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 nightclubs, skating rinks, and the odd gig in New York.
How did you get into production?
The biggest break came when I had the chance to intern at The Cutting Room Studios downtown, which is back when they were on Broadway and Third. A childhood friend of mine, who went on to later become my manager, was interning at The Cutting Room and eventually worked her way up to become studio manager. During my winter break at college, this is maybe '96 or '97, one of the interns had gotten sick. I went down there and interned for a week. On Monday the intern called and said, "Hey, I just got a record deal with EMI, so I won't be coming back." I figured I'd stay on a couple weeks and then go back to school once winter break was over. But then, within those two weeks, the night manager got fired. So they were like, "Do you wanna be the night manager?" Most people get out of college and end up getting internships in whatever field it is that they want to work in, and here I am with an opportunity two years into college. I didn't want to be a studio manager, but it got me into that environment. I knew that I had to tell my mother about it. My mother is a high school principal, an educator, so obviously it was kind of a scary conversation, telling her that I might want to consider dropping out of school to pursue this job. I called my aunt first, who is like my second mother, to tell her about it. She said, "It can't hurt to ask, if that's what you want to do with the rest of your life and you have the opportunity to at least be in that environment."
So back then what was the balance like, in terms of time spinning live versus time making recordings?
I was immersed in learning to be a producer, to engineer, and pursuing the studio environment. I had stopped DJ'ing for the most part.
You've said that around the making of Jay-Z's The Dynasty: Roc La Familia you went from being a straight beat maker to a producer.
Yeah. Up to that point I was making beats and learning what being a producer actually was. In my earlier days, when I would see records and it would say, "Produced by Puff Daddy," I would get upset. I would think, "He's not making the beats. What right does he have to put his name on here as producer?" As I got older I realized what the distinction between making a beat and producing a record was. I realized that for the first couple of years I was just making beats; not because I didn't know how to produce, but because I was just too new, and too scared, to speak my mind in a session. I was 18 and 19 years old. I was making my beat and mixing the record. But whether it's writing, vocal coaching, critiquing, trying to bring out the best in an artist — what a producer's main job is — I wasn't doing that. First I was just making beats and Jay was rapping on them around the time of The Dynasty, and I would maybe do little creative things here and there. But I wasn't really producing. Then one day there was a song we had done called "Soon You'll Understand." We had cut the demo and there wasn't much going on in the studio one night, so I took the demo and really brought it to life. I wasn't sure if I would even play it for Jay. He's Jay-Z, and, at the time, I was nobody, relatively speaking. But I got the courage and I said, "Hey, I made a lot of changes with this song. If you wanna check it out, it's up in the other room." So he comes in and says, "Yeah, now it sounds like a song." I said, "So, you're okay with this?" And he's like, "Well, yeah. That's what I'm paying you to do; to produce." That's when the light bulb went on. From that point on I wasn't afraid to speak my mind and make the changes I felt were necessary. Because if Jay-Z is giving me the green light to actually be a producer...
Then you're good.
Right. That's all the affirmation I need. It was a confidence boost. We were more familiar with each other, at that point. I could speak my mind and say, "Hey, maybe that second line you should change to this..." Or, "Maybe you should punch here, and do that part again." I just got more comfortable to speak my mind with him, which led to me having the confidence to actually produce records.
What are some of the ways that you get the best performance out of an MC?
It's different with every person. This business is 50 percent talent and 50 percent people skills. You gotta know the psychology of dealing with people. It's not just being friendly; it's knowing how to read a person, read the artist, see what they respond to, and what they don't respond to. You can't critique them all exactly the same. I can't talk with Eminem, the same way I can talk with Jay-Z. I can't talk with Jay-Z the same way I can talk with Lil Wayne. I can't talk with Lil Wayne the same I can talk with Drake. Everybody's different. Once you have a lock on their personality and who they are as people, you know how to deal with them. I always like to try to spend some personal time with an artist before we go in. I don't really like to do the cold call where the label calls and says this person wants to work with you. Not to say that I have to be able to hang out with this person on a Friday night and go to a party with them; but there's gotta be a rapport there first. A lot of times I'll spend the first day of a session just talking with a person, getting to know them. One thing I try to keep in mind is when you're giving your critique or your insight: if you have anything negative, always reinforce it with a positive.
