'The Blueprint' at 20: The Production Prowess of Just Blaze
By Kiani Belgrave
I think many people forget that Verzuz, the popular Instagram battle series, was conceived in 2017 after the infamous beat battle between Swizz Beatz and New Jersey beatmaker Just Blaze. The battle was a vigorous clash between the two renowned beatmakers as they went back and forth playing their most groundbreaking singles.
The battle was streamed live on Hot97’s Instagram account hosted by the station’s Program Director, Ebro Darden. It was an exciting night for hip-hop enthusiasts; the two traded their early 2000s bangers, both Swizz and Blaze reminding us of their incomparable catalogs.
I don’t think it’s a hot take to say that Just Blaze stole the show. Proving to be an emphatic disc jockey as he controlled the crowd with his immaculate mixing matched his iconic production know and love, Just Blaze reigned supreme.
Just Blaze started off as a producer and DJ in the Jersey Club scene. The producer would become a local legend at 17 for producing and mixing the 1995 local Jersey Club hit, “Dick Control.” Ambitious and inspired by his first production credit, Just Blaze would go on to master his craft in preparation for being hip-hop’s next super-producer.
The son of an organist and music enthusiast. Just was around music since he could remember. In his adolescent years, he would become obsessed with recording equipment, keyboards, and drum machines. “I’ve been making music since I could remember. My dad was a jazz organist, so he always had synths and keyboards and Casios around the house," he explained.
In an Interview with Serato, Blaze gave some insight into his early years as a young producer on his way up in the music industry. “We booked a night with DJ Mister Cee, and Cee has never heard Jersey Club before. He and Wendy [Williiams] walk in, and I’m DJing, and he hears me play “Tap That Ass,” the flip side of “Dick Control,” and he’s like, ‘What the hell is this?” Mister Cee asked for a copy of the record, and the two stayed in touch. “You spend a lot of time reading album credits, reading the shoutouts and stuff like that. And now my name was on one,” he explained. “It made me feel like I was that one step closer to actually making what I wanted to do a real thing.”
Just Blaze would get his first major production placement on Ma$e and Harlem World’s 1999 song “I Really Like It.” The song contains an interpolation of DeBarge’s hit song “I Really Like It” and a chorus performed by rap’s queen of the hooks, Kelly Price. Only a year later, Just would pen a deal with Roc-a-Fella Records as an in-house producer where he would craft some of hip-hop’s most recognizable beats.
Blaze broke out as a producer on Jay-Z’s Roc-a-Fella compilation album The Dynasty: Roc La Familia. Nobody could ask for a better introduction to an album than Just’s work on the first track of the project. The colossal yet sinister production on “Intro” would set the tone for the gritty street storytelling and braggadocio luxury anthems the project had to offer. Blaze would be a standout on the project as he produced the chilling “Soon You’ll Understand” and “Stick 2 The Script,” along with “Streets is Talking,” which was the first single that Just produced for Jay-Z.
In their first studio session, the two had instant chemistry. Hov was automatically impressed by Just’s work ethic, as he laid down the instrumental to “Streets is Talking” in only 10 minutes. Just was impressed with the fact that Jay was able to come up with flows and concepts at the tip of a hat, laying the groundwork for a long collaborative relationship. Hov was ready to build an empire with Just.
As Just developed his signature sound of arena-worthy rap anthems on Jay-Z’s classic albumThe Blueprint. The piercing horn loop and the bass trembling 808s on “U Don’t Know” worked perfectly with HOV’s aggressive mafioso raps, proving the two to be a match made in heaven.
But Just Blaze wasn’t exclusive to triumphant street anthems. The producer showed he can slow things down a bit on Jay’s heartfelt ballad “Song Cry,” where Jay tells the story of ending a “Bonnie & Clyde” relationship.
With the help of Just Blaze, Kanye West, and Bink crafting the polished sound of the album, fit for both the streets and radio, The Blueprint earned Hov his fourth consecutive number one album. The project beat out Mariah Carrey and Bob Dylan for the number one spot that week.
Blaze would continue to flaunt his versatility throughout the 2000s. His cinematic production style was littered all over the Roc’s catalog, eventually becoming that era’s go-to sound of East Coast hip-hop. Blaze continued to produce for Roc-a-Fella, crafting beats for Beanie Siegal, Freeway, Joe Budden, and Dipset, putting his signature sound on classics like “What We Do…” “Dipset Anthem,” “Pump It Up,” and “Oh Boy.”
In the late 2000s, Just Blaze would produce New Orleans emcee Jay Electronica’s breakout singles “Exhibit A” and “Exhibit C.” The tracks would become cult classics in the underground hip-hop community and Roc Nation fanatics. The two would build a strong bond. Just was intrigued by Electronica’s approach.
Blaze’s sound is an undeniable influence on hip-hop music. His over-the-top production style and sound would become iconic, launching the producer into superstardom during his time at Roc-a-Fella. Just is arguably the sole influence for many producers using producer tags to brand themselves. Today, Blaze is a GOAT in the production world, his sound littered all over contemporary hip-hop music.