Producer Just Blaze gets in where he fits in
by Ronnie Reese
Gimel “Young Guru” Keaton is too humble to admit it, but he is arguably the premier recording engineer in hip-hop and R&B, working over the years with such luminaries as Mariah Carey, Jay-Z, the Notorious B.I.G., and Ghostface Killah. “I don’t even put my plaques up,” he says bluntly. “That shit makes you lazy.”
What Young Guru will admit is how producer Just Blaze could potentially render him useless. “For the most part, Just doesn’t need me,” he explains. “He doesn’t. It’s just the fact that he doesn’t want to wear too many hats. He doesn’t want to have to be creative in making the beat, and then have to sit there and mix and do passes and all of the technical stuff that you really have to do to be an engineer.”
Not that engineering is beyond the Just Blaze scope of capability. It’s one of the things that will always set him apart from his peers, along with the clarity, quality, and attention to detail in his music that make him something of an East Coast version of Dr. Dre. Just, born Justin Smith, has mastered the two most important elements of hip-hop production—the art of manipulating samples in regards to chopping and tempo, and the usage of the drums. Everything is based on the drum. Drums are hip-hop, but for some producers, the percussive backbone was equivalent to a mere afterthought. But because the music has to hit in both the clubs and on the radio, it needs a certain feel—a certain “kick,” literally and figuratively. And with such needs in production come the architects of post-millennium hip-hop.
“Pharrell always comes with something that makes you go, ‘Huh?’ ” says Just Blaze about one of his compatriots. “Kanye puts 110 percent into his music, which is why his albums sound the way they do. Obviously, there’s Dre, whose beats are pretty straightforward and not necessarily the most complex, but he’s got that sound. Madlib, of course—he falls into the same vein as Dilla, as they do some of the most wildest, craziest things you’ve ever heard done with samples before.”
Then you have Just Blaze himself, who, along with the aforementioned, is part of an extension of the tradition that began generations ago with pioneers at the Stax and Motown record companies, as well as their contemporaries Willie Mitchell and Curtis Mayfield. Hip-hop producers are, in a sense, the soul musicians of today, and, like a Mayfield or a Mitchell, often have to wear more hats than expected. And with Just, we have not only one of the best beatmakers of our era, but also one of the most knowledgeable in terms of working with other artists in crafting hit records. He is a true producer—a producer to the nth degree—influencing others in the same manner by which he has learned from the gods.
Just Blaze: It’s funny, because, obviously, I look at those guys as heroes—Willie Hutch, Isaac Hayes. You listen to these people and realize how much you idolize them and, in so many ways, feel like you’re still a student. And you will always feel that way, like how your parents will always picture you as their child. You sit there and say to yourself, “Wow, I could never be on these dudes’ level,” but when you really look at it, there are fifteen-year-old kids on MySpace who write me every day and look at me that way. So, on one hand, it bugs me out to say that I’m even part of that legacy or a continuation of it. But in the grand scheme of things for hip-hop, Q-Tip, Large Professor, Pete Rock, and all those guys were the Isaac Hayes and David Porter for me and my generation. Then you have another generation with people like me, Kanye, Timbaland, and Pharrell. I never look at myself in the same vein as those people I mentioned, because they’re, like, untouchable idols whose level you’ll never reach. But then I look at what I do, and I look at the people who reach out to me as fans, and that’s when it hits me, like, “Wow, I am a part of this legacy.”
His contribution to that legacy began in Paterson, New Jersey, where Just got his first DJ setup at eleven. He began spinning parties a few years later in his mid-teens and grew serious about production late in high school. For Christmas of his junior year, Just begged his mother for a Roland JS-30, “which was, like, the worst thing ever.” The JS-30 was so bad, in fact, that the original retail price of over $1,000 was marked down eighty percent to $200 by the next year when Just finally bought it at Sam Ash. Despite the limitations, Just was happy, because it was his first time having something on which to put down his own ideas. There were demos made and demos kept, thanks to Moms, who never threw anything away. “When I went to my mother’s house this past Christmas,” says Just, “she had this big, black velvet bag full of nothing but cassettes. I figured it was all my old Marley and Magik and Red Alert radio shows. When I started going through them, I realized some of them were mixtapes from my old four-track demos.”
