From producing classic hip hop tracks to releasing a myriad of solo instrumental albums, it’s producers like Ayatollah that really put a formidable impact on the game. Known famously for the song he produced for Mos Def called “Ms. Fat Booty,” Ayatollah has been knocking out dope beats since the 90s. He has worked with a plethora of classic hip hop artists (many of which you’ll read about) and is a classic hip hop artist in his own right.
Well, this phenomenal producer, DJ and more was cool enough to kick it with me and answer a few questions for The Hip Hop Speakeasy. Being one of my favorite producers of all time, it was more than an honor to speak with the man himself. If you want to be inspired and awed by this man like I am, read the interview below to really get behind the man behind the music.
Q: Why don’t you introduce yourself so we can get to know you a little bit?
A: “Alright, for those that may not know who I am, [I’m] a hip hop music producer. [I] go by the name of Ayatollah, from New York City, born in Queens. I love music; probably heard a lot of my music, you just couldn’t put the face with the name, but [I’ve worked] with so many different artists, underground, commercial. I don’t like to separate the two, but it’s been categorized like that. I’m still working with many different artists; I’ve worked with Mos Def, Talib Kweli, some of the Wu-Tang members, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, a lot of different hip hop artists. Cormega, Tragedy Khadafi, [laughs] aw man, the list goes on and on. Styles P, Pharoahe Monch, Boot Camp Clik, Buckshot, Smif-n-Wessun, Sean Price [laughs], you name them!”
Q: [Laughs] Could you tell us where the name Ayatollah came from?
A: “The name Ayatollah was given to me by another artist that I worked with, his name is Tragedy Khadafi. He also went by the name of the Intelligent Hoodlum and he was the one that gave me that name as a producer. He gave it to me when I was producing and it just stuck with me. It has a spiritual background to the name, you know, I believe Ayatollah means “spiritual leader,” so I guess in some ways I’m somewhat of a spiritual leader through the music I make. I guess when Tragedy gave me that name he kind of saw that, but you just have to cultivate the name and this is what I’ve done.”
Q: Alright, so why don’t we take it back to when you were younger, and as a kid, what were the artists that you deemed were your favorites? Were they any particular albums that you really liked?
A: “Wow, yeah I have a lot of different artists I listened to when I was younger. I’ll say Kool G Rap, Big Daddy Kane, of course Rakim, KRS-One, the Juice Crew, MC Shan, Biz Markie, you know all those guys [were] people I used to listen to everyday. I can even take it back to groups like Ultramagnetic MC’s, you know, stuff like that. I used to listen to so many different artists, but those are like the core, core artists that I used to listen to on a constant basis, kind of the founding fathers of hip hop.”
Q: Uh-huh, and were there any albums that were your favorite?
A: “For me, my favorite hip hop album ever, I would say Ultramagnetic MC’s: Critical Beatdown, their first album. Yeah, with Kool Keith and Ced Gee and they had a DJ named Moe Love. Ced Gee was doing all the production, but I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Ultramagnetic MC’s, are you?”
Q: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. Definitely, yeah.
A: “Yeah, so that’s my favorite album. To me, the beats, even now, that album is a classic; they were sampling back in 1986, they were doing things that other artists weren’t even thinking about with sampling and hip hop breaks that were never used before and now it’s like everyone’s using them, but they were the first hip hop group to even touch the samples at that time. They were very, very innovative, to me.”
Q: Yeah, I agree, that album is definitely a classic right there. A little bit down the line, what was it that got you into hip hop music and made you decide to become an artist?
A: “Hm, what got me into hip hop? I would say me living in New York and Queens and being around [hip hop], that’s the thing. You would go outside the door and you would just hear all these great songs as a kid and as a teenager and going to block parks and seeing DJs in parks spinning records [with] big speakers and a whole bunch of people there, [and] rappers and break dancing and graffiti artists all around me. I was surrounded by it. I was just so interested in it at the time because it’s so energetic, it had a lot of energy to it…it’s just so energetic [laughs]! I got taken in by it, not only just music, but the break dancing, like I said, the pop and the rock and the graffiti, all these different things. I was drawn to it as a young kid growing up in New York [laughs].”
