Scratch Magazine Issue 3
There are producers that make beats and then there are a special few like Hi-Tek that make music. The Cincinnati native is known as a complete producer using his “magical ear,” the MPC, live instruments and every button on the board to create original compositions, sounds and melodies. Tek first gained recognition as the musical muscle behind many of the Rawkus classics in the late ‘90s delivering instrumentals for Common, Mos Def, and Talib Kweli as one half of Reflection Eternal. After his relationship with Rawkus started to sour, Tek bounced to MCA and garnered his R&B artist, Jonell, a slot on the Def Jam roster in the process. Unfortunately, neither album was released and Tek dipped below the radar only to somehow resurface as part of Dre’s elite in house production team. Obviously large chunks of this story are absent but don’t fret we got up with ‘Young Tone’ in his Teklab studio to fill in all the missing pieces of the puzzle.
You picked up engineering early in your career. When did you first start learning how to use the board?
I first started learning to engineer in like ’95 at this studio called Beatbox. Beatbox was the best studio in town and this cat Dave Arts and his assistant Chris B. showed me how to work the equipment. I didn’t know what a gate or compressor was but I was a fast learner so ever since then I’ve been into engineering. I like to be hands on and it started to be part of my creativity.
In what ways do you feel engineering adds to your ability as a producer?
You learn how to EQ and fit stuff right into the track. You learn how to accent everything and make it stand out. Mixing gives the track its character. Just having a kick at a certain level changes the sound and feel of the track. Sometimes you want your kick hitting hard and sometimes you might turn a snare into a hi-hat. What I do is mix and create sounds from the board while I’m making the beat instead of having a certain drum kit. I try to make a sound that fits the vibe instead of using the same kick and snare on like ten tracks. Not every producer can touch these boards. A lot of them have an engineer because they don’t know how to mix it and make it bang. You might need a reverb or filters to create a sound. I make sure it’s like a story. It’s more than just a beat I punched up or a track I lucked up on.
Do you have any set routines that get you into a creative mode?
Not really, I live it so all I do is go back and forth to the studio when I’m in Cincinnati. I’m in the studio everyday even if I’m just sitting here looking at the damn MPC. I just be around it trying to catch that musical vibe. I get inspired by listening to records and hearing sounds and if I catch the vibe that’s the track. I might be rolling down the street listening to the old school station and hear something and be like I want to recreate those drums right there. So I’ll go hit the record store and listen to some music. I put on the record and I just start creating on whatever sparks me. I might take a sound or take something and replay it and add some drums to it or pull out some old drums I used before and twist it up a bit. I just try to find new sounds and ways to be exclusive. I’m not big on taking whole records and sampling. I’m more like a composer where the whole melody and everything is original. I’m trying to broaden my production and be a producer and a musician and not just a guy who makes beats and slides one or two through every once in a while.
You mentioned in a previous interview that working with R&B artists forced you to adjust your sound. What were some of the things you had to pick up?
I had to learn what a b-section was, what a bridge and vamp was, how to stack harmonies and how to record singing vocals and make it sound good. During the making of the Jonell album I was learning and making musical changes. A lot of my beats were in 4/4 and I had to get beyond just loop sounding tracks. I learned how to work with musicians and fit it in with what I’m trying to do. If you have a sample and something filtered with it you don’t want this bright live instrument to come in, you have to learn how to blend it with the samples. Having the live musicians is something I always wanted to experiment with. Now I finally have the setup to do it and that’s what’s got me playing live now. I’m putting more live instrumentation over my music and broadening it. Right now I’m in experimental mode.
What are some things you have been experimenting with?
