Just Blaze — devoted son to his mother (a high school principal), superfan of Roland V-Drums and Ableton Live, owner of three feisty poodles and producer of such tracks as Jay-Z's “Public Service Announcement,” The Game's “No More Fun and Games” and Ghostface Killah's “The Champ” — just can't shake one crazy dream. Sitting in Studio A at his Baseline Recording Studios in New York, Blaze (aka Justin Smith) puts down his three cell phones while munching on chicken and rice to retell this recurring dream.
“I am out in China somewhere in the mountains,” Blaze recounts. “I meet up with some friends who are on the run from the government or the men in black. We all jump on a bullet train, we're speeding through the mountains, and all of a sudden the train stops at a Sam Ash store. It's the same Sam Ash people I know in New Jersey and New York. ‘What are you guys doing here in China?’ I ask. The men in black were on the bullet train, too, and they are about to enter the store. We have to get out of there. I see a drum set, and for no reason, I sit down and start playing. Everyone says, ‘What are you doing? They are going to kill us!’ But I can't stop playing. Then I wake up.
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“That was the third time I'd had that dream in four days,” Blaze continues. “I bought the Roland V-Drums that day. The first time I sat down on the drums, I knew what I was doing. When you have made beats for so long, something is wrong if you don't know how the drums should sound. But you also need that coordination. I am no prodigy, but that coordination came naturally.”
TRACKS FLOW LIKE RIVERS
It would seem that many things, including native talent, coordination and a golden production touch, come naturally to Blaze. As well as producing the bulk of Jay-Z's last three records, he has created tracks for the Beastie Boys, Memphis Bleek, Busta Rhymes, Mariah Carey, DMX, Dr. Dre, EA Sports, Fabolous, Fat Joe, Freeway, Talib Kweli, Killah Priest, Nike, Diddy, Rhymefest, Beanie Sigel, Snoop Dogg, Usher, Kanye West…you get the picture.
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Blaze has ridden a wave of success that began with his first Jay-Z commission, “Streets Is Talking,” back in 1999. Nowadays, he's adding finishing touches to his as yet unreleased masterwork, Saigon's The Greatest Story Never Told (Atlantic, 2007). Just as his drumming fetish (which found its way onto many songs, including Jay-Z's “Show Me What You Got”) has served to power drive some of his best-known tracks, Blaze is all about raising the stakes in the here and now on his first project as executive producer. With an eye toward his legacy, the 30-year-old New Jersey native talks about “creating a continuous, steady flow with no breaks between tracks” on Saigon's impending release. “It's not a hip-hop opera,” he explains, “but from an audio angle, I am just tired of hearing one song follow another.”
Blaze brings up three Saigon tracks, “Truth,” “Enemies” and “Friends,” on the studio's 48-channel SSL board. The tracks represent the song-morphing technique that may be Blaze's crowning achievement, which he likens to the digital facial blending first seen in Michael Jackson's video for “Black or White.”
“I wanted to apply that theory to music,” Blaze explains, “where all of a sudden one kick becomes another kick, where one string line became another in the middle of a song — a musical morphing thing. We haven't gotten it down 100 percent, but Ableton Live was the one program that allowed us to take our ideas and process them.”
The tracks boom through the studio's large custom Augspurger speakers. The music is dense and epic, not unlike Blaze's best Jay-Z work, but with a smokier, old-school edge. Just when you think the first song is over, production effects take hold: Instruments, vocals and beats twist and stretch into a slightly nauseating fissure, slowly creating the next track. The effect is unsettling. Your perceptions are manually adjusted, and along with it, a view of a possible audio future. Blaze credits working with Ableton Live and stems as key.
“Whenever I mix records,” Blaze illustrates, “instead of just recording to ½-inch or DAT, we make stems. With stems, after the record is mixed, we take every sound in the mix and rerecord it back into Pro Tools with its mixed levels and effects. So at the end of the day, you get a mixed multitrack. If you are mastering from multitrack, and the bottom end is lost when you compress, for instance, you can go back in and manually correct it.
