The Dog and Pony Show
Tech N9ne, Kansas City's most prolific and successful rapper, chats with us about being an independent mogul, embracing Juggalos, conquering Canada and consuming cognac. You know what I'm sizzlin'? (Caution: contains some explicit language.)
Tech N9ne, while periodically accused of devil worship, will never be accused of lollygagging.
The flamboyant Kansas City hip-hop impresario (born Aaron Yates) has reportedly sold nearly 1.5 million albums, plays hundreds of shows every year, and is already polishing off a new studio record before his last one, "K.O.D.," is even seven months old.
He's done all of this, mind you, without the backing of a major label and without much mainstream recognition. Not surprising he's often labeled "the most successful independent rapper in history."
Tech has built a mini-empire through his own label, Strange Music, and has fostered a rabid following through incessant touring. His music defies traditional hip-hop pigeonholing, veering wildly from boisterous odes to mixed drinks ("Caribou Lou") to grim crises of faith in the face of family illness ("Show Me A God"). Fresh off a sold-out tour of Canada, Tech N9ne, 38, now returns to his own backyard of Lawrence.
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lawrence.com: Do you notice any difference between playing in Kansas City versus playing in Lawrence?
Tech N9ne: Yeah, there's a lot more women in Lawrence (laughs). I think it might be the college or something. They really dig my music.
So you're looking forward to the homecoming at your home away from home?
Totally. I just got off the plane yesterday at 11 in the morning. We did 16 shows in Canada. Soon as we left Canada, we went into Washington and did Olympia. Then we went to Medford, Ore. Then to California for the Paid Dues Festival. Our last show was in Grand Junction, Colo. I flew home yesterday and went straight into the studio to finish my new album coming out July 27 called "The Ollie Gate's Mixed Plate."
Do you ever find time to sleep?
No rest for the wicked. I'm asleep right now, actually. My eyes are closed and everything.
One of the reasons you have such a loyal following is that you put on quite the show, complete with costumes, makeup and choreography ...
Let's get one thing straight: I don't wear makeup. I wear face paint! War paint, no makeup! (laughs) No, my dudes do that to me all the time. "Hey, bring the makeup in." And I'm like, "It's not makeup, it's face paint!" Then they'll go, "Just bring the makeup in." But the thing that gives me my "oomph" in my show is that I'm a fan of old school, like N.W.A., Public Enemy, Erik B and Rakim, Run D.M.C. and Busy Bee. These people taught you how to rock a crowd. We learned from the people that started it, and we put our twist on it. We're new wave kids, but at the same time we've got old-school edge. A lot of the new schoolers don't really know how to put together a show with energy for an hour and 40 minutes. That's a long time to be on stage. That's what we usually do. We kill ourselves up there, but that's why they keep coming back.
You have a very diverse following, including the fans of Insane Clown Posse (ICP) known as the "Juggalos." Did you ever anticipate when you got started in hip-hop 20 years ago that you'd be embraced by a sub-culture as weird and unique as the Juggalos?
I had no idea what a Juggalo or a Juggalette was until after 2000 when my album "Anghellic" came out. We'd been doing shows for years, but the Juggalos didn't catch on until after "Anghellic," which was dark and melancholy. Some of the music was tormented, and I think the Juggalos, being the black sheep of hip-hop along with ICP, really latched on to me being different and also being a black sheep that wasn't giving a damn what anybody thought. When you listen to my music and you listen ICP's music, you can't compare it, you know what I'm sizzlin'? What they latched on to was the pain in my music ... the Juggalos are part of the human race, and my music is supposed to be for everybody, true indeed. I will not alienate somebody because they're different. I'm different ... that's what me and the Juggalos and the Juggalettes have in common.
And I'm sure it doesn't hurt that both you and the Juggalos wear "war paint."
They love that I'm the killer clown. They worship clowns. ... I found out about them in Lawrence. I don't remember what tour it was because we do a million tours. The Juggalos are always the first people there for a show. It was like 3 p.m. when we got to The Granada, and they were already in line. I'd been seeing people with hatchets on their shirts who were painting their faces all tour. I got up enough nerve to ask them who they were in Lawrence, because Lawrence is my second home, for real.
Do you feel like there's any animosity between you and the mainstream hip-hop community?
No, the mainstream artists love me. I wouldn't say the mainstream industry loves me, but the artists love me. Now they all want to do what I'm doing. They adore what we're doing at Strange Music. No, I would say the only resistance I get is from my people, black folk, who are just now really catching on. For all these years they thought I was a devil worshipper because of my imagery and stopped listening to my music. They opened the CD cover for "Anghellic" and saw that I was an angel, but a fallen angel turned into a devil. I was trying to say that a good guy has gone bad. So it's been a fight to get my people back on me. When I say my music is supposed to be for everybody, that's not supposed to alienate anybody. I made it my business to tell my people, "Listen - you're missing something beautiful. I know I'm different." A lot of my people - not all of my people - if they don't see it on television or hear it on radio, then it ain't real. Me being underground on top of that and being weird? It was like a double whammy. I was a black dude with red hair. How may black dudes you know with red hair? A lot of people couldn't relate to my imagery even though what I was talking about was real life. But a lot of people don't care what you have to say and just take it at face value. So I've made it my business to get my people back on me. A lot of them have been popping up back at my shows, so it's working.
Is being an independent entity the only way to survive in this digital era?
It's a really great way to survive. I wouldn't say it's the only way to survive, because you still have mainstream artists that are surviving very well. Lil Wayne, for instance, sold a million copies in one week. People still buy records, but not like they used to. In actuality, Lil Wayne should've sold 9 million like 50 Cent and Eminem did back in the day, you know what I'm sizzlin'? You can't do that any more in the digital age. Being independent is a great way to put a middle finger up to the mainstream and say, "I don't need y'all to do what I need to do. I tried you guys and you kick me down every time I try." Now we do it our way, me and my partner Travis O'Guin. We've been doing this for a decade, and we're still afloat. We're growing like a forest fire. We've got 11 people flying in tomorrow who want to be on Strange Music. Real dope lyricists. We're moving, we're growing, we're talking about signing more artists. We're even talking about signing rock artists. It's a beautiful thing, being independent.
What's the downside to being an independent label?
Not having really, really big budgets to throw at radio that don't make sense. Or not having really, really big budgets to throw at videos that don't make sense. That's the only difference.
So you're putting the finishing touches on your next album?
Yes, I'm putting the finishing touches on it right now. I'm going to record a song called "KC Tea" today. It's going to be my new drink. My old drink was Caribou Lou, and that went over well. All over the world, everybody's drinking it. I don't think there will ever be anything that can compete with Caribou Lou, but KC Tea is my new drink. KC Tea is something a lot of white folks don't drink because it has Hennessy. White folks are like, "Oh, I don't drink Hennessy! I drink Jack and Maker's Mark and Jim Beam!" And that's cool, but this tastes like tea. It's Hennessy and Sprite and lemon. It's so beautiful. Caribou Lou is sin. It's Bacardi 151, Malibu rum and pineapple juice.
Not only are you the most successful independent rapper in the world, but you may be the most successful independent mixologist in the world.
Yeah, girls are telling me on the road, "You should try to be a bartender." I say, "Why would I want to be a bartender? I'm Tech N9ne!" I've got the coolest job in the world, my friend.