During his 15-year tenure as a deejay and producer, Just Blaze has worked closely with storied artists like Jay Z (“Show Me What You Got”), but has also continued to rear the game’s up-and-comers like Kendrick Lamar (“Compton”).
“There are things about Hip Hop that aren’t exclusive to Hip Hop, but mostly happen in Hip Hop, and I think it’s because we have very few real success stories,” Just explained during a lengthy phone conversation. “So when you do get one, it’s important to pass that knowledge on. When I see certain young producers or certain young DJs that I like, I want to see them succeed, because not that many of us really do in the long term.”
His name may not be blasted over-top of all the beats he makes, but Just Blaze has managed to stay atop the music industry through his ability to adapt. His most recent move—working with electronic producer/DJ Baauer of “Harlem Shake” fame—has garnered him new success and once again kept him ahead of the curve. Just added that he found it more lucrative to initially give the single away as a free download as opposed to just selling the track for a flat fee.
Here, the savvy businessman and talented musician speaks on his widening range of musical genres, the relationship between Jay Z and Dame Dash, how he prepares for his performances at music festivals and Kendrick Lamar’s controversial verse on Big Sean’s latest track “Control.”
Just Blaze On Similarities In Hip Hop & Electronic Music
HipHopDX: You and Jay Z are a tried and true duo, but recently you’ve been working with Baauer. What has that been like?
Just Blaze: It’s not any different from what I normally do. I mean, one of the things that people assume—and understandably so because I’m known for Hip Hop—but one of the questions I get a lot is, “What is the transition like?” But for me there is no transition. I’ve been deejaying and making Electronic Music just as long as I have Hip Hop; it was just never something that I had the outlet for before. I’m from Northern New Jersey, so we’ve been on the Deep House thing since the beginning. It’s just a different style that I get to express now.
But it’s really cool to be 15 years into my career and still make great, relevant music and things that people love…to tour the world off of something that’s a passion of mine. And in terms of extending that to Baauer, I’ve always said that if you want to maintain and stay a step ahead, you’ve got to get ahead of the curve, and he’s definitely one of those guys that’s part of the new regime—the new sound. And even with a lot of the Electronic/Trap stuff, it’s really just an extension of Hip Hop anyways. It’s our drums with electronics and some things like that; to me it’s all the same thing—it’s good music.
DX: So why is now the right time to do tracks like “Higher” as opposed to some of the more cutting-edge Hip Hop you’ve done in the past?
Just Blaze: I wouldn’t say it’s about the right time or the wrong time. But what I will say is that this generation, with the younger generation that’s out in the clubs and at the parties right now, it’s more acceptable to be different. It’s more acceptable to have a wide range of influences and to like different music.
When I was young, when I was a teenager, things were very much in a box, and they were very much compartmentalized. You were either into Hip Hop or you were into Techno, or you were into deep house, or you were into Heavy Metal. Whatever music you identified with, that’s what you represented. And I feel like these days, those boundaries aren’t there anymore. You pick up someone from the younger generation’s iPods or whatever and see what they’re listening to, and you see Daft Punk or Justice, but also Kendrick Lamar or J. Cole, and Florence And The Machine. It’s cool to be different and to have different influences now, and that’s something that I’ve always wished for because that’s how I came up—with a little bit of everything.
So I think that the fact that a record like “Higher,” which is a blend of so many different things from Trap, to Hip Hop, to traditional dance music with a bit of a Dubstep influence—it’s all these things all in one. It encapsulates the fact that there is no one right form of music anymore. Good music is good music, and that’s the way the times are now.
How Genre Blending Changed The Music Industry
DX: With the current digital movement going on in music right now, how relevant do you think it is to even classify genres anymore?
Just Blaze: There’s obviously going to be certain genre lines. You’re not going to mistake Heavy Metal for Rap, and you’re not going to mistake Country for R&B. But when it comes to music in general these days, there’s so much genre music that it almost doesn’t make sense to a certain degree. There’s so many of these big records that are out that you can’t really put in a box. You can go to one of these “Electronic” music festivals and you’ll end up hearing a ton of Hip Hop as well, and to that extent Hip Hop music is Electronic Music. It’s all made on computers the same way what we consider Dance Music is. And the phrase EDM in general…can you not dance to Hip Hop?
One of the main similarities between them is that they’re all made with Electronic instruments. They’re all made with laptops and drum machines and computers. That’s why the phrase EDM kind of bothers me; most music today is Electronic Music. So it really irks my nerves when people try to give music a classification, because things are usually put into a box so someone can sell it to you. It’s like, “This is what you need to hear. This is what you need to buy.” And don’t get me wrong, I want people to buy the record and support, I just don’t want people to put things in a box.
DX: You’ve been in the game for so long and seen all the phases it’s gone through. Do you think Hip Hop is just going through another phase right now, or is it actually reinventing itself? Is music in general just going through the phase of the Digital Age?