Q: Yeah, and was there a particular producer that inspired you or influenced you to get started?
A: “I would have to say the producer that inspired me to actually start producing myself, I would have to say would be Marley Marl. He produced a lot of the Juice Crew records and MC Shan, Big Daddy Kane, and Kool G Rap…are you familiar with Marley Marl?”
Q: Yeah, of course, yeah, yeah.
A: “Yeah, he really brought me on the production side of things. It’s funny, when I met him, he actually had given me a drum machine to start producing on. He gave it to me.”
Q: Marley Marl gave you a drum machine?! Oh my God [laughs].
A: “Yeah, he actually gave me two drum machines. He gave an EMU SP-12 – that was the machine he used for the MC Shan record, “The Bridge.”
Q: Oh my God [laughs]!
A: “Yeah. He produced the record “The Bridge” with that machine; he gave me that. I didn’t really like it, I didn’t know how to use it, it was sort of difficult to use, so I gave it back to him. After that, he gave me an Akai MPC 60 II. Once I got that, I just started making a ton of music.”
Q: That’s ridiculous [laughs]!
A: “Yeah, that was my gift from Marley Marl, he gave me an MPC 60. I was like, wow, I have to make music on this. It’s like he kind of passed the torch to me, so I had to do the right thing and use this machine, and I’ve done that and still am doing that.”
Q: Is that your main instrument of making music, the MPC 60? Or do you have a different machine that you do now?
A: “Nah, I’m strictly [using] the MPC 60 II. Yeah, that’s it. That’s the main hardware that I use. I have other little hardware that I use, but that’s my main hardware to produce music.”
Q: Now as far as making the beats themselves, what do you think is your favorite record that you’ve ever sampled?
A: “My favorite record that I ever sampled, I would have to say the record that I sampled when I had produced the song that I produced for Mos Def, “Ms. Fat Booty.” I had sampled an Aretha Franklin record, an old Aretha Franklin record from like the 1960s. The song was called “One Step Ahead,” and I sampled that. I just liked the song, personally, before I even sampled it, I just listened to it a lot, you know, I just liked the way it sounded. One day I was in the studio, and I was just like I’m just going to try and sample this and try and make a beat out of the song. I think I made three or four different versions of that beat and one of them just stuck with me. That happened to be the one that Mos Def heard at the time and when he heard it and just went crazy like, “Wow, I need to have this on my album!” That was that, he and I got in the studio, recorded it, I laid the beat down for him and while I was laying the beat down, he was writing next to me, writing the lyrics while I was putting the beat together in the studio. We made a hip hop classic.”
Q: Yeah, wow, that’s crazy! So when you’re looking for a sample, what do you usually listen for? Is it a certain genre, a certain mood? What is it that grabs your attention when you pick a sample?
A: “I listen to a lot of different genres, I like a lot of obscure music myself. I listen for a lot of emotion, I listen for music that has emotion. It has to be emotional, it can’t just be something [that] when I listen to it, I don’t feel anything, I have to feel a certain way when I hear music. It has to bring on emotion, you know? Something powerful has to be on the record before I even want to sample it. Other than that, I won’t even waste my time sampling it, I’ll just listen to something else that I find powerful enough to sample. So it’s got to be emotional, basically, the music has to have emotion to it.”
Q: Yeah definitely, I can understand that. So you already talked about the classic track you made with Mos Def, “Ms. Fat Booty” – Yasiin Bey now – after producing that track, you had a beat on the famous Soundboming 3 project. How did that end up happening? Did you reach out to them or did they reach out to you, how did that work?
A: “Mmm-hmm, the funny thing is I was doing a lot of work with Rawkus Records at that time because, at the time, my manager was the actual A&R at Rawkus Records. So a lot of the musicians and artists that were on the label, I kind of had first dibs, I would submit my music first to a lot of these artists on the label. So that’s how I got placed on a lot of those songs, because my manager was the A&R at Rawkus Records. It was kind of a…a good thing [laughs].”
Q: Yeah [laughs]. I also saw in an interview, R.A. the Rugged Man says that he was the first artist to ever buy a beat from you, is that true?
