Interview: Just Blaze Talks Baseline Studios, From the Making of Jay-Z's The Blueprint to the End of an Era
"For The Blueprint, Jay-Z literally just walked into the studio one day and was like, 'Anybody got some beats?'"
Last Thursday, when producer Justin "Just Blaze" Smith announced he was closing shop at Baseline Studios, longtime recording homebase for Roc-A-Fella Records and other hip-hop and R&B luminaries, it marked not just the end of an era but the end of an ethic. Other historic venues for rap recording, including Chung King Recording Studios, Sony Music Studios, and The Hit Factory, have closed their doors in recent years, so the end of Baseline--where albums like Jay-Z's The Blueprint and Cam'Ron's Come Home With Me were recorded in part--feels like a stroke of finality in New York's ever-losing bid for geographical relevance. None of this means Just Blaze is retiring--in fact, just yesterday it was announced that he was joining in a partnership with Harlem's Stadiumred, a rising recording giant. Still, things won't be the same. In 2006, Sean Fennessey conducted a long interview with Just in the A room of Baseline to discuss his career, his future plans, and the legacy of the music made under his roof. In honor of Baseline's departure, here (below) is an extended excerpt from that interview, and--bonus!--
a pretty much definitive collection of Just Blaze's production [now down, at the producer's request], over at Sean's blog, Split Infinitives.
Let's start with your best known work: Tell me about the genesis of The Blueprint. We really didn't talk about it, that's the first thing about that album. For all the myths and whatnot surrounding about how he works, although we saw a lot of it in Fade To Black, for The Blueprint he literally just walked into the studio one day and was like "Anybody got some beats?" Which really grabbed me. That's how the album came about. After the Dynasty album came out, I don't remember him saying "Ya'll, I'm going to start on my album around such and such time." That was about six months down the line from whenever time that was, then he walked in two months later. He doesn't even say, "Let's start the album." Just...
Let's do this? He does that from time to time. It's not even so much "I'm going to make a song," it's just "I feel like rapping, who's got some beats?" That's how he started with the Kingdom Come single ["Show Me What You Got."] He would just come during those three years he wasn't making any albums and just pop up every once in a while like exercise, know what I mean? Like Jordan or Kobe, or any other great, they didn't get to where they got by just playing basketball when they needed to. You still gotta go in and practice here and there so that's really what that was. He just walked in one day and was like "Who's got some beats?" Kanye had like five and I had like three or four and he did nine songs in three days.
What was your reaction when he said, "Let's go"? Did you have things you were working on for him and keeping to the side? It was just, "I happen to have this here," know what I mean? As cohesive as the album was...sometimes there is a grand scheme, as far as putting things together. Sometimes they just fall into place. That's kind of how a lot of my career has been - things falling into place. I think I had "U Don't Know" done already, I think I had "Song Cry" started but I hadn't finished it yet. "Breathe Easy (Lyrical Exercise)" had been done. I did that beat messing around with the ASRX or something. "Girls, Girls, Girls" was old by that point, like real old. I actually made that beat for Ghostface. I just never had the opportunity to run into him to give it to him. It's just one of those things where I just had it. If I ever saw him I'd have given him the beat.
None of them were made with Jay in mind? It was just like I said: He wasn't going to start working with us for another four months.
How much did you nudge Jay to get back to recording? Every time he would come around, I'd just pop up and say, 'Just listen to this. Listen to this.' That was how we did "Dear Summer." He had to put that down as a freestyle just to do it, when he was doing an S. Carter commercial. And I had the beat already so I just pushed him up. I took his a capella from a freestyle and put it on the beat and slipped it over to him. So we threw it on throw it on Bleek's album. But whenever I see him. You know, he knew, he knew, because we'd be in the studio and I just start playing beats and he'd be like "Aiight, I see what y'all are trying to do." He used to leave the studio so that he wouldn't get the urge to start rapping. But when you're an artist like that and you're as good a rapper as he is then your love... you're only gonna be away but so long.
