Strange Music, “Most Known Unknown” (Originally Published July/August 2010)
After 10 years, 20 LPs (including five Tech solos and two Tech collabo LPs) and nearly 1.5 million records sold by Tecca Nina alone, Strange Music is in a strong spot, despite the lack of mainstream hip-hop support from the industry or the fans, or much radio or video play. It doesn’t hurt, though, that what the label pushes is a roster of diverse
entities. The most recognizable faces, other than Tech, are fellow Kansas City natives Krizz Kaliko and Kutt Calhoun. The former, a plus-size live wire with slick raps and a singing voice steeped in opera and gospel influences, makes the brand’s most commercially viable music. Calhoun’s been with Strange since its start and reps the streets with his lyrics, along with Big Scoob, a rhyme partner of Tech’s from the pre-Strange days. And in May 2009, O’Guin introduced a Los Angeles–based division, Strange Music West, which signed Cali horrorcore veteran Brotha Lynch Hung as its first act. Only nine acts have signed to Strange since 2000, a self-imposed limitation that has allowed O’Guin to devote maximum energy to projects and ensure fan satisfaction.
Violet Brown, director of urban music for the record-store chain Trans World Entertainment, has long appreciated the label’s consistency. “Strange Music is quietly selling millions of units without compromising who they are and
what they stand for,” says Brown. “I have said this thousands of times: There are no casual Tech fans.”
In addition to being fanatical, most of his followers are also a bit one-dimensional—meaning heavily White. “I’m trying to brighten my music up now, because [the dark sound is] why a lot of Black muthafuckas stopped listening,” says Tech. “For one, my imagery, a Black dude with a painted face—over here, they don’t do that shit. You gotta go to Africa for that. But, to them, the red spiked hair I used to have threw everybody off, and I’ve yet to fully get them back.”
The music speaks for itself. Beyond his face paint and unconventional tastes, Tech is a pure lyricist, deft in double-time flows and multisyllabic rhyme schemes. Contentwise, his verses run the gamut from painfully honest introspection to indictments against his music-industry peers (see “Crybaby,” on his 2008 double-LP Killer), with dashes of political commentary and demonic possession thrown in. For many, though, looking past Tech’s presentation is a task. “It seems to me that every other race—Whites, Asians, Latinos—is more accepting of weird-looking imagery, where Black folks seem to want to see the same type of dude all the time,” says Kaliko. “If you think about the general Black population coming from the hood, they’re used to seeing the hood stars that have the cars and money… They want to see these entertainers that they can identify with.”
Even if his fan base never changes, Tecca Nina and his Strange Music team have little reason to complain. Humility has been the label’s best asset. Realizing the limits of underground prestige, O’Guin and Tech aren’t opposed to booking shows with low guarantees, of, say, $10,000. The rationale is simple: Take a small payment, kill it onstage and then anticipate bigger offers the next time around. The capacities of their venues have ranged from as low as 800 to as many as 18,000. In May, the label released its second concert DVD, K.O.D. Tour: Live in Kansas City, taped last November and serving as a visual testament to the raucous energy at a Tech N9ne show. Not to mention an example of SM’s dedication to quality—it’s shot with seven cameras, in high-defi nition, and is offered on Blu-ray.
In 2008, Tech was one of only three rappers to place within Pollstar’s top 50 highest-grossing artists in terms of concert-ticket sales (the other two were Jay-Z and Kanye West). That Strange Music exceeds 200 shows a year is staggering. Yet what’s baffling is that their tours—including their most recent, 36-venues-in-37-days Strange Days Tour (tagline: “A Decade of Excellence”), which began in early May—have yet to reach the key Southern markets of Atlanta and New Orleans. Considering how dominant ATL, specifically, is these days, that’s a problem. “I keep telling Travis, ‘Put me on tour with Ludacris or somebody from the South,’” says Tech. “It’s easier said than done, but bottom
line is, I can’t infect the world if people are alienated.”
Nevertheless, thanks to constant touring, in January 2009, O’Guin and Tech were able to drop $2.1 million into the renovation of an open 18,000-square-foot space in Lee’s Summit (located 20 minutes south of Kansas City), turning it into an immaculate, all-purpose SM facility. The Strange logo (a snake and a bat crisscrossed) can be seen on everything from stairs, to floor tiles, to the soda machine, to the thermostat frame. There’s a filing cabinet containing video footage of every show throughout the label’s existence, ordered chronologically. One office is bursting with high-quality film equipment; another holds the social-networking team. There is also an office where a man works on building SM’s new online store, O’Guin’s comfy digs, a sleek conference room, four different kitchens, and quite a few more cubes and offices filled with happily working SM employees.