Just Blaze sits like a king holding court, on a riser in a lecture hall within a century-old building on the University of Toronto St. George campus. He waits to run through consecutive interviews, ahead of his keynote address at the 2018 Battle of the Beat Makers. He is deep into a text conversation on his phone. Maybe he’s exchanging top secret production techniques or some clue to an upcoming record – information that would make me an internet hero for 48 hours. More than likely though, he’s checking on an even higher priority.
“I just had a kid,” he shares, while taking what can only be described as a deep Dad breath. “Well, he’s about a year now. So, any free time I have, he’s pretty much running that show right now.”
Growing up in a house with a father who was a computer programmer, a young Blaze, born Justin Smith, would take apart any technology he could get his hands on to figure out what made it tick. It’s easy to assume that he would push his mini-me in the same direction, even in these early days, but Daddy Blaze is content to let young Solomon find his own lane.
“I let him gravitate towards whatever he likes. So far that’s records and swimming. Eight months old and he jumps right into the pool like, ‘let’s go.’ It’s kind of wild to see,” he says through an almost befuddled smile.
While young Solomon’s love of the water may be a quirk, his father’s natural curiosity of the things that surround him and how they work seems to have taken root. Of course, the things that surround him are musically inclined. A quick look at Blaze’s Instagram page shows Solomon programming beats on a Roland sampler and fiddling on Serato.
“He loves records like, physical actual records. Looking at the artwork. He puts them on the turntable and tries to spin it. It’s bugged out watching the things he’s gravitating to as he becomes his own person.”
… a good record is going to be a good record even if the mix isn’t great. But, if you have a really good record, with a great mix, it just takes the energy up that much further.
The normally super chill, gruffly soft-spoken Blaze perks up a bit when he’s talking about his son. Ten years ago, it’s the type of jump in enthusiasm you might expect out of him when talking about where he found that obscure sample or how some of his most famous beats came together. For him, the ideas aren’t so far apart. He often answers the age old “What’s your favourite beat?” question by referring to them as an “extension” of himself, kind of like children. In short, how could you pick a favourite?
While each beat is special to him, the production mastermind whose catalogue includes credits on such hits as Jay-Z’s “Song Cry” and Drake’s “Lord Knows” is always pushing to best himself. “This new Busta (Rhymes) record I’m working on right now is amazing. I feel like it’s one of my best produced, best mixed, best feeling records ever,” says Blaze with a smile. “He destroys it too.” Blaze chirps with a look that’s proud, but forewarning. As if to say you ain’t seen nothing yet.
As one of the most accomplished hit makers of such a revered era it’s interesting to hear him say this new Busta joint may be one of his “best mixed.” With his love of the bottom-end, complex rhythmic programming, and of course those perfectly placed sample chops, it’s too easy to ignore just how sonically balanced it all is. That may actually be by design. As Just explains, it’s really just about making a great record.
“Here’s the thing, a good record is going to be a good record even if the mix isn’t great. But, if you have a really good record, with a great mix, it just takes the energy up that much further. Some of our most classic rap records technically don’t sound that good. Many of them were made in sub-par conditions. In someone’s kitchen, a four-track studio, in somebody’s basement or whatever. 36 Chambers (for example), sonically, it’s not a good sounding album at all. But it’s one of the best rap albums of all time. It’s really just about finding that balance.”
When you’re creating a record, you’re kind of creating an extension of yourself…
In his episode of the Netflix produced hip-hop series Rapture, he fondly recalls his time interning at The Cutting Room studios in New York as Justin Smith, assistant studio manager during the day and “Just Blaze in training” overnight. This around-the-clock dedication from his early days is something that some may scoff at in today’s era of instant gratification and seemingly overnight success.
Blaze remembers building the cabinets that still stand in The Cutting Room. He reminisces about driving around in a close friend’s car the day 36 Chambers and Midnight Marauders dropped listening to and studying those projects back to back.
Two decades deep into his career, he is still passionate enough not just to get back into the studio as Daddy life becomes more stable, but also to get out night after night and play records live and gauge crowd reaction as a DJ. He isn’t ready to part with either role.
“When you’re creating a record, you’re kind of creating an extension of yourself and it’s being put out into the world in somewhat of a tangible form. There’s a joy in that, but there’s also a joy in DJing a show and sharing that music with not just the people in the (control) room, but a thousand people or 10 or 15 thousand people and seeing that reaction and creating that moment in everybody’s life that’s being shared. No better feeling than that.”
Photos © Isa Miguel Ransome & Urbanology Magazine
This is one in a series of stories highlighting and celebrating beat makers and producers leading up to Battle of the Beat Makers 2019, taking place in Toronto August 29 to 31.
For tickets and more information, visit BattleOfTheBeatMakers.com.