About every time, scratch that–every time Jay Z steps on a stage and announces his presence with “Public Service Announcement,” Just Blaze’s omnipresence blares through the surround sound system guiding Hov, bar to bar, with a haunting piano sample. Anyone can pull a sound, but the art of crafting an anthem around it has been a staple for Just Blaze since 1999.
On the charts, Just Blaze has produced numerous hits like T.I.’s “Live Your Life,” and Kanye West’s “Touch The Sky,” and for Hip Hop connoisseurs, those hits include The Diplomats’ “I Really Mean It,” and Fabolous’ “Breathe.” Justin Smith, known by his iconic drop, “Just Blaaaze,” first popularized on Joe Budden’s Grammy-nominated single, has fabricated emotional, nostalgic and/or gritty attitudes through the use of spontaneous samples within his beats. Ultimately, leaving it up for the listeners to consume and decide its fates. When HipHopDX caught up with him, the East Coast producer (turned executive producer for Slaughterhouse’s upcoming album) was across the pond performing for international crowds, because you have to remember, music is its own universal language and he’s quite the storyteller.
Why Just Blaze Says There’s No Formula To Inspire His Production Choices
HipHopDX: In an interview I watched a few years ago, you said sometimes you can’t let money dictate what’s gonna be best for the record, and that’s a great example.
Just Blaze: Definitely. Trying to go back and replay it and change it and whatnot, it wouldn’t have been what’s best for the record. Sometimes records cost money to make, and if you have to take a loss in one area, you realize you can always make up for it in another.
DX: You’ve used Rock samples in other tracks. What are some Rock tracks that caught your ear? Was it certain instruments or something you gravitate towards?
Just Blaze: No, there’s no formula or rhyme or reason. It’s one of those things that just happens. If you had a formula to it, you could put in a bottle and sell it and make a zillion dollars. It’s never the same thing twice. I can get inspired by a guitar riff. I can get inspired by a vocal. I had a record with my friend Saigon called “Come on Baby,” which samples The J. Geils Band—a song called “Southside Shuffle.” And what drove me to sample that, was really the guy’s vocal tones…the way he was screaming, it wasn’t even the music. It just has to strike a chord, no pun intended. When you hear something that inspires you, that is when the creative process starts, at least for me. For example, my studio in New York is next to the Metro North train station, and every night, there’s this alarm. I don’t know what it’s for, but every night there’s an alarm that plays, and I’m like, “I wanna put that to a beat.” So I need to go out there with a fucking field recorder and just sample that alarm. The inspiration could be anything, so long story short, there’s no particular one thing that I look for, or one particular sound or instrument that I look for. I just look for things that inspire me and make me want to create something.
DX: So you just hear a noise and you build from there?
Just Blaze: I can hear anything. I can hear you talking to me right now and say, “You hear a noise,” and five minutes later, I have a song about you hearing the noise. It’s like any other art. Whether you’re painting, whether you’re writing and the more you get to know a person, the more you realize that sometimes they are creating things that may have been based on things that have been in their minds for years. Look at Star Wars. George Lucas wrote Star Wars. You think it’s any coincidence that Luke Skywalker’s name is Luke when George Lucas’s last name is Lucas? That probably came about from him having a childhood fantasy about him being some kind of hero of some sort. And the idea developed in his head over the years, and he found a way to make Luke Skywalker out of George Lucas. Same thing with me, musically. I’ll hear something, I can marinate on the idea for days, months, sometimes it strikes you right away. A beat like “U Don’t Know,” that I did for Jay Z on The Blueprint, I made that beat four times before I figured out the right way to do it. The same way that George Lucas probably wrote Star Wars 30 times. “Hovi Baby,” on The Blueprint 2, I made that beat seven times before it became what we all know. Sometimes it works like that, where it takes time. Whereas say, a record like “Breathe,” I nailed in one take, in 20 minutes, and turned off the computers and forgot about it. You never know where the inspiration is gonna strike. You never know where it’s gonna come from. You can hear a sound, a song, a piece of dialogue. You can just be upset, or happy or feeling any… I’m sure Pharrell was super happy when he wrote “Happy.”
Just Blaze Revisits T.I.’s “Live Your Life” & Joe Budden’s “Pump It Up”
Just Blaze: When I wrote “Live Your Life” for T.I. and Rihanna, I was very upset. And that record came about because I was upset because I had a huge fight with my ex-girlfriend. Everybody thinks that record is about empowerment and upliftment, and positive things and inspiration, and no it’s not. That record was me telling my girlfriend, “F you. Go live your life. Do you wanna be a shining star in fancy clothes and fancy cars, do you wanna go far? Go live your life.” But nobody on the outside would know that because they don’t know what’s going on in my personal [life]. She knew it, because as soon as she heard it, she called me like, “Oh, so you’re writing records about me?” or “You’re sending shots at me?” And she wasn’t angry, but she picked up on it right away because we knew what we were dealing with. We were at a rocky point in our relationship. So again, inspiration can come from anywhere.
