Sunday, June 28, 2015

Just Blaze's Industry Story

How a Producer for Hip-Hop’s Biggest Names Hacked His Way Into the Industry

You wouldn’t know it by looking at him, what with his rare Ralph Lauren Polo jackets and vintage Nikes, but Just Blaze is a hacker. Yes, that Just Blaze. Sure, the term has in the past decade or so been transmogrified into a catchall that includes anyone who can code in Javascript or jailbreak an iPhone, but Just Blaze is a hacker in the classic sense. He makes electronics do things they weren’t intended to do. “I was very much a tinkerer as a kid,” he says by phone between studio sessions in New York. “I was doing things like hacking or splicing extra battery packs into my mother’s cordless phone to try to get the battery to last longer.”

Justin Smith, better known as Just Blaze, shops for records at Good Records in Manhattan's East Village. The shop is one of the last standing record stores in the city where Smith can still go to find samples for his music. Alex Welsh/WIRED

Still not sold on his hacker cred? How about this: Before anyone had songs produced by Just Blaze on their phones or MP3 players, he infiltrated the industry via Motorola’s famed P900 two-way pager.

“I got my first bit of industry-wide notoriety programming ringtones for those things,” says Just. “Back then, there wasn’t such a thing as ringtones for your phone, at all. But Motorola included an app that allowed you to make customizable tones. The way you had to enter the music into the pager wasn’t really a musical approach. It was more a mathematical thing. It was all numbers, letters, and punctuation. Kind of like a language of its own.”

Smith works in the car on the way from his apartment to Good Records in Manhattan’s East Village.
Alex Welsh/WIRED

Just Blaze became fluent in that arcane language. He got so good at programming musical ringtones that he was able to create special effects like reverb and delay. He discovered that he could tinker with the key clicks effects to create drum sounds. Soon, he was composing lo-fi recreations of late ‘90s hits like the Notorious BIG’s “Who Shot Ya?” and Busta Rhymes’ “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See.” Word of his service spread, and his client base rapidly grew.

“It was funny, people I had never met would hear my name and go, ‘Dude, I have all your ringtones on my phone!’” he says. “There was a rumor floating around that I learned to make music by using the two-way, which was insane.”

These days, the man born Justin Smith, 35, is best known for one thing: producing hit records. Since 1999, Just Blaze has become a go-to producer for an army of pop stars, including Jay-Z, Drake, Mariah Carey, and Eminem. Able to switch effortlessly between live-sounding orchestral creations to electronic synth bounces, he’s also one of the most versatile producers working today. Very few people in the music industry could go from producing gritty soul tracks for the likes of Rick Ross and Kendrick Lamar to a creating chart-topping club hit with Baauer. But that’s all in a day’s work for Just Blaze. Let him tell it, however, and he’ll say all of this nearly didn’t happen. He was almost a programmer.

Photographer Ben Grieme has a brief photo shoot with Smith in Midtown Manhattan.
Alex Welsh/WIRED

Though enamored with music from a young age, Just Blaze, not thinking he could actually become one of the producers he admired like Rza, Q-Tip, and Marley Marl, decided to attend Rutgers to study computer science. As a kid he taught himself how to program using Basic, and felt a degree in CS would be right up his alley. Not so. Programming grew boring. Around the same time, he began meeting people in the industry who were doing things that he, as a former DJ, felt he could do too. That, combined with what Just called a “bad streak in school with professors who I could not understand at all,” made him reconsider the path he was on.

Fortunately, during his third year at Rutgers, Just Blaze got a chance to intern at the Cutting Room, the storied studio in New York that’s been used by the likes of Run DMC, Jon Bon Jovi, and SWV. Right before the spring semester of his junior year was set to begin, the studio’s night manager quit. Just Blaze was offered the position.

