Standing behind the million-selling records, media glare and controversy that accompany hip-hop superstardom are the producers whose sonic groundwork is the real stuff of Platinum success. Based in Cincinnati, Hi-Tek (aka Tony Cottrell) is one of hip-hop's busiest producers, though you might not know it unless scanning liner-note credits is your idea of fun. Hi-Tek supplied production for Mos Def and Talib Kweli's Black Star (Rawkus, 1998); joined Kweli for Reflection Eternal (Priority, 2000); and even released his own star-studded album, Hi-Teknology (Priority, 2001). His past accomplishments tickled the ears of the hip-hop cognoscenti, but his current resumé makes Hi-Tek truly an A-list player.
“Just being me is what I bring to the sessions,” the 29-year-old producer confides from his home in the Cincinnati suburb of Springdale, Ohio (his TekLab studio is in nearby Covington, Ky.). “My sound, how I interpret what I want to hear, those are my tools. I was raised on a lot of soulful music: Bobby Womack, James Brown, Bootsy Collins, George Clinton. So what I bring is a straight feeling. I learned how to do the technical part to draw a picture of what I am hearing in my head, but, overall, it is a feeling.”
Conjuring most of his magic on an Akai MPC3000, Hi-Tek's productions have fortified some of hip-hop's hottest tracks, including 50 Cent's “Ryder Music,” G-Unit's “Eye for Eye,” The Game's “Runnin',” Snoop Dogg's “I Miss That Bitch,” Skillz's “Crew Deep,” Common's “One-Nine-Nine-Nine,” Xzibit's “Scent of a Woman,” Mos Def's “Next Universe,” Mary J. Blige's “Beautiful” and “Family Affair” remixes, Kool G Rap's “Keep Going,” Lloyd Banks' “I Get High,” Doggy Style Allstars' “Doh' Doh'” and Phife Dawg's “Flawless.” But those tracks, as well as selections for 50 Cent and Young Buck on the recent Get Rich or Die Tryin' (Interscope, 2005) soundtrack, just scratch the surface of Hi-Tek's mountain of MPC-aided mastery.
“Hi-Tek's talent is finding very dirty drum sounds that still pop through the records,” says Steve Baughman (aka Stevie B), an engineer who has worked with Eminem, 50 Cent, Destiny's Child, Eve and Usher and is a regular at Hi-Tek sessions. “Hi-Tek has a natural feel where a lot of guys, when they get behind a drum machine, will rely on the quantize function, and the beat becomes real stiff. Hi-Tek's beats are so loose, you don't feel like a drum machine created them; you feel like a person made it.”
A true team player, Hi-Tek begins his average sessions solo, then looks for inspiration from the artist. “I like artists who bring a vibe,” he says. “I don't like artists who just sit there and wait for me to come up with this hip beat. I like artists who really bring some ideas to the table, like as if we were a group. That is what inspires me to understand what they want. So the best tracks that I have produced come from my doing the initial work in preproduction and then letting the artist hear it and say, ‘That is my shit; that is something I want to work on with you.’ That is how it works rather than me just being in the studio and coming up with something totally from scratch.���
Like many producers, Hi-Tek's preproduction includes digging through crates, playing with samplers and exploring keyboard sounds. But, again, it is all about finding the right feeling for the right artist. Once the artist or management contacts him, Hi-Tek might play around with a Yamaha Motif at TekLab for ideas, but he is more likely to fly out to the artist's hometown and begin cracking samples.
“Beforehand, I will go buy a crate of records to get my ear prepared to get in the groove,” Hi-Tek explains. “I might mess around with the Motif, but most of the shit is sample-inspired. It could be a simple sound, but there has to be something about it — a feeling, a texture — to get me sparked up. I might hear one little sound or a rhythm that I want to re-create. Sometimes, I keep working and working; the sample might weed its way out; and, then, it becomes an original track. After that, I need a couple of hours before the artist gets there to start cooking up something, and then they come down and peek their head in. I might have three or four foundation tracks to see what they are thinking. Once they feel a particular track or direction that inspires me to finish the track, I want to put that feeling into it, something that will stick to their ribs.”
