- Jeremy McLean
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.