The grassroots, underground rap scene burgeoning on the East Coast during the late ’90s and early aughts marked a pivotal period for hip-hop culture. And New York City-based Rawkus Records was leading the charge.
Waving the flag for the backpackers and purists in the community, Rawkus’ roster was headlined by groundbreaking artists like Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Pharoahe Monch, and Company Flow, all of whom unleashed seminal debuts that attained classic status and helped turn the label into the face of independent hip-hop and a force to be reckoned with. One key figure who’s hands and influence were involved in the creation of the majority of those albums is Hi-Tek, who helmed the production on releases like Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star; Rawkus’ Soundbombing and Lyricist Lounge volumes; as well as Train of Thought, his classic collaborative album with Kweli. (When together the two became Reflection Eternal.)
A native of Cincinnati, Ohio, Hi-Tek climbed up the production ranks, starting with his work on Mood’s Doom album in 1997, producing more than half of that album. He then had a succession of hit singles and deep cuts like Black Star’s “Fortified Live,” Mos Def’s “Next Universe,” and Common and Sadat X’s “One-Nine-Nine-Nine.” But his status was cemented in 2000 with the release of “The Blast,” a crowd-pleasing single from Train of Thought. Hi-Tek’s sublime production throughout the album turned all eyes on him, creating a demand for the producer to record an album of his own. Obliging those requests, Hi-Tek unveiled his debut, Hi-Teknology, the following year, which saw him working with familiar collaborators like Kweli, Mos, Common, and Mood, as well as Slum Village, Cormega, Buckshot, Jinx Da Juvy, and Jonell.
Producing a pair of Top five rap singles, Hi-Teknology, which was released on May 8th, 2001, was praised by many for its textured production and is remembered as one of the more impressive and cohesive compilation offerings of its time. To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the album’s release, Okayplayer spoke with Hi-Tek about the creation of Hi-Teknology, the underlying drama surrounding its release, and how it led to the eventual split between him and Talib Kweli.
This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.
What inspired you to record your own body of work, as opposed to continuing to focus on projects by other artists?
Prior to me and Talib’s album even being close to being released, Rawkus was doing an instrumental series with producers. I think myself, DJ Spinna, DJ Evil Dee, and El-P all were doing an instrumental series. But when it came to mine, I always wanted to do something more innovative, a little more creative. So I started putting verses on some of the beats instead of being a full-length instrumental. And I had little interludes. I was just trying to make it creative. I never completed it. And then I started getting more into the possibility of me and Kweli doing a full-length album, so the idea was just sitting on the shelf. So when me and Talib’s [album] came out, it blew up. “The Blast” was doing well, we had a lot of great feedback. And I think Rakwus — after getting such a great response from our album — wanted to reach back and put out that unfinished instrumental project. And I was like, “Nah. Why would you put out a half-assed project after I just killed them with the Train of Thought album? That was flawless and I’m trying to keep it flawless.” So I talked them into giving me time to do a full-length project.
Who’s the kid speaking at the end of “Scratch Rapping?”
That’s my son, Little ‘Tone. That was just him being in the lab. He was always in the lab. He was actually on me and Talib’s first album, as well. He was like two, and he was probably three or four on my album. He was always a part of the beginning of my career as far as being in the studio, so I would get him in the booth every once in a while and let him do his thing.
One song on the album that instantly grabs listeners’ ears is “The Sun God.” What are your memories of the making of that song and beat that stand out to you?
Common would always do singles deals with independents and Rawkus was one of them. I was able to do a couple of them, one song being “One-Nine-Nine-Nine” and the other was “The Sun God.” At the time, I needed a single for my project. So Common was willing to split the difference with it being an underground single for him and a single for my album so it was a joint-venture. I just remember making that beat and I knew the beat was dope. I let him hear it and he really loved it and then we got in the lab. I remember being in a long studio session, just me, him and Vinia Mojica at Electric Lady Studios. When it came to the mix, we were on crunchtime. I know we were trying to meet the distribution deadline, so I remember being in the studio 40 hours mixing the record.
Vinia Mojica appears on two tracks, the aforementioned “The Sun God” as well as “Get Ta Stepping.” Speak on your history with Vinia, as well as her role in the underground rap scene?
