KH: Now here’s the thing… the backdrop to all of this was that we were recording all the time. We were developing as songwriters and we co-produced songs like “Are You Wid It?” for Hunter Hayes, which nobody knows that we had anything to do with. “This Time” for Hunter, we actually wrote that song and both of those were radio successes too. That was before we ever recorded a record.
So what does that mean in terms of money?
KH: Nothing, back then. You don’t learn about making money off of music until it’s time to make money off of music. First you do it for the love and that’s totally it. When we got the chance to record at Quark and when we put out “Yearning” Manny Leman from the old, original Vinyl Mania liked the song and he liked me because again as a backdrop… I had worked at MOVING RECORDS before I worked at a recording studio. Moving Records was the equivalent of Vinyl Mania in New Jersey. Abigail Adams was good-friends with Manny and Judy Russell from Downtown 161 – the same Judy Russell, and as a result of [knowing her], I became friends with Manny so when I put out my record he helped me. He introduced me to Freddy Bastone who was also working at EMERGENCY RECORDS at the time [and he] ultimately introduced me to Curtis who offered us a deal for “What You Gonna Do for Love?” It was for $400… that was our first recording contract.
That just goes to show a lot of these young guys now who think they are supposed to get paid. Our very first deal was $400! That was the advance and that wasn’t even enough to cover studio time. $400, that’s what we got! It was more about the opportunity to have a record deal through a source that was reputable. We thought we were getting a deal with EMERGENCY but it wound up being at QUARK RECORDS. At that time we called WEST END RECORDS to get a deal, but they never called us back!
…he says, just as Mel Cheren [Founder of WEST END RECORDS] walks into the room! (Everyone laughs) You blew it Mel! So “What You Gonna Do” blasts off, then what happens?
KH: When we were doing it, we didn’t have enough money to finish it, but that’s a whole other story about how we recorded that thing. What I wound up doing was selling my turntables to get the rest of the money and finish paying for the studio time. I said to myself, ‘this record is going to be a hit, and we are going to make tons of money. I will be able to buy new turntables.’ When the record ultimately came out, it was one of the first new- style, nightclub/dance records outside of Colonel Abrams to make it to the radio on an independent [label]. It became an extremely successful record during that time. I will never forget being at home and having my friends who knew we had made the record call and tell me, “Larry played your record FIVE TIMES!” I was like, ‘y’all don’t know my record’. I went [to the club] the very next week and sure enough, I was sitting on the stage [when it came on] and I was like this record sounds familiar… then I was like, ‘Oh! This is it!’ Nobody [at the club] knew us, but Larry did play it like five times that night. He played it one time all the way through and then he played it right back again. Now he didn’t know us… he was totally oblivious to us. The record came out in December and they invited us to perform at the last anniversary party for the Paradise Garage. The tenth Anniversary party was January the 10th, 1987. Once that record became a success at the club level, all the radio stations picked it up and it went into heavy rotation across the stations.
So what was it like to perform there?
KH: It was our first performance.
How bad were you?
JM: That was a live performance and we had a good time. Matter of fact, the crowd – from Larry playing the song, knew the lyrics and that’s a strange feeling. You’re on stage and people are singing what you wrote. The energy was high and the music was loud. This guy [Kevin] was breaking stuff…
KH: What happened was, the part where he goes “La-La, La-La” we were going to throw lollipops into the audience. So we were throwing the lollipops and then they were taking the wrappers off and throwing them back and it just started getting bigger and bigger till the point where it just got crazy… everybody was just having a real great time…
Your recurring theme after all…
JM: You had the lollipops in that bag…
KH: Yeah, the lollipops were in a bag and the energy was so high that I reached into the bag and my hand went through the bag and all the lollipops spilled out all over the stage. And Uncle Mel didn’t even help me to pick them up. (Everyone laughs)
JM: No he sat there and laughed.
KH: Yeah, he was like who are these upstarts? So it was a lot of fun, we had a good time.
KH: Of course, you know you’re going to the bastion of music and they asked you to come and do your thing. You know Larry is in the booth, people are there and we are brand new to the scene…it was our first performance…
JM: We were so innocent man. That show…
You [to Josh], were so innocent!
JM: Yeah, he was already tainted right?
KH: I wasn’t even on the stage at that time.
JM: Yeah at that time, Kevin didn’t perform. He was more in the managerial/producer type of role. But man, we had a really exciting show. We had a guy who would play our bodyguard and throughout the whole set – which was like three songs, he did nothing until the last song which was “What Ya Gonna Do.” We did this shoulder shake thing and he comes out and does it with us, so it’s a real surprise because you really believe he’s our security guard. He was a big guy, light on his feet too! The crowd loved that. [It] was like a surprise attack.
What’s the next big thing for you guys after such an exciting achievement?
KH: When you make a hit record, then you meet the players. Some of those players were less than us, and we helped them along, too. I think Josh and I always wanted to focus on continuing to write and produce – that’s what we had always done. We just did more of that, then we learned how to remix and we got asked to do remixes. [But as we got] to meet the people who were in charge of the scene at the time, we became friends with them – working with and for them.
