Never one to side step in anything he turns his hand to, it is understandable why we have waited 10 years for Hi-Tek and lyrical partner Talib Kweli to bestow another gem upon us. Admittedly, Tek was the one procrastinating on getting into the studio to focus on the impeding Reflection Eternal album, due in February. But what is one mans loss can be quickly identified as another’s gain. Tony Cottrell is just not a man to spread himself thin. He puts his all into making classics and multi tasking when it comes to satiating fans, is just not how he likes to do things.
Addressing the mishandling of what many critics and fans hailed as “the best indie project of 2006” while giving Rawkus Records all their props for their hands-on approach, Hi-Tek knows what has to be done in today’s music environment. Being able to throw a lifeline to those who are deemed the next generation is well within his capabilities, as is the unique art of reinvention. This Cincinnati native knows what is takes to remain relevant. He has learned from the best after all.
Marching to the beat of a new drum over at Warner with their follow up to Train of Thought, Reflection Eternal has prepped and preened to ensure listener satisfaction is at an all time high. Focusing on the music is the only thing that matters to this Aftermath affiliate. Because ay the end of a long night in the studio, when all is said and done, his input simply comes from the heart.
HipHopDX: How does this Reflection Eternal album compare to the first one?
Hi-Tek: I would say it compares in a way that it shows our experience and how we have grown since we did [Train Of Thought]. I wouldn’t try to say it is better or it’s [worse] than the first one, but we definitely in a different space. We haven’t slacked off with any skills, but it is 10 years later and we are working on an album together. My production has broadened, as have [Talib Kweli‘s] mic skills and lyrics. However, I wouldn’t compare it to the hunger on the first album, but the hunger is still there.
DX: Was it easy for you and him to make this album happen, as there was various rumors saying it might not happen?
Hi-Tek: It definitely wasn’t easy to go ahead with it and it may have been more on my part because I am not a touring artist. Talib, he tours 200 shows a year and I’m in the studio a lot. And on the flip-side, my ear has been trained so I am able to produce for a whole lot of other artists. I have been working with all these Interscope acts and then when it comes to something like Reflection Eternal, I have to go in and put down everything, to get back on that Kweli shit. A lot of the joints we have worked on and made together since we made the first Reflection Eternal have just been a case of me doing me and him doing him, not in Reflection Eternal mode the whole way. But when we want to go in and give back to the fans, we really have to go in and think about what we are giving to the people, and make sure we are relevant for the times.
DX: Did being on the Rock The Bells bill encourage recording?
Hi-Tek: It definitely did and it was good to be back in that mindset. The tour was long enough to feel like it was going back into training.
Hi-Tek: [Laughs] Yeah, because with anyone else I am working with, I am not really in artist mode. I am not forced to go on the road, but with Reflection Eternal, you have to be there as it is a group thing. The tour inspired a lot of the songs we have and we needed that to boost energy.
DX: Had you actually finished recording when hitting the road?
Hi-Tek: Well, we had about 10 rough drafts which is basically half an album before we went out.
DX: How close to completion are you now?
Hi-Tek: Well, I would say about 80%. There are songs to mix and five to be completed and then like another five we are deciding on whether to use or not.
DX: The stuff that doesn’t make the cut, will you use it for something else?
Hi-Tek: You know what? I am not a believer in putting out weak songs; I like to make everything impressive. I don’t like putting out songs that aren’t that way. The times will tell what the song is, sometimes a song is ahead of its time – you may use it for the next album. It is weird like that with music; the way things align with the stars and the moon. [Laughs]
DX: How has working with Warner compared to working with Rawkus like you guys did on the first album?
Hi-Tek: Well I’ve pretty much taken control of it myself. I mean as of recently and quite literally, only a few weeks ago, have I really got some type of concern from the boss over there at Warner. You know they want the album done by a certain date, but I wasn’t getting that at first when we signed. With Rawkus, it was all more in house and then there was no super deadline, even though they did put a deadline out, you know what I mean? Warner haven’t been on my back like that, but when they did decide to get on my back they did say I had to turn the album in within a week, but how do I do that when it is the first time I have talked to them? It is a lot different, you know but from the first time I started working with major labels it always taught me to appreciate Rawkus.