DX: You listen to hooks, and sometimes you don’t think about a back story, and every piece of art has a back story. Whether it comes from writing, making music, lyrics...
Just Blaze: Any creative expression comes from somewhere that strikes a chord emotionally. Again, whether it’s happy, sad, angry, remorseful, resentful, whatever. There’s always something, because art is just an expression of where we are mentally at the time that we create it. But the public, again, are the ones who will determine what that song represents. When I wrote the record, T.I. didn't know the back story, and Rihanna didn’t know the backstory. The public didn’t know it, and it wasn’t for them to know. I didn’t tell that story until six years later, but that’s where my head was at the time. So I say that all to say that inspiration can come from anywhere, anything, and any emotional state whether it’s positive or negative. And it’s also a great way to turn a negative into a positive, because that song did represent inspiration and empowerment, and aspiration to do better for a lot of people. Even though that’s not the place where it came from, it came from the exact opposite place, but ultimately what is important is how the public receives it, and what it means for them.
DX: So I wanted to go from your work as a producer to your work as an executive producer. You’re working with Slaughterhouse on their upcoming album, Glass House. Wasn’t Joe Budden one of the first to push you to use your tag, “Just Blaze?”
Just Blaze: Yeah, he didn’t actually push me. It was kinda like a running joke where I didn’t have a tag yet. Rappers just used to shout me out on records. And he didn’t do it on “Pump it Up,” and I knew that was gonna be a huge record. So when he didn’t do it, I asked him if he could, and he was like, “No, you do it.” And I’m like, “Dude I don’t talk on records. That’s not what I do. I don’t like the sound of my voice. Uhhh, no.” But that whole day we had been making jokes in the studio, because his previous single, “Focus,” he has this one part in the third verse where he goes, “Mondaaays, Fridaaays, Saturdaaays.” He tells you the days of the week. So, we were cracking that joke all day, and I couldn’t think of a way to say my name on the record that sounded good, so I just thought about going, “Just Blaaaze.” And it worked, so I just kept it. And that kind of became the signature.
DX: So that was on “Pump it Up,” but you said before that, rappers had been saying your name for you.
Just Blaze: Yeah, they would just say it, but I had never done it myself. “Pump it Up” was the first one.
How Just Blaze Separately Built Relationships With Slaughterhouse Members
DX: How have things come full circle, now working with Slaughterhouse and executive producing their album?
Just Blaze: Well it kind of happened organically. I was one of the first, or probably the first, if you wanna call it “big name producer” that he had worked with. Same with Royce. When Royce first came into the game, Pharrell and I were the first big producers he worked with. So I had a long standing history with both of them. And then me and Joell—when I opened my new studio in New York about four years ago—I randomly heard this Joell Ortiz record that I thought was amazing, but it sounded horrible. So I tweeted, and this was before there was Slaughterhouse or anything, I tweeted, “Yo, I just heard the most amazing Joell Ortiz record, but it sounds terrible. I will mix this record for free.” And his manager, who I didn’t know, but I knew of, tweeted me back, like, “We’ll send you the files right now.” And I had just opened up the new studio. I was actually just about to open it; we hadn’t opened it yet. So that Joell Ortiz record was a guinea pig basically. I was testing my studio to make sure everything worked, and we used that record as a guinea pig to make sure that everything was working and in working order in the studio. So that was the start of my history with Joell. And Crooked I, I always had a lot of respect for, but we never knew each other. We had friends in common like Sway, but we never actually had a personal relationship until right before Slaughterhouse happened. We got into a huge argument at a studio one night, but it was a studio argument, not a real argument. Actually we were arguing, it was a debate about Rap music, and it got really heated. But we had a lot of fun in the process. So I grew to have a lot of love for Crooked I just in that one night. And we always stayed in touch after that, just arguing about Rap.
I had these four interactions, these four different histories with all these guys together, so it was cool to see them come together later on and form this group. And it was never intended for me to executive produce their album. When they first formed, we had a couple of meetings during the first album, which I actually didn’t even work on. Actually, not the first album, the second one, where they signed to Shady. I was sitting with them, and their management and everybody, and just tossing ideas back and forth about what they could do for the album creatively. And we had a bunch of good conversations that ultimately didn’t amount to anything, but one of the key points in that conversation was forming a Slaughterhouse of producers, the same way they formed a Slaughterhouse of rappers. And the idea was to helm a supergroup of producers, and bring them all together and work collectively. And it didn’t happen with the first album on Shady, but when the second album came around, Mike, who was Joell’s manager, was now working at Shady, and he wanted to revisit the idea. So he eventually said, “Hey, we don’t have a lot of money, but would you mind producing four songs for us?” So I said, “Sure, no problem.” And in the process of working on those four songs, ideas started flowing and it became a dialogue. I kinda just inadvertently ended up helping guide them on song construction, structure and concepts—even on records that weren’t mine. Even if I had nothing to do with the song, I would be like, “Dude, you shouldn’t do it this way, you should do it this way.”