I’m the guy who’s always an early adopter, which I pay for sometimes because sometimes there are problems, but I never understood the backlash that it received for so long. Eventually, I realized people don’t like change.
Smith works at his recording studio in Harlem, where he is fine-tuning a DJ set for the HARD
Summer Music Festival in Los Angeles, coming up in early August. Alex Welsh/WIRED
“I had to tell my mother, who was a high school principal, that I wanted to take time off from school to pursue a career in music,” says Just. “She was actually very cool about it and I went for it. Getting that shot at the internship and being in a professional recording environment was really the next step in laying the foundation for everything that ended up happening.”

What ended up happening was Just Blaze landing beats on some of the biggest rap albums of the late 90s and early 2000s, including Jay-Z’s The Dynasty: Roc La Familia and The Blueprint. But his success didn’t dampen his love of all things technological. The vocation of hip-hop producer requires some technical knowhow, as much of of the art and craft has been, and still is, done on drum machines and samplers. Just Blaze was no different. His first sampler, he says, was an ASR 10 that he begged his aunt to buy for him because it was the same one Wu-Tang founder and producer Rza used. But years later when he started at the Cutting Room, he noticed all the big names were using Akai’s MPC line of samplers which, despite lacking all the effects, was more versatile. It offered more opportunities for expansion than a MIDI keyboard and featured pressure sensitive rubber pads which made tapping out drum patterns a breeze. So he followed suit with a MPC 60. Only his was a bit more special than everyone else’s.

“I sold it, and I regret that I sold it, because I found out way later that it was the MPC used to program the drums on Slick Rick’s second album.”

Smith, photographed in Manhattan’s East Village.
Alex Welsh/WIRED
From there, he picked up a MPC 3000, and when he made a bit of money he got a MPC 2000 and then a MPC 2000 XL. Just Blaze rocked that until Akai released the vastly different MPC 4000. It was the top-of-the-line rig, decked with a bevy of new features including an internal 80GB hard drive, an onboard CDR-W drive instead of a 3.5” floppy, and upgraded sampling and sound-manipulation capabilities. It was in every way a better machine, but it had a steep learning curve, one that many people simply couldn’t handle. It was just too radical.

“It was nothing like any other MPCs,” remembers Just. “The 4000 was a completely different unit. I loved it. I’m the guy who’s always an early adopter, which I pay for sometimes because sometimes there are problems, but I never understood the backlash that it received for so long. Eventually, I realized people don’t like change.”

Just Blaze embraces change. One of his favorite stories is about the time he built a custom laptop-based Pro Tools rig. These days, it’s common to see producers and engineers running Pro Tools on their laptops. That wasn’t the case in 1997. When Just Blaze called Digidesign, the company that created the software and owned it before Avid took over, he was told the company was working on a solution but it’s “not something that’s possible right now.” Just Blaze took that as a challenge.

“It took a lot of time, a lot of trial and error, and quite a bit of money, but I was able to fashion my own Pro Tools rig that ran off an old Powerbook and had three 888 interfaces, the whole deal,” he recalls. “It was about as portable a studio that you could get back then. I used to roll it into sessions and engineers would look at me like I was from another planet because nobody had anything like this in New York, or in the business, at all.”

Smith meets up with Schott Free, a former A & R for Loud Records outside of the East Village Radio headquarters in Manhattan. Alex Welsh/WIRED
These days, Just Blaze’s setup is much simpler. He primarily works on his 15-inch Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display, which replaced his 17-inch MacBook Pro, Apple’s Logic software, and a midi keyboard. Will he continue to minimize his workstation? Some producers have proven that professional songs can be created on nothing more than an iPad. Is that what’s next for one of hip-hop’s biggest names? Probably not.

“There are music apps that I use on the iPad, but they’re mostly synths and whatnot. I’m not making music on the iPad right now; I just use it as a sound module,” he says. “I need tactile feedback, which sounds weird coming from an iPhone user, but when I make music, I need to feel it. — Damien Scott | WIRED

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