Tech N9ne at home in his ‘Strange’ world

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Tech N9ne | PHOTO BY DENNYS ILIC

LEE’S SUMMIT, Mo.— “Welcome, and excuse the face paint,” Tech N9ne said with a smile, his visage a network of curious black runes against a field of stark-white theatrical makeup. “This is how I wear it onstage; there was something I had to do earlier.”

The hardcore emcee who put Kansas City, Missouri, on the rap map – and who, with business partner Travis O’Guin, presides over a multimillion-dollar indie hip-hop empire called Strange Music – continued down the airy entryway staircase at Strangeland Studios, part of the company’s extensive headquarters in suburban Lee’s Summit, Missouri. On this balmy, breezy late-March afternoon, the whole complex was abuzz, preparing to launch Tech N9ne’s Independent Powerhouse Tour 2016. It touches down in Chicago Apr. 28 at Concord Music Hall, featuring a half-dozen Strange Music label artists – Ces Cru, Stevie Stone, ¡Mayday!, Rittz and Krizz Kaliko, with Tech as headliner.

While a visitor eyed the imposing $80,000 custom motorcycle serving as wall decor, along with original canvases of Tech performing (painted live in concert by comic-book artist Rob Prior), Tech N9ne divulged the nature of his prior commitment, which had necessitated the stage greasepaint he hadn’t had a chance to remove.

Tech N9ne When: 7 p.m. Apr. 28 Where: Concord Music Hall, 2047 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tickets: $35 (17+ over) Info: www.concordmusichall.com

Turns out it was a video shoot with “some secret friends” – Tech N9ne’s demure description of notorious hacktivist collective Anonymous. They’d invited him last year, through a videoclip addressing Tech by his birth name, to join forces: “Mr. Aaron Dontez Yates, you are the chosen one on Earth whom we’ve selected for a special project which will change the world forever.”

Tech N9ne | PHOTO BY DENNYS ILIC

Tech N9ne | PHOTO BY DENNYS ILIC

No details on this shadowy collaboration were forthcoming, of course, from Tech N9ne, who’d apparently set the thing in motion himself on his 2015 album, “Special Effects,” with a shout-out to the Guy Fawkes-masked conspirators: “At least Anonymous is hacking for peace.” And business partner O’Guin said he has “no idea when the video will come out; it’s all up to them.”

Tech N9ne has, however, just announced a Sept. 9 release date for his next album, “The Storm,” which should continue to expand Strange Music’s already considerable fortunes. The rapper’s been ascending Forbes’ annual “Cash Kings” roll callof the world’s highest-paid rap acts since 2012, the only true independent on a tally led by Diddy, Jay-Z and Drake. Tech and Strange Music’s $8.5 million lofted them to No.17 on the 2015 list, perched right below Rick Ross and right above Ludacris. Forbes has dubbed Tech N9ne “Hip-Hop’s Secret Mogul.”

He and his partner in moguldom met in the late ’90s. Travis O’Guin, a self-made millionaire (from his furniture business) and ardent fan of popular music (especially hip-hop), had become intrigued with the fleet-tongued Kancas Cityemcee, who’d placed some singles into local radio rotation. “I’d really had no intention of getting into the music biz,” O’Guin disclosed, explaining his aims were more along the lines of, “Is there anything I can say or do to maybe help him further himself?”

“ʻI’m pretty good at business,’” he recalled telling Tech. “ʻLet me hear your story.’”

O’Guin found that Tech N9ne had previously been associated with name producers – Quincy Jones’s son QD3, hitmakers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (of Janet Jackson and Usher renown) – but that nothing had come of it.

Convinced the artist was “too talented not to eventually be heard by the masses,” O’Guin helped Tech N9ne realize his longtime ambition of owning a label called Strange Music by entering into a 50-50 partnership with the rapper.

Their new company bowed in 1999, its name born of Tech’s avowed love for the late Jim Morrison and his archetypal band the Doors – with whose three (at that point) surviving members he would later record “Strange 2013,” a provocative remake of the band’s 1967 hit “Strange Days,” and with whose aesthetic he shares a taste for the macabre.

Tech N9ne’s spectral stage face, for instance, stems from his enduring fascination with the Kansas City urban legend of a murderous clown stalking school kids. “I was opening a show for [veteran NoCal rapper] C-Bo, and I wanted to be the killer clown; my best friend did the makeup,” Tech related. “I like the mystique of a clown face, because you never know what’s behind it. Malicious intent – or is it really just a smile?”

Moira McCormick is a local freelance writer.

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