Producer’s Corner: Hi-Tek (HipHopDX 11/30/2009)


by WILLIAM E. KETCHUM III

If producers were basketball players, Hi-Tek would be Robert Horry. Even if he doesn’t sell the most jerseys or get the endorsement deals as the stars do, his track record is undeniable: whether he’s working in hip-hop purist territory (Talib Kweli, Mos Def) or commercially viable circles (G-Unit, Snoop Dogg), Tek keeps winning. Getting his start in the 90s with then-indie powerhouse Rawkus Records, the Cincinnatti native has evolved into one of the industry’s only true crossover producers, bringing in bread both as an in-house producer for Interscope and as the mind behind Hi-Teknology 2: The Chip, Babygrande Records’ highest-selling disc. In an interview with HipHopDX, Hi-Tek talks about technique, staying low-key and working with Talib Kweli.

HipHopDX: What kind of direction did you go in with the new album, compared to the last?

Hi-Tek: I think this album is more street. I definitely wanted to do that and get back to where I was raised. I don’t really get the chance to do that, except on like a 50 [Cent] album, or [Lloyd) Banks, or any of street-oriented albums that I produce for. … I still kept it Hi-Tek, I just wanted to show that side of me. … Me and Kweli are about to get into this Reflection Eternal album, so I wanted to give that a chance to give back to the streets, because that’s where I was born and raised. That’s where I came up, in the hood in Cincinnati. I just wanted to get a chance to show that cats from the hood have talent too, and are artistic too, and at the same time, I wanted to show that side of me through my music. It’s still Hi-Tek. I think this album is more well-rounded.

HipHopDX: “My Piano” is a real emotional song. How did it happen?

Hi-Tek: I made the beat, came up with the concept, Dion wrote the hook. We actually both wrote the hook, it’s like a Spanish sample up under him singing, but we basically changed the words. Actually, yeah, Dion came up with the concept of “My Piano,” and I was basically giving him the vibe on what I wanted the song to be about. I think it’s like putting a puzzle together, man: I made the beat, he came up with the hook, and after that it was a wrap. We just had to write the raps after that.

HipHopDX: One thing about your production, especially with this album, is that it’s real emotional. With lyrics, it can be easier to show those emotions, because someone can just say them. How difficult is it to capture those emotions through your beats?

Hi-Tek: When you hear an album from me, you’re basically hearing a lot of music over time. Some beats I kept because I knew it was special, and I always wanted to do something with it until it came the time where I had a budget and a whole setup for me to actually put this music out. It’s not hard for me. Every beat I put emotion into, I don’t care what style it is. It’s all emotion, and it comes from the heart.

HipHopDX: The way your beats hit me a lot of the time, it’s not like, “This beat is crazy.” But rather, “This beat fits the song perfectly.” How are you able to get on the same page with so many artists like that and make them fit that well for each one?

Hi-Tek: That’s what a great producer does, and that’s what I like to do. I like to make albums, not just here today, gone tomorrow music. Making a top to bottom album is like painting a picture. Rather than be that song where you’re like, “Oh that’s crazy,” it’s the number one single or this and that, I think that when you hear my music, you’re hearing it as a whole. When you listen to the album, you’re listening to it as a whole, and you basically judge it based on that fact.

HipHopDX: You’ve always stayed out of the spotlight. Even with your beats, they accent the artist more than they accent your actual production. Have you always been reserved like that, or did you decide to take that approach one day?

Hi-Tek: I think that me being from small city created that, and at the same time, I’m not a spotlight type of person. I’m real humble. I just like longevity. I think we live life real fast…and I just like to take my time. Take my time out for family. I just like to live a regular life, and just my music in between. The music business, I try not to let it control me, and I just try to live my life. I try to enjoy making music, because sometimes when you’re moving too fast and you get caught up in the industry, you begin to not like making music. That’s one thing I never wanted to lose, I always wanted to enjoy making music. That’s just my way of approaching to accomplish that, by staying low key and staying in the studio.

HipHopDX: Like we talked about a few minutes ago, you’ve got versatility that allows you to work with a lot of different artists. Who have you worked with to where initially, it was difficult to get on the same page?

Hi-Tek: I would say Kweli. It really wasn’t too much of the same page. I think we both had the same drive, but we come from two different stations, two different backgrounds. Just musically, I think we had the same direction, but it was all about putting that chemistry together. When the Reflection Eternal album came out, it was really like three years of hard work in us really creating a chemistry. And even then, we argued. When we finally wrapped the album up, we still had our differences, that’s why we never really made another album, because we had so many differences. That comes from having so many different visions in music, but at the same time, we had the same vision. We had the same drive. We’re both talented within ourselves. I think Kweli brings just as much to the beats as I bring to the raps, it was just us working together and different personalities. I’d say that’s the best project I ever did, and the person I think I accomplished the most with, but at the same time, we’re different.

HipHopDX: What’s the next Reflection Eternal album sounding like so far?

Hi-Tek: Right now we’re in the early stages, we don’t have that much recorded. I have some ideas, I’m pretty sure he has ideas. We’re just trying to clear up the schedule so we can get really into it.

