Words by Emily Shapiro, Photos by Martei Korley—
At age 17, Ricky Blaze, produced Ding Dong’s “Bad Man Forward, Bad Man Pull Up,” a dancehall track that, eight years later, is still in rotation at clubs, where it elicits a crowd response as if it just bussed last week. In the years since, Ricky has produced tracks like Gyptian’s “Hold Yuh,” Vybz Kartel’s “Touch A Button” and Santigold’s “Disparate Youth,” all while carving out a niche for himself as a solo artist on the edge of dancehall, pop and dance music.
As he recounted his career to us, in the one-room, basement studio in East Flatbush, Brooklyn (with a detour to his grandma’s crib in nearby Brownsville) he’s kept since his teens, it became clear to us that this modesty has definitely played a role in his success. Ricky is an extremely humble, low-key dude who, as we learned during our interview, keeps a close circle of friends and family.
So much of his music has been created organically, in that little studio, in collaboration with friends, and for the sole purpose of providing dancers and music lovers with dope tunes. While he is constantly experimenting with different genres, he has stayed true to his vision of bringing elements of West Indian culture and music to other styles, and bringing artists together to create new sounds. (See his new single “Lightaz” from his upcoming electro-reggae project on Ultra Records, his latest venture aimed at exposing the world to reggae.)
Still young at 24, we can only imagine what Ricky will do in the coming years. For now, read our chat with him to learn about everything from his come up to his goals for the future. (Tune into the LargeUp Sessions on RadioLily.com from 6 to 8 PM tonight, June 13, to hear more from Ricky, tonight’s special guest on the show).
LargeUp: Coming up in Flatbush, Brooklyn, when did you get into music? When did you know this was it for you?
Ricky Blaze: I started DJing at age 10 and running around like every typical kid in the area. But I started being around some older guys in the area. Having older company was always cool because you could learn more than with a bunch of kids your age. I was just talking smack to them and they asked me had I ever DJed before and I told them, “Yeah, I DJed before and I play at parties and stuff.” And they were like “Alright, cool, we’re gonna test you out.” So they brought me into their spot that they practiced at, and were like “Let’s see what you could do.” I started scratching the records and had no clue what I was doing, and broke their needle. And they were like, “We could teach you but only if you want to learn.” And I was like, “Yeah I wanna learn.”
I thought it was fascinating and I loved music, and that’s where it started from for me. So from 10 to about 16, I was just DJing in local parties. I started thinking like, how can I have fans? How can I get people to listen to my DJing? So I would keep parties in the area, design my own flyers.
LU: What spots? Do you remember which places were the first?
RB: We had a popular spot on Flatbush. There was a bowling alley but they would shift it up a little bit, put neon disco lights on and keep parties in there. We would pack it up. It was called something Lanes, but we ended up calling it The Alley. It became a hot spot and we kept parties there. At 17, I produced this record for a popular Jamaican dancer, Ding Dong — “Bad Man Forward, Bad Man Pull Up.” That was the first record I ever made. I made it at a friend’s house on his computer.
LU: How did you link with Ding Dong originally?
RB: A mutual friend gave me his number. At that time, I didn’t have production in mind but I wanted to be on a business-type tip so I wanted to manage him, as a dancer. I reached out and we started talking, and the same night that we spoke, a popular dancer by the name of Bogle was killed in Jamaica. The day after that, I hit him up, and he was feeling stressed ‘cause they didn’t know where it was coming from—if it was a target against dancers or what. All the dancers just stopped dancing, they weren’t going out or anything. And I was like “Yo, you have to keep it alive. You gotta push it to the forefront and take lead of it.” And he started to do that. He started gaining a lot of recognition on the Passa Passa DVDs, he started coming to New York. And at that time, I had this office spot, a graphic design spot in this store called Future Vibes. It was the hot spot at the time because we were selling CDs of all the latest music, the latest DVDs from the latest parties in Jamaica.
He met us over there and I introduced him to Future Vibes, who owned the spot, and we both kind of took over his management. I brought him to a party and they were playing old-school, vintage dancehall. The party was at Elite Ark in Brownsville. He kept doing the dance and I was like “What is that? It looks cool.” And he was like: “it’s this new dance that I made in England called ‘Bad Man Forward, Bad Man Pull Up.’” The dance was so universal, that any song that he did it to looked cool. He ended up leaving the next day to go back to Jamaica. That Friday I went to my homeboy’s crib and ended up making the track. Ding Dong came back from Jamaica the Friday after and I was like “Yo, I got this track for you, we gotta make this record.” And he went straight to the studio and recorded that song.
