The inside of the CD case of Hi-Tek’s new album, “Hi-Teknology 2: The Chip” says it all about Tony Cottrell’s accomplished but underappreciated career.
A soundboard is proudly displayed with a label in between buttons and switches that reads, “Nas, Me, Common.”
Those are the kinds of big names in the hip-hop industry that Hi-Tek has worked with since beginning his professional career as a DJ in the late 1990s. In many cases, such as with BlackStar’s self-titled album in 1998 and his collaborative effort with Talib Kweli on 2000’s “Train of Thought,” Hi-Tek has been the man behind the scenes, key in piecing together instrumentals for some of the underground hip-hop culture’s defining albums.
The Cincinnati-based Hi-Tek uses “Hi-Teknology 2,” a superlative anthology of the finest hip-hop voices from all over the map, to give fans something new while at the same time paying homage to his roots.
Several songs stand out, but it is clear which is best among the 15 tracks – the last one, “Music for Life.” The song spans nearly seven minutes and features an unbelievable collage of performers, including Nas, Common, Busta Rhymes, J. Dilla and Floetry’s Marsha Ambrosius.
The song uses a phone message recording of “next message,” to segway from one emcee to the next.
Nas’ verse, as always, is exceptional: “It started with rhymes I heard listenin’ to the wall, The bouncin’ of basketballs on playgrounds and all. Father did his blues smooth, legendary jazz man, saw his wife secondary to his true passion.”
Hi-Tek himself holds his own with the others on the track, saying: “My whole life, man, is really music, through my bass line I’m livin’ through it. Through this music I’m able to feed the family, when I’m stressed out, it’s my sanity.”
Common reminisces of his childhood: “So vital to a youngster, comin’ up amongst street hustlers. Givin’ the ghetto a taste of what freedom is like, I reached a point in my life where I was needin’ the mic.”
At the end of the beautifully woven lyrics, the listener is thrown for a loop when the narrator says, “first skipped message.” What follows is J. Dilla (in a mocking tone) taking on a Top 40 mindset, bragging about his reputation and how others can’t “playa hate.”
The segment at the end shows the contrast between what Hi-Tek is all about – producing conscious hip-hop albums with messages and allegories – and the MTV form of rap that is more about making money and getting radio play than saying something of social significance.
Another song, “Josephine,” tells the story of a prostitute who eventually rights her life and rises above prior hardships, but only after she has acquired AIDS. Ghostface Killah leads off the vocals with a verse about how he grew up in the same neighborhood as the woman before Pretty Ugly speaks of how – after also growing up with her – he sees her many years later only to learn her years are numbered. A sorrowful chorus from the Willie Cottrell Band separates the verses: “The rain won’t wash away your sins, you’ll be here to do them all over again. Up all night under the party lights, same old popping and party hopping, all of your so-called friends are leading you down the wrong road.”
The second-to-last song, “So Tired,” features Bun B, Devin the Dude and Dion discussing how they want to lead more responsible lives, but the difficulties in doing so because of the alcohol/drug culture surrounding touring with a band.
No single track on the CD feels more like a Hi-Tek song than “Can We Go Back,” which features verses from Kweli and a mesmerizing chorus from Ayak.
The song likely to get the most radio play, “Where it Started At,” is a masterpiece in its own right, featuring Kweli, Jadakiss, Raekwon the Chef, Papoose and Dion dropping spirited lyrics paying tribute to their New York roots.
Immediately after that track, however, is a song – “1-800-Homicide” featuring The Game – that leaves the listener wishing for more. The Game’s rhymes always pack a punch, and this song is no exception: “Every city’s got Crips and Bloods, but since ‘Pac died there ain’t been no California love.” It is a catchy and provocative West Coast response of sorts to the New York version, but lasts less than two minutes.
One track is just plain fun. In “Think I Got a Beat,” Hi-Tek’s toddler son, given the recording name of Lil’ Tone, makes a short, solid instrumental by using a toy keyboard.
In the end, “Hi-Teknology 2” has something for everyone. It features an all-star cast of vocalists, 15 tracks with diverse themes and is a prime example of why DJs are so important in the hip-hop universe.