Before the internet and MTV turned hip hop into the dominant cultural force it is today, a kid from Paterson, New Jersey named Justin Smith stayed up late by his radio recording hip hop mix shows, finger paused above the record button. That kid would go on to become Just Blaze – one of the most renowned and prolific producers in hip hop, producing hit records for an array of artists that reads like a roll call of rap luminaries throughout the last 15 years – Jay-Z, Kanye West, T.I., Cam’ron, Kendrick Lamar…

“Back in the early-to-mid-’80s in New York you didn’t hear [hip hop] records on the radio in the day, the only time you could really hear it was on the radio on Friday and Saturday nights,” says Blaze. “The first time I heard, for example, Run-D.M.C. or Salt-n-Pepa or Public Enemy or a lot of these records was during the mix show segments. And I would stay up all night on Friday and Saturday nights and record the music and play it all week on my cassette, and then the following week tape over last week’s show with this week’s show. That was really my earliest exposure. It was through listening to a lot of these mix shows that I became interested and eventually obsessed with what DJing was and everything that came along with that culture. And it pretty much all started there.”

 

Blaze committed himself to learning the art of DJing and sample-based production and secured an internship at The Cutting Room recording studios in New York during his third year at Rutgers University. “My plan was to hopefully maybe meet some people, learn how to make records, just witness the process and maybe learn a couple of things,” he says. “Within a year of working there I was making records. I remember saying to myself that it would be really cool if I could do this one day for real. And two weeks later I was in a studio with Mase and Puff Daddy, or Diddy or whatever you wanna call him.”

 

Blaze credits Puff Daddy (or Diddy or whatever you wanna call him) as an unlikely pioneer in making the rap industry less rapper-centric, and giving producers their fair share of the spotlight. “Once Puff became ubiquitous and became popular the question started, ‘Well who is this guy? Aside from the fact that he dances in videos and talks on records?’ ‘Well, oh, he’s the producer.’ And he’s a producer in the sense of a lot of hip hop people in that he’s not actually making beats, he’s the producer who puts the records together. And that became a marketable angle. So, it got to a point where the producers became just as popular and prominent as the artist.”

 

Dancing in videos and talking over records is not the calm and considered Blaze’s style. His main calling card is the indelible watermark of someone hollering “Just Blaze!” on the intro to some of his tracks. That catch cry has become a signifier of quality, triggering a Pavlovian response in hip hop fans that says, ‘Prepare to nod your head’. Blaze’s trademark style, exemplified on tracks like Cam’ron’s ‘Oh Boy’, Kanye’s ‘Touch The Sky’ and Jay-Z’s ‘Girls Girls Girls’, is a lush but streetwise mix of evocative soul loops, augmented by live instrumentation, infectious vocal hooks and hypnotic beats.

 

The crossover appeal of his production – polished enough for the club, hard enough for the car – means he’s constantly in high demand. He seeks a good working dynamic when deciding whom from the multitude to collaborate with. “To be honest, I don’t really go by how talented the person is, I kind of just go by whether or not we vibe well,” says Blaze. “You can both be very talented but not really vibe well. So for me it’s more about the connection, the musical connection you may have, the personal connection you may have, and I’ve done a pretty good job of aligning myself with artists and people where the collaboration has worked out well.”

 

Blaze’s favourite rap groups are still early trailblazers like EPMD, Public Enemy, X Clan and the Wu-Tang Clan, but unlike some of his contemporaries, he doesn’t despair for the state of hip hop nowadays. “I think hip hop today’s in a great state, y’know – a lot of people from my age group may dispute that for one reason or another, but if you look back historically we’ve always had good music, we’ve always had cheesy music, we’ve always had a little bit of everything. For every Tribe Called Quest record we got we also got an MC Hammer record or a Vanilla Ice record or some other random pop rapper who was selling millions of records. I actually feel like in the last two or three years we’ve seen some of the best alternative hip hop that we’ve seen in a very long time from young and new artists.”

 

Currently Blaze is working on a new Slaughterhouse record (a Shady Records supergroup comprised of Crooked I, Joe Budden, Joell Ortiz, and Royce Da 5’9”) and says he’s, “Pretty much on the road constantly … The thing about doing the DJ thing is balancing your stage time with your studio time, that can be pretty tough.” And the hardworking beatsmith won’t be stepping down anytime soon. “If I had the ability to see what the future held, I’d bottle it and sell it. I have no idea. I’ve never really had a plan, I’ve always gone where the wind might take me or where God might take me, and it’s worked out so far, so I’m not gonna really try and change that.”

 

BY ADAM BLACK

 

Just Blaze plays Listen Out Festival with Disclosure, Azealia Banks, TNGHT, Duke Dumont, AlunaGeorge, RuFuS, Hayden James and more at Centennial Park on Saturday September 28.

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