One is a veteran hip-hop producer who helped living legends like Jay Z keep their groove. The other is a 24-year-old who has been making music for about two years and somehow happened to land a song with next to no lyrics atop the Billboard Hot 100. An unlikely pairing, Just Blaze (behind Jay's "Public Service Announcement," Fabolous' "Breathe,' etc.) and Baauer (of "Harlem Shake" fame) linked up for an epic tour that resulted in "Higher," one of the genre-defining tracks in the still-nascent subculture on the border between hip-hop and electronic dance music.
It's that song, first dropped online six months ago and now over 1.7 million streams strong, which received a full-throated commercial release this week and is the backdrop for a blockbuster video directed scene favorite Nabil. The track, billed as "featuring Jay Z," sees Blaze sneaking a few samples (most importantly, "turn my music higher," but also "I will not lose" and "bitches") as signals for the song's truly massive build-ups and breakdowns. An all-new intro drop introduces Just Blaze (born Justin Smith) and Baauer (Harry Bauer Rodrigues), a hell of a get that came with a rap inside-baseball story for the ages.
"The whole 'turn my music higher' concept is something I came up with in 2006, when me and Jay were going to do a song with that concept," Just Blaze told The Huffington Post before a release party at New York's 1OAK nightclub on Tuesday night. "Coincidentally, the night [Baauer and I] made that record, I ended up having a meeting with Jay. So I took the record with us, took Harry with me, and after the meeting was done, I was like, 'By the way, listen to this.' I played it, and he and Beyonce were just like, 'What is that?' They'd never heard anything like that before. Beyonce was like, 'This isn't fair! You guys are cheating.' So we left, and then I was like, 'Harry, wait a minute.' And I went back and asked Jay to do a drop for the tour, and that ended up becoming the intro to the song. I recorded that in my iPhone, right out to the laptop."
A whirlwind tour, those 1.7 million impressions and a record deal later, and the song is at the forefront of EDM-trap's vanguard. (Or, as Blaze jokingly tagged the song, "trap-hop.")
Ahead, catch up with the two producers as we chat about how the record came about, why they felt justified in adding "featuring Jay Z" to the title and what Just Blaze thinks about Kendrick Lamar's infamous verse.
Talk a little bit about the pros and cons of the label system when it comes to dance music. On the one hand, you created something really raw and gritty that seemed like it came together organically, and you got it to permeate the society with no label or rules. On the other hand, you're releasing it months after its already earned millions of spins. What's the tradeoff there for you?
Just Blaze: When we did it at first, none of us saw this coming. We figured it would just be a commercial for the tour, and then it gained legs and blew up. At that point, we were like, "What do we do?" The initial idea was to release it independently, and we probably would have done pretty well, because we would have had the advantage of putting it out right away, instead of going and dealing with sample clearances, contracts and the redtape that comes with being signed to a major label. The tradeoff is that we now have a well-oiled machine working the record that you can't do on your own.
Did you notice any major differences between how "Higher" has been working out than, say, how "Harlem Shake" worked with Diplo and Mad Decent?
Baauer: This one is different because we chose to put it up right after we made it. We just took the initiative there, and this whole deal with the label came way after.
What's the future looking like, when it comes to you two as a pair?
Just Blaze: Bright. Very bright. There are a couple of other ideas that we've started, but they need to be finished. The thing is, once you get that success and you have that record that takes you on tour all over the world, it's hard to get back into that zone and in the studio. It's that Catch-22 -- you make a great record, you make a lot of money and go around the world off of it, but then it's hard to make another. But there are some things in the works.
How did you decide to slap "featuring Jay Z" on the track title? That's obviously started some conversations.
Baaeur: It is featuring Jay Z. That's an original verse we have in the beginning.
Just Blaze: I didn't realize he had actually given us the clearance for that. I didn't find out until the eleventh-hour, and I told them they had to take that off, but they told me he had given us the approval. A lot of people in the know -- the cool kids -- know the record already, so when they see the new "featuring Jay Z," they think it's a remix. But you have a whole mass of people in the mainstream who don't know the song, and they don't feel misled because his vocals are in there. But it blows over.
Obviously working with Jay isn't anything too new to [Just Blaze], but Harry, did you think a year ago you'd have a song that says "featuring Jay Z" on it?
