As part of the Aftermath production crew, this Ohio native produces for superstars like Snoop and 50. Find out why he’s getting back in the studio with Talib Kweli for a new Reflection Eternal album.
Can a truly great producer ever be pigeon-holed? If you ask Tony “Hi-Tek” Cottrell, Cincinnati, Ohio’s most famous hip-hop producer, versatility is the key to success. He first made his name by shaping the sound of Rawkus Records in the late ’90s through his work with Talib Kweli (with whom he formed the group Reflection Eternal) and Mos Def. But then he went left—linking up with Dr. Dre’s Aftermath production crew and Sha Money Management has plugged Tek into the Interscope system, allowing him to produce for marquee superstars like Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent, The Game and Young Buck. Throughout it all, Tek has kept his creativity front-and-center with two installments of Hi-Teknology albums, where he hones his own rhyme skills next to an all-star lineup. Now, it seems like he’s going back to his roots—after he drops his new album Hi-Teknology 3: The Underground, where the producer works with some underappreciated talent, he’s going back into the studio with Kweli to start work on the new Reflection Eternal album.
What’s Dre like in the studio?
I haven’t had many sessions with Dre, but the ones that I have had are real intense. His mind is so far out and you’re always wondering what he’s thinking. It’s always exciting. He’s just a broad thinker and his experience is the key to his success. That’s just somebody I admire and someone I’d like to be like when I grow up [laughs].
You were already a well-established name before you linked up with Dre. Did you ever have any reservations about working with him, like maybe your work wouldn’t be recognized?
Yeah, truthfully, when I first got the call from Dre, my initial thing was, I’ll do it but…There was a track that he wanted for a project and I was like, I’ll give him the track as long as I get my production credit. Because I would hear all these rumors that he didn’t give producers their production credits. So, I was like, “Yo, I’m Hi-Tek” and it wasn’t like I was feeling myself but I got something to prove too and as long as I get my production credit, I’m cool with it. I definitely respect Dre to the utmost fullest, but I felt like I had to get mine too. And his initial answer came through a third person. It was like [if you want your production credit] “come out and produce.” I was on a plane the next day. Now, I really understand what he means. You can’t really call yourself a producer unless you’re in the studio producing. You know there are people that are just beat-makers and then there are producers.
So what’s the difference between a beat-maker and a producer?
Well…anybody can make a beat. You can make a beat hitting on a table. But the difference between a producer and beat-maker just making a beat is…[takes deep breath and pauses]…You look at Quincy Jones, James Brown or George Clinton. Half the time they didn’t have to touch an instrument. It was all about what was going on in their head and a musician would play this and the guitar player would play that and the drummer would play this and they would turn all of that into the sound they were thinking about in their head. That’s what you call a producer. They hear the song in their head before it’s recorded—that includes the vocals and the music. When you got stuff like Frooty Loops and other programs, anybody can make a beat. That’s not production. Production is when you can see the vision and take a vocalist and hear how they sound on a track before they actually record. And when they do, a producer can coach this person through the whole track.
How important is it for producers to come up under an experienced producer like Dre? Are you grooming any producers yourself?
Yeah, both. It was like a dream come true for me to even hook up with somebody like Dre. I idolize him, and for him to even acknowledge me is so much of a plus. The first time I shook his hand when he invited me to the studio, it basically stepped my game up. He didn’t even have to show me nothing. It solidified everything that was going on in my mind. It let me know I was on the right track. That’s the same way I treat the producers that’s coming up under me. I don’t really try to babysit them. I try to make sure they go through the things I went through to get where I’m at. If I give them too much, they’re gonna get spoiled.
The bouncy track “Cash Rules,” on Cassidy’s new album, doesn’t sound like the typical Hi-Tek beat. Was that deliberate?
One of my young producers, Sparks, helped me with that. That’s more of his sound. That’s how he comes with it. I came through and put the umph on it. I wanted to give him the chance to really help me give it that sound, because right now, that’s the sound. I collaborated with him on that track to reach out to that different crowd.
You’re managed by Sha Money now. What kind of opportunities have they opened up for you?
He definitely already had the relationship with Dre, who is everybody’s boss that I deal with. With Sha Money in the picture, it really allows me to concentrate more on the music so I’m not banging my head over the business too much. Before I was doing too much of the business. I needed someone who understands the creative part and the creative steps it takes [to make music]. Because he’s a producer at heart, he understands what it takes to make a piece of music and the time constraints. And at the same time, he’s a good business man. I’ve been in the game for a long time and I needed to be able to communicate with somebody on a real level.
In the past you’ve stated that the Cincinnati hip-hop scene had a lot of room for improvement. But on this album, you have a track named “Ohio All Stars.” Has the scene in your home state improved since then?
Yeah, it has. A lot of guys stepped it up. A lot of record labels, independent labels, stepped it up in giving guys opportunities. Before, those guys were solely depending on me like I was the only outlet for the city. They didn’t understand what I was going through with my business and it forced a lot of guys to really step it up and say “Fuck Hi-Tek. We’re gonna do it on our own.” That’s what I really wanted them to do. That song, “Ohio All-Stars,” really shows genuine love. It’s like we’re all in it together.
Who should we be looking out for from Ohio?
You gotta be on the lookout for my man Cross. He’s representing Garnett Entertainment, a Cincinnati-based independent label. He’s like the first cat on the “Ohio All Stars.” Another Garnett Entertainment representative [is] this cat named Showtime. He’s doing his thing. There’s another cat named Chip Tha Ripper. He’s from Cleveland. He’s doing his thing too. Also check out Rob G., another cat from the Nati doing his thing.
How is Hi-Teknology 3 different from your previous albums?
One thing I never got to do with my albums is give back to the street, and where I come from. So I wanted to do a lot more street joints and get back to the original blueprint of giving more up-and-coming artists a chance. I went back to that and it felt more exciting to me to do that. Now that Hi-Tek has solidified himself in the hip-hop game, it gets kinda boring—as far as my album goes—when I do songs with well-known artists. I wanted to go back and do something more exciting…It’s a great body of work, but due to time constraints, I didn’t get to really rap a lot on this album. I wanted to, but time didn’t allow me. I wanted a lot more collaborations, but due to time, I just had to work with what I had and still made a great album.
Why did you put it out so quickly?
Really, I was trying to get the album out quick because I didn’t want it to run into my next venture. Right now me and Kweli are trying to get into this Reflection Eternal album, and I don’t want nothing else to distract me. I like to do things one thing at a time. I wanted to get this album out and move on to the next thing. At the same time, I didn’t want to make people wait for so long for the next album. After this I’m going into Reflection Eternal.
Have you started recording with Kweli yet?
We’re trying to get it on. We’re working out the deal with Warner Brothers right now and it’s coming along. We haven’t really started recording, but it’s looking like we both have the time to start recording now. It’s always been about the time to be able to really sit down and create another classic. I don’t really want to get into the album unless we get into it for real. So now that we’re both done with our albums, what else can we do besides come together and do it from the heart?
When it’s all said and done, is Hi-Tek going to be viewed with the greats like Dr. Dre, Pete Rock and Premier. Or, do you feel like you’re already there?
Nah, I don’t feel like…Well…You know what, I definitely feel like I’m there. I’ve accomplished part of my dream, but I feel like there’s more to prove and more to solidify in the game. I still need to work on the business side of my career; not the music. A lot of times it’s about how it’s projected and how people receive it. I think I made a lot of bad business decisions that have prevented me from making it to the hall of fame. I still got a lot more to prove.