Hi-Tek is one of the most underrated producers of all time. As one-half of Reflection Eternal alongside Talib Kweli and a former in-house producer for Dr. Dre’s Aftermath Records, the Cincinnati, OH native has carved out a legacy in both the underground and mainstream.
Ironically, some of Hi-Tek’s biggest records came from his time on Rawkus Records (Black Star's “Definition” and “Respiration,” Reflection Eternal's “The Blast,” Jonell's “Round & Round”) while his collaborations with 50 Cent, The Game and Snoop Dogg were often less popular—but nevertheless solid (and lucrative)—album cuts (“Get In My Car,” “Runnin,” “I Believe In You”).
It’s a fitting metaphor for Hi-Tek’s career: though he never conquered the radio or clubs like some of his peers, his music resonates with you in a much more intimate way. The way he breathes soul and emotion into crispy drums, funky basslines and neck-snapping snares is as valuable as any hit record or Platinum plaque.
Over the phone from his Cincinnati home, Hi-Tek reflects on five of his biggest songs while discussing his relationship with Talib Kweli, being taken under Dr. Dre’s wing and hunting down a verse from Mos Def at four in the morning.
Black Star — “Definition” (1998)
“Me and Kweli were working on the Reflection Eternal album with Rawkus—actually, it might have been an EP. Mos came up with the idea of collaborating with us—that’s how the Black Star project got started. He had an idea to revamp the ‘P Is Free’ beat by KRS-One. I would come to New York to spend weekends up there, and Mos had sung the hook to me in the Rawkus offices and sent me back home with the task. That was actually the first song we worked on for the Black Star project.
“I went home to my Cincinnati studio and just did what I felt from it. I think I made the beat on the MPC60. Basically, I just flipped the ‘P Is Free’ beat and put my own thing on it. I gave Mos the beat and he liked it. He flew me and Kweli out to LA— he was out there doing some movie stuff—and found a studio through a good friend of ours. Even when he gave me the idea, I felt like it was too simple for me. At the time, I felt like I had something to prove to separate myself from a lot of other East Coast producers. I always try to do something different.
“I knew I did that right. I like the way I did the snares and the kicks [on the original], but it wasn’t enough. Me being Hi-Tek, I wanted to do something real technical, which was flip the beat and transform it into something totally original—and that’s where ‘Re: Definition’ came from. I told Mos, ‘Lemme break it down and change the whole beat.’ He was like, ‘Do it!’ When I came up with it, it was me and Mos at like four, five in the morning.
“Mos was a superstar, man. He really started getting busy towards the middle of the album process. It almost didn’t come together if it wasn’t for me and Kweli. We had to finish up the album and force a few things together. Plus, a lot of the stuff we recorded in LA—the first version of ‘Definition’ and ‘Re: Definition,’ ‘Knowledge of Self,’ ‘Brown Skin Lady’—they got erased. We lost the ADATs. We had to rerecord ’em. Same beat, they just had to rerecord the vocals. ‘Knowledge of Self’ was actually a different beat which I changed.
“At the time, we were considered one of those groups that were ‘bringing hip-hop back.’ I never looked at it like that. I wouldn’t have minded any commercial success, I like having commercial success. I hated the term ‘backpacker.’ I just felt like we were making good music. With Puffy running the game at the time, Mos had a song on the Black Star album called ‘Children’s Story.’ I remember being in New York and hearing about Puff stepping to Mos about ‘Children’s Story’! He thought Mos was talking about him. Kweli was liked, ‘Yo, Puff just stepped to Mos and tried to check him about "Children’s Story"!’ I was like, ‘What?!’ That’s when we knew Puffy was gangsta [laughs].
“Those were my brothers, man. The reason I even started working with Kweli is because him and Mos would do poetry readings and freestyle sessions at his bookstore. Coming from Cincinnati, we didn’t have anything like that. Just watching them work together, I always felt like it was meant to be. Mos was already featured on De La’s album, he was already acting, and for him to put his album [Black on Both Sides] on hold and say, ‘Let’s do a Black Star album first,’ he didn’t have to do that. Being that we’re so used to working each other, you kinda take those things for granted. But it was definitely exciting. We all knew we had a mission and had something to prove and solidifying ourselves in hip-hop history.”
