Cover Story: Teknology Eternal

Hi-Tek goes 'round and 'round

Oct 22, 2003 at 2:06 pm
Jason Kidwell

"I need a blast/ like Hi-Tek got/ so I can grab the mic/ and make your heads bop

— Little Brother, "Speed"

A warning came with the assignment to interview producer/beatmaster Hi-Tek: "He's dodgy and incredibly difficult to link with."

Trying to hook-up with Hi-Tek is like digging a thong out of your ass. You know it's there — you just need to reach it without embarrassing yourself.

I'm finally given directions to a nondescript red building on a side street in Covington after annoying Noah, Tek's studio go-fer, harassing the publicist at Geffen Records, accosting Tek in the middle of the street and begging for his phone number and finally leaving countless stalker-esque voice messages.

He buzzes me into TekLab studios. I'm greeted by a handsome, short-statured man, outfitted in typical Hip Hop hood attire: white T-shirt, jeans and bling-bling accessories (necklace, watch and pinky ring). All combined, it's keep-it-real street meets ghetto fabulous.

The Lab is strangely quiet. There are no faux rappers hanging out smoking blunts and drinking Hennessy.

There's a vibe of peace and creativity in TekLab's studio and owner.

A year ago he moved out of the cramped space he shared with MOOD. Tek's "empire" is expansive — three studios and offices, two studio apartments — and highly secure, with surveillance monitors in every room.

Tek is humorous about life, serious about music and protective about himself. He appears media shy and agitated, chewing on a toothpick as I pull out my tape recorder.

"What makes you nervous?" I ask.

"Reality and Arnold Schwarzenneger being governor," he says.

He talks about his family and Hip Hop roots. His voice and eyes lower, his mind wandering back to the days of growing up in the West End.

Music was already coursing thorough Hi-Tek's veins when he was born Tony Cottrell on May 5, 1976. His father, Willie Cottrell, and his uncle were members of the music group the D'Italians, which had a deal with Mercury Records.

Rap was unsullied when Tek was introduced to it at the tender age of 8. As fate would have it, the first record he bought was The World Class Wreckin' Cru, featuring Dr. Dre's early production skills. Unbeknownst to him, he would produce alongside Dre in the future.

A photo on the studio wall depicts Tek during his break-dancing days, sporting a jheri curl and white headband. At age 14, mentor Ravi-T blessed him with the moniker we know him by today. Soon he was battling in talent shows and becoming a self-taught engineer/beatmaster on mentors J-Fresh and Sen Sal's equipment.

Growing up in a single-parent household, Tek had to alleviate some of the financial burden. Forgoing minimum-wage jobs, he entered the dope game.

His hustling stint didn't last long. Standing on the block with a friend one day, he realized God gave him a talent that shouldn't be wasted loitering and selling drugs.

Around 1992, MOOD and Tek hooked up and recorded the underground classic "Hustle on the Side." The single garnered enough attention to get MOOD a record deal, and the streets began buzzing with the name DJ Hi-Tek.

In 1997 MOOD released its first album, DOOM, with Tek doing most of the producing. The city became a blip on the Hip Hop radar with the album's success and put Tek's skills in demand.

His life would forever change after meeting Talib Kweli. Together with Mos Def, they concocted the seminal conscious CD Black Star.

In 2000 Tek and Kweli produced Reflection Eternal. The buzz was so deafening the CD was on repeat during commercial breaks at that year's Grammys. A commercial success, it foisted Tek into the spotlight, securing his spot on the rooster of top producers.

A year later he released his own album, Hi-Teknology. The project shook haters off with a kind of "told ya so" feel to it.

It was the chill-out, mind-elevating album of the year. Pulling out all the stops, he enlisted the help of friends and label mates such as Common, Cormega, Slum Village and Mos Def for the album.

Tek's beats aren't overly dramatic; they have a simplicity, yet grittiness, that doesn't overpower rhymes. The single "Round and Round," featuring native songbird Jonell, received heavy radio rotation.

Now Hip Hop has become commercialized and local radio has since fronted on Tek's skills.

"My own city don't have love for me," Tek says. "Atlanta and Detroit support their artists. Radio stations don't play my stuff."

Tek says the reason a lot of Cincinnati artists dwindle on the outskirts of national notoriety is "Cincinnati makes you second-guess yourself a lot."

Producing and making beats nationally and internationally, he describes himself as "the dude that sets the foundation."

"Without a beat, you ain't really got a song," he says. "The gift God gave me lets me know how a song is supposed to be."

Unlike most producers, Tek is a self-taught engineer and is proud that he knows every button in his studio. Mary J. Blige, Beanie Sigel, Morcheeba, Kweli and Def have all been recorded and/or remixed by Tek.

Last month he was in L.A. working with Dr. Dre on a new track with 50 Cent and G-Unit. He also worked with Snoop and Warren G for the upcoming 213 compilation album. Snoop is a TekLab favorite.

"We get shit done even if we're smoking and drinking," Tek says.

Lackluster city leadership and the boycott have left Tek jaded and pessimistic, looking for nurturing elsewhere.

"There's no culture here," he says. "It was better for black people 10 years ago." ©