Baauer: Absolutely not. No way.
Just Blaze: The whole "turn my music higher" concept is something I came up with in 2006, when me and Jay were going to do a song with that concept. We ended up changing it, so we never used it. When [Baauer and I] were making the record together, it hit me that this would be perfect. Coincidentally, the night we made that record, I ended up having a meeting with Jay. So I took the record with us, took Harry with me, and after the meeting was done, I was like, "By the way, listen to this." I played it, and he and Beyonce were just like, "What is that?" They'd never heard anything like that before. Beyonce was like, "This isn't fair! You guys are cheating." So we left, and then I was like, "Harry, wait a minute." And I went back and asked Jay to do a drop for the tour, and that ended up becoming the intro to the song. I recorded that in my iPhone, right out to the laptop.
You're obviously bringing a lot of these dance elements to hip-hop artists who might otherwise be a little more resistant.
Just Blaze: What I get a lot of is, "Yo, I don't like electronic music, but I like this song." People's minds are starting to open up a little bit about it. The great thing about this record, though, is that it combines the elements of both worlds seamlessly. They work together. It brings the audiences together.
What did you see in each other -- aside from being booked for the same tour -- that made you want to work together?
Baauer: He's a legend. As a hip-hop fan, I was so stoked to be with Just Blaze. It was a given, he's someone I've been listening to since day 1. It was a perfect mix.
Just Blaze: When the idea was first presented to me, I told him to come meet me, and we'd chop it up. I didn't know he was asleep, but he got up and met me and we talked about music for a couple of hours. I just liked his energy. He has that youthful drive and loves music and doesn't want to do anything but make music all day. It reminded me of how I was when I was younger, and at that point I was familiar with his catalog up to that point. But you can have two people who are good at what they do who don't mix well together. This was the exact opposite. We clicked, and that was that. We made the record in two hours, and then I spent a month working on the mix and master, but the core was done in two hours.
Do you usually mix and master your own records?
Baauer: A lot of the mixing, but not the mastering.
Just Blaze: This record just sounds so amazing. When I play the record, I have to worry about what I play after, because something next might sound like this [makes gesture for something small]. It's just loud but it's not distorted, and I don't know if I can pull it off again. I've tried to do it again and I can't.
Everyone and their mother has a trap remix of something now. Is there anything you hear that instantly makes something good or bad?
Baauer: I just hate when people use the same exacts sounds over and over again. I don't like that. The same drum kits, the same patches, or even the same idea.
Is that a sound you guys are both interested in?
Just Blaze: Well one of the things that makes "Higher" different is that it's more musical than the average trap record. It's in that lane and it has those sounds, but it's not just [makes trap progression sounds]. It's a song -- there's melody and a progression. I'm not tired of that sound, but I'm looking for people to bring more musicality to it, as opposed to just well programmed synths.
You've obviously had the No. 1 hit very early in your career -- did that solidify your confidence in your taste?
Baauer: It gave me the idea that that's not going to be my goal. It won't be intention, to put a song out in that world. I know for sure that I want to go another route.
When did you get that type of confidence?
Just Blaze: I can tell you specifically. It was when I was working with Jay Z on "The Dynasty" album. With him, because of who he is, I was always on eggshells. We had this one record, called "Soon You'll Understand," and we cut the demo. With him, I'd always try to have the record all the way done before I brought it to him. With this one, I had so many ideas, I finally said, and this was a big deal to me, "Hey, can I change this record?" Jay was like, "That's what I pay you for! You're a producer -- go produce." When I realized that he had that type of confidence in me, it changed things. Up until that point, I wasn't that sure.
Obviously you heard the Kendrick Lamar verse on "Control (HOF)."
Just Blaze: The verse itself, aside from the fact that he's naming names. The delivery, the aggression is really needed in hip-hop. Whenever people hear an artist's name come out of another artist's mouth, they immediately grab their popcorn and get ready for a fight. They start creating things that aren't even there. He's not dissing those dudes at all -- he's saying, "You guys are my homies, I do records with you, but I'm trying to kill you and we should all try to be our best." If you really want to think about who he tried to diss, it's the people he didn't mention, because those are the guys who aren't even on his radar.