Artists seek to feel as deeply as they can.
At once alone, they interrogate the depths and limits of sadness, joy, rage and love.
All the while knowing, there is no such thing as true solitude.
All the while, living, seeking and speaking truth.
It is not easy to be an artist.
I met Ace Henderson back in February before he opened for a show I was covering at Motorco in Durham.
I remember him being friendly and in constant movement, and I remember his soundcheck. Confident and animated, he paced from the elevated stage to the middle of the dance floor and back again, feeling out the space, testing acoustics, and fine-tuning levels for his set. This attention to and charisma for detail has come up often as I’ve gotten to know him. It’s why we are still waiting for him to formally release LAP143, a seven-track project he’s been workshopping for months.
At 22, Ace is one of the most hyped hip-hop artists in the Triangle. In July, Solange Knowles’ Saint Heron debuted his single "VENAQUI (Come My Way)," and this fall he partnered with Raleigh Denim on an interactive listening party for Hopscotch Music Festival that was greeted by a full house.
It was there Ace debuted a version of LAP143. Halfway through the preview, he found himself ready to get back into the studio to rework it.
“By normal definition, it’s done,” says Ace. “But I’m still doing madman tweaks.”
He hopes to release the project next summer. A screenplay written by Holland Gallagher and ultimately a film about young love, fast cars, and missed connections will accompany the slick, moody tracks that make the music itself — or the iterations I have listened to — infectious.
I asked Ace about the music he was raised on a couple of months ago. “My house was full of 80’s/90’s contemporary music and whatever the hell was on the radio,” Ace explained by email. “The first CD my father gave me was an Ed Burns compilation of notable Thelonious Monk songs. My mom was a Prince fanatic. I now have two copies of Purple Rain and the DVD for the movie. She and I [still] quote lines and all of that stuff.”
Hip-hop came later. “Being from Brownsville, NY, my Dad made a point to get me hip to Notorious B.I.G. and urban legends but that wasn’t until I was in 6th/7th grade. By that time, Limewire & Myspace had fully opened my brain to exploring.”
Born in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, Ace grew up bouncing around the East Coast between North Carolina, Virginia and New York. His mother frequently traveled for work, and his father juggled three and four jobs at a time. Often his older sister often stepped in as supervisor. If he got in trouble at school, he was disciplined creatively. “Punishment was a whoopin’ that night… and a schedule for when I would do homework & when I would HAVE to spend 2 hours a day on piano.”
By the time he felt settled and at home in Raleigh, he was a teenager in love with basketball, track and field, and music, which he’s been playing — piano first, saxophone later — for most of his life. But it was not until his senior year of high school that he started making it.
“I was going to pursue an independent track and field career after finding out I was good at the long-distance events, but I had friends who were exponentially more talented,” says Ace. “So my penchant for competition subsided and I just fell in love with every piece of the music process because I struggled to find my worth in the academic and athletic fields.”
He started uploading songs he produced in his childhood bedroom on Soundcloud in 2013. After a year-long post graduation stint in New York City where he modeled, lived with a girlfriend and drifted from music, Ace returned to Raleigh with a renewed focus on his art. He began sharing more songs online and performing around the city. Open mics turned to club shows and several hundred listens turned to several thousand.
“I want to say around the summer of 2014 I put out a couple of songs. Every time that I put them out there was like 1000 plays in a day or less,” remembers Ace. “For someone like me that was recording and mixing and all that shit was being put out from my room... I was like, ‘Oh snap, we might be onto something here.’”
The other day Ace texted me and asked what I thought about Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
I said I hadn’t seen the film in a long time, but I liked it, and returned the question.
“Hepburn is majestic, but the wardrobe is very sophisticated while telling a very scandalous story, boy modern standard[s].”
He’d been playing the film on loop while recording.
Ace is coming of age as an artist in the era of social media and it shows. He has a special knack for building interest in his work and emotional connections by sharing his music, musings and beliefs on platforms like Instagram and Twitter.
dear women of color:— ㅤ (@acehenny) November 23, 2016
y'all are important
just stirred my whiskey + ginger with a ball-point pen— ㅤ (@acehenny) November 14, 2016
how's your night going?
