Just Blaze Geeks Out on How He Made His Biggest Hits
The legendary hip hop producer Justin Smith tells us about his philosophy of production, working with Jay Z, competition with Kanye and how he got Kendrick and Dre together.
I end up running WAY over my allotted time with Just Blaze, but how can you keep things brief with a guy who has a 15-year back catalogue of some of the biggest songs in hip-hop and pop history.
Partly, I hadn’t expected Blaze, real name Justin Smith, would be able to recall in such detail how each of his beats - many of which he made over a decade ago – came together. But perhaps that’s unsurprising given the dedication and single-mindedness that he has to his craft. As he goes on to tell me, he often stayed up working on his productions overnight in The Cutting Room studios after finishing his dayshift there. Even much later in his career, with the luxury of owning his own studios, Just Blaze talks about being unable to let a day go by without making at least one beat.
More recently, he's returned to his DJing roots. Before he moved to New York to pursue a career as a producer, he was better known as a DJ, playing high school parties and clubs with a mix of hip-hop and dance music. The latter is something which he cites as a significant influence on his production style, in particular the tempo and sound of UK jungle and drum and bass, which perfectly catered to his shared interest in rave and hip hop. But more than anything, the energy of those early breakbeat dance records came to define his own sound. "Some producers you come to when you want something for the club, some producers you come to when you want something really raw and gritty. And you have some producers, like me, that you come to when you want a really high energy record," he tells me, speaking over the phone from his studios in New York.
Noisey: So I wanted to begin by going right back to one the earliest beats you produced - I think while you were at The Cutting Room studios in New York - Buckshot’s "Heavy Weighters" in 1999.
Just Blaze: That was a very early stage in my career when I was still trying to figure out what my sound was going to be. I had dropped out of college by then and I was interning at The Cutting Room. I originally produced that for a friend of mine by the name of Matt Fingaz. Buckshot had an artist by the name of Swan, who was on the Fingaz record so Buckshot came down to the studio while Swan was doing his verse and he liked the record and jumped on it which we thought was great, you know, for Matt and for his record label because Buck was big at the time. But then all of a sudden the record ends up on Buckshot's album minus Matt. So, it was a bit of a weird situation for all of us. He didn't even offer us any compensation, and we didn't even know the record was going to be on the album. It was stressful at the time but it all worked out in the end, me and Buckshot have a good relationship now. So it's all good, but at the time it was a tense thing.
I read that at that point you didn't really sleep, that you just stayed in the studio.
Yeah, I would work all day in the studio as an employee, 10am to 7pm, and then from 7pm until 9am. I was Blaze in training.
Let's talk about "Streets Is Talking" which is significant for two reasons: firstly, as the first track you worked on with Jay Z and, secondly, as the first track you produced using Pro Tools.
Yeah, that track was sampled and produced all within Pro Tools and back then it wasn't as simple as it is now when you can just load up the programme and go, there was a lot of setup involved. Back then nobody was really using Pro Tools, it was more of an experiment to figure out a more streamline way of working and that beat came out of that experiment. But then when Jay heard it he liked it so much that he rapped to it straight off the cassette.
How did you make that jump from The Cutting Room to Roc-A-Fella?
Long story short, I had a meeting with a guy by the name of Dino Delvaille - who is also the guy who discovered Cash Money and brought them in - just to play some music for him. Initially, nothing came out of it, but a few weeks later he had a meeting with a guy by the name of Gee Roberson, an assistant A&R at Roc-A-Fella, and he had an artist called Bathgate. So, Bathgate didn't have a demo at the time and instead would just rap for the A&Rs live. Dino wanted to hear him on a beat instead of freestyling acapella, and my beat CD happened to be the one he picked up and played. Gee liked the music so much that he tried calling me at The Cutting Room to set up a meeting for later on that day. I thought it was a joke actually, I couldn't believe that Jay Z's A&Rs would be looking for me. I hung up on him, I thought it was a prank call. But he ended up calling me back and we met later that night and rest is history.
Thank god that he called you back. One of your productions from that time that I keep coming back to is Memphis Bleek's "We Get Low". It's an incredible collage of sirens, soul samples, James Brown screams and these tones that remind me of early techno.