A: “Yeah, it is true. R.A. the Rugged Man is one of the first artists that actually bought music that I produced. He is one of the first, I’m not sure if he’s the first, but he’s definitely one of the first.”
Q: How’d you guys end up meeting other, how’d that all work out?
A: “We actually, me and R.A., I was living in Queens, New York and he lived two blocks away from me. We happened to find out that we lived near one another and I got his number and gave him a call and I literally walked over to his house from where I lived because he lived that close and didn’t know it. I went over there and played beats for him and he was working on his album at the time, it was the Die, Rugged Man, Die album. I let him hear the beat for “Chains.” I let him hear that beat and he was like, “I want to use this for my album.” He put that on his album and we made a nice record. Me, I produced it, and Masta Killah, Killah Priest and R.A. the Rugged Man [were on it]. So that’s how “Chains” came about, the song “Chains.”
Q: Small world [laughs].
A: “Yeah, we lived right next to each other, so we kind of just hooked up and when I played some music for him, he was like “I like it, so let’s get in the studio and make it happen” [laughs].”
Q: Yeah, that’s nice [laughs]. Since your first instrumental album So Many Reasons to Rhyme back in 2003, you’ve put out a whole bunch of instrumental albums, most recently Fingertips back in 2011. What serves as the inspiration for these albums? Is it different for every one, is it a certain music you’re listening to at that time, a certain event that occurs? What inspires each album?
A: “You know, I get inspiration from so many different places. Basically, I just go in to my own little musical realm and just make music. I just turn the phone off, turn the TV off and just let the music play and come up with different stuff. I record it, listen back to it and see how it all sounds and the end result.”
Q: What’s your favorite instrumental album that you’ve released out of all of them?
A: “I would have to say Now Playing. That was 2006, but that was on the label Nature Sounds, an independent label based out of Brooklyn. Now Playing, I’m not sure if you’ve heard that album but that’s my favorite out of all of the instrumental albums that I’ve done. There’s been a couple, but that’s the one that kind of sticks with me.”
Q: Yeah, I can honestly say I’ve bought every single one of your instrumental albums and I love that one.
A: “Ah thank you, I appreciate it! The funny thing is, all those instrumental albums that I’ve released, I would honestly have to say, [Now Playing] is like the tip of the iceberg of what people have heard. Like I have stuff that I have now that nobody’s even heard. I’ve had instrumental albums like ready to go that nobody’s even heard [and are] four or five time better than what I’ve put out. Very experimental, just different styles of music and just pushing the envelope with the music; it’s a little more than just hip hop. I’m trying to wait so I can release that so we’ll see what happens.”
Q: Really? Since I first heard that Mos Def beat, honestly, it was just a given that I had to hear all of your stuff and I went out and got all of it. I ended up getting the Live from the MPC 60, which had Cocoon, Quixotic and Drum Machine all on three CDs, and I heard all the rest, but that one that you mentioned, I’ve never heard of that, when did that come out?
A: “Which album are we talking about?”
Q: It was the one that you said nobody’s ever heard.
A: “Oh, those are just albums that I have in my computer in the lab that nobody’s ever heard.”
Q: Ohh, ohh, ohh ok.
A: “I don’t know when those are going to be released. I just did something for Japan, a Japan instrumental album. I’m waiting for a release date for that, it’s called Tollahmania and that’s coming soon, but it’s only going to be released in Japan.”
Q: Guess I have to go to Japan [laughs].
A: “Or you can go online, and I think it’s going to be on vinyl. That’s going to be cool. I just gave that to them not too long ago, so that’ll probably be my next music release.”
Q: Aww yeah [laughs]. So does that have Japanese sounds on it or…?
A: “No that’s just beats. These are beats that you won’t hear on other instrumental albums, these are brand new beats.”
Q: Nice. So you’ve been with Nature Sounds for quite a bit releasing albums with them. Do you see yourself working with another label moving on?
A: “Honestly, I would like to work with a whole bunch of different labels. Major record labels, music labels, independent labels… To be honest with you, I don’t think Nature Sounds at this point, I don’t think that they can keep up with my production of music. I produce music at such a rapid rate, I don’t think that they’re able to really release the music as much as I’m creating it. It’s forcing to me to find other avenues of putting my music out, because, at this point, they’re not able to keep up with me! I’m looking for a label that can work with my production wave, like I want to be able to release something every month!”
