The conference room inside Strange Music’s headquarters is decorated in various shades of brown. Based in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, a quiet suburban town of 84,000 located 20 minutes south of Kansas City, the Strange HQ is tucked away off a long, flat stretch of strip malls and Panera Breads and car-parts stores. The only photos inside are of local softball teams that CEO Travis O’Guin sponsors. Simple, neat and safe, it’s more insurance agency than hip-hop label. But at the head of the table stands Aaron Dontez Yates, a.k.a. Tech N9ne, the label’s co-owner, executive vice president and biggest star. He’s holding a CD, an advance copy of his new album, All 6’s and 7’s, which promises, by all indication, to bring him to new levels of success.
Not that he isn’t already very successful. He is. Years of relentless touring, through mostly second-tier markets, for a modest but particularly passionate fan base, largely White, who call themselves “Technicians” and paint their faces like he does and tattoo themselves with his name and the Strange Music logo and buy not only his music and tickets but loads of merchandise, which he produces himself, right here out of Lee’s Summit, have made him a multimillionaire.
This afternoon, Tech is getting ready to conduct an hour-long podcast, during which listeners will call in and repeat “The Pledge of a Technician,” which ends with, “Technician I am, wholeheartedly, in life and in death.” His is the very definition of, and a display of the power of, a cult audience.
Tech, 39, has been at it for a long time. In the 1990s, he signed to and left labels founded by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, as well as Quincy Jones. Since releasing his first solo album under Strange in 2001, he’s dropped nine solo albums, the last four of which have made the top 20 of Billboard’s top 200. But still, the average rap fan would be pressed to name even one Tech N9ne song. There’s a lot of rock in his music, a lot of heavy metal. He’s more well-known among the Juggalo circles devoted to the Insane Clown Posse.
It’s been during the past year that Tech has made his biggest inroads toward attracting mainstream attention. A feature story in the July/August issue of XXL last summer, while Tech was on the Rock the Bells Tour, revealed that Strange Music raked in just under $15 million in 2009—an incredible feat for an independent label during a music-industry slump. Then in August, Lil Wayne, during a phone interview, his first while serving his Rikers Island sentence, told New York’s Hot 97’s Funkmaster Flex that the two artists he most wanted to work with upon his release were Andre 3000 and Tech N9ne. Surprised and flattered, Tech visited Wayne in jail. Topping off the year was Bad Season, a Tech N9ne mixtape hosted by DJ Whoo Kid (and presented by XXLMag.com).
So All 6’s and 7’s hits stores in June to more attention than any Tech N9ne album has ever had before. It features a dizzying array of guest artists, including Lil Wayne (who met Tech in Miami to record two songs soon after getting out of jail in November), Busta Rhymes, Snoop Dogg, T-Pain, Yelawolf, Twista, B.o.B, E-40, Kendrick Lamar, Blind Fury and even Stokley Williams (of Mint Condition) and the Deftones. And Tech will support it by playing 82 shows in 82 cities in 85 days, his longest tour to date.
Before that, though, the man behind the face paint sits down with XXL to talk about his improbable rise, the notion of crossing over, the fears of his longtime fans and those persistent rumors of devil worship. —Hyun Kim
After the XXL story about you came out last summer, which artists reached out to you?
Tech N9ne: Everybody you can imagine from Rock the Bells, from Nas to Damian Marley, Raekwon, Busta Rhymes, B Real from Cypress Hill—and that’s just to name a few. Oh, Erick Sermon, EPMD, when we were in Canada. Erick was like, “Hey, I need to talk to you, man. How do you sell all those copies, man, with no video or radio?” I was like, Wow, this is Erick Sermon talking to me. I never met him before. I’m totally a fan, man. It’s a big story, because for Erick Sermon to say that to me… On my graduation day [from high school], I won a rap contest to open up for EPMD and DJ Quik, or Kwame or something like that. I chose to rock onstage, as opposed to walking across the stage on graduation day. That’s how I knew what I was going to do for the rest of my life. I was around 18. So when I run into him in Canada and they’re walking by and I’m like, “Whoa, EPMD!” and they’re like, “Hey, Tech N9ne, I need to talk to you.”
When did you hear that Wayne had mentioned you on Hot 97? How quickly did that news get to you?
Right when it happened. I was in the studio. I was in there writing for Bad Season, I think, for Whoo Kid. My big homie Big Scoob came in, and he was like, “Yo, you heard about Wayne?” I was like, “What happened to Wayne?” “Naw, man, nothing happened to Wayne. He wanna work with you.” I was like, “Whatever, dude.” He was like, “Naw, man, he said it in an interview with Funkmaster Flex.” I said, “What?!” Everybody started hitting me, like, “You heard what Wayne said?!” It threw me for a loop. In my world, I’m thinking everybody thinks I’m a devil worshipper. I’m thinking everybody is afraid of me.
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