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The Essential... Just Blaze

It may be almost a decade since The Roc’s unstoppable peak, but former in-house producer Just Blaze shows no signs of slowing down, even diverting his attention to house music and raising his DJ profile in recent years. 

A regular collaborator with Jay-Z, Kanye West and more, Just Blaze has been one of hip-hop’s most in-demand hit-makers since the turn of the ’00s, recently providing highlights on albums by Drake, Ghostface and Kendrick Lamar. Over the next 20 pages, FACT’s staff picked their 20 favourite Just Blaze productions – as ever, the quickest way to scroll through them is with the left and right arrows on your keyboard.

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BUCKSHOT
‘HEAVY WEIGHTERS’
(DUCK DOWN, 1999)

Blaze juvenilia, and arguably one of his most overlooked beats. The tinny, hyper-busy instrumental pre-empts ‘Ayo Technology’ by eight years, and those Gothic arpeggios are, depending on what mood you’re in, wonderfully exhilarating or charmingly daft. It’s an early example of the sort of ersatz pomp he’d go on to make his own.

BIG PUN FEAT. PROSPECT
‘OFF WIT HIS HEAD’
(LOUD, 2000)

Just Blaze and Big Pun didn’t work together nearly enough. On this highlight of Pun’s fantastic Yeaaah Baby, a descending, crooked piano – and later, a demonic choir – proves the perfect foil to Pun’s apocalyptic braggadocio. “Slap the shit out the devil and tear his horns off his head” indeed.

MEMPHIS BLEEK
‘WE GET LOW’
(ROC-A-FELLA, 2000)

One of Just Blaze’s earliest beats and, as it happens, one of his strangest. Neatly situated in the liminal space between digital overload and steroid-enhanced classic soul (a.k.a. the two opposing poles of the Blaze Banger), it’s a juddering mess of CPU bleeps and wheezing horns. He’s rarely sounded as relentless.

PRODIGY FEAT. BEATS & HOOKS
‘DIAMOND’
(RELATIVITY, 2000)

Not a bombastic chart-banger like much of this list, but a quiet, precise heartstring-tugger, quivering voices and purgatorial drums the perfect backing for Prodigy’s hopeless street tales.

JAY-Z
‘SONG CRY’
(ROC-A-FELLA, 2001)

Kanye West and Just Blaze, so the story goes, were highly competitive while producing for Jay’s magnum opus, and the album features some of the best work either would perform behind the boards. The obvious Just Blaze Blueprint pick is probably ‘U Don’t Know’, but there’s already so many chipmunked vocal samples on this list that the smokier, sadder ‘Song Cry’ makes most sense here.

FREEWAY feat. JAY-Z & BEANIE SIGEL
‘WHAT WE DO’
(ROC-A-FELLA, 2002)

A colossal track that introduced the wider world to Freeway, based around a dramatic sample of Creative Source’s ‘I Just Can’t See Myself Without You’.

CAM’RON feat. JUELZ SANTANA
‘OH BOY’
(ROC-A-FELLA, 2002)

Cam’ron and his Diplomats clique will forever be associated with production duo the Heatmakers, but several of their best tracks came courtesy of Just Blaze, and arguably their most instantly recognisable was this 2002 hit.

ERICK SERMON FEAT. REDMAN
‘REACT’
(J RECORDS, 2002)

A late surge on the charts from Sermon’s ultimately ignored fifth album, also titled React, and effectively Blaze out-Timbalanding Timbo, sampling Hindi singer Meena Kapoor, to whom Sermon simply responds “whatever she said then I’m that.”

DIPLOMATS
‘I REALLY MEAN IT’
(ROC-A-FELLA, 2003)

Maybe the best track on Dipset’s classic Diplomatic Immunity, ‘I Really Mean It’ captures Blaze at his over the top best. Triumphant horns, stuttered, slamming drums and a vocal sample that refuses to leave your head – it’s all here.

JAY-Z
‘DECEMBER 4TH’
(ROC-A-FELLA, 2003)

Let’s face it, Jay-Z’s Black Album was pretty overrated and bloated, which is a shame when you consider that it opened with one of his greatest rags-to-riches (or birth-to-Bono) tales, defined by an almost comically emotive pairing of Jay’s mother’s spoken word over Just Blaze’s string-heavy breakdowns.

