In 2014, I saw Just Blaze play the drums in a crowded airport hangar-sized venue in Austin, Texas, as part of a Boiler Room event during SXSW. Watching New Jersey-born Justin Smith enthusiastically bashing away on the kit you couldn't help but grin, especially because he didn't have a clue what he was doing.
"I don't know how to play the drums but I'll try it," he admitted to the festival audience, before jumping onto drums left behind the booth following R&B singer Tinashe's set, while his back-to-back partner The Gaslamp Killer scratched over-top. This entire session lasted maybe two minutes, but it's just one example of how the the man behind some of the biggest hit songs of the past decade and a half has never shied away from a new challenge throughout his career.
Beginning in the early 2000s working with New York artists including Jay Z, Cam'ron, and Memphis Bleek, the self-taught Blaze became known for his percussive beats which sampled everything from Rick James' "Super Freak" to the theme song from A Night at the Roxbury, with his instantly recognizable producer ID tag gracing songs by Eminem, Drake, T.I., and many others. It's not hyperbolic to say that without his influence, rap would sound very different—and certainly not nearly as soulful—today.
Over the last few years, he's shifted a large part of his focus to mentoring, which includes working with young students at the globetrotting Red Bull Music Academy. To paraphrase another one of his collaborators, Kanye West, you could even say that today the producer's all about the kids, bro. A longtime fan of house, techno, and UK garage, he's also dabbled in more electronic-minded one-offs, including tracks with Baauer, Flying Lotus, Sinjin Hawke, and more. We recently spoke to him on the phone from Montreal to discuss the secrets to his career longevity, how he feels about the trend of EDM and hip-hop artists working together, and why it's important for him to pass on his musical knowledge to the next generation.
This is your fourth time at the Academy, why is it important for you to be involved as a mentor? Just Blaze: This is my fourth year as a studio team member, but I've worked with them in a bunch of capacities over the past years. My first experience with them was giving a lecture in 2006. I always tell people when I was trying to make a name for myself and pursue my dream, we didn't have the accessibility to resources as far as musicians and producers have now. I would have killed back in the mid-90s to have been able to in the same room with like a RZA or a Q-Tip or a DJ Premier or any of those guys, you know what I mean? Those opportunities didn't really exist back then. So if I can pass on any knowledge to someone who might look up to me, the same way I idolized those guys when I was younger, I'm all for it. If we don't pass on our knowledge, there's no point of having it.
And I'm sure that it goes both ways and you learn stuff from them as well.
Definitely. Obviously I'm passing on my experience and my wisdom to them, but they're also opening my eyes to new approaches and techniques to making music that I would never be aware of.
Can you give me a specific example?
Nothing that would be super jaw-dropping to the average person, but just quicker ways to get around all the software like Ableton and Logic, studio tricks that end up saving you time in the long run.
You also frequently share advice on social media and last year you made many of your early 2000s drum samples available to download as a package.
All of my teachers were on the radio, everything I loved I learned by listening to radio, watching music videos, and obviously listening to albums. I never had the right teacher to say "this is how you do this." One other thing that you get from the RBMA is having that kind of access to the headspace of musicians and producers like myself. What I mean by that is you can probably go on YouTube, find a tutorial that will explain to you how I may have from a technical standpoint created a certain chord progression or drum pattern. But to be able to just sit down and sit down and say "What was going through your head when you made that? Were you in a certain mood? What were you going through in life that created that period of music where all your songs sounded a certain way?" And when I say "you," I'm not just talking about me, I'm just talking in general.
In terms of me giving out my drum kits and stuff like that, all our brains work differently. I have no problem saying "here take my resources," because you're not going to use those resources in the same way I have. Your brain is going to process them differently from how my brain processes. If you want to take my building blocks and build your own house, great, I'm looking forward to seeing what comes out of it.
Speaking of sampling, today we're seeing a number of high-profile court cases surrounding copyright infringement, but that's something you've been able to avoid.
One of the reasons that I've always been able to maintain some sort of relevance or presence within the industry is because you'd be hard-pressed to find somebody who says Just Blaze does bad business. I've always tried to do good business, I've always tried to do fair business—sometimes to my detriment—but because of that, I've always had opportunities to work.
There's going to be a point where if you have 20 number one records in two years that everyone wants to be your best friend, and there's times where there's five new producers who are killing it and you're not on that list, and you better hope you have some good relationships in order to maintain your career. You'd be hard-pressed to find somebody who says I did bad business in regards to a publishing split, sharing songwriting credits, or sampling, you have to give credit where credit is due.
One of the songs that I wanted to ask you about is "Higher," your 2013 collaboration with Baauer. What do you make of the trend of EDM producers working with hip-hop artists and vice-versa?
I don't know. To me it's not a trend. When that record happened and all of a sudden my demographic started to change, and I was playing different types of festivals and shows, the main question I was getting asked was, "What's the transition like?" I understand why you would ask that, but for me personally it was not a transition. I'm from Jersey, I grew up on hip-hop, I grew up on Detroit house, Detroit techno, Chicago house, UK rave music, and all of that stuff. For me, it's not so much a transition, as me now being able to explore a lane I love that the average person didn't know I loved because they identified me with hardcore New York hip-hop.
But I will say this, I'm not the only one. A lot of music types, we found our success in one lane even though our heart may lie in a bunch of other ones. Armand Van Helden, one of best producers of all time, he's a hip-hop dude. Same thing with Kenny Dope, one of the most legendary NYC house producers, he's a hip-hop dude, he's a soul dude.
I saw on Twitter that you were recently hanging out with Theo Parrish, could you see yourself doing more collaborations in that vein?
I started working on a techno record with Theo Parrish last night! Theo came and found me out here in Montreal. That's one of the great things about RBMA—it gives people who likely would never find themselves in the same room together the opportunity to do just that.
Tell me about how you ended up producing Beyonce's "Freedom." Obviously the song's message is incredibly timely with what's happening politically and socially in the United States right now.
That was a very collaborative effort. Beyonce came to me with a demo of the song and said she thought it was something that I should be working on. We started emailing back and forth, went to the studio a couple of times, and just knocked it out. Given the message and of the record it only made sense for Kendrick to get on it. He's one of the few artists that's culturally relevant across a lot of different genres and demographics, that can also actually deliver the political context needed to match what she's talking about.
Finally, you've been making music for almost 20 years now—what keeps you hungry?
I was just saying this to a group of students earlier and I don't necessarily recommend this—actually I highly don't—but one of the things that has kept me driven is the fact that I've never had a plan. I moved out to New York in 1998 with $47 in my pocket and figured it out. I'm thankful that I can make my living using my natural God-given talent, take care of my family, and am relatively rich doing nothing but that. When you love what you do and you genuinely do it because you love it, for me that's reason enough to get up in the morning.
Max Mertens is on Twitter.