So let’s fast-forward to your time at Motown… is that where you met Timmy and first started working with him?
KH: Well we met Timmy in ‘86, ‘87 and he became like a big brother or mentor to me. First of all, he was an idol of mine and then as he and I developed a relationship, he became a mentor. We were experiencing a lot of things that he had been through with Boyd Jarvis so he started to help us negotiate the business; showing us who to deal with, who not to deal with, introducing us to people… and helping us advance our careers as remixers. We did a lot of the Timmy Regisford remix productions; we were the actual music makers for his productions. There were others that we’ve done [uncredited] music productions for like, “Instinctual” [Imagination] that’s us doing the music. We’ve done things for Frankie Knuckles [where] that’s us doing the music, they were just in front.
The very first remix Dave Morales ever did, we wrote and produced. It was a song called “Sometimes Love/In-Sync" it came out on EASY STREET RECORDS in about 1987.
You mentioned before that new guys today expect to come in and just be put on. In this time, what was it like working with all these modern-day heavy hitters? Nobody was a legend then though.
KH: No, nobody was a legend then. There was only one legend and that was Larry. Everybody tried to be Larry, that’s what it was.
KH: The backdrop to that was we met Timmy and he was a mentor. Early on in his A&R career at MCA Records, we had done some work and recorded some songs with him. As he moved on, we did remixes with him and then what actually happened to tell the story right, WARNER BROTHERS RECORDS – Benny Medina and David Shaw, offered us an album deal first. But being that Timmy was my mentor, I was like ‘Timmy, so and so and so… He said, “I’ll give you the same thing, matter of fact, I’ll give you a better deal.” That’s how it developed. Now when we were originally signed, we were not signed to Motown. We were signed to MCA and when Timmy and Jheryl [Busby] left MCA during that takeover of Motown by Boston Ventures, Timmy brought his artists with him and Jheryl brought his artists with him. We just happened to be one of Timmy’s artists. That’s how we wound up recording for Motown. Wasn’t like we shopped to Motown, Timmy worked there and he brought us with him.
What was that whole experience like, working for such a legendary label?
KH: Well at the time we were there, it didn’t feel legendary because the whole emphasis was on the new Motown. So the legendary experience of it was [minimal]. Sometimes we would get to be around maybe Smokey Robinson, but the emphasis was on Boyz II Men…
JM: …Johnny Gill, Milira… it was about everything new they were developing.
KH: You really didn’t have a sense of connection to the past; they didn’t want to operate the label as a catalog. Which is really strange now that I’m doing this at WEST END, that was the same thing. Jheryl Busby went in to take over from a legend, Berry Gordy, and his emphasis was on making his mark.
How are you learning about the business while you are going through this? Was it trial and error or did you go to college?
KH: Yeah, trial and error. Plus, I don’t think I learned how to do the business of music until about 1995; not until I had a hit record and by a hit record, I mean, a record that actually sells into the millions.
What record was that?
KH: We wrote and produced a song for a group De’lacy called… “Hideaway” which I think was Deep Dish’s first remix – the Grammy® award-winning Deep Dish and that record sold millions worldwide. After that, I had to become more knowledgeable because the music was actually generating large amounts of revenue. So as it’s generating the revenue, you have a lot of questions coming at you and eventually you have to learn how you get paid and I think that’s when it really began to click. Ultimately, I wound up taking a class at New York University under the tutelage of Donald Passman who wrote the book EVERYTHING YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT THE MUSIC BUSINESS. Taking his class and being involved at that time was extremely interesting because it was my business. Sometimes we would have a class about publishing and I was dealing with a publishing issue at that moment. I was actually living the classes.
So what’s it like in the studio with Blaze? Is it just the two of you kicking around ideas?
KH: Forever, it has been just the two of us – since the very beginning. Early on, our partner Chris would be around, but ninety-six percent of the time it was just Josh and me. Whether I was coming up with the beats and Josh was coming up with the bass-line and the chords, or whether it’s a remix and you’re trying to make your music fit to someone else’s melody, it’s always just been us. Over the year’s out of necessity, we’ve had other engineers come in and work with us because it got to the point where I couldn’t engineer and produce. At one time, we were so busy we would have three different sessions going at the same time. It’s always me engineering, us producing and writing together, while Josh pretty much takes care of all the playing musical efforts.
What are your favorite things to use in the studio? You’ve said you don’t even own a computer, so are you just using the same tools since day one.
KH: Pretty much, yeah. It’s not that we don’t like computers, it’s just…
JM: We’re poor!
I’ll never believe it!
KH: That and it’s a learning curve. The time it’s going to take for me to learn how to operate all that, we could have had it done already. Josh can play it live faster than we can sequence it, so it just kind of stayed that way.
So what do you create on and how?