Just Blaze: Being from Jersey, people from out of town consider it right across the water from New York, like it’s the same thing. But the mentality is a lot different. To us, that water might as well be twenty thousand miles long, because a career in hip-hop seems like such a long shot. All we had coming from Jersey was Naughty by Nature, Redman was just starting to pop a little bit, Lords of the Underground, and Queen Latifah. You had the whole Flavor Unit and everybody else, but as far as big stars, we didn’t really have too many. There is kind of a small-town mentality where you don’t think that you can actually make it, but once I started seeing some of my boys do it, and going to their showcases and seeing people like Rah Digga perform, and the Outsidaz and the Artifacts and everybody else, I was like, “Maybe I can.” So I gave it a shot.
Wu-Tang’s RZA was unofficially endorsing the Ensoniq ASR-10, which Just remembers reading about in a Rap Pages interview: “I twisted my aunt’s arm and kind of conned her, in a way, into buying the ASR-10,” he says, claiming that he “needed” the $2,000 unit, and not the much less expensive Roland S-760 or S-770, simply because it was what the Abbot used. New gear advanced Just’s approach to his craft, but the real turning point came when he landed an audio engineering internship at the Cutting Room in Manhattan. Bad Boy producers the Hitmen were the hottest thing in the game, and the experience of seeing people like Chucky Thompson and Nashiem Myrick work, along with others like Dave Atkins, was invaluable. Just watched the recording of debut albums from Dead Prez and the late Big Pun, and assisted on the Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz session for their summertime smash, “Déjà Vu (Uptown Baby).” He also developed solid relationships with Loud Records staffers Sean “Sean C” Cane, Matteo “Matty C” Capoluongo, and Schott Free, and in particular, Greg “Mayhem” Taylor, who was A&R for Penalty Records. Taylor was one of the first to take an active interest in the budding beatsmith.
Just Blaze: Mase, Dead Prez, and Tragedy Khadafi were the first people I played beats for. I had grown up with Tragedy’s music, so that was an honor. He picked three beats, and I also did a record with Mase and one with Half-A-Mil. The ironic thing about that period is that I was doing what I felt like I had to do to get in the door. With Mase, I think I looped up a New Edition record, which is, like, something I personally would have never done, but I knew that if I did that and got in with him, it would mean me being on a major album, which could eventually lead to me doing whatever I wanted to do.
Some people try to walk that purist line so hard—which feels kind of funny saying in a magazine like Wax Poetics—but the honest truth is that sometimes you’ve got to step outside of your box and do what you’ve got to do to get in so you can bring people into what you really want to do. It’s kind of like when Jay turns around and makes a record like “Change Clothes” or “Sunshine,” but when you hear the rest of the record, he’s got “Streets Is Watching” or the “Public Service Announcement” interlude. If I had said, “Yo, I can’t do that; I’m not looping up a New Edition record”—because it was one of Mase’s people’s ideas—if I had done that, I might still be working at that studio. So, sometimes, you’ve got to put the guns down, then come back and stick to them later.
After three years at Rutgers University, Just left school—with unexpected blessings from his mother, a high school principal—to work at the Cutting Room full-time. It wasn’t an easy transition, as he spent a short time sleeping in the studio after getting banned from NYU for spending nights in a campus dorm. His life was at a low point, and Just was close to giving up on a professional career in music until the connections made at the studio began to pay off.
Just Blaze: Right before I met Jay, I had done stuff with Pun and started working with Killah Priest, who was also one of the first artists on a major label to ever show me a lot of love. It was kind of like going from C-level artists to B-level artists, and I was doing pretty well for myself. I remember my manager hitting me, like, “Do you know you made $200,000 last year?” I had no idea. I try not to be all up in the money like that. I’m better with it now that I’m older, but when I was younger, I would spend it not necessarily stupidly, but just spending $5,000 here, $1,000 there—$100 here, $200 there. You don’t realize how quickly it adds up. So I would try not to really mess with the money, and when she told me that, I felt like a multimillionaire. But the records still weren’t there. The money wasn’t matching up to where I wanted to be career-wise.
