I met Justin for the first time last year at the Red Bull Music Academy in Tokyo. A few of us had gone to see Chairman Jeff Mao spin 45’s at some bar I can’t remember the name of and Justin had come along too. The bar was small and fairly empty but – wide eyed from the jetlag – I grabbed a drink and got on the dance floor, aiming to make the most of my time in Japan. It was a surreal trip; I seemed to be awake at all hours, in and out of meetings, bowling alleys, clubs and 24-hour ramen joints. It is only now, sitting at my desk, looking back on the whole experience that I begin to realise how surreal it was to be sitting drinking rum and listening to disco with the man who produced such standout hip-hop tracks from my teenage years as ‘Touch the Sky’, ‘Pump It Up’ and ‘Oh Boy’.
For those that know him, I may be stating the bleeding obvious but what struck me when I first met Justin was just how humble he is despite his awe-inspiring résumé. This is something that still holds true just moments after getting off the phone with him for what was a fleeting but – no doubt – compelling interview. I think it’s probably fair to say that it’s the producer thing; rarely does the man behind the desk have the ego that is commonly associated with the one in front – despite probably being the person most entitled to it.
It seems to be more prominent with Justin though, probably emphasised by his mild-mannered responses to my questions and patience at having to listen to a bumbling Northerner struggle to try and get through all of his questions in his allotted time.
Justin Smith (better known to the world as Just Blaze) has created a strong brand for himself over the years and if you’re reading this with little knowledge of exactly who he is (where have you been!?) I would hazard a guess that you’ve heard his sonic signature he places at the start of his tracks – although you probably just assumed it was a reference to smoking weed.
Over the past 15 years Justin’s production credits include the likes of Jay-Z, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar and Drake to name a few. He’s the kind of person I would love to sit down with for the day, get past the media trained answers, the stories he’s so used to telling, and dig a little bit deeper. I am sure the results would be fascinating.
Unfortunately though, tonight is not that night and Justin is on a tight schedule. The interview has already been moved around a couple of times and I have a 15 minute window in between prior engagements. To make matters worse the connection isn’t great and trying to record the interview on loudspeaker via my built in laptop mic doesn’t seem to be helping (yep, we’re the height of professionalism at Breaks).
That being said the below is by no means uninteresting and it was a pleasure to catch up with Justin following his recent performance at Fresh Island in Croatia. So, enough from me, enjoy:
So you’ve just got back from Europe right? I saw you at Sonar the other day.
Yeah I was at Sonar and We Are Electric.
Cool man, what’ve you been up to mostly recently. Have you been playing out a lot or producing? What’ve you been doing the most?
Yeah I’ve actually been on the road pretty heavily so I’m trying to take the summer pretty slow so I can get back in the studio and get back to producing. I don’t really like to produce on the road that much because I’m just used to having my studio in my creative environment. So it’s hard to make records on airplanes and in hotel rooms, for me at least.
And you’ve just moved studios right?
Yeah I’m actually in the process of building a new studio right now actually.
In New York?
It’s actually going to be in Weehawken, which is right outside of Manhattan. It’s in New Jersey.
Nice. So you’ve said in interviews before you used to DJ house, breakbeat and rave music. What were some of the artists you were listening to around that time?
Like you said I was playing a lot of early rave stuff. A lot of stuff from Belgium like T99 and LA Style. Then you had all the early XL Recordings stuff like The Prodigy. I mean Charly is one of my all time favourite songs. Then Pandemonium and you had stuff like Cubic 22 – Night in Motion, DHS – House of God. Then you had some early UK stuff like Acen – Close Your Eyes or The Life and Crimes of a Ruffneck. You had the deep house thing happening in New York so you had labels like Strictly Rhythm putting out records like Luv Dancing. You know all time classics like Earth People by Pal Joey along with Hot Music by Pal Joey as well. House 2 House – I Wanna See You Dance. The deep house thing was very very big obviously in New Jersey where I’m from. I wasn’t the only but in my city I was one of maybe two or three guys that played that way. You know I had a lot of friends who were DJ’s growing up but most of them were either reggae DJ’s or they were house DJ’s or they were techno DJ’s or radio DJ’s. There were very few that played, now what you would call, open format.