Explain the story about putting the "Kingdom Come" beat together in 30 seconds. The way that really happened was I've been trying to get a web site together for years, right, and I always get it like 65%-75% done and then I just get busy and drop the ball on it. My problem is that I'm too much, when it comes to things like that, I'm too hands on and control freak to just completely farm it out to somebody and bring it back to me. So one of my assistants was like "Why don't you just set up a MySpace page?" This was probably right before it became all the rage. So we set it up. One of the things he said was some of the celebrities and people of stature do is put a voice message up so that you know it's their page and not a fake fan page or something. I remember going to one of the first MySpace pages I ever saw was Jon B, the R&B singer, he's a friend of mine. I remember he had something like that up there, with like a beat in the background with him talking. So I was like "Yeah, we should do that." So I started to do it and I thought we should have a beat on here too. I remember being in Chicago about a month or two prior and finding a "Super Freak" 12" that had part 1 and part 2 on the A side and B side. I just bought it just to buy it because I never seen it and I collect records. So I bought it and didn't think anything of it. So the night we were going to record the voice intro for the MySpace page, I said let me see what I can find and I just dug through some records, pulled out about 10, and that was one of them. So I was playing it and I was just sitting there listening to it and I was thought "How crazy would it be if somebody could make a real beat out of this? Not just looping it like Hammer did but really just chopping it to pieces and reconstructing it. I was like, "I can pull that off." Actually I did it and started throwing into the MPC and as I was doing it, it just started coming to me. I remember I said on that thing that the whole beat took me like 30 seconds to make, which is true. A lot of people say there's no way he could have done that. ?uestlove hit me: "There's no way you could have done that beat in 30 seconds. I recreated it." I'm like "Your brain is not my brain." Same way I can't put together what you put together. The actual process of putting the samples in the machine, physically, took more than 30 seconds. But once it was all there...
You just pull out tiny parts and assemble them? Exactly. So that's what I did and once I did that and held the samples in the machine, it literally took me 30 seconds to make it work. And that was really it. I didn't think anything of it. Then I got on the MySpace page and the next day, it had like something retarded like 5,000 hits overnight and I was like "Huh?" Then it just became all the talk on the internet for 2 or 3 days and I realized people are paying attention. Jay eventually caught wind of it. ?uest was actually the first person to bring it to Jay's attention. He was telling me to do it but I was just like, "Ahh, whatever, it's not that serious." But he was like "Trust me, you have to do it, this record needs to be heard by the masses" and I was like "Fine, go ahead, talk to him." At the time, he still wasn't working on the album yet. But the seed was planted within a few days of the beat coming out. It's funny because some people's criticism was like, oh, Just Blaze used a 10-month old beat from his MySpace page. But actually it was done shortly after I put it up. One of the things that always bothers me about public perception is on one hand you can't blame them because they're not behind the scenes of everything but the first time you hear a record has nothing to do with the time it was actually completed. Like when you heard "Roc The Mic" for the first time, that record was 10 months old. When you heard "Oh Boy" for the first time, that record was 10 minutes old. Cam literally took that from [Baseline Studios] and went right to the radio. The record wasn't even mixed, mastered, not nothing. And radio put it right into rotation.
Sounds like this stuff would make a great documentary. Yeah, it could be a few documentaries. I have footage--I got tapes of Jay writing a rhyme in the A room while Cam'Ron is sitting right here writing a verse and Bleek is in here writing something, Beans and Juelz Santana are in the front trading rhymes back and forth. You will never see that again and nobody will ever believe that it actually even happened. Once I started thinking of things like that, I was like "I gotta record everything." Not so much with the intentions of making it all publicly available but just to have. You want to be able to tell your grandkids, you know the grandfather who's like 'When I was your age I was bad!'
How long does it usually take you to make a record? It really depends on what I'm going for. These days, I don't want to say I put more into it, it's longer because my approach is different.