One day, Just got a call at the studio from Gee Roberson, who was A&R for Roc-A-Fella Records. Roberson had to confirm that a couple of tracks he heard circulating came from the young producer. At first, Just didn’t believe that Jay-Z’s people could be looking for him, but they were.
Just Blaze: It took a long time for Jay to really even pay me any mind. I’d send him beats, and he’d be, like, “The drums are hot, but the sample’s wack,” or “The sample’s cool, but I don’t really like the flow.” It was always something. So it never really went anywhere, but I had done some work with Beans and Bleek and Amil, and that was all well and good. But until you work with Jay…that’s a whole different level.
Just was using Digidesign’s Pro Tools in his downtown Manhattan home studio, and gave himself a crash course in learning Sample Cell hardware and Apple’s Logic to craft the “Streets Is Talking” beat for The Dynasty: Roc La Familia album. He put the track on a CD, which soon found its way to Jay-Z. The day after Jay recorded his vocals, Just received a phone call telling him the rapper wanted to meet him.
Just Blaze: I went to go meet with him, and I brought my MPC2000 with me, just in case. Jay goes in the booth and starts recording the vocals to “Parking Lot Pimpin’.” While he’s doing that, I throw on the headphones and start making another beat with Nick Ingman’s “Under Pressure,” which is this DeWolfe library record.
Just had finished the Ingman beat when Jay-Z came out of the recording booth and asked if he had anything else to offer. Just played the new track, telling Jay that it was made on the spot, but the rapper was skeptical—especially since he had only been in the booth for ten minutes. The session’s engineer, however, confirmed that Just had indeed made the beat then and there.
“Stick around,” Jay told the young producer. “I’m going to make you a star.”
Just moved his operation into Baseline Studios and purchased the facility in December of 2003. What began with taking a chance during some home-studio experimentation eventually made “Just Blaze” a hip-hop household name. But he has found that there is a balance to maintain between taking chances and making hits.
Just Blaze: It’s hard, because, with mainstream records, everything is so formulaic and straightforward, and if it doesn’t sound like the last record that was just on the radio, a lot of times, people don’t want to hear it. A lot of my records don’t really sound the same. You have some producers, even if they sample, you can still tell who did the beat. My thing has always been to try and go against that, which almost forces you to have to use different types of gear, because different types of gear will give you different feels and different approaches. The ASR-X is a different machine than the MPC2500 or 2000, which is different from the 4000, which is different from sequencing on your computer. I’ve always found that new sounds can inspire you in so many different ways.
Just Blaze was with Dr. Dre coproducer Ron Feemster in Guitar Center one day when he saw a Kurzweil PC2X keyboard. He played a few random notes on it and immediately got an idea for a beat, liking the sound so much that he bought the unit on the spot. This was in the early 2000s. Just has used the keyboard two or three times since then—if ever. It collects dust in the corner of a room at Baseline with the $2,100 price tag still attached.
Just Blaze: Whenever you make something that’s one kind of beat, it always inspires you to do something else. The way I look at it, it’s just a constant source of inspiration to have all these sounds to pull from, whether it’s a SuperNova or a Moog or an MS2000 or MS20. That’s one of the beauties of doing everything in the computer now, because, with all the virtual instruments, you can have all those synthesizers right in front of you. Some people have an approach, like, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and stick to what you know,” but, my thing is, you don’t know what you know, because you haven’t experienced it all yet.
When it really comes down to it—and it took me a long time to get this—it’s the man, not the machine. It’s not about the machine; it’s about what you put into it and what you get out of it. It’s all in your brain. Machines are just different ways to interpret your ideas. The same sample can be interpreted in twenty different ways, so the possibilities are endless. It’s all a matter of what you have in your brain and how much knowledge you have on the machine to make it do what you hear.
