Just Blaze: Higher and Higher

Just Blaze
© David Seetoh Lang/Red Bull Content Pool

The Jay Z producer on working with Baauer, the success of Macklemore and giving away music for free.

Just Blaze, the producer extraordinaire behind some of Jay Z's biggest hits, including landscape-shifting albums 'The Blueprint' and 'The Black Album,' recently dropped an unreleased single, 'DP3.' As prolific as ever, Just Blaze, who will play HARD Summer in Los Angeles on Saturday, August 3, also teamed up with Baauer for a ground-shaking track, 'Higher.' We got some exclusive one-on-one time with the master producer at Red Bull Music Academy in New York City to hear about how he developed into the unique musical force he is today.

Did you have any musical training when you were younger?

My father played keys, but he never taught me anything. I used to think [playing the keyboard] was an adult thing to do. So when my parents weren’t around, I would sneak in, play his keyboard. And one day, I’m playing it, and all of a sudden, I look to my right, and my parents are right there in the doorway. I’m like, “I’m going to get in so much trouble.” I was like 5. And I’m like, “I’m going to get in so much trouble.” They’re like, “No, keep going.” And I’m like, “I’m allowed to do this?” I just kept playing and playing.

Jam Master Jay taught me. Terminator X taught me. All those guys taught me, just from them releasing music and me being able to listen to it and trying to figure out how to do what they did.

I did take piano lessons for a year when I was in sixth grade, too. I played 'Chariots of Fire' at a recital. I had to wear a checkered suit, and I played the hell out of it. I killed it! But, after that, I was like, “I’m not doing this again.” Throughout the early stages of my career, I regretted dropping out of my piano classes, but as I’ve gotten older, I’m so happy that I did. Whenever you study music theory, or whenever you’re classically trained, you’re just learning what somebody else’s interpretation of music is. And there is no real proper definition or rule, or set of rules, to music. So, say you were my piano teacher, all I’m learning is what you say I should do. I’m not really expressing myself.

I meet a lot of classically trained musicians. They can’t jam. They can’t improvise. So yeah, like there are definitely things that I have done in the course of my career that, had I studied the way it was classically taught, I would have not.

Just Blaze
Just Blaze in Seoul© SonStar/Red Bull Content Pool

Who were some of the artists that made an impact on you when you were younger?

So I didn't have much real musicial training, but I’ve had tons of mentors, some that I have never met, or tons that I never met at the time. I grew up listening to Red Alert, Marley Marl, Pete Rock, Clark Kent. Those were the main DJs throughout my childhood on New York radio, and those are the guys who taught me. Jam Master Jay taught me. Terminator X taught me. All those guys taught me, just from allowing me to listen, or just from them releasing music and me being able to listen to it and trying to figure out how to do what they did.

Those were my teachers: Large Professor, Q-Tip, all those guys. You know, we didn’t have Red Bull Music Academy when I was 16 years old. Shit, we barely had our music on the radio, and there was no Internet. It was just a matter of listening, and learning and trying to emulate, and then figuring out where you go from there.

I put out a record earlier this year called 'Higher,' with me and Baauer. I have definitely made more off of that record by posting it for free than I would have ever had signing it over to a label...

You’ve been in the industry for a long time now. How has it changed since you started?

It’s changed in a lot of ways. I mean, the way records are sold has changed. The way records are made has changed. The way artists have broken has changed. I think it’s ultimately all for the better. It’s a weird, but it’s interesting because it’s allowed a lot of the BS to get weeded out, and it’s also allowed a lot more BS to get in, too.

What do you mean?

The playing field is leveled. So, it’s like, whereas before, you had to jump through a zillion hoops to even get noticed, and now it’s very easy to get noticed. Problem is, is because it's easy to get noticed, we have a lot of people who have no business making music making music. So it’s a different set of challenges now. But I think the biggest change, and it’s probably the best change, is the ability to monetize your music without having to sign up to a slave deal to a major record label.

You know, I put out, just for a quick example, I put out a record earlier this year called 'Higher,' with me and Baauer. I have definitely made more off of that record by posting it for free than I would have ever had signing it over to a label, from the amount of shows that I’ve done from that record. I put it out for free. You can’t download it, but you can stream it from my SoundCloud. And I’ve literally been on the road since the second week in January because of that record, making a good amount of money. And now that I’ve done all that, then I turned around and sold it to a label for an obscene amount of money.

Macklemore wasn’t established — nobody knew who he was a year ago. But he had a catchy record. He had a good record, and he marketed himself and positioned himself the right way.

And that's not something artists could've done 10 years ago?

In the old days, it was like, you know, make a record, hope the label notices you. Or, make a demo, hope the label notices you. And then go in to sign to them for six, seven albums, for pennies, and hope that you sell some records so you can get some shows. And I was like, “How many records am I going to sell?” And then, afterwards, when the record is killing it, you know, in the clubs or on the radio, now you have to give me an insane amount of money. Otherwise, I don’t have to give it to you.

I just keep going, doing what I’m doing, but I think that’s my favorite part of how the game is changed. The leveling of the playing field has definitely introduced more filler and nonsense, but it’s also made it so that artists who do make good music, and know how to get that music out there, can monetize it themselves without owing anybody anything else.

Like, for an example, I was just reading today — I want to say that [Macklemore and Ryan Lewis'] album is at like 800,000 copies sold, and 'Thrift Shop' is at like five or six million, and it’s for the most part an independent thing. It’s like, they didn’t need a label. You know? So I think that’s the best part of how the business has changed.

So you think it's easier now for independent artists to reach fans and get their music out to the world?

Yeah. Macklemore wasn’t established — nobody knew who he was a year ago. But he had a catchy record. He had a good record, and he marketed himself and positioned himself the right way. So it can happen.

Mac Miller is another example. Straight indie through. When you have Donald Trump as your friend, thanking you for using his name on a record, and then a year later, publicly bashing you for using his name on the same record that you co-signed a year before, you’re obviously doing something right.

You know? It’s kind of funny. Like, I watched Donald Trump be like, “Oh, I love this.” A year later, after the kid actually made money, “Oh, I hate this.” But it’s funny, when me and Mac Miller met, I had more Twitter followers than him. He was at like 10,000. And we met and just hung out and I kind of, you know, just got cool. A year later, he tweeted me, “Hey, remember when you had more followers than me?” Now he’s got like two and a half million. I’m still sitting here at like my little 300,000.

And because of social media and technology, now you make and record an entire album on your laptop now. It's a blessing and a hindrance at the same time to the industry, because anybody can make music now. A lot of people who are making music shouldn’t be. But the way the universe lines up, the cream always rises to the top.

Just Blaze plays HARD Summer in Los Angeles this Saturday. Follow Red Bull Music Academy on Twitter for more updates.