Just Blaze is tired. The man has just come off stage after an energetic, career-spanning set as part of Listen Out festival, and he’s starting to feel his age. One of the original, best and longest-standing producers in the game, Blaze has put his producing Midas touch on joints like T.I.’s ‘Live Your Life’, Jay-Z’s ‘Girls Girls Girls’, Kanye West’s ‘Touch The Sky’. He’s pretty much a legend in hip-hop circles, and we’re very glad that he managed to spit some words of wisdom in between the burger that was delivered to him halfway through this interview.
When did you get here? I did Sydney last week, then Perth, then I had to go to NZ and do a show there, then come back here…I’ve been on the road since January. Literally since January. And when I get back home, I go to New York for one night followed by two shows in California.
So do you want to kick your booking manager’s arse, or congratulate him? Don’t get me wrong, my agents are doing a great job. But I’m just like ‘Dude, at a certain point, it has to stop.’
‘I’m too old for this shit!’ Seriously, that’s what I tell people. Like, you guys are in your fucking early 20s. I’m not! I’m not at all. I’m fucking old. And I’m happy – don’t get me wrong – I’m happy; it’s been a blessing. Every couple of years I manage to add a few more to my career. That’s a skill in itself.
Is that related to making records? It’s a little bit of everything, I think. I started out as a DJ, and that led me into producing. For me at least it was a natural progression. I was raised in a pretty smart household; it’s not like my mother taught me how to maintain relevance in the music industry or anything, but she instilled certain things in us. She taught us how to move through life, how to sacrifice the things that you might really want to make the best of it. Honestly, I think I just applied the lessons I learned from growing up – watching my mother raise three kids pretty much on her own – to my music. Learning how to stay on top of my shit, and get in where I fit in. One of the secrets to my success is that I’ve never been overbearing. I’ve never been one of those guys out in the spotlight who wanted to be the star of the show. I’ve always just kind of been like ‘I can do that.’ Bits and pieces of everything. And it’s worked! There was a point when I had ten records in the Billboard Top 100 at once. For me, maintaining my name as brand without ever putting myself directly in the front has been the key to my longevity. When you look at certain artists or certain producers who dominated eras of hip-hop but went too far, they got locked in that era.
They became a product of it rather than defining it. Exactly. Whereas I have always been a proponent of good music. I made good music in 2000, I made it in 2005, 2010 and I’m still doing it now. I feel like as long as I can just maintain a bar of maintaining good music, I’ll always have an outlet.
It was interesting that before we were talking about how everyone else here is in their 20s, because a lot of people who really got big during the ‘golden era’ of hip-hop had short life spans. Hip-hop as an art form was always quite young, and I feel like nobody really factored in what would happen when it got older. Now that we’ve got elder statesmen – yourself included – of the genre, does it change how you create? Do you have a new responsibility? I don’t know if it’s so much of a responsibility, but like you were saying, hip-hop has traditionally been youth-based. It’s about the trends and sounds that change so quickly. Most producers in hip- hop might get a three or four year run. It’s even shorter these days. It really hit me recently, very recently, when people would ask me who my influences were growing up. I’d name those names, but it’s not so much a question of where they are, but you realise that you’ve had a longer career than them! You hold these dudes in such high esteem; they’re like Gods to you. ‘He had a five year run. I’m on year sixteen!’ But if not for them, you wouldn’t be here. So there’s always that level of respect, but you do understand that in order for you to still be around, you must be doing something right. At that point you do have a responsibility. The same way I looked up to those guys, there’s a whole lot of them doing it to you. Kids come up to me and they’re like ‘Yo, I listened to your stuff all through middle school and high school and you’re still killing it while I’m in college.’ And it’s crazy, but you realise they’re probably 22 years old, and in middle school they were seven or eight, and you’ve been at it for nearly two decades.
So some people have travelled with you through most of their adult life. Yeah. None of us are anything without our fans. I always tell people that there are millions of talented guys out there, I’m just one who made it through. Those people who have supported you, they’ve given you your legacy. I mean, you do create your legacy, but the fans demand it. You can’t come out and say ‘My album is a classic’, they’ll determine that. Record of the year, they’ll vote for that. So they put you on that pedestal that allows you to make money and feed your family and look after your people and travel on this musical journey. You have a certain role to keep that torch burning, you know?
