Even when he’s in bed, trying to calm his crazy mind so he can sleep, Tech N9ne keeps his phone within reach. He never knows when the next lyric will come, and when it does, he wants to be sure he gets it down.
“I hate to lose my ideas,” Tech N9ne said in a phone interview with BandWagon. “My mind races. I have that kind of torment. I can see things behind my eyelids.”
That’s the kind of devotion you’d expect from a rapper who’s recorded 14 albums — with a new one on the way soon — but it’s also the kind of work he has to put in (even as he’s about to turn 50) for his record label Strange Music.
Tech N9ne, otherwise known by his birth name Aaron Yates, just wanted to be a rapper when he began in 1985. He joined several groups in addition to his own act and signed three record deals. But none of them worked out, and he admits that he had as much to do with that as the fickle nature of the music business itself.
He got his name from the rapper Black Walt in tribute to his unusually quick, choppy style, which Walt thought resembled the TEC-9 semi-automatic handgun, and at the time usually painted his face in ways that made him look, well, scary. But he refused to play into gangsta rap trends despite his name. He wanted to play the game his way.
When a millionaire, Travis O’Guin, liked his style and said he would put up money to form a label with him back in 1999, Tech jumped at the chance and called it, appropriately enough, Strange Music. Founded in 2000, the two remain 50/50 business partners today.
“I didn’t know I would be pushed into that,” Yates said, “but I was a black man with a red face and record labels didn’t know what to do with me.”
He knew he wouldn’t have the labels’ marketing machines behind him, so he’d have to win over fans one show at a time.
“If you want to be the hip-hop president, you have to politick,” he said, “and how we politick is on tour. We constantly had music in the market; constant touring and constant albums, and we grew a base.”
Tech N9ne will appear at The Lincoln in Cheyenne, Wyoming, on October 24 as a part of said constant touring – which truly never seems to stop – and the hard work has paid off. He’s since sold more than two million albums, with some gold records, and has the respect of the entire rap community, both for his music and his business. In 2015, Eminem appeared on his album Special Effects – for free – as long as he agreed to return the favor. Tech admits the move left him “flabbergasted.”
“I was in my own world, painting my face and doing my thing, and you don’t know if people are paying attention,” he said. “But I know I push people to go harder now.”
Indeed, most of today’s true rap technicians have collaborated with him pro bono. He formed his own style after Slick Rick and Ice Cube, a different era when rap was rap, not the blended, auto-tuned, genre-fluid hip-hop it is today.
“Everyone is singing now,” he said. “Back in our day, we prided ourselves on lyrics. [Today] they pride themselves on vibe.”
And Yates doesn’t say this derisively. He loves some of the “vibe” music, and he knows eras fade and styles change; he’s persevered through them himself. There are still pure lyricists out there — Kendrick Lamar won a Pulitzer, for instance — and personally, Tech believes he’s still relevant.
“If my style wasn’t still in the times, I wouldn’t be on tour,” he said. “I wouldn’t be selling. There is something out there for everyone.”
After decades in the biz, he’s made it work even while eschewing many of the standard moves of other rappers. He’s made his hometown, Kansas City, his home base after spending some time in New York and L.A. He still spends weeks at a time in those places to work, but he comes home to his three kids and makes it clear where his heart lies: In 2019 he released “Red Kingdom,” a tribute to the Kansas City Chiefs, which turned out to be one of his biggest all time chart-toppers on Billboard.
“Kansas City is my comfort zone,” he said. “That’s where my family is, my uncles, my aunts, the love of my life.”
Tech plans to keep touring at 50 and pushing the edges, even if no one would blame him for slowing down. No more 100+ nights in a row with Machine Gun Kelly, for instance. Yates is seven months sober, he said, and despite wanting a drink “bad,” it’s helped make him better as a performer.
“I’m getting faster,” he said. “The youngsters still want me on their records. I’m getting more crisp and precise. It’s crazy.”
Blue Pig presents Tech N9ne LIVE on Sunday, October 24 at The Lincoln in Cheyenne, Wyoming with RITTZ as part of the “Strange New World Tour” 2021. Special guests include King Iso, Maez 301 and Jehry Robinson. Tickets at thelincolncheyenne.com – more on Tech N9ne at strangemusicinc.com