So you've produced some classic beats where the vocal part you sample interacts directly with the MC's lyrics, like Eminem's "You Don't Know" or Cam'ron's "Oh Boy." Do you have song concepts in mind when you pick samples like that?
Sometimes it just sounds good. In those days in my career I wasn't really involved with songwriting as much as I am now. Pharrell [Williams] is not the first, but one of the first big producers to give you a record with the hook and everything already on it. That's why he has so many records featuring him, because he's writing all the hooks. That wasn't my strength at the time. My way of compensating for that was finding vocal samples that conveyed a certain message or direction for the record.
So you wouldn't necessarily say, "Hey, you're gonna say 'just me and my' and the track is going to say 'boy.'"
It's more like, "This sounds good and this is something that the record can revolve around." And since I'm not writing a hook, I'm going to give you a beat with a built-in hook that comes with the sample. That's really what that was.
"Breathe" [by Fabolous] is one of the best sample-driven rap songs, ever. You've got the word "see" from a Supertramp sample [off the song "Crime of the Century"] sounding a hell of a lot like the word "breathe."
Well, no. When I did the beat, it was actually a leftover chop from something else. I sampled literally about 40 parts from that record. At one point there was a clip I had that came in on the one, and it was just a leftover "eeeee" sound from a vocal. And, for whatever reason, Fab thought that it was saying, "Breathe." That's how he took it. So I went in and sang, "Breathe." So that's me singing.
And then you sped it up, or pitched it up?
I probably did speed it up, a little bit. I think I slowed down the Pro Tools session with VSO [Variable Speed Oscillator], then sang it, and then sped it back up.
There are so many sample editing programs. What do you prefer?
I do everything in Logic, at this point. I used to use the [AKAI] MPC. I started out on the ASR-10 and then went to the MPC. I had all the MPCs, from the 60 to the 4000. When I first started making records, the first sampler I had was the Roland JS-30 and I used to use a program called MIDI Workshop, back in the '90s. It's funny, I started out with a computer, went to the hardware, and now I'm back in the computer. When I first made the transition back to computers, I started with Pro Tools. I've used Pro Tools for audio since the '90s, and it was cool. But, whereas Pro Tools was an audio editing program that they adapted for MIDI, Logic was production software that incorporated audio into it. So Logic became the better choice for me after some time being back in the box. I've bought every version of Logic since 4, but I've never actually used it. I felt like Logic wasn't logical. The workflow was a little weird, until they came out with Logic 8. Apple took a few things from Pro Tools: they simplified the interface and they simplified the workflow. That's when it became logical to me. I've been using it ever since.
In the early '00s, you and Kanye West brought sped up vocal samples, sometimes called "chipmunk soul," into the forefront of hip hop with Roc-A-Fella Records. Kanye says he first heard RZA do it; some people say house DJs did it first. What's the first time you ever heard that kind of sample use?
I couldn't tell you. I've never heard the argument for house producers doing it first, but it's quite possible. I can't recall a house record that had that, pre-Wu-Tang. RZA definitely sampled a lot of heavy soul, but I can't think of any records he did that had sped up vocal samples. He definitely had plenty of vocal samples.
And they might be a little bit sped up, but it wasn't the same sound.
Yeah, it wasn't like taking the record and putting it on 45. I would never claim to be the first. When I was doing it, it wasn't an intentional thing, where I wanted to make it my trademark thing. Sped up soul samples. It was just, "The record sounds good on 45! It doesn't sound good on 33!" And we didn't have the time compression or expansion technology that we do now. That technology existed back then, but it didn't sound that good. It wasn't until Roland came out with their VariPhrase [Processor] technology that good sounding time compression, or expansion, became readily available, as well as relatively cheap. Up until that point, Pro Tools was capable. Some of the older Akai samplers had it, but it didn't sound that great. I used the Casio SK-5, which only had five seconds of sampling time. You had to speed it up to get it in there! With a second and a half, or two seconds, on each pad, you had to speed it up to get it in there, and then slow it down. To me, that's actually how it came about. It was just doing what we had to do, with the limitations of the technology.
What would you say to someone who says that sampling is plagiarism, or not as creative as music without sampling?