Hi-Tek makes the process sound simple, but his melody ideas, beats and bass lines are painstakingly created. While engineering his sessions, Baughman has seen Hi-Tek's working methods up close. “Hi-Tek samples hi-hats, kicks, snares, percussion and loads them into the MPC,” he says. “He plays around with the pads until he finds a rhythm that he is really feeling. It all comes from a very nonmetronome, loose kind of place. Even when he adds the click, that loose feel is still there. It is so laid-back and the snare is so behind the two that it really gives the music this in-the-pocket feel, which is what a lot of rappers identify as Hi-Tek's sound. He doesn't quantize, and the kick drum is not exactly landing on the one, but it pushes the beat along in a lazy yet still very driving way — that is Hi-Tek's sound.”
“As far as placement of the beat, it just depends on the feel,” Hi-Tek adds. “I always like to give the beat a live feel, a swing that you can't just get from quantizing a drum machine. You really gotta mess around with it. I don't like to do it right on the bpm. I try to give it a feeling, just like making a beat with your hands on a lunchroom table. You want to program a beat as if you are beatboxing, that same beatbox tempo. You might have a tempo coming out of your mouth, but that beat will not come out like that on the machine if you are quantizing.”
Hi-Tek's beats may be his bread and butter, but the producer thinks his bass lines are what place his productions in such high esteem among his peers. One listen to the jerky bass rhythms of Snoop Dogg's “I Miss That Bitch,” the rambling tonic frequencies of Mos Def's “Next Universe” or the bobbing-above-water bass bounce of Black Star's “Respiration” shows that Hi-Tek's low-end logic is both absolutely grounded and highly adventurous. “My signature sound is the bass,” he says. “I kind of talk with the bass. Most of Hi-Teknology and Reflection Eternal, the bass is what carried those records. I am into sounds that are dirty but clean at the same time. I like my bass really in-the-pocket; that is why I program it on the MPC. I don't make fast food; I like to make them home-cooked meals.”
Baughman explains that Hi-Tek's process for bass production is similar to his beat-making approach. “He will sample a bass sound off a record — and it is never a record I know; his records are very eclectic — and then he will take the polynotes on the MPC and, again, create his own unique feel,” Baughman says. “The MPC's polynote, or the 16-note, function splits the one sample up into multiple tones so that the one bass sample that he had in the beginning is now a bunch of different tones or notes. Then, he plays the bass part in real time with his own unique feel off the MPC pads; records it in the MPC's sequencer; and loops it in either four-, eight- or 16-bar phrases.
“If you look at the MPC, there is no reasoning as to what notes are where,” he continues. “So Hi-Tek experiments with the notes or rhythm he feels; then, he creates a pattern from that. It is usually after he has already established a drumbeat pattern. Most producers sample a live bass player or they play it off of a keyboard. Tek can do that, but sometimes he would rather play it on the MPC; he plays it like a piano.”
FROM SAMPLE TO SONG
As Hi-Tek mentioned, many of his tracks begin with a vocal or a melodic sample that serves as a foundation before it is eventually erased. Although he is generally vague regarding his beat-making rituals, discussing his overall process brings out Hi-Tek's inner chatterbox. “On some new stuff I did for The Game, I used that song ‘If Loving You Is Wrong (I Don't Want to Be Right)’ by Millie Jackson,” he reveals. “I freaked that bridge right there for inspiration. With Snoop, I definitely use those old tracks for inspiration. All Snoop listens to is old-school music.
“50's ‘Ryder Music’ was inspired by a Stevie Wonder a cappella vocal sample taken from ‘Love's in Need of Love Today’ from Songs in the Key of Life,” he continues. “I heard it and started feeling the track around that. I already had some drums programmed from the MPC. Then, my artist Dion brought the Marvin Gaye feel to it. He put vocals on top of the Stevie Wonder vocal sample. We tried to clear the sample, but Dr. Dre had some people come in and resing the sample, and it actually came out a lot better. Then, we got rid of the Stevie Wonder sample. I played the keyboard line on the Motif. I got that other a cappella sample that comes in on the bridge from a gospel record. ‘Ryder Music’ is vocal-driven; that is what makes it unique. Otherwise, it is just bass from the MPC and some sampled bells.”
