Images by Ari Michelson

On a rather hot April afternoon in Lawrence, Kansas, Mother Nature’s heat is no match for the small army of eager fans waiting in line to shake hands with their favorite underground MC, Tech N9ne. The iconoclastic, Kansas City, Missouri–born vice president of Strange Music, a hugely successful independent Midwest rap label currently celebrating its 10th anniversary, soon struts in sporting an outfit of his traditional colors of black, red and white, with pitch-black wraparound sunglasses.

Five hours before showtime, the predominantly White group of about 30 Strange Music aficionados, all gripping V.I.P. passes, crowds into the lobby of Lawrence’s Liberty Hall, which doubles as a two-screen independent movie theater and a 1,050-capacity concert venue. Tech, the man of the hour, gets ready to pose for a picture with an excited fan. She’s just gotten her second Tech tat—it’s his name, and it’s inked on the back of her neck. Tech strikes a pose, pretending to lick the new art, as her male friend snaps a photo.

If she ever e-mails her new photo to Strange Music’s headquarters, in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, the pic will join the label’s ever-growing collection of over 3,600 snapshots of Strange Music–related body art (SM and Tech logos, Tech’s portrait, etc.) sent in by diehard fans.

Tech N9ne and his Strange Music cohorts aren’t exactly household names—hell, they aren’t even big hip-hop names. But the Kansas City–based company has carved one hell of a niche for itself out of the independent-music market. Rigorous touring (204 shows in 2009, 202 in 2008, 196 in 2007), a steady stream of album releases, incessant self-promotion and merchandising, plus close interaction with SM’s dedicated fans have set it apart from other indie outfits.

Onstage, Tecca Nina provides a theatrical balance of showmanship and lyrical wizardry, wearing his signature white face paint during every show, while roaring through 100-plus minutes of high-octane performance alongside his hype men, and fellow Strange Music artists, Krizz Kaliko and Kutt Calhoun. True friends to their fans, Tech and crew hold hour-long V.I.P. meet-and-greets before every show, for 30 to 300 fans, during which, for $99, prepurchased-pass wearers can take pictures, get autographs and talk with all of the Strange artists, as well as walk away with $200 worth of merchandise (posters, T-shirts, dog tags, CD samplers).

“I’m trying to be the hip-hop president,” says Tech (a.k.a. Aaron Yates), 38. “I’m gathering fans up under everybody’s nose… [We] understand that it’s a campaign. During a campaign, you have to get out there and touch the people. We’re not on TV and radio, so we have to find a way to touch these people, let them know that we’re real.”

As real as it gets, frankly. While the music industry as a whole continues to sweat bullets over shrinking profits, Strange Music has watched its finances steadily increase. Touring has generated large dividends. When ticket and merchandise sales are added up, SM’s concert intake ranges from $25,000 to $125,000 a night. Last year alone, the label pulled in just under $15 million, showing growth from the $11 million it earned in 2008. “We’re doing all this during the decline of the music business, along with catastrophic financial devastation of the markets and everything else,” says Strange Music CEO/President Travis O’Guin, 38. “And we’re having a ball. Somehow we’re recession-proof, and it freaks me out a little bit sometimes. But I’m confident that we have it figured out.”