Just Blaze and Young Guru have formed one of the most influential production partnerships in hip-hop history. They’ve worked together on projects, records and albums, producing and mixing beats, giving advice to artists and providing feedback to up-and-comers.
The role of engineer has been on the rise in production since computer technology caught up to music software. However, the experience of wiring drums and setting up microphones in actual studios puts these two guys on a different level. With Just Blaze producing and Young Guru mixing, they’ve collaborated records for everyone from T.I. and Jay-Z to Mariah Carey and Fabolous.
At SXSW, they came together and spoke on a panel about their careers, experiences and the intricacies involved in producing a record. Though their roles are ever-expanding and changing, their goal is always the same: Do what’s best for the record. No matter how technologically proficient any producer or engineer is, communication is essential to working with artists who speak in a different language. Whether it’s advice or technicalities, everyone has to be on the same wavelength to achieve the best results.
At Roc-A-Fella Records, Blaze, Guru and Jay-Z forged that brotherhood, in part, through something they called “Keep It Real Wednesdays” – as well as through occasional boxing matches if it ever came to it – where beefs were settled and criticism was put on the table without taking it personally. Producers were also allowed to come in and play music for everyone, knowing they would get the feedback they need to improve or sell a beat if one of the artists felt inspired.
That approach doesn’t always work immediately, and as someone coming onto a project for potentially only one or two tracks, it’s vital to be able to work well with a lot of people. Just Blaze recalled the first time he worked with Eminem. After they recorded a track, Blaze thought his first verse was dope, but told him that he thought the second verse was rushed and strayed from the subject matter. Em slowly turned around and said, “I don’t hear that, dog.”
Blaze was worried he messed up the money after Em left without saying anything else, but got a call a day later and was told Marshall wanted to speak to him. Em asks, “Are you an alien? No one has ever told me I’m doing something wrong.” Apparently, Em had been producing so many songs once he signed with Dre that his work was, usually, just accepted. But he went back, listened to the track and realized Blaze was right. Then, it was on.
After dishing tales about the rare times in which these brothers got mad at each other – once when Blaze, a video game fanatic, lost to Guru at virtual tennis, and the other when Blaze “whipped [Guru’s] ass” at a DJ battle – they spoke a bit about the downside of widely available music technology.
Just Blaze thinks that people’s ears are losing touch because there is a lot of music out there produced by people in their bedrooms (for example, someone might plug their microphones into the same strip as their Mom's washing machine, which causes a slight hissing sound).
Young Guru lamented the loss of studios, which were essential to Guru’s career. When he was independent, he would head to New York City regularly, knowing someone would be in the studio doing something. He learned how everything worked and collaborated with a lot of people.
Most importantly, he learned from those who came before him. He described engineering schools as teaching you the rules to chess, but needing a chess master to understand how to make moves, avoids traps and trick people in order to really make it. The chessmasters of hip-hop used to hang out in the same studios that are becoming increasingly irrelevant and non-existent.
Those studio moments are the kinds of things that makes classic albums possible. On one occasion Jay-Z hit up JB and told him he’ll be ready to drop an album in six months, but one Friday soon after, Jay randomly walks in and says he feels like rapping. Kanye West had just sent over a CD of nine tracks. Just Blaze had three or four beats in reserve and was working on a few more.
Already on the same page, they knocked out 90 percent of what would become The Blueprint, by that following Sunday.