October 3, 2012


Fuse Q&A: Just Blaze Talks Dr. Dre's 'Detox' and Creating Kendrick Lamar's "Compton"

Johnny Nunez
Johnny Nunez

Just Blaze is sitting in a studio at Stadium Red, the Harlem-based facility that now serves as his home base for recording. For more than a decade, the producer and DJ has been responsible for some of hip hop's biggest anthems, including Jay-Z's "Public Service Announcement," Kanye West's "Touch the Sky" and Fabolous' "Breathe" (among many others).

The producer hit another career high with the release of Kendrick Lamar and Dr. Dre's "Compton," a booming, soulful track set for release on Lamar's upcoming debut good kid, m.A.A.d. city. We caught up with the producer to discuss the song's origins, why he never hypes up unconfirmed projects and, fine, the status of Dr. Dre's absurdly anticipated Detox

How was “Compton” conceived?

It was something that we were originally working on for Detox. I came up with the record; we all collectively came up with the concept. We wrote some reference rhymes; I wrote a bit of a reference hook and then Sly [Jordan, one of Dre’s writers] added on to that. The sample was by a group called the Choice 4. I don’t remember the name of the song, but most of “Compton” is live. Even with live instrumentation, I try to make the songs fit within the context of the sample, so it doesn’t sound like keys on top of a sample. It’s one collective body of work. This was three years ago, so as for Kendrick, he wasn’t even in the picture then.

So Dre was supposed to rhyme over the whole track?

Yeah. There were a couple of other artists who were also on the record. The way Dre works, he’s like a puzzle master, so he’ll take bits and pieces from one song, bits and pieces from another song; try different artists out on different records to feature. And the end result may be nothing like what you heard when he first started. So this record in its first incarnation was still about “Compton” but there were other artists on it. That went through a few different changes and in the end, he was just like, “Yo, I just want it to be me and Kendrick.”

What do you think it is about Kendrick that’s connected with so many people?

His lyricism and rhyme patterns are very unorthodox. He’s seen a lot in a short life and the way he delivers his experiences, you believe it. It’s incredible. And there are some things that just aren’t tangible; some people just have that magnetism that people gravitate towards. Whatever that is, he’s got it.

Can we do the inevitable “Detox update” question?

I’ve heard like 200 songs that were possible candidates, but good enough to come out. Last I spoke with Dre, he was like, “Yo, I want to do one more record and I’m done.” But I always tell people... [pauses]. Let me put it to you like this: An album comes out these days, you have to price it competitively. Detox: a lot of hype; Jimmy [Iovine] and Dre know how to sell records, so let’s say they sell 3 or 4 million records at $10 a pop. That’s $30 million. Or you come out with some headphones that sell for $300 each. You sell, say, 5 million pairs of those. That’s $1.5 billion. That’s just the big ones. Then you have the solos. Different price point and audience. Say they sell for $100 each and you sell 5 million of those. You just made another $500 million.

Then HP comes along and says, “We want to license your Beats brand on our computers.” Who knows what they got for that? And then you turn around and HTC wants to incorporate Beats technology into all their phones. Then they turn around and say they want to buy a $300 million stake in the company. We’ve already just added up roughly over $2 billion dollars. Off of some headphones. If you were a smart businessman, would you put your energy into generating $2 billion or an album that may sell $30 million?

But at a certain point, his artistic side has to say, “Everyone's been waiting so long to get something out,” right?

I get that. I know to a certain degree, that’s where Dre’s head is at too. He’s expressed to me that he wants to get it out. But again, you want a billion or you want 30 million? That’s just my take on it.

So are we going to see the Just Blaze headphones?

Ya know, I’d like a billion dollars [smiles]. We’re actually working on some branding through the studio; there was a possibility for some branded technology. We’re exploring the options right now.

Would you ever do a Just Blaze album?

You’ve heard it already. Take all the records I’ve ever done, put it in your iTunes, make a playlist and now you got it. From a business standpoint, with rare exceptions, traditionally, those things don’t sell. The amount of time that I would take to do something like that and dedicate to that would take away from other ventures and things that I could be doing. Don’t get me wrong: there’s something to be said for passion projects, but at the same time, historically those things don’t do well.

What’s interesting about you is that you’re a perpetual presence on social media, but always remain cagey on future projects.

Some guys I’m friends with have the access to all their fans now and sometimes, they overhype things to the point where the expectations are so high – or they’ll say they’re doing a record with somebody and due to label politics, it can’t come out. I don’t want to say anything that’s going to have people start to speculate and anticipate and then it comes out late or not at all. By letting people know that certain things exist, the seed has been planted from the minute they hear that. And then it comes out and it’s never as good as you want it to be because you have this grand scheme in your head that when you put in the CD or download it from iTunes, that you’re going to hear Jesus. It can’t happen.

Going back to “Compton,” how much did the original version change from the final?

I did the first version of the mix here [at Stadium Red] and I didn’t like the way it ended. It just kind of ended. So I broke out the vocoder and gave it that whole nice synthy ending.  Dre wanted to make a few changes, so I sent my mixes to him and he tweaked it a bit further, which he nailed for the most part. The only thing I’m slightly…I wouldn't say unhappy with, but they changed a few levels on the ending. I don’t think it was even intentional. Normally, when I mix, I’m hands-on until it’s done. I was traveling at the time and when they decided they 100% wanted to use it for the album, there was no way I could be at the mix so I had to send it out to Dre for him to do what he had to do. I’m toying with the idea—since they’ve given it out for free—of releasing a tweaked version of the ending. Maybe even an extended version with more vocoder or talkbox. I still love it, though; it’s just the perfectionist in me.