You dropped quite a lot of Kanye in your set earlier. I’m curious about the idea of a producer working with an artist that is also a producer. Do they come to you with ideas, or do you do it together? Does it change on a track by track basis? Producers a lot of time make the best artists, and I saw that in Kanye. Not necessarily the best lyricists, or the best songwriters, but they know how to craft the best songs. This is an actual producer, not just a beatmaker. You can get a kid who can make a greatest beat in the world, but it doesn’t mean he’s going to make a great record. You look at somebody like Kanye; he’s a great producer who along the way learned how to make great songs. To me that’s the most valuable tool. You think about some of your all-time favourite records that you can remember, they’re not always super-meaningful or deep, but they’re good songs. I remember when Kanye played me the early, original version of ‘Hey Mama’. That’s when I knew he had figured it out. Before that he’d played me songs where I said ‘That’s a cool beat, that’s a cool hook.’ I mean, it wasn’t whack, but it was cool. When he played me ‘Hey Mama’ I knew he’d got it. A couple of months later he played me ‘Jesus Walks’ and it was all over. Historically, a lot of the great hip-hop anthems were actually made by people who were also producers or DJs. You look at Dr Dre, The RZA, DJ Premier, Large Professor, Q-Tip…
So when you come in, does it alter that relationship? It depends. There are certain artists where I can sit back and let them do their thing; poke at a few things here or there. Others, I’ll say ‘Hold up. We have to rewrite that whole second verse.’ At the end of the day, I’m always producing, but some artists need more than others. When it comes to someone like Kanye, who is a producer and an artist, it’s obviously a lot easier. A lot of them are; Eminem, he’s a great producer. Jay-Z, he’s not there sitting their making a beat but he knows how to craft a song. That’s all our job ever really is. Quincy Jones wasn’t sitting there playing the drums and the horns; he just knew how to arrange the parts. Jay-Z is a producer. He hears a record that he likes, he knows which singer he wants on it, he knows what he’s going to write to it, what the concept is. All of that is part of it.
It’s like a bandleader in a way. Exactly. He’s the ringleader, getting everyone on board with a certain vision. A lot of artists don’t necessarily tout themselves as producers, but they actually are.
Is it a misconception? Do a lot of people think that producers are just the guys who write beats? Definitely for urban music in general. When I was younger, I was the same way. I would see a record that said ‘Produced by Puff Daddy’ and as a beatmaker, I would get pissed! ‘He didn’t write that beat! That was Chucky Thompson who made that beat, or that was Stevie J who made that beat!’ As I got older, I realised that no, he didn’t make the beat but he knew to take it, give it to that artist. Have this guy overdub strings on it, have this guy play bass, have him write a hook, get her to rewrite his hook – his hook sucked. Get that a ghostwriter on the second verse, get it mastered, now I’m going to talk over the beginning and people are going to go crazy. That’s a producer! I just happen to be one of those people who can have that kind of a vision that can also make beats.
How does work with, say, a Jay-Z record, where there are multiple producers working on it at once? The whole process with Jay is very collaborative, but it’s also a very small circle. Through the years it’s traditionally been me, Jay, Young Guru on engineering. But say it’s a Pharrell beat. I’ll hear something and say ‘Hey why don’t you try this?’ or Guru will tell him to adjust those last two bars. We’re not fighting for credit. Within our circle, we all work on everything. We know that at the end of the day, it’s not about one person trying to shine, it’s about making the best product. Our names all go out on it. Think about The Blueprint; it’s not about me, it’s not about Kanye, or Biggs [Kareem ‘Biggs’ Burke] or Timbaland. We are forever attached to it, even if on one song all you did was adjust a snare or a kick.
Do you ever have a particular sound, something like a snare rimshot, that you get really attached to but you have to change and it really frustrates you? It’s funny that you ask. Exactly what you’re talking about has only happened one time, but it was the right call. I produced and wrote ‘Live Your Life’ for T.I., I made the beat, wrote the hook, gave him the concept and referenced the melody. He cuts his verses, gets Rihanna to do her vocal, sends it back and at the last minute I change the snare. I don’t know why I changed it, I just felt like it was…better. I remember thinking it was more relevant to what was happening at that time, sonically. He calls me up and says ‘You’ve got to go back to the old snare.’ I’m like ‘Oh, no no!’, but he says to trust him. We argued about it. It’s funny, because if you listen to that record, the last minute where Rihanna does her bridge? That’s the snare I wanted for the whole thing.
Right, so you won the last 60 seconds back. Yeah, but I made it work because I changed the structure of the sounds, I changed everything. So it made sense for the snare to change because the entire arrangement had, too. I actually found the old version the other day, where I’d changed the whole song, and I knew T.I. was right. That wouldn’t have been the right move. Again, that comes with being a producer. You’re not always going to be right, and sometimes you have to be objective and work alongside an artist. You don’t want there to be a situation where they are unhappy with you, because they might not call you for the next album.
Do you feel like the average person wouldn’t know the difference between those two snares? Something that you slaved over and argued about, they wouldn’t even hear it? The average person doesn’t hear the difference, because they don’t study the music. But the average person knows what they like. Even if they can’t articulate what they like, or what hits them about a song, they know what they’re into when they hear it. Our job as producers is to provide songs that people like even if they don’t know why.
It’s a bit of magic, isn’t it? It is! We’re making something from nothing. We’re taking one thing and making it completely different. We’re taking random sounds, sometimes from our minds, sometimes from samples and making an entire creative collage that you want people to like. Many times, I’ll have conversations with non-creative people about songs, and they’ll say that they don’t why they like it, but it feels good. Our work is figuring out what combination of those sounds come together to make them feel good about it.
Jonno Seidler recently completed an ‘Almost Famous’ tour where he
followed ListenOut Festival across the East Coast and documented the
entire thing for Pedestrian. He’s a writer from Sydney who blogs here.