KH: A keyboard and the MPC 2000 - that’s it. We just sit down and come up with a rhythm. Usually you start off with a drum track because in house music, everything starts off with the groove. The beat is a part of the groove but lately, as we’ve developed, we pretty much write the song before we produce them now. We might actually write the whole song just to the chords and melody and then we go back and actually make the beat and the music. It’s better from a production standpoint because sometimes when you write the music first you are locked into whatever that music is going to be. When you just write chords, the melody and the lyrics, now your production can go anywhere… it’s limitless. No set bass line anymore, no set chord structure and it makes for better songs because the focus is on the song and the melody, as opposed to the beat.
So neither of you have had any formal education outside of High School or any other musical training?
[As Josh gets served a big bowl of homemade chicken soup, Kevin interrupts to ask how it is. And instead of taking a break to answer questions, he let’s us know how good it is. I leap to your defense that he is shorting you…]
Josh, our audience is only getting one side of the story as you sit over there eating and living up to your silent partner thing.
KH: I’m actually more quiet than Josh, do you realize that?
Not lately… thank God!
JM: Josh does 90 percent of the interviews.
Well I don’t see many of them around…
KH: We don’t do that many.
So let’s jump to some of the other producers you’ve collaborated with… first Cassio Ware and those classic songs, “Fantasy” and “Paradise”… they are so Jersey, grimy, sexy and good. How did they come about?
KH: Well Casio, I have to give him his props, he was heavily a part of us coming back to do house music after being on tour with Bobby Brown.
Whoa, back up. On tour with Bobby Brown, what was that like?
KH: It was big! We were the opening act and we did Wembley Arena [in England]; we were doing stadiums and auditoriums the size of Madison Square Garden with that cat. Then we toured a few of the islands…
JM: Guadeloupe …
Josh, what was it like on that first tour with Bobby Brown? How old were you then?
So, were there girls, groupies, etc…
JM: We were so fresh out of mommy’s house and as a matter of fact, Kevin and Chris’ mother came on the tour with us. My mother didn’t go, but there was none of that and it was out of the question – they cracked the whip. But that was a learning experience because I got to see a major artist and how they do their business. I actually got a chance to see some things that I knew I wasn’t gonna do. I don’t want to slander Bobby but when I saw him, he appeared to be high and I saw people holding him up – actually lifting him up off the ground, and I knew I would never get high. He might have been on medication, but I just knew that I wouldn’t go there. A lot of artists tend to do that, they get high before a show and they tell themselves, they will be fly, “I’ll be better.” Man, I will never get high. Maybe a beer, that’s as far as I’ll go. I won’t get crazy, I have a child.
KH: But one thing about becoming an artist, when you make a record and you go on tour, you lose touch with what’s going on at the street level because you’re on the road. We were out there for like a year. So a whole new music [style had] started in the nightclubs in that year. When we finally got back, you had cats like Pal Joey, Roger S and Kerri Chandler who were just making tracks.
KH: Not songs. We didn’t understand this concept, ‘Where are the lyrics?’ But clubs were going crazy over it. We were kind of out of touch with what was going on and Cassio was very influential in saying “Just do what you do, man and let’s go for it.” So from “Baby Love” on, that was us just us trying to figure out what was going on. By the time ‘92 rolled around, that wasn’t the music that was being played it was just not as popular.
How do you come up with the titles?
JM: Kevin was always throwing the titles on the records. He would just flip through a magazine to name our instrumentals. He’d see the word ‘formula’, and then he would be like, that’s the name of the song, “Formula.” He did that for a while.
I have a favorite Blaze instrumental “Moonwalk”… what’s the story behind the creation of that song.
KH: We were still figuring out what was going on in the clubs and realizing that what we were doing wasn’t actually happening there anymore. We realized people didn’t want to hear the vocals, so I think Josh came up with the groove, then we threw the little solo on it and it became Moonwalk.
Was that a successful record for you?
KH: Well we’ve been lucky to have different levels of success. Every record that people like, I feel like it’s successful. It may not have been a financially successful record but overall it’s one of the records that’s special to us as well.
Now let’s look at the albums, your collection of thoughts so to speak. How do you approach them?
KH: We feel like we’ve only done two albums: TWENTY-FIVE YEARS LATER and SPIRITUALLY SPEAKING. The others are more like compilation albums of songs or titles that we had lying around. BASIC BLAZE and NATURAL BLAZE were like that. We don’t consider them albums, more like compilations of original material. But with the other two, the way we approached it was like a project, not individual singles. I think SPIRITUALLY SPEAKING doesn’t really have any singles on it.
What’s behind Natural Blaze being called the James Toney, Jr project?
KH: James Toney was a real good friend of ours who passed away after coming home from the Winter Music Conference in 2000. He went into a diabetic coma and had a heart attack. He was just a really good friend and supporter of everything we did, so we named the whole project after him.
So after you struggled with the people’s love of tracks, you transitioned again and came back with singles like “Shine” and ‘Elements of Life” with Louie Vega. How did that come about?
KH: Actually from about ‘97 – ‘99, we probably didn’t do any recording. We just kind of hung out and pretty much lived off the fat of the land.
The “fat of the land” being a nice fat publishing catalog?
JM: [Still eating at the table.] Yep!
