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!”
There are some younger producers doing it for rap too though. You’ve played parties with AraabMuzik, for example. He does that hard-hitting Dipset sound but also experiments with trance and so on.
Right. Definitely. It kind of goes back to what I was saying before. With the younger producers and the younger people in general, there’s been a shift. Back when I was young, DJing hip-hop it was different. I’m not saying I was the only one, but in my area in North Jersey, I was one of the only DJs killing it on both tips. Playing hip-hop and going into the rave right after that. My approach was the same for both. I was DJing rave and house music the same way I was DJing hip-hop … with scratches and turntablism and stuff like that. Where more house DJs were into transitions, I was cutting it up in the same way I would with hip-hop. That was my thing — to me it was all DJing. I didn’t even think about the fact that I was doing something that wasn’t the norm. I was doing what naturally came to me.
Besides me there wasn’t many people doing that. Say you came to one of my parties now too — you’d hear hip-hop, but you’d also hear soul, funk, house, Latin music, dubstep, whatever. It’s the norm now. But ten, fifteen years ago? Forget about it. Back then you were a house DJ, or a hip-hop DJ, or a rave DJ, or whatever. Nowadays, the lines have blurred so much that people are doing sort of everything. That’s obviously trickled down to the producers and artists. And that’s why you can hear someone like AraabMuzik incorporate trance into their beats. Also that dude Hudson Mohawke who was doing trippy dubstep, but then can also do hip-hop.
What are you working on right now?
I have the TV show, Masters of the Mix, that airs on BET in November. I liked what we did with it before but I’m excited for this season because the concept is hitting it’s stride. This season we have DJs that aren’t unknown, but they’re not well known DJs like last season. Also the DJs don’t know each other, whereas last season everyone knew each other already. This season has a cast of DJs who haven’t already “made it” in some sense yet. They all have something to prove.
I also have two really, really, really dope tracks with Rick Ross that will be dropping on his new album. I have another crazy record coming out with Drake that will be on his next album. And I just produced and wrote a record for Mary [J Blige] that will probably feature Nicki Minaj, which I think will be a lot of fun. I also actually have a dance EP that I’m putting out on Fool’s Gold that was supposed to be out a long time ago but it kept evolving. When I did that holiday party a long time ago, I played this one track and a bunch of DJs that were there ran over and asked me what it was. It was something that I did in my house a long time ago. It was actually something that I originally put together for Cee-Lo but it was too dope to give to him.
Too dope for Cee-Lo?
It wasn’t that. It was so personal that I felt like I had to make it something that was mine as opposed to something I was producing for someone else. So I held onto it, I never gave it to him. I played the instrumental version at that party and A-Trak approached me about putting it out and then was like “Why don’t we just make this into an EP?” We finally gave ourselves a deadline of October.
What can we expect to hear on that?
It’s a lot of retro disco. There’s one track, probably the first one we’ll put out, called “Get It Together.” I’m still trying to figure out what the final five songs will be. I just want the whole thing to make sense together. I’m getting a lot of older retro-feeling records but chopping them up like I might do with a hip-hop record. A lot of interesting chops going on on a house meets hip-hop perspective.