And you can see how that’s influenced your sets now as well. As I said, I caught your set at Sonar and you mix fast and are quick to switch it up.
Yeah, Sonar was a lot of fun until the bass kept knocking my computer off the stage. I was really into it but then once something like that happens it throws you because you’re in the groove, you’re connecting with the crowd and you guys have that synergy going. Then all of a sudden the computer cuts out, and then it cuts out again and your laptop falls off. The whole time I’m on the mic like ‘please turn the bass down up here’ but the sound men are in their own world and it threw me for a while. I got my groove back but it was definitely a little painful for about 15 minutes.
[Laughs] You handled it well though, of course.
What’s the sampling process like for you? Do you already have a stock pile of bits and pieces you’ve saved up over the years or do you still go looking for new samples?
I don’t have as much time to record shopping as I used to for obvious reasons. You know when I was record shopping very heavily I wasn’t really doing anything but sitting in the studio, all day. I didn’t own any businesses, I wasn’t controlling my own publishing, I wasn’t running a studio, owning a studio, I wasn’t travelling or touring. It’s a different time now. That being said, to be honest, I did so much digging in those years that I still haven’t got through all my records. I probably have around 35,000 records at this point and I still haven’t gotten through half of it. I still record shop though; I just don’t record shop as heavily. Sometimes I do that when I’m travelling. Also, I have dealers that will come to me now especially because so many of the record stores have closed down. The record store industry, as we all know, has pretty much collapsed. It’s not as easy to go to a store to buy records. A lot of people do it online now, not because they want to but because they don’t really have a choice. You know thank god the Internet has even given us that option. So I still dig but it’s just not always necessarily in the same manner
You’ve talked about making standout records and not singles. What’s a good indicator for you that a track’s going to stand the test of time?
I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of, what many people consider, classic albums at this point. The thing is though, when you’re making it, you don’t know that. I was doing an interview the other day and this exact point came up that when you’re making history many times you don’t know it because it takes the passage of time and the opinions of the masses to really deem something a classic. You can love it and think it’s your best work ever and the people might not agree. If people don’t agree your opinion doesn’t matter. There have been things, which I’ve considered to be some of my best work, that don’t necessarily resonate as well. There are things that I’ve done that I thought were ok and things that I could have done better and they’re held as classics to this day. Ultimately, you never really know and it’s just something the passage of time can dictate.
I guess on that point how was working with Kendrick and when you were asked to work with him did you know how much he was going to blow up?
I honestly wasn’t sure. I liked him as an artist. It’s funny because Compton, the record I did with him and Dre, was actually the first record he ever did with Dr Dre or for Aftermath in general. It was almost kind of a test. Dre was interested in him so basically put a call in to Kendrick’s people and had him come down and write a track. I happened to be in LA that day and so that was the first thing he worked on. I definitely saw something special but you never really know when you’re in the mix. Sometimes you have to wait to see what the cultural impact is.
I want to talk about producing a little bit more. You’ve always been an advocate of technology being one of the first producers to really work with Pro Tools. Do you think there’s still a bit of a stigma about not using hardware?
I mean I wouldn’t say it’s a stigma because even in my early years there were guys working from software and there was always debate about hardware and software. I think the difference nowadays is that whilst software’s ability has always been there, it’s always been limited by what computers are capable of. Nowadays it’s nothing to have a computer or laptop with a 1TB SSD and 16GB Ram whereas I remember when having 2GB Ram and a 8GB hard drive was a major thing. When I first started using Pro Tools you could only get 8 tracks per hard drive. You had to have at least three hard drives for 24 tracks. You had to use this thing called Round-robin allocation to spread the three tracks across your three drives. You know and the software always had the capability of being better but the computers and laptops we were using weren’t really capable of producing the results that the software was capable of. now the computer hardware has caught up so the debate to me doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t really matter what you use as long as you do it well and your most important instrument is your ear and your brain. There are great records that have been made in people’s kitchens with cassette four tracks and there are horrible records that have been made in multi-million dollar studios with every piece of gear you can imagine. So ultimately what matters most is what you have going on in your brain and your ears.
