It's well past midnight on a snowy Tuesday night when Ace One pulls up to Sam Ash, a music megastore on Indy's Northside. Music shops like Sam Ash can be a sort of repository for unfulfilled dreams. Nearly every customer who walks through the door has some desire to achieve fame and fortune in the music business — and very few will ever come close.
Ace One is a bit different, though. The MC has achieved an impressive level of success in Indianapolis music. But Ace isn't at Sam Ash on this night to pick out a new piece of expensive music gear.
He's there to clean the carpets.
Over the years I've often heard the charismatic rap veteran, born Michael Cobbs, referred to as the "the hardest working man in Indianapolis hip-hop." I always assumed the title was a nod to his energy-fueled stage presence and rigorous live performance schedule, or perhaps even his large and tangled lineage of group affiliations and artistic collaborations. That's all definitely part of it. However, while writing this story I would learn of another, entirely different dimension to that designation.
It's an irony I can't help but notice as I observe Ace preparing for our interview, his first major cover story, while simultaneously readying himself for a night of hard manual labor. After several days of negotiation, this was the only time Ace could find to fit an interview into his relentless schedule of band practices, live performances and work obligations.
"I work for a company doing carpet care. I'm the chief crew technician. I'm really good at what I do." Ace says this with a tone of pride. "I try to be good at everything I do. I don't believe in wasting my time or anybody else's."
"It's a physically draining job," he admits, as I strain to hear him over the noise of his carpet vacuum. I'm asking how he balances his intense work routine with his even more intense artistic life.
"It's not about balance. It's the realization that it has to be done. The music has gotta get done and it's gonna get done no matter how tired I am. You take a shot and you keep going. You smoke a joint and you get busy."
Spending time with Ace, one gets the sense that he's ready for anything at any moment. In fact, that's how he earned his name.
"Ace is an acronym. It stands for Always Come Equipped," he says. "That name came around 1999 when I started doing music with Justice League and Wormusic. We would get together and do all night sessions — meet each other around noon and not leave until the next day type of shit. Whenever we would get together I would always have a backpack. The amount of stuff I would carry in my backpack was ridiculous; it was almost like a suitcase. So if somebody cut their finger, I'd literally have Neosporin and a Band-Aid."
"The second part of my name came later," he says. "I was doing some shows with the Mudkids and one night Rusty Redenbacher introduced me to the crowd as Ace One. I initially thought it sounded hella redundant. But the name stuck. When Richard Cook of the Justice League caught wind of that he said he said, 'We've got to make an acronym out of that, too.' So my full name became Always Come Equipped Or Never Endeavor."
Conversations with Ace are littered with references to the multitude of musicians he's worked with. The amount of projects he's been a part of and the variety of music he's created is sort of staggering. Even Ace is hard-pressed to keep track of all his activities. At several points during the writing of this story I asked Ace for a complete list of all his musical partnerships. He never quite came through and I slowly began to realize the reason why: it's a bottomless pit.
In the beginning
Ace's father was lead vocalist for the legendary Indianapolis funk group Amnesty, and I'd assumed he'd grown up in a musical environment. Not the case.
"I didn't grow up as a young kid thinking I want to do music," Ace says. "As a kid, my dad and I were not close. My dad had drug problems, and he did some prison time here and there. The dude was a street kind of guy. We didn't start getting close until I was in my late teens."
It was another family member that led Ace into a serious connection with music, particularly his love for hip-hop.
"I can vividly remember when I was ten years old, I was at [my cousin] Slim's house. His older sister used to record all the Yo MTV Raps episodes. We would sit around and watch hours of videos. I remember being at Slim's and seeing the video for "I Ain't no Joke" by Eric B. & Rakim. It made a really strong impression on me and I remember thinking, 'That's what I want to do,' " Ace says.
It was only a few more years before he'd start making hip-hop himself. Ace reflects, "I was fifteen years old, Slim and I were hanging out at my house. I was cutting class from Arlington High and we were just sitting in the kitchen smoking some weed. We hadn't seen each other for years. We were passing the joint back and forth and playing music," he says. "Then Slim started rapping. I was like 'Damn, that's hard, dude. Whose verse is that?' He says, 'It's mine.' I said 'bullshit.' So he does it again, making stuff up from the top of his head. I asked him again, 'Is that really yours?' He said yes, and I thought for a minute. We were around the same age and we were a lot alike. So I said, 'I can do that too.' And I did it. And I haven't stopped doing it since."
