In my 10 years of promoting parties I have had the pleasure of meeting some of the best DJs & MCs in hip-hop, including many of my heroes. For me, as a DJ I hold a special reverence for the producers. The men whose beats have been making my head bop and help me move dance-floors over the years.
Those that really stand the test of time are the producers with a signature sound, and they are few and far between; DJ Premier, J-Dilla, Dr Dre and the man I have just spent the best part of two hours chatting to, Just Blaze. Best known for his crossover hits as the in-house producer for Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella Records the New Jersey native got an early start and has never looked back.
“At my first birthday party I played all the records myself on mum’s record player.”
Son of amateur singer mother and keyboard playing father his musical education started from day dot and was encouraged by all the family. From a cousin that would give him hand me down hip-hop 12s to his mum who not only bought him his first turntables but would ferry him too and from DJ gigs before he was old enough to drive himself.
“My first paid gigs were at 13 at a school dance. In 1989 $150 was a lot of money. I could buy 30 twelve’s for that. I remember I played Me Myself & I, Jungle Brothers I’ll House You and Maurice This Is Acid back to back.”
His dad gave him an aptitude for the keys. Not just the piano but also the keys on his PC computer. As a professional computer programmer he taught his young son, then known to the world as Justin Smith, his way around a computer, the basics of programming and inspired his first musical chops.
“I thought I would get in trouble for playing my dad’s keyboards, so I would only play when my parents weren’t around. When they caught me they actually encouraged me.”
His combined passions of music and programming meant that he was soon exploring the possibilities of making music on the computer. The aim not so much to make bangers like his hero Marley Marl but to engineer records that sounded as good as those he heard on the radio.
“My father had a couple of Casio keyboards. I would be banging on these making stuff that I thought sounded good with the rudimentary drum pattern.”
This early start served him well as this combination of the musical and scientific developed into the Just Blaze sound that has created international hits for Cam’Ron, TI, and of course Jigga to name just a few. The samples are from the same staple soul records that have served Boom Bap producers so well over the years. However, his studio science gives his records a polish that is not heard anywhere else. His sound is deeply soulful but crisp and clean. Somehow more Studio 54 than it is Tunnel Club and in turn as effective on the FM dials as it is in the club.
His eye for both the radio and club helped him develop another Just Blaze signature. Yes that ‘JUST BLAZE’ war-cry that is the trademark stamp on so many of his hits is no accident!
“I made it my aim to make records fun for DJs to play. I grew up on mix shows where DJs would cut up an intro 20 times before playing it. I made records DJs were able to do that with and would place “Just Blaze” rhythmically, so when they were cutting you would hear it 20 times before the tune drops.”
It got to the point that his tunes, with the trademark drop, were getting to much airplay that MCs were demanding it on their records well after he had moved on. Still if it isn’t broke don’t fix it and the Just Blaze sound has always had a huge crossover appeal with both mainstream and underground heads alike. I can’t think of any other producers that have spent the same week in the studio with Jay-Z and MF Doom. But despite the early starts it’s not always easy.
“Sometimes you have to make two or three bad records to get to the good one.”
In my mind the man has been responsible for more good than bad and I for one look forward to plenty more Blaze bangers in the years to come!
This interview first appeared in issue 09 of Bonafide magazine, you can pick up one of the last remaining copies here.