KH: No comments, just the fat of the land. No actually we have a really good publishing catalog of hit songs and pop projects. Louie actually dragged us into the studio; he tricked us into going into the studio. He said, “I just want y’all to come by and check out what I’m doing.” So when we got there, he had a beat going and said, “I need a song to go over this.” The song, “Elements of Life” is [something] we wrote like eight years before we recorded it – in about ‘92. I don’t know, we got there and [Josh] did the bass, then the keyboards and we were like, ‘these lyrics will fit.’
[As Josh nods with a mouth full of food…]
KH: Josh [performed] it as a demo for somebody else to sing and that’s how he got to become a singer in the first place. He would do the demos but the demos would be better than the vocalist that we got to sing. So we just left Josh on it. Then Louie did the same thing and then he said, “How about if I call it Little Louie Vega featuring Blaze?” We were like whatever you want to do. He did it and it turned into a successful record at the nightclub level. But Louie was the main catalyst in getting us to record again because once we did that with him, it kind of gave us the idea to start recording. Before that, how we really got over was we would write songs – just the lyrics, melody, the back and the hooks and then sell the acapella, they didn’t even want the music. Then [the labels] would get whomever they wanted to do the music. That’s how we were living for a really long time. The songs would become successful like De'lacy’s “Hideaway,” a bunch of records became really successful – charting records, like, Top 20.
When the Elements of Life project came out with Louie, I heard you guys contractually said you would not perform.
JM: That was a hand-shake but as Kevin said, I wasn’t supposed to be the artist or singing the songs. But Louie kept [my version] and I told him I will not perform and he agreed, but he wanted the performance.
Are you over the shyness now?
JM: Well yeah, we are going to have to do it with SPIRITUALLY SPEAKING because people are supporting this project and you want to show your face… you don’t want to be so stank, so fly… that you can’t show.
So Josh, [finally finished eating] let’s your get your perspective on how it felt to have hit records and be a player in the business?
JM: As with anything, it’s always nice to hear someone say, “Hey that record is really very nice.” Any artist or any type of creation that you do, if someone appreciates it, it gives you motivation to do it again. Money has never been a motivation. If that was the case, I’m telling you, I would have a job at Staples doing something, making some chips. (laughs) I’m telling you it’s gratifying when people know your lyrics… especially when DJs play your record, it means they like it. That’s an amazing thing. To answer your question, that’s what gets me off… to see the people enjoying the stuff. I remember the project when it first started, when it was just an idea. It’s wonderful thing and that’s the reason why I still do it.
Do you think of yourself as being in the business for real or do you feel like you are just playing at it?
JM: I know I am definitely in this business for real… it’s been sustaining me for the last eighteen years so I have to acknowledge that I am in this business. However, the glam, I don’t think we’ll ever feel that. We don’t have that kind of lifestyle. We are not a part of that stuff – the after-party’s and stuff like that.
Do you have any favorites among your body of work?
JM: SPIRITUALLY SPEAKING right now is doing it for me… the entire album. I heard something we did in ’91 from a compilation album for a Japanese label. There was song a called “Good Life” that sounded great and I hadn’t heard that in maybe ten years. I heard it for the first time a few months ago and that felt good. It’s one of my favorites.
Let’s explore some of the themes that you have in your music… is there a formula that you use or are there things that you try to do with every song that you make?
JM: At the end of every record, there has to be some message of universal love or Eros – love for a woman or a man… however you want to put that. At the end of the day, love is what we are trying to convey. 'What the world needs now, is love!' (Laughs) On every record there is some element of love hanging around.
Not overly sexual or raw dog…
JM: No, something that is made for the entire family. I want everybody to be comfortable in the household. I don’t want you to just play it when the kids are not around. That’s the way I am, I have a thirteen-year-old daughter and I feel responsible to do music that she can enjoy. Kevin has a little God-child and it’s important for us to let them hear the music.
Is there a woman too or just a child?
JM: Absolutely, you know Big Moses? His sister is my wifey. We’re going to make it real one day, I don’t know when but it’s gonna happen.
Based on what is happening in popular music with all the bling, bling… do you think we will be able to get over that and return to quality music? And how do you think Blaze can help that along?
JM: I hope so. I think that people are starving for some good music. Like there used to be when Stevie Wonder and Chaka Khan were doing it back in the seventies. People are so sick and tired of the mediocrity and I am trying to come with some real horn sections. If you listen to the album SPIRITUALLY SPEAKING you will hear feel good music that can breath new life, that’s what we’re trying to bring. I think with efforts like that, we can turn it around and bring good music back.
So how do you intend to do that with this project?
JM: Well, with people like yourself and others who are getting the word out that there is some good music around, that’s probably the only way we can do it. Shows are fine but you have to know about the artist to come to the show in the first place. So media people who are trying to get the word out there, that’s the only way we can do it… word of mouth. I don’t want to big up any other artists in our interview but there is a guy named Donnie out there and this man is phenomenal.