Q: Oh my God [laughs], that’d be sick!
A: “That’s just how I work on music; I’m able to put something out religiously if I had a label that could keep up with me. And compensate me financially.”
Q: Was there any label particularly that you were looking at?
A: “Stones Throw. I would like to get in touch with Peanut Butter Wolf and sit down with him and speak to him and see what could happen.”
Q: Nice, that’d be sick. You listed a bunch when we started talking, but from Royce da 5’9” to Rakim to Masta Ace to Guru, you’ve worked with some of hip hop’s finest emcees. Which one do you feel fit best over your beat?
A: “Wow! Which emcee that I worked with fit best over my beat…wow! That’s a difficult question because there’s been so many and I like a lot of them, the songs that we did. Wow… To be honest with you, I like them, I like all of them, but the one that sticks out to me is, I would have to say Mos Def. I would have to say him because I was there in the studio when he wrote for the beat and I was there when he went in the booth when he did the lyrics. To see and to witness that was really, really cool and I was like, “Oh wow, he’s a really talented artist. He’s a really talented emcee.” So I would have to say Mos Def.”
Q: Have you or will you ever try to get back in touch with him and get back in the studio?
A: “That’s funny you asked that because we spoke a couple of days ago actually and we spoke on not only music, but some other things, as well. I’d rather not go into it, but it’s all positive, all positive. But we’re speaking on the music thing, too, working together, but something bigger than that, also.
Q: Oh wow, alright, looking forward to that then [laughs]. So which emcee were you most honored to have rap over one of your beats and why?
A: “I would have to say Rakim. Why Rakim, because he’s a legend. I’ve been listening to Rakim since 1985 when I was a young teenager. I was watching his videos and buying his albums, you know? I was a fan of him before I got to meet him and be in the studio with him. It was an honor, definitely an honor to even be in his presence. To me he’s a hip hop mega-star. Like I said, being in the studio with him, right there with him, that’s saying a lot for him to even want to be putting his words to the music that I made is an honor itself.”
Q: Yeah, he’s definitely a legend. Well in your discography, it says that you’ve produced the entirety of three albums: one by Okai, one by Satchel Page and the most recent one by Moka Only.”
A: “Yeah, Okai, Satchel Page is another cool emcee and Moka Only, he’s from Vancouver, Canada. That’s the latest one I did.”
Q: Yeah, do you favor producing an entire album or providing beats for an entire album, or giving just one or two really dope beats for a project?
A: “I would do both, I can provide one or two tracks for an album or I can produce the whole album, depends on the artist I’m working with. I prefer producing the whole album myself because you get more of an impact.”
Q: Ok, well in recent news, you became the producer for the group T.H.U.G. Angelz, a group with Hell Razah and Shabazz the Disciple. How did this transpire? Did they ask you and how do you guys know each other?
A: “Yes. I met Razah through the label Nature Sounds, he’s one of the artists that’s on the label with R.A. the Rugged Man and through Razah, I met Shabazz the Disciple. I believe Razah had a couple of beats of mine that I had given him and he and Shabazz did songs to them. I had heard them and we just kind of decided to form a group and we called it T.H.U.G. Angelz. Well they called it T.H.U.G. Angelz but they wanted me to produce the whole album. So that’s how that came about.”
Q: Does T.H.U.G. stand for anything? Because it’s all capitalized and acronym-looking [laughs].
A: “Uhh, I wouldn’t know. Like I said, I just produce the music, you’d have to ask them for that.”
Q: Ah, ok. Do you know if there will be a new album coming out from T.H.U.G. Angelz anytime soon?
A: “At this time, Razah’s actually recovering – he got sick – so he’s recovering right now and he’s not able to… He’s writing songs, he’s writing, but he’s not actually able to record right now. Until he recovers, I’m not sure there’ll be a project until he recovers fully.”
Q: Ohh ok. You mentioned before you have the instrumental album you’re hoping to be released, but do you have any other projects in the works?
