Ayatollah: Soul of Queens

At the arrival of Mos Def’s “Ms. Fat Booty”, Ayatollah’s deft reworking of an Aretha Franklin deep cut made him a sought-after producer. Rawkus may’ve been crucial to ‘Tollah’s arrival, but work followed with Ghostface, Rakim, and Smif-N’-Wessun, solidifying his staying power. The one-time Tragedy Khadafi DJ and student has risen to acclaimed ranks. Today he proudly claims, “I’m the pied-piper, and everybody else is just playing catch-up.”

The Southside Jamaica veteran began his career tapping out beats on Marley Marl’s drum machine, and hasn’t lifted a finger since – without New York’s best Hip-Hop intentions in mind. 2006 promises to reveal potential work with Raekwon, AZ, Sean Price, and Shabaam Sahdeeq, keeping Ayatollah steady working. But first, at the arrival of his soulful, risk-taking experimental album, Now Playing, Ayatollah and AllHipHop.com discuss the album, today’s “chipmunk soul”, and the hey-day of Rawkus. Longevity reigns supreme…

AllHipHop.com: Now Playing isn’t your first beat-album. I can remember my man showing me So Many Reasons To Rhyme a few years ago, being truly impressed…

Ayatollah: Wow. Yeah, that was actually like 2001.

AllHipHop.com: That was much more underground than this one, which is on Nature Sounds, a label. What let you know that 2006 was a good time to strike again and more publicly?

Ayatollah: Everybody is like, “Well, we know Ayatollah’s work.” A lot of people though, are curious to hear an album without any artists on it – just beats, instrumentals. Now it’s time to really put that out there. I worked with so many artists, and I love workin’ with ’em. But sometimes it’s good to just do your own thing. I owe it to my listeners.

AllHipHop.com: With the last one, I got the impression though, that it was you trying to sell beats in an innovative way. Is that the case here too?

Ayatollah: Those were just random, pick-of-the-litter tracks that I had. I was letting artists know that, “If you’re an MC – here’s your blueprint.” It was for sales purposes and to give MC’s a canvas. Now Playing is more-so an instrumental album. It’s for listening pleasure. It’s just music. It’s not offensive – it doesn’t have any lyrics. It’s a safe way of putting out music. When you get an artist on the track, who knows what he or she is gonna say? The track can become really vulgar.

AllHipHop.com: Are you often offended by some of the lyrics that have been added to your tracks?

Ayatollah: I’ve seen it in a couple cases. I can’t knock the lyricist for his or her creative need. I let them do what they do. At the end of the end, as long as it’s an official song, I’m happy with it.

AllHipHop.com: J Dilla has Donuts coming out, 9th Wonder has a project in the ’06. Is it getting competitive for producers to deliver these sort of albums? I got yours and Dilla’s on the same day. I was comparing the two. I preferred yours more, but maybe that’s because we’re from the same region. I think geography plays a role…

Ayatollah: I definitely feel what you’re saying. With producers, where you’re from definitely plays an important role. You take all that in, it just comes out in the beats. I’m from Queens – the “rotten apple”. You got good stuff in New York City, and foul stuff. I know that, and I try to incorporate that into the music. I try to give you both sides of the spectrum. It’s not all sweet. I bring out the most criminal minded side, and I can show you the most beautiful side of New York too.

AllHipHop.com: You have a song on the album, “Highway to Heaven”. It’s real different. It kinda sounds like Bjork or something. As different as it is, I think that falls under that beauty with which you speak.

Ayatollah: Yeah, that’s a really dope track – I can’t even front. Sometimes I wish I was an MC. It’s very, very – not even Hip-Hop, just something different. Sometimes, I don’t like to keep myself pigeon-holed. I love Hip-Hop. I just like to expand and go a little further.

AllHipHop.com: How emotionally connected are you to your work?

Ayatollah: When I make beats, first of all, I make sure that nobody’s in my circumference. It’s really personal for me. My lady, I make sure she’s out and about. When she leaves, I go into my mantra mode. It could last thirty minutes, it could last the whole day. It’s all in my moods too. Mood has a lot to do with it. If I’m having a cool day, I’ll make an easy-going type of track. If I’m having a bad day, I’ll make something really aggressive, or thoughtful.

AllHipHop.com: Critics have a way of crediting Kanye West and Just Blaze right now for innovating the vocal sample, or “Chipmunk Soul.” I look at RZA’s work in ’94 with records like “Tearz” or your work in the late 90’s, and I’m not so sure. What are your thoughts?

Ayatollah: To be honest with you, to be really real – I got love for all those dudes, but I do have more of a love for the core bringers of that genre of Hip-Hop production. I prefer them to the now producers. RZA, he’s one of the essences. Diamond D, Large Professor, Marley Marl, Lord Finesse, Pete Rock, Preem, I have a really strong admiration to those guys. They know how to do it. Some people can do it correct, and some people can do it – but it doesn’t hit the bull’s eyed like it’s supposed to. You gotta be shootin’ for the bull’s eye, not close to it. I try to pinpoint it. I hit the red. A lot of people I’m hearing now aren’t hittin’ the red.

