If J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League, who borrowed their name from DC Comics, had a super power, it’d be bringing hip-hop production to the big screen. Comprised of Erik “Rook” Ortiz and Kevin “Colione” Crowe (and formerly Kenneth “Barto” Bartolomei), the GRAMMY-winning, Florida-based outfit have spent the last decade-plus crafting lush, cinematic soundscapes that feel more like movie scores than simply beats.
Revered for their practice of meticulously reimagining—and in some cases, flawlessly recreating—samples (mainly to avoid being stung by legal fees), J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League have collaborated with everyone from Lil Wayne and Nas to Young Jeezy and Rick Ross, whose flagship “Maybach Music” series is defined by Rook and Colione’s luxurious textures.
For the latest installment of Beat Break, we jumped on Skype with Rook to get the stories behind five of J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League’s biggest songs.
Young Jeezy — “Bury Me a G” (2006)
“I think Colione found the sample and he started doing the drums and stuff. He came to me with the track and I was like, ‘That shit is hard, bro.’ So we finished it up together and added some instruments and some vocals on top. Jeezy made it into a skit kinda thing in the beginning. He got homie from The Wire in the video and shit. We were mixing the record and he was telling us what he was about to do—and he damn sure did it.
“He wanted it to be the single, but the label wanted another record. Of course, that excites us as producers. But being objective, I was like, ‘This is a gritty hip-hop song. I’m not sure how it would be perceived as a single this early in his career.’ I know he had some shit in the stash with Timbaland and Scott Storch that didn’t make the album, but it was jammin'.
“The first album [Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101], we were in the studio with him a lot. The second album [The Inspiration], we weren’t in the studio with him a lot because he was going through health issues with his throat. He had throat surgery and shit. So the second album we were sending beats to him; he was still touring and we were doing our thing. We were really busy with 2 Pistols stuff at the time.
“[The inspiration behind ‘Bury Me a G’] was just making good music. Kinda doing stuff that people weren’t doing—in the mainstream, anyway. That was our thing: we wanted to show people that even though we’re from the South, we know how to get down [laughs].
“Our managers at the time, they linked up with Young Jeezy’s manager at the time, the now infamous Coach K. He played our stuff for Jeezy, he loved it and did some songs over it. We drove up to Atlanta, met Jeezy for the first time and it was quite an experience [laughs]. I’ve been around rappers and artists a long time, but Jeezy was special.
“Imagine what a gangsta rapper is and what they do when they walk in the door. The first time you meet him is on some super gangsta shit. You’re like, ‘Alright, this motherfucker’s the real deal.’ Jeezy is smart as shit, too. I don’t think he gets enough credit for how intelligent he is in regards to business and formulating his own sound.
“His engineer actually played his music for us before he got there and he was rapping really, really slow. I was like, ‘Yo, he’s saying some shit, I feel him, but I don’t know about how slow he’s rapping.’ But then he walked in, introduced himself and he performed the records for us while he was playing them. And I was like, ‘Yo, this dude is going to be a fucking star. He’s going to change the game.’ And he did, in my opinion.”
Rick Ross — “Maybach Music” ft. JAY-Z (2008)
“I did the skeleton for the track and it had a sample in it. Of course, we added the live instruments on top of the sample. We always had this special little folder for JAY-Z [laughs]. We had that beat in the stash for maybe a couple of months and then Rick Ross—we didn’t work on his first album, but we’ve known him and been working with him since before the first album. Before he was signed, actually. We didn’t do anything on his first album because we were really busy working with Jeezy and Mary J. Blige and everything.
“The second album came back around and I think he was looking for a sound. He came to our crib in Tallahassee at the time, in the hood. He came through with his manager and a couple of homies. At this time, he’s already had hit records and is a famous rapper. So him coming to a suspicious little place is kinda weird [laughs]. He’s chilling, smoking, drinking, whatever. We play him the beat—it was called ‘Never Die’—and he was just smoking and he was silent. And then he looks at us like, ‘Yo…I’ma call this 'Maybach Music'…and I’ma put JAY-Z on this.' We were like, ‘Oh shit, JAY-Z? Alright!’ [Laughs]
“The album had to be turned in and we were still waiting on the JAY-Z verse. Ross, the whole time, was like, ‘We gonna get it, we gonna get it.’ Shakir Stewart [the late Def Jam executive] was like, ‘Yo, we working on it.’ So we’re mixing ‘Maybach Music’—I’m talking about we are at the final mixing stage with Leslie Brathwaite at Patchwerk [Studios] and there’s still no JAY-Z verse. At the last, last, last minute, Leslie gets a phone call: ‘Yo, about to send you the vocals.’ And we were like, ‘God damn! Yes! Finally!’
