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Interview with Just Blaze

[ Conducted in August 2004 ]

We called up our roving reporter, Monsieur Decuts, from the minors when we learned we had the chance to interview music industry heavyweight Just Blaze. Below is their phone interview transcribed for your pleasure.

I'm really not going to waste your time and just jump into it. How did you hook up with the Beastie Boys?

They reached out to me on this. I got a call one day and it was like "the Beastie Boys want you to remix their new single. They use some of your tracks in their shows." They used to rhyme on Flipside, which I did for Freeway, and Eric Sermon's React during their shows. I was like "for real, are you serious?" For me it was an honor, you know what I mean?

Yeah definitely.

I remember stealing my cousins License to Ill tape back in 86 and never giving it back. That's still one of my favorite albums of all time. So I didn't have to think twice I was like "man lets just go ahead and do it!"

So when you were talking did your folks come up with any guidelines on the remix?

It was like basically go ahead and do whatever you want. I'm asking them questions and they're like "just do whatever you want."

So they gave you full control?

They asked me what I wanted them to do. Once I listened to the original, the tempo was so fast, like 116 bpm or something like that. I wanted to slow it down to like 107. For the original version of the remix I just time-stretched their vocals. But after listening to it more, I was like man they should really do it over. And they were completely cool about doing it. There were like "man come on." So we went down to the studio one day and they went in and smacked it out no problem.

Was this the new studio they set up for the album?

Yep, their studio. It was cool; the remix is really old school sounding. My favorite incarnation of the Beastie Boys is the License to Ill era. I really just wanted to do something that sounded like it could have been on that album or at least in that era.

I think that their new album has that concept in mind as well. It's stripped down. That's why your remix fit so well.

Exactly, don't get me wrong. I like their other albums too, but the stuff you grow up with as a kid is your favorite. You know what I mean?

Yeah it's what you've been built off of.

JB: Exactly. You know I just wanted to go back to that. I hadn't even heard the whole album yet but I kind of felt that I personally knew a lot of people who would have loved to hear something like that from them because they haven't done it in 20 years. I kind of just made the record you know, I didn't do it according to what I'm known for, or like the sound people usually know me for. I was like you know what, I'm just going to do what I want to do and you know people love them because that's pretty much what they're known for. They don't stick to guidelines. They don't conform. They do whatever they feel like doing. I figure that's what people love about them and you know in the end I was just honored to be a part of it. They let me do what I wanted, which was even better.

What was your involvement in the video they shot?

Basically, Yauch called me and asked me to come down and shoot a little bit of extra footage with them at their studio. So I went down and I just knocked it out. They already had footage from the original video they never included. So they took their footage and cut it up with the new footage of me in the studio. You know it worked and it was hot. In the end I was just happy to be there like "I can't believe I'm in a video with you dudes right now."

So you still have love for the old school?

I mean I'm young, but I come from a somewhat musical family. I was just telling someone that the first record I ever bought with my own money was RUN DMC's first album, which was like 83. I think I was 6 years old spending my money at the record store.

I was the same way. I had that tape first then traded it for License to Ill with a friend. That's why the laid back 80's sound of that remix was so appealing to me and I think a lot of Beastie Boys fans. Especially those who've been around since the get go.

Yeah, I've noticed that. I look at the forums and the fan sites and it's funny because I've even read some fans say they like the new version better than the original. And most of them say it reminds them of something from those days, especially the older people.

Right. You say you grew up in a musical family. Did you have any professional training or are you self-taught?

My father was a keyboard player and my mother was a singer. He was self-taught so I picked some stuff up from watching him. I'm not great cause I've never gotten heavily into the technical side. I usually play by ear.

So about your new label, what are you guys doing?

It's going to be interesting. We have two artists: Dave Young, who is an R&B singer from Chicago and Saigon who's one of the hottest underground MC's in New York. He's been on the mix tape scene for two or three years now and it was funny because I almost gave up on finding a rapper. I mean I could find one easily, but I didn't want one that sounded like everyone else. So many rappers don't have their own identity they sound like Jay or Biggie or like Nas or Snoop.

I heard you had an open call for people to submit work. How does someone shine to person such as yourself?

