Both Sides Now

From the underground to the chart tops, Just Blaze aims to save New York hip-hop

"Part of what I'm trying to do is to play both sides of the fence," says Just Blaze, sitting in a small, harshly lit East Village pizzeria, across the street from the rare-records emporium Sound Library. "You gotta make money, and you gotta maintain your financial stability. But I believe you can do it without totally sabotaging yourself or selling yourself out. But it's harder and harder to do that. It's like the hardest thing in the world."

More than any other person, Just Blaze is responsible for the sound of East Coast rap in 2006. On albums like Jay-Z's 2001 masterpiece The Blueprint, Just and fellow Roc-A-Fella Records house producer Kanye West pioneered a sweeping, cinematic take on the archetypal boom-bap style of New York rap. It's directly descended from the work of early-'90s producers like Pete Rock and DJ Premier, but it replaces their stark austerity with the expansive lift of early-'70s r&b, keeping the drums loud but filling the empty spaces with glistening waves of weeping strings and sped-up samples of old soul singers. Just Blaze's productions are striking in their depth and versatility; they work as well behind frantically violent threats as they do underneath searching, introspective laments like Jay-Z's "Song Cry," and they have made Just one of hip-hop's most sought-after producers. But that's not all he wants to be.

Over the past five years, he has had massive hits (Cam'ron's "Oh Boy," Joe Budden's "Pump It Up"), and he's spawned hordes of imitators. But he's watched New York fall from being the undisputed center of rap culture to becoming just another regional market, dwarfed by the enormous success of Southern scenes like those in Atlanta and Houston. He's seen West, his closest peer, morph into a global superstar. And he's become increasingly dis- illusioned with the state of rap.

"I'm not one of those dudes that needs to be living in the past all day, but there's got to be a balance, and right now the balance of hip-hop is totally like this," he says, miming an unbalanced scale. "That raw grittiness, the essence of it, is totally down here. I've done uptempo club records with no samples and keyboards; I'm not mad at that. But the more I notice things getting screwed up, the more I'm like I gotta play my part in balancing the scale a little more. And if I fail, cool. I just gotta do what my heart tells me, and right now my heart is telling me that somebody's got to be at the front of people bringing it back. There's not too many people from the boom-bap East Coast era who are even in a position to make a difference in hip-hop. I'm one of the few who anybody even has half of an eye on. A lot of my heroes wouldn't even have the opportunity to do it. It's almost like I have to do it."

A few years ago, Just Blaze's name was inescapable on the radio. Over the past year or so, though, he's kept a lower profile, contributing tracks to major albums from Kanye and the Game but also working with personal favorites like West Coast indie rapper MED and Wu-Tang Clan member Ghostface Killah. He's also set up Fort Knocks, a bou- tique label under Atlantic Records, where later this year he'll release the debut album by rising New York mixtape star Saigon. "This is the first time the pressure has ever been on me and solely me to deliver a whole product," says Just. "There's a lot of other people involved, but at the end of the day, if his album is wack, it's on me, not anybody else. It's not even on him."

"Just is a genius, man, but working with somebody that's that talented, all people that talented are a little weird," says Saigon, taking a break between sessions at Baseline Studios. "He's nocturnal; he sleeps during the day and works at night. I've learned to adjust my hours for him, so now I'm semi-nocturnal, just working with him. But it's been a blessing, man. When he comes, he comes hard."

As Just Blaze has moved even further behind the scenes, Kanye West has followed a startlingly different career path, making the transition from producer to world-famous solo artist. "His career went where he wanted it to go," says Just Blaze of West. "He never really wanted to be a producer. He always wanted to be an artist. He was just producing to get himself there because nobody took him seriously as a rapper at the time. And that's what he needed to do, because at the time his rapping just wasn't that great. But as time passed, he got better and better as an artist, to the point where he didn't want to be a producer, other than for himself.

"People always used to men-tion us together; they used to compare us or put us in some kind of competition," Just continues. "To me, there never was one. Even though we did similar things, we did them very differently."

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