Super producer Just Blaze has his hands in many movements. When Life+Times caught up with him, he was travelling Europe and getting ready for #TDO295 – an event in London where he deejayed alongside Statik Selektah, plus The Nextmen, Mr. Thing, and a surprise pop-in from Joey Bada$$. Just Blaze’s globetrotting has had him in before crowds of 40,000 and deejaying some nights for three hours. But that’s what happens when you truly love what you do. It would take hours to list all of his production credits, but some of the most memorable for rap heads have arrived from his work with the Roc. In between his DJ sets, Just Blaze spoke with us about his very first encounter with Roc-A-Fella, and what it’s like bringing NYC hip-hop across the pond.
Life+Times: When you’re deejaying your sets overseas, do you feel like the European audience responds to the same classics that the U.S. audience responds to?
Just Blaze: I’ll tell you right now, I feel like overseas audiences in general – whether you’re talking about Europe, whether you’re talking about the UK, whether you’re talking about Japan – I feel like overseas in general, those audiences appreciate what we do more, because they don’t get to experience it every day. So, the same way say in the early ‘80s, you had that one cousin who lived in New York, and hip-hop was only played in New York, was only made in New York. And every Summer, that cousin would come to Virginia or come to Atlanta or come to L.A. or Chicago with those tapes, and you couldn’t just wait for him to get there because he would have the newest, freshest music! If you didn’t have that cousin, you had to hunt for that person who had that cousin. That’s how a lot of people discovered a lot of the early hip-hop. I think with overseas audiences, it’s a lot of the same thing. Obviously the internet has changed things to a certain degree and things are more accessible now, but it still is kind of the same thing where it comes from a standpoint of you have to be in-the-know to know what websites to go to or what blogs to go to or whose mailing list to be or whose Soundcloud to check out to even know what the new, hot record is. So because what we do, it’s not in its infant stages anymore in these territories, but it’s still a lot newer to them…there’s still a lot more appreciation. I feel like in the States, a lot of it is taken for granted. Truth be told, if you live in New York, you might catch JAY Z in the club on a random Tuesday night. You might catch me deejaying somewhere on a Friday night. You go to L.A., you might catch Dre at a restaurant. So, we see these people. When you live in London…nah, forget London. When you live in Nottingham or Birmingham or Zurich or a place outside of Tokyo or even in Tokyo, you’re not as apt to see these people. So the connection is different. They’re not human beings, they’re like superheroes. I can go to play a show in say, L.A. or Vegas, and I’ll get a good response and people like it, but I go to play a show in Tokyo and there are people waiting for me at the airport, asking me to sign pictures or sign records or CDs or whatever or to take pictures. This is at the airport, before I can even get into a car to go to my hotel. There’s a different level of appreciation. That being said, obviously that translates to the tracks on the record because there is a different level of appreciation there. Like, there are times when I’ll travel to a foreign territory, and they’re not even asking me to sign JAY Z records, they’re asking me to sign copies of the records that I sampled for JAY Z records.
L+T: Oh wow, seriously?
JB: Yeah, that happens all the time! I feel like there’s just a different appreciation to the art form. It’s more so like when I was a kid, when I was 10-years-old and I realized that Public Enemy was rapping on these James Brown records that was in my mother’s attic or the basement, and I was just like, “Wow! They’re on a record that my mother has!” There was still that sense of mystery or wonder to that part of the culture. So, even though we don’t have much of that in the U.S. anymore, it’s still very alive and well in other parts of the world; I think especially in the UK and in Europe. A lot of people don’t realize that the reason French hip-hop sounds the way it does is almost solely because of Hell On Earth – the second…or technically the third…Mobb Deep album. Like, the same way we had [Nas‘s] Illmatic, for them, Hell On Earth is Illmatic for France. Like, very dark, very moody and very brooding, and to this day, that’s still kind of the sound of French hip-hop.
L+T: What would you say was your turning point from producer to super producer?
