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Just Blaze - The Man Behind Your Favourite Song

Words:

Edd Norval

Photos:

Vera Marmelo
August 25, 2021

The New Jersey born, New York based producer has worked on some of the most stand-out tracks of the last two decades for hip-hop, rap and pop’s biggest names. You might recognise him from the ‘tag’ in his songs - the yell of ‘Just Blaze’ to let you know who’s in control of the track.

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Drawing a lot of his samples from soul, Justin Smith aka Just Blaze infuses tracks with something definitively human, a few steps away from the 808s and bass that typically define the genres he works in. In that sense, his sound is fairly recognisable ans there's a reason for that. Think about his work on Jay-Z 2001 classic The Blueprint, or Joe Budden’s effervescent Pump It Up.


More recently he’s attached his name to beats for Rick Ross, Beyoncé and Eminem. That’s where he’s at now which, perhaps surprisingly, isn’t as far as where he came from as you’d think. His mother was a singer, his father a jazz organist. The entertainment for his first birthday party, he humorously remembers, was himself DJing. 


Some people fall into things during their life, others are born into it. That’s how Smith developed in those formative years. From a more traditional core of his parents, to the abrasive funk of Run DMC and Grandmaster Flash thanks to an older cousin. Exposed to these new sounds and enticed by the allure of something underground - as rap was rarely played on radio at that time - he sought about finding the equipment to contribute something of his own and approach making his own sounds in his own way.

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Creating mixes on cassette and with a rudimentary mixer, Smith was inspired by the DJs he’d tune into at the weekend, those rare radio gems that played the same music his cousin did and featured only on limited slots late in the evening. The penny dropped when he remembered two records he had. One was an acapella, another was an instrumental. Playing the two together made the world seem full of possibilities. In that moment he knew what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. He was, in essence, baptised by music. 


Building up a steady reputation by playing gigs regularly around New Jersey, Smith later interned at a studio and through a series of events that must have felt like destiny to one so eager for a chance, led to his first foot on the ladder. Just as it had years before, another musical transition began taking place. Being surrounded by producers and production equipment put his DJing on hold, pouring his time instead into carving out a path making his own sounds. 


Early on Smith began working with Jay-Z, making his beats in a straightforward manner, not yet orchestrating events as a more mature producer would. That would, clearly, come in time. These experiences were invaluable though. Things came quickly enough, but also in the right order. First the roots, then the trunk and finally the branches and leaves. 

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Much of this came down to confidence, largely fuelled by an experience with Jay-Z when, with access to the studio after hours, Smith sought to refine a track the two had made. Presenting it to the rapper the next day, whose reaction was that of affirmation, pushed the producer to begin really producing. This relationship with music is important, it is the tie that binds, but Smith gives it equal value to know the people he’s working with. It makes sense that he leans so heavily on soul. After all, it is with soul that he lives his life. 


That’s always been a part of his philosophy, from his close-knit family to a career making music for some of the biggest names in the world. Smith is, in essence, about bringing things together. The old is becoming reshaped into the new. The sound of soul, house and hip-hop fuse to something that sounds natural and, just as importantly as the music itself, he brings together several visions, ideas and concepts, articulating them in a way that very few can.


You can listen to him here on Spotify.

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