Hip-Hop Producer Just Blaze Talks 'R-Type', Switch and Crashing E3 With Kanye

Hip-Hop Producer Just Blaze Talks 'R-Type', Switch and Crashing E3 With Kanye

Justin Smith, AKA Just Blaze, is a gamer from way back – and a big Sega fan Getty /Johnny Nunez

Before he was Just Blaze, Justin Smith was a huge video game fan – he even programmed his own game in high school

Before he was Just Blaze, Justin Smith was a huge video game fan – he even programmed his own game in high school

Born Justin Smith, Just Blaze’s stage name was inspired by none other than Blaze Fielding, the ex-police officer turned dance instructor turned private detective from Sega's classic 2D brawler series, Streets of Rage. Since his first releases in 1999, Smith as become one of the most established hip hop producers of the modern era. He’s best known for his ongoing production work with Jay Z on The Blueprint, The Blueprint 2, and The Black Album, and has crafted tracks for the likes of Beyonce, Rick Ross, Lil Wayne and dozens of others. We spoke to Justin about the Nintendo Switch, Fight Night in the studio, and his experience programming computers prior to programming beats.

What’s your gaming life like these days?
The goal for me at this point is not to finish games, it’s just to enjoy playing them when I can find the time. Street Fighter I still play online, often with other musicians, producers, and artists who also think they’re good at it. We’ll talk to each other on social media and then jump on and play. Now I just play when I can – it’s not like when I was a kid and had no responsibilities. Real life has kicked in. 

That’s kinda the cool thing about the Switch – when I’m jumping on a plane, a game that I was playing at home I could take with me, right where I left off. The problem is that the Switch doesn’t have anything worth playing yet, for me. I’ve been playing Fast RMX for a half an hour every couple of days when I have a cooldown period, but that’s about it. Zelda is cool, and I’m sure it’s great, I just don’t know if I wanna invest that kinda time and energy into something. I’m waiting for Street Fighter to come out for Switch, which I thought they said was gonna be a launch title.

You’ve been known over the years as a pretty serious gamer in the hip hop world.
[Laughs] There are these stories out there about how Just Blaze is a super-huge videogame fanatic – and I really love games, but it wasn’t that. I was just suddenly rich, and I could buy anything I wanted. I remember a friend of mine used to own a videogame store called Multimedia 1.0 over on St. Marks in the East Village. One day, I had a check laying around for five grand, and I thought, “I’m just gonna go buy every videogame system that ever came out that I wanted.” So I walk into Jesse’s store and I say, “Yo, give me everything.” He’s like, “What?” I’m like, “Give me one of everything.” Nintendo, Vectrex, Sega Nomad, Game Gear. I literally bought one of every system he had. It was that first taste of adult freedom.

I remember one time I was late for a Mariah Carey session because I’d stayed up all day and night playing SOCOM

I’d say the one time I had a real work conflict was when the first SOCOM came out. I remember the launch day was August 26 – the only reason I remember that is because two days later the PS2 modem came out, and that was August 28, my mom’s birthday. I remember buying SOCOM, and not getting why it was supposed to be a big deal. And then two days later, on my way to my mom’s house to hang out with her on her birthday, I stopped by J&R Electronics to get the modem. And I got back home that night after her birthday, and hooked up the modem, and I’m playing SOCOM online and I’m like, “Ohhh, wait a minute. I’m shooting at some dude in Canada right now.” Which, on consoles, hadn’t been done before; the Dreamcast had their online adapter, but aside from Phantasy Star Online, if I remember correctly, there weren’t really any first-person shooters or action games. That messed my head up. I played that game so much that I’d go to sleep and I’d see muzzle flashes in my sleep. I’d walk into a restaurant, and by instinct I’d look at all the points of exit and entry in case I had to make a quick escape. I remember one time I was late for a Mariah Carey session because I’d stayed up all day and night playing SOCOM. I had a clan war at 3pm and our session was scheduled for 4pm.

What was the last big console or game launch you went in on?
I go all-in on every launch because I can. Either the company is sending it to me, or I’m just going out on launch night and buying it – I’m not standing in line, but I’ll pay one of my friends or coworkers to stand in line.

