Just Blaze portrait by Grant Siedlecki, who is awesome
I didn’t plan this or anything, but I was following around Just Blaze for the print-edition article I wrote about him a couple of weeks ago, and we ended up at Baseline Studios, the studio that was the nerve center for Roc-A-Fella before Jay-Z split with Damon Dash, which Just Blaze bought a while ago. When we got up there, Alchemist was there, working on some tracks with Saigon, whose album is going to be the first on Just’s new label, Fort Knocks. I didn’t realize this at the time, but there were rumors about a year ago about a beef between Just Blaze and Alchemist, since they’d both used the same sample on different tracks. Those rumors don’t seem like they were ever true; Just and Alchemist certainly appear to be good friends. During my interview with Just, Alchemist wandered into the room, and they started talking about production equipment and real estate and stuff like that, and then Alchemist decided to sit in on the interview for a little while when it resumed. I wasn’t able to use a lot of this stuff in the article, but it ended up being a pretty fascinating conversation, so I thought I’d put it up here. I wish I could put up audio files because I love the way Alchemist talks; he’s something like a real-life version of Seth Green in Can’t Hardly Wait, except really smart. Every once in a while, he or Just would mumble a bit or talk over each other, so some of these quote might not be exact, but they’re the best I could do. At the beginning, Just is talking about why he decided to start his own label.
Just Blaze: I was trying to figure out what my next move was going to be, and I noticed that while I was trying to figure that out, I was listening to what was going on on the radio. I started getting drawn back to the more underground shit. I remember people used to try to play me MF Doom, and I’d be like, “Turn that off now.” Now I’m to the point where me and him might even do something together. Because it’s like after a while, you just realize what’s going on over there, it’s kind of like, where Jay is where he is now, ten fifteen years ago, he was where they are now. You go back and listen to your old Stretch tapes, it would be him, Big L, all those people. It just so happened that he was the one out of that whole crew who made it to where he’s at. But it’s like, I bet there’s going to be another one.
Alchemist: The way rap got so big, it’s like, yo, I ain’t mad at rappers at all. We grew up on this shit. Now rappers are making dollars, and I’m not mad at it. But at the same time, the outcome of that is it’s some music that I don’t love. They don’t want to hear it. That’s what’s going to lead to the underground. They love motherfuckers like me and you in the underground because we are capable of fucking with cats that they ain’t messing with, but at the same time, we make those type of beats that those dudes can relate to. We still do old shit.
JB: We been talking about that all day, like doing both sides.
A: And it’s that shit that is key, and it’s so genuine; that’s what makes us special. And I started realizing the real love is from those kids, man, in the underground. And even though it’s a lot of shit in that world that I don’t really love, I like what it represents. That’s why I’m starting to lean to that shit. I’m going to make an album for that world, tour those venues. If radio fucks with it, then they all know us. All the radio DJs know us because we’ve been giving them all the records that we’ve been giving to them for years. So if they choose to front, I can’t even be mad because shit got so costly now; the industry locked out motherfuckers. The outlets that we used to have, the radio and the video, are locked down on some money shit. If you’re not spending, those spots are taken away.
There’s a lot of tour money on the whole underground circuit, too.
A: Yo, do you know how much money Atmosphere’s making, son? I was just reading about it. This touring is bringing out a stupid amount of paper. Not to dis them, but lot of that shit is kind of weird. But the world that they’re repping, that’s the world that I want to be a part of. We do our thing, and they love us.
JB: For doing what you do, as opposed to doing what you got to do to keep up with what’s on the radio. That’s the game I got tired of playing, the catch-up game, like I got to keep up with Lil Jon, I got to keep up with such-and-such, I got to keep up with this one, that one. I got so tired of it. I see these dudes, and they tell me how much they love me because I can do whatever I want to do. So I’m like, why am I running and trying to keep up with their numbers? What got me here was me just doing what I do, whether it be struggling when I was on my own or making shit come out the way I want it, it was always by me. So I’m like, why am I trying to keep up with the money now?
A: I remember back in the day, you had all these different sounds. You had a lot of producers, but everybody got their own sounds. That shit is lost these days. The two rules, if you think about it, the two rules that everybody lived by are the two rules you don’t do no more: you don’t bite and don’t sell out. Those were the two things you weren’t supposed to do. Now, if you sell out and you bite, you’re out of here. That’s the key now. Rappers are going to explode doing that stuff.
JB: Think about it, when Hammer came out with the popcorn shrimp, it was like, “See, he’s selling out, he’s selling out!” Nowadays, it’s nothing to turn on the TV and see a rapper endorsing a car, a sneaker, a food brand, rapping for Pepsi, rapping for Coke. It’s nothing now.
