When it comes to crafting classic albums or block-breaking singles, there are few better on the boards than Just Blaze. Since his start in 1999, Just has been a consistent source of heat for new-jacks and established acts alike with a diversity that’s allowed him to supply sonics for everyone from Mariah Carey, Kanye West, Lenny Kravitz and Shaggy to Janet Jackson, Jay-Z, Jon B and Usher. As one of the featured sound men behind the Roc-A-fella dynasty Just’s magic touch on classic albums like “The Blueprint” proved instrumental (pun intended) in putting The Roc on top. So with the 2o year anniversary of 1994 in full effect, TheUrbanDaily.com decided nobody’s stripes were better suited to chime in on the expression, the progression and direction of Hip-Hop from then to now than a man with a Flux Capacitor in his studio.
TheUrbanDaily.com: As one of the sonic architects of the Roc-A-Fella sound that dominated the 2000’s, what’s the biggest difference you’ve noticed between the sound of the ’90s Golden age and the sounds of today? Do you think we’ve gone forwards? Or backwards?
JUST BLAZE: I wouldn’t really say it’s a matter of just forwards or backwards. It’s obviously a different sound but this whole music game is a question of cycles. Like how a lot of people are saying; “Oh, R&B or Hip-Hop is turning into dance music…” Did you forget Jungle Brothers “I’ll House You”? Did you forget “Planet Rock”? Nothing new, it’s all cycles. And every time a sound cycles around, it changes. “Planet Rock” is obviously based on one of the first classic electronic records, which is “Trans Europe Express” by Kraftwerk. When it came back around again it was more of a Hip-House thing with the Jungle Brothers in that era. Come around to now it’s guys like Calvin Harris and what have you. And there’s nothing wrong with any of that, it’s supposed to be different.
Going back to ’94, everybody always has their panties in a bunch complaining that Nas never made another “Illmatic” but he’s made 9 or 10 since then. If he made nine “Illmatics” it wouldn’t be special! It’s all about capturing a moment in time. I go through that myself like, to this day eleven years later people will still ask me, “Yo, I need another ‘P.S.A.’” And I’m like yo, ‘PSA’ was not just about the beat and it also wasn’t just about the rhyme. It was about what was happening at that moment in time. There’s nothing else in terms of Hip-Hop that sounds like that or felt like that… Jay getting ready to retire, he’s doing the first Hip-hop show in Madison Square Garden in 10 or 15 years. There were a lot of other things that went into that record being so special and I say all that to say a lot of these records that came out in ’94 were a snapshot of the culture at that time and that’s why they cant be replicated. Because those things aren’t happing now.
Maybe that’s why people are so sure that the ’90s style of Hip-Hop is coming back. Because like you, they believe Hip-Hop moves in cycles.
It will but it wont be the same thing. It’s not gonna be the same sound but it can invoke that same feeling in terms of giving you a snapshot of what’s happening on the street and get back to maybe a little bit more of a soulful sound. But it wont be the same exact sound. And I honestly feel like if someone tried to do that sound today it would be treated more so as a novelty. Just somebody trying to sound like something that’s been done before. Like when I did “The Blueprint,” we weren’t reinventing the wheel. We were just starting the cycle all over again. All of a sudden it went from keyboard and a lot of big horns to soul samples. Look at where we’re at right now! People aren’t using trinity’s anymore but we’re back to a keyboard beat sound and the cycle is back in full swing again. For me, as long the cycle is naturally happening in our culture instead of being dictated to us, I’m ok with it. The set up right now, say for example, what DJ Mustard is doing with that whole LA sound which has its roots in Bay Area sound, that’s what they’re doing. They were doing that before it was hot, before you had J-Lo or whoever on a Mustard beat, that sound was already rocking in the street out there independently. I love that sound! It’s catchy, it works well in the clubs… people love it. But it’s also something that wasn’t manufactured, it was something we did ourselves.
Do you have any artists out now that you think could flourish in the golden era or ’94?
That’s a tough one… and my honest answer is some of them would. The majority of them would. But you gotta remember, what we were listening to back them was different from what we have today. I was actually hanging out with Grand Puba and Sadat X, Brother Ali and a couple other friends of mine and I asked Ali, do you think Puba was one of the first architects of what we now call swag rap? Where there’s emphasis on the lyrics but not just the lyrics, it’s also how they say it and how they carry themselves? That wasn’t always a factor with us. The main thing for us as Hip-Hop heads and underground heads our focus was primarily on lyrics and then the beat. When Puba came along–not that he wasn’t a dope MC because he was– but he had something extra to him where it wasn’t just what he was saying was dope, it was the way he wore his Tommy, the way he wore his Polo, it wasn’t just what he said but how he said it.
It was his whole presentation. Yes?
Right. And I can’t think of another rapper before that who had the whole package. And Ali was like, “Nah, you’re forgetting about Busy Bee.” I was like yo, you’re right!” because with Busy Bee, it was definitely more how he said than what he said. Cause if you listen to what he said, all he’s doing is basic call and response… the rhymes are very basic. But how he saying, it sounded so dope, that’s what matters. I say that to say even though there’s probably less emphasis on lyricism these days, we’ve always had those instances where your swagger and your total package counted as well and that’s where a lot of these rappers are focused these days. Not just what you say, it’s more so how you say it. How good it sounds, how catchy it is, how much people want to be like you and emulate you as far as your fashion, your look and the way you carry yourself and those things are also very important as well. That being said, if you took some of these current guys back to ’94? Yes, a lot of em would not make it but I guarantee you there are a couple that would skate by. Because even if you look at… say Domino, another rapper who came out in ’94. He had two huge records, “Ghetto Jam” and “Sweet Potato Pie.” And the way he’d sing was not the most amazing thing at all but he had two huge hits. Why? Because people felt it and you’re always going to have that. You’re always going to have people who are artists in terms of a lyrical sense, in a writing sense. And then you’re going to have people who are artists in terms of knowing how to put together a really good song.