JM: Sure, I like to believe that he’s gonna happen but there’s a guy before Donnie his name is Frank McCoon, he’s a walking, living, breathing Donny Hathaway. He’s totally a musician, songwriter vocalist and each one of them is off the chain. His album came out and it didn’t even go wood. So that’s just hard. He’s way more of an artist than we are because he does the interviews, he does the in-stores and he promotes himself but it just didn’t happen. So I don’t know who to point the finger at, but it’s a reality that anytime you do something spiritual or something to cause people to think too much, that’s not going to be number one. Sure if I was Ashanti with a nice hot, tight little body on them covers, I might make it. But I’m not… I’m a fat thirty-three-year old… (laughs)
What do you think our audience might be surprised to know about you?
JM: Wow, probably that I am the Assistant Minister of Music at my church and I attend every Sunday. Even since I’ve known this guy, [I’m there] every Sunday unless we are doing something so important that I can’t make it. That’s a priority to me and I think it keeps some perspective and keeps me grounded some type of way. A little bit of discipline always helps and I’m a praying man. That’s probably it.
What do you say to someone trying to follow in your footsteps?
JM: Get a good education with respect to this business because this is a business. Everybody that was in this originally as an artist, an artist just likes to do his art. He likes to create, or paint, or sing… whatever it is he wants to do. He doesn’t want to worry about percentages, royalties… he doesn’t even think about that. If you are the artist and someone offers you money that you’ve never even heard of before, you’re going to just take it. You’re not going to worry about you have to pay it back or points you’re not even thinking about that. So it’s best to get an education first.
Were you guys able to avoid all of that?
JM: We got burned. But like I said earlier, some things are natural and Kevin is naturally talented at business. So he was able to get us this education in terms of this business and he was able to detect little faults and pitfalls but now, we don’t even have a manager because we don’t need it.
Unless the projects start rolling in…
JM: If the projects start rolling in, then he’ll need an assistant and we can still roll you know? I heard Rob Base say, “Get a lawyer” when that same question was asked of them. Then EZ Rock said “get another lawyer to watch that lawyer…” It’s just better for you to get an education and don’t put everything in others hands. You need to find out for yourself the rules of the game because in any game, you gotta know the rules… you can’t play if you don’t know the rules.
Now to you Kevin… what would our audience be surprised to know about you…
KH: I think they would be surprised to know that I really am not about money. I am really true to what I put forth.
I like to think of you as the underground’s version of Russell Simmons, do you accept that assessment?
KH: Maggie told you that? (laughs)
No… I read Russell’s book [Life and Def] and I can see his influence in how you conduct your business. I wish his philosophy was something more people would pay attention to.
KH: I read his book and actually, it’s not the best book to read but it is interesting. Quincy [Jones]’s book is really out of the stratosphere but Russell is an idol of mine. A lot of what I do as an entrepreneur, [comes from] those ideas, from the larger scope of things. In terms of what I see Russell do at his level, with his musical lifestyle and his genre of music, maybe I will do some of that for us. Some of our goals were to create a lifestyle for our music and I think we were heavily on our way to doing that. I haven’t abandoned that idea but I’ve had to restructure the organization that I am going to do it with. My goals for Shelter were always to build a brand and to have a nightclub or nights be a part of the brand, have a label be a part of the brand. I’m going to do that with another organization, I’ve just got to take my time. Ellyn [Wood] designed a whole clothing line out of the Shelter idea of the lifestyle. We were going to market what we do as a lifestyle and we had a real strong thing. I was even interested in buying one of NY’s legendary retail venues so that we could extend the idea not just inside the club but also have an outreach through retail. Eventually, I wanted to get to the place where we actually bought a store; or developed a record store/fashion shop.
I’ve heard about that for a while, how’s that going?
KH: It’s going great! It’s just that I have to restructure because I can’t use that brand. That brand was built to the point where I could use [it], but…
I’ll take the title and it is very flattering. Russell is an idol to me and after reading his book, he became a mentor. Some of the people that I have chosen to use as an inspiration as I grow and develop… Russell is one and before I even knew him, there was of course Larry and Timmy. Now as I develop as a human being, Mel Cheren is one of those people [I look to]. I think the person that has been the biggest influence on me in becoming a man has been Malcolm X.
Well let’s get into your business about being a businessman… how were you so aware that you needed to put your money in other places? You own real estate, the publishing, the club…
KH: It was just luck, honestly. When we started and got to Motown, we got a huge publishing deal and from there I kind of did [my business] the same way I do the music. I always knew there were good people who needed housing and couldn’t afford to spend a thousand dollars a month on a home. So we developed a company that went in and rehabbed old houses. We’d buy a house for $15-$20,000 and spend about $50,000 rehabbing it. Then we would rent it or help secure mortgages for a decent person with a family who didn’t have as much money. Maybe he was a cop or a fireman and he couldn’t afford to move to the suburbs but he still deserves to have a nice place to live. We are up to about eleven properties in Newark, which makes that business very profitable and we’ve built three companies that we are really proud of. Fiscally, they’ve all done really well. So as a businessman, I think it really starts here: everything I do, I believe in. That’s one of the reasons I am at WEST END. Uncle Mel has been trying to get me to do this for over a year and because of the type of person he is, it makes me want to do this. And like I said, it’s not the kind of thing that I am doing to get paid or for profit – we can sell a million records and all the proceeds will go to his charity [24-Hours For Life]. We’re just going to have a good time and that’s really what it’s all about… if you’re not going to have fun…
But business is hard isn’t it?