A: I remember Cypress Hill turned down a Sprite commercial; they never did it. They were like, “Fuck no.” They wouldn’t do it. It was wack to them. It was before Grand Puba did that shit and it came out dope. Sprite did produce some fly shit, but it was a little bit before them, and it was like, “Hell no.” But it’s like now…
JB: You would be stupid to turn that down now! If you turned it down like, “The Gap wants me to do a commercial; I’m not doing it,” it would be like, “The Gap wants you to do a commercial!?!”
Rock bands don’t even turn down commercials now.
JB: And rap and rock is supposed to be the two forms of rebel music. But there’s nothing to rebel against anymore with music.
A: And it’s like, from doing records from sampling, I started learning the science about what happened to soul music. The same shit with the disco, man. The disco came in, and it was like, you had to be good live back in the day. They used to put out albums and tour the same album. Live, you had to be nice. All the R&B singers was nice live.
JB: Think about all the groups like the Stylistics and the Spinners, all these records that we have. Think about how different the albums sound. Like their first albums came out 71, 72, 73. By the time they got their later albums, you know what you’re going to hear. [Starts pounding out a disco beat on some boxes.]
A: Yeah! And then when I started reading up, I found out, clearly it relates. They was like, “This is the new venue. This is where people listen to music, and you need to have a record that plays in this venue,” which is a club, disco, just like nowadays. If you have a club record, it’s over. Radio might play a ballad, but that ballad might not get played in the club. But name a club record that don’t get played on radio. Every club record is a radio record; every radio record is not a club record. I think that’s why people are like if you make a club record, you sell the most. It’s going to catch on radio.
JB: Certain records that don’t fit the club format that radio still plays…
A: Right! People think that spin means…
JB: But if you’re going to have a record that sells, you have to have an artist that people care about. You can’t just be a rapper with a dope record or a dope beat. Nine times out of ten, those records don’t do well. As big as a lot of those Southern records are, a lot of those artists aren’t selling that well.
A: But what’s dope about even Paul Wall and them, what people don’t get when they see them blow up and see them in a video, those dudes had albums out underground. They were just doing their own thing. They didn’t care about what was going on in the game. They were hot, and they were making records, and the industry took note to it. Nowadays, motherfuckers are worried about that, if they’re blowing. If you look at the rock format, it takes a lot of people by their fourth album to blow up. If you look at like No Doubt, you might have seen them only two years ago, but they probably had two or three albums out that you didn’t know about. They was grinding in the little van, doing the little CBGB’s type shit to build up their fan base. And you know how it goes. I think that’s real important, live shows. A lot of kids can’t rock live, and those who can, they have a career. And there’s a market for these underground shows, man, they’re building it up. I like to see that shit; it’s branching out. They’re putting on good shows. [Just Blaze gets done ordering delivery, walks back into the room.] Yeah, man, these joints you played me are crazy.
JB: Yeah, we just got to get them all shaped up.
What tracks are you talking about?
A: That’s going to be crazy, man. It’s not the same old shit. It’s refreshing. That shit is great to me; I can definitely respect it.
JB: I was saying, we was talking about how you’ll never be able to make it 92, 93 again. I wouldn’t even necessarily want that, but the goal of the album is to try to apply that same energy, that same philosophy in terms of production, to putting the album together now. Nowadays, people just slap together twenty songs and call it a day, twenty songs that have nothing to do with each other, that don’t correlate at all. They could be twenty good songs!
A: I know, I notice that a lot. You listen to the album, and each joint is hot, you can’t be mad, he’s spitting, but you don’t want to hear the album again. Just one listen.
JB: There’s not a lot of replay value. And my idea with this album is to make something that just flows continuously, so even if you like some songs more than others, there’s no record that you hit the fast-forward button because it’s all part of a puzzle. After a while, you might go for your favorites, but at least you listen to it the first time.
Are you doing the whole album?
JB: Not the whole album, but I’m doing the majority of it, and I’m executive producing it. A lot of the outside producers, they’ll still be hot. I think I’m the only producer, besides Alchemist, who has a name. Besides that, Scram Jones; he has a good chemistry with Saigon. With him, I have to say at a certain point, like, I could call Lil Jon and get a beat, I could call Pharrell, I could call other producers in the mainstream vein, but it wouldn’t fit. It would sound totally out of place. I’d like to just keep it consistent, just keep that New York feel through his whole album.
Voice feature: Tom Breihan on Just Blaze