Just Blaze: Music is constantly evolving. People say Nas never made another Illmatic, but if Nas only kept making Illmatic, the album wouldn’t be special. If music were the same way it had always been, it would get boring; there would be no progress. Music is constantly going through a phase because times change, people change, sounds changes, the generations change, and with every change you get something new.
When people complain and say they don’t make music like they used to, well good! They shouldn’t! If they did, it would just be the same thing over and over again.
DX: One thing that changed recently was Priority Records, which has completely reinvented itself and gone from a strictly Hip Hop label to putting out dance music and a wide range of genres. Do you think this trend will continue and more labels will start to branch out?
Just Blaze: The music industry is definitely in a phase of catch up. They’re catching up to the Digital Age—the way people consume music, the way people create music and the way music is released. It’s definitely for the better.
The music industry tried to stick to an old business model that doesn’t work, so the more you have young executives coming in that understand the way the market works now and the way people create and consume music now, the more you’ll start to see more artist-centered labels such as Priority.
The North Coast Music Festival & Just Blaze’s Show Routine
DX: You are doing a lot more shows now; you’re going to be at the North Coast music festival in Chicago soon. As you mentioned earlier, audiences at these festivals and shows have a wider taste in the music. How do you prepare for your shows now, and how do you prepare for these big festivals?
Just Blaze: Oh man, to be honest I just go in with the mindset that I’m going to get up there and kill it, and I just pray. You never… Things can always go wrong.
To be honest, I treat playing for festival the same way I would treat playing at a bar or a club. To me it’s all the same. You have to give the best performance you can, you’ve got to go in prepared and bring you’re A-game, and most importantly you have to entertain the crowd. You have some of these guys that go out there and play the same set over and over and just don’t really give their all to the fans.
For me, before every show I always am in the routine, but I always try and throw new tricks in, because at a lot of these festivals you have people who travel. I have people who have seen me play at a festival in L.A., who have also seen me play at a festival in Miami, who have also seen me play at a festival in London. If they’ve seen me play the same thing three times in a row, they don’t want to see me anymore.
The main thing is to keep it fresh and keep it entertaining. Don’t overthink it, because if you overthink it… However you picture the show is going to go in your mind is never how it’s actually going to go. You’ve got to be prepared for curve balls, you have to be prepared for the crowd to react to a certain routine the way you thought they would, you have to be prepared for the crowd to react to a certain song differently than the way you would. So again, you have to be prepared to be on your toes. That’s why I think that I have a little bit of an advantage, because I’ve been deejaying the majority of my life. And by deejaying I don’t just mean playing records; I’ve been out there since I was 16 engaging crowds and figuring how to move crowds. I think a lot of the guys now, the younger guys, may not have that experience because they just haven’t been out there very long.
So I think that’s one of the differences with my shows and performances. You’re getting two things: A) You’re getting the experience that I have in knowing how to engage crowds and play good music and B) I come from that old-school Hip Hop sensibility of the DJ making the crowd participate and making them feel like they’re part of the show. I’m not playing to you, I’m playing for you and with you. There’s a difference.
Just Blaze’s Thoughts On Jay Z’s Samsung Deal & Dame Dash
DX: There’s obviously a few differences between touring with a rapper like Jay Z and putting on your own deejay set. Do you prefer to have a little more of that freedom?
Just Blaze: It’s two different things. One of the great things about going on the road and deejaying with Jay, is that a lot of my records are still the big records of his set. Don’t get me wrong, I am the support DJ for the artist, but at the same time, it’s kind of also my show when 30-40% of the show is my records.
Also, when I did things with Jay, it’s not like he just says these are the songs we’re doing and that’s that. We’re still figuring out routines and learning new tricks. You’ve got to remember that Jay has a catalogue that goes back 15 years or so, and he has a lot of dedicated fans that have seen him perform multiple times. Even though you have standard songs that you do, you still have to find cool ways to spice things up, and I’m very much involved in that process and setting the show up.
DX: I’m not sure if you saw recently, but some pictures came out of Jay Z and Dame Dash posing for pictures at a club. Do you think that this signifies a change in their relationship or are people blowing this out of proportion?
Just Blaze: Here’s the thing—Jay Z is a smart dude. He knows how to maintain his position of power and the appearance of being in position of power. Had he known Dame was there and not acknowledged him, it would have made him look weak.
Obviously they each do their own thing, but they took some time to acknowledge each other. They’re both grown men, they’ve both had their successes and they both built something great. I could not be friends with you, but if Jay asks you to take some pictures why not? I don’t think they’re all of the sudden going to be buddy buddy again, hanging out and be back in business, but I think that inside it’s something they know people like to see. People like to see those shows of a reunion; it’s a reminder of a great era in Hip Hop.
DX: Can you go into detail about the Magna Carta Holy Grail deal with Samsung and what that means for Hip Hop?
Just Blaze: Well, to me the old business model is dead. It’s not working anymore; the numbers don’t lie. There are very few artists who still sell a large amount of records for better or worse. Touring is not as lucrative as it used to be; it’s still lucrative but the numbers are down.
