Finally Famous

Words Sowmya Krishnamurthy
Images Chris Shonting

Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the December/January 2014 issue of XXL Magazine.

Tech N9ne closes his eyes, meditating on the lyrics for his new rock EP, Therapy. Sunken in a plush red leather sofa on a fall afternoon, the Kansas City, Mo., rapper is in his creative zone, vibing out in Strangeland Studios. The gleaming 18,000-square-foot recording oasis, nestled amid the plains of Lee’s Summit, Mo., is Strange Music’s new pride and joy, so it’s only right for its flagship artist to christen it properly. It’s rich and inviting. Dark oak and Brazilian granite counter tops are complemented by Italian tile backsplashes and a warm hue of red, Tech’s favorite color. Strange Music’s logo, a snake and bat intertwined, is laced throughout in bronze medallions and a less subtle $40,000 diamond pendant (safely enclosed in glass for obvious reasons). Whether you’re an indie rap god or not, Strangeland is a feast for the senses. “I think we want to have the best of the best of the best,” says Travis O’Guin, 41, president/CEO of Strange Music, who stands and beams with pride. “I want the crème de la crème mindset.” He’s not joking. The studio O’Guin designed with acoustic architect-to-the-stars Ross Alexander has a $4 million price tag and features top-notch Augspurger speakers and a rare Raven touch-screen production console all the way down to meticulous details like $120,000 worth of whisper-quiet air conditioning, LED mood lighting and $4,000 copper sinks.

O’Guin is a proud papa as he tours his digs, but everyone knows real Gs move in silence, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the success of Strange Music. For over a decade, the label has been quietly changing the rap game, evolving from an independent upstart to a lucrative multimillion-dollar behemoth. Now finally, people are starting to take notice. Strange Music is having its biggest year to date with an estimated $23 million in revenue. This year, for the second time in a row, the label earned recognition when Tech N9ne landed at No. 18 on Forbes’ Hip-Hop Cash Kings List with $7.5 million earned in the past year, up from $6 million the previous year. Sales-wise, the label is leaving competitors in the dust.

Strange released 11 projects that made it onto Billboard’s Rap Albums chart in 2013—at a time when major labels grapple with signing the next big Tumblr sensation—including Tech’s 13th solo LP, Something Else, Stevie Stone’s 2 Birds 1 Stone and Kutt Calhoun’s Black Gold. Comparatively, Cash Money and Young Money bowed in second with four debuts each. Something Else debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 albums chart as well with 58,000 copies sold in its first week. All this with no radio singles. “You have to acknowledge it. If you don’t see this movement, you’re absolutely out of your fucking mind,” says O’Guin. A self-made entrepreneur with earlier ventures in furniture and real estate, O’Guin and Tech N9ne founded Strange Music in 1999 as a 50/50 joint venture. “People are showing us big love, man,” echoes Tech, born Aaron Yates, 41, who serves as vice president and flagship artist of the label.

Strange Music currently employs more than 30 people and oversees all aspects of its business. The label’s headquarters, which includes Strangeland Studios, is a veritable compound that houses everything under one roof including a sound stage for tour rehearsal, promotional buses wrapped in-house and a dedicated video production department.

But life wasn’t always this good.