Kansas City rapper Tech N9ne confounds many expectations of what a hip-hop mogul should be.
Instead of having a major record contract, he releases his music on his own independent label. Instead of just collaborating with other rappers, he mixes it up with hard rockers such as Slipknot and Linkin Park. Instead of appearing on stage all blinged out, he shows up in white face paint and simple hospital scrubs.
Yet the 43-year-old artist and businessman has made the Forbes magazine list of top earners in hip-hop since 2013 and is now the No. 1-selling independent rap artist in the country. His Strange Music record label, founded with business partner Travis O’Guin in 1999, has a full roster of artists, including ¡MAYDAY!, Rittz, Ces Cru, Krizz Kaliko and more.
This spring, Tech N9ne – born Aaron Dontez Yates – released his 15th studio album, “Special Effects.” The album went to No. 1 on the Billboard Rap Album chart and No. 4 on the Billboard 200 album chart and had a breakout hit with the single “Hood Go Crazy,” featuring 2 Chainz and B.o.B. The rapper, who was dubbed “Hip-Hop’s Secret Mogul” by Forbes, returns to the Knitting Factory on Tuesday. Late this summer, he spoke to the Tribune News Service from his home base in Kansas City, Missouri, about his music, his image and his ever-expanding empire.
Q: So you’re an artist, businessman, music mogul all in one. Do you consider yourself any one more than the others, or are they all integral to who you are?
A: More of a musician, you know what I am saying. The business side came from Travis (O’Guin). A lot came from him over the years.
Q: When you founded Strange Music, did you realize what it would grow to? Was this always the dream?
A: I had no idea that the crazy idea in my head to have the snake and a bat as our symbol would end up on people’s skin forever as tattoos, on people’s cars. I didn’t know it would turn into something humongous like this. We haven’t reached the level me and Travis have set out to reach yet, but we’ve done so wonderfully. So we have a little bit more to go. I’d say we’re getting there.
Q: Why has it been important for you to be an independent artist with your Strange Music label?
A: You know, before I ran into Travis, I had three other record deals. After all those went sour, I never wanted to be in that position ever again to have to be told what to put out, what to write. I didn’t want to be told what image would work for the public. I have to be somewhere where I have complete autonomy and do whatever the hell I want.
Q: You’ve since had incredible success, making the Forbes lists for the biggest earners in hip-hop. Did those inclusions change how people looked at you?
A: I think that the respect is still growing. Over the years, my peers in music have said, “We respect your grind and getting out there.” After being on the Forbes list three years in row, it makes sure everyone else pays attention. When you have an independent record with Eminem on it, Corey Taylor of Slipknot, and the list goes on, people recognize now that I always had something special going on. Because people thought I was the weird black guy with red spiked hair (one of his old looks on stage).
Q: As you mentioned, your new album has a lot of great collaborations. How do you decide on who you want to work with and make it happen?
A: Corey and Eminem, I’ve been wanting to work with them for over a decade. I’ve been trying for a while. I guess I finally did a song (“Speedom (WWC2)”) that I sent to Eminem that he really loved. Same with Corey. When you approach Corey Taylor backstage at one of his humongous concerts, you have to know it can’t be with something soft. It can’t be anything subpar. So I knew when I took “Wither” in to Corey, I knew he’d fit perfectly. I do really well in fitting people with music perfectly.
Q: You also tour extensively, playing around 100 shows a year. What do you get from the stage that you don’t get from other creative outlets?
A: Other than spending time with my children, the stage is where I belong. When I’m home too long, I go crazy. We need to be out there connecting with the fans.
Q: Your style is really different, as well. Tell me about how it evolved.
A: Everything we wear on stage, from hospital scrubs to the numbers on the front, it all came from a group that taught me to think different years ago, called Nnutthowze, my first band. My best friend, Brian Dennis, painted my face for the first time in 1994. He died some years later. The clown I become in ’94, the killer clown lyrically, was his idea. It was from the killer clown myth in Kansas City that used to scare all the kids. In honor of him, I wear the face paint.
Q: How have people responded to your look?
A: In the beginning, everybody, the majority of people, thought we were weird. They called me devil worshiper for so many years. But now the scrubs are respected and the number 6688846993 (which on telephone buttons spells out Nnutthowze) is respected and the face paint will be respected. I don’t care if you think it’s weird or think I’m corny because I wear face paint and I’m in my 40s. When anyone says anything derogatory about it, they should know it is in honor of my dead best friend.
Q: So what can people expect when they see you live?
A: From this live show, they can expect it to be loud. Can expect it to be as crazy as you ever seen a show. It’s light, it’s dark, it’s confused, it’s smart, it’s human.