Staying relevant in any genre, let alone one as notoriously fickle as Hip-Hop, is a delicate balancing act at the best of times. Arguably the go-to producer of the early 2000’s, thanks in part to his work on Jay-Z’s now classic ‘The Blueprint’ album, Justin ‘Just Blaze’ Smith has somehow managed to maintain his credibility more than 10 years on from that artistic and commercial zenith where other lesser musicians would have faltered. Born in Patterson, New Jersey, Smith has astutely moved with the times, paying heed to Hip-Hop’s ever shifting trends by adapting his sound from the pitched up Soul samples found on hits such as Jigga’s ‘Girls, Girls, Girls’ and Cam’ron’s ‘Oh Boy’, to a present day melange of monolithic drum sounds and electronic influences. Catching up with Hyponik recently ahead of his show for The Doctor’s Orders in London 8th March, Smith was keen to address the prevalent influence of electronic music on his life and his present outlook on making beats.
Despite being the man behind some of the most boombastic Hip-Hop anthems of a generation Smith is surprisingly softly spoken, although he is nonetheless overwhelmingly passionate when he talks. A genuine lifelong DJ, “literally since Grammar school”, his focus wasn’t always squarely on Hip-Hop. Growing up in New Jersey, the home of Kerri Chandler and Tony Humphries and a place Smith describes as “the fourth unofficial House capital…in the States”, his ears were always open to a wide range of music. Starting out buying records at the tender age of 12 he was copping, “just as much House as Hip-Hop”, having been influenced by the record collections of his mother, cousin and a friend’s sibling. A pivotal moment in his appreciation of dance music came when he began listening to the weekly ‘Planet Trax’ show on New York’s famous Hot97. Here his appreciation of the Deep House being churned out in his home state was augmented by the records from around the world that would be dropped on this Sunday night session. Tunes that, “now you would call Hard Style”, by Belgian and Dutch artists such as T-99, L.A Style and Holy Noise made a huge impression on the young Smith, who saw no distinction between his loves of Hip Hop, Deep House, and this more abrasive early Rave music.
Visiting a flea market with his mother back in the early 90’s, he stumbled across “…this little record stand”, where they were selling “…all imports”. There the cover of Acen’s ‘Close Your Eyes’ drew his attention, although he was to have little clue that the music contained inside would deeply validate what many had once considered to be his unusual range of musical tastes. That record, although firmly around tear out Rave tempo, utilised samples from Public Enemy and N.W.A in a way that was revalatory to the young Smith. Hitting up “some older guys” in his neighborhood, he found out this mind blowing new style was breakbeat, something which as a now enlightened adult he realizes, “became Jungle, which became Drum n Bass and what have you”.
Drawing connections between genres is something that’s always excited Smith, whether it was hearing his “mother’s ‘Funky Drummer’ 12″ by James Brown” and realising it was “the same drummers as Public Enemy’s ‘Rebel Without A Pause”, or joining the dots between House 2 House’s ‘I Wanna See You Dance’ and First Choice’s disco classic ‘Dr.Love’. His early noughties mega hits applied a fresh spin to sampling from the gold mine of Soul classics which producers such Pete Rock and DJ.Premier had explored before him, but he also often displayed a willingness to look even further. Recalling ‘Fire’, a track he made with Joe Budden and Busta Rhymes back in 2003, Smith says it “was basically a Jersey club record”, thanks to sampling the hook of Frank Ski’s sleazy early 90’s banger ‘There’s Some Whores In This House’. Flipping a snippet of Cajmere’s legendary ‘Perculator’ for a tune he made with Rah Digga around the same time, Smith clearly never saw House and Hip-Hop as wholly separate entities.
Talking to Smith at length about his love of Electronic music goes along way to explaining his current position. Although still very much invested in Hip-Hop, with production credits for The Game, Kendrick Lamar and T.I. in the last couple of years to name but a few, his most well known recent piece of work certainly came as somewhat of a surprise. ‘Higher’, released in 2013, featured his old buddy Jay-Z, but it also saw him team up with Bauuer, the young American Trap producer who took the internet by storm with ‘Harlem Shake’. For a man best known to many for his manipulation of Soul samples, the enormous Rave synths and cartoonishly large drops found on ‘Higher’ were initially a shock to the system. The tune was eventually a huge success and has heralded a change in perception about Smith’s sound, although not everyone it seems is quite up to speed yet. “The one thing I get asked all the time in interviews, and it drives me nuts…is, ‘So what’s the transition been like?”. For Smith, producing club slaying beats fit like a glove and is something he’d been doing for years, though its only now that he’s finally unleashed them out into the wider world.
But why now I ask? Drawing his attention to a recent article which highlighted the fact that last year, for the first time in its 55 year history, not a single Black artist topped the Billboard Hot 100 as the lead performer, I wondered if he felt the commercial viability of Hip Hop and RnB had waned somewhat? Proudly scaling the charts with T.I. and Rihanna back in 2008, thanks to ‘Live Your Life’, Smith was surprisingly wholly unperturbed by this recent development. “I don’t really care that there was no number one Hip-Hop record last year, because all I care about is that we’re getting some good records”, he says. Surprising as his ambivalence may be, its also a refreshingly relaxed take in an age when hot headedness and hysteria frequently prevails. He’s able to do his own thing he says, because he’s comfortable in his “own skin…sometimes when you’re younger you’re trying to fit a certain image to please the people you’re hanging around with, but I’m at the point in my life now where I’m like, ‘Dude, I just wanna do what makes me happy and if I can make a living doing it then great.”
Imbued with a strong sense for musical history, Smith is keen to highlight that his move towards more electronic sounds is in keeping with a lineage of collaborations before him. “Chris Brown doing records with Calvin Harris is really no different from when The Jungle Brothers did records with Todd Terry in ’88. Or when Armand Van Helden puts out the EP with The Witch Doctor and The Donkey and his next EP is all Hip-Hop beats in 1992”. He continues, “going back even further one of the earliest forms of electronic music as we know it is Kraftwerk. What’s the biggest interpolation of Kraftwerk? Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force, ‘Planet Rock’! Which is a Hip-Hop classic!” With a track record as illustrious as his, real fans would be foolish to begrudge Smith the opportunity to spread his wings the way he is at the moment.
Just Blaze plays at Scala for The Doctor’s Orders this Saturday 8th March. Buy tickets here.
Words: Christian Murphy