I’m starting to experiment with the drums, looping drums from my live shit and EQing it and running them through different amps just trying to create different sounds just to see how its been done. I just did a song with Snoop and Bootsy Collins, we did a Curtis Mayfield remake and it’s all live. It seems like it makes it hotter. It still has the Hi-Tek feel but it’s wider with a lot more sounds. I’m trying to learn how to do that more. When you get Pro Tools you can keep tracking fast so you get a chance to fuck up instead of like back in the day with ADAT tapes or the 2 inch machine where you didn’t have any room to mess up or you’d lose it. I can sit down right in front of Pro Tools with a mic and beat box. I been in here singing and all that shit when I’m in my zone. I’ve sung on a lot of tracks. I’m singing on that “I Miss That Bitch” track I did for Snoop’s Paid Tha Cost album and on a couple other tracks that I ain’t gonna name. I’ll let you try and figure out which tracks Hi-Tek is singing on. I’m just trying to put down my musical feel that comes from live. That’s what I’ve been on lately. I haven’t even used the MPC in a month because I just been experimenting with guitar sounds trying to get into the music and learn chords.
Speaking of chords making the bass line thump is one of your signatures. When did you first start playing?
My uncle Larry used to be the bass player in my father’s group and he taught himself how to play and he’d go off of feeling. He taught me how to listen to a track and just catch each note and then to keep going over and over until you’re making your own song once you learn where the notes are. It’s all about feeling the melody. He taught me how to play by ear. I was like twelve and he’d be like aight I’m gonna give you the guitar and send you into the room and you come out and tell me what you learned. That taught me how to take a bass and play it to the melody, that’s why on most of my tracks it sounds like I play but its all feeling. It’s a lot of cats that can play but they can’t put the feeling into it. Some musicians can play like crazy but they don’t know how to be in pocket and keep it simple.
There is a big gap from the Hi-Teknology Vol. 1 project to now where you went from producing mainly for Rawkus to working alongside the Aftermath camp. How exactly did you get to this point?
Rawkus was my outlet to vent and have people hear my music but they got on the wrong track and that’s where the bridge stopped. They didn’t believe in the Hi-Teknology project so when they put it out they didn’t give me a deal. I was a free agent and when “Round and Round” blew up labels started calling me. Then Rawkus went from shitting on me to saying we’ll buy you a Benz and treat you like Mos Def. They were offering me way more than the other labels but I couldn’t do it because to me it was like signing with the devil. So I signed with MCA thinking it was a better situation but it wasn’t. My plan was to come out with two records, Jonell’s R&B album on Def Jam and Hi-Teknology Vol. 2 on MCA, but Def Jam backed out of the deal and MCA folded so I had two albums worth of material that didn’t come out so it made me look like I was sitting on my ass. But I think people still recognized. People heard the music I was doing and if you are a real musician you have to respect it. They might have heard the bass line and just felt me and that’s really what made the connection to the west. I wanted to do a song with Snoop and Devin the Dude for the Hi-Teknology project and I called Snoop and at the time he was like he had an APB out on me and told me to come out there the next day. I went and got him to do the verse and I gave him two tracks for the Eastsidaz album. From there Snoop put me on the map in the west.
Is that how you linked up with Dre?
Actually, I ended up hooking up with Dre on a separate occasion. I think I gave some beats to WC and Dre heard them. He wanted one of the tracks and used it on the Truth Hurts album for a song called “Hollywood.” From there it was like Tek let me hear some more shit. I’ve been working with them for like two years now. We just did a ten-song deal too so now I’m officially doing tracks in house for Aftermath. Dre and them are trying to create a sound and I think I fit in. I think he put me down as far as that’s the sound I want to project from my label.
What are some things you’ve learned dealing with Dre?
I picked up from Dre how to keep it simple as far as mixing. You don’t need a lot of outboard gear to mix, it’s all about making it bang. But just meeting him and hearing him say he respects my music upped my game in my mind.
Has changing clientele from mostly underground artists to major label cats affected your production style at all?
Yea, now I try to create a bulk of tracks and just let Dre here it. I’m still learning how to mass-produce and really work in the studio on the spot with new artists in a short time frame. I feel like I come up with better stuff when I’m home. I ain’t really an on the spot producer because I think I’m too critical. When I have too many people around I start thinking they might not be feeling it or want to go in another direction. I like to be prepared and have at least four or five tracks done that’s real solid. I think that best represents what I do and the way I work. So I’m still learning how to bring my concepts right on the spot and make them fit. I’ve been working on just coming up with tracks where I got the hook and everything so you have the whole idea and all you have to do is vocals.