USA is proving that being a capable & accomplished woman can't win over a loud, and determined man— ㅤ (@acehenny) November 9, 2016
you see how fucked up that sounds?
dudes, fellas, bros...whatever. y'all gotta let that hyper-masculinity shit go.— ㅤ (@acehenny) November 3, 2016
He is clever about marrying his music with compelling visuals in an effort to create depth and texture to his art. It’s what he was going for at the Raleigh Denim event back in September, it’s why he intends for a movie to accompany LAP143, and it is why he puts so much emphasis on how he rolls out new singles online.
It’s also how he knew he struck gold back in 2014 when he received a cease and desist letter from American Apparel. That summer, Ace put a call out for women to send him selfies and a description of what they study or do for work that he then used as cover art for his song Bae.
“American Apparel does these really lame ass cheesy campaigns where they put AA at the top and just include a little information about the girl and then boom that’s like a magazine campaign,” says Ace. “I mimicked that for like a month or two and got crazy submissions from the UK… all over the place. I think I chose 2 or 3 girls that emailed me from the UK with physical dismemberments. One girl was missing an arm. The other girl had a cleft palate, “It was like a play on how people oversexualize the women’s aspect of life rather than thinking like…’Oh shit, these people contribute.’”
The week he got the cease and desist email from American Apparel, he also got an email from Raleigh Denim who wanted to do a ‘Bae Day’ event at their store. “I was like okay this is awesome... we can do this,” says Ace.
“I started to notice that my effort was generating results that I wanted… and for better or worse that’s what artists strive for at the end of the day,” says Ace. “I feel we should strive for honest expression and honest reception.”
“A lot of my stuff is very introspective. I’m reaching a point where I’m getting older and the stories that I tell are way way more personal… I want to invite people to my world and let them know it’s okay to be here and imperfect because perfection is unattainable… but honesty is.”
Ace started working on LAP143 during a trip to the Caribbean last April after a long, trying year. His parents were selling their home in Raleigh, his grandfather had recently died, and he was processing an extended break-up.
He spent a couple of weeks island hopping with his sister. Immersed in the sights, sounds and tastes of the Caribbean, Ace channeled his pain and heartache into new material. On that trip he climbed a mountain and read a letter from his ex. He confronted his demons, and cried for the first time in a year.
“We all dream of an eternity with unconditional support and emotional reciprocation… but the reality of a life together with someone is just a matter of time,” says Ace. “When you grow from a teen to a young adult, and you’ve had the unconditional support of a sole individual at those moments, you begin to… superimpose their image and their likeness into your memories when they’re no longer there.”
This record is about him working through those feelings.
The deep, angsty, unexpected sonic landscape of LAP143 works in tandem with larger themes of lovers facing missed connections, bad timing and growing up. Ace produced several tracks on LAP143 and worked with a range of producers, including past collaborators Made of Oak and Jordan Bratton for the remaining ones.
The project, in particular his work with Made of Oak, has deepened Ace’s sense of place in the broader Triangle music community.
“He’s a very big spiritual guider,” says Ace. “We have two songs on the project and how we finished the first one was crazy as hell. There was no air conditioning in his house. It was hot as the devil. And he was literally pushing me. I was trying to write the second verse [of Let it Go], and he was like, ‘No dude, be more honest.’ And I was like, ‘Nick, I can’t be any more honest. I just can’t. I’m saying everything I want. It’s really hot, I’m sweating.’ At that point I had no shoes on, I think I had jeans on, no shirt. He was sweating through his shirt, we had fans blowing and we had to stop the fan just so we could record. [We’d] do a mix for like 10, 20 minutes and [then we would] be like ‘Fuck it, it’s really hot in here. Let’s take a step out.’ Walking outside was hotter. It was just a lot going on.”
They finally got the take.
“It’s really a blessing,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to be a part of something.”
“It’s hard as fuck to evolve though… I’m WAITING for the night that I’m performing and overcome with tears. I crave that reality. That paradigm shift from: ‘this is a dope rap performance’ to ‘This is a fucking EXPERIENCE.’”
Ace is often more drawn to the songwriters and producers behind the music he loves than the performers. Like many of the behind-the-scenes masters he admires, Ace wants to create an aesthetic experience for listeners, and he is mindful about that as he works.
Ace is a becoming an artist in the truest sense. He is conscious of and curious about feeling, experiencing and seeking, and he reveres the process of making. He wants to know how others feel when they hear his music. He wants them to feel something.
This is why he writes and rewrites, mixes and remixes. This is why we’re still waiting for LAP143. It is still not there yet.