But the business model has needed a change, and I’ve always said a shift is going to come where the music isn’t the product. The music is a commercial in itself for other things. You can’t just go out there and make a good record and hope to sell a million copies. When I first did “Higher,” I put it out for free basically as a commercial for the tour I was going on with Baauer, and I made so much more money than I would have if I had sold that beat to an artist. I had so many more opportunities. For me, the music is a commercial. Here’s the stuff I want you to support whether it’s the tour or whoever is going to be in it or things like that.
To me, the Samsung deal that Jay did is that concept on a much higher and more expansive level. And just goes to show that there’s more than one way to get by and make a profit by being an artist and making music. It’s not about people going to Best Buy and buying your album or going on iTunes and buying your album; there are other ways that you can be an artist and be a businessman or a businessperson and making a living off of it other than record sales.
DX: Going back to you as a producer, there’s only a few producers who have risen above rappers—Premo, Pete Rock and those guys. What got you into the beat making side of thing in the first place?
Just Blaze: It all comes from deejaying. I don’t just make beats, I produce records, and there’s a difference between the two. But everything that I do, everything that I know about producing records and making beats—the song arrangement, the song structure and what sounds good and what doesn’t—all comes from deejaying. I’ve been deejaying literally since I could walk.
To me, production is an extension of deejaying. That’s why I tell people I’m a DJ first and a producer second. But they all go hand-in-hand. If I didn’t know how to deejay, I wouldn’t know how to make music.
DX: I saw that you also play the drums for the beats of some of your tracks. Why is that?
Just Blaze: I don’t do it on every song. I just do it if it’s needed for that record or if I think it’ll sound good. Part of being a producer is just knowing what sounds good, and for me if a record necessitates the sound of a lot of drums, I go for it. If it calls for 808’s, I go for that. But If I want that soulful, organic feel, I definitely like to give it a live drum feel.
Just Blaze Says Kendrick Lamar Will Have A Super Successful Run
DX: You also helped out and produced the track “Compton” on Kendrick’s album good kid m.A.A.d. city, which has had such success. He’s kind of been held up as the next king of Hip Hop for a lot of people. What was it like working with Kendrick?
Just Blaze: I love what Kendrick is doing, I love what he’s done. He’s found that balance of how to make commercially viable music that still is respectable and has its roots in what we call traditional Hip Hop. And finding that balance is something that’s very hard to do. Very few people have. Jay’s figured it out, Eminem has figured it out; there are very few that can do that. Because he figured that out at such an early stage in his career, I think he’s going to have a super successful run for a long time.
DX: It seems like all the greats in Hip Hop are flocking to him to try and help him. Are there any similarities or differences between his rise and the rise of people back in the Golden Age? What has he learned from working with you and all these other legends?
Just Blaze: It’s all part of the learning experience. I’m sure that he’s learned a lot from Dre; he’s worked with Jay and other great producers, great emcees, and being held in a high regard. So I’m sure he’s experiencing a lot of things and meeting a lot of people that he’s getting inspired by and learning from every day.
It’s the same thing with me. Getting to watch a lot of legendary producers when I was younger, watching them work in the studio, even if I wasn’t directly talking to them or working with them, just watching and learning…and I think that’s something Kendrick’s done for a long time, and I think we’re seeing the results of that pay off.
DX: It seems like every time you have the next big producer or emcee, everyone reaches out to help. It doesn’t seem like something that happens in other genres…
Just Blaze: There are things about Hip Hop that aren’t exclusive to Hip Hop, but mostly happen in Hip Hop, and I think it’s because we have very few real success stories. So when you do get one, it’s important to pass that knowledge on. When I see certain young producers or certain young DJ’s that I like, I want to see them succeed, because not that many of us really do in the long term. So I’m always happy to pass on my knowledge when I can.
I think when you’re secure in your spot and with your legacy, you don’t feel like you’re threatening yourself or your longevity by giving someone else career advice or show them the ropes. You’re actually helping yourself. The more of us that pass on our knowledge, the more of us that go on to succeed increases more opportunities to succeed as a whole.
DX: What do you think of Kendrick’s verse on the track “Control.” The Internet is going crazy about him dissing everybody in the game.
Just Blaze: He’s not dissing anybody, he’s just saying that, “I’m out to be number one,” which is what he should be doing. Nobody wants to gun for number two.
DX: I know you’ve kind of stopped working with Jay Electronica because he’s out in London, and it’s hard to get together in the studio. What makes being close-by or in the same room with the rapper you’re making beats for so important to a producer?
Just Blaze: There’s a different vibe when you’re just sending tracks back and forth by e-mail as opposed to bouncing ideas off of each other. I get paid to produce records, not make beats. Anybody can make beats these days.
The best records that I’ve done have been records where we’ve done things together in the room. It’s more organic, and it’s more of an actual vibe of creating something together. I’m just not really into that at all. Sometimes you do what you have to do, and I’m thankful that we have the technology for that, but it’s not the same.