It started gaining recognition from Brooklyn ‘cause I was playing on a pirate underground radio station, Whaa Gaan Radio. We started promoting the record on the station, and Hot 97 DJs were driving around Brooklyn and listening to it. You only could get it on a certain radius of Brooklyn so they would drive around in the area and listen to what the hot songs were. ‘Cause Whaa Gwaan radio was the streets. If you heard it on Whaa Gwan Radio, it was popping in the clubs. We were getting all the music from Jamaica, local artists, it was mixed up. But whatever we were playing on the station is what was hot in Brooklyn. The other DJs on the bigger stations would listen to know what was hot on the streets.
I went on the radio from 8-10 and I played it for about 2 hours and it was a frenzy after that. The record was gaining recognition in Jamaica ‘cause he was on the Passa Passa DVDs, and New York gravitated to working with him. We did his birthday party in the same club, Elite Ark, so we used everything as a promo stunt and he had the biggest party in the history of dancehall dancers. He had 5,000 people at his party due to the song, how we were promoting it. That just gave me confidence to say probably, I really can make it as a producer. So then I went on to building this studio as a start. I’ve been in here since 2010 but I always loved the vibes that it gave me creatively.
LU: You did a lot of tracks that were related to dance and promoted certain dances…
RB: That situation I was telling you about, with Bogle dying and then the turmoil of dancers trying to figure out what was going down, was in 2005 going into 2006. That’s when they came out with [sings Voicemail and Ding Dong’s “Wacky Dip”], and the dancers all started coming back out and were like “Yo, we’re just going to live this out in Bogle’s name.”
I wanted to do R&B, I wanted to do pop, but I wanted to build my name. I didn’t have any connection to R&B and pop so how else could I do it? I always loved techno music. I was like you know what, I’ll do this music as promo to try and build my name up as a producer and a songwriter and as an artist. Half of those tracks was tracks I did for other people but they just didn’t see the vision so I just dropped it— “Cut Dem Off” and then I had signed [dancehall crew] Merital and we did “Love Dancing,” “Everybody Dance.”
I had my own dancer that came from Brooklyn, Fresh Prince, and we created a crew called The Rolling Stones. We would go to parties and post up, and we were the popular guys but then I started shouting them out in songs and hyping my crew. Those records all came naturally. None were planned. Fresh Prince would just come to the studio and I would play a beat and he would dance for hours in here and that would hype me up and I would start chanting things. I would go in the booth and record and be like “Fresh Prince jump on the record too.” And that’s how we created that.
LU: Who were some of the artists that influenced or inspired you most?
RB: I can’t think about it but my fusions of music come from probably five different genres in one song. I was inspired by techno and dance music. I remember the first time I heard [Haddaway’s “What is Love?”], it sounded like heaven. I always said to myself “When I die, I wanna hear that song as my soundtrack, going up to heaven or wherever I’m going.” That record was so organic and simple but had so much feeling to it. At that time, I was young so I couldn’t go to dance parties or the Roxy, but I could just imagine the vibe of those people being in that party scene and just enjoying life and partying and that attracted me to mix that type of vibe in the dancehall music. Fader magazine picked up on the whole vibe and called it trancehall. At that point, we were so young and caught up in the vibe that we didn’t really know what we were doing but we were creating something that could have longevity.
LU: I read that when “Hold Yuh” broke Gyptian didn’t really believe that the record was big…
RB: It was definitely that vibe with Gyptian. We were working on his album and it was supposed to be a conscious album but every time we would finish, I would just play him random R&B and pop songs. I always thought he had that type of quality and demeanor to kill these tracks as an R & B artist. One day, I was playing some tracks and I had started the “Hold Yuh” beat but it was more of a Caribbean vibe. I didn’t know where I wanted to go with it because I wanted it to have cross-over appeal, so I [had] started it and left it. I was about to skip it but I pressed the space bar and he eard the “bing bing” [piano sound] and he stopped it and was like “play that back, lemme hear it.” Then he started singing. He wrote a song for someone else’s track. But he sung it a different way, and I was like “We should record that right now” because they were about to leave. It took about 3 minutes and we just recorded it and he left and never cared about the record.
