Cleveland producer Heiku officially joined the big show late last year when he supplied the beat for "Leaveamessage," the closing cut of Musiq Soulchild's album Soulstar. His previous signature piece was Obsidian, from the heady hip-hop duo Edotkom, of which Heiku is one half. The cover of that album featured Heiku sporting a Batman logo on his chest; his partner, Cleveland rhymer Siege, wore Superman's "S." For Heiku, the iconography is telling.
"Flash and Wonderman have these special powers," he says from his Cleveland Heights home. "Batman's just a man with a belt and cape, and he feels like he can take any member of the Justice League out at any given time. He can compete. He's got the most heart."
Mortgage broker Toby Brazwell, Heiku's alter ego, looks like he could take a few people out. He looms at six foot five, with long, thin dreads tied back. A beard lines his narrow face, highlighting bright eyes and a gleaming smile. Heiku prefers to work alone, as would the Dark Knight himself. But the house he and Siege share isn't exactly a Fortress of Solitude: It's a fairly orderly bachelor pad with hardwood floors; a cramped sun room is their makeshift studio.
Heiku pushes some buttons and plays some tracks. Most of his work is music for a dark night: Some tracks are smooth neo-soul; some are jazz-infused hip-hop; some seem complete without lyrics. Those are his favorite.
"There's two universal languages," he says. "Mathematics and jazz. Producing, making beats, is like speaking with no words. If you can tell a story without words, then you have it. Half the people can't do it with words."
The size of a large closet, Edotkom's studio is lined with posters -- Big Pun, Virtua Fighter 4, the X-Men movie, last year's Natural Selection concert. That massive show was put on in partnership with Akron's Beatmakers 913 collective and Edot's extended family, the 12 Monkeys, a posse that features progressive hip-hop standouts Spittin Image and Iyan Anomolie. They're cultivating a modest national following through releases on New York's Deep Thinka Records. Digitally or physically, most have been in this room.
Heiku's weapon of choice is a Kurzwell 2000 sampling keyboard. Often used by live bands, the K-2000 is far less common in hip-hop. Heiku knows what it can do, though he has no formal training.
"Noooo," he says, shaking his head. "That just ruins it."
Some producers work with turntables. Some play drums, some beatbox. Others pound on tables while they improvise lyrics. Heiku works with samples -- a practice that still doesn't always get its props. Working his keyboard and an 18-track Roland VS 1880 recorder, he just makes the sounds, without the involvement required of those who incorporate his tracks into their works.
Heiku plays a track he calls "Frank," in which he creates a hook by sampling a lyric from Sinatra's "The World We Know" and speeding up Ol' Blue Eyes to a munchkin pitch. One of his favorites, the beat "Grad," is a salsa-style track, with Spanish guitar processed until it sounds like a banjo. The next beat, "Zhivago," is built around a singing string sample from the Dr. Zhivago soundtrack, capped with martial horns. Snare beats end the track like a burst from a Kalashnikov.
"I love Russian music," says Heiku. "If you look at the country's history, the music makes sense."
His parents, both teachers, listened to classical music, and Heiku, too, developed a taste for Vivaldi and Mahler. He finds samples in Saint-Saëns's Symphony No. 3 for organ, but also in the Roots and Tony Mottola.
"A lot of people say that sampling betrays hip-hop's roots," he says. "But to me, if you're studying sociology and someone cites your work as a source, that's a compliment, an honor. And musicians get paid for it. I think it's expanded what we consider a musician: Pete Rock, Dr. Dre, Kanye West -- those are musicians."
A graduate of Ohio State, Heiku met Siege in the Columbus hip-hop underground in 1994, and they formed Edotkom in 1997. Heiku was pursuing teaching certification in 2002, when he scrapped the idea and instead moved to Cleveland to complete Obsidian and make a run with Edot. Filled with grit and guitar, the 2002 platter played like a bluesy fusion of Hendrix and Wu-Tang.
Connecting with Musiq happened through a friend of a friend. A sampler CD of Heiku's tracks made it to a buddy's brother, a rep for Sony. He shopped it and, through a chance meeting, connected with reps from Pink and Musiq. Musiq liked an organ-driven track called "Tania" and eventually turned the soft beat into a neo-soul slow jam.
"That was two years ago," says Heiku. "And the track was six months old then. Now, my beats are 10 times better. But until you're out there, your mom can tell you you're good, and your boys can tell you you're good -- it doesn't mean anything."
Soulstar was released on Def Soul, the R&B wing of the hip-hop label Def Jam, and has since gone gold. All in all, not a bad debut for Heiku.
With so little time on his hands, Heiku is tempted to move to Akron -- the better to cut down the commute to his job there, build equity in a house, and spend more time on music. But in Cleveland, he's more likely to bump into a promising rapper or make a quality connection.
"Cleveland's got everything you need," he says. "Everybody comes through Cleveland. That's where the hustle comes in. It's not how many numbers you have; it's having the right numbers. Meeting Musiq Soulchild -- I don't think that would have happened if I lived in Toledo."
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