KH: Business is not hard, you just have to put out good music. What makes it hard is if you’re not putting out good music.
Any bad days, bad moments, bad people?
KH: Always going to be around. I met the worst people owning a venue. Whew! From the top of the worst people to the bottom of the worst people, I met them all!
What do you say to those who may want to follow in your footsteps?
KH: Oh, I don’t think I have any footsteps to follow in.
That’s not even appropriate to say after we’ve just finished discussing your career for the last twenty years. And if you could want to emulate Russell Simmons, I think you know there are some people out there wishing to emulate you, so speak to them.
KH: Anyone who wants to write and record music, I say become a student. Even if you are going to do business like a nightclub, just be a student, that’s the key to it all. That’s the thing when we got ready to do a venue, I studied Steve Rubell, I went and talked to Peter Gatien, I read Mel’s book several times because it had a lot of conversation in it about Michael Brody. You have to be a student with any of this so if you want to know how to do this, be a student. If I want to do better things in business, I’m going to read Russell’s book, if I want to become a better producer, I’m going to listen to what Quincy Jones says. So you have to be a student, that’s the main thing about this whole thing. Josh and I are constantly in practice with everything, whether it’s Shelter business or WEST END business. The most interesting thing about becoming a label head is we had a meeting during the Billboard dance conference that was with all these people like Tommy Silverman, Eddie O’Loughlin …
The closed door joint?
KH: Yeah… but I was the youngest guy in there and it was nice because they had respect for me as a producer. When I spoke they were nice, but I was just in awe of the knowledge of the record business. I was a student, I was listening to what they were talking about. If you want to be a good DJ, go hear whomever you think are good DJs; listen to what they’re doing… study!
Thank you both for joining us. Now, open up about how this all started and take us inside your back history. Let’s start with Josh, since you are so rarely seen… where are you from?
Josh Milan: I’m originally from Brooklyn, NY. I grew up in the Fort Greene section and went to a school called The Brooklyn Boys Chorus for a while. I think that was my initial introduction to some real music. They came to the public school I [attended] and they held auditions. I was one of the lucky ones that made it. I was singing classical music and though I never studied [it formally], I learned how to appreciate classical music through the Chorus. Once I got there, I had a chance to travel a little bit through singing with the school.
How old are you at this time?
JM: I was about eight or nine… I was in elementary school. It was a serious school and it is synonymous with the Boys Choir of Harlem. Long story short, my family is very musical and as a matter of fact, I’m the weakest link in my family. I have one brother and one sister – I‘m the youngest of three. My father is into gospel quartets, so he sings and my mother is a pianist. It was just inevitable that I would do this. Everybody plays… I’m just the only one who’s done something professional with it. At family reunions, I really don’t get on the keyboards, or sing or anything. Musicality has been in my family forever. As a matter of fact, I have a great-uncle who was a slave and a fiddler… so it’s natural for me to just jump on the keys and do something musical.
If you were touring at that young age, what were you doing by the time you made it to High School?
JM: Well we moved to New Jersey and I went to Orange High. That’s where the whole Blaze thing got started. At the time, I was going to a church where I met the original lead vocalist for Blaze, Chris Herbert. Chris and I got cool, then he introduced me to Kevin. Kevin wanted to be Larry Levan. I’ll say that again, Kevin wanted to BE Larry Levan, but he couldn’t be Larry Levan if he wasn’t remixing records. So Kevin’s idea was, “Let’s make some records so I can remix them.” In doing that, we wound up making these great demos and then got a record deal… we evolved from this idea of Kevin’s, to being producers and songwriters. I was sixteen and we were doing house parties – he was DJing and I jumped on the keys. We were doing it!
How did Kevin even know about Larry Levan, were you partying and going to Paradise Garage at that age?
JM: Well, Kevin used to go the Garage, I was a Church boy, you know. But after meeting him, [he] introduced me to dance/club music. At the time, I was I into R&B, jazz and gospel… but I evolved. (Laughs)
Did you party at any point?
JM: Absolutely! Matter of fact the last [anniversary] show at the Garage was Blaze and that was insane. We were on stage performing at the Garage, but we were too young to be in the club, you know what I’m saying? We weren’t even eighteen yet, but we were Blaze.
Where did the name Blaze come from?
JM: I don’t know, it just kind of happened. At first Blaze was just a real catchy name but it took on a more spiritual meaning for us later. A ‘blaze’ is a fire and fire breaks down everything to its purest form. That’s how we like to think of the music – in its purest form, nothing formulaic.
Let’s uncover another little secret for the record… are you Alexander Hope?
JM: Yeah. I don’t even like saying that, but it’s been too long.
