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"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."
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.
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."
In the years after The Blueprint, the sound of East Coast rap changed completely, absorbing the cascading soul of Blaze and West and moving away from the keyboard-driven club tracks that had previously dominated it. For a while, Blaze was all over the radio. "When I look back, and I had records on the radio back-to-back-to-back, it was because of that Roc-A-Fella movement, which I think fell apart before it should've," he says. Roc-A-Fella split in 2004, when Jay-Z fell out with co-founders Damon Dash and Kareem "Biggs" Burke, who took half the label's roster with them when they left. "To just see it fall apart like that was heartbreaking. When you put all your time into it, I made some money and I got a name out of it, but you don't just do it for the money and the name."
Along with a few former Roc a&r's, Blaze founded Fort Knocks, signing a deal with Atlantic. At the moment, his main focus is on Saigon; he hasn't signed any other artists to Fort Knocks, and he's not sure if he will. "My thing is just let's do this one album and do it right," he explains.
But he also says that he doesn't want to be making beats 20 years from now. "Look at these records," he says, flipping through his pile of new acquisitions. "Where is Mike Theodore now? Dennis Coleman was a huge artist back in the '70s. Where is Mike Stokes? This record's been sampled a million times; producers pay $50 just to get a copy of it online, but where is that dude now? Nobody knows.
"Someone was asking me how it feels to be living out your dreams; I'm not," he continues. "This was never part of the plan. I'm just taking every opportunity that was handed to me and running with it."
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