I sat down for like two days and listened to the record over 60 times and I was like this record has an appeal that doesn’t appeal to Jamaica but more of the small islands. It had that overall Caribbean vibe, it made you want to move. I reached out to Johnny Wonder, who is an ambassador for reggae music—he’s responsible for half the reggae music you hear today—and I was like, “I have this Gyptian record that we need to get into small islands.” He sent it out and at first the response was a little rocky and then he sent it out again and he called me and was like “The record is in the top 20 in Trinidad.” The record started building and I called Gyptian and I was like “We got a smash record.” He was like “It’s not in Jamaica so…” That’s how Jamaican artists look at it— It’s not playing in Jamaica so it’s not playing anywhere. He was really doubtful. And then he called me a week or two later and was like “I just did a show with Gregory Isaacs”—in Guyana or something—like, “Yo, the people were screaming for me to perform that song. I performed it three times for them ‘cause every time I just started singing it, the crowd response was crazy.”
I started hearing it in random places in Brooklyn, hearing cars just blazing it. One of the guys from Hot 97, Mister Cee, called to tell me they were adding this record into rotation because it is popping everywhere. A lot of people didn’t believe that I produced the record so I wanted to make my own version and I made “Just You & I.” I was already signed to Atlantic Records but we didn’t know what we were gonna roll with as the first single and then that record just kind of blew up on it’s own without any help from anybody and Atlantic was like, “We might as well just use that.”
LU: Did you get producer credit on “Hold Yuh?”
RB: Yes, I’m the only producer.
LU: What about “Bad Man Forward, Bad Man Pull Up?”
RB: I got credit but, with reggae music, it’s a little different. Whoever is the record label behind it… say, you come to me and you’re like “I’ve got this beat and I want you to sing on it.” That doesn’t mean that you made the beat. Probably, you had a producer that you got the beat from, but you want me to sing on it. So you’re the producer and he’s the musician, where in the American side of music, whoever went inside the studio and created the track is a producer. In Jamaica, you’re the person who made it in the studio but you gave it to him, and he got the artists on it, so he’s the producer.
LU: Are there some other songs that people don’t even know you’re a part of?
RB: Yeah a couple of them. I did “Get Gyal Easy” by Vybz Kartel, for Bobby Konders from Hot 97. “Touch a Button” by Kartel, I did that with TJ Records. I have this Rihanna “What’s My Name?” remix that I did with Max Glazer. There’s a couple out there that I didn’t get any credit for but I’m behind it, and there will be a couple more.
LU: We’ve talked a little bit about how you’ve branched out into different genres but I wanted to talk specifically about your work with Santigold. Tell us how that collaboration came about and how you came up with that sound.
RB: We did that record [“Disparate Youth”] in 2009. I was introduced to Santi [by] Diplo. She’s super cool and she knows exactly what she wants. When you go into the studio with her, you can play 10 beats and she’ll just take one thing from one beat. So I played “Disparate Youth” for her and she was like “I want to do something with this.” And I left her with the track because that’s how Santi is sometimes. She takes a little while and then she’ll just call you back and be like “Hey, the label’s gong to roll out with this.” So she called me and was like “I played the record for Atlantic, United Kingdom, and they want to roll out with this as the first single.” And I was like “Okay cool” because I never had a first single on a big project before. I kind of gave her the cool impression like “If it happens, it happens, if it don’t, it don’t.” Cause sometimes you might get your hopes up high and things might change at the last minute. But they rolled out with it and it started doing good.
LU: Have you done anything else with her?
RB: Right now, we’re working on her album. The other day, I gave her a ton of tracks. She took like nine, so I’m hoping that it comes together.
LU: You have any artists that you haven’t worked with that you really want to collaborate with? Or tracks that you feel fit certain people?
RB: I’m definitely trying to do a reggae-electro album with Solange. I want to do that.
LU: I want to a talk about this electro-reggae movement and signing with Ultra. What does it mean for you to be signed with them?
RB: Well, I produced—and that’s my artist— Chelley’s “I Took the Night.” We brought that song to them and they loved it. They kind of slept on the record when we first came to them but then the record just took a life on its own, and they felt they kind of slept on it so I [got] their attention. I started working on a couple of records for this electro-reggae project but I didn’t know where I wanted to go with it exactly. I had sent that “Lightaz” record to Sean Kingston originally and I guess he didn’t really feel it, so I just sent it to Ultra, with artwork and everything, kind of finished and they replied back, “We loved this. We want to move forward.” So we got the deal done and this is the first single. I’ll play you some cuts that will potentially be on it.
