The Blueprint: How 1 Kanye West Beat Tape Changed Roc-A-Fella Records Forever (Audio)

In September of 2001, JAY-Z released his sixth album. The Blueprint was wholeheartedly a pivot. To his fans, Shawn Carter had an incredible consistent streak of quality, authenticity, and event-worthy album-making. Five years removed from his debut album, S.Dot sought a new sound, and raised the stakes in every possible way. On the Roc-A-Fella Records release, Jay grappled for the top of Rap, and he was big enough to do it.

While it is slim on feature guests, Blueprint is most definitely an ensemble album. Just Blaze and Kanye West asserted themselves as the in-house producers for Roc that were soon to be stars. Like Jay, both men (as well as Bink) were veterans who paid dues for years trying to carve out careers.

Just Blaze was joined by Roc-A-Fella co-founder Kareem “Biggs” Burke, A&R/managers Kyambo “Hip Hop” Joshua and Lenny S., engineer Young Guru, as well as Freeway, Jim Jones, Young Gunz, and others at last week’s live taping of the A Waste Of Time podcast by It’s The Real (Eric & Jeff Rosenthal). The night and conversations were filled with recollections, revelations, and revelry.

However, just over the 1-hour mark, Just Blaze is asked two questions that mine absolute gold about the Roc’s dynasty and La Familia values.

In the year 2000, Just Blaze was apparently getting in where he could fit in: Amil’s All Money Is Legal. Work on that LP, and allowing it to be completed on budget (thanks to Pro Tools) jockeyed him favor. While working with Roc’s short-lived female MC and Beanie Sigel, Just was asking Lenny S. and Hip-Hop to get JAY-Z tracks. The feedback was apparently terse and distant. “Our whole thing was, if you get us into the same room, eventually it’ll happen,” says Just. It did, care of four tracks on Dynasty: Roc La Familia, plus the intro. “From there everything just happened,” he says.

The happenings were closely tied to Blueprint. But according to Kyambo “Hip Hop” Joshua, the sound on that LP began with his client Kanye West. “It started because we was managing Kanye at the time. He gave me and Gee [Roberson] a beat tape [separately]…he made the beats for specific people, and he gave ’em to Gee to go take to people, ’cause that’s kinda like what Gee did.” Like Just, Kanye had placed tracks in and out of Roc, but was waiting for his next step. “He said, ‘You should check these out. This some new stuff that I’m working on.’ So the [‘Izzo’] was for Ghostface [Killah] and ‘Ain’t No Love’ was for DMX and ‘Takeover’ was for Beanie Sigel. [Cam’ron] had ‘H To The Izzo’ too, because Gee was working on Cam’s [Come Home With Me] album, so he let Cam hear it. Cam heard it. But when I had the tape I didn’t know that all of this was going on. I played the tape for Jay and he did everything on the tape.” The epic recording was over one 2001 weekend. “[He recorded] Friday and Saturday, so by Sunday we had ‘Never Change,’ ‘H To The Izzo,’ ‘Ain’t No Love,’… everything besides ‘Takeover.'” Another person on stage adds, “You’re underselling the Kanye beat tape, ’cause the other two joints was the Alicia Keys’ ‘You Don’t Know My Name,’ [and something later used by Ludacris].” Hip Hop continues, “That was one beat tape. His whole goal was to never make beat tapes no more. That was the beat tape that he never had to make ’em again. [Laughs] He just went to sessions after that. That’s how that Blueprint sound really started, through that beat tape. Then we were seeing where it was goin’, then Just came with his stuff.”

Just Blaze, suggesting that was a slight, jumps in, “‘I came with my stuff…’ thanks Hop. Can I pick it up from here, please? … I was the next one who came with some stuff. At that point, you called me and Gee called me and said, ‘We need something soulful.’ I had been holding onto a bunch of stuff for Ghostface and Prodigy, rest in peace. So the weird thing is…Prodigy is actually the first person to rap on ‘U Don’t Know.’ [To Hip Hop] You probably don’t remember [this]; you called me like, ‘Yo, I heard you’ve got some fly sh*t for Prodigy with some horns.’…So I get the call ‘we need something soulful,’ I go to Baseline [Studios]. This was when I had my blue G4 and it had all these beats that I was holding for Wu-Tang for years. So I end up playing ‘Girls, Girls, Girls,’ Jay’s like, ‘I’ll take that. Then he records that.”

Just Blaze’s night was just getting started. “I leave to go do a session with Prodigy. Prodigy hears ‘U Don’t Know.’ Then Busta [Rhymes] hears ‘U Don’t Know.’ Yo, the worst thing ever was knowing that I have Jay ready for me but Busta’s doing this Busta Rhymes [style] on the ‘U Don’t Know’ beat. I’m like, ‘Yo, this is real dope.’ I’m torn. I’m a kid at the time and I’m torn. Luckily, Busta didn’t record to it. I go back to Soundtrack [Studios], where Mobb Deep was recording. Prodigy hears the beat; I play it off of a cassette. He starts rhyming to it. Some drama ended up happening; he had to leave. I go around the corner [to Baseline Studios], I play it for Jay—[this is] all in that same weekend. Then, all of a sudden, Jay was like, ‘Yo, lay that right now.’ I had to end up giving him the beat off a cassette to a reel. Then I went back and laid it afterwards. But the initial two tracks were off of a cassette. He was great. You know how some artists, if they don’t hear something great from you within five minutes, they’re done with you? Jay would sit in a room and listen with you, for an hour, find those two, and then send you on your way. But after we did those first three he said, ‘Stick around. I want to make you a star.’ Three years later, I owned Baseline.”