HipHopDX: Hi-Teknology 2, like this new album, was on Babygrande. The last one had everyone from Nas, to Game, to Ghostface Killah, to Slim Thug. How does an indie afford to get that many people on the budget for one album? Or do they—

Hi-Tek: They don’t. I get that solely through relationships. With all these artists, I think respect me musically, and I respect them as an artist, and I think when I reach out, they’d be more than willing to get down with what I’m doing. Sometimes they trade a beat for a verse, sometimes that’s how it goes. Most of the time that’s how it goes, and that’s how I got the albums done. I really didn’t have much of a budget to really pay any artists.

HipHopDX: Most of this album is with lesser-known artists. I found that interesting, regarding your relationship with Interscope. What made you take this approach?

Hi-Tek: Well it was two things. One, I wanted to go back to the original blueprint of what I usually do, and that’s what I’ve done my whole career, is work with fresh artists and make them sound like these hit-making artists, and just try to help them project what they’re trying to do as an artist. I wanted to reach back and give the new cats a chance, and at the same time, just make good music, fresh music. I don’t think people are tired of hearing the same old people, but I think they want to hear something fresh. I think that’s the best way to do it, give these new artists a chance.

At the same time, even though I had all those artists from Interscope, I had problems with clearances. My former management kind of messed that all up, they didn’t really get the clearances, so we had issues with Interscope with that. I didn’t really want to go that route and have a bunch of clearance issues with this album. So I used it to my advantage. It basically inspired me to work harder for this album, and I think it made it a better album.

HipHopDX: One of the more odd collaborations that I’ve seen you do is working with Kurupt. You guys seem like really different artists, but on the last two Hi-Teknology’s, you guys make heaters. What’s it like working with him?

Hi-Tek: Kurupt is the man! I don’t think people are sleeping on him, but I think Kurupt didn’t really have that producer, except Dre, to really get with him and project his talent. I think he’s one of the most intelligent rappers that ever came on the scene, and when we talk, we vibe like we’ve known each other for years.

HipHopDX: With the last album, you were Babygrande’s highest selling artist ever. And like you said, an indie label doesn’t have bigger budgets. Do you ever intend on leaving?

Hi-Tek: Yeah. … I think (Babygrande) could’ve done better with the last album, as far as the promotion and the caliber of music I gave them. I’m on an indie label, but I’m giving them major records, and I don’t think they really did it any justice. This is my opinion: I think the sales came solely from the fan base that I already had. I think that with a major push, it could’ve done way better. But that’s what you get from an indie. But at the end of the day, I’m always going to put 100 percent effort into my music, whether it’s independent or not. I never look at it [as] whether it’s independent, because you can’t make independent music. At the end of the day, people are going to hear this music and judge it for what it is.

HipHopDX: Do you have an ideal situation?

Hi-Tek: I’m looking forward to doing my own label with a major. Someplace where I can do what I always have done, and what I can continue doing. That’s the upside of signing with Babygrande or an independent, you can pretty much really do what you want to do. I think my talents don’t really pigeonhole me to say, “If you want to make the decision to sign to an independent label, you have to make that independent sound.” I think [Babygrande] gave me a chance to really do what I want to do, and to really prove to the majors, once again, “OK, we’re sleeping on him, let’s see give this guy a deal.”

Same thing I did with Rawkus. When I did my first Hi-Teknology, my number one record was a record that I did with a local artist from Cincinnati, and it was an R&B record, something that I had never done. They didn’t believe in the record, and I knew what I was doing. It took for the people to tell them that it was hot, and for the record to go number one, then the majors woke up. Then when I went to the majors, it was a nightmare, because they wanted me to do what everybody else was doing. So I had to go back to a Babygrande, to do it all over again. I learned from my mistakes, so next time I walk into a major [label] situation, I get all creativity.

HipHopDX: You had a really good transition between the “conscious” crowd and working with more mainstream artists. Do you feel any stigma fan-wise from that?

Hi-Tek: Yeah, I definitely think so, a little bit. I think the industry…I think when Kanye came out, he really brought the game back together. I think people expected him to do what the rest of Roc-A-Fella was doing, and a lot of cats were expecting him [to appease to] the Roc-A-Fella fan base. I think he took what me and Kweli and Mos were doing, and mixed it with the street shit that Jay and them was doing. So I think he gave a cat like me, who was doing albums like that before Kanye, another chance to prove that. It could look like a far jump, when you look at what I do with Kweli and then I do a 50 Cent record, but I think Kanye brought that back together to where people understand it now. Good music is good music, and everybody has their own way of expression over that music. My main thing is working with artists that love music, and I think every artist that I work with loves music, and I love everything about what they do, whether it’s Kweli or 50 or Snoop, I look at them all the same way. I think it may take the fans a while to understand exactly what I’m doing, and that’s why I try to give them a variety. Like with all the Hi-Teknology’s that I did, I try to do different things and show my versatility.

HipHopDX: You’ve put your son [who’s 10 years old] on your albums as well. When’s the Hi-Tek and Lil Tone album dropping?

Hi-Tek: [laughs] It’s coming soon, man. He’s working on things right now, I’ve got him in training right now. He loves music, he’s been in the studio since he was born. I let him get his chops up…me, as his father, I’m just trying to give him inspiration through putting him on my albums so when he gets to the point that he really can concentrating on his music, he can look back and get inspired by that. Like, “I was already doing that,” and fall in love with doing that. I’d never force him to do that, but he already loves it, man. Everything he’s done on my projects is strictly sincere. So that album is dropping in 2015.

[via HipHopDX]