Why is that like an ancient Chinese secret? (Both laugh)
JM: It wasn’t planned. It wasn’t like we were trying to make this mysterious guy, it was just a fun idea. I had done a song and sang on it, but at the time I didn’t do a lot of singing. I just didn’t want that much attention on me. But the guy got so big, I wound up doing more Alexander Hope things. I am Alexander Hope, just to clean the slate on Undaground Archives. You guys get the scoop!
Why were you so shy and humble about being a star?
JM: I started becoming more into self and just getting involved in the wrong things. The Church really kicked in when I got a little older and was losing ground. I had these Church folks over here still praying for me, so I went back. I [need to] have that base and connection like that. [That’s] what the church thing does for me, it keeps me grounded. I learned that it’s better for me to keep a low profile. If I go out to these clubs and people are constantly, you know, people aren’t going to tell you anything negative when they see you, they’ll always say “Oh man, your record is hot!” and I’ll start believing it, ‘I’m hot!’
But don’t you think so when you make the music that you do?
JM: I like to think that it’s nice and I enjoy it but I don’t want to think that I have arrived. Truth be told, dance music is not as successful as we would like it to be…
Right, in part because there are so few artists who can get out there and be artists, with images and stuff.
Josh: So you think that if I became more grand…
People need images and things to hold on to. There’s no harm in identifying positively with artists like yourselves who represent good things.
JM: But will record companies support artists that do dance music? That’s an issue. I don’t want to wear that hat. I like to think that I’m a songwriter, a producer… an artist is the last thing I want to be. But I am forced to be one with Blaze of course. You’ll see us start to wear that hat.
Okay Kevin, we’re at the beginning…
Kevin Hedge: I grew up in Newark, NJ with music basically being the background to whatever was going on in my life in terms of growing up with five women raising me. I didn’t have any men around. They used music for celebration purposes, for healing purposes or just for social purposes – music always seemed to play a role. One of the most influential ladies in my life was named Ernestine Samuels – she was my great-aunt. She raised my father and throughout the beginning part of my life, she raised me. She loved parties and she used to throw some really nice ones. There was always music around – the music of MOTOWN, STAX, early ATLANTIC [RECORDS]… all of those great artists and producers from that time. As a young child, I realized that if you were the person controlling the music, you were the guy that made people dance and have a good time. Early on in my life… I must have been about seven, eight, nine, I used to play the records at the parties. I got used to knowing what were the hip records of the time and when you played those records, people danced. I remember when Aretha Franklin’s “RESPECT” came out, the Jackson Five and “Dancing Machine”… even being introduced to older music like Jackie Wilson, Arthur Prysock and all those people, so the love of music just came about out of the love of seeing people happy.
So, you had an early introduction to ‘performing’ like Josh did.
KH: I never saw myself as a performer, or an artist or anything like that. Since I loved music, my mother bought me a little stereo system and from there I started to buy my own records – 45’s from the local record store.
Were you using your allowance?
KH: Lunch money. If you buy a single every day, you develop quite a collection after a while. I was in the sixth grade and at an assembly, where a guy from my neighborhood named Terrance Cooper was DJing. He was controlling the crowd and playing, I’ll never forget it, he was playing GQ’s “Disco Nights” and that was the hit song for the time – everybody was lovin’ that song! He kept running back that part “Rock, Freak” and just to see him do that and to see the crowd get more and more excited, that was really the start of me wanting to know what that was about. Then from there, I just developed an interest and then a passion. I got introduced to the turntables through a friend of mine named Melvin Hargrove and ultimately, my mother ended up buying me turntables at Christmas and that kind of started the whole thing. As I went on to High School, the phenomenon of mobile DJing had come out of the disco scene and into street culture as well.
Now we’re up to HS, Blaze is hooked up and as Josh says, you wanted to be Larry… how and when did you start partying to even hear Larry at this age? What were those early experiences like?
KH: I was lucky enough to be hustled into the Garage at about the age of 17 in ’84 or ‘85. But given the fact that we were young kids and the music scene was heavily based around disco music, the Garage was already a very luminous part of your life before you went there because your older siblings went to this place and you were waiting your turn, so to speak. When I finally got to go, I was overwhelmed by the energy and the atmosphere. Then again, watching Larry entertain and control the crowd… seeing people have a good time, that was what got me. What intrigued me also about Larry is he seemed to have star-status attached to his DJing. Most of the mobile DJs that we knew were more like regular guys. I never got the chance to go back [after the first time] until I was like, nineteen. But that night made a big impact.