We were all introduced through De La [Soul] and Q-Tip and A Tribe Called Quest. And the way Tip used her, I think we all were trying to emulate that and get that voice out of Vinia. She was like the go-to hip-hop female voice. She has that untouchable, flawless, feminine, warm voice, it’s just the around-the-way girl voice. And she can sing. She has such a beautiful voice and I think as a producer and us as a crew, [we were] just kind’ve emulating what Q-Tip and De La had already done.
How did your working relationship with Jonell begin and how did the two of you conceptualize “Round & Round?”
Well, we met through a mutual friend in Cincinnati when I was working on something. I think I was working on a project with a French artist by the name of Lady Laistee and a mutual friend had told me he knew this girl that could sing and she came to the studio and I had her do something, but I didn’t really like it. This was probably around 1999. [Later on], I was in the studio working on the “Round & Round” beat, but it wasn’t for “Round & Round.” I had no idea this was about to happen. But I was working on the beat and I kind’ve got burned out in the studio a little bit so I stepped out and went to the club. I’m standing at the bar, drinking, having a good time and she walked up on me and was like, “What’s up Tek? I’ve been working in the studio.” I was drunk, so I’m like, “Sing something to me right now.” And she sung the first verse to the “Round & Round” in my ear.
I’m always looking for that diamond in the rough and I love to know that it’s something somebody wrote and that it’s original. So the first thing I asked her was, “You wrote that?” And she was like, “Yeah.” So I was like, “Sing it to me again.” So when she’s singing it to me the second time, I’m hearing that beat I just made at the studio. I’m like, “Man, this is crazy.” So I told everybody to come back to the studio the next day. She came through and sure enough, that verse worked for that beat. She had other pieces: she had a bridge but ain’t really have the hook yet. So I wrote a melody for the hook. And then one of the homies came through and helped us finish writing the song and the rest is history.
“Round & Round” also spawned a remix with Method Man, amplifying the song’s popularity even further. How did Meth come into the mix?
Well, Meth was a Def Jam move and Meth was like the hottest in the game at the time. When I had left Rawkus, I had signed Jonell. She was signed to my production company, and I got a deal with Def Soul and Kevin Liles. It was pretty much his idea to put Meth on it. And I ain’t gonna lie, I was getting phone calls from everybody, man. That was the first time I realized if you got a hot record, people gonna call you. You ain’t gonna have to call nobody. It was people calling me left and right and I thought if I’m trying to take it to that next level, Meth was the best shot and it was the most colorful look. It just felt better. It looked better. It was a good look. If she was really ready to be a star, she could’ve taken advantage of that situation.
What’s Jonell up to these days?
I reach out to her every once in a while, she’s doing her thing. I don’t really know if she’s been in the studio or not, but I do reach out to her once in a while.
Hi-Teknology is 14 songs in length, but only features two appearances from Kweli and one apiece from Mos Def and Common. Was it a conscious effort on your part to showcase your work with artists outside of that camp?
I was just using what I had. That album was really scrapped and pieced together unintentionally. I went through a lot. I actually had a song with Snoop [Dogg] and Devin the Dude that was supposed to be on it, but the label didn’t want me to have it on there at the time. They felt like Snoop was too big for my project and all this nonsense. That was part of the reason we ended up parting ways. But that’s a whole other story. As far as the way that album was put together, it really wasn’t super formulated. It was songs from three years prior to being released and then the most recent songs being “Round & Round,” [Cormega and Jonell’s] “All I Need Is You,” and “The Sun God.”
One name on the Hi-Teknology tracklist that may pique interest is Jinx Da Juvy, who was hailed as one of the highly touted rap prospects during the early aughts. What was your experience working with Juvy?
Shout-out to Jinx Da Juvy. He was supposed to be the next young dude coming out the streets of Brooklyn. I just remember him having a real big buzz in the streets, and I was already associated with Kool G Rap, and I think he was under G Rap and they were just putting me on. They knew I was about to release [Hi-Teknology] and they were like, “You gotta fuck with this kid.” So I was like, “It’s a no-brainer.” I like fucking with the next rawest cat, especially with New York MCs, period. New York MCs, you’re gonna get that [buzz], you never know what you’re gonna embark on. That next Nas, that next Papoose, that next Big L. New York, they’re just known for them MCs, so I wasn’t gonna miss out on that.
