Interview: Just Blaze Talks Baseline Studios, From the Making of Jay-Z's The Blueprint to the End of an Era
"For The Blueprint, Jay-Z literally just walked into the studio one day and was like, 'Anybody got some beats?'"
Last Thursday, when producer Justin "Just Blaze" Smith announced he was closing shop at Baseline Studios, longtime recording homebase for Roc-A-Fella Records and other hip-hop and R&B luminaries, it marked not just the end of an era but the end of an ethic. Other historic venues for rap recording, including Chung King Recording Studios, Sony Music Studios, and The Hit Factory, have closed their doors in recent years, so the end of Baseline--where albums like Jay-Z's The Blueprint and Cam'Ron's Come Home With Me were recorded in part--feels like a stroke of finality in New York's ever-losing bid for geographical relevance. None of this means Just Blaze is retiring--in fact, just yesterday it was announced that he was joining in a partnership with Harlem's Stadiumred, a rising recording giant. Still, things won't be the same. In 2006, Sean Fennessey conducted a long interview with Just in the A room of Baseline to discuss his career, his future plans, and the legacy of the music made under his roof. In honor of Baseline's departure, here (below) is an extended excerpt from that interview, and--bonus!--
Kanye mourns, 1.30.10. a pretty much definitive collection of Just Blaze's production [now down, at the producer's request], over at Sean's blog, Split Infinitives.
Let's start with your best known work: Tell me about the genesis of The Blueprint.
We really didn't talk about it, that's the first thing about that album. For all the myths and whatnot surrounding about how he works, although we saw a lot of it in Fade To Black, for The Blueprint he literally just walked into the studio one day and was like "Anybody got some beats?" Which really grabbed me. That's how the album came about. After the Dynasty album came out, I don't remember him saying "Ya'll, I'm going to start on my album around such and such time." That was about six months down the line from whenever time that was, then he walked in two months later. He doesn't even say, "Let's start the album." Just...
Let's do this?
He does that from time to time. It's not even so much "I'm going to make a song," it's just "I feel like rapping, who's got some beats?" That's how he started with the Kingdom Come single ["Show Me What You Got."] He would just come during those three years he wasn't making any albums and just pop up every once in a while like exercise, know what I mean? Like Jordan or Kobe, or any other great, they didn't get to where they got by just playing basketball when they needed to. You still gotta go in and practice here and there so that's really what that was. He just walked in one day and was like "Who's got some beats?" Kanye had like five and I had like three or four and he did nine songs in three days.
What was your reaction when he said, "Let's go"? Did you have things you were working on for him and keeping to the side?
It was just, "I happen to have this here," know what I mean? As cohesive as the album was...sometimes there is a grand scheme, as far as putting things together. Sometimes they just fall into place. That's kind of how a lot of my career has been - things falling into place. I think I had "U Don't Know" done already, I think I had "Song Cry" started but I hadn't finished it yet. "Breathe Easy (Lyrical Exercise)" had been done. I did that beat messing around with the ASRX or something. "Girls, Girls, Girls" was old by that point, like real old. I actually made that beat for Ghostface. I just never had the opportunity to run into him to give it to him. It's just one of those things where I just had it. If I ever saw him I'd have given him the beat.
None of them were made with Jay in mind?
It was just like I said: He wasn't going to start working with us for another four months.
How much did you nudge Jay to get back to recording?
Every time he would come around, I'd just pop up and say, 'Just listen to this. Listen to this.' That was how we did "Dear Summer." He had to put that down as a freestyle just to do it, when he was doing an S. Carter commercial. And I had the beat already so I just pushed him up. I took his a capella from a freestyle and put it on the beat and slipped it over to him. So we threw it on throw it on Bleek's album. But whenever I see him. You know, he knew, he knew, because we'd be in the studio and I just start playing beats and he'd be like "Aiight, I see what y'all are trying to do." He used to leave the studio so that he wouldn't get the urge to start rapping. But when you're an artist like that and you're as good a rapper as he is then your love... you're only gonna be away but so long.