I'd just say they're stupid. [laughs] That would be my first response. And my second response would be that it's all art. Some people would say, "Just, what you're doing is great because you're taking these records and chopping them into 40 pieces. And you're rearranging it. But I can't respect somebody who just loops something." But there's a genius in knowing which part to loop. To sit there and listen to a four-minute song, pick out one bar or two bars, and realize that those two bars can be the basis of a whole new song. There is genius in that. Or, in the case of what I do, sometimes I'll take a four-minute song and find 20 or 30 different parts in that song and create a whole new composition out of that.
You made two totally different beats out of the same Rick James song.
Yeah. Take "Breathe." If I brought that file up on my MPC and showed you how many different parts are happening on that record, it trips me out! I'll go back and listen to the original record and I'm like, "What was I thinking?" I feel like we all have our genius moments, and I'm not saying this from a conceited place, or an arrogant place, but that was a genius moment of mine. This is going to sound so egotistical, but it's not coming from a place of ego. I listen to that original Supertramp record myself sometimes and think, "How did I do that?"
"Breathe" doesn't sound anything like it.
Not at all. When you go back and listen to all the individual parts, it's insane. And my point in all of this is that if someone is going to tell me that it isn't art, or it isn't creative, that's just stupid. People used to say the same thing about DJs, "It can't be an instrument." But if you look at what people like QBert, A-Trak, or Craze do, you can't tell me that that's not an instrument. They're not just scratching records; they're making music. DJ'ing and production are an extension of each other. The notion that sampling isn't an art, that it isn't creative, is asinine. But I also feel like people who make those kinds of statements don't really know what creativity is. I hear that notion less and less these days.
You've been doing some more EDM- leaning stuff [Electronic Dance Music]. Where do you see hip hop going? Where do you see your music going?
The funny thing about what they're calling EDM now — I just call it dance music. There's a lot of crossover between EDM and hip hop now, as well as urban music; people are acting like it's something new, and it's really not. This is not the first, or the second, or the fourth time this has happened. If you go back to 1982, Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force's "Planet Rock" is not only an electronic record, it's actually based on a Kraftwerk record ["Trans Europe Express"]. Kraftwerk is what? Electronic music. There were a ton of records out at that same time that had the same feel. Then you fast forward to '88 and you have songs like "Stomp (Move Jump Jack Your Body)" by K-Yze, or "Let it Roll" by Doug Lazy, or "Turn Up the Bass" by Fast Eddie. This is people rapping over house music; they used to call it hip house. Or Jungle Brothers' "I'll House You" is them rapping over Todd Terry's "Can You Party." I made two house records back in 2002 with Joe Budden and Rah Digga. The Joe Budden record was "Fire" — we interpolated "There's Some Whores in this House" by Frank Ski — essentially a Jersey house record. Rah Digga's "Party and Bullshit 2003" — we sampled [Cajmere's] "Coffee Pot (It's Time for the Percolator)," as well as a bunch of other house records, and the hook from [Biggie Small's] "Party and Bullshit." It's not the first time this has happened. Hip hop and electronic music, or dance music, have always existed in that same world, in one way or another.
Do you go all out when you do that kind of thing, with sidechain compression and sub bass?
Oh, yeah. I grew up in New Jersey. In certain parts of Jersey, house music is just as big as hip hop. Where I grew up, in Patterson, or in Newark, East Orange — all around Essex County — you'll hear house music blasting from cars, just as much as you'll hear hip hop. That's the culture that I come from. I've always been well- versed in the technical side of both. But I'll do sidechain compression in hip hop records too. Actually, [Jay-Z's] "U Don't Know" has sidechain compression, not for the same reason, or same effect, you use it in dance music. The horns were so loud and so shrill, so we used Jay's vocal as the key to sidechain compress the high frequencies of the horn sample. That way, whenever he was rapping, there was no clash between him and the horns. It's slight, but if you listen you can hear that whenever he's rapping, the horns get darker. That's a perfect example of taking techniques from one style and applying to the other, not for the flash or pumping of it. I knew if we did that we could work the horns around the vocals.
Do you have any preferred microphones for rap vocals?
The [Neumann] U 87 is a great all-around microphone. I've owned the Sony C800G for a few years — I love the top-end on that mic. Obviously there is no one perfect mic, but for me, personally, the Sony C800G and the U 87 are my standard go-to mics.
