Both Sides Now

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

He does concede, though, that his career and that of West have often paralleled one another. "We were both on that Mase Harlem World album, which was my first album and, if I'm not mistaken, was his first album," Just remembers. "He was the token black guy at the Gap; I was the token black guy at Aeropostale, which was the Gap's biggest competitor back in the '90s. So it is weird. We both came up playing a lot of video games, which we're both obviously too busy to play now. We'll always be tied to each other in one way or another. I just did his last single. There will always be some kind of connection. But at this point, we've both accomplished enough on our own that I don't think people will think about us like that."


For his part, Just says that he has no interest in becoming a solo artist. "I could rap," he says. "I could rap right now if I wanted to. I rap probably better than most rappers. . . . But do I want that lifestyle? Do I want that hecticness? No. I got bad asthma. I don't want to be running around onstage for an hour."

Following Just around for an evening, one gets the impression he doesn't have much use for the spotlight, that he'd prefer to spend his time digging through stacks of old records and tinkering with samplers. He certainly doesn't look much like a star: short and doughy, wearing a decade-old Polo windbreaker and sucking on an inhaler every few minutes. At Sound Library, a clerk introduces him to the only other customer in the store, West Coast indie-rap producer Dan "the Automator" Nakamura. Soon, Nakamura tells Just that he's been looking for an SP1200 drum machine. (Just: "I think I know one person who may have one out in Jersey. I could ask him if you want." Nakamura: "Yeah, cool, that's cool. If you ever want to do any bootleg cheap stuff, call me up.") The two then get into a 20-minute discussion about favorite sampling programs. Later, at Baseline Studios, Just will get into a similar conversation with another producer, the frequent Mobb Deep collaborator Alchemist. Just loves this stuff.

Blaze balances the scale.
Blaze balances the scale.

He walks out of the Sound Library with hundreds of dollars' worth of old LPs: The Body and Soul of Tom Jones, Lalo Schifrin's soundtrack to Kelly's Heroes, an old Sly and the Family Stone album. "I'll sometimes go into a store and spend two grand," he says, sitting in the back of a car service's black Lincoln Town Car on the way to Baseline Studios. "But if I spent two grand that day and I made one beat that I could sell for 40, 50, 60 grand, you just invested 2,000 and made 50."

The records may be an investment, but it's hard to imagine a producer like Lil Jon or Pharrell Williams dropping big money on the soundtrack of an Italian Charles Bronson movie. Blaze may make hits, but he's also the sort of New York rap classicist who speaks rapturously of taping Mr. Magic's radio show as a child. Born Justin Smith in middle-class Paterson, New Jersey, Blaze was fascinated with music from a young age: "The running family joke is that I DJ'd my first birthday party."

For his ninth birthday, his mother bought him a $70 Radio Shack mixer, and at age 14 he began DJ'ing at 21-and-up clubs. But he didn't pursue music as a career until much later, after spending two and a half years studying computer programming at Rutgers. "Going to college, I grew increasingly bored," he remembers, reclining in Baseline's gorgeously appointed lounge, surrounded by platinum records and framed Billboard pages with Roc-A-Fella singles highlighted. "In computer programming, they want you to take Calculus 4; I could barely make it out of pre-algebra."

So he took an internship at a Manhattan recording studio, which later became a regular job. "I would just be in the back room when I would get off work, playing my beats," he says. "If I knew somebody was in the studio, I'd turn it up loud so they could hear it outside the door."

One of the managers of Harlem rap star Mase heard Blaze's beats, and soon he offered to manage the young producer and enlist him to produce half of the debut album of another client, the then unknown St. Louis rapper Nelly. "Something told me not to do it," he says. "It turned out to be the smartest decision I ever made."

Even after turning the deal down, he produced a track on the album of Mase's offshoot group Harlem World, which led to production work for rappers like Killah Priest and Tragedy Khadafi. After a while, Blaze quit his day job. A few chance meetings led him to Roc-A-Fella Records, where he eventually produced several tracks on Jay-Z's 2000 The Dynasty: Roc la Familia. But Blaze's first big moment came with The Blueprint in 2001. "It culminated and exploded; we finally got it right," he says. "Jay's a&r at the time was like, 'I want to make this album really soulful.' He didn't say to make soul beats from soul records; he just wanted a soulful, grassroots feel."

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