JOE BUDDEN FEAT. BUSTA RHYMES
‘FIRE (YES YES Y’ALL)’
(DEF JAM, 2003)

God, remember how much potential Budden had at one point? Debut single ‘Pump It Up’, also produced by Blaze, was his calling card, but follow-up single ‘Fire’ showcased Blaze’s oft-overlooked knack for a no frills, wide-shouldered club banger. No strings, no horns, no repitched soul divas here: just sweat and a fuckload of attitude.

FABOLOUS
‘BREATHE’
(ATLANTIC, 2004)

For someone who so often sounded out of place on his own tracks, Fabolous’s performance on ‘Breathe’ is pretty close to perfect – a great example of a backing track bringing the best out of a rapper.

JON B FEAT. BEENIE MAN & FARENA
‘EVERYTIME’
(SANCTUARY, 2004)

Just Blaze’s surprisingly successful attempt at ragga is further proof that the man can turn his hand to just about anything. The interplay between those haptic pocket-jangle drums and the pulsing bass is primed to get heads nodding – at the very least, it does an effective job of distracting from Jon B’s spiritless crooning. Take off the Sa-Ra chords, and ‘Everytime’ could be a discarded Lenky or Fat Eyes cut.

MEMPHIS BLEEK FEAT. JAY-Z
‘DEAR SUMMER’
(ROC-A-FELLA, 2005)

Well, sort of: ‘Dear Summer’ is essentially a solo Jay-Z cut that ambled onto a Memphis Bleek album. If we’re being pernickety, though, it’s Blaze that deserves top billing. In contrast to the familiar Blaze bombast, ‘Dear Summer’ makes use of a carefully cut Weldon Irvine sample, some subtle percussion programming and absolutely nothing else. Charming in the extreme.

TALIB KWELI
‘NEVER BEEN IN LOVE’
(RAWKUS, 2005)

A stunning synergy of subject and production: Blaze’s soul samples often have a wide-eyed innocence to them, but when they’re stretched into club bangers or rapped over by, say, Freeway, that side of things can be lost. Working with Talib’s laid-back flow, Blaze doesn’t even feel the need to dramatically chop the samples as he’s so prone to doing; instead, he lets a sample of The Imaginations’ ‘Because I Love You’ loll and linger over quietly shimmering keys and causal claps.

THE GAME
‘NO MORE FUN AND GAMES’
(INTERSCOPE, 2005)

Another oft-forgotten treasure, and one of Blaze’s most irrepressible block party jams. Everything from the tumescent bassline to the Old Skool mid-song interlude screams summer; even professional vibe-killer Game can’t hamper the bounce.

GHOSTFACE KILLAH
‘THE CHAMP’
(DEF JAM, 2006)

In an alternate universe, Just Blaze is the Timbaland to Ghostface’s Missy. Ghostface’s antic flow is essentially the perfect verbal analogue for Blaze’s production style, and this comparatively rare meeting of minds sees the two bumping heads in spectacular fashion. Over a mangled Melvin Bliss sample, Ghostface brags, swaggers and puffs himself up to the rafters.

JAY ELECTRONICA
‘EXHIBIT A’
(DECON / DOGON SOCIETY, 2009)

‘Exhibit C’ – a classic skyscraper-high soul refix – gets the most love, but the first instalment in Jay Elect’s ‘Exhibit’ series is arguably the more impressive artefact. Blaze doesn’t exactly do small scale, but his ultra-synthetic Sinfonietta is one of the most thrillingly widescreen beats he’s put his name to. Jay’s verse, meanwhile, is a spirited bit of legend building from an act that’s still yet to deliver on the early promise.

DRAKE feat. RICK ROSS
‘LORD KNOWS’
(YOUNG MONEY / UNIVERSAL, 2011)

Drake, obviously, is best known for rapping over quiet instrumentals, sunk in filters, but when he needed a banger as the centrepiece of sophomore album Take Care, we all know who the first man he dialled was. Blaze’s operatic, otherworldly beat dominates proceedings, only one-upped once – by Rick Ross’s astonishing claim that he’s the “only fat nigga in a sauna with Jews.”

KENDRICK LAMAR feat. DR. DRE
‘COMPTON’
(AFTERMATH / INTERSCOPE, 2012)

good kid, m.A.A.d city‘s closing number isn’t just Lamar’s triumphal curtain call – it’s Blaze’s victory lap too. Deep into the second decade of his career, Blaze pulls out another storming slice of baton-twirling hip-hop pageantry. It’s a safe guess he’ll be troubling the liner notes of classic albums for a few more years yet.

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