Taking such a cerebral approach to producing mainstream records can be a gamble, and, as a result, Just hasn’t ridden the wave of success that a lot of other producers have. In a sense, he has been too smart for his own good—but has still prospered.
“Just busts his ass,” says Kidz in the Hall producer Double-O, a promising up-and-comer who is learning by association. “And I’m going to be honest—Just is a smart dude. But not smart like he can do derivatives and shit like that, although he has that in his background because he studied computer science. But he knows not only how to make dope records, but how to make the right dope records.”
Just Blaze: I’ll hit sometimes and I’ll miss sometimes, but as long as I hit sometimes—and when I say “hit,” I mean on a mainstream level—I keep myself relevant. I can do a record like “Show Me What You Got” for Jay, then call MF Doom and be like, “Yo, I love that ‘Kookies’ record. I’ve got to remix it.” That’s really the beautiful thing, to be able to hop from a Roc-A-Fella to a Stones Throw real quick, then turn around and go into the studio with Mariah Carey. To me, it allows me to have financial success and still be able to enjoy and do what I really like to do, which is hip-hop.
And today, everything is hip-hop—even R&B, with singers vocalizing over straight-up hip-hop beats or over music very much influenced by hip-hop. When Sean “Puffy” Combs took the Ron G. formula of blending hip-hop production and R&B vocals, it was the beginning of what Just refers to as the “brainwash era.” But he isn’t directing this towards Combs. He is referring to the period in which urban radio became a commercial force, leading to the emergence of the “hip-hop” radio station and changes in programming at outlets that used to play predominantly R&B music. With all these forces colliding, the hip-hop and R&B hybrid became a genre all its own—kind of an updated new jack swing—and led to the demise of what was once rhythm and blues.
Just Blaze: And then you have something like neo soul, which was definitely unique, but why does it have to be “neo soul”? Why can’t it just be soul music? Why can’t it just be R&B? Folks felt the need to put a different label on it now that people were starting to sing again, but it was the labeling that helped kill it in the first place. Even these days, with hip-hop, you have mainstream, underground, backpack, crunk, hyphy. We have enough outside forces trying to separate us. Why are we separating ourselves from the inside?
Because, for a long time, hip-hop taught us that we had to think one way or the other. Nas and De La Soul made us take sides during the summer of 1996. It wasn’t cool to ride the fence; It Was Written or Stakes Is High was a choice we had to make. The “underground” label now applied to a style of music. “Before then, ‘underground’ meant that you hadn’t blown up yet,” Just explains. “You were doing the Stretch and Bobbito circuit, or The Underground Railroad, or Hank Love and Half Pint.”
Now, people claim “underground,” but underground what?
Just Blaze: Just because you don’t make mainstream music doesn’t necessarily make you underground. And they hold it up like a torch like it’s standing for something, but you’re standing for the wrong thing. What you should be standing for is bringing a different element back to hip-hop. “Underground,” to me, always meant that you haven’t gotten a deal, or you haven’t sold any records. And then, all of a sudden, it became a style of music, and I’m like, ‘Dude, you’re just rapping.’ You may not do it that well and maybe that’s why you’re underground. And that’s probably why you’ll continue to be underground, because you’re not that good.
The labeling of music, in general, and also in terms of the approach to hip-hop and R&B, has killed off part of the deep-rooted creativity within both genres. Many artists and consumers feel a need to individualize instead of understanding how labels adversely affect the culture. Overseas, fans look upon hip-hop with great value, because it’s newer. In America, we take hip-hop for granted, because we’ve had it for so long. There is a definite gap in the appreciation.
Just Blaze: It surprises me how many younger producers don’t know much about hip-hop. And it’s not even obscure stuff. Like, if you don’t even remember Public Enemy’s second album—or if you don’t know anything about it? You might have only been five years old when it came out, but if you don’t know your past, you won’t have as much of a career because you’re not going to know where you’re going. You can’t just come in and throw together a kick, snare, and a hi-hat and call yourself a producer, or call yourself “hip-hop.” There’s a lot more to it.