DX: Going from the environment you had at Rawkus to what you have now at most labels, does this prove the possible inadequacies major labels face when it comes down to something as trivial as day to day communication?
Hi-Tek: Yeah, I mean it is more corporate, as some folks just go there to do a job. You have to be out there pushing yourself and having already sold a couple of thousand on your own, you’re not on their radar like that. When you are a real artist or a real producer out there making real music, it is hard for them to understand our process as to what goes into making these classics. All they are looking at is the numbers at the end of the day: “what are you making and what are you spending?” I understand that too, as me and Kweli are in it to make money, but at the same time to bring it back. The tour was good, but at the same time it was bad. It was good because we needed that insight in traveling and seeing where the world was at musically, but at the same time we needed to turn in an album, so it did stagnate the process of the album.
DX: You and I have talked about this before, the term “backpacker” that you have been considered before is a tag you would rather stay away from, can you explain why that is?
Hi-Tek: [Laughs] Well my thing is that I always hated the term “backpacker” and this is my reason. I am from Cincinnati, born and raised but I liked all types of Hip Hop and I did actually cater more towards New York Hip Hop as that is where it started and I was a big lover of the effort that they put into the music. But the term backpacker came when folks was getting lazy on their music. You got people who are our so-called Hip Hop peers who want to tell you how to make your music better, “be a Hip-Hopper.” I’ve been “Hip Hop,” even if I produce for 50 Cent, that is still Hip Hop. It came from the street and sometimes these folks who are Hip Hop purists forget that and get caught up in not listening to music that mentions guns or some street rap. They don’t want to hear about the ghetto or the hood in a track over a Hi-Tek beat.
I grew up in the hood and had a rough little life. I mean, I am not locked up and I didn’t end up dead, but it didn’t stop me from doing my music. To me, the term backpacker bothered me as how can you put a stamp on somebody who makes music from the heart? Really, I think a lot of people gave the ‘back-pack stamp’ to people who you can’t necessarily understand what they were rapping about. The thing is though you have the fake Hip Hop purists and fake street rappers and to me it is the fake purists that should be called backpackers and well the fake street rappers…I don’t have name for them just yet. [Laughs] Just because you from the street and you rap about it, doesn’t mean you’re not Hip Hop, I just don’t get the term backpacker. If it’s good, it’s good, and that is it.
DX: Will we see a Hi-Teknology IV?
Hi-Tek: [I’m] not really interested in that right now. But to answer the question, it will happen some day.
DX: Through Babygrande?
Hi-Tek: Most definitely not. That’s just a perfect example of people not knowing what this music shit is about and who are in it just to make money. Hi-Teknology 2 was a prime example of a classic album, which just went down the drain as no one heard it. That’s not my fault; that is the label’s job to make sure people heard it. I get out and do every interview and all the press, but it was more a case of when they recouped, they were cool with that and it went no further. I had nine Interscope artists on that album and the only reason I got that was because of my relationship with [Dr.] Dre and Interscope. A lot of people wouldn’t be able to get that, so why not capitalize off that relationship? That was a dope album and Hi-Teknology 3 was just a case of getting the album done and fulfilling my contract. There were classics on [volume 2] waiting in the can to be released; it was a great independent album.
DX: Do you think labels don’t want to familiarize themselves with their roster nowadays? You know, to see what they can pull out of the bag when it comes to albums?