“Let's say we are going to do a kicks stem,” he continues. “The song is mixed. Now we are soloing the kick and recording the output of the console, which is the mixed, compressed and EQ'd kick back into Pro Tools by itself. So you have the raw kick and the processed kick. Once you have repeated that for every instrument in the song, you strip away all the raw audio, and you have that same exact song mixed, but every sound is now separate. The next step was to take all those sounds and dump them into Ableton Live, which is a sequencer that also allows you to do independent pitch and tempo shifting for every track in the session. So I took the stem session I had in Pro Tools, which consisted of WAV files, and transferred them to Ableton Live; that gave me one set of stems for the song. You can draw another set of stems into Ableton as well. So now you have two songs with two mixed multitracks — your kick, snare, bass, samples, keys, all mixed in one session. Then I can start playing with that. The possibilities are endless. Say one song is 93 bpm; the other is 89. Doing it subtly, we can blend the songs together in Ableton, though I can't show you exactly how we did it!”
NONE OF THAT FAKE SH*T
Production on Saigon's album, which includes “some '70s hillbilly rock, gospel and soul samples and Japanese movie soundtracks,” Blaze says, is ongoing while he works on upcoming tracks for Memphis Bleek, Nas, Mario, Talib Kweli and a video game for Midway. Blaze's attention to detail is obvious in the Saigon tracks, and that same mindset permeates his working approach. If he can't clear base samples, as it so happened with Ghostface Killah's “The Champ,” Blaze will hire musicians to replay the music, then effect the results until they sound like samples. If Mr. T refuses to grant permission for his gruff vocal samples (as with Jay-Z's “Public Service Announcement”), Blaze will sing the parts himself. And if his own drum beats and MPC rhythms don't cut the mustard on their own (Jay-Z's “Show Me What You Got”), Blaze will bring in another drummer (production/musician collective 1500 or Nothing's Kenneth “Bam” Alexander) to flesh out the track. An accomplished drummer in his own right, Blaze goes all out to bust a groove — whatever it takes.
“When I am making my records, I always try to envision what the record would sound like if it was played live,” he explains. “I try to program with more of a live feel. The bass player and drummer should always be in the pocket together. I take those real-life concepts of what a band does and apply that when programming music. I don't use a fake hi-hat, for instance; I use a hi-hat that sounds real. Now that I have started playing the drums, I realize that some of my earlier ideas were right, and some were impractical, like three hi-hats being played simultaneously. But it has caused me to listen to music differently; I respect what those drummers we have sampled for years were doing. Listen to the drummer [Clyde Stubblefield] on James Brown's ‘Funky Drummer’ and try to replicate it; it is damn near impossible.”
That same careful attitude regarding beat/groove placement informs Blaze's use of the quantize function. Or not. “Quantizing is the computer just reinterpreting your groove for you,” Blaze states. “I don't like that. It does come in handy sometimes. Depends on the track. If I start with a sample, I may quantize that just because sometimes the original musicians on the sample were not in perfect time. There was no MIDI Clock in 1975. I will take a sample, chop it, rearrange it and maybe quantize that. But when I do drum overdubs, whether programmed or live, I keep all that freehand. If not, it sounds like a robot. It is a robot! It's a computer! These days, the drum patterns are so simple, quantized or not, who can tell the difference?”
While Blaze goes for an old-school analog sound and real-feel live quality, he no longer uses the MPC for beats. Even his most valuable vinyl record, Monty Stark's A Stark Reality, will be sampled via Native Instruments Battery 3, not the MPC.
