Whenever anyone mentions soulful loops and hard drums, a number of producers come to mind. However, only a few are able to take a sample and create an entirely different vibe. Legends like DJ Premier, Buckwild and Large Professor come to mind. However, if Ayatollah is not on that same list, something is wrong.
Besides producing classic songs like “Ms. Fat Booty” for Mos Def and “The Life” for Pharoahe Monch and Styles P, Ayatollah has played an instrumental role in Cormega’s career, most recently for producing “Rapture” on the QB product’s critically-acclaimed album Born and Raised. For most producers, working with the likes of Tragedy Khadafi and Rakim would be enough, but for ‘Tollah, it’s not. The legendary producer has kept himself busy the last five years releasing a string of instrumental albums that give fans something to nod their head to while deepening their appreciation for the way Ayatollah approaches and hones his craft.
Cocoon, Ayatollah’s fifth instrumental album, gives fans what they want in soulful productions with the head-nod factor being off the charts. The Queens-bred producer sits down with HipHopGame to talk about Cocoon, his production techniques, helping out other producers, a potentially budding rap career and much more in this exclusive interview.
Your new instrumental album Cocoon is out now. What approach did you take on this instrumental album?
It was kind of the same approach. It’s basically the same approach where I made a bunch of instrumentals and picked the best ones. I played about 100-150 different beats and I picked the best ones out of those to put on the album and that’s what I came up with. I just put those on the album Cocoon.
How did you determine which beats you picked?
Sometimes it’s the tempo. Sometimes it’s the sample. Sometimes it’s whether it’s a hardcore track or a mellow type of beat. It’s all depending on my mood. If I want to pick a hardcore beat on my album, I’ll pick something hardcore and if I want something mellow, I’ll pick a mellow beat. It’s all depending on my mood, I guess.
What does the title Cocoon mean to you?
Like a transformation. Like a transformation, so to speak. I’m just trying to break out and do something new, like something a little bit different from what I was doing in my previous years of doing music. Cocoon is changing from one thing to the next, like a transition. That’s what I look at it as.
How would you describe your change?
I think my music is getting a little bit more mature. I think it’s more mature now. It’s not just a whole bunch of beats thrown together. I try to throw them together with a purpose now. With each album I do I try to set a mood. It’s not just a bunch of beats thrown together.
When you listen to your earlier instrumental albums like Louder, do you hear how you might do that differently today?
I hear a difference in the albums and I hear a difference in the albums. I feel they’ve gotten more mature. The other albums I was doing, I was just putting them out. I did them with a purpose, but I’m getting older now and I look at things differently now. I think my sound has matured and I think my music has matured as of late.
You’ve been in the game for a long time. How do you make sure you’re still growing as a producer?
I just stay creative. I try to just work on music as much as I can. I listen to music every day, even if I’m not making beats I’m still listening to music. I just try to stay creative as I can. It’s not even hip-hop. It could be rock music, soul music, reggae or opera. I just keep my ears to the music. Even if I’m not making beats, I’m still listening.
How did the video for “Reefer” come about?
Oh, that right there, it was like a day in the life. We went to the record store and the label wanted to shoot a video of me at the record store and just walking around town. It was cool. It was kind of a spur of the moment-type thing but it came out good. We didn’t put too much thought into the “Reefer” video but it came out hot. They said they were going to film me and put my music behind it and see what happens and that’s what came out. We didn’t really plan for that one, we just did it.
When you listen to your beats, do you see potential videos in them?
Oh yeah. All the time. All the time. I feel like I need to put more visuals out for my beats. That’s what I need to do now. I got so much material and no visuals. We’re living in the age that’s visual. I’m trying to put more visuals out. You gotta have a video out for your music.
As you’re making beats, do those visions come to you or is it after the beat is finished that you see what it can be?
Sometimes they do. Not all the time, but sometimes they do. Sometimes those visions come to me, like when you’re making a beat and you can see it being in a video with this and that and this color and those types of things in the video. Yeah. It happens. It happens. It all depends on the beat though. It all depends on the music.
Have your production techniques changed over the last few years?
Not really. They have, but for the most part, my technique for making beats has been the same. For me, it’s been successful so I’m not really going to change them up. I haven’t really changed it up too much, but I have made some improvements on certain things but I haven’t changed it up too much.
What do you listen for in samples today before you decide to flip it?
The music in the sample. The arrangement of the music in the sample itself. The melodies. The voices, the vocals in the sample. I listen to everything. The keys. The changes in the chords. I listen to all those things. The pattern of the sample. The tempo. The actual tune of the music actually being sampled. The clarity of the music itself. Yeah, I listen to all of that stuff.
What artists have you been able to sample the best?
For me, personally, I like a lot of Donny Hathaway. I’ve sampled a lot of Donny Hathaway. Sly and the Family Stone. Some Kraftwerk. I like to sample a lot of Kraftwerk music. Aretha, of course. Aretha Franklin, of course. The list goes on and on but those are some of the few that I like to sample.
Who do you want to sample that you haven’t gotten to yet?
There’s a couple. I definitely want to listen to some of The Who. I want to listen to some of their music and check them out. There’s a lot of groups, man. There’s a lot of groups that I want to listen to, like the Electric Light Orchestra. I want to check them out. There’s a couple of groups but I don’t want to give them all away though.