That was actually an internet rumor which killed me. The phone lines in my studio were lit up for a week. It wasn't true and my phone lines went crazy because someone actually posted the phone numbers to my studio, but it's cool. Basically I'm looking for something that's different but its got to ride the fine line it has to be different but it has to be accessible. Not saying it has to be corny or sellout but you know as artistically free as you can be, the label still has to sell records.

It's a business right?

Right it's not the music business; it's the business of music. You know what I mean? It's two different things. I've come across certain artists that I love, but I was like I just couldn't sign them. Maybe I'll use them down the line but I needed someone right now who already had a buzz who I could do something with. I need someone with presence and respect on the street. You know he was a natural addition and I've been working with Dave the R&B artist for the past year on his album, which is fun. It's a different direction. I didn't want to do the typical R&B thing where people get whatever hip-hop beat was hot last year and sing on it. I didn't want to do that. I wanted something totally fresh and different. And you know we finally came up with it so right now we're about seven or eight songs deep into his album. I don't want to spread myself too thin though. I'm trying to do those two for right now and I just want to do those two. Once those albums are done we'll concentrate on putting them right where they need to be.

Do you find you can only move forward as fast as you can be creative?

Exactly! Yes I don't want to be a factory. If you can sit down and recycle stuff all day like a regular formula then you start becoming predictable, which I don't want to be.

There are some nice cuts on that Ch-Check it out remix. Do you spend a lot of time practicing scratching?

Nah, not as much as I'd like to anymore. I started out DJing as a kid.

Do you follow the turntablism scene these days?

I keep up, but I can't say I follow. Whenever I come across a DVD of a competition or an exhibition or battling and I happen to be around it, then I try to take it in. I can't say I follow it. I don't know all the new hot ones, you know what I mean?

So then you definitely still enjoy it?

Yeah, yeah, definitely. I mean I have turntables set up in my house and in my studio. I still DJ out and do parties now and then.

I guess there's a flow. Start out Djing, and then eventually work with your own beats.

Yeah, it's crazy like one of the biggest payoffs for me on a personal level. I mean I used to DJ parties all the time and I haven't done it in a long time, and now I'm playing my own records you know? It's one of the biggest rushes you can really get.

For sure, it's a dream for a lot of bedroom DJs, or even scratching your own voice for that matter.

I think it's almost like in mainstream hip-hop you don't hear a lot of scratches anymore. It used to be like every rap group had a DJ and those days are done for the most part. I like doing my part to keep the DJ alive in hip-hop.

It fell in nice with the old school mix of the song. The Beastie Boys try to preach peace and unity, is this soft rap or smart rap?

To be honest, I just look at it as hip-hop. I try to not make categories. I think what they're doing though is definitely not soft and is smart rap. I was telling someone I work with just the other day that you have to realize it takes more of a man to be angry about something and not have to resort to violence rather than take the easy way out. To me it's more of a manly thing to do. Think about it. In situations like that, once there's some kind of a war or a feud going on and they resort to violence, it doesn't stop till someone is dead. It has gotten to the point that, like back in the day you may have a fight and someone looses a tooth or gets a scar and that's it. Nowadays it doesn't stop until someone is dead. We're at the point now where they don't fight anymore and they just shoot each other. So much of their life is reflected in hip-hop that the lines have become so blurred. You know I really respect Jay and Nas for that. They just kept it all on wax. There are a few others that kept it on wax and a few others that turned real and have had some real problems. Once you take it to that level where it doesn't stay on wax more than likely it's not going to stop until someone gets seriously hurt or dead. It's stupid that we already lost Biggie and Tupac over some senseless acts of violence. So I'm really not one to prolong or even lead into that. So yeah man, I definitely don't consider that soft rap…that's smart.

I'm not going to press you on gear questions but I can't get away with not asking you your favorite piece of equipment.

Gear questions are cool. It depends on what I'm doing really. I do most main sequencing and sampling on an MPC 4000. In my main MIDI room I also have a MPC 4000, XV-5080, 2080, 3080, I love Roland, anything Roland I love. I have the whole 1080 through 5080 series. I have a Korg Ms2000. I have an SE 1x, studio electronics 1x, and the analog box. I got pro tools with every plug in. I've got logic, but I haven't really gotten that into Logic, I got Logic with pretty much every VST ever made but I haven't gotten too heavily into that yet.