A: “One project I’m working on, I’m not really rushing it, I’m taking my time, is I’m producing my own album, but I’ll be the artist rhyming on those beats. I’ll be the actual emcee on those beats, so that’s what I’m working on now. And that’s going to take some time, but I’m not in a rush. I got a couples songs, maybe two or three that I’ve done already and I like the way they sound, but every song I record, I have to step it up lyrically. That’s my goal to myself, I have to always try to out-do myself lyrically on each song, because me writing lyrics to my songs is new for me. I’m just trying to do it as best as I can, but that’s definitely a new arena.”
Q: That’d actually be cool to hear you rapping over your own beats.
A: “Yeah, that’s next, that’s where I’m at now as opposed to working with a whole bunch of different artists. I’ve kind of done that and I’m ready to see how I would sound on my own beats, because nobody knows my music better than myself, so I feel like I know how to tailor the music. I feel like I can tailor my lyrics to the beats.”
Q: Mmhmm. Why don’t we talk about your recent albums you let out by starting with Fingertips, your solo album back in 2011. How do you feel that album turned out and how to you think it’s been received so far? Have you heard anything?
A: “It’s been, for the people that know this album, they enjoy it. I’m not too sure if it was promoted and marketed properly, it could have been promoted and marketed better, but for the people that knew it was out and purchased it, they were satisfied. It was a great album, but I just think it wasn’t promoted or marketed to the extent that it could’ve been. Because that’s really important, when you put out music, you need to market and promote it well. Whatever steam it built up, it built up on its own, you know, by word of mouth. But I enjoyed creating it, I enjoyed making it.”
Q: And Bridges with Moka Only, how has the receptions been for that one?
A: “Yeah, the Bridges album, people like that album because Moka Only, he’s such a different type of emcee, it’s just so different than what people are used to me releasing as music working with different emcees. Working with Moka was something totally different and a lot of people like it for the people that know of that Bridges album. They like it, it’s different. Moka Only is a different type of emcee. He reminds me of Del tha Funkee Homosapien, but from Vancouver, Canada. I was glad that I worked with Moka, I was glad that we did the album, it was a really good album. Actually, speaking about that, we’re thinking about doing another one, Bridges 2, a whole ‘nother album. I’d produce all the music, you know, and it’s just a continuation like another bridge.”
Q: Yeah, yeah that’d be dope! Now did you actually get in the studio with him?
A: “We just kind of did the email thing. I would email him the music and he would go to the studio and record and then send it back to me. I wasn’t able to get into the studio with him. Maybe on the new one… The first album I wasn’t in the studio [with him].”
Q: Aight. So as a producer, looking at hip hop right now, what producer do you dig the most?
A: “Wow, huh… Well, unfortunately, one of them is no longer with us, his music is here, but he’s no longer with us, I would have to say Dilla. I would have to say J Dilla.”
A: “I mean, I like a lot of different producers, but for me, I liked J Dilla when nobody knew about him. Before he got with A Tribe Called Quest and did all those records, before Slum Village I knew about Dilla. Before he even formed the group Slum Village, I was listening to Dilla. And the stuff I heard just amazed me. I mean, I like Pete Rock, I like DJ Premier, I like Havoc, Mobb Deep’s producer, I like Alchemist, different producers, Lord Finesse, Large Professor, Buckwild with Diggin’ in the Crates, Mark the 45 King, Marley Marl, Prince Paul, there’s so many, Marco Polo… There’s this new producer I’ve been listening to, his name is Hudson Mohawke. You should check him out, he’s really good, he’s a good producer, Hudson Mohawke. And I think he’s working on Bjork’s new album, he’s working with Bjork on her new album.”
Q: And looking at hip hop right now, how do you feel about the state of hip hop currently versus back then?
A: “How do I feel about the state of hip hop, wow, man… Everybody’s got a story to tell. Hip hop changes, it’s just like everything, hip hop changes, it can’t stay the same. For you to think that hip hop is going to stay the same as it was in 1986 or 1990 or 1999 or the early 2000s, that’s silly, because everything changes, that’s just life. [It’s] that progression, everything changes. I’m just doing my part, I can’t really and I don’t really focus on anybody else and what they’re doing. I have to stay in my line to create the music I create [laughs] and if they like it, they like it, if they don’t, they don’t.”