“I am totally off the MPC,” Blaze proclaims. “Battery and Pro Tools finally got their MIDI stuff together. What makes the MPC work in hip-hop is that we like to use it to cut up phrases. You can take 10 different sections of a sample and play them live. Battery is Native's drum machine, and it plays back samples as well; it has 16 rows of pads just like the MPC. So Pro Tools is my sequencer, and Battery is like my MPC. What everyone loves about the MPC is that you can get so much done in the least amount of steps, and you don't need to read the manual. However, I know Pro Tools like the back of my hand, and their MIDI and processing is the same. And Battery is similar enough in concept to the MPC that I only had to rethink certain things. Once I got used to using the mouse, I was on the way.”
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ANATOMY OF A TRACK
Jay-Z's “Show Me What You Got” (Kingdom Come, 2006) — surely one of the most dynamic, rhythmically complex and daring songs in recent hip-hop history — began at L.A.'s Westlake Studios. Blaze picks up the story: “That originally began with an air-raid siren, which I changed for a sax loop pitch-shifted and time-compressed; it was taken from ‘Darkest Light'' by the Lafayette Afro Rock Band. The brass stabs are from Shaft in Africa by Johnny Pate. Then I added the MPC drums, two keyboard players, Bam on live drums, two bassists and some light guitar and drum overdubs on the V-Drums. We didn't add the horns 'til right after Jay did his vocals, which I did on my laptop. All the crazy drum rolls and fills are Bam playing it live. I fortified that on the Roland V-Drums. When I did the beat originally, the musicians played over my phrase; I already had the Johnny Pate horns and my MPC going. They just played to that. I was committed to doing that all in the computer using Battery and the Sony laptop.”
Meanwhile, Ghostface Killah's “The Champ” (Fishscale, 2006) is equally dynamic, if totally bizarre, with Blaze role-playing voices like a mad Elmer Fudd. “We did that very raw, just a drum and a music loop on the MPC2500. We had some dialog from Rocky III. But it is me doing all the voices; it was originally Mr. T, but we couldn't clear the samples. We kept the drums but replayed everything else. We wanted to make it feel similar to the original '70s loop we sampled. We tried to discern the instruments, down to the kind of Rhodes they used, upright piano, a French horn, trumpet, maybe two saxes instead of one — we listened that closely. Back then, they all played the song together in one room. They were miked up, and you took the best take. So we had everyone play in the same room at the same time to re-create that soul and spontaneity. I mixed all the individual parts to become a new sample, then cut it up and reassembled it in Pro Tools.”
Blaze has said that Jay-Z's “Streets Is Talking” (The Dynasty, 2000) is like “10 tracks in one,” and the swooping samples that surround Jay-Z's nimble vocal run the gamut from crime-jazz trumpets to horror-movie strings.
“That was an experiment,” Blaze says. “No hardware involved there, either. That is Logic 5 or 6 and Pro Tools running on a PowerBook G3. The beat was made in Logic triggering the hardware version of Digidesign's SampleCell. Basically, I didn't know how to use Pro Tools or Logic then, so I just bought all this stuff as a tutorial in '99. I ran them in sync via the internal IAC bus. It was maddening. I threw all these samples into SampleCell. Back then, I would take my drums, sample them, process them, then sample them again. I would EQ drums in my MPC2000, throw a reverb on 'em and put them into SampleCell. That intro sounds more complicated than it actually was; it's just two different lines on two different keys. The percussion is just me hitting a garbage can. The key was getting the 10 samples to be in tune; it was about breaking the samples down on as many pads as possible and replaying them — a lot of trial and error. People don't make records like that anymore.”
STREETS IS TALKING
While superstar hip-hop artists depend on him for their lifeblood, his future looks bright and his legacy seems secure, Blaze still watches his back.
“What separates me from just another guy with an MPC?” he asks. “I am not really sure. There are some people in the world who just get it. And some folks don't. I can listen to some of my earliest work and honestly say I was good back then. Being able to stay on top of your game is how you maintain that position year after year — and embracing technology. You have to shake it up and not be afraid to reinvent yourself.”
