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

FOR MORE OF TECH N9NE, GO TO PAGE 2

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.

You got labeled a devil worshipper?

Yeah, from a rapper here, Mel Bacardi. He was a rival rapper. One day he said, “The difference between me and Tech is that I worship God and he worships Satan.” And I’m the nigga with red hair, with spiked hair. You see the picture of me, and you’re like, “Yup.” It wasn’t hard. Rapping backwards and shit. Everywhere. Now people are coming back to it. Wayne said, “They say that about me, too.”

Some of your own fans have expressed concern about your working with so many different artists on the new album. They’re worried you’ll change.

I brought everybody into my world, but it’s still that Tech N9ne shit. I think that’s what my fans were worried about with Wayne, that I would go mainstream. “Please don’t do it, Tech.” “Don’t do it.” “He’s mainstream, you’re underground, it don’t mix.” But I’m on some Wayne shit, and he’s on some Tech N9ne shit, and if they can’t accept that, fuck ’em. My fans are never going to agree, because there’s so many different fans: metal heads, gangbangers, the college kids, Juggalos and Juggalettes, Cottonmouth Kings and Queens. All of ’em like a certain thing I do. A lot of Juggalos don’t like the sexual songs. I don’t know why; maybe they don’t get pussy. But I love pussy. I don’t understand people who don’t like fucking.

They’re worried that you’re going to do a song like “BedRock.”

But if you think about all the sexual songs that I do, is “BedRock” wrong for me to be on? It might sound real poppy because Lloyd is singing, but the topic is the same.

People call your fans a “cult audience.” When did you first hear that?

Recently, when people started finding out about me. When XXL did that story on me, everybody started finding out, and everybody started finding out about my fans, like, “Whoa, look at the picture of them! Some of them paint their face. That’s on some cult shit!” When I did that pledge, that’s when everybody started saying it.

So you don’t see it as a negative thing?

Hell, no! Not when I’m talking about love. Love for music. What am I preaching? We’re going to share this shit and spread this shit to the rest of the world. They’ll buy 10 CDs and pass them to their friends, like, “Listen to this.” Why they do it for me? I have no idea. But I love ’em for it. So I just bring us closer together with a pledge, and if they do say it, it’s a cult. They’re going to wait until somebody dies or something. Like somebody’ll say, “Okay, this person said this person is a Technician, and they got beat up.” Then that will be bad. But that’s just in the hands of bad people getting my message. When my message is about love. And if they listened to me, it’s all about love. I’m giving you this music. I’m giving you my heart. That’s why fans stands for “forever accepting N9ne’s soul.” People say, “That’s cultish, muthafucka.” Yeah! I pour out my soul onto paper, and you accepted it and passed it around to people and believed in it. I love you for it. Let’s keep doing it.