Strange Music, “Most Known Unknown” (Originally Published July/August 2010)
For Tech N9ne, Strange Music began out of necessity. With street records (such as “Let’s Get Fucked Up”) igniting his buzz in Kansas City in the early 1990s, the then-unknown Tech soon attracted interest from major labels. In 1993, the upstart rhyme slinger inked a deal with the now-defunct Perspective Records, headed by superproducers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (known for their hits with Janet Jackson, Usher and Mary J. Blige). Three years of inactivity, however, led to Tech’s 1997 exit to Quincy Jones’s Qwest imprint, which was under Warner Bros. Tech relocated to L.A. to work with the legendary producer, but his musical output on Qwest was nil.
Looking for an effective outlet to showcase his unique artistry (hip-hop-styled lyricism, dark beats tinged with rock sensibilities, and provocative content), a frustrated Tech returned to Kansas City. While performing at a local fashion show in 1998, he caught the attention of O’Guin, a young, monetarily strong entrepreneur known for lucrative ventures, including a fashion company (Paradise Apparel Group Inc.) and a furniture repair company (Furniture Works Inc.). A meeting was arranged. “I was thinking, Maybe I can give him some business advice,” recalls O’Guin, a lifelong hip-hop fan who became a self-made millionaire at age 22. “It was just a big mess. A lot of people had seen the talent in Tech and tried to attach themselves to it. They didn’t really have his best interests in mind; they had their own.”
O’Guin believed in Tech’s talent enough to devote more than a year to negotiations with Quincy Jones and Warner Bros., dedicated to getting Tech out of his contracts. O’Guin won, and soon he and Tech launched their own record label in a 50/50 partnership, completely out of pocket. A huge fan of seminal rock group The Doors, Tech took one of his favorite Doors songs, 1967’s “People Are Strange,” and came up with the company moniker, Strange Music. With such an unclassifiable artist as its flagship MC, the company’s title was apt. “The mentality was, ‘Okay, let’s just show these labels that there is a market for clusterfucks,’” says Tech.
By August 2001, Strange Music’s first release, and Tech’s debut, Anghellic, was put out through a distribution deal with JCOR Entertainment, a no-longer-in-existence indie label that also released LPs from Brooklyn MC O.C. and southern legends 8Ball & MJG. The LP sold over 20,000 copies in its first week, an impressive feat for an unknown rapper from an untapped locale. Dipping into their own pockets, Tech and O’Guin promoted the album by wrapping their own vans and driving city to city in the Midwest to plaster posters everywhere. Says O’Guin, “All those tools that we still use today [on tour]—samplers, flatbeds, flyers, posters—is how we started this whole thing.”
While O’Guin and company were hustling, JCOR, they felt, wasn’t delivering on dollar-signed promises. In 2002, Strange Music switched distributors for Tech’s next album, Absolute Power, moving over to M.S.C. Music, a boutique company started by former Priority Records co-founder Mark Cerami. There, in a 50/50 joint venture, the flip side occurred: M.S.C. was overspending. “[Cerami] did things like throwing too much money at radio, to the tune of $1.6 million, and we’re responsible for half of every one of those dollars,” says O’Guin. “We thought, We’re never gonna make any money if we keep throwing money out the window like this.”
Over the next four years, Strange, as a whole, sold over 500,000 albums, between Tech’s two solo LPs and three full-lengths (all released in 2004) from Kutt Calhoun (B.L.E.V.E.), Project: Deadman (Self Inflicted) and Skatterman & Snug Brim (Urban Legendz).
In 2006, the final shift came, when Strange Music linked with Universal-backed Fontana for its distribution. To this day, SM has handled all facets of business—everything from the printing of CDs to promotions. “That’s when it got fun,” says O’Guin, referring to the Fontana connection made four years ago. “That’s when we turned the corner. Now we have nobody in between us and our money. We are the decision makers.”