Masta Ace thought something was wrong. It was 1999, and when he would take hot showers, he would sometimes get the sensation that his left arm and part of his neck would go asleep. It was similar to the pins and needles sensation a person feels when they lie in a certain position for too long before moving, but Ace was in the shower, standing up.
Later that year, the rapper temporarily lost the vision in his left eye. It was as if someone had taken a photo and the flash had temporarily blinded him. But the loss of vision persisted for a month before returning. He went to the doctor, who told him that he had optic neuritis, a condition normally associated with central nervous system issues.
During the summer of 2000, Masta Ace had an episode in which both of his feet felt as if they had fallen asleep. But this wasn’t a fleeting sensation. It lasted for about a week.
Masta Ace did not make a connection between the incidents, but he was concerned. “I knew something was going on, but I didn’t know what,” Masta Ace says during an exclusive interview with HipHopDX. “You start thinking the worst kind of stuff ‘cause it’s weird, like, ‘What the hell is going on?’ I didn’t know that the two things were connected, but I just knew that weird stuff was happening and I needed to find out why.”
Masta Ace then went to the doctor. The doctors ran a battery of tests on him, including a lumbar puncture, also known as a spinal tap, in order to collect a sample of his cerebrospinal fluid.
Masta Ace Is Diagnosed With Multiple Sclerosis
The diagnosis came back. Masta Ace had multiple sclerosis (MS), a chronic disease that attacks the central nervous system, which is made up of the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. The specific symptoms, severity and progress of MS vary from person to person. Numbness and vision problems are common symptoms of MS.
Masta Ace said he was stunned. To his knowledge, none of his relatives had the disease. The ratio is 1:40 for people who have a close relative (parent, sibling, child) with the disease. The general public’s risk in the general population is 1:750, according to nationalmssociety.org. MS is more common in women than men, and is most prevalent among Caucasians of northern European ancestry. Masta Ace did not fit the profile.
Masta Ace got his diagnosis at the end of 2000. Like most people in similar situations, he was sad and wondered why this was happening to him. His wife, Schea, had a more positive outlook. Masta Ace says she advised him to just take his medicine and go about his life as usual.
Masta Ace was prescribed to have a weekly injection of Avonex. The medicine, which he is supposed to take for the rest of his life, provides “a reduced risk of disability progression, … fewer exacerbations, and … a reduction in number and size of active lesions in the brain (as shown on MRI) when compared with the group taking a placebo,” according to nationalmssociety.org.
Around the time he first got on the medicine, Masta Ace had some significant MS-related episodes. The most striking took place when he was driving in New York from Greenwich Village back to his native Brooklyn. Both of his arms and legs went completely numb. Masta Ace pulled over and sat in his car with his wife until the symptoms subsided.
Masta Ace had not put out an album since 1995’s Sittin’ On Chrome. It was nearly six years later and he did not want to announce that he had MS.
“I wasn’t really ready for people to be hitting me with the, ‘Ah, that’s terrible,’” Masta Ace says. “I didn’t want anybody to feel sorry for me. I wasn’t feeling sorry for myself. I didn’t want the pity. I didn’t want any of that. I basically took it as a setback and a sign that it was time to reenergize and just really, really go in.”
Sittin’ On Chrome, his third album, was Masta Ace’s most commercially successful LP. But its West Coast-leaning sound and car-centric themes and videos left many of his fans unsatisfied, especially those in New York.
“When I got that diagnosis, I had been kinda at a crossroads careerwise where I kinda felt like I was done,” Masta Ace says. “That diagnosis kind of reenergized me because it made me feel like I didn’t know what my quality of life was going to be like down the road and if I was going to really do this, then I really needed to make my last couple artistic statements.”
Masta Ace Plans His Return With Disposable Arts
Masta Ace went to work on his fourth album, what would become Disposable Arts.
“There was a lot of finality in my writing at that point because if you listen to the writing on Disposable Arts, there’s a feeling of the end,” Masta Ace says. “That was my thinking going into it. This is probably going to be the last album and I want to make sure that I say everything that I need to say.’ I didn’t have any real sense of what my quality of life was going to be like going forward, so I just wanted to make sure that I left the game on my own terms musically and I felt like I hadn’t at that point. That was my thinking going into that album.”
Even though Masta Ace delivered his most acclaimed album to that point with Disposable Arts, his bigger plan did not work, thanks in part to JCOR Entertainment, which released the project, folding soon after Disposable Arts was released.
“With that album [Disposable Arts], I felt like I was going out on my own terms, but when the distributor went out of business, a month after the album dropped, I felt kind of cheated,” Masta Ace says. “I felt like the album didn’t really get in stores the way it was supposed to. Nobody could find it. That made me feel like I wanted to do another record, which was [2004’s] A Long Hot Summer, and connect that record to Disposable Arts and so I made it the prequel to Disposable Arts. The plan and the thought there was if people liked A Long Hot Summer and they find out it was attached to Disposable, which I was mentioning in every interview, it would make people want to go back and hear Disposable to hear the rest of the story.”
But before he would get to A Long Hot Summer, Masta Ace was touring to support Disposable Arts. In 2002, he was playing the first show of his career in Paris. Within five minutes of taking the stage, both arms and one of his legs went completely dead. He could no longer hold the mic.