Slum Village, who was creating a big buzz of their own at the time, appears on “LTAH.” What spurred you to connect with them?
Well, the thing is with Slum Village, that was a no-brainer, as well. Our sounds are similar, us being from the Midwest and bringing that funk together. And it was actually an honor for me to be able to work with them. Rest in peace to the late great J Dilla, man. Just being a part of that sound and what we were doing coming out of the Midwest, I had to collab with him.
What are your three personal favorite records from Hi-Teknology and why?
One of my personal favorites is “Get Ta Stepping.” I feel like it’s just a classic vibe and it was actually one of Yasiin’s first singing songs — like, a full-length singing song. And I remember it being me, him, and Vinia in the lab and him pointing that beat out and he was loving the track. “The Sun God,” just the way that snaps, it’s just something classic about it and just being in the studio with Common is always memorable. And “Round & Round,” for sure, because I was able to take one of my hometown people and create a hit, get her a record deal, and make a classic.
What are some of your favorite memories from the recording of Hi-Teknology?
It was just a bittersweet time, to be honest with you. I was supposed to be on tour promoting the Train of Thought album with Talib, and we kind’ve got into it about that because I was trying to explain to our manager and him that Rawkus was trying to put me against the wall because they were trying to release an unfinished project. I told ’em to either let me finish this tour or give me some equipment on the road while we’re on tour, something for me to make this project nice for the people. And Talib and our manager, they really weren’t trying to hear it. But I was like, “Nah.” I cared more about my music.
In my mind, I was thinking I don’t wanna confuse the fans like, “Damn, he just came with the A+ shit and now he’s trying to hit us with some C material.” I was like, “Nah, I can’t do that.” And I couldn’t stop the label from putting the project out, so I stayed off tour to finish the project. It was a 38 [city] tour with Erykah Badu, and I really wanted to go, but at the same time, I was trying to get them to give me about a week off the road because that’s how hard I was doing in the studio. I could’ve finished the project in about week to two weeks, but they wasn’t with it at the time so I said, “Fuck it, I’ma stay off and just finish this project.” So it was a bittersweet time because I was really able to capitalize off the success of that album, and then, at the same time, I think that was the beginning of me and Talib’s breakup.
What was it like seeing the positive reaction to the album?
It was a beautiful thing, man. For one, the biggest record was from one of my artists from Cincinnati and the way that even happened, that song would’ve never came about if I hadn’t stood my ground and got in the studio and stayed off tour. And at the same time, I had a record that had Snoop Dogg and Devin the Dude and when I came back, the record label fronted on me and said the record was too big for me and Snoop Dogg was too big for me. But he did it for me. So that’s what I was mad about because how y’all gonna say it’s too big for me when he did it for me? At the end of the day, I was gonna be one of the first underground producers to get a Snoop Dogg verse and have it be able to be released. So that was another reason why “Round & Round” got created. Because I was able to that song as leverage even though I didn’t wanna give it up, but they threatened me and said, “If you don’t give us this record, then we’re just gonna put what we got out the way it is.” And back then, I just wasn’t going for that. I just couldn’t understand what my play should’ve been, but they gave me a bigger budget to finish the album and some more time, which created “The Sun God” and “Round & Round.”
What happened to the Snoop Dogg and Devin The Dude record?
When they gave me the new budget in place of that, they took that record and gave it to Kool G Rap. It’s a song called “Keep Going.”
Would you ever consider recording another Hi-Teknology album?
Yeah, for sure. I’m just trying to think of different concepts and a better way to release it. It may not be called Hi-Teknology, but I’m definitely gonna come out with a body of work, for sure.
It’s like my baby, you know. It ranks No. 1 out of all my albums because of the energy and it shows me that music is a moment in time and it’s an energy captured. I feel it’s more colorful than my other albums and I can credit that to the energy that was put into it because it wasn’t like it was a bunch of big-name artists on that project. It was just the energy and the color of it. And it’s like the first-born, you know. It’s something about the creative process, the energy that was put into it that makes it my No. 1.
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