Renaissance Man: Just Blaze (Interview w/Honey Mag)
Inherently musical, intelligent, hard working and possessing a versatile style: Justin “Just Blaze” Smith paved his own road to success in NY’s burgeoning and intensely competitive Hip Hop scene in the late 1990s. The Paterson, NJ native went on to become an in-house producer for Roc-A-Fella records whilst his peers were still in college. Indeed, he churns out hits for superstars like Jay-Z, Usher, Kanye, T.I., Rihanna, Fabolous, Diddy. More notably, he has helped many underground artists cross over into the mainstream by lacing them with a “Just Blaaaze” banger (Joe Budden’s ‘Pump It Up’ anyone?). You can also catch him doing his thing in Eminem’s new music video for ‘No Love’ featuring Lil Wayne. With full production and some vocals by Just, it’s currently the number one music video from the US to the UK. Having also successfully branched out into clothing, gaming soundtracks, movie theme songs, sold out international sound clash tours and more, it’s safe to say that the Polo Ralph Lauren aficionado is more of a prodigal renaissance man than your typical super producer.
It’s a hot night in uptown NYC and Just is busy working at his new studio, kind of difficult to imagine that he had hundreds of clubbers wildin’ out to his weekly DJ set at Santos Party House until the wee hours of that morning (we did mention he was hardworking!). Just’s clean silhouette resembles a classic beat in itself. His outfit is fresh, fitted and tastefully set off with an orthodox and intricately designed diamond watch on his right wrist. His eyes exude an interesting mix of focus, humility and… humor. (If you follow him on Twitter (@JustBlaze) you’d know exactly what we’re talking about.)
To know the man behind the boards a bit better, Honey sat down with ‘The Megatron Don’ to talk about female Emcees, the reconciliation of Dipset and Kanye West’s global stardom.
Honey Magazine: How is the new decade treating you thus far?
Just Blaze: Great! I am an integral part of one of the highest and fastest selling albums of the year so far. [Editor’s note: Eminem’s ‘Recovery’ had just gone double platinum and returned to the number one spot]. It’s a blessing for me to be a part of that. I am also in the process of setting up a new studio, which has been a very trying process.
Your old studio [Baseline] closed earlier this year. Explain the legacy of Baseline for those who are not familiar?
The reason we’re building a new studio is because we closed Baseline. For those who don’t know Baseline was a home to Roc-A-Fella records [in it’s earlier years] and myself since 1999. I‘d owned it for the past 7 years so, I personally shut it down. It was a good run but it had outlived its purpose. Most major recording studios in Manhattan have merged, closed or are in the process of closing. It wasn’t financially motivated. The good thing about our situation is that I was able to bring in enough work where we weren’t in any financial trouble but at the same time you always have to think ahead when it comes to a business. I had to ask myself “in five years will I still be doing the same thing I’m
doing now?”. I merged with another studio by the name of Stadium Red here in Harlem. At the same time that I was trying to plan out my next move I found out that the owner here was looking to partner up with a few people and expand what he had going on so it just made perfect sense. I’m building a couple of new rooms for myself here. It should be done by the time you post this and I will be posting information about that online for people who can’t be here to check it out when it launches. [Editor’s note: the studio expansion is complete]
As a fellow peer of Kanye [having worked alongside him as young men with Roc-A-Fella] did you always foresee his global stardom?
I saw his potential when he first played me a rough demo of “Hey Mama” in LA. It was that and “All Falls Down.” I was like ‘Yo, he maybe onto something.’ But at the same time those records started to come about when he started to be around Jay-Z more. [He] started working with more high caliber artists, a lot of that rubbed off on him. As producers, we have an advantage because we’re the ones who make the songs. So even when his lyrics weren’t as strong as they are now, he always made good songs. If you knew him and his drive and how badly he wanted it you definitely saw it coming. If you didn’t, you should have.
You started out very young in the game. What lessons did you have to learn the hard way?
I started out young but I was always very keen to learn about the business side of things and how it worked. My partner in this, Neysa, we came up in this as kids. We always sat down with a Lawyer or an Accountant. We would always pay attention to what was happening. A large part of that was because of paranoia. Because you hear all these stories about people getting screwed over so we were extra cautious and anal about everything. Luckily though [on a business side of things] I have no horror stories. What I probably learned more so over the years is financial responsibility. You come into the game young and you come from not having a lot of money which most of us do. You go and you dumb out: cars, sneakers, jewelry, clothes and just be able to buy out the mall or the bar or whatever. I never got too caught up in that in terms of big purchases but I used to definitely have the habit of being like “oh, that’s only a $1000, $2000, $3000 or whatever. But then you do go over the course of the month doing this everyday and you think you’re doing good because you’re not out spending $100,000 a pop but then you turn around and you realize you just spent $40,000 that month with nothing major to show for it. So, I definitely learned a lot about financial responsibility the hard way but I had good people in my corner like my partner Neysa and my financial advisor who made sure money was saved and invested wisely into the proper channels.