Around the same time Ace began experimenting with music-making, a closer relationship with his father began to develop, as did his interest in his father's musical past.
"Growing up I knew my dad sang. He would tell me about some of the stuff he'd done. His band toured with the O'Jay's and shit like that. But to be honest I didn't know the full extent, and that's partially because my dad was a real jokester. He was a funny, funny dude. A lot of times when he was talking about his music I thought he was just bullshitting me," Ace laughs.
"My dad had kept one of the original Amnesty 45s with the songs 'Three Cheers for my Baby' and 'Lord Help Me.' He'd play that record for me periodically and I always thought it was beautiful," Ace says. "But it wasn't until around the time that the Amnesty's 700 West Sessions album was issued on Now-Again Records that I started to understand how bad my dad was. We were hanging out one day, and my dad says 'I just got a call from Now-Again and Amnesty is number one on the funk and soul charts over in Europe.' He didn't even know that there was a soul scene in Europe. So at that point I really started believing him and started researching what he did."
Ace was blown away, and began to see his father is a whole new light.
"The music was reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix, but with gospel and soul," he says, describing Amnesty. "It's all over the place, but everything sounded right on. Those guys were ahead of their time."
Eventually, Amnesty's daring mix of jazz, soul and psychedelic rock would be echoed in Ace's own work. Ace spent the remainder of his high school career honing his rap skills with future Justice League bandmate and best friend St. James [birth name Santiago Garcia] over games of Mortal Kombat. After graduating from Arlington High, Ace enlisted in the Marine Corps and in 1994 made his way to San Diego for boot camp. But he kept in touch with his Indianapolis hip-hop connections.
"St. James had met Richard Cook, who is the orchestrator of Wormusic, and they started doing music together [while I was gone]. St. James sent me a cassette tape of their project and when I heard what they were doing, it really struck a chord in me. At that point I had two years left in the Marines and immediately I started mentally preparing myself to come back home to do music with St. James and Richard Cook. And I did just that when I got back to Indianapolis. We all met together and, over a couple hits of acid, we decided to become the Justice League. That was in 1998, and we did our first show in 2000."
And then, he was off.
Making a splash
Even in the beginning, Ace made an impression.
"I was hired to play a show on the Southside and I get down there and it's nothing but gangster dudes," Mike Graves, of Twilight Sentinels and Mab Lab, says. "I was like, "Oh boy, this is gonna be great.' [laughs] Most of the night it was just one gangster group after another."
But then — Ace.
"[When] Justice League came on, they were like nothing else happening that night. Ace One really stood out. After that I kept seeing him around town. He's never come whack as an MC in the entire time I've known him. He's kind of like Black Thought in that way. If you sit and break down his rhymes it's all hot shit."
Ace's prodigious microphone skills coupled with his reputation for being a remarkably likable person led to a flood of invitations for collaborations. A big part of Ace's growing artistic legacy is his enthusiasm for developing creative partnerships. Ace has worked with almost every major figure in the Indy hip-hop community and everyone I spoke with testified to his ferocious onstage personality and his gentle offstage kindness.
"Ace is an incredible artist; he's a gladiator onstage," MC Pope Adrian Bless told me. "But he has a golden soul. He has a way that radiates a room when he enters. It's automatic; you're gonna like Ace. He's just a great person."
"The way he carries himself and the fact that he's just a really nice guy made me want to know him as a person," says another collaborator, Proforms MC and producer Joe Harvey. "But then when I saw him commanding the stage and heard the energy and overall power he has on the mic, I knew I wanted to work with him."
"When you meet Ace, you remember it," Graves says. "When he's onstage, he really commits himself to the performance. He's never given a lackluster performance. I've seen him sick with a cold or flu but when he gets onstage, you'd have no idea."
When Ace's notoriety seeped through the local hip-hop scene, a new set of musical opportunities appeared, allowing Ace to branch out into the world of rock and roll. Ace has since put in time with funk-rock party band Breakdown Kings and hardcore noise-rockers Dead Man's Switch.
"Everyone should be in a rock and roll band at some point in their life, because it's fucking awesome," Ace says. "I didn't know I even wanted to be in a rock band, but when the offer to join Dead Man's Switch was made, it totally made sense. It worked out and it was beautiful. It was one of the best times I've had musically."
Dead Man's Switch guitarist John Zeps agrees.