Other than that, I was smuggled into Zanzibar a couple of times where I was able to witness Larry Patterson and Tony Humphries do the same thing - control the crowd and make people have a good time. At that time, I was mostly influenced by the music that was out and in 1986, of course Timmy [Regisford] started on the radio and [along with] others before him like Shep Pettibone, Jonathan Ferris and M&M. Outside of Shep Pettibone, Timmy seemed to make the most impact on the radio because he was so influenced by Larry. He kind of brought the Garage to the radio and I remember during that time, it was prime time – meaning it was at a time when you could hear it, not at a time when people were asleep! (Laughs)
I’m going to digress a little bit … [in reference to] the Garage, a lot of people always want to compare what we do today with the Shelter to the Garage then, but if you really look at what was happening, a lot of the music that Larry was playing at the club was music that was in regular rotation on the radio every day. So in essence, the Garage was a commercial club under the guise of the underground. If you listen to the song by Gayle Adams called “Stretching Out” or her first song “Love is a Lifesaver”, those were in random rotation on WBLS and WKTU at the time. People were familiar with the music they were going to hear at the club anyway, that’s why it was an easier sell.
But isn’t it also a case of which came first, the chicken or the egg because it’s been said that Frankie Crocker would be in the club, hear what Larry was breaking, then he would bring it back to the station and play it.
KH: I think that came afterwards. I think that disco was big and as disco began to go underground and the music of disco started to become more soulful – more R&B, Larry fed into that which ultimately fed back to ‘BLS. I think that Larry was heavily influenced by and was playing records that were definitely already being played on the radio. When you listen to late seventies early eighties stuff on PRELUDE [RECORDS], it didn’t sound like the disco on CASABLANCA [RECORDS]. Listen to the early WEST END RECORDS stuff, it didn’t sound like the disco of Casablanca, it sounded soulful. Some of [Larry’s] records were a cross, a give and a take. We didn’t go to the Garage but would you say that McFadden & Whitehead’s “Ain’t no Stopping Us Now” or “Good Times” by Chic started in the Garage? Those records were probably broken at radio at some point, transferred into the clubs and then back to radio.
Let’s skip ahead to the first record you did... what was it?
KH: It was a record called “Yearning”. We actually did that record without Josh, he came along later on.
JM: Yeah. I forgot that one.
KH: “Yearning” was a record that came out in 1985… it was crazy. Chris’ father helped to finance that record. He loaned us the money to go in the studio and record it. We were actually recording it at my house off of cassettes and a reel-to-reel, back and forth. It was $1200 – which seemed like the world to us. God Bless him, he passed a few years back.
How did you know what to do in the studio?
KH: Well, I had some prior experience in the studio. Before we actually started making records, I volunteered to learn to engineer at a little four-track recording studio. In exchange for me engineering sessions for the owner, he would give us studio time. By me becoming an engineer, that made me overall a better producer because I understood all the aspects of producing beyond just singing… I understood the technical side of it. I worked as a recording engineer from like 1984 through 1986 I believe. I started on a four-track system, moved to an eight-track, then to a sixteen. Early in our career, we had the opportunity to work with Third World as a recording engineer and a mixer. We also did Grandmaster Flash and you can see my name on those records, which is really weird. That was long ago… we were like eighteen, nineteen years old.
That’s amazing and how did you know you could do it?
KH: We didn’t know, we just…
JM: It was just trial and error. I think when you’re born to do something, it’s natural – you just do it. People like this guy are a natural leader. People ask me, “How do you know how to play?” I say, ‘sit there and keep doing it and you’ll get better at what you’re doing.’
KH: I don’t know… it just seemed like the excitement of making people happy was the main thing that I took from Larry, Tony, Terrance, Tee Scott, Timmy, Frankie Knuckles… all of those guys I think inspired the idea that you can make people excited about being alive.
JM: That’s always been a motivating factor for what we do – making people feel good about themselves. Inspirational music has always been our thing.
What were those first projects and deals like?
KH: The first deal was at QUARK RECORDS.
Was that Curtis Urbina?
KH: Yeah, Curtis Urbina. “What You Gonna Do For Love” was the first release.
Dang, that got big radio play, and you guys were how old?
KH: [I was] nineteen and Josh was sixteen.
JM: You remember you called me?
JM: [Yelling] “We got a deal!” I hung up the phone I didn’t know who this joker was yelling and I didn’t hear what he said. I’m like… it was eerie.
As they near their twentieth anniversary of making great music, prolific songwriters/producers Blaze – also known as Kevin Hedge & Josh Milan (above), are finally ready to be of all things, artists. Strange when you consider that these guys were on tour with Bobby Brown (yes, MR Whitney Houston) while they were still teens, have produced a number of radio-friendly classics straight out the box and through their publishing deal with MOTOWN, have sold millions of pop records. All while commanding so much street cred among their underground fans that they won four of the five UA.com CHOICE Awards they were nominated for in 2001. To say THANKs to YOU for naming them your CHOICE for Producer/Remixer/Artist/Album of the Year, they go deep in this exclusive interview. Read on as they reveal how Larry Levan inspired the creation of this influential production duo, who Alexander Hope really is, what you would be surprised to know about them both and so much more. In a free-range interview experienced at the home where house was built – Mel Cheren’s private quarters at his Chelsea hotel Colonial House Inn and WEST END offices, Blaze got comfy with homemade food, SPIRITUALLY SPEAKING playing in the background and Kevin’s bare feet along with Josh’s quick-wit spinning the tale. Our present to you – Blaze in their own words…