When this writer first interviewed J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League, it was for Scratch magazine in 2006 to highlight their work on Young Jeezy’s “Bury Me A G.” In the four years since, the Florida trio of Rook, Colione and Kenny have established themselves as one of most predominant production outfits in Hip Hop. They had already had a Grammy under their belt for “No One Will Do” on Mary J. Blige’s The Breakthrough, but they’ve since built their larger-than-life sound with the likes of Rick Ross (see their epic “Maybach Music” series), Ghostface and others. They also continue grooming their own artist Laws to prepare his Warner Bros. debut.
In an interview with HipHopDX’s Producer’s Corner, J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League talks about their orchestral production style, switching it up, and the necessity of good business to break a new artist.
HipHopDX: What does each of you contribute to the group, and how does it all come together?
Rook: I think what we each bring to the group is our different backgrounds and influences. I might be more east coast Hip Hop-influenced, Colione may be Rock-influenced, or down south or west coast-influenced. And Kenny may be Jazz or [Jazz] Fusion-influenced. You have the best of three worlds. It’s a never-ending cornucopia of music in this motherfucker.
DX: I asked that because your sound is real orchestral. It’s so many different instruments working together in a harmonious way. Where does that sound come from?
Kenny: When you’re talking about the bigger, more cinematic tracks that we’ve done like [Rick Ross'] “Maybach Music” , we focus on making it cinematic and musical and having all these instruments work together to make a big sound, like an orchestra would. But we all listen to all types of music, so it kind of rubs off into our own style. We all love all types of music. Great composers really inspire me, so that has a lot of influence. But we also do more simplistic and minimalistic types of beats as well, but when it comes to that monumental sound, we have a pretty good grasp on how to make the instruments work together in a musical way and not just have a huge wall of sound.
DX: How do you decide when to make a sound that big?
Colione: I think a lot of our influences come from older music, when people were actually playing music. When you go from the early '70s to close to the end of the '80s, a lot of people were playing live instruments, so that sound can’t be really replicated on a sample. They come close, but it’s not replicated. So we took the approach of having a live sound to our music, and that comes from hearing '70s Soul and Progressive Rock. Some of our biggest influences were real influenced by their sound, so it comes out in our sound also.
Kenny: We’re influenced by older music. We don’t look at the current generation of producers and draw inspiration from there; we draw it from the founders of music. And it shows. A lot of people are listening to our music and saying, “Their music is great,” and we also inspire other people to make beats. People ask us all the time, "Did you make that beat?” And we’ll say, “No.” And they’ll say, “Well, these guys are trying to copy your style, because they’re doing what you’re doing.” So it’s great to inspire other people, because we inspire ourselves. We’d rather hear more good music than terrible music, and if we inspire people to make good music, then we’re okay with that.
DX: I’m glad you mentioned that. You guys work with a lot of southern artists, and your sound is a lot different from what people usually expect from the south. A lot of the south is known for synthy shit, but you guys use more instruments.
Rook: And we’ve got that too. That’s why I said it’s like an endless cornucopia in this m'fucka, because we’ve got it all. I think right now, the people heard the stuff we did for Gucci Mane, 2Pistols, and people are hearing versatility in our sound. Our bigger records are cinematic, bigger and more soulful, and not traditional south.
Colione: You also can’t continue to make “Maybach Music” every time you make a beat. It’s always a different feeling in music, it’s always something different that inspires you. So it’s not possible to just make "Maybach Music" one through eight.
Rook: Because we’re from the south, we understand that dudes from the south roll in their box Chevys, and they’ve got their 15’s in their trunk, so we understand that if we do that east coast or Maybach kind of soulful sound, it’s still going to have the boom in that bitch. A lot of people don’t understand that. They think they can just make an epic sound, but people want to hear that in their system too. So we try to give them the best of both worlds.
DX: You don’t look to current producers for inspiration very much, but the artists you work with—Young Jeezy, Rick Ross, even Ghostface—already have a great ear for beats. Before working with you, hey had already gotten beats from DJ Toomp, or Don Cannon, or The Runners. How do you bring them aboard for your sound? While your beats have some similarities to theirs, they often seem very different. Trilla and Deeper Than Rap sound completely different from Port of Miami.
Kenny: When we play beats for the artists we work with, or when we’re working on beats with them in the studio, I think it’s important to the integrity of our sound that we bring the artist to us. It makes for a more comfortable work environment, and it makes the music more original. We’re more than capable of sitting down with an artist and catering a beat to their sound somewhat, but they have to meet us halfway. It’s never going to be a product that was anything in the past. It doesn’t tend to be a factor with us, because what you’ve done in the past, you should try to supercede that.
We’re working on “Maybach Music 3” for Rick Ross. Part 2 definitely had a cinematic sound—orchestral horns and synths. That series of tracks is going to be different every time. Part 1 was different from 2, and 2 is different from 3 as well. Everything we produced on Trilla, we stepped it up and did something different on Deeper Than Rap. And we’re going to step up and do something different for Teflon Don.
