Stories from a Pro: Just Blaze

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Just Blaze first gained worldwide recognition as an in-house producer for Jay-Z's Roc-A-Fella records at the beginning of the new millenium. His talent for transforming '70s soul samples into chopped up hip hop masterpieces has inspired countless imitators, but none that can match his unique style. With dozens of hit singles under his belt and production credits for heavyweights like Jay-Z, Fabolous, Joe Budden, Cam'ron, Snoop Dogg, Talib Kweli, Usher, T.I, and Busta Rhymes, Just is one of the most prolific and respected producers in the hip hop game.

We saw the Red Bull Music Academy talk you did where you were using iZotope Ozone on “Show Me What You Got” from Jay-Z's Kingdom Come. Tell us a little about how you are using Ozone.

I believe I first found out about Ozone from Ryan West, who's one of my engineers. He's the one who told me about the Vinyl plug-in. In terms of being an all in one solution, it's great. You can just put it on the master fader and it shapes the overall sound of your record. Sometimes when you're on the go, you don't have time to really dig in deep and play with EQ and dynamics on every channel. Ozone is great for shaping the sound of a record very quickly.

I don't really like it when people say, “we can fix that in mastering.” Obviously at the end of the day there is a reason for mastering engineers to be there, not to take anything away from mastering engineers, but my thing is I don't want to leave something that bothers me sonically about my record up to them to fix if we can fix it right there. Why would I fix it in mastering if I could fix it right now?

So basically you're leaving it to the mastering engineer to polish up the overall sound, but trying to keep your vision of how things should sound intact?

If I feel like the low end is too much on this record, or there is something going on with a certain frequency range, I'm going to fix that myself. I'm not going to leave that up to you. Especially because I can't be at the mastering session for every record I do. I try to be involved as much as I can but you can't do it for every record.

So you mentioned doing mixes on the go. Are you doing a lot of work on your laptop now?

Exactly right. I travel all the time, so basically I've been using Ozone in my laptop setup with Pro Tools M-Powered or LE, whichever one I have with me. I'm planning on getting Ozone running in my main studio, too, so I can use it on more of the records I've been working on. My main use for it so far has been for pre-production so I can get great sounding rough mixes quickly. However for example, on “Show Me What You Got,” it's all over the final mix on that record.

I also love Trash. That's great too because a lot of stuff I do will start with samples but then we'll bring in musicians to work with it or recreate or do something based on it. Trash gives you a lot of options for dirtying things up a little bit. That's the one thing obviously about the way we record now as opposed to the way people worked 30 years ago. Besides the fact that it's digital, now musicians generally go in and record their parts separately whereas before you would put everyone in a room with a couple of mics. When the recording technology wasn't as good, it gave you a certain sound. So when you need to recreate that kind of sound Trash is a very big help. As well as Vinyl.

You have a full-service studio in New York, Baseline Studios. How do you work there, are you still working with a large-format console and tons of rack gear, or doing more work "in the box?"

It's a combination of both. It really depends on the circumstances. For example I have an artist named Saigon who's signed to Atlantic Records and we're working on his record now. I have my main room with the SSL and tons of outboard gear, and I have my B room which is pretty much just a Pro Tools room.

As a recording studio in today's climate, it's difficult these days. I just found out that two major studios in New York are going to be closing. It's unfortunate that it's happening but you can sometimes get close to as good or as good a result working with Pro Tools or Logic if you really know what you're doing.

So with me, even though I have a commercial facility, I can't always use the main room because it takes a lot of money to run it! So I often do a lot of mixing work on my records in the B room, my MIDI room, while I let outside clients use the A room because thats how you pay the bills. If I'm doing pre-production or just working on something for one of my own projects, that's not always immediate money whereas an outside session is.

Tell us about how you approach your projects in the studio given this dynamic.

As far as how my process works, sometimes what I'll do, for example when I'm working with Saigon, is we'll start in the B room then we'll start to mix completely in the box. Once we get it to a point where it sounds good, or it sounds good to a certain point but we want to run it through the analog gear, we'll make stems of everything. Then we can bring those stems to the A room and finish the mix from there.

That's pretty much what we did with the Jay-Z record. We started in the B room, all in Pro Tools, and did as much of the mix as we could in there because we weren't sure which record was going to be the single.

There are two engineers who I work with, Ryan West and Young Guru. We had Guru mixing “Kingdom Come” in the A room. Ryan does a lot of in-the-box work, so we went into the B room and started working in there on “Show Me What You Got.” When Guru was done with “Kingdom Come,” we brought our stems to the A room where we ran them through the SSL. We didn't even so much use the outboard gear, it was mostly just tweaking with the SSL EQs and dynamics. And then we made stems of that and that's what I took on the plane with me. So it was about 75 percent in the box, then we took it into the SSL, then I finished it off from there in the box. Most of my records have been like that, a combination of both.