Tell me about that. I hit a certain point where it was getting boring. Granted, people are gonna be like all right, you've done a lot but you have so much further to go, so much more you can do, I mean, Dre has done a lot but there's so much more he can do and he's done it all. It's all about where you're at personally. And I personally, alright, I've had the classic street bangers, I've had the radio smash, I've had the record that comes on in the arena, 30,000 people they all know the words, like, I gotta do something different. Some people are content with just having those kinda records where you're just repeating it over and over.
What was that thing then? My thing was more so just adding something different and I'm not sure what it was and I just started, I kinda stopped for a while just to really figure out what it was I wanted to do. And I still don't know what that is.
Is that why the output has been a little lighter than it was 4 years ago? Oh yeah. See, well A.) The rap game was different then, the artists were different.
How so? I'll get into that. I was at a different place in my career and I still had a lot to say. You gotta do what you gotta do to establish yourself in the beginning but then after you get to a certain point, you can't just run around and makes beats for anybody who has $50-$60K because you'll run yourself into the ground that way. B.) It lowers your value if just anybody can go to the studio and get a beat from you. Also, when I was talking about how the rap game changed and artists changed, I just wasn't as inspired. When I look at the way that things have gone musically, it's like, it's funny because a record like "Show Me What You Got" is the exact opposite of anything else that is on the radio and that's more so why my mind, or my heart, starts to go. It's just more so, all right, we've been sampling break beats for years and don't get me wrong, that record is based on a break beat but it's like, why aren't we making our own? Or why aren't we doing anything past taking a loop, like sample-based producers or the New York sound, whatever you want to call it. For the most part, we're taking loops or chopping something up and putting some drums on it--which is not to say it's not creative. It's just if you look at my discography, I've done that 400 times.
Do you feel like it's harder for people to go back to that East Coast sound because it's expensive? Not a lot of people can afford to flip "Super Freak" and "Shaft in Africa." No. "Show Me What You Got" should be expensive 'cause it's like three or four records mixed together. It's not always that difficult. A few examples: Memphis Bleek doesn't have a huge budget, he never sold hundreds of millions of records to have a huge budget. Or artists like Dilated Peoples. Their album has four samples. They don't have like a million dollar budget. So I don't think that that's it. There's been other times when an East Coast sound hasn't been hot and a West Coast sound was the only beat people wanted to hear. There's been times when nobody wanted to hear another synthesizer. They didn't want to hear "Funky Worm" played over for the eighty-thousandth time either. It all goes in cycles. Now the key is that when the cycle starts to come back to you, you can't just rehash and do it over the same way you did it before. It's got to be stronger. And I don't think it's so much the sound as I think it is the artist. Like for example when, Kingdom Come comes on, people are still bouncing to it. That's about as fast an effect of a sample material as "Super Freak." That's about as East Coast of a bounce record that you're gonna get. But it's like when the focus is on the West Coast and the East Coast came back, it wasn't just Illmatic, it wasn't just Ready to Die, it wasn't just Enter the 36 Chambers. It wasn't just a "Flavor in Ya Ear" record. It was a string of records, a string of events and records that brought it back to that prime. It wasn't just The Chronic, it wasn't just Doggystyle, It wasn't just the Dogg Pound album in the West Coast. It wasn't just Lil' Jon from the South, it wasn't just T.I., it wasn't just Jeezy or Paul Wall and Mike Jones. There has to be a succession of relevant, good albums. That's what makes me nervous about the East Coast more than anything else. Where's the great debuts or great albums?