And it was genuinely just because I think it was easy, genuinely because I had a little bit of history with all the guys already, so there were no egos involved. We were all comfortable because we all knew each other, so it was really just me being like, “Hey, that beat is wack; you’re tripping. This is the one to rap on, and this is what your concept should be.” And that’s just me telling them that as a homie. And the more and more that camaraderie developed, it became apparent that an executive producer role was forming without even trying to form it. You know, they weren’t looking at me in that capacity, and I wasn’t looking at them in that capacity. It just kind of happened organically. And then I got officially approached by Shady like, “Hey, we hear what’s been happening in the studio, and we’d like for you to executive produce the album officially.” So I was like, “Alright, fine.” And we just went in and did it.
How The “Glass House” Team Developed Chemistry Working Together
DX: You said something earlier about a Slaughterhouse production team.
Just Blaze: We had the idea to bring in a few other producers and have everyone work together collectively under the guidance of one. So we basically put you onto a team where it’s myself, Cardiak, !llmind, araabMUZIK, and J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League, and it worked out great. We’re not 100 percent done, but the majority of the body is there. And it’s not just people coming with beats, it’s like, I may have an idea for a sample, pass the sample off to J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League, who may play the keys. And then I’ll give it to Cardiak to do drums. Or maybe I have a beat, and I say to Cardiak, “Hey, I want to go from this tempo to this tempo, but when it switches, I want you to take my beat and treat it like a sample and change it around and do this and that with it.” So I’m guiding the ship, but I’m also giving these guys the freedom to work on my stuff as well as me working on theirs. The collaborative effort I want first.
DX: I’m looking at the list of producers, and they don’t make the same kind of beats. It’s all kind of different. So working together, it’s like a different sound that you guys are going to make?
Just Blaze: I don’t like to make grand claims about how good something is or how great something is going to be. Some people like to say, “Oh, the album’s phenomenal. It’s this, and it’s that.” No. When it comes out, I hope the people love it. I hope they appreciate what we did, and what we were able to put together, because ultimately, like I always say, it’s the people who decide whether or not something is good.
DX: Did you have a choice in putting the team together?
Just Blaze: Yeah. At the time is was just gonna be me and maybe araabMUZIK, because he worked with them previously. And then from there we brainstormed and I said, “Alright I’m going to bring in Cardiak. I’m going to bring in J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League, and etcetera etcetera.” And that’s the job of the executive producer; you get to pick your personnel.
DX: So how is an average day in the studio with Slaughterhouse, with all four of them?
Just Blaze: Everybody has their own times that they come in. It’s kinda hard to get them all in the same room at the once, because one lives in Detroit, one lives in L.A., one lives in Jersey and one lives in New York. But my main thing for the album was, “I want all you guys to be in the same room in the same space.” There’s not gonna be any mailing verses in via e-mail because then there’s a lack of synergy and a lack of connection when you do things that way. You think about the early Wu-Tang albums versus the later Wu-Tang albums. The later ones, people had found their success, and had their own houses and their own families and their own agendas. And the synergy wasn’t as there anymore, because they weren’t nine hungry dudes sitting in the projects rapping. They’re now guys who live all over the country. With Slaughterhouse, that was one thing I wanted them to have—that synergy as a group. So even if the group consists of four lyricists, it’s not four individual rappers trying to outrap each other. It’s four artists coming together as a group.
DX: I think being in the studio creates a different type of energy, like you said. And you don’t get that kind of camaraderie when you’re apart. You could play off each other more on a song.
Just Blaze: You build off of each other. You inspire each other. You share your day-to-day experiences with each other, which creates a whole different kind of energy. That’s part of the reason why Roc-A-Fella was at its height when you had myself and Kanye, State Property, Cam’ron, Jay and Bleek—everybody all in the studio together. As opposed to before that or after that. There’s a reason why Bad Boy in its prime, aside from other artists, you also had Chucky Thompson, Deric Angelettie, Ron Lawrence, Nashiem Myrick, and Stevie J, and all those guys in the studio collectively. You trace it back to Motown, the same thing where they had The Funk Brothers and all those musicians and songwriters in that one room in Detroit all day, riding with each other. As opposed to later when that synergy wasn’t there, and it reflects in the product.
DX: And then it won’t sound like they’re trying to outrap each other, because no one really knows what the other one’s saying, and then it’s kind of like a surprise in a sense.
Just Blaze: Right. So we did a pretty good job with this album of just creating a certain synergy, and we still have some work to do, but I’m looking forward to it being finished.