AllHipHop.com: We interviewed The Heatmakerz last year, Rsonist said that after he lifts from a record, it’s useless to him – he can step on it. That may embody the differing attitudes from the veterans to the newer guys…

Ayatollah: What you just said right there, kinda tells me a lot about their appreciation for old Soul records. How can you do something like that when you just made X amount of dollars of that record you just sampled? That’s really, really disrespectful.

AllHipHop.com: There was a summer in my life where “All Massive” by [Smif-N-Wessun’s] Tek was just played non-stop at parties, at home, everywhere. He just re-released it on a mixtape. But looking at the past, tell me about that record…

Ayatollah: [laughs] It’s really crazy how that record came about, man. A friend of mine had a start-up, independent label [Windmill Records]. He was running that out of his basement. He had a studio there. He went to school with Tek and Steele of Smiff n’ Wesson in Brooklyn. He was runnin’ around with them when they were like in Decepticons – not even music, just bangin’, wylin’ in the streets. Long story short, I came in the crib one day and Tek was there. He heard the beat, and we just recorded it. We took it to Fat Beats and they were like, “Yo, we gonna put this s**t out!” It was just like that – not even too much thought. Just ABC, boom boom boom.

AllHipHop.com: You mentioned Marley Marl earlier. In a feature in Elemental magazine, you said you started with Marley Marl’s MPC, that’s true?

Ayatollah: I didn’t start with his actual MPC, it was one of his MPC’s. Marley has every piece of equipment. At the time, I had equipment already. But I was limited with the stuff I could do. Marley had looked out, came through, no doubt. He heard what I was doing, and he liked it. But he was like, “Damn, this dude could do so much more if he had a real drum machine.” He just gave it to me. I just got really at it – I haven’t changed, I have the same Akai drum machine. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. [laughs]

AllHipHop.com: Tragedy really seemed to have been another mentor…

Ayatollah: Mobb Deep, Capone-N-Noreaga, I met those guys through Tragedy. The whole Queensbridge side, I met them through Trag. At the end of the day, he’s the reason I met Cormega. I had no links to anybody in the Bridge. I was from Jamaica Queens, Trag was from Queensbridge. It’s not far, but I had nobody out in the Bridge – and if you don’t know anybody out in Queensbridge, you don’t go. Now, I can go. It’s cool. I got the ghetto pass. Before, no. New York is funny. There’s certain places you can and can’t go without the pass. Now, I’m good.

AllHipHop.com: You were rumored to have a full album with Cormega. Any update?

Ayatollah: Mega’s a busy guy. He does a lot of shows and things. He lives far away from where I’m at too. It’s hard. But we’ll do it! It may take a while.

AllHipHop.com: Every producer has that one calling-card. After “Ms. Fat Booty”, what doors opened up for you?

Ayatollah: A lot! I was doing a lot of stuff at Rawkus Records. After that record was successful, a lot of other Rawkus artists really started checkin’ for me. Pharoahe Monch, Talib Kweli, Skillz, me and [Kool] G Rap – everybody started working with me. It was an influx of work. I’m still workin’ a lot, but if it wasn’t for that – damn!

AllHipHop.com: When they kinda tapered off at MCA/Geffen, did it affect your career?

Ayatollah: When they were doing that transition at Geffen, I didn’t know what was really going on. I was in a cloud of smoke. I found out the bad news at Rawkus at the last minute – I was the last one to know. I’m just glad to see they’re getting it back on the runnin’. Me and [founders] Brian and Jarret were cool, and they appreciated my sound, and weren’t afraid to put that out to the masses. I really appreciate that. A lot of cats were really hesitant.

AllHipHop.com: One last Rawkus question. “My Life” with Styles P and Monch meant so much to Hip-Hop in 2002. Monch had twice the career, in terms of seniority as Styles P. As a producer, were you the one who asked the wise veteran to sing the hook and let Styles do the rapping?

Ayatollah: I had somethin’ in that, but moreso it was the label. They were the ones cuttin’ the check. When we were in the studio, Pharoahe was like, “‘Tollah, what you think of this chrous?” I said, “That’s great. That’s it!” A lot of people wanted Pharoahe to rhyme on it. Pharoahe was like, “Nah, I’m just gonna do the chorus.” I think it worked. That’s timeless music. If you throw it on in a club now, it’s gonna get people movin’ just as much as a G-Unit record like, “Oh, s**t!” It was showing Hip-Hop that you could work an “underground” artist and a “mainstream” artist mesh together, and bang universally. Everybody kinda caught that wave, after.

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