"I'm far removed from the hip-hop scene. I respect it, and love it. But I'm a noise-rock, hardcore thrash guy," Zeps says when I ask about his time with Ace. "The drummer I was working with employed Ace at a carpet cleaning service and we got together and jammed. His delivery was so passionate, pure and honest. I knew he was selling tapes out of his car and working the underground hip-hop thing. ... When we started playing, there was an instantaneous connection. He has a dynamic that you can't even describe. He's 110 percent on his game, all the time. Being in a band with him was an amazing experience. He has an unbridled enthusiasm and passion and he can adapt to whatever you throw at him. I fucking miss being in a band with him."
"If you know Ace, you know he listens to rap, rock and even country," Graves says. "He listens to some crazy shit, but it's all a part of him. So when you see him in the Breakdown Kings, wearing a suit and he's singing — and I mean actually singing — you're not surprised. You're just like, 'Damn, he's good at that, too." Then you see him in Dead Man's Switch and he has his shirt off and he's screaming and he's killing it. It's so natural, like a fish in water. Because he really understands rock music. He gets it. He's just a music person."
Ace likens his experiences in Dead Man's Switch to a cold water bath.
"For my first experience playing rock to be in 1990s style, post-hardcore band, that is like being in the Polar Bear Club, dude. That ain't just sticking your toe in the water. That is stripping down all the way naked and jumping in freezing arctic water. It will wake you up," Ace jokes, before touching on a more serious point. "Playing rock music brought me a lot closer to my father. It was the closest I've gotten to what he had done."
With all these musical experiences under his belt, there was one thing Ace One had yet to accomplish: releasing a solo album. So, in September of 2012, Ace released the Rap Monster LP, his first solo album and perhaps the greatest musical statement of his career thus far. The album is 20 tracks of grimy, hard-hitting hip-hop music. It's heavy use of samples creates a chaotic audio vérité sound reminiscent of classic hip-hop titles like the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique or Wu-Tang Clan's 36 Chambers. And Ace's rhymes and vocals are on point thought the entire project.
"I love it when you go to church, and the preacher is talking about sinners and you know he's talking just right to you," Ace says. "I wanted to make something that gave people that feeling. I wanted it to make people dance and move, but I also I wanted it to shake them up. I wanted it to make them nervous. I wanted it to scare people. I wanted it to upset people."
Rap Monster stands as one of the hardest hip-hop albums ever released in the Midwest — the makings of a true Indianapolis classic. The only problem was almost nobody heard it.
That's where DJ Spoolz entered the scene. Spoolz, who had worked with Ace in the Proforms, added scratches to nearly half the album's track and felt the project deserved more attention than it received at the time of its release.
"Ace is a part of so many groups and does so much musically in the city that I don't think Rap Monster got the focus and attention it needed. [So the thought was] let's make it available again the right away, cleaned up and remastered."
When Spoolz approached Ace with the plan, Ace told me he was in total agreement — with a few stipulations.
"First, we release it for free," he says emphatically. "The second stipulation was that we'd follow up the reissue with a sequel, Rap Monster Redux. It's all coming to fruition now."
Everyone in Ace's camp believes 2014 will be a big year for the rapper, and I'm inclined to agree. The newest? Ace just received the biggest national recognition of his career so far when a recording he made with producer and MC Dawhud was selected by hip-hop icon DJ Premier as one of the best songs of 2013.
"That was an achievement I never expected," Ace admits. "Primo liked it, and was spinning it in his sets and on his radio show. But the fact we made a song dope enough to make his list with a bunch of legendary hip-hop artists was beautiful."
It's past 3 a.m. when I start wrapping up our interview and gathering my things to leave. But Ace's night is far from over, as there's much more carpet to be cleaned across the store's massive floorspace. His statement hit me hard, a massive reality check to the turbulent nature of pursuing music as a profession. It doesn't seem right that an acclaimed, in-demand musician like Ace should have to work around the clock just to make ends meet. But that life is a reality for most musicians today.
I leave Ace with one last question before we parted ways. Is he worried that his big break in music may never come? And if it doesn't come, would he continue to make music and live life on his own terms?
"I run circles around most human beings," he answers. "I have a ridiculous amount of energy that I need to get rid of and music is the best way for me to do it. And chicks still dig me. As long as the girls like you, you still have a chance in music.
