Tech N9ne Opens Up About Devil Worshiping, Banking $15 Mil
He laughs at the irony of it all. The fact that Kansas City rapper Tech N9ne stands as one of the most successful independent artists of the past four years is a sobering realization that he is still trying to adjust to. But Tech's wonderment has nothing to do with a lack of confidence. On the contrary, it's the fact that he is genuinely shocked that a self-described weirdo who wears faint paint, raps about dark subject matter and puts on the type of wildly aggressive live spectacles that are more in line with an off-the-rails, balls-out metal act than a rap concert seems to be all the talk.
The indie talent that established his Strange Music imprint and empire with business partner and CEO Travis O'Guin in 1999, is now getting shout-outs by the mainstream likes of Lil Wayne, Snoop Dogg and Busta Rhymes. With Tech N9ne's latest album, 'All 6's and '7's,' literally shaking up the music industry -- in June, the release made a shocking No. 4 debut on the Billboard 200 charts -- the self-contained artist, label head, producer, merchandising machine and touring force still wants more. The BoomBox finds out what fuels this seemingly unstoppable force of nature, why he won't jump to a major label and the reason why people think he's a devil worshiper.
A lot of the mainstream press came around to you when the news got out that your independent label, Strange Music, grossed $15 million in 2009 alone. How much did your life change after that figure was released?
It was crazy. It's like winning the lottery. But I don't want my picture up on a billboard saying that I won $15 million [laughs]. I didn't want that to get out. But it's out there now. It's a real f------ number and I hate it.
But it seems like the hype is for real. Your latest album 'All 6's and 7's' debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard 200, selling 55,000 copies. Can you talk about what it's like to achieve that type of mainstream success without a major label pushing you?
I think it's by the grace of God. All the other artists recognize my ability to rhyme and my overall skill. When I was signed to Quincy Jones before I went independent, he told me to rap what you know and people will forever feel you. And I stuck to that. No matter how many people called me a devil worshiper, no matter how many people call me a cult leader. I stuck with rapping about what I know. Real s--- will always shine.
People actually thought you were a devil worshiper?
[Laughs] How crazy is that? People looked at my face paint, my crazy lyrics, my wild red hair and how loyal and intense my fanbase the Technitions were. They were talking about me being a cult leader. Can you imagine being in a place early on where outside of Strangeland everybody calls you a devil worshiper or a cult leader and your own people -- black people -- are not even coming to your shows? So you do a Rock the Bells show in 2008, with Busta Rhymes, Nas, Damian Marley and Raekwon and everybody is commending you. I thought everybody thought I was a weirdo! That show let me know that everybody was paying attention to me. I created my own lane. I had no idea that Nas and Damian had respect for me. Nas would be like, "Come out on stage, Tech. Rock with me." That's crazy to me. I had no idea, dude.
There was also the Lil Wayne co-sign you received earlier this year. How big of a shock was that?
That's when music fans outside of Strangeland started talking about me. Wayne saying that he liked Tech N9ne to Funkmaster Flex on the radio when he was locked up in Rikers was huge. I felt the same way when Busta Rhymes was calling me and saying, "Man, I really need you on this track." That lets you know real s--- will shine no matter who tries to tarnish it.
And both Wayne and Busta appear on your new album. That's a pretty great look for a so-called independent act, right?
When I do an album like this for the first time with Wayne, Yelawolf, Twista, B.o.B, Snoop Dogg, E-40, the Deftones and Mint Condition and it all comes together, it's a validation that I have been doing the right thing the whole time.
Do you sit back and think, "How in the hell did I pull off getting all of this star-power on my album?"
[Laughs] It's kind of funny. But it's proof that no matter if you are independent you can have success. I don't have to be on a major label to get these major artists wanting to work with me because I am right there. I've always been right there with them. I've always been an elite artist. Now people are starting to figure it out because of my numbers and the artists they listen to are speaking my name. Everybody knows I make wonderful music even if they say, "Aw, that's that weirdo s---." I love Lil Wayne for even having people look my way. I respect T-Pain and Busta Rhymes for giving me accolades. Thank you for recognizing real s---.
When you were recording 'All 6's and 7's,' what was your focus going into the album?
It starts off aggressive and gets kind of dim. It's a complex album. It gets dark with 'Strangeland' and 'The Boogieman.' It gets real sexual with the Wayne and T-Pain on a song called "F--- Food." It gets kind of pornographic with E-40 and Snoop and then it gets really personal. It's all kinds of confusion, but it's a wonderful confusion.
There have been reports that every label from Def Jam to Interscope have been after you to sign a major deal. Do you ever see yourself jumping into that major label world?
Every time I talk to Travis while I'm out on tour he'll tell me, "Def Jam called today." And I'm like, "What? I love Def Jam." It's great to hear that. That means a lot to me. But I have to have complete control -- 100 percent. The majors would have to give me millions to sign. I have to be able to write what I feel and do what I want. I have to be able to say, "Travis, I think we should release a EP on Halloween," or "Travis, I think we should put out a CD on my birthday or my mom's birthday." We can do whatever, man. We are the label.
You talked about the pros of being independent. What are some of the cons?
The cons are that you will have no videos on TV and no songs on the radio. The radio game cost a lot of money, man. I would rather put my money into tour buses, merchandising and shows. Until we figure out if we want to play that majors game again, the way we tried to in 2002, and spent nearly $2 million doing it, we will do it again. The problem is, I don't look like anybody. With my face paint on I don't look like a regular black dude. MTV Jams is playing my videos now, but BET won't play me.
Did BET give you a reason?
They told me, "Well, that's not our format." But I'm something different. You have to conform to what I do. You have to come to Strangeland. You have to turn into Strangeland for a minute because there's something beautiful happening over here. My challenge has been getting my own people on it, but they are coming around slowly but surely.
Your bread-and-butter has always been touring. In an era when concert box office totals have been steadily declining, how have you been able to find success on the road?
We've been selling out shows for a longtime. But the shows are double and triple now. The places are bigger and we are still selling them out. It's so crazy. I'm seeing it bubble before my eyes. It's growing like a forest fire and it's hard to concentrate because I'm looking out at all the people stacked in there on a Monday night. We do a show everyday. You are not supposed to sell out Las Vegas on a Monday night. We are playing to anywhere from 1,000 to 4,000 people. I do over 250 shows a year. It's going to be more this year because we are doing 82 shows in 85 days. This will be the longest tour I have ever done. My fans are great. People call them the new Deadheads. I have the Juggalos that are loyal, I have the metal heads, and the gang bangers. It's a melting pot.
When you think back to the days when labels were turning you down in the early 2000s, what comes to mind?
That this music thing is hard as hell. You have to have some kind of pilot to guide you through it all. You need money. We took losses, man. That first Hostile Takeover tour in 2001, we lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. You have to really believe in the music to lose that type of money on a tour. Back then, that's when I was into my drugs and ecstasy. I almost died taking 15 pills one night. It was hard for anyone to accept me. And I'm independent? Nobody wanted to open doors, radio, video, nobody. So we had to open our own doors. That's why I'm so grateful for all of my success. I want to keep it going.