JB: I don’t remember the turning point. As Meek Mill says, “there’s levels” to it. It’s not like I go to the grocery store and get mobbed. I get mobbed by the delivery boys because they saw me on BET the night before, but the average soccer mom isn’t chasing me down the block – which I’m fine with. I guess for me, I really couldn’t pinpoint when it happened, because there’s the industry level where nobody in the industry knows you, to all of a sudden everybody in the industry knows you. It is a good feeling. Not necessarily from an egotistical standpoint, but more so just from the perspective of being appreciated for what you’ve done, because most of us as producers get a two to three year run. You know, you look at any producer who was hot in 2008, the majority of them are not here in 2014. You look at producers who were hot in 2010, a majority of them are not here in 2014. And when I say hot, I mean hot as in viable and relevant. The ones who were hot in 1994 were gone by 1998, 1999. So for me, it’s more so just an appreciation of the fact that I’ve been here commercially since like 1997. It’s 2014 and I’m touring the world. That’s kind of crazy because like I said, most of us get two to three years, and if you really look at it in the grand scheme of things, there’s less than 10 of us who’ve been able to maintain any semblance of that. And I’m not comparing any of us in terms of who’s better or worse, but you have myself, you have Dr. Dre, you have Pharrell, Timbaland, Swizz, Kanye, [and] Alchemist. There are very few who can say they had hit records in ’98, who have hit records in 2014. It’s very rare in hip-hop, so I’m very honored to even be part of that circle.
L+T: Why do you think that there’s such a short window for a lot of these producers? Is it because while we can say there’s a signature Just Blaze sound, I don’t think you have any two beats that sound alike.
JB: That’s the thing – I didn’t grow up on one sound. I had a cousin who was seven or eight years older than me, who introduced me to hip-hop in the very early stages like Run-DMC and whatnot, the Crash Crew and Treacherous 3 and that era. But then, my father was a jazz organist, so I was also exposed to a lot of late ‘70s, early ‘80s fusion jazz. Then I had an aunt who was very much into things like Earth, Wind & Fire and Hall & Oates and a lot of soul and pop. Then my mother likes everything, even new wave. I remember when me and my mom went to Sam Goody one day, and we bought Rappin Duke, “duh-ha duh-ha,” and bought New Order. We would buy rap records and new wave records punk rock records and whatever was good. I remember she took me to the store to buy a Devo 45 one day. So for me, it’s that upbringing around so many different types of music, but then also being a DJ from such a very young age, is what really gives me that advantage. I always tell people who ask me advice like, “I want to be a producer, how should I learn? What should I buy?” and I’m like, “Yo, buy turntables. Learn how to DJ.” I’ve been deejaying – not professionally but like deejaying out at places – since I was in 7th grade, so you figure 1989 or so. I was like 14, deejaying in nightclubs for adults. The reason I say that is because being a DJ from such a young age taught me a lot of things. It taught me how music was structured, it taught me how music could strike emotions in people, it taught me how to take people for a ride, like how to give them highs and how to give them lows to get through the night.
And you’re right – these days, a lot of producers get hot for one sound and they do it to death because that’s all the labels want from them. It’s not necessarily their fault. It’s not that they’re not capable of doing anything else. Lex Luger, obviously we all know him for all his trap stuff that he did with Waka and Ross or whatever, but he also made that one record on Self Made with the Curtis Mayfield sample. I forget the name of it, but it was a Wale record with Jeremih [“That Way”]. You would have never expected that to be a Lex Luger sound, and I remember reading an interview with him about that song and he was like, “Yo, I can’t just do the same one thing. I want to be able to do different things!” So again, for me, it was having that diverse musical background growing up and learning how to DJ and seeing how music affected people in different ways, which made me be able to just adapt to different sounds and different moods. I feel like if more of us did that – not necessarily learning to DJ but at least just learning how different music affects people in different ways and actually making that music instead of just chasing that dollar and cashing out in two years – a lot of them would probably be around longer.
L+T: Do the newer producers reach out to you for advice and stuff?
JB: I mean, definitely. I’m kind of like the uncle to a lot of these guys especially, for example, Cardiak. He’s actually the only young producer I invited to my birthday party earlier this year. He’s like my little brother, and the relationship actually kind of started through social media, through Twitter. I knew who he was, but I kind of just started watching his moves. We’re both from Jersey, so I had, you know, a little bit more of an interest in him. Then when I started executive-producing the Slaughterhouse album, he’s one of the first people I brought in. I love his sound, I love what he does, I love his energy and I school him all the time. Same thing with guys like Justice League – those are like my little brothers. Even guys like Hudson Mohawke – he’s signed to Kanye now. He had a huge, huge, huge year last year, him and Lunice. HudMo, he opened for me at a DJ gig back in 2011 and he was this pudgy, Scottish white kid who was like, “You’re my favorite producer ever. I love you. I don’t even know you but I love you like a brother! Here’s all my music, please just take it and listen to it! If you hate it, you never have to call me, but if you want to call me, here’s my number.” And I’m like, “Eh, yeah. Whatever!” And then he gets on stage and he MURDERS it and I’m like, wow! So I go home and I listen to the flash drive he gave me and I can clearly hear – even though he didn’t sound like me – I could clearly hear the influence that he had took from certain records of mine that I had made, but I was happy to see that. You gotta pass it down to the younger generation, otherwise it disappears.
