- Tech N9ne: “We all bleed the same.”
“No, I’d rather go with my ‘Peaceful Youth Unit Neutralizing Earth,’ man, because I made it myself and I know what to expect,” says Tech of the refugee planet at the center of his new concept album Planet. “We’ll see what comes of Mars, but Planet Pyune is something I made, so I wouldn’t trade it for the world, pun intended.”
Science-fiction tropes are nothing new to the world of popular music: When Afrofuturist jazzman Sun Ra’s music grew more other-worldly back in the 1950s, he began to insist that he was, in fact, a visitor from Venus. Decades later, rapper Kool Keith unleashed his alter ego Dr. Octagon, an interstellar gynecologist. And it’s only in recent interviews that Janelle Monáe has admitted that she isn’t really a time-traveling android.
In the case of Aaron Dontez Yates, as a teenager growing up in Kansas City, Missouri, the opportunity to escape the everyday realities of Midwestern living was to take to the stage in outrageous face-paint and screwed-up hairdos, a strategy that paved the way for his current status as the most successful independent rapper on this particular planet. He borrowed the name Tech N9ne from a semi-automatic handgun, claiming it as a reference to his rapid-fire vocal delivery, and has since released 20 albums.
Given his image, it was convenient for the press to throw Tech N9ne into the horrorcore rap category, a genre that was popularized by the hip-hop supergroup Gravediggaz in the early ’90s and continues today with upstart acts like Ho99o9.
“I was never a horrorcore rapper, my stories have always been my life,” says Tech, an exceptional vocalist, producer and lyricist whose musical gifts have sometimes been overshadowed by his outrageously theatrical image. “I mean, I’ve always been fond of horror movies. And some of the horror themes that I had in some of my earlier music, like the Michael Myers theme, made people think I was a horrorcore rapper. But my music is not fake, it is not fiction, it is my life. So some people from afar will look at my appearance and call it sinister, but I’ve always been a real emcee — you know what I’m saying? — with Goth undertones.”
Although Tech N9ne has released more than 50 singles over the course of the past two decades, only one of them has squeaked into Billboard’s Top 100. Yet among fans of underground rap, he’s achieved legendary status. When Planet came out in March, it broke the record for the most Top 10 albums by any artist on Billboard’s Top Rap Albums chart. (Tech now has 19, which is one ahead of Gucci Mane and E-40.)
And if an artist is known by the company he keeps, Tech also scores high. He’s collaborated with a who’s who of enduring hip-hop heroes, including Lil Wayne, Kendrick Lamar, Ice Cube, Andre 3000 and Eminem.
This time out, Tech’s guest rappers, which include emcees Snow Tha Product and Machine Gun Kelly, are less high-profile and therefore less distracting from the album’s overall theme. The beats from producers Seven, 206derek, and Jeff “Frizz” James, meanwhile, make this the most trap-influenced album in the Tech N9ne catalogue.
Well, trap-influenced may not be the best way to put it in Tech’s presence.
"We’ve been doing that style of beats since way before it was popular,” he counters, “so it’s nothing new for us at Strange Music. We’ve always been ahead of the game.”
Tech’s favorite journey into trap, he says, is “On the Bible,” a 2015 single that features fellow rapper T.I.
“It’s a song that I wrote a couple of albums ago, when I was really hurt that a family member threatened my life over money,” says the rapper. “It’s nothing I want to talk about now. But it hurt back then, and I was, like: On the Bible, I will protect myself at all costs.”
Tech logged additional death threats, he says, in the wake of a well-publicized falling out with the Insane Clown Posse, which didn’t go down all that well with the close-knit Juggalo community. Although he’d played their annual Gathering of the Juggalos celebration for the previous eight years straight, Tech announced that he would not be performing at the 2017 event.
“We’ve straightened all that out,” says Tech. “I’ll be playing it this year, on July 18, if I’m not mistaken. It’s the biggest party ever.”
As someone who feels his own music has been unfairly stereotyped, Tech is also offended by the derision that’s frequently directed at Juggalos, be it from conservative media, musical elitists or your average wannabe hipster.