Do you still rock exclusively on the MPC?
Yeah, still on the MPC and I got my keyboard modules and things of that nature, but for the most part, the base of my sampling comes from the MPC, still, to this day.
What model do you use?
The 62, the MPC 62. Premier still uses it and Hi-Tek still uses it. And those are the two that I know that are still using the MPC 62. That’s the one I still use.
What do you like about that model as opposed to the newer models?
Because it’s easier to use. For me, it’s easy to use and the screens are easy to operate. All of the screens are easy to get to. I’ve learned that machine so well. That’s the machine I choose to work and I know it so well so why switch to anything at this point?
Why did you make Cocoon a digital-only release?
Digitally, you get paid faster. When you put out digital releases, you don’t have to wait as long to get a turnaround. That’s one of the main reasons why I chose to go digital, actually, because you get paid faster as opposed to physical releases. It takes longer to get paid for your albums. Digital is the way for me to go and digitally, your album gets out to more of the fans and to more people. Physically you can only get in a couple of stores. Digitally you can go worldwide. I just chose to do that. It was just a smarter business move for me.
Why don’t you drop compilation albums with artists as opposed to instrumental albums?
The reason I choose to do instrumentals is I don’t like to wait on artists. A lot of times you have to wait for the artist to get done with what they’re doing. A lot of the ones that I want to get to are on tour and overseas. Personally I would rather wait and not have to wait on any artists. I would rather just put it out and not have to wait on anybody. That’s the main reason I do instrumentals, because I don’t have to wait on any artists. I can just do it myself.
Has that been a source of frustration over the years?
Yeah, waiting for artists to get back to you and being on their schedule. It’s just too frustrating for me. I would rather just work on my own schedule and get it done on my own watch. Sometimes an artist takes too long and sometimes they don’t get back to you and I just don’t want to wait for that. I would rather just get it done.
You and Marco Polo did a video about how you helped him when he first got to New York. You don’t normally hear about producers helping each other out.
I’m confident. A lot of producers aren’t confident. They’re very insecure. Me, for one, I’m very confident in what I do and I’m very confident in my sound and my music. I feel like if I want to, I can help another producer if I choose to and I like what they’re doing because I’m confident. If I wasn’t then I wouldn’t be reaching out to other producers because I would be insecure. But I’m confident in my sound and my music and if I like another producer's music and they want help, I can give them a couple of pointers here and there. But a lot of producers are very insecure. That’s what I’ve realized. They’re very insecure and I’m not one of them. I’m confident.
Did you really name Marco Polo too?
Yep. Yep. I came up with that when we were in Toronto, Canada. We were just talking and listening to music and he told me he didn’t have a producer name and his name was Marco and I just started calling him Marco Polo and he said he was going to run with it. It was just that simple. It’s that simple.
What was it like getting back with Cormega on “Rapture”?
Oh, that was cool. Cormega’s a good friend of mine. Even if we’re not doing music, that’s a good homeboy and me and him just kick it, whether we’re doing music or not. Working on “Rapture” was dope. Being in the studio and watching him do his verse was dope. Throughout my career, I think he’s one of the dopest MCs. He’s one of the dopest MCs I’ve worked with to this date. It was an honor, definitely, and he knows what he’s doing. When he’s in the studio, he works. He’s professional. It’s the same thing with me. I’m professional in the studio.
Why do you think you guys have had such good chemistry over the years?
‘Cause he understands my sound. He understands the sound of my music. He knows what I’m trying to do when I make a beat. He understands what type of story I’m trying to tell with the music. When we get together it sounds like it was meant to be. He knows what I was thinking about when I made the beat so therefore he tells me he’ll put the words to it for me. It’s almost like a marriage between the beats and the lyrics.
Are you going to get back with Tragedy now that he’s back?
We may work in the future. We may be working in the future. We just gotta map it out and see what we gotta do and we may be working in the future, yep. I would say so.
Who are you looking to work with next?
Honestly, I’m looking forward to working with myself because I’m starting to write lyrics to my own music now. I’m writing to my own beats now so I might be working on my own little album actually. It’s just me alone with my own album, writing to my own beats for the whole album. No guest appearances or nothing, just me. My own album. That’s my next thing that I’m going to be working on.
What made you want to go that route?
The same reason I said before – so I don’t have to wait for other artists and be waiting on them and their schedules. I would rather just do it myself. I don’t like to wait. I would like to get it done myself.
How’s Ayatollah sounding as a rapper?
The people who have heard me, they’re surprised. I just did an in-store at Fat Beats for Cocoon and I did a 16 bar verse for the people that were there and it was crazy because after I was finished, they were clapping and everything. It was wild because I don’t really consider myself an MC, but I do know one thing – I do have a lot to say. When I write, I have a lot to say. When I saw all those people clap for me, I realized I had to do more of this because they obviously like it. I just had to keep writing.
When do you think you’ll have something for the rest of the world to hear?
I would say in about two months, if not sooner.
What’s the last beat you heard that you loved?
It would have to be Dilla. It would have to be “EMC2.” I think it’s on The Shining album.