If people had more respect for the culture over here, we’d see more diversity in what we hear in mainstream hip-hop. But it’s not just a culture now; it’s a business. What was once our culture has become the biggest money-generating machine in the world, so this current state of hip-hop isn’t surprising at all. You can complain and go on and on about it all you want. It’s not going to change until we change it. And we have good artists within the mainstream, but it’s not a pure culture anymore. It’s just a business—and a game.
It is a game, and while few work harder than Just, there are fewer who play harder. But the games he plays aren’t petty, or of the back-alley or boardroom variety. Just shows his lighter approach to the business of hip-hop music in places such as his blog, “The Megatron Don,” where he earnestly covers all things cultural, clandestine, and computerized under the watchful eye of the villainous, fitted-Yankees-cap-wearing Decepticon leader, Megatron, of the Transformers comic book, television, and film franchise. There is also YouTube-based Just Blaze Television, which was launched as a tongue-in-cheek response to some media-generated “tension” between Just and Double-O over the use of Johnny Pate’s “Shaft in Africa” for Jay-Z and Kidz in the Hall singles, respectively. But there was no animosity between the two producers and friends, and Just Blaze TV has continued to provide an honest, fly-on-the-wall glimpse of life in the industry from one of its more sincere and candid personalities.
Just Blaze: People always want to do producer DVDs and how-to DVDs, but, in this day and age, you can’t make people pay for information. It’s going to end up online within a day anyway, whether it’s video, a new album, or whatever. My thing is, do you want to sit there and fight it like the record labels did for so long? And now they’re kicking themselves for it. Or do you want to be part of the Information Age? If you give the kids and the people who are interested something to look at as far as how records get made, then it inspires them to do something so much bigger, either with their production or their lives, in general. These are people who are now in touch with you on the personal, so when you do have a product to sell, they’re more likely to mess with you because of who you are as a person.
I’m very much about trying to stay in touch with the people, because one thing that I’ve realized is that when the hits have come and gone—the sound has changed and folks have moved on—it’s the people who carry on your legacy. Even if I’m not sitting there talking to them, the fact that I put videos up so they can see how things happen, it makes them feel a little bit closer to you, like they know you. I want my legacy to be carried out not necessarily just through music, but as somebody who actually paid attention to the masses—the people who buy the records. I’m not an artist, so I’m not out there doing shows and kissing babies and shaking hands. I have to stay in touch with the people in my own way.
“There is an executive side to Just that doesn’t necessarily come off all crazy all the time,” Double-O explains, “but he definitely thinks about certain things.” And some of the most important things to Just Blaze are his fans, and a fan base he maintains simply by staying true to both his ideals and theirs.
“Hopefully, more people will wake up and recognize that it’s cool to be an individual,” Just Blaze says. “I think once that happens, we’ll see a significant change in the way records are selling.” It is a happening that is long overdue, according to Just, because also of great importance to him is artist integrity. “He won’t work with just anybody,” says Young Guru, a longtime associate who was amazed by the producer’s output and recording knowledge when the two first met. “He could slut out in the industry, but there’s a certain level of integrity that he has.”
Guru goes on to say how he could feasibly go into one of Just’s unused folders or his MPC and make a million dollars in two weeks, selling beats for $15–$20,000 each. There are just enough quality ideas and throwaways that it’s possible, but, despite the commercial success, it’s not about the money. “There are very few of us who do it for the love and not for the money,” says Grammy-nominated Just. “And most of the better or more talented producers were never in it for the money anyway—like Dilla. He would take time and work on a beat for a few days without the intention of anybody ever rapping on it. It could just be an interlude for his beat tape.”
What is of the greatest importance to Just Blaze is hip-hop itself—the people, the music, and the culture. He is quite possibly one of the best producers of our lifetime, but the basis for such a designation isn’t as lofty as being hailed as one of the “best” would make it seem. For Just, he is at the pinnacle of what he does because of his understanding of a principle that expresses the essence of hip-hop production in the simplest of ways.
Just Blaze: At the end of the day, we all come from two turntables and a microphone—and maybe an 808 on the side.
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