So do you think there's an absence of great artists? I definitely think there is an absence of great artists. There's an absence of depth in the music. I'm not mad about it because everything goes in cycles. When my mother used to try and tell me that in 10 years rap music will be gone because when she was a kid, the Motown sound was in--but then eventually that disappeared. The Motown sound disappeared, R&B didn't disappear. The heavy metal sound of the early '80's disappeared but not rock music is still here. Grunge disappeared but rock is still here. So it all goes in cycles and sounds change. I'm not really mad at any of it and I honestly don't want to sit here and make a prediction as to where it's going to go because it's pointless on my end anyway because I don't work for Miss Cleo. I have no idea. What I can say just looking at the game, it's so many different factors. A.) the record labels try to fight the Internet instead of using it and by the time they just realized that they need to use it/work with it, it was too late. You shouldn't have shut down Napster, you should have partnered with it. You did that 10 years later. When you killed Napster, all you did was give birth to Kazaa, Limewire, and everybody else. Then Steve Jobs comes along and he's like wait a minute, we can do it, look. A couple years later, a billion records sold but at the same time, it's too late.
Where would you want hip-hop to go? I'd like to see it a little bit more balanced.
How so? Like the Roc in 2001? I would like to see things more balanced in the sense that obviously you want records for the club but I would like to see where you had serious music getting just as much respect as frivolous music, or getting the same amount of respect as club music. You know, just some kind of even playing field or a balance. You don't have that anymore, it's just completely gone like this and the part that makes me nervous even though it's like this, it's not the...business and sales are so slow. Who knows what's going to happen. I would just like to see it more balanced. As far as the Roc in 2001, that would be nice but that was only just a small fragment of the overall industry and I'm talking about the industry in general. I think that was probably when they were at their peak as far as the quality of the output. I'm just thankful to God that I was able to be a big part of that. A lot of people come up to me and are like you were one of the pillars of that whole situation at that time because if they didn't have those beats, it wouldn't have happened like that. And I never really liked to look at it like that because I think about it and I'm like I guess these people are....
Well you have like two, four, or five beats on every record that they put out. Sometimes even it's like, yeah, on one hand you can be like well if I didn't make those five or six beats, someone else would have and it may not have been as good. You never really know. You can speculate all you want but as far as how it actually ended up playing out, I guess I was a major part of that history.
You say you don't work as much anymore but you're the dude who's supposed to even it out. I get messages like that everyday, like a large part of the game rides on you, right, and I'm like...it's kind of crazy having that weight lay on you. Like something Jay said a few weeks ago that upset a lot of people but I don't think they realize the context of what he was saying. When Marley Marl called him up and was like, where are the Premo beats at on your album and he's like Just Blaze is Premo for me right now. People started twisting it all kind of ways, like it's no way Just Blaze is better than Premo. He never said that. He said the chemistry that I used to have with Premo as far as doing my NY records and street records, I have Just right now. Jay actually had Premo come down a few times in recent years, Black Album and everything.
There were a lot of rumors about that. Yeah and Premo didn't come down and like, I don't want to be the one to put other people's business out there, but I will say Jay did extend the hand to Premo, like "Come on down and give it a shot on this album." But the reason I even brought that up was because it's like, as far as Premo was the representative of what the hip-hop sound was for so long and so many people have said to be that you have to carry that torch. It rest on your shoulders at this point because you're the only one than can play both sides of the fence like that and it's a lot of pressure and it's hard because when you're technically doing what is largely considered out of style or not the hot thing right now, it's like it's hard to be able to maintain that mainstream positioning that we'd give you the chance to bring about that resurgence. If you go all the way underground with it and nothing works or sells, you're like, 'OK...'.
People ignore it. Exactly and then you're just lumped in with every other has been.
