Justin Smith, better known as Just Blaze, catapulted to the upper echelon of hip hop in the early '00s as the producer behind a string of hits with Jay-Z and Roc-a-fella Records. He has been in high demand ever since, working with Eminem, Lil Wayne, Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Mac Miller... really, it's hard to find a major rapper who hasn't worked with him.
I recently went up to his Rebel Base studio within Stadiumred in Harlem to discuss hip hop beats, videogame soundtracks, live DJing, and his New Jersey-bred connection to dance music.
How did you get started?
I'll give it to you like this: I DJ'd my own first birthday party. My mother has pictures of me running around with records in my hand. Music has always been there. Between my mother being a singer and my father being a jazz organist, I guess the earliest exposure was watching him play. I always thought if they caught me playing that I'd get in trouble, because it was my father's organ or piano. One day I was playing and all of a sudden I turned to my left and my parents were in the doorway, watching. And I was like, "Oh my god, I'm in so much trouble." And they said, "No, keep going, keep going!" I'm like, "Oh I can do this? Okay cool!" So I just kept playing. I also had an older cousin who was there from the early days of hip hop. He was the one who exposed me to things like Grandmaster Flash and Run DMC. Back then rap music didn't get played on the radio during the day, with the exception of maybe [The Sugarhill Gang's] "Rapper's Delight" or Kurtis Blow's "The Breaks." You had to wait until Friday or Saturday night when they would have a mix show. You had two stations — 98.7 and 107.5 — that would play rap music on the weekends, from 9 p.m. to midnight. I used to spend the night at his house and we would tape the shows on the weekend, listen to them all week, and then record over last week's show with the next week's show. I think that's where I really got exposed to what a DJ was. You had DJs like Kool DJ Red Alert, Mr. Magic, Marley Marl, and Chuck Chillout. A little bit later you had Funkmaster Flex, Pete Rock, and Clark Kent. When [Michael Jackson's] Thriller came out, my cousin's sister had a rack system that had two turntables in it. Maybe one was plugged into the left and one was plugged into the right input, but you could play both of them at the same time. "Beat It" had the drum intro; my cousin would start one record right after the other one — it was the most amazing thing to me when I was six years old. "You made a beat out of it." I think around that time is when my curiosity about DJ'ing was piqued.
When did you start playing with turntables?
When I was in sixth grade I got a RadioShack mixer that had no crossfader — it just had the up and down faders. I also had one turntable and a tape deck. I started my attempts at mixes. I remember I had a record that had an a cappella on it and a tape that had an instrumental. One of my earliest memories was taking this a cappella, and this instrumental, and playing them at the same time while recording that to another tape. It was at that point when I knew that's what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I didn't think it would actually happen, but I knew that's what I wanted to do. Later on I got a second- hand 4-track cassette recorder. I spent so much time [on it]. At this point I was making demos. I had a Casio SK-5, which had 5 seconds of sampling time. In the mid-'90s I convinced my aunt to buy me an [Ensoniq] ASR-10 [sampler]. I remember reading an interview in Rap Pages Magazine — Wu-Tang Clan was the biggest thing at the time — and RZA was using an ASR-10. I had that and the 4-track — I guess that was my earliest exposure to engineering and trying to get my records to sound like the ones that were on the radio. You're not gonna really accomplish that with a 4-track! As a kid you don't know that; you're just doing your best and trying every trick in the book to get it to sound as good as you can. I was DJ'ing pretty heavily at that time at a lot of local places in New Jersey like...