For someone who couldn’t be a part of the “golden era” of hip-hop, Justin Smith, a.k.a. Just Blaze, has been a pillar of hip-hop production for a while now. The 33-year-old musician has worked with some of the industry’s biggest artists over the last 13 years: Smith produced “Girls, Girls, Girls” and “Song Cry” for Jay Z’s The Blueprint and continued to work with the rapper on his Grammy-nominated Black Album. He’s also responsible for radio anthems such as Cam’ron’s “Oh Boy,” Kanye West’s “Touch the Sky,” T.I. and Rihanna’s “Live Your Life,” Beanie Sigel’s “Roc the Mic,” Freeway’s “What We Do,” and Faboulous’ “Breathe.”
So we were surprised to learn that Just Blaze’s latest musical endeavors included a release on legendary Chicago house and techno imprint, Cajual Records. The tracks are re-workings of label-founder and house innovator Cajmere’s classic “Brighter Days,” in honor of the song’s 20th anniversary. While hip-hop and dance music have shared sampling and beat-making techniques since the breakbeat era, it’s still amazing to hear an iconic rap producer’s approach to remixing the soulful euphoria of a classic house track. In his Re-Opened rendition of “Brighter Days,” [stream below] the drums hit with harder intensity, augmented with minor chord progressions, ultimately resulting in a terrifically different experience from the original altogether.
That song is not the last of Smith’s dance music production. He put out a three-hour live mix of house, techno, funky, and trance earlier this year and has been known to play up-tempo dance sets as an occasional member of A-Trak and Nick Catchdubs’ Fool’s Gold collective. He’ll also be releasing his first dance EP on the label sometime next month.
Hive chatted with Smith about this new turn in his career, trends and criticisms of the current hip-hop and dance scenes, making a record with Usher, and what we should expect from his forthcoming release.
You’ve started to include house music more frequently into your DJ sets. How did you decide to go deeper into dance music?
I’ve always made my name internationally through DJing. I think it’s just one of those things where the word doesn’t spread over night. It takes time. Also the holiday party I did with A-Trak a few years ago. It was the first time it was advertised that I was spinning house and I think that piqued a lot of people’s interest. I don’t want to say I killed it, but it was better than your average hip-hop DJ playing a house set.
Another thing is that I bought a new mixer, a Pioneer DJM2000, seven or eight months ago. I was really excited about it. I just bought it for my house for fun. While I was fooling around with it I ended up doing a three-hour mix of house, techno, and old-school rave. Stuff that I’ve always played out when I can. Anyways, I mentioned it on Twitter and people started talking about it so I uploaded it. When people actually listened to what I was playing, they were like, “Oh wow, he actually knows his music.” I was playing influential records from over the years, not just house records that every DJ knows. I think that’s what it’s about — more than anything else — was that I finally had that outlet to expose that part of me.
What are your go-to tracks? The ones that you play at every gig.
There are your classic mainstays that I always play. My all-time classics that I play are the “Brighter Days” Underground Goodie remix by Cajmere and “Hot Music” by Soho. “Sume Sigh Say” by the House of Gypsies and “Can You Feel It” by Mr Fingers always stay in rotation. “Burning Hot” by Pepe Bradock and “Love Dancing” by Underground Solution too. Obviously, the era that I came up in dance music was the early ’90s, so I’m really into Strictly Rhythms and all the Chicago classics.
Tell me how the Cajmere remixes came about.
[Cajmere's label] actually got wind of the holiday party set that I did with Fool’s Gold where I had played a couple of classic Cajmere records. I played “Brighter Days,” of course, but I played a couple of older ones like “Lookin’ For a Man” and “Flash.” You know, the lesser known stuff. Cajmere said he was a fan of mine as a producer and, once he saw what I was doing with classics, he was like, “Let’s do something together.” He wanted to do a party in Chicago and wanted me to come spin. Things never really lined up because I was so busy. So then, when they were doing this “Brighter Days” thing for the 20th anniversary of the song, they hit me up about being involved. I was like, “Hell yeah.”
What’s the difference between producing a house track and a rap track?
It’s all the same in that both are based in the groove. If you have a good groove, nothing else matters. You can do the most technically amazing stuff in the world, but it doesn’t matter if people hear it and don’t want to bop their head, two-step to it, or go dancing to it. After you catch the groove, it depends on what kind of record you’re making. If it’s an instrumental house record, you’re probably going to start out with a few more of those elements than you would if it was a vocal record.
I think it mostly depends on what reaction you want to get. Most of the hip-hop I produce, I go a lot harder. They’re tracks that give you that strength and make you wanna go out and beat somebody up, you know? With the house, for me anyways, it’s about making it danceable. It’s a different feeling. For me, to be honest, I think it helps that I understand both kinds of music and spin both … but also that I dance. I’m a dancer. So I can channel what dancers might want to hear or feel at the time because that’s the approach that I come from. I guess the difference is that I put myself into a different mindset.
That said, there’s a noticeable crossover between dance and hip-hop right now.
I think there’s more of a crossover between R&B and dance than there is with hip-hop. There are some hip-hop artists like Pitbull who have jumped full on into it. Puff has dipped his toes in the pool here and there too. For the most part it’s mostly R&B though. Usher, Rihanna, Chris Brown. What I like about it is that they’re going to real dance producers as opposed to R&B producers who just like dance music. Not to say they can’t do it, but if you’re going to do it, you might as well go all the way.
Speaking of Usher, we had a dance record that I made with him. Not for Confessions,but for the album after that. It’s funny because we did the record and he and and label had worries. I was a hundred-percent for it — it was a great record — but he didn’t want to put it out because he wasn’t ready to go there yet. We actually sampled the same thing as “Infinity” by Guru Josh, a classic record from like ’92. A year later that record ended up getting made by Josh and was a huge, huge, huge, international dance record. It was funny because his A&R hit me up when that came out and said, “Did you hear this song that sounds exactly like what you made for Usher?” I was like, “I know! I told you!”