I was really excited about the PSVR. Having used the Rift and the Vive, but not wanting to get involved with all the parts and speccing out a PC, I bought all the launch games for PSVR. That said, I haven’t played it since the day after launch day. A lot of the VR games we’ve seen up to this point haven’t been as immersive as I thought they’d be. For truly immersive VR, you need an empty room; for the most part we’ve seen stuff where you’re sitting and looking around, which is better than we’ve had in years past, but I’m looking forward to full room tracking and the software that supports that. I think VR is gonna be amazing, it’s just not amazing yet.

One of the most evolutionary launches for me was the Xbox 360. I used to do lot of work for XXL magazine, and around that time I was going to E3 every year. I remember the year they first showed the 360, Kanye and I rushed the Microsoft booth. I met him out in the parking lot; I didn’t have the credentials to get behind closed doors, but we weaseled our way in there.

Do you play games in the studio?
Yeah, in my personal studio there’s always something there. A lot of times, in the process of making these songs, we’re listening to the same song on repeat for 10 hours out of the day. Hearing the same thing that much is enough to drive anyone nuts after awhile, so yeah, it’s cool to have a diversion. Something to zone out to for awhile and then get back to it.

In the Dreamcast era, there was a lot of gaming in the studio. Me and Jay Z’s best friend Ty Ty, we used to battle it out on Virtua Tennis for hours. And Ty’s not even a gamer, but he used to find a way to get in my head and distract me, and he knows how to throw me off my game and beat me every time. Me and Jay used to go at it on Fight Night on the 360. We spent a lot of time on that one. Whoever got there first fired up Fight Night, and whenever we weren’t working, that’s what we were doing.

For you, are there similarities in term of getting into a flow state both when music making and when playing games?
Yeah, it’s all about when you get to a certain point where the muscle memory kicks in and the movements are just flowing – you’re not trying to make them, they’re just happening. I had a moment like that recently; in my theater room I have an Xbox One that I haven’t turned on in awhile. I was doing some work in my server room, and the Xbox for the theater room is in there. I accidentally turned on the Xbox, and I looked up at the theater screen and saw that they’d enabled all the 360 Arcade games on the One. It started displaying all of my old games; I had an hour to kill, so I fired up R-Type, which is one of my favorite games of all time. And as I’m playing it, that same muscle memory from when I was like 11 was still there; once I reconfigured the buttons to be exactly the way they were on the Sega Master System, I hadn’t missed a beat. The funny thing is that I never beat R-Type as a kid; I beat it yesterday.

I read that you have some history as a programmer as well.
Yeah. My dad was a programmer. He never actually taught me anything, but he had a library of programming books in his man cave. So I used to take his books and learned to program in BASIC, then Pascal. I wrote my first game when I was in fourth grade, which was a simple racing game. By the time I got to high school I was studying C++, and me and a friend wrote a game for our junior year project called Code Black – it was basically a Defender, R-Type-style side-scrolling shooter. It was nothing phenomenal, but for being self-taught it was cool. I did computer programming at Rutgers for three years – I was very good at logic, but I was not good at math. Around that same time is when the possibility of making music for a living kinda started to become a reality. I left school and thought that if it didn’t work out in a year or two, I’ll come back and finish my computer programming degree. Needless to say, things worked out.

Are you interested in making games beyond that?
Yeah, definitely. In terms of music for games, I pretty much did everything for EA from ‘02 to ‘06. They were at a point where they were looking for more credibility in terms of their soundtracks. They brought me in to work on NBA Street Vol. 2, and then the 2003 NBA Live comeback. But yeah, if the opportunity made sense, I’d love to get behind the actual development of a title. The problem is that the indie market is so oversaturated; it’s not the sole reason, but with mobile it’s even more like, “If you wanna make some money, make a game.” I went out to see an old friend of mine DJing at a bar in my area the other night. And as I was getting ready to leave, the club bouncer pulled me to the side and was like, “Hey, wanna check out my Android game?” Now, this isn’t a knock against him at all – good for him – but it’s just the game coding culture has gone so far that so many people are making games. There’s a good and a bad to that.

It’s kinda like making music – 15 years ago, making music required a very large investment. Buying just a standard drum machine was a $3000 investment on its own, and you’d still need keyboards, sound modules, etc. I remember when I was in college and started putting together my first real space, that set me back like $15-20K to get a functioning space, and that was just the bare necessities. Nowadays you can buy an $800 laptop, a $200 USB mic, and make an album and sell it on iTunes.