"But I've long stopped worrying about the big break. The main thing is to get out there and do the music. For me if you can get out there and make money to pay your utilities, keep a roof over your head and clothes on your back, you've won right there. That's all I want to be able to do. My dream is to be able to sustain my life through doing music. I refuse to ever give up."
Ace One's Top Ten Songs
Collaboration is a major element of Ace One's style. From his myriad of hip-hop affiliations, to his work with funk rockers Breakdown Kings and hardcore unit Dead Man's Switch, Ace One's discography can get a little confusing. To help sort things out I asked Ace to review his catalog of music and select 10 of his best tracks past, present and future.
Justice League, Wormusic, "Garbage"
I've been making music with Wormusic and Justice League since 1998 and we have a catalog about as deep the Beatles. We did not tolerate bullshit hip-hop. This song touched people to the point that a young man in Poland got a hold of the song and loved it so much he took his very first trip to the United States to come and shoot a video in Indianapolis for "Garbage."
Dawhud feat. Ace One, "Battle Anybody"
I fell in love with this beat the first time I heard it. The initial concept of this record was for me and Dawhud to belittle and rank on each other in true MC battle fashion. But me and that dude are so cool, we just couldn't do it. So we just went hard in a true hip-hop style. DJ Premier listed this song in his top 20 hip-hop records of 2013. We were ranked at number 19 between a Jay-Z song and a Busta Rhymes record featuring Lil Wayne, Q-Tip and Kanye West. That was beautiful.
Proforms, "Get Ready"
This is the song set the Proforms off. In my mind, it embodied everything the group represented.
s.a.i.n.t. RECON, "Saint"
It's one of the most beautiful beats I've ever been blessed with. It's an acronym that means "speaking as I've never told," and I literally did that on this song. I put my heart in it and opened myself up.
Breakdown Kings, "Tomorrow"
It's a huge song. I start it off with a verse; it's not a long verse, but I think it's one of the strongest verses I've ever written. It basically says you've never heard a sound like this, there's a powerful energy we're about to give to you.
Mic Sol & Ace One, "Hip-Hop Blues"
That song is an Indianapolis hip-hop classic, period.
Dead Man's Switch,
"Bad News Bear"
Even though I'd never been in a rock band, when I joined Dead Man's Switch as the frontman it came more naturally to me than anything I'd ever done musically.
Doo Doo Browns, "Frogs and Intestines"
This is a future project in the making with me, DJ Spoolz and Skittz. This is knuckle-scraping hip-hop and it's hard as nails.
D.A.M.!, "Bali High"
D.A.M.! is a collab between drummer Devon Ashley (Lemonheads, Kate Lamont) and MC/DJ Michael Graves (Mablab, Twilight Sentinels.) I respect the shit out of both of them. Right now they're getting together their debut project and they gave me a song. When I heard they wanted to work with me I was sincerely blown away and flabbergasted. There are people in this city that would cut off another man's pinky toe to get to work with these guys. "Bali High" has a deep groove and goes hard.
Ace One, "Stutter Step, BANG! (It's Not That Easy)"
I had an instant connection with this beat. Joe Harvey stepped outside his comfort zone when he produced that. This is one of my favorite tracks I've ever done.
Top Five Spots to Catch Ace One Live
To fully appreciate the dynamic energy of Ace One, you need to catch him live. Fortunately that's a fairly easy thing to do.Ace One has rocked just about every conceivable stage in Indiana, from an opening slot with Incubus at Klipsch Music Center to open mic nights at neighborhood coffee shops. Here's his favorite five venues to perform live.
The venue puts a lot into the sound system and I appreciate that. It's always an intimate show there, which lets people get a little more loose with it. It's a place where you can have some good drinks and good food and still enjoy the music. It's almost like a house party every time I play there.
I've been on stages at the Murat and Madame Walker Theater but in my personal opinion the Vogue is the spot. The stage just feels right. It's awesome when I can go there and perform with a national act, but it's even more awesome when it's not a national act and you know the people are there to see you.
It's freaking organized chaos. It's always a great time. It's no-holds-barred and pure energy unleashed at Melody Inn.
It's right in the heart of Fountain Square so you have people floating in and out all night. It's a nice community down that way, and it's always a good jam in there. The staff is professional. I really enjoy that place.
Whatever stage you get to be on, just to be apart of Oranje is always a gas. People don't even use that word anymore, but Oranje is a gas. Oranje is 23 skidoo.