L+T: When you were a young producer coming up, working with Roc-A-Fella, what was that experience like?
JB: It was cool. I wasn’t around for the very beginning. I kind of came in towards the middle. It was a matter of being at the right place at the right time. Long story short, I had a meeting randomly with this guy named Dino who worked for Universal, and I didn’t know who he was, but I’m like, “Alright, he works at Universal!” I was like 18 or 19 maybe, and I get there, and come to find out this is the guy who signed/discovered Cash Money, discovered Canibus, just threw Rakim his new deal, which gave him a new lease on life, or on his career rather. He had all these things going. I didn’t know I was going to meet with some big time executive. So, we’re sitting in this meeting, and I’m playing a bunch of music, and at the end of the meeting, he’s like, “Yo, this is amazing! I want to make you a star. I want to make you famous, want to make you rich, because me making you rich is going to make me rich…or richer.” He’s like, “Let’s do this. I want to be your partner in crime, stay in touch. I got like six projects coming up,” blah, blah, blah. Never heard from this dude again.
L+T: Right, right.
JB: But about a month later, I get a phone call at my day job. I was already making music and making records, but I was too insecure to quit my day job still. Mind you, I had already done records with Wu-Tang, I’d already done records with Killah Priest, Big Pun, a bunch of people, but I still had my day job. So I’m answering the phones that day and I’m like, “Hello, studio.” They’re like, “Yeah, can I speak to Just?” I’m like, “Yeah, this is him.” This guy is like, “Hey, my name is Gee. I’m an A&R from Roc-A-Fella Records and we’re looking for producers. We’d like to get a meeting with you.” I’m like, “Yeah, very funny.” Click – and hung up on him. I thought it was a prank call! Two minutes later, the phone rings again, I picked it up and they’re like, “Hey, I was talking to Just and the phone got disconnected.” I’m like, “Yeah, this is him. What do you want?” I’m thinking it’s a prank call, and they’re like, “Yeah, like I was telling you, we’re trying to start a production team. We’d love to talk to you. We have this new kid named Kanye West, we have this other guy named Rockwilder. We’d like to make you one of the producers.” And I’m like, “Oh? This wasn’t a joke? Okay!” So I ran to my boss and I’m like, “Yo, I gotta go to this meeting!” He’s like, “But you just came back from lunch!” I’m like, “Dude, JAY Z’s label just called me. I gotta go to this meeting!” So I run down to the meeting and it kind of all went from there. It was a great experience, obviously a lot of great music was made, great relationships were made.
L+T: That’s amazing.
JB: Even to this day, I still talk to Jay all the time, Freeway‘s still a really good friend, Memphis Bleek‘s still a really good friend. To me, that’s bigger than money or anything else. You know, I had a huge hit record last year in Europe in the UK and Australia, this record called “Higher” which actually features a sample from “U Don’t Know,” which me and Jay did 12 or 13 years ago. The reason I was able to make that record happen was because of the relationship that me and Jay have. When I made the record, randomly Beyoncé just happened to call me that same night, not knowing that I was working on that record. She wanted me to come see her in the studio. So I go to the studio and Jay walks in, and I’m like, “Oh yo, let me play you something that I’ve been working on!” I play it for him, and Bey is like, “That’s amazing! What do you call this kind of music?” I’m like, “I don’t know. I just did it.” Actually, this is before anybody even knew who Baauer was. I brought him with me to the studio. So then we’re walking out, and I run back in and I’m like, “Yo, Jay, do me a favor. Just say this, ‘Just Blaze, rocking with the best! Baauer, bitches! Bow down,’” whatever. He says it into my iPhone. I take that, chopped it up, put it in the record, add in the samples from “U Don’t Know,” and a week later, we had a hit.