So I guess you’ve been doing this for a while now. How do you keep things fresh and stay inspired?
I get inspired a lot of times by just staying in tune with what’s happening in the underground because everything that’s underground eventually comes to light. I mean you can pretty much take that with anything. I mean at one point Wu-Tang Clan was considered pop music not because they were making music that was geared towards the pop world but because it became popular. You know but they were the exact antithesis of everything that was going on in hip-hop at that time. You take something like deep house… I mean the deep house of today is a little different to the stuff I grew up with, although there is still definitely a connection in those sounds, but there was a point in time where you only heard deep house at certain clubs whether it was in New York City or Chicago. Now you turn on the radio and generations have passed and you have guys like say Disclosure who have taken that sound, given it a new identity and it’s on Top 40 radio. So to really stay inspired it’s a two way street. You have to know your past but you also have to be able to look towards the past and look what’s happening right now to understand what’s going to happen next. The other key thing that goes along with that is just staying in touch with younger people who are doing new, fresh things because as good as I am, as much as there’s things that only I could do, there are millions of other techniques and methods of producing that only somebody else knows. You know, somebody comes up with a trick, they use it on a record and the records really goes nowhere past the underground. Then somebody else picks up on that same trick or that same new sound and puts their spin on it and that keeps happening until it becomes more and more popular. Then all of a sudden it’s huge. You take what some people call 100bpm twerk music, like Southern hip-hop drums with EDM… I hate that term but EDM type sounds… I remember doing a set of that at the Hard Summer festival two years ago and some people got it but a lot of people were scratching their heads. I even got angry messages on Twitter about the fact that I came to Hard Summer and played what sounded like rap music. Then you fast forward a few years later and a bunch of those other guys are playing those festivals now so it’s definitely a matter of being able to stay on top of the curve and stay in touch with the younger guys who are making the new fresh sounds. If you keep doing the same thing over and over, you staying the studio or lock yourself in your room, you’re going to make the same music over and over. That’s not progress.
Is there anyone in particular who’s really catching your attention at the moment?
So many guys man, I could be here forever. A lot of times when I travel I just sit on Soundcloud all day and just go through. I could be checking out Cashmere Cat’s Soundcloud, which then leads me to some new thing that Brenmar just put up but then I end up on the page of a dude I never heard of and I download the track. On Soundcloud you can get a notification of who downloaded your track and I’m on the page of a random 16 year old kid who lives in the middle of nowhere. I have no idea who he is but he’s just geeking out because Just Blaze downloaded his record. A lot of times you don’t know who these people are because it could be anybody these days with the Internet. That exact situation happened to me a month and a half ago. I found a random remix of some Ludacris record and I loved it but I wanted to do an edit of it. So I downloaded it and I get an email from the kid via my Soundcloud like ‘I can’t believe you just downloaded my song’. So I told him it was a great remix and I actually want to do an edit of it. So he asked if I could send him my edit because I would love to see you play it live but I can’t go to shows for another four years because I’m only 14.
You know what I mean?
And if I went through every great thing I’ve come across recently we’d be here forever. I mean we all know who the top younger guys are. Whether it’s Kaytranada, some of the guys that I just mentioned, RL Grime or Baauer, Sonny Digital, there’re a lot of great guys out there. One thing I will say is anybody who claims about music not being great right now is just looking in the wrong places because there’s a tonne of great producers out there.
Photos: ‘Just Blaze at Fresh Island 2015 taken by GOXMAG’
Catch Just Blaze every Thursday at Webster Hall, NYC http://www.websterhall.com/houseparty/