Hi-Tek: That is definitely what it is. I just recently saw the Hip-Hop Honors and they were saying about Def Jam. [Def Jam is] the hands on mechanics that get up under the car and get dirty and that is one thing I can really say about Def Jam. When I signed one of my artists, Jonell, to Def Jam, Kevin Liles came out to Cincinnati about three or four times to check on the project and sit in at the studio and basically have an opinion. They really cared about the music; it wasn’t about making a quick dollar. They would give you what you needed to make a classic album. Nothing was done through e-mail or on a call. Kevin and Tina Davis would come out to Cincy to check on the project. It wasn’t like they were pestering as some A&Rs do it just to do it, not because they really care. Def Jam do get their hands dirty and care about their artists.
DX: Can we expect to see you on Game’s R.E.D. album by the way?
Hi-Tek: I mean, I submitted tracks. But to be honest, I have put everything aside to work on Reflection Eternal because I can produce tracks here and there for everyone, but at the end of the day, it really don’t do anything for me and my future unless I land a single. I mean it is cool and I appreciate the album cuts, but I have to make sure I do something that means something more for myself and that isn’t me being selfish, it is about making moves like everyone else does.
DX: How does this focusing on your personal projects affect your work at Aftermath and how does Dre feel about it?
Hi-Tek: I mean it does affect my work, but Dre has never sweated me or pestered me on some typical A&R shit; he always gave me my space as he know how he is as an artist himself. He knows what it takes and he has always made me a part of projects, not because he felt obligated but because he appreciated my work. Most definitely I want to be a part of Detox and the projects coming out, but I think there was a lot of confusion that I had nothing to do over there and I had to fall back whether I wanted to or not. Now things are picking up and I feel like it is the time to start the ball rolling again and get some music over there. I hate the thought of [making] music and it just be sitting around and nobody doing anything with it, which is why I like what Dre does and how he does it. He takes all the music I would use myself as half the time people pick music and it don’t be stuff I necessarily think is classic. You know people want a beat from Hi-Tek because of the name and all that, but that is not the case when it comes to Dre and Aftermath. I think there was a little confusion over there, which caused more confusion in the workplace.
DX: The confusion being the knock on effect of the recession?
Hi-Tek: That is definitely what it is, as everyone is going through the same thing. Instead of me giving Dre a bunch of half assed beats, I want to make sure I give him two bangers rather than 10 “just okay” beats. It has a lot to do with the recession you know and I thought it was just me being affected, but turns out it’s everybody else as well.
DX: I had a discussion with an artist the other day about how hard it is to find competent management these days. You were managed by Zach Katz and are now managed by Sha Money XL, what should a producer be looking out for in prospective management?
Hi-Tek: You need a manager with a musical ear and at the same time, a great business drive with great relationships with the right people. That way he can connect you and keep you working under good conditions and not stressful. A manager should always try and keep some bread in your pocket so you wont have to worry about paying your bills when you are supposed to be the studio. It is hard to come up with a classic when you are stressing. A good manager will try and figure out a way to keep your belly full while you do what you do musically.
DX: You mentioned Jonell before, what’s the deal with your roster?
Hi-Tek: I actually erased everything off my roster and I am starting over. I am trying to move with the times and that’s one thing a producer can do. Regardless of what I say the music industry should be like, it is definitely the younger cats that will take over and that is how it is going to be ad I want to do what Dre did and that is constantly re-invent himself, and at the same time support these younger cats. I mean after I finish this Reflection Eternal album, I will be going into label mode and see where these younger cats heads are at and give them that quality production. Look at Dre and all the cats he deals with, they are younger compared to when and where he started. He has to constantly keep his ear to the streets, but his knowledge and his experience on how music should bang out is like no other. He is the Quincy Jones of Hip Hop, and that’s what we need in this game. We need more quality producers to help these artists do what they are going to do. A lot of these cats get produced by the industry; they are not getting produced by a producer. A producer will create that character and that sound for you so people buy the sound and get you your followers and then you are selling out shows. Most of the artists who are successful were indie artists first who were on their grind and already had a fan base. The record labels are just capitalizing off the movement they already had. But then you have some of these cats that have a hit record with no movement. They might have a good year but after that, well it is like they never was.