Reflection Eternal — “The Blast” (2000)
“That’s one of my favorite songs. At the time, I was pushing myself to be innovative. When people were catching loops, I thought they were chopping stuff. Like what Q-Tip and DJ Premier were doing—especially Tip. Tip is the king of loops. His stuff is so seamless. I was trying to do something different, so I time stretched a song that was one of my favorite songs as a kid and ran it through an auto wah pedal. I kinda stripped the sample all the way down. It was done on the MPC60, that was the first sampling drum machine I really worked on.
“That was the oldest beat on the album. I had made that beat when I was like 18 years old. We were coming to the end of the album, I had that beat but I had to add some more stuff to it. Originally, it was just a hi-hat, but I added in the shakers and the claps later when we recorded it in LA. I always thought in my heart that was one of the most beautiful pieces of music. It just had the right swing and feel to it. That’s how I ended up rapping on the beat, I was like, ‘Yo, this shit is so cold!’ I had 12 bars ready to go [laughs].
“The original ‘Blast’ as a single was doing really good, and the name of the game is to do a remix. If you look back at all the magazines, we were the rookies of the year at the time. But we were still underdogs and were having a hard time finding people we wanted to be on the remix. Our initial idea was to have Jill Scott on it. We couldn’t track her down, but Kweli was on tour with Erykah Badu at the time. I skipped on the tour to stay in the studio and work on my first album [Hi-Teknology]—that’s how we fell out, but that’s a whole ‘nother story. Anyway, she loved the song and hopped on it for the free free.
“I was introduced to Kweli by a group out of Cincinnati called Mood that I was working with. One day I was in the studio and they brought through Kweli’s demo. At the time, I was in a group with someone else—my man Lee, he’s from Cincinnati—but he was still in the streets. I heard Kweli’s demo and his voice was so different. He knew how to make songs.
“He heard my beats, I heard his rhymes and he came to Cincinnati and we recorded a couple of songs. From there, I asked him what he thought about starting a group—or me joining y’all’s group. His group was himself and Makeba Mooncycle, which was Reflection Eternal. Actually, I think the name was switched around: Eternal Reflection. I asked to join and that’s when he changed the name. It ended up just being me and him—a guy called Rubix would do songs with us occasionally—and we just kept working from there, man. The rest is history.”
50 Cent — “Get In My Car” (2005)
“I made the beat in Cincinnati at my studio, TekLab Studios. The first song I produced for Aftermath, Dre rapped on my beat. I don’t think people realize that, but my introduction to Aftermath was Dre rapping on The Truth Hurts album [Truthfully Speaking], on a song called ‘Hollywood.’ My relationship with Aftermath lead into Dre’s A&R, Mike Lynn, playing beats for 50 Cent.
“I forget the guy’s name, but he came through to the studio play some guitar. I wasn’t necessarily looking for anything in particular. I just wanted to do a jam session and whatever I’d catch, I’d chop it up later. A lot of times, I don’t hear it right away and then I’d go back to it periodically. I probably had an hour’s worth of guitar recorded and he played that riff, so I chopped it up, made the drum track and the rest is history.
“I remember getting that call [when ‘Get In My Car’ made the album]. I had a good relationship with Mike Lynn, he was a real Hi-Tek supporter. He was my go-between with Dre. I would mail my beat CDs to Mike and he would play them for Dre. Occasionally, I would get in the studio in LA with Dre’s artists. I would say those beats [‘Get In My Car’ and ‘Ryder Music’] were a year-and-a-half, two years old before they got placed. I never really shopped them around. I was just happy to be affiliated with Aftermath. I was landing so many tracks with Dre and my sound really complimented the Aftermath sound. That’s what lead me to getting a deal and becoming a part of the crew. Whether it was me, Denaun [Porter], [DJ] Khalil—we were like that Aftermath sound.
“That was a dream come true, just to be acknowledged by Dr. Dre—one of the best that ever did it. We’ve had the same type of life when it comes to music and coming from the ghetto and making something out of nothing. Dre is really good at producing artists and taking diamonds out of the rough and making them into big stars, as opposed to just regular underground rap artists. I have a great relationship with Dr. Dre; those doors have been open since we met.
“I’m spoiled, man. I was very honored to be a part of [The Massacre]. Being able to land two joints on the album that were very solid—for people to tell me those were some of their favorite songs on the album—it’s really humbling.”