Soul and techno were two of the things I grew up on, I grew up on electronic music – house, techno and rave – just as much hip-hop and soul. I would say my style is actually an amalgamation of those two sounds. You know how EDM has what's called "the drop"? I read an interesting review of one my shows a few months back where the writer came to the realisation that I had been doing the drop in hip-hop for a very a long time. I also like to build things up, make the instrumentation swell and then all of a sudden let the beat drop very heavily. I think that's for two reasons: I was a DJ for many years before I started making music, and the dance music I played influenced how I structured my records. So, I came just as much from the world of hip-hop as the world of house and techno. Using the two sounds in my productions is something that came instinctively.
Back when you were DJing did you ever contemplate becoming a house or techno producer instead of a hip-hop producer?
That could have happened. I've always done both but I just didn't exist in that world professionally until very recently after doing the DJ circuit. So in a way I've come back around to where I started.
What dance music records inspired you?
Oh there's a zillion of them, we'd be talking about it all day. Some of my favourites were "Anasthasia" by T99, "Trip II The Moon" by Acen, "The Nightmare" by Holy Noise. I was heavily into early drum and bass or jungle - back when it was just breakbeat. What really appealed to me about that style was that it was just rap beats played really fast. It those early days when the Amen Brother break first got rediscovered, producers were taking all these other rap tempo samples and speeding them up to a 140 bpm. That was a perfect world for me because it had the energy of techno, but still had that hip-hop feel.
You mentioned being ahead of the game with Pro Tools, but on Jay Z's "Song Cry" it seems like a track where you went back to your sample roots.
It was just a period where I was trying to do things a bit more soulfully. But it wasn't completely intentional, it so happened that a lot us had been making beats in that vein. Jay Z just came in [to the studio] one Friday and said, "Anybody got some beats? I feel like rapping." Even though he wasn't scheduled to the album for another eight months. So, I had some beats lying around, Kanye had some beats lying around and the magic happened in the course that weekend.
After we did "Streets Is Talking", Roc-A-Fella had the entire studio locked up indefinitely. There were two rooms in there, one of the ones which Jay worked in and there was a smaller room and he basically just said 'this is your room, get to work'. And three years later I owned the place.
Do you prefer to work that way, to have the artist in the room with you?
It depends on the song and the situation, it's always different. Sometimes it's great to have the artist there, sometimes it's a bit of a headache because – with the way I work at least – I experiment a lot until I find something falls into place. Sometimes you don't want the artist there for that experimental stage because its like trying to show to movie to an audience and film it at the same time.
Another hugely significant moment in your career was Cam'ron's "Oh Boy". That was the definition of an instant hit, I read that it went out onto the radio almost as soon it had been finished.
Yeah, exactly that. "Oh Boy" actually went through a couple iterations. It was sitting around for a while and Jay loved the track but wasn't working on an album at the time so he asked me to hold it for him. So, he had it on a CD with a bunch of other beats from me. Cam started working on his album, when he first came over to Roc-A-Fella they played the CD for him and he loved it immediately. So, I got the call asking if Cam could use the "Oh Boy" beat and I'm like "yeah go for it." By the time I got to the studio they had already recorded the demo, left and it was on the radio. I walked into the studio and they were playing it in the office so I'm thinking they must be playing it off a CD or tape and then I realised that we were actually listening to the radio and I'm like, "dude you just recorded this song an hour ago." That was the thing about New York radio back then, if you had the right relationships with the right radio personalities then you could just literally walk in with a song and get it on the air. And that's pretty much what they did.
What about some of your more unusual samples, I'm thinking about Supertramp on Fabolous’s "Breathe".
For me it doesn't matter what genre the sample belongs – whether it's rock or soul or classical – as long as I can work with it. I had that record for a while and always loved that sample. I made the beat on a really slow day at the studio when there wasn't much going on. When Fabolous came to the studio a few weeks later and I played him a bunch of stuff that he didn't seem to be into until I played that one, which he asked for a copy of. He was so nonchalant about it, I thought he was taking it just so he hadn't come in to the studio for nothing. Two days later I woke up with a ton of calls from his people saying they needed to get this record out asap, that this track is gonna be the first - I didn't even think he liked it. That was the first time that New York had a hard street anthem that sounded the way that did. It was a very hard album it terms of how it felt and I didn't expect it to end up being its first single.