LU: Do you think Brooklyn still has that creative vibe that it did when you were growing up? How it was a cultural mash up and all?
RB: That vibe is finished. I would have loved if we had cameramen shooting these parties, these raves that we kept, just dancers dancing to one beat for like two hours. I would love if we were on it like that where it was documented. It was, but just a little. A couple of people would come and follow Ding Dong with cameras.
LU: Do you ever go to parties in Brooklyn?
RB: Not really. It’s not what it used to be. The people that were a part of the dancing movement and had a lot to do with it are older now or not doing it or doing it because they love it from the heart but they’re gaining nothing from it.
LU: Talk a little about the mixtape you did and how that collaboration with Talib Kweli came about?
RB: I met Talib through a mutual friend—my driver at the time, a guy named Dappa Flex. That was originally a record I had done for a rapper that was signed to me, and he walked away and I was working on my mixtape. People know me for making cool dancehall records but there’s more to my production than that. So I wanted to show my fans that yes, I can do R&B so I put together this Maestro mixtape. And it was just in a weird way that I had all New York features on it—Jim Jones, Maino and Talib Kweli.
LU: Do you have a preference, artist or producer?
RB: I always tell people I’m a producer. Records that I’ve done were just records that I threw out there because you know, I couldn’t get Gyptian to see the vision of a record like “Love Dancing” or a record like “Cut Dem Off” so I just did it myself and it worked. I never went in with the intention that I’m trying to be an artist. It was more in production and songwriting for me.
LU: You knew at 10 years old that you were musical and you wanted to do this. Where do you think it comes from?
RB: Well, coming from right here—East Flatbush—it’s mostly DJs. It’s highly populated, all this is Jamaican, Haitian, Caribbean… East Flatbush, that’s what this is known for. Growing up being American with a full Caribbean, Jamaican background and friends who were Haitian and Caribbean people, period. I was either going to become a promoter, a graphic designer, a photographer or something because that is what’s known over here—parties and entertainment and having fun. So I was going to continue to play music and probably be a Hot 97 disc jockey. That was happening. I was so close to becoming a Hot 97 DJ. I had Mr. Cee, he’s the mix show director there, in my studio every day. I had Cipha Sounds hitting me up. But I decided that I wanted to do production, and took two years off. I stopped Djing at parties and built this studio and started making records. So it’s weird for me but, over everything, I am a producer and a songwriter. I would give up artistry. I was just thinking about that the other day like “Maybe I should just stop making records and just continue behind the boards, creating and developing artists.”
LU: Are there any artists that you’re mentoring? People that you see coming up that you want to help and manage?
RB: I always target no-name artists. I always find people who have natural talent, and I help and sculpt them and put them in the right place and where they need to be.
LU: Any reggae artists you would want to bring to like a pop song? Did you ever think about taking someone with a signature style that is maybe particularly Jamaican and bringing it to a different genre?
RB: That’s what I’m all about—making different genres and artists collide through music. Like I did the Jazmine Sullivan “Love Back” which was a “Hold Yuh” type record. It was a soulful voice with such a stripped down reggae track. I’m always about stuff like that. I did “Cut Dem Off,” and I was going to sign with Koch Records and they were like who do you want on the remix and I was like, I want me featuring Soulja Boy, Elephant Man and Tony Matterhorn. They were looking at me like “Soulja Boy? What does Soulja Boy have to do with this?” I actually made the track with snaps in it an took some elements of “Crank That” and put it into “Cut Dem Off” and made the record and when they heard it they were like, “This is different. This is hot.” I love shit like that, taking artists from different genres, not where reggae is and just bringing them to it.
LU: Have you done any productions in Jamaica?
RB: I did the Party Vibe riddim. I have Shaggy on that, Mr. Easy, Notch. I did “Touch a Button” on Kartel, “Get Gyal Easy.” I just went to Jamaica the other day. I’m collaborating with this producer, DJ Frass. We did a single with I-Octane and Alaine and we have a riddim coming out called Gyal Shock Out. It’s a straight dancehall riddim and every artist is on that.
When I went down there, I was working out of Buju’s studio and then I was working out of Big Yard too. Me and Stephen [McGregor] are supposed to be doing like a Major Lazer-type project. You know, him being himself and where he’s at production wise and me taking my New York sound and mixing it with his raw reggae sound and coming up with club banger records. I have Chelley, we are working on a mixtape for her. I’m taking her approach as sassy, being the baddest bitch, representing females in a cool way. [It’s] bubblegum house music, but retro 90s hip-hop style. I think I have some killer records coming out.