A cursory listen to any of Hi-Tek's tracks is more than a lesson in beat and bass production; it is a sound, a style and an atmosphere of hip-hop creation that surpasses mainstream and underground divides with slapping beats and a deep appreciation of the groove. Manning the SSL at many Hi-Tek sessions, Baughman has seen the choices in effects, mic placement and mixdown that help translate Hi-Tek's unique production into hit records.
“He doesn't use a lot of effects,” Baughman says. “Hi-Tek usually just samples straight in; then, he will manipulate the sounds in the MPC, which has filters to create different effects. They are mainly highpass and lowpass band filters that, if he feels like he really loves the low-end sound of a record but doesn't need its high end, he will put a low band on it, and that will expose the pure low end — or the opposite for a high band if he feels the bass or kick drum is conflicting with his pattern and all he needs is the sparkle on top. His creativity is about selection of samples and sounds and how he anipulates them.”
A veteran of vocal-recording sessions for 50 Cent, Talib Kweli and G-Unit, Baughman is in a rare position, but he is still learning from Hi-Tek. “I sat with him and Kweli doing one vocal,” Baughman recalls. “Hi-Tek always wanted the one with the most emotion; he stresses the feel. He will push the vocalist to where he feels they are matching his pocket. I usually choose the vocal chain we do with G-Unit and 50 Cent. Typically, that is a Neve 1073 followed by a Summit TLA-100 compressor to a Teletronix LA-2A. Sometimes on harder vocals, like with 50, where I might need to bring down the peaks, I will use the dbx 160 followed by the Sony 800G mic.”
PAST AND FUTURE PRESENT
Many ambitious musicians and producers believe that the only path to success is to move to one of the nation's music capitals and battle their way to the top. Hi-Tek's Cincinnati base proves that if you make serious music, the movers and shakers will come to you. With his follow-up to Hi-Teknology practically in the can (with appearances by Snoop Dogg, Nas, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Slim Thug), Hi-Tek takes the long view to superstardom.
“If you don't know your past, you can't know your future,” he claims. “That is what got me to where I am today, knowing what the artists did what and why. I tell up-and-coming guys to listen to their favorite producers — there ain't nothing wrong with being inspired by a person and then trying to imitate what they do. Even if you copy their sound and it is wrong, that is how you get your own sound. Keep working at it, and battle yourself. Know your skills, and constantly compare your stuff to what is out there.”
Computers, DAWs, recording hardware
Alesis ADAT-XT20 digital audio recorder
Apogee AD-8000 converter
Apple Mac G4 computer
Digidesign Pro Tools|24 Mix system
Studer A27 multitrack recorder
Tascam D88 digital 8-track recorder
Consoles, mixers, interfaces
SSL SL4000 E console w/E Plus upgrade
Samplers, drum machines, turntables, DJ mixers
Akai MPC3000 sampling workstation
Synths, modules, software, plug-ins, instruments
Bomb Factory compressor plug-ins
Korg M1, MS2000, Triton synths
Kurzweil K2500XS synth
Moog Minimoog synth
Serato Pitch 'n Time plug-in
Yamaha Motif ES 6 synth
Mics, mic preamps, EQs, compressors, effects
Amek/Neve 1073, 9098 mic preamps
Avalon Vt-737 preamp
Calrec PQ1161 preamp/EQ
Neumann U 87 mic
Neve 1272 preamp
Røde NT2 mic
Shure SM57 mic
Smart Research C2M stereo compressor
Summit Audio DCL-200 compressor
TL Audio 5013 dual-valve EQ
Tube-Tech LCA-2B compressor
Universal Audio Teletronix LA-2A compressor
UREI 1176 compressor
SLAMMING THE SSL
Engineer Steve Baughman explains how he turns Hi-Tek's rough samples into stroking sounds. “Hi-Tek's bass sounds are darker than most,” Baughman says. “But they cut through somehow to the point where they really make a record sound genuine and live. Sometimes, Hi-Tek's drum sounds are kind of thuddy until we put them through the SSL. I think he has that in mind when he is sampling them. If the drum sounds are too muddy, it won't sound punchy on the record, so, mainly, we use EQ and compression on the SSL board to perk them up. I am a big fan of the SSL compression and EQ. At least on the G and E boards, you can slam the hell out of the board and really pump the low end to the point where it gets a real distinct punch. The compression on the individual channels helps the punch, as well. It is a 4-to-1 ratio on the compression if you are looking at the actual SSL meter.”