So you're not afraid to jump between both worlds.

I fully believe that you can get a very good finished product doing everything 100% in the box. But obviously if you have a million dollar facility with all of this gear, of course you're going to use it! But I'm not afraid to mix records completely with software, it just takes a little more time to get it done. I've been with analog for so much longer, it still takes us a little longer to get it all down but I do think you can do a great job just in the box with a little more effort.

It seems that especially in hip hop, people are still holding on to hardware, not just for mixing but in pre-production. There is still the whole MPC mentality of how to make a beat. I know you've recently started working with software more on this side of things, too. Do you think things are shifting more towards software in the hip hop world?

I think you'll always see a little of both. For me the cool thing about software is more the portability factor. I started with software years ago, back in the early to mid nineties with a cheap Roland JS 30 sampler and a software sequencer. So my initial background was with software.

But then I was able to con my Aunt into getting me an [Ensoniq] ASR-10 and from there I moved to an [Akai] MPC. I think there's always going to be both hardware and software in hip hop. For dance music it's different, even though the production styles are very similar, but I think with hip hop there's always going to be more of a market for the hardware. I think hip hop for so long has been producer-driven—not that other music isn't—but in hip hop the producers are stars, and for years they've used hardware.

Now what you'll see is a lot of hybrid setups. For example you'll see a lot of producers sequence on the MPC, and they'll have all of their samples in there, but all of their keyboard sounds and synth sounds are coming from the computer. I considered doing that before I went completely software. My initial plan was to have the MPC as a sequencer/sampler, then use the computer as replacement for a rack of sound modules. The more I started to mess around with programs like [Native Instruments] Battery, I just decided to go software overall.

The one thing about it is, while there are programs that allow you to do more than you'd be able to do on an MP, the one thing that no one has actually done yet is to make a software sampler that's an MPC killer. Especially in terms of ease of use.

Tell us about your process of working with samples and building beats. You've mentioned before that sometimes when you hear something on the radio, you already hear how you'd make a beat out of samples from that song. How do you usually approach making a beat? Do you go looking for sounds or are you more inspired by the things you hear and use them as a starting point?

It's always different. There's no one method. If I have a sample in front of me or I'm listening to a record, I'm already thinking about how I'm going to make a beat out of it. Whether it's just looping a specific section, or chopping it up and rearranging it, or just finding a particular hit that would sound really good. Sometimes I'll just hear something in passing that I'm not looking for.

I've done records off of being at IHOP and hearing something on the radio. I was in LA and me and Ryan West were at IHOP, and I heard this song and it had this crazy harpsichord line. I had no idea what it was. So I just grabbed my Blackberry and started typing the song lyrics in thinking I'd Google it when I got back to the studio. But then when I got back I realized I hadn't saved, so I only remembered one line from the whole song. Thankfully, that just happened to be the song title.

What song was it?

I can't even say, because I didn't clear it. I completely re-arranged it, and it ended up being more of an inspiration for something that I was working on. Sometimes if you even just put that out there, people will try to find a way to come back and sue you for it, even if you're not actually using their work. Which really sucks, but that's just the way it is these days.

Do you ever hear a song and think “I have to sample that,” but then give up on the idea because you know it will be impossible to get it cleared?

That fortunately has not happened to me. But you have to be smart not only about who you're sampling but about who you're sampling for. The average new rap artist has a much smaller chance of getting, say, a Doors sample cleared than a Jay-Z or a Puff Daddy, or people who have huge names. It's easier for these artists to get things cleared sometimes.

It's not to say that Jay can get anything cleared. He had to go through hell and high water to get the Doors cleared on The Blueprint, but he did get it cleared. They ended up having to work out a charity thing, where proceeds went to a charity. It's always a different process.

There are certain people who I won't attempt to sample, for example The Beatles. Paul McCartney does not need the money, and probably will not let me use his sample. But if we were doing something big, bigger than your average hip hop record, I might do it. Because it may be something he's interested in. I've been approached to do things for charity like along the lines of “We Are The World.” I might use it for something like that because that's something people are less likely to say no to.

I've never been outright turned down for a sample, but it's just a matter of playing it smart. Otherwise you run the risk of making an amazing record that might never see the light of day. These days people are getting sued for sampling something and putting it up on Myspace, which is crazy. It's one thing to sample a record and put it on the air or put it in stores and try to sell it. It's another thing entirely to sample something, put it on Myspace and say, “hey, check this out.” You're not making any money on that, and people get sued for it.