Colione: I think the music we did with Rick Ross is timeless, because there was nothing out there that was standing out like that. That’s why those songs stick out like that, because we brought a sound to the game that hasn’t really been there for a long time. So it sticks around, unlike other songs that just fade out after the second week, like stuff they play on the radio now. We try to create something that’s going to last, and we don’t just make music in five minutes. We take our time and study the way music is played and formed, and then we come to a final decision like, “We’re going to stop on this track.” We can sit there for days and just change things, like, “We can make this sound harder, so let’s add some guitars here.”
Rook: That’s a testament to longevity as well. I remember seeing producers back in ’02 or ’03 bragging on the Internet like, “I make a beat in 10 minutes, and I get paid $20,000 for this.” They take a sample, loop it up, add some drums, and wow, they’re not around no more. We’re making it harder for producers. You have to be some talented motherfuckers to even get close to what we’re doing. Anyone can speed up a sample and add drums, but it takes talent to do what we do. And that talent equals longevity.
Kenny: If we actually sample someone and leave the sample in there, that’s out of respect for the original artist and how they inspired us. Because we can create our own.
DX: You said you’ll spend days on a song that may seem done…
Rook: We like to spend a lot of time if we have a project that’s nationally huge, like Rick Ross’ “Maybach Music 3.” We’re going to take a lot of time, because [that series] is our legacy. So we’re not just going to put something out there immediately. There’s a lot of different angles on "Maybach Music 3." We didn’t just settle on one sound, but we have come up with a direction that’s going to change the game. People are going to be really impressed. We’ve researched this, and we take our music very seriously. It’s not even a Rap beat—it’s just something that’s going to fuck people up.
DX: Here’s a question, and I know it may not get an answer, but I have to ask. Part 1 had Jay-Z, and Part 2 had Kanye, T-Pain and Lil Wayne. And the remix had Fabolous and Pusha T. Who’s on Part 3?
Colione: There’s no doubt in our mind, Rick Ross is on Part 3. [Everyone Laughs] I heard Bono’s on the hook, so we’re looking forward to that. [Laughs]
Kenny: We’re just joking.
DX: You guys have a Grammy for Mary J. Blige’s The Breakthrough album, but that seems like your least known record…
Rook: That was the first year that people were starting to hear us. When ’05 came out, it was Young Jeezy’s [Thug Motivation 101], Juelz Santana’s “Rumble Young Man Rumble,” and then it was Mary J. Blige's [The Breakthrough]. All three of those came out the same year, and that was the first time people started to hear us. For us to get a Grammy on our third placement is a great feeling. It’s a testament to our talent to even be included in that family and history, it’s an honor. It’s our least-known song because it was so early in our career, and we were still building a brand back then. People didn’t know our sound yet.
Kenny: We didn’t get a chance to build our catalog before we got that Grammy. We got it early, and it’s a real blessing.
Rook: Plus, the Mary J. Blige song ["No One Will Do"] was the first song we put the J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League tag on. Jeezy and Juelz didn’t have that.
DX: You previously worked with 2Pistols, and now you work with Laws. The 2Pistols project was really slept on, but you guys did your thing on that album. First of all, how do you choose a new artist you want to work with?
Rook: It’s not really how we choose. If we feel a certain artist can gain notoriety in a situation from us, and we really believe in that project, then we’ll work with him no problem. That was the case with 2Pistols, and that’s the case for Laws now.
DX: Is there anything that you learned from working with 2Pistols that you’d work on with Laws? Whether it’s something you’d do different, or something you’d do the same.
Colione: 2Pistols was really our first artist, so we did a lot of learning through that situation. We’ve learned exactly how to approach creating and marketing an album. We’ve been produces our own career, and when it comes to developing an artist, you have to put on a business suit. So going through that whole process was definitely a leadup to doing this project with Laws, and doing future projects with artists. everybody’s got to cut the cake sooner or later. So we’ve learned a lot
Rook: 2Pistols was on-the-job training. We learned a lot and gained a lot of notoriety when it came to 2Pistols’ situation. It was slept on sort of, but having a top five single and selling a million singles isn’t really slept on. Two million ringtones isn’t really too bad. [Laughs] I think with the Internet fans that follow music, or with critics, it might be slept on in that lane because they’re critical as far as rappers and beats, but I think it was a commercial success. I think we did some real good work on that album.
Kenny: We actually didn’t go out and look for artists; the artists came to us. We knew 2Pistols from Tampa, and he was doing something and he saw us doing it, so we hooked up with him. It wasn’t like we were scouting for artists.
Rook: For the Laws situation, we heard of him from Tampa and heard he was doing well, and decided to work with him. I’ve been working for him for about a year and a half before the public knew that J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League was cosigning him. I felt we were ready, we dropped his mixtape, things were popping off, and we got his deal with Asylum.
DX: How much do you guys enjoy the business end? Do you ever wish that you could just do music, or do you enjoy the business aspect?
Kenny: I think it’s just the way to continue to make a mark on the music business. If I could make $100 million producing I would do it, and we branch out for the love of music, but we also do it because we need to get paid. It’s also kind of fun just to see what you can do. When you’re born a producer, and this is what you’ve been doing well for years, it’s interesting to see what happens when you step out into the exec’s shoes and see what you can make of an artist. If I could, I’d sit and make beats all day.