You've been known to rock a bejeweled PlayStation controller chain. What's the dopest videogame music?
Oooooh, there's not just one; but I'll give you a couple. From my days, Zillion II, which was only on the Sega Master System. Most people don't know this music — they don't know this game: Zillion II: The Tri Formation. The theme music when you're on the motorcycle, to me, is the best videogame music. There was an era from Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins' productions, when he was doing records like [Brandy and Monica's] "The Boy Is Mine" or Whitney Houston's "If I Told You That" — the chord progression from Zillion II from '86 is the progression that Rodney was using on all those records. Yuzo Koshiro is the best videogame music composer of all time. He did all of the classic Sega Genesis titles. The Revenge of Shinobi and Space Harrier II.
You've worked on a videogame or two.
I did NBA Live 2003 and ...2004, NBA Street Vol. 2, and Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2004. I did basically anything from EA Sports from 2003-2004. After that, I did NBA Ballers 2 for Midway. I've also scored a couple commercials for Super Street Fighter IV. I'm actually working on the music for the new Ninja Turtles game right now, which is super dope. I've done quite a few videogame related things.
Not just placements?
Yeah — full-on soundtracks, scores, sound design; all of that.
You've managed to stay relevant and successful for a long time now in a changing musical landscape. How do you approach new styles and changing sounds, while still maintaining identity, and still having a record sound like Just Blaze?
To me, it's not about the tempo, and it's not about the genre; it's about the energy. Sounds can change. The cool snare to use this year will not be the cool snare to use next year. The cool tempo this year will not be the cool tempo next year. Music is constantly evolving, and I think the key to my success and longevity has been maintaining energy. Listen to a record like "Higher" by me and Baauer, Jay-Z's "U Don't Know," Jay-Z's "Public Service Announcement (Interlude)," or Big Pun's "Wrong Ones" — going way back. What do they all have in common? Energy. As long as you maintain an energy and excitement in music, are able to adapt to new and current sounds, and remain open-minded, you'll always be good. Unfortunately there are a lot of people in this field who aren't able to do this, for one reason or another. In hip hop especially, or urban music in general, most people just get two or three years. They're in and they're out. People don't understand the importance of evolution. I get it, Timbaland gets it, Kanye obviously gets it. There are a handful of people who know how to evolve and still maintain identity. I'm fortunate and blessed to have that understanding.
There was one session I had where I had told the artist, "Hey, your second verse — you should rewrite it. These are my problems with it." I left it at that and he was kinda offended. We worked it out, and he eventually realized that I was right, but I was wrong in my approach, because I didn't say anything positive about the rest of the record. I just honed in on what I didn't like. It's a small circle of artists that I work with, I don't work with just anybody and everybody. And the relationship I have with those artists, I can just say that and they won't take offense to it because we've known each other for years, we've been working for years. So they know that if I'm saying I don't like this, they're not worried about whether I like everything else, because I obviously do. I'm only critiquing this one thing. This was an artist I wasn't as familiar with, so I was approaching him like we had a longstanding working relationship, and we didn't at the time. The funny thing is that incident actually ended up strengthening our relationship, because nobody had ever really made an attempt to produce him before, and he's been wildly successful on his own, producing himself, so at first he was very resistant, and then hours later he called and said, "Yo, I hear what you're talking about. Thank you, I respect that, nobody's ever attempted to produce me before like that. I've been producing myself and all the artists that I work with over the years." And when I was talking to his manager later she was like, "You were one hundred percent right, but you should give him the positive along with the negative. That's why he was resistant." It's all psychology.
I've been back on the road DJ'ing since 2003. In 2003 I got a call to do a couple shows in Japan. I hadn't DJ'd in years. I had stopped doing clubs back in '98 or so, once the production stuff really picked up. But it was some decent money and a chance to go to Japan. DJ'ing is like riding a bike; you never forget. I got the bug again. I came back from Japan, did a tour DJ'ing for Jay-Z — the Rock The Mic tour over a summer. Once I got back, I started doing things here and there. I really went full steam with it in '05. It's funny, because my big dream as a kid was always to be a big-time DJ, but it took me getting known as a producer in order to accomplish that goal.