“So we finally got this shit and we listened to it and we were like, ‘God damn! This is one of Jay’s hardest verses.’ We had the bottles ready so we were celebrating, we were drinking, we were toasting! That’s a big monument to a producer, to work with JAY-Z. He gave Ross a verse and part of a hook. He gave him the part with the girl saying, ‘What is this? Maybach Music.’ It exceeded expectations, to say the least.
“Oh, I forgot to tell you this: we had to make five revisions of that sample. We were going back with Sony ATV 'cause they own The Beatles' publishing [Ed. Note: The song sampled in ‘Maybach Music’ is a Beatles cover]. We had to take out the sample and recreate the song but change it just enough. To give Sony ATV and Paul McCartney and them credit, they let us use it and they were cool with it. They were like, ‘You guys worked so hard on it and changed it up so much that we good now.’ I got five versions of that shit on my fucking computer.
“That was one of the very first songs [where we recreated the sample]. I remember Stevie J told us early on to try to reimagine the samples: if they got a piano, use a bell, change the notes up, whatever. The first few times that we did placements and they were taking out all the fucking publishing, we were like, ‘Yo, we gotta take these motherfucking samples out and reimagine them.’ Most of the time we’ll do it before the artist hears it so if they like it, they won’t get attached to the sample.
“We knew the song was special, but I didn’t know [Ross] was going to name his label Maybach Music. It makes sense, you know. He told us and we were like, ‘Yo, that’s crazy.’ He has that vision.”
Rick Ross — “Maybach Music II” ft. Kanye West, Lil Wayne & T-Pain (2009)
“Ross is a visionary. He came to us and was like, ‘Yo, I wanna do a ‘Maybach Music 2.’ I’m gonna put Kanye, Lil Wayne and T-Pain on it.’ At the time, that’s Tha Carter III Lil Wayne. He’s the greatest rapper alive, you know what I’m saying? And then you had Graduation Kanye, so it’s like, ‘God damn! How are we gonna top the first one?’
“We kinda didn’t think about it for a little bit. It took us a while because we were just brainstorming. Colione, one day, he was like, ‘Yo, check this out.’ He played this sample by Dexter Wansel and I was like, ‘Oh shit!’ It was just a dope sample that he thought we should use; we weren’t even thinking about ‘Maybach Music 2.’ But as soon as I heard it, the whole beat came into my brain. Like, ‘Oh shit! That’s fucking ‘Maybach Music 2.’
“I got the sample and I did the skeleton. It was just the sample, a kick and a snare. Then I was like, ‘You know what? I want the kick and the snare to sound similar to the first [‘Maybach Music’], but all the hi-hats and percussion, I want that live.’ Everything was programmed in the first one.
“Since we knew who was going to be on the record, we were like, ‘Okay, let’s make Kanye’s verse real synth-heavy ’cause that was Graduation Kanye.’ For Lil Wayne, we did a lot of horns, strings—it was real triumphant. He just did a million sales in a week so we’re like, ‘Yo, let’s make his verse some champion shit ’cause he’s the champ right now!’ And for Ross, we took a Southern gospel route ’cause that was his thing with ‘Hustlin’ and all that.
“Everybody did their verses on time. A writer did a reference of the hook, but T-Pain took maybe the first couple of words and changed the rest completely; he did his T-Pain thing to it. We actually went over to his house to listen to the hook. He was our neighbor at the time. So we heard it and we were like, ‘Yo, that shit is hard.’ [Ross] loved it, too. You know, you don’t really get a big reaction out of Ross; he just gives you that look.
“We was laughing like a motherfucker at [Kanye’s “You hit the strip club and girls turn extra dyke” line] [laughs]. I guess the only thing I would’ve changed about that song is I kinda wish we made it a little faster. I mean, DJ’s can make that shit faster if they wanted to. Other than that, I fucking love that song. Kanye did his thing, Wayne did his thing, it was everything that you wanted it to be. And a lot of people say that’s their favorite one.”