The Diplomats [Dipset] have reconciled and reunited, any chance you’ll be working with them again?
I did something with Juelz a couple of years back. I have no problems with Juelz [business wise or personality wise] we are still cool.
As far as me working with them [Dipset] as a whole? Probably not. Good times though, we made some good records. Sometimes… you make your mark with somebody, don’t try to relive it, just let it be that moment in history that it was and keep it moving.
As far as me working with them as a whole? Probably not. Good times though, we made some good records. Sometimes…. you make your mark with somebody, don’t try to relive it, just let it be that moment in history that it was and keep it moving.
Having worked with many female rappers in the early 00s, what are you views on the ‘demise of the female emcee’?
For the past 6-7 years there hasn’t been a relevant female emcee [in terms of the mainstream]. Nicki Minaj is the first one we’ve seen in recent years who has come along and been taken seriously. The reason why we saw the demise of the female emcee is because so many of them were personas, they weren’t people. The most successful artists, of any genre are people and not personas. People love Jay-Z because he is Jay-Z, people love Eminem because he is Eminem and so forth. Personas get old after a while. With female emcees there was a sex persona, you know? You can’t make a career out of that. Combine that with the fact that somebody else is writing your rhymes and these rhymes are coming from the same perspectiveve, after a while it gets tired. Even when we did have relevant Emcees there was really only 3: Eve, Foxy and Kim. And Da Brat years before that. With Foxy and Kim it was really a case of ‘whose ghost written rhymes do you like better? Big’s or Jay’s?’, subject matter was more of the same so by the time they decided to come into their own as artists it was a little too late and a lot of the industry had already moved on or grew up. With the rise of Nicki Minaj the door should be open again, but this time they have to be people and not personas.
Any crazy groupie stories?
I was in Miami and there was like 7 of these chicks and they were like ‘Yo, we want you for the night.’ I was like, ‘what?!,’ so I keep running into them and they keep trying it, blowing kisses at me and whatever. They had big bottles liquor and one said, ‘I just took 4 ecstasy pills, I’m ready to do whatever!’ I was like ‘I can’t help you. No’ and so they head to their truck and go about their business. The next morning I’m watching the news and the first story I see is about a truck that hit the rail of the highway while it was at an overpass and the truck was dangling over the overpass. They had to cut the back of the truck to get the girls out and the police officer who was at the scene said ‘it was a miracle that everybody survived and if one more person would have been in that truck it would have toppled over.’ They showed photo shots of the girls and it was the same girls I had rejected the night before.
Wow, groupies could have killed you!
Exactly! They literally would’ve killed me. Before this [producing] I was DJ’ing in NJ and NY from like the age of 15 so I was used to getting a certain amount of attention and it gets old really quickly. Fake attention in general gets old really quick. Now when my groupie radar goes off its like ‘Ughh… get away’ because whatever game you’re kicking to me you were kicking to the same dude popping bottles in the club last night or a rapper on that video shoot last week. The thing about groupies is that at the end of the day every guy wants to feel special with the girl he is actually dating or in a relationship with and that’s not possible with a groupie.
Okay, well that moves us into the next question, what do you look for in a woman?
Stability. You got to have your own. Don’t get me wrong we can all be in different places in our lives financially, goal wise or career wise but it’s hard when you’re doing okay for yourself and you girl is…. broke. The same goes for girls who are bringing in money and their man is broke. You need to be at the same place in your life. So stability is a pre-requisite. Above all of that though, love conquers all. Also, you got to have your head on straight. I developed many a trust issue over the years. I look for somebody who recognizes that a relationship is a life partnership. One day you’re going to get old and your titties are going to be sagging and I’m going to get a little bit of a gut but we’re still going to have to deal with each other every day. So, you have to be best friends.
What’s next for Just Blaze?
Having worked with Eminem earlier in the year, going back and forth with T.I. now and wrapping up work with Marsha Ambrosius’s album, it’s like whatever time I have left I’ve been trying to get the studio finished. I kind of just want to take the next few months slow. I need to take care of myself. I have some personal things I need to re-situate [re: the new studio]. Definitely looking forward to taking some time out for myself because I have not had a vacation since 1998 and I was broke in 1998 so that wasn’t much of a vacation.
Oh wow, where did you go?
It was to the FL and then a cruise to the Bahamas, one of those free trips so they could get you to buy a timeshare? After the studio is done I might just take like a six month vacation. I could travel to my bed and just sleep. I definitely want to go on Safari or go to New Zealand, Papua New Guinea or the North Pole.
Pack your Snow Beach bruv!
Right, take the Snow Beach to Antarctica. I’d rather go and really see the world and not island resorts somewhere. Don’t get me wrong I’ve traveled around the world and been everywhere [except South America]… for work. I want to see real life, to explore, see cultures and civilization without the hoopla of [DJ’ing, making beats and movie scores] being Just Blaze