"Touch The Sky" is perhaps an example of completely the opposite – a sample that's instantly recognisable. Did you have any reservations about using it?
No, not really – if it's good, it's good. I had been listening to Curtis Mayfield at the time and I just loved those horns. I knew I was going to be working with Kanye in a couple of days and I was in the studio and nothing was really clicking and so I tried that sample. And when Kanye came over and I played him a few beats, that was the one he was passionate about.
You'd worked with Kanye before then as a producer. Was there any competition between you two at times?
Not on my end. I don't know if he was coming at in a competitive way either, some people - like Jay - felt like it was a competitive thing but I didn't really. For me, especially at that time, I was doing a lot more production work than Kanye was, because he was focused on being an artist. So, he was using his production as a way to establish himself as an artist, so for me it wasn't really a competitive thing. When he produced something dope it inspired me to go away and make something just as good, if not better. And on his end it was probably the same thing.
Did you differ a lot in how you worked? I read the release date for College Dropout was postponed three times because Kanye was such a perfectionist.
Yeah, but at same time I think all of us at Roc-A-Fella – who went on to become accomplished producers – have things we'd like to revise about even our best work. So, while there's a part of me that's a perfectionistthere's a point when you have to know when to walk away from the song or you'll just keep working and working on it. One of my favourite pieces of trivia or something I always keep in mind is that Marley Marl made some of his best records in his apartment, in his kitchen. Even though his records didn't sound that great sonically, they were great songs – for me that's what matters the most.
Are there any of your productions that you wish you could go back and edit?
I would say all my songs have something that I feel that I could have done better or worked on more. But obviously the listener would never know any different because it's all in my head.
Was there a definitive point for you in which you felt Kanye could make it as an artist as well as a producer?
I think it was more of a progression, the same way I could have played you some of my demos from back in the 90s that might not have been that great. So like anybody, not all your early work is going to be your best. And that was the same with Kanye, even though some of his early records weren't amazing – but they weren't terrible either – I saw the potential. But it wasn't until he played me the demo version of "Hey Mama", that's when I knew he was onto something.
To end with one of your more recent productions, how did you come about giving "Lord Knows" to Drake? For me, Drake wouldn't necessarily have been the first artist to come to mind after hearing that beat but then it turned out to be the highlight of Take Care.
Big, energetic records are something that people associate me with. I felt like I'm associated more with a feeling than a tempo, personally. Some producers you come to when you want something for the club, some producers you come to when you want something really raw and gritty. And you have some producers, like me, that you come to when you want a really high energy record, whether it's 70 bpm or 130 bpm. I knew it was special as soon as I made it and I had a few people in mind, it was a very short shortlist: Ross, Jay Z, Drake or Pusha T. It just so happened that two of them ended up on that record. It happened very organically, when Drake came down to the studio I played him a bunch of tracks and that was the one that he wanted.
How do you pick your projects? Obviously you've been in the position for many years now where you can work with anyone you want. But do you keep your ear out for new artists as well? Kendrick for example?
In most situations they come to me, although actually Kendrick didn't come to me right away. "Compton" was originally a record that I was doing for Detox for Dre, which Kendrick was going to feature on and as it went it on it became apparent that it made more sense as a Kendrick record so the record landed there. Me and Dre have known each other for a long time and obviously he's someone I really respect, so it's flattering that someone as iconic as him has respect for me. There'll be times when he'll just book a studio for me and fly me out to LA and regardless of whether I produce something he uses, he'll pay me for my time. And that record came out in one of those periods, I was out in LA for a month just working on stuff and he walked in one day and was like "that one is it, I want that one right there." Actually, that was Kendrick's first time working with Dre, on that record.
Just Blaze is DJing at Deviation 7th Birthday this evening at XOYO.