His skills were noticed in the late '80s, when he began turning up for open-mike nights at a South Central health-food restaurant turned performance space sunnily dubbed the Good Life Cafe. There, he came into contact with like-minded hip-hoppers with elaborate handles of their own: Self-Jupiter, Mikah 9 and Peace. The foursome ultimately formed a group, Freestyle Fellowship, that gained a large following in Los Angeles. The success of 1991's independently released To Whom It May Concern led to the Fellowship being inked by 4th & B'way, a subsidiary of Island Records. Their jazz-inflected debut for the label, 1993's Innercity Griots, earned strong notices at the time, and today aficionados place it on the same plane as the influential early platters of better-known acts such as A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul. But before the combo could build on this achievement, Self-Jupiter wound up in prison on a robbery beef, causing everything else to disintegrate. Aceyalone reacted by going solo, and, shortly thereafter, Capitol Records added him to its roster. But 1995's All Balls Don't Bounce landed with a thud, due largely to a lack of support similar to what he'd experienced at Island.

"Those situations just weren't ideal for me," Aceyalone says. "There was some pressure to change what I do, and to do some things differently -- and they didn't seem to know and understand what type of artist I was. Maybe I wasn't even fully developed as an artist at that point, but they didn't know in what direction to take me. And at Capitol, I was part of a black music division that they suddenly decided to shut down because they'd gotten no results from all the groups they'd signed. Then I went off with the flood, and it felt like nobody cared about my career."

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