It takes some time to get into all that.

Yeah, all the stuff I did on Jay-Z's Dynasty album I did on Logic. That was back in 2000 so there's been like two to three major editions since then. I dabble with it. It's definitely the way of the future. It's the way to go as far as ease and portability but something about just sitting down at an MP and knocking it out. I can't really explain, but it just feels better.

I can relate. There's more feel to me tapping it out rather then coloring in squares on a computer screen.

Yeah and also AKAI makes those pads, but they're not the same. I had those pads, and I went out and bought Logic again for the fifth time. Those pads are functional but they just don't feel the same.

I read that you used to listen to your productions on boomboxes at the ROC.

Yeah. Basically the truth is when you listen to a beat loud it kind of tricks you. Just because it has a lot of bass you know all of a sudden you're like this beat is retarded it's crazy. Then you go home and you listen to it. You might put it in your car or put it in your radio and you're just like "man, well it's okay but you know it's just okay." So whenever producers would come in to play beats for Jay or other artists over there we started making them play it in boomboxes. That way if it's hot in the boombox it's going to be hot.

Do you have a personal favorite piece of equipment to listen to a track on to know it's mixed correctly?

There's this one little stereo system, one of my engineers brought it ands it's funny because we usually don't use regular stereo systems to monitor mixes on, but the first time we did it was for the Ch-Check It Out remix. We've been using it as a reference ever since because it's so good. It was a little home system with a 3 CD changer, that type of deal, I can't remember the model number of it though. I will say this, it's better to do what you got to do as far as, you know, mastering in the studio or mixing in the studio, but also go back and listen to your mixes on regular speakers because you got to realize 99% of the world is not listening to your records in the studio they're listening to it on some kind of a boombox or a car stereo. Just because your record sounds good in the studio doesn't mean it's going to sound good everywhere, so you have to go back and test it in a couple different places.

Hip-hip has been a young man game, especially the MC world. How do you feel about artists such as the Beastie Boys extending their careers into their 40s?

I was actually discussing this with someone not long ago and it's funny because hip-hop really hasn't had a career artist because it's a young form of music. With rock and roll artists start out and 30 years later people like the Grateful Dead and Ozzy Osbourne, who are in their 60s are still performing and still sound young. It's kind of like why can't we do that with hip-hop. But it's also so youthful and so competitive. Not that many forms of music are competitive, but hip hop is almost built on competition and it gets hard to be competitive with the young guys when you're old.

I guess it helps when you have the same fans for 20 years like KRS One and the Beastie Boys.

Exactly. There are very few artists who are capable of that. Most artists aren't capable of changing with the times and transforming themselves and still staying relevant to their fan base. You will not always stay relevant to the masses but you can certainly stay true to your fan base. You know there's those who come out of the gates and sell ten million records and then what happens as time goes on they're not the hot new kids anymore. As long as you can maintain your relevance and keep putting out good music, out of those ten million fans you had after your first couple albums, you'll still have maybe two million or so. Jay always has a solid two million that come out for us every time. DMX has his solid one and a half to two million that come out for him every time. As long as you can maintain that, you're good. The thing with Jay and the Beastie Boys is they're not running around like they're eighteen. They've grown and their audience has grown with them. One cool thing about the Beastie Boys that is hard to say about any other rap group is that even though their fan base grows with them, they always have a solid fan base of eighteen to nineteen year old kids as well.

Do you think it's because they have their fingers on the pulse?

I think its partly they're also a little bit ahead of what's going on. They always try to do something different and they always cross the genres. They don't just do hip-hop, they just don't do rock, they've done punk, and they do everything.

Even country. All right thanks for taking the time to speak with me and communicate with your fans through I hope that working with the Beastie Boys will expand your fan base a little bit.

Yeah it already has. Like I said, I read the forums and there are some kids who listen to the Beastie Boys, but don't listen to hip-hop. They're asking, "Who is this guy, who is Just Blaze?" They're inquiring about what other records I've done. They go out and download some records and it's technically not legal but I'm not mad at them because they're doing their research. I'm not mad at all. I'm happy.

Thanks to Just Blaze, Monsieur Decuts, and!

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