Trail Blazing

Talking hits, prank calls from Bruce Hornsby and taking careers to a “Higher” level with DJ/producer and EDC performer Just Blaze

The Essential Just Blaze

There are two kinds of Just Blaze fans: pre-“Higher” and post-“Higher.” The super producer’s monster out-of-nowhere collaboration with Light resident DJ Baauer cannonballed Justin Smith (a.k.a. Just Blaze) into the electronic music scene in January. He uploaded “Higher” to Soundcloud at 4:30 a.m. and within 48 hours he had more than 300,000 listens. Within one week the duo was getting booked for major festivals. But the Jersey-born DJ/producer is no stranger to playing huge shows. Post-“Higher” fans should note Blaze’s decade-plus career of hit collaborations: Jay-Z, Kanye West, Maroon 5, Rihanna, Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera, Eminem and the list goes on. Just five months after the “Higher” release, Just Blaze will be banging “Higher” out of speaker walls at the Electric Daisy Carnival.

How long have you been DJing?

I came out the womb with a record in my hand, I DJ’d my first birthday. [Laughing] I‘ve been obsessed with records since I can remember. In sixth grade, all I wanted for Christmas was a $60 Radio Shack mixer. My mother got it for me for Christmas.

When was your first gig?

When I was 14. The speakers weren’t working, so my mother drove home, got her speakers and receiver from the house, and drove all the way back so that I could DJ the party. The crazy part was the speaker wires weren’t long enough to connect to the system so she actually sat behind the table and held the wires together.

What was the pay back then?

Like, $50.

Did Mama Dukes get a cut?

No, but trust me, she’s set now.

How did your career start?

My father was a jazz organist. When I was 6, I took piano lessons and got frustrated they were teaching the basics. In my head, I already knew the basics, so I did my recital after a year and never went back. Dr. Dre told me he didn’t learn how to play a piano until his 40s. He got called to mix a Burt Bacharach record, and part of his deal was that he wanted piano lessons from Burt. I have my foundation down already, so I feel better off studying traditional music theory now as opposed to then.

What’s the one question you get asked all the time that annoys you?

“So, what’s the transition like, going from hip-hop to electronic music?” And I’m like, “There is no transition.” I’m from Jersey, I’ve been bangin’ house records since there was house music. The same way I grew up idolizing Large Professor, QTip, the Bomb Squad, Prince Paul, RZA or Marley Marl—those guys were just as much my heroes as Kenny Dope, Masters at Work, Armand Van Helden and Roger S. Another thing people always ask me is, “How do you feel about hip-hop and EDM finally crossing?” Ever heard “Planet Rock?” Afrika Bambaataa sampled Kraftwerk for “Planet Rock.” That’s roots electronic, roots house, roots hip-hop. My whole point is: It’s all a cycle. It’s not new.

How you feel about the new Daft Punk album?

I had a conversation with [DJ/producer] ATrak about this. I appreciate the record, not crazy about it. It is a very important record. It’s going to be the record that will inspire this generation to open their minds to other genres and eras that this record drew from.

Favorite new records that people should check out?

The new Flying Lotus record, the new Thundercat record. And speaking of Daft Punk, Revolte did an amazing remix of “Voyager.”

Best DJing moment?

Webster Hall with Baauer earlier this year. I’ve played Madison Square Garden for 30,000 people; this show personally topped that. That party is an electronic party. I played everything from Public Enemy to Justin Timberlake to Jay-Z to dubstep to trance to trap, and people lost their minds. You can give people what they want, flip it and play everything if you do it the right way. The stars were aligned: “Higher” had just taken off, “Harlem Shake” had taken over the world. New York shuts down at 4 a.m.; this party was so live that they let us go till 5:45 a.m.

How did the Baauer collaboration happen?

We hooked up through a mutual friend, Callendar, who ended up becoming one of my main agents due to the success that came about from the intro he made.

Who gave you your first shot?

I had a day job at a studio in the Village in New York called the Cutting Room. From 10 a.m.-7 p.m. I was Justin Smith, assistant studio manager. But from 7 p.m. on, I was Just Blaze in training. I would leave the door cracked when I was making beats. One day it happened Mase was in the studio mixing, and his manager walked by, popped his head in and asked what I was playing, and two days later I was working on what would be Mase’s first single off his second album. It went gold in a month, video premiere on MTV, the whole nine. Never really liked the record, but I knew that was going to be the right move to get me in the door.

What about your Jay-Z connection?

Funny story: When the guy from Roc-A-Fella Records called I thought it was Bruce Hornsby prank-calling me.


[Laughing] Hornsby was a client, and we became friendly. He used to prank-call me all the time. One day a guy from Roc-A-Fella Records [Jay-Z’s label] called and said he wanted to set up a meeting. I was like, “Yeah, right! Whatever, Bruce!” I hung up on him. Long story short, it was for real, he wanted to start a production team over at Roc-A-Fella. The production team never happened, but the original concept was supposed to be me, Rockwilder and this guy they had just found named Kanye West. Jay-Z fronted on me for like a year straight. So we finally ended up in the studio together, and that was it.

When a kid comes up and tells you he wants to be a DJ, what is your answer and what would you tell him to start off on: turntables or CDJs?

I don’t care what you use—study your music. Study what’s hot now, then go back and study where that music came from. If you wanna be a dubstep DJ, research dub music and drum and bass. If you’re gonna be a deep-house DJ, study Afrobeat, Cuban music and paradise garage. If you’re gonna be a hip-hop DJ, study everything, because hip-hop comes from disco, rock, breaks, house, country and everything in between.

You’ve accomplished so much. Whats next?

Tomorroworld Festival, Splash Festival in Germany, Hard Summer in L.A., Electric Zoo fest in New York, and god knows what else. Twenty more shows over the summer so far, and even more through fall. I’m taking the next three weeks to produce the new Slaughterhouse album for Shady Records. Rumor has it we will be shooting a video for “Higher” in India soon. We are also fielding quite a few label deal offers, but I have to keep the details under wraps for a bit. That’s all I can talk about.

If you weren’t a DJ/producer what would you be doing?

Computer programmer or veterinarian.

You’re an animal lover? That makes you 10 times cooler.

Wu Tang is for the children; Just Blaze is for the animals!