In the last five years, a lot of rap producers--primarily Timbaland, Kanye, Polow da Don, and will.i.am--have begun focusing on pop records. And you rarely do that. You rarely even work on R&B records. At first, it used to really get to me, and I used to always try to fight it. But I'm still always trying to do records with Usher, new records with Mariah, and all that. And it's not to say that I would do it now, but I think it just almost feels, like when you get it, you get successful to a certain point, and you're just like... I'm not saying that Polow doesn't love what records he has on the radio, or will.i.am doesn't love his Black-Eyed Peas records. But to me it was just like, 'What do you love? What makes you feel good?' And that's just the path I went on. It wasn't pop music. I have nothing against pop music at all, but it's not what I grew up listening to. It's not what my first love is. So my idea was like, you know what, I just have to take the raw profile. And it wasn't even a conscious decision. Certain things came along. Like Justin Timberlake came across the table at one point and I was just like, all right, I'm working on such and such right now, and if I get to it, I will, you know. But if you're gonna do something, do it all the way. What I mean by that is, when I'm working on whatever album it is I'm working on and a huge pop artist just happened to pop up like 'Hey, you're interested in hearing some stuff?' if I'm already doing this and I'm knee-deep in it, I'm not even going to sit down and take the time it'll take to really put something together for them. Because I want to be able to give it my full attention. And then at the same time, I can't give what I was already working on my full attention. So now, I'm selling both sides of them short. Sometimes you got to be in certain zones. You got to be in that certain zone to go that route. And I've just really been in my hip-hop zone.
Would you say that you saw a shift, a change, coming two or three years ago? That rap was going to move away from... In terms of what?
In terms of the East coast becoming a non-factor? Well in a sense I knew Roc-A-Fella was pretty much the only thing left on the East Coast. Once I saw that happening...
That break-up happening? Yeah, I saw that years ago, before anybody ever said anything about it. So once you see that start to happen you're just like 'Aw man, it's about to be over in a lot of ways.' So....
Was there any panic, internally for you? Is that why Fort Knox came about? No, when I saw that happening, it wasn't so much panic, as it was just disappointment. Because, for example, I have Cam saying to me, 'Yo, you should've did Dipset' and I'm like 'What are you talking about? But thing is we were all still here. He took me to the side, saying I should've did [the] Dipset [album] and I'm like 'What do you mean?' It's all out of love at the end of the day. I'm a part of Dipset, just as much as State Property or Get Low, know what I mean? But when you start to hear things like that, and all of a sudden you start to hear people refer to others as them, instead of us, then you see what's going on. So at first, I didn't even know what I would do. I felt like I invested my time and money to a certain degree. 'Cause pretty much everything that was in this studio, at least in this room alone, was mine already before I even brought this place.
So you brought a lot of this stuff that's already in here? Yeah, like this console wasn't here, none of this equipment was here. The Pro Tools wasn't here...
So were any records even made here before you came through? Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. There's two rooms here. So, not to say that it wasn't a functioning studio before I came along. It just wasn't to the degree. Like I was even adding on stuff to the Pro Tools ring in the A room. Like spending all that money just so we could mix records better, spending all that money. I put $20,000 worth of equipment into the A room and it's not even my A room. So it's like you invest time and money into the situation. More time than the money, you know what I mean? And the dedication and then you just see it fall apart. It was just so disappointing. It was sad because, yo we were this close. But everybody else fell. Ruff Ryders was gone. At the time Cash Money was slow, Bad Boy was nowhere to be found. So So Def--nothing was going on. It's like we were the only ones left--we got it. And we had just gotten Cam. His first platinum record, one of my biggest records. M.O.P. is here? Oh this is great! And then now look. Two years later. And so for me it was disappointing. And it didn't have a part of me, in terms of buying this place, like once that was over, I felt like I might as well just get rid of it. You know, I didn't want to do it anymore. That was the reason [the studio] was opened, was for Roc-A-Fella. You know, they didn't own it. So me doing Fort Knox was not so much an answer to Roc-A-Fella falling the way it did but more so just the end result. And I was always planning on doing something like that eventually. It was just the timing. Because I had so many commitments to Roc-A-Fella at the time and I never signed with them. We just did song deals first. 'All right, we like you. We're going to give you X amount of money and you're gonna give us X-amount of money.' It was...
It was always perceived that you were on the team. Oh yeah, that's what I'm saying. It was a team. But I wasn't actually signed to the team. It was just the way I preferred it. Because now I can still go do whatever I want with whoever I want. But I still have my main team that I'm a part of.