So who do you think would flourish? Give me a couple of names. Not folks who would sneak by, but actually flourish.
That’s a loaded question and I’m not afraid to answer it… that would require some thought and I’m going to have to get back to you on that later. There’s definitely a couple that I think would but I would really have to think on that to give you an honest answer. But one of the things I was going to say was, talking about cycles, the reason why Kendrick is heralded as much as he is right now is because that cycle is coming back around again where you have a marriage of great lyricism and a collection of great production because we haven’t had that for awhile in terms of an entire album.
Let’s go the other way. It’s been said that if “Illmatic” or “Ready To Die” or and of the other classics from ’94 dropped today that they wouldn’t flourish, sell or get any love. Your thoughts?
They’re probably right since that sound isn’t the sound of now, but they have to remember one thing. If it wasn’t for some of those albums that you just mentioned, we wouldn’t have a lot of the artist that we have now. It’s all building blocks, it’s all foundation. Like, you can track the sounds of right now back to Miami bass booty-shaking music from the late ‘9’s and early 2000’s. Even though you don’t see the direct lineage because it’s two totally different types of music, one came from the other. Even in the electronic world! A lot of the electronic trap records that you’re hearing right now, the records that I play at festivals and that I work on as well, a lot of those records can trace their lineage back to the T.I. “Trap Muzic” era. Or even earlier, the Mannie Fresh sound. The 100 BPM electronic music scene? The lineage is directly from Mannie Fresh and that New Orleans bounce sound. That being said, you can’t have one without having had the other.
Speaking of Mannie Fresh, how did the ’90s influence the way producers made albums?
Don’t forget, “Illmatic” was the first time you had an album that was produced by a group of super producers, that made the blueprint, no pun intended, for an album like “The Blueprint” and so many other albums. Before that, the producer didn’t really matter and if it did, it was like one dude producing the entire album. So you wouldn’t have even had that concept of bringing a small group of producers together to collaborate. You didn’t have that before “Illmatic.” Or even like “Ready To Die” which was not the first but one of the first albums to be so firmly rooted in the street and firmly in the mainstream effortlessly because of Big’s persona. If you don’t get that, if you don’t have that, you lose the foundation for a lot of other things to come. With each cycle, influence of the previous cycle always comes into play. You can’t tell me you don’t listen to Joey Bada$$ record or an Action Bronson record and not feel the influence from that previous golden era. It doesn’t sound exactly the same but the influence is there to add on to. Would “Illmatic” come out today and go gold or platinum? Probably not, but it didn’t go gold or platinum back then! It took what, six, seven years for it to go platinum? It was a cultivated classic that grew over time because it influenced so much other music out there. I will say as a sidebar, me as a producer, I think the album that influenced me the most that year and almost maybe overall in my entire career was probably “The Main Ingredient” by Pete Rock & CL Smooth.
Wow… that’s deep seeing as how “Mecca & The Soul Brother” is considered the classic album from them.
I’ll be dead honest… I never had “Mecca & The Soul Brother” till years later. I had the “All Souled Out” EP. I had the singles from “Mecca & The Soul Brother” but I never bought the album. The first album that I got from them was “The Main Ingredient” and I kinda just bought it on a whim because I wasn’t crazy about the single “I Gotta Love.” I am now but not when it came out. So I finally brought it and I’ll say more so that album than any other album changed my life in terms of production. Because I’m such a fan of that album, the argument I always have is “Mecca & The Soul Brother” versus “The Main Ingredient.” Because of “T.R.O.Y.” people always say Mecca & The Soul Brother.” But then what I say is, take “T.R.O.Y.” out. Now go through that album then go through “The Main Ingredient.” It’s no contest. And when you go through a side-by-side comparison and take it song for song, I’ve never lost that argument. The reason why I love that album so much, it’s not just a great body of work… I almost liken it to what me and Jay and Ye and everybody did from “The Dynasty” to “The Blueprint.” On “The Dynasty” album we’re figuring it out. On “The Blueprint” we nailed it. I feel like with “Mecca & The Soul Brother,” Pete Rock was figuring it out, finding the sound, finding his rhythm and he nailed it on “The Main Ingredient.”
Did you ever get a chance to tell Pete Rock your theory?
I told him that one day and he was like “Yo, you’re the first person to finally figure that out.” And for me personally, that album set the tone for what I wanted to do musically. I mean I had been making music before that, but that album just struck a chord in me like nothing else I’d ever heard. It was kind of like how the Bomb Squad was taking 20 different samples sources and putting them in the same record but it gave you a feeling of noise and chaos and frantic energy and very urgent music. Pete did the same thing, he was sampling 5, 6, 7 different records in one song and made them all feel like one coherent song. Even though he was taking chords from Ramsey Lewis and drums from here and horns from somewhere else, it still felt like it all belonged together. It all felt very coherent. That album more than any other made me say “This is what I want to do.”
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