“They say that if Tech N9ne just left those dirty Juggalos, he’d be bigger. And I say that is racism. You know, we don’t accept racism or prejudice on planet Pyune, we are all human beings. My music is supposed to appeal to everybody, The Juggalos are a part of the human body, everybody, so do not treat them like they’re less than you. We all bleed the same. We all cry, scheisse, everything.
While Tech confesses to having only the most rudimentary knowledge of German (“scheisse” means “shit,” by the way), his proficiency in Arabic is undeniably impressive.
“I do speak Arabic sometimes,” he says, illustrating the fact with a formal greeting — “Asalamu alaykum; rahmatu Allah wa barakatuh” — which translates to “Peace be upon you; God’s mercy and blessings.”
“My mom married a Muslim when I was 12,” he says. “I studied Islam from 12 to 17. But I was raised a Christian.”
Growing up singing in church choir, says Tech, had a significant influence on his own music, although his faith was shaken by his mother’s struggles with epilepsy and lupus. “Majesty, why ain’t you stoppin’ these tragedies?” he asks on the track “Show Me a God.” “How come an angel gotta be sick in the pancreas like she’s an atheist?”
At the age of 46, Tech N9ne knows that rap has been good to him. His expansive Strange Music compound continues to grow, with a new $7 million dollar headquarters currently under construction. The company recently launched its own pop division, Strange Main, with a debut album from McKenzie Nicole, the 19-year-old singer who’s been making guest appearances on Tech N9ne albums for nearly a decade.
It’s also interesting to note that the rap entrepreneur, for all his success, still lives in a city whose main claim to fame, from a musical perspective, was Fats Domino’s hit recording of “Kansas City, Here I Come.”
“We’re creating a brand new headquarters, and the plan is to turn the headquarters that we have now into a distillery,” says Tech, whose role as a job creator in Kansas City is not lost on the local populace. “Man, they treat me like I’m the mayor of Kansas City when I go out there.” (Tech’s appearance at a mayoral Christmas tree lighting, he says, drew 4,000 people.)
So is Tech ready to go into politics? “I don’t know, man,” he demurs. “If I can help, yes, but I don’t think I want that much attention. I don’t know, we’ll see.”
In the meantime, the rapper continues to headline a wide range of venues, from Red Rocks-scale arenas to less-than-500 capacity clubs like Colorado Springs’ Black Sheep, where he plays on a more or less annual basis.
“I’m never too big to come do an intimate show,” he says of the windowless, all-ages venue. “We’re usually inside sweating like crazy for the fans, like super hot, but I think this time they said we’re going to be outside, which I’ve never done there. I can’t wait to see what it’s like.”
In a genre where an artist’s commercial half-life is more often measured in years than decades, it’s impressive to see a veteran like Tech N9ne still out there playing dozens of dates. So it’s only natural to ask the multi-million-dollar question: Does he ever plan to retire?
“When my album dropped on March 2nd, I told my son I got four more years,” he says. “But then, as I was out here in the midst of my tour, and I started seeing all the tattoos and all the love and all the fans that still want to come — all the youngsters, the 3-year-olds, the 7-year-olds, the 10-year-olds that are in the crowd — I said that’s really selfish to just cut them off like that, all this love and family. So I’m just going to play it by ear and just stay as long as I can.”
How does the family feel about that change of heart? “My kids are 23, 19 and 22,” he says. “They’re grownups, so they’re cool. Although we did miss a lot of time while I was out working, and they’re upset about that. No amount of money can make up for that time, but we’re trying to create a better future and a brighter future with togetherness.”
As for our own society’s bright future, Tech N9ne prefers to let his musical metaphors do the talking.
“I see what’s going on in this world, I see Lebron and I see the Warriors and I see Trump,” he says, referring to the controversy surrounding NBA players refusing to visit the White House. “I see the Great Barrier Reef dying. I see all these things. But I am in my world. And my world surprises me every day.”