Reflection Eternal — "Just Begun” ft. Jay Electronica, J. Cole & Mos Def (2010)
“That was one of those songs that really gave me that old feeling—and it let me know we still had it [laughs]. Young Guru was in the studio with me at the time. I was working on the beat, chopping up the drums. Jay Electronica was on the radar at the time and [me and Kweli] were like, ‘Let’s see if we can get him on it.’ Kweli went back to New York and got Jay in the studio to do it. He brought the vocals back to me and when I heard it I was like, ‘Wow!’ Kweli had to rewrite his verse! [Laughs]. Hearing Jay rock on that beat was magic.
“Then getting J. Cole on it, that was Kweli, he conquered that mission. A lot of times when artists get big, they get busy. It’s hard to get them to come to the studio or whatever. Anyway, Cole knocked it out with no problem, probably a couple weeks after Jay Electronica dropped his verse. Jay’s verse really set the tone for the whole song.
“Tracking down Mos was almost impossible at the time [laughs]. I had to bum rush him at the studio. Dame Dash had a studio in New York—I think it was in SoHo—so I went down there. It was about three, four in the morning and I stayed up with Mos to make sure he got it done [laughs]. I remember playing the song for Mos and it had Kweli, Jay Electronica and Cole’s verses, and Mos was like, ‘Y’all niggas already killed it! What am I supposed to do with this?’ If you listen to Mos’ verse, it’s really complicated. He came with some crazy shit on that song.
“When we finished the Train of Thought album, I think [me and Kweli] were so tired of each other. We were bumping heads a lot; it was like a relationship gone bad. One of the last straws for me was when we did ‘The Blast’ remix, [Kweli] tried to mix it himself. The label was gonna put it out, it was all fucked up. If you know me, that’s my music and that’s my department. And he was mad at me because I didn’t go on the Erykah Badu tour with him, but I was up against the wall with Rawkus with my solo project. There was a lot of bickering at that time.
“Next thing you know, you look up and five, ten years have passed. In between time, I was open to [reuniting], but it was hard to sit us down because Kweli lives on the road. He was doing like 200 shows a year. [When we finally got back together to do Revolutions Per Minute], it just wasn’t the same. I had tracks, he had lyrics, but the chemistry wasn’t there. We never really sat down in the studio, put all the other shit aside and just worked. At the end of the day, we got the album done. It’s still solid, but the chemistry isn’t as good as the first album.
“Right now, we’re good. Me and Kweli, we’re like brothers, man. I think we’ll be able to get in the studio together soon actually.”
Anderson .Paak — “Come Down” (2016)
“This is a good story. That beat—well, the bassline—I recorded that idea during the second Reflection Eternal album. I kept going back to it every so often, but I could never find the right drum pattern for it. One day, in 2015, I finally figured it out. I was chopping these drums up and it just clicked in my head, so I went back to that bassline. It was maybe 100 BPMs at the time, so I slowed it down—the Anderson .Paak joint is 98 BPMs, so I didn’t have to slow it down too much—but I slowed it down and added it to the drum track.
“I brought it home and let my kids hear it and was like, ‘What y’all think?’ Those are like my little A&Rs. They were like, ‘I like it, daddy!’ Anderson had DMd me on Twitter and said, ‘Wassup, I’m trying to get some stuff from you. I’m wrapping my album up. I wanna see what you got.’ At the time, he had just been featured on the Compton album with Dr. Dre. I was really honored that he had reached out to me. I knew he was about to blow. So I asked him what he was looking for and he said, ‘I want a ‘Devil’s Pie’-type joint.’ I was like, ‘Yo, God works in mysterious ways. I got it already!’ I had just worked on the track like three weeks before he hit me up.
“I sent him the track. He hit me right back asking for a couple more. Usually, when artists do that, it means they don’t like what you sent them [laughs]. A month later, he hit me out of the blue and was like, ‘I’m working on your joint tonight.’ Then he hit me back a few days later and sent me the finished vocals, and I was like, ‘Wow, this shit’s outta here!’ I asked him, ‘Anything else you hearing on the track?’ He was like, ‘Think you can add some guitar?’ That’s where you hear more of the rock-type guitar when his verse starts, that was his idea. I had my man Cameron Brown—great guitarist, a young cat from Cincinnati—he played those guitar parts.
“That song has gotten so many licenses, from ESPN to NBA and a lot of movies. It feels good because it lets me know if you genuinely feel the music that you do, that’s the same way other people are going to feel it. As a producer, you need the artist to feel it the same way. I could have given that same track to another artist and they would’ve slept on it, but Anderson… the way he attacked it reminds me of, like, James Brown. I salute Anderson, man. He gave me a chance to reinvent that Hi-Tek sound. That’s what people like from me.”