You have your own imprint on Atlantic Records called Fort Knocks. You mentioned you're about to finish a record with Saigon, how is that coming along?

We actually just had our first round of final meetings at the label. It's the typical artist to label struggle, where the artist wants to do all of these things. And it's not that the label hasn't been supportive—they've let us work on this album for close to two years now without pressing us. But at the same time there's a balance between being almost over creative and signing a record that's going to sell.

We brought them what we feel are our strongest singles yesterday, and they're ready to start discussing release dates. As far as the actual album, we're about 90% done. I'd like to record maybe one more record. There's one other type of record that we need that we don't exactly have yet. But for the most part it's done. I just heard the full thing put together for the first time the other day and I was surprised.

It must be interesting to be so close to finishing this long project and have some songs that are a few years old and some that are more recent.

My thing with this album was, no matter what we did, I wanted it to be an album that would sound good 10 years from now. You hear certain albums and think, “this was a great sound at that time, but I don't want to listen to it now.” Because the sounds have changed, and time has changed. Whenever you go for what's hot on the radio right now, nine times out of ten nobody's going to want to hear it a year down the road. If it becomes a huge radio hit they might not want to hear it three months from now!

There are certain records that are just more timeless. When I say timeless I don't necessarily mean they're instant classics, just that they don't sound like they're based on any particular time period in terms of pop music or rap music. They have more life because they're not based on whatever the hot sound of the moment is.

What are some of those records to you that have that “timeless” quality.

That's a tough one. There are very few these days. Honestly, I think Jay-Z's Blueprint is one. Kanye West's Late Registration is one. I think his first album is really great too, but the problem with albums like that is that style got done by so many people afterwards, that it kind of unfortunately now has a time period attached to it.

Tribe Called Quest's Midnight Marauders. Pete Rock's The Main Ingredient. Most people would say Mecca and the Soul Brother, but for me I like The Main Ingredient, which most people think I'm crazy for!

Let's see. Nas' Illmatic is another. EPMD's Unfinshed Business and Business as Usual. Mobb Deep's The Infamous. This isn't an end all be all list, but as far as hip hop that's a good start. If I had nothing else I could listen to those and be straight.

While we're talking about “desert island” favorites, you have a reputation for having a thing for video games. What would you take to a desert island, the original Mike Tyson's Punch Out!! or Fight Night?

Oh definitely Fight Night.

No nostalgia for Punch Out there?

No, I didn't even like Nintendo as a kid, I had a Sega system. I kind of went through my nostalgia stage and got all the emulators and bought a lot of old consoles, and I'm pretty much over it. There are certain old games to me that are classics like Space HarrierSuper Hang OnOut Run is a classic, maybe some Marble MadnessGhouls and Ghosts is a timeless video game!

But I'm a technical guy. I want to see the advances, I want to see the realism. There are very few games that look like stick figures that I look at and get a great feeling about.

As far as the “Next Gen” consoles are concerned, what do you think wins, Playstation 3, Xbox 360 or Wii?

Xbox.

The Wii is cool, however I don't think they needed to build the motion sensor into every game. Certain games don't need it! For me the best game for the Wii is the game that comes with it, and Wii Sports. Some of those motion sensitive games are great but just because that technology is there doesn't mean you have to use it in every game. It's like making beat—you don't have to use every sound in your module to make a great beat, you might just take three.

You've done some things on the other side of the coin, doing music for games. Is that something you're going to be doing more of?

I'm actually talking to two companies right now. One about scoring a sports title, and the other is more of a music-themed game. But it looks like I'll be scoring something along the lines of what I did with NBA Live and NBA Street for a different game.

It seems like when you started out you were completely focused on the creative side of things, but with keeping a studio running, having your own label and artists, and everything else, you've become more involved in the business side. How do you feel about that, are you happy to be going that direction?

I'm not one of those guys like Puff, who are creative but just as into the business side. For the most part they're not hands-on with the music. They have writers and musicians, and they might be responsible for the creative direction more than anything. I like to be hands-on. I like to sit down and dig for samples, and go hunting for keyboards and new sounds. I consider my role to be 75% creative and 25% business. So basically, I want to make this album, hand it in to you guys and let you guys handle the business, but I want to approve and sign off on everything you do. At the end of the day I still want my main focus to be creativity.

To learn more about Just Blaze visit www.myspace.com/justblazeradio.

Watch Just Blaze's interview at Red Bull Music Academy, and see Ozone at work.

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