Masta Ace stumbled off to the side of the stage. Punchline and DJ Avee, who were performing with him, approached him.
“Everybody ran up to me,” Masta Ace says. “‘You alright? What happened?’ They were thinking I had a heart attack or something like that. I just said, ‘I got a cramp in my leg.’ It subsided and then I went back out and finished the show. Everything was cool after that.”
Masta Ace Changes His Life Due To His Mother's Death
It’s been more than 11 years and Masta Ace says he hasn’t had a serious MS episode since that performance in Paris. He said he came to the conclusion that he would have episodes based on his nerves. Masta Ace says he had to learn how to control the adrenaline that comes with getting ready to get on stage.
As Masta Ace was learning how to deal with his disease, he had to handle heartbreak. In 2005, his mother, who had a clean bill of health, died unexpectedly. She was 54.
“It just made me lock more in on my mortality,” says Masta Ace, who dedicated his 2012 album, Ma_Doom: Son Of Yvonne, to her. “My mother thought she had plenty more time, I’m sure, at 54. She was living her life like she thought she had a lot more time to do a lot more things. She had projects in her house that were incomplete. You’re going through life thinking it’s all good and then, boom. So that had a big effect on how I looked at stuff.”
After his mother’s death, Masta Ace became focused on nutrition, on improving his life and on living as healthily as possible. He goes to the gym three or four times a week, does some weight training and has cut out white foods (rice, sugar, potatoes, flour and bread) while dramatically reducing the amount of dairy products he consumes. He eats a high protein diet. His MS medicine, Avonex, is made up of amino acids, which are major components of protein.
“I think having [MS] multiplied my reaction to her passing because we kind of walk around, we feel like we’re invincible,” Masta Ace says. “We’re still young. We’re strong. I viewed my mother as a symbol of strength.”
Masta Ace has been able to rely on his wife for strength. “When somebody else is going through something, or is down about something, she has this way of just putting this positive spin on it,” says Masta Ace, who celebrated his twelfth wedding anniversary in November. “It’s pretty wild.”
Beyond his wife, Masta Ace draws inspiration and motivation from his daughter Milan, 9. “Every effort that I make is to make sure that I’m able to be around and see her, see her develop, grow, get married and all that.”
Neither the MS diagnosis, the birth of his daughter nor the death of his mother served as the catalyst for Masta Ace to announce publicly that he had MS.
In 2012, though, he was touring the Czech Republic with Marco Polo and fellow eMC member Stricklin. They were pulled over on the highway and the police searched all of the crew’s bags, unearthing his medication in the process.
“After everything was all said and done, the question came up, ‘Yo, what was that?’” Masta Ace says. “I could have made up something, but I had already gotten to a point in my mind where I was going to eventually be revealing this, so I felt that was kind of the time to tell them. It was kind of meant for them to find out right then and there, so I just told them right then and there what it was. They asked a few questions. I answered them and nobody’s brought it up since, really. I think they wanted to ask more questions, but I think my demeanor made them kind of hold back. I’ve been asked, ‘How you been feeling,’ but I think they just kind of want to respect my privacy.”
Masta Ace Explains How MS Has Changed His Outlook On Life
Masta Ace says that he is now comfortable making the announcement that he has MS for a variety of reasons.
“Once I had felt like people had accepted me musically and lyrically as an artist, then I knew if I was ready to reveal it, that I wasn’t going to feel like, ‘Are people just showing me love ‘cause they heard about my diagnosis and it’s not even real?’” Masta Ace says. “I wanted it to be real and I felt like it was real and genuine. I felt like I had accomplished what I wanted to do. That, and I was tired of hiding from it. It’s part of who I am. Me and my wife talked about it and she was like, whenever you feel like you’re ready.’ She’s been a huge, huge support system for me going through a lot of that stuff.”
Just as he changed his diet, Masta Ace has changed his outlook on other aspects of his life. He’s done things he says he probably would have never tried without being diagnosed with MS. He’s skied, snowboarded several times and went paragliding.
Masta Ace is still performing around the world, including a show at The Terrace in Pasadena, California Saturday (December 7) and a speaking engagement Sunday (December 8) at Sacramento Community College. He’s also planning to release a project with eMC in 2014 and has signed on with Max Agency to book him for lectures.
“A lot of people, they get a diagnosis and you can go in the tank,” Masta Ace says. “You can kind of just get depressed and start the, ‘Woe is me’ and all of that, but I took the diagnosis and really, really ran with it, did the best album of my career. I’ve been touring 12 years-plus, feeling strong, being energetic. When I perform, I give a lot of energy. I always have, but even more so since the diagnosis. I jump around and use the stage. All of that is because I don’t know what down the road I’m going to be able to do physically. If I can jump around now, I’m going to jump around.
"My hope in making my diagnosis known is that other people out there going through something similar, maybe not MS but some other health challenge, might be inspired, motivated or encouraged in some way to live their lives to the fullest,” Masta Ace continues. “I think my revealing this may help somebody out there. At least that's my hope."
Photo By: Robert Adam Mayer