Explain the story about putting the "Kingdom Come" beat together in 30 seconds.
The way that really happened was I've been trying to get a web site together for years, right, and I always get it like 65%-75% done and then I just get busy and drop the ball on it. My problem is that I'm too much, when it comes to things like that, I'm too hands on and control freak to just completely farm it out to somebody and bring it back to me. So one of my assistants was like "Why don't you just set up a MySpace page?" This was probably right before it became all the rage. So we set it up. One of the things he said was some of the celebrities and people of stature do is put a voice message up so that you know it's their page and not a fake fan page or something. I remember going to one of the first MySpace pages I ever saw was Jon B, the R&B singer, he's a friend of mine. I remember he had something like that up there, with like a beat in the background with him talking. So I was like "Yeah, we should do that." So I started to do it and I thought we should have a beat on here too. I remember being in Chicago about a month or two prior and finding a "Super Freak" 12" that had part 1 and part 2 on the A side and B side. I just bought it just to buy it because I never seen it and I collect records. So I bought it and didn't think anything of it. So the night we were going to record the voice intro for the MySpace page, I said let me see what I can find and I just dug through some records, pulled out about 10, and that was one of them. So I was playing it and I was just sitting there listening to it and I was thought "How crazy would it be if somebody could make a real beat out of this? Not just looping it like Hammer did but really just chopping it to pieces and reconstructing it. I was like, "I can pull that off." Actually I did it and started throwing into the MPC and as I was doing it, it just started coming to me. I remember I said on that thing that the whole beat took me like 30 seconds to make, which is true. A lot of people say there's no way he could have done that. ?uestlove hit me: "There's no way you could have done that beat in 30 seconds. I recreated it." I'm like "Your brain is not my brain." Same way I can't put together what you put together. The actual process of putting the samples in the machine, physically, took more than 30 seconds. But once it was all there...
You just pull out tiny parts and assemble them?
Exactly. So that's what I did and once I did that and held the samples in the machine, it literally took me 30 seconds to make it work. And that was really it. I didn't think anything of it. Then I got on the MySpace page and the next day, it had like something retarded like 5,000 hits overnight and I was like "Huh?" Then it just became all the talk on the internet for 2 or 3 days and I realized people are paying attention. Jay eventually caught wind of it. ?uest was actually the first person to bring it to Jay's attention. He was telling me to do it but I was just like, "Ahh, whatever, it's not that serious." But he was like "Trust me, you have to do it, this record needs to be heard by the masses" and I was like "Fine, go ahead, talk to him." At the time, he still wasn't working on the album yet. But the seed was planted within a few days of the beat coming out. It's funny because some people's criticism was like, oh, Just Blaze used a 10-month old beat from his MySpace page. But actually it was done shortly after I put it up. One of the things that always bothers me about public perception is on one hand you can't blame them because they're not behind the scenes of everything but the first time you hear a record has nothing to do with the time it was actually completed. Like when you heard "Roc The Mic" for the first time, that record was 10 months old. When you heard "Oh Boy" for the first time, that record was 10 minutes old. Cam literally took that from [Baseline Studios] and went right to the radio. The record wasn't even mixed, mastered, not nothing. And radio put it right into rotation.
Sounds like this stuff would make a great documentary.
Yeah, it could be a few documentaries. I have footage--I got tapes of Jay writing a rhyme in the A room while Cam'Ron is sitting right here writing a verse and Bleek is in here writing something, Beans and Juelz Santana are in the front trading rhymes back and forth. You will never see that again and nobody will ever believe that it actually even happened. Once I started thinking of things like that, I was like "I gotta record everything." Not so much with the intentions of making it all publicly available but just to have. You want to be able to tell your grandkids, you know the grandfather who's like 'When I was your age I was bad!'