You think that would've happened even if Roc-A-Fella, didn't fall. Do feel at some point, you'd have said 'I have to go for it myself'? I always did go for myself. You know, even when things were going strong with me. I always had the right percent of their albums. I was always working with the other artists. Sony is right around the corner from here. So there were plenty of times where I'd go do a record over here with Jay or whoever, and go right around the corner and go do a record with Xzibit. So it was a good set up. So as long as they were happy about what they had, it didn't matter what I wanted to do with any other people. In that case, I would've originally got on to do my own thing, 'cause I already was doing my own thing. Would I have done the label? I probably still would have done it. Who knows it might have been through Roc-A-Fella. It's just unfortunate the way it happened. And even more unfortunate where it is now. Right now, it's like, all right it's not just now we don't want to be chill anymore. Now there's beef. But things can only stay behind the scenes for so long.
The Cam'ron beef was inevitable. The Cam thing, yeah it was definitely... It was just so funny to see it happen because it's just like, Ay, at ... we just got here, you would've never seen them talking. Because all those [Dipset dudes were] just being real polite. Like, thankful.
It was a mutually beneficial situation. Yeah, they were saying please and thank you to the interns.
That's a trip just to think it. Yeah, it's like, 'You dudes literally used to be like please and thank you to the interns. Shouting the interns out on records.' I'm stressing interns 'cause obviously they're nobody. But they were just so happy to be out of that situation and be around good energy, it was love all the way around. And then to see the change, little by little... Hold on, you're not even the same dude I knew when you first got here. To be where it is now, it's just like, literally, it's like looking at two different people. When little things used to come back to us, when we would be here, we would just be in shock, like 'Nah that can't be true, he said that? He wouldn't have done that.' But they were just here smiling in everybody's faces. So who knows, maybe that was the plan all along. Who knows?"
There's a lot to be said for the success that they had while they were with the Roc. Right. Cam has never went platinum until he... Yeah, and you know that was the argument me and him used to have. They was just in New York, Uptown. But having a huge record like ["Oh Boy"] was a good look for Roc-A-Fella. It's not like I made you hot, you made me hot, Jay made you hot. No. There's such a thing as a mutually beneficial situation. That's what it was. It's funny how when egos come into play people just forget that terms exist. It only has to be somebody did something for somebody. And is responsible for it. None of us were all responsible for it. You let Dame tell it. He'll tell you he was responsible for me, which is really funny.
That's the same story Dame tells about Kanye--he saved him. Yeah, he has his own... It's funny 'cause he told me the story of how he put me on and everything, I'm like, um, I didn't meet you. I didn't meet you for months.
While you were working here? Yeah, you know, when I first started coming around, I didn't meet you for months. Things were already well in motion. [Dame was] one of the last people I met. You know like I had already worked with everybody else. But he has his own story about how we would be at the old office I would be just sitting at the corner and we would just... 'would anybody listen to my beats?' And he was the only person who would sit and listen and he was like 'Yeah this kid, yo give him whatever he wants, give him whatever money he wants. We gonna make him hot, we gonna make him a balla.' And I'm like, 'What?' There were records done already. The first thing I worked on was Amil. I had done the record with her and Jay. I had did the records with Beans and Bleek. And then I met him. He even tried to say that on the radio one time. Then he tried to take credit for me cutting my hair. And I'm just like, 'No I cut my...'
'Cause he would tell you to cut it? Because he didn't even get on me about it no more. So oh, so now I can't do it. Just because you said so, like, now I can't?
That's how Dame is. It is what it is.
Do you miss it? Oh, definitely. When I was talking to inspiration as a producer, there's not much better inspiration than coming to work everyday with a whole crew of very talented people. Respected and commercially viable artists and getting the best of every world...It's what's up. But after that falls apart you start looking around to see what else is going on. And not much is.
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