And as the Saigon record proves, Blaze is not resting on his laurels. But even from his perch on high, he can sound rather fixated with the street from whence he came. Adulation, a packed schedule and the warmth of success can't drown out the detractors, some who have commented online that Blaze is simply a lucky man who grabbed the breaks and made the best of them. As with many talented artists, perhaps Blaze's odd insecurities only serve to make him better.
“Nobody is going to be hot forever,” Blaze says. “It is the opinion of the small guy, your hardcore hip-hop fan, that will really shape how your legacy goes. And that one guy can say something in an online forum that can spark other opinions. The records stand, but nobody knows who is on the records outside of the artists. The average person doesn't know who Just Blaze is. There are people who think my name is just something that an artist said on some records. If it wasn't for those guys who think Pete Rock is the greatest producer of all time, then a vinyl copy of Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth's The Main Ingredient (Instrumentals) wouldn't sell for $500. You have to plan for the future. If you don't, the years will catch up with you very quickly.”
PLUG-INs ON THE FLY
Just Blaze discusses the favorite weapons in his arsenal: “Native Instruments Komplete 3 is good. It has a bunch of synths, and Guitar Rig, which is like the Line 6 Pod. Guitar Rig has so many cabinets and options, even mics and mic-placement techniques. You can simulate many sounds at the flick of a button. I also love TC Electronic Master X, a plug-in compressor that I think is no longer made. And TC Electronic Finalizer, Waves C4 and L3 Ultramaximizer: The SSL center section is nowhere near as expansive as some of these plug-ins, but it does give you a warmer sound. So often I will use the Finalizer for its EQ functions, then do the compression on the center section of the SSL.
“If I am working purely on the Sony laptop, I really like iZotope Ozone. It's a mastering EQ, compressor, limiter, reverb and delay. That's my favorite since the Master X is no longer with us. ‘Show Me What You Got'' was mixed completely in my Sony VAIO with iZotope Ozone. We broke it up into stems, tweaked the stems a little bit on the console, then dumped the new tweaked stems right back into the laptop. I took that with me on a plane and mixed it on the way to Hong Kong at 30,000 feet. I love technology.”
BASELINE RECORDING STUDIOS
DAW, recording hardware, computer, console
Apple PowerMac G5 2 GHz dualprocessor computer
Digidesign Pro Tools|HD system
Panasonic SV3800 DAT recorder
SSL SL 4000 G 48-channel console
dbx 120XP Subharmonic Synthesizer
Kurzweil PC2 keyboard controller
Novation Remote 25 keyboard controller
Pioneer DJM-909 mixer, DVJ-X1 DVD turntable
Technics SL-DZ1200 Digital Turntable
Vestax PMC-07ProD Samurai Series DJ mixer
Mic, preamps, EQs, compressors, effects
Avalon Design E55 EQs (4), Vt-737sp preamp/compressor/EQ
dbx 160 XT (6), 165A compressor/limiters
Empirical Labs EL8 Distressor (4)
Eventide H3000 B Ultra-Harmonizer (2)
Focusrite ISA 110 channel strip (8)
Lexicon PCM91 Digital Reverberator (2)
Lydkraft/Tube-Tech CL 1B compressor/limiter
Motion Sound R3-147 Leslie simulator
Neve 33609C stereo compressor/limiter
Sony C800G mic
Summit Audio DCL-200 compressor/limiter
DAW, recording hardware, computer
Ableton Live software
Digidesign Mbox 2 Mini, Pro Tools M-Powered 7
M-Audio FireWire 1814 Audio/MIDI interface
Sony VAIO laptop
Digidesign Xpand! Sample-Playback/Synthesis Workstation plug-in
IK Multimedia SampleTank2 soft sampler
Native Instruments Komplete 3 soft synths
Ozone iZotope mastering effects plug-in
Sampler, synths, electronic drum kit, turntable
Akai MPC500 sampling workstation
Novation V-Station soft synth
Roland TD-20 V-Drums kit, V-Synth synth
Vestax QFO turntable