LU: Do you work with live musicians in Jamaica?
RB: Well, I don’t go to Jamaica like that. I was on vacation and I just decided that I can’t be too laid back, I had to find a studio. I had a good time in the country. I was in Sav, in a big mansion up there. I didn’t want to come back. I had to go to Kingston because I signed an artist out there and to do interviews. We were driving to Kingston and I saw the beach in Sav and I made us stop. I messed up the whole promotion and everything. I told myself, anytime I go to Jamaica, I’m staying in Sav and if anything I’ll work out of GeeJam or one of those studios. Forget Kingston. Kingston is too fast paced for me. It reminds me of Brooklyn and when I go out there I don’t want that vibe.
LU: What are some other moments that were influential to your career?
RB: There’s a visual of me, Elephant Man and all of us at a soccer match. I brought my dancer Fresh Prince and he made the dance “How Mi Look” right there on the spot. Elephant Man came up with the name but we couldn’t convince Elephant Man to do the record, and that killed Fresh Prince’s emotions as a dancer because Elephant Man is the dancehall god and we knew if he did the record, it would have blew up. And I was like “Yo, Fresh Prince, I feel like we could do this ourselves.” He’s there listening to me but he doesn’t wanna hear that ‘cause he’s really like “Yo, I want Elephant Man to do it.” And I’m like “We’re gonna do our own “How Mi Look” record.” I built up his confidence and went in the studio, like, “I’m gonna make Elephant Man wish he jumped on this.” I came here, made the beat, and it blew up and became a big record for us and Fresh Prince toured off of it and VP Records ended up signing the record..
LU: Do you think it was an extra challenge for you to be American-born but making West Indian music?
RB: When I came up with “Bad Man Forward” everyone was like “Who is this kid?” Especially, the Jamaican producers: “Uh where him come from? Where him thinking mon? Him not no reggae producer. Brooklyn come from, uh him get lucky with ah hit single.” I had to come with “Hold Yuh” and real records for them to see “Yo, this kid is a really dope kid.” I had to really take my respect. And sometimes, they still don’t give me my respect. A lot of producers and artists act like they don’t want to work with me.
LU: What do you think you’re signing with Ultra means for West Indian music?
RB: It’s taking dancehall music—or the influence of dancehall—and bringing it to a wider audience. Ultra has all these territories of dance music and electronic music around the world, so why not put a dash of reggae in it, too? That’s what Diplo, Major Lazer and these people are doing. You have these producers that have hot-ass riddims in Jamaica but they don’t have the outlets. There’s only two [outlets] that are really putting out dancehall music from Jamaica—VP Records, and Johnny Wonder. If you get lucky, you might get a major deal or end up in an independent company in England or Japan. I’m not planning to sell a million records from Ultra putting out “Lightaz” but as long as people get what I’m trying to do, that’s all that matters to me. If I was doing this for money, I would have left it alone. I just honestly, love music.
LU: I’m a teacher and I work in a middle school. I started teaching in 2006 and at that time the middle school girls used to talk about you so much. That’s sort of what put you on the map for me.
RB: It’s weird. I’ve seen three or four phases in my career. When I first started, I didn’t have grown people as fans. It was all high-school kids. I would do high-school parties and just play one beat for two hours. These kids, they have enough money to get in the club and buy a $5 Red Bull and drink that one Red Bull or a bottle of water and dance all night. And people didn’t believe this. One night I had Mr. Cee and this dude from Koch Records come to the club to see how these kids get down. They were feeling like I was exaggerating but when they seen it they couldn’t believe it. And Mr. Cee was like let’s keep another show with Dem Franchize Boys and collide the snapping Down South with the dancehall and 3,000 kids came out to this club, C-Pac. Not one person over 21 was in that club. We had Webstarr doing “Chicken Noodle Soup,” you had Brooklyn with “Cut Dem Off” and then you had the South, and they went crazy for the dancehall stuff. What we were doing with the Rolling Stones thing had a big impact.
With “Just You & I” I went from having just high school kids around the block to having older female fans. It was kind of surreal to me to pull up to the club and see 25-year-old women looking sexy as hell coming out to just hear me sing “Just You & I.” That was a whole different vibe.