Q: What do you hope for the future of hip hop? Is there something you’d rather see changed or done differently?
A: “I guess more collaborations with different artists and stuff. That, a little more creativity, in the production, a little more creativity in the writing, too. There’s so many topics you can write about and emcees, there’s only a couple that I think of that really touched upon that there’s so much you can write about. It’s on the individual, it’s on the producer what he or she creates, it’s on the emcee what they write. I just hope they can open up and experiment more, lyrically and musically; open up, just don’t be afraid. If people like it, great! If they don’t like it, so what? Do it because it feels good to you, I do it because it feels good to me. When I’m on my machine, I’m not thinking about money when I get behind my machine, I’m not thinking “Oh, I’m going to make this beat that’s going to sell ten-, twenty-, thirty-thousand dollars.” I’m not thinking that, I’m just making a beat. And if it sells for that much then that’s a wonderful thing, but if it doesn’t, I still love it like it was sold for thousands of dollars. I still love it, so that’s how I think about it. A lot of other producers don’t, they’re out for the check and that’s cool, but it kind of changes it a bit. For me, everybody’s out to get the check, but it’s their way to go about it. At the end of the day I guess there’s just different ways to go about it.”
Q: Are you happy with your spot in hip hop right now and would you change anything about it?
A: “I’m happy, but I want to do more, I’m not satisfied. I feel that I have a lot more that I can offer. Like I said, I’m writing to my own music now so I want people to hear that. It’s not just beats, I’m a DJ, as well, I was a DJ before I was even producing. I’ve DJ-ed with some of the best DJs in hip hop honestly, Roc Raida, Rob Swift, DJ Sinister, these are DJs that I grew up DJing with, practicing with and honing my skill and stuff like that. So I’m a lot more than just a producer, I’m a DJ, I just found out that I can write lyrics, so I’m not saying that I’m an emcee, but I can write lyrics.”
Q: If you could give a piece of advice to an aspiring hip hop musician, whether it’s a DJ or producer, what would that be?
A: “Be creative as possible and no matter what anybody says, your music, your lyrics, just continue to do it, because somebody out there will listen to it and hear it and like it. You don’t really have to change to up your style because a collective of people don’t like it. Sooner or later, the cream will rise to the top, it just takes a while. Just be original, be creative and just stick with it, don’t give up, be persistent. When one door closes, another door’s going to open.”
Q: Uh-huh, this question I’ve been wondering, we follow you on Twitter and you’ve been putting up short tweets that’ll say something inspirational, and then you’ll say “I Am Music.” What is the concept of those “I Am Music” tweets?
A: “I just do it to motivate people, other producers, other people doing music. I put little quotes up and then I just put “I Am Music.” It’s just stuff to keep people motivated, other musicians.”
Q: Ok, and just for fun, because we like to have fun [laughs] what is one thing that few people know about you?
A: “I’m a good basketball player. When I’m not making music, I go to the park and play basketball. That’s one of my first loves, too. I don’t know if I would have went pro, but once music kicked in, everything changed, but before that, it was basketball.”
Q: Did you play in school?
A: “Didn’t play in high school, just a lot of street ball. I was good enough to play in high school, I just didn’t have the courage.”
Q: Well I’m glad you did music [laughs]. Finally, what is it that’s on Ayatollah’s iPod? What are you listening to?
A: “Aw man [laughs]. Pete Rock and J Dilla. That’s it.”
Q: Pete Rock and J Dilla. Nice [laughs].
A: “That’s it, just Pete Rock and J Dilla. The Petestrumentals album, the Soul Survivor albums, all the J Dilla albums… That’s it, Pete Rock and J Dilla.”
Q: Yeah, I could probably last a while just listening to Dilla and Pete Rock alone [laughs].
A: “Mm-hmm, those are the only two.”
Q: Aight, definitely. Thank you very much again for doing this with us, we really appreciate it!
A: “Thank you for the interview, man, I appreciate it. Thank you, thank you.”
Q: Ok, have a good rest of the day, man.
A: “Yeah, you too!”