Rick Ross — “Aston Martin Music” ft. Drake & Chrisette Michele (2010)
“Man, the hardest part about making that beat was creating a sound. But even then, you just go through a trance and start experimenting. I think the main inspiration for that was Prince and old-school R&B like Cherrelle and The Whispers. Even Ice Cube “You Know How We Do It” and “It Was a Good Day.” Like, as soon as the song comes on, you know exactly what the fuck it is.
“We didn’t do the song specifically for Ross. A few other people made songs to it. Actually, I sent it to Drake before I sent it to Ross. Ross did the song with him and Chrisette Michele, and DJ Khaled sent it to Drake. Then when Drake got it, he text me and was like, ‘Yo! Why didn’t you send me this beat?!’ I was like, ‘My man, that was in the first set of beats I sent you’ [laughs]. He got on it and did his thing, though.
“When we first heard it, Colione was like, ‘Yo, this is a smash.’ And Ross was like, ‘This gonna be number one.’ He wasn’t lying! It was number one for like 18 weeks or some shit [Ed. Note: On Billboard’s Hot Rap Songs chart]. But when I first heard it, I was like, ‘Hmmm.’ When I hear songs, I try to find what’s wrong with it first and how to fix it. I was like, ‘Damn, this song’s got two eight-bar verses and two long-ass hooks. How the fuck is this going to fit into the radio format?’ But what the fuck do I know? [Laughs]
“It was fucking amazing, man. We’re still reaping the benefits now. When you’re going through it, you kinda don’t realize it because you’re so busy working. It’s just about maintaining and keeping them coming—and that’s what we did. We were like, ‘We gotta take advantage of this shit.’”
Jay Rock — “Hood Gone Love It” ft. Kendrick Lamar (2011)
Sample: Pointer Sisters "Easy Days" (Recreated by J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League)
“That was an old beat—I’m talking about when me and the guys first got together. And that sample came off of vinyl. It was Pointer Sisters. Isaac Hayes wrote it. How I chopped it—man, sometimes when you chop shit you just be in the zone. I remember saying, ‘Yo, I want all live claps.’ So we recorded a bunch of claps and live percussion. We added bass and added strings and all that.
“So when it’s time to get on the album, we had to take the sample out. They didn’t want us to reimagine it; they wanted it to sound exactly like the sample. So we had to replay the original sample to a tee. And we had to make it sound like it was off our shitty vinyl player. So when you hear the song, that is not a sample.
“Yo, two days ago, I pulled up that session and I’m still amazed by that. I’m like, ‘How the fuck did we do this shit?’ [Laughs]. It’s hard to put your head back in that space, but we did it and I think it’s because we were determined to be one of the greats. It only took us maybe a day and a half; by that time, we had already done ‘Maybach Music’ and all that, so we were like, ‘Fuck it! We know how to do this.’
“I was excited [about ‘Hood Gone Love It’ being in Grand Theft Auto V] because I’m a fucking gamer. When I’m playing it and that shit comes on, I’m like, ‘Yo, that’s cool as fuck’ [laughs].
“What’s funny is that, a few years later, we were in a studio in Atlanta. I forgot what event it was but it’s us, Tha Bizness, Mike WiLL [Made-It], Metro Boomin, Future, Kendrick Lamar and ScHoolboy Q. Dawg, we were all hanging out, chilling, playing music. And at this time, [Kendrick] is fucking huge so I’m not sure if he remembers. But [Kendrick] came up to me like, ‘Look man, I appreciate everything that you’ve done for us. I was a young little n*gga when you met me and you was always cool.’ He remembered the conversation we had when I first met him. I was like, ‘Damn. This motherfucker Kendrick, man. He a good guy.’
“It was easy, really fucking easy doing business with [TDE]. Usually, you gotta go through all these hoops to get paid, but it was really easy working with them and they respected our craft. We were one of the few big producers at the time who was fucking with them ‘cause, you know, they have in-house guys. We’ve always liked their artists: Jay Rock, Kendrick, ScHoolboy, Ab-Soul—all those guys, man. They’re dope. Hopefully, we’ll be on a Kendrick or Jay Rock album soon.”