Tech N9ne has nowhere to hide. He crouches behind a speaker stack, catching his breath after a six-song set in 90-degree heat at St. Louis' UMB Bank Pavilion. This maneuver shields him from the fans still buzzing in front of the stage, but it leaves him in full view of followers who line the diagonal barriers that extend from the stage's corners to the back fence. "Yo Tech, we down from KC," shouts a trio of white twentysomethings. "Prospect, Independence Avenue, represent!" Tech, still squatting, smiles and flashes the Dio-patented metal horns. Then his manager Travis O'Guin appears with a box full of snippet samplers of his new disc, Absolute Power (he'll hand out 130,000 before the tour ends), and while hip-hop enthusiasts swarm like fish chasing tourist-tossed pellets, Tech gets a moment of respite.
The diminutive rapper moves to his next stop, camouflaged by his burly associates. He takes a seat in Motorola's Hellomoto booth, which Tech's crew has commandeered as its home base. Hip-hop heads who came for Sprite Liquid Mix Tour headliner Jay-Z join tanned, tattooed skaters who pledge allegiance to second-billed 311 in the slow-moving meet-and-greet line. A good percentage of these patient fans wouldn't wait a hot minute to get almost any other rapper's attention, but Tech, with his drumroll cadence and guitar-solo virtuosity, is the exception.
More than any other current hip-hop performer, Tech can convert concertgoers with his infectious energy and far-out flows. Finally, after a career full of shady industry dealings and poisoned partnerships, he's getting the chance. But Tech's biggest selling points -- his high visibility, accessibility and unique appeal -- can also be a curse.
Back in Kansas City, it's hard to imagine Tech N9ne (n Aaron Yates) isn't already a star. Last year's AngHellic, a mind-blowing collection of futuristic rap tunes dealing with death, debauchery and deliverance, broke the area's SoundScan record, outpacing every other disc ever released there, with sales exceeding 20,000 copies in the first week. Wherever he goes, Tech gets mobbed, deep. Not that such attention has made him reclusive: Tech appears at more clubs than cover charges. He's so ubiquitous that some of his friends marvel that people still pay to see him in concert.
Tech learned the value of gettin' around from the late Tupac Shakur. In 1993, while in Los Angeles working on the soundtrack to the 2Pac film Gang Related, Tech noticed that Shakur appeared at every party. "You'd see him different places the same night," he recalls. "Whenever something hot was goin' off, he'd be there."
Then again, Shakur was an infamous trouble magnet. Although Tech hasn't yet become a target of high-profile national rivals, he gets his share of unwanted attention, to the point that friends plead with him to don a bulletproof vest. So far, the worst he's experienced is some fighting words from misguided MCs. Tech has been known to put together a ferocious diss track, bring it back to the club at which he was confronted and have the DJ throw it into the mix. "You're in the place, and this song comes on talking about you, and everyone's looking at you and singing it," Tech says, detailing the plight of his victim. "I made a club hit out of your ass."
On Absolute Power, Tech settles a score with longtime producer Don Juan, who handled several of the tracks on AngHellic. The two parted ways after a financial feud, and though that dispute has been settled, the wounds haven't healed. Tech needles his former beatmaker with this savage passage: Keep talking crazy/and I'm a let 'em know where you keep your baby, and where you stay, D. To those concerned that he may have gone too far with such threats, Tech responds in the chorus: Some say I should worry and watch where I walk/Yadda yadda yadda/That's just talk.
"I never scare," Tech says defiantly, but even though he won't back down on wax, he's also essentially harmless outside the studio. Unlike Tupac, from whom he says he learned the value of calling out enemies by name, Tech isn't living the thug life. "I'm the nicest person," he claims. "If you've got a problem with me, there's something wrong with you."
Still, behind Tech's easy smile and charismatic personality lie the tears of a killer clown. After an ill-fated collaboration with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis that led to a never-released album and another unreleased disc under the Qwest/Warner Brothers imprint, Tech became business partners with O'Guin, who freed the rapper from a maze of questionable contracts. After initially planning to release AngHellic independently, the pair thought they'd found a permanent home at JCOR, an Interscope-associated label. But months after that disc exploded on the home front and seemed poised to do so nationwide, Tech and O'Guin realized their deal was going sour.
AngHellic's signature tune, "It's Alive," is a thrilling hometown-pride anthem spiked with an adrenalized drum & bass breakdown. It could've been a smash to rival Nelly's "Country Grammar (Hot Sh**t)" and Petey Pablo's "Raise Up," but JCOR never delivered the video it promised, nor did the label come through with radio promotion. At the beginning of 2002, the label dissolved under allegations that owner Jay Faires, formerly the head of Mammoth Records, had been embezzling from his employees' retirement funds. Consequently, AngHellic was pulled from print, though demand remains high. Fortunately, Tech was able to retrieve the rights to the master copy, and he plans to re-release it, with three new tracks, within the next year.
Tech's team took away something else of value from the label -- a relationship with Dave Weiner, the talent scout who assembled much of JCOR's dazzling roster. After quitting JCOR in disgust, Weiner met with Mark Cerami, his former mentor at Priority Records (Ice Cube, Ice-T, N.W.A.). The two planned a new partnership called MSC Entertainment, a well-funded machine with impressive distribution capabilities. MSC's first client is Tech N9ne, which means its entire staff, including fourteen workers in Los Angeles alone, is working full-time to prepare the music world for Absolute Power's September 24 release.
Also involved is the publicity firm Susan Blond Inc., which handles OZZfest, among other major events and artists. Thanks to SBI's PR efforts, MSC's industry connections and Tech's team's own tactics, the rapper's single "Slacker" has earned spins nationwide and airtime on M2. Tech landed a spot on the Sprite Liquid Mix tour, which introduced him to a perfect target audience of rap and rock enthusiasts. Most important, Tech and O'Guin now have the juice to kickstart the Strange Music label, for which Absolute Power will mark the maiden voyage.
On that disc, Tech comes out firing, licking shots at everyone who contributed to AngHellic's less-than-platinum standing. First there's the standard nerdy nasal-voiced white-bread label guy, who tells Tech his orange hair is "so not black." Rapping at warp speed but articulating every syllable, Tech spits: Idiots say black folks won't feel us .../The ones that call the shots/most of them on some hater shit.
Tech has put his traumatic experiences on record for years, but Absolute Power is his first album to deal with mostly external experiences. AngHellic was often deeply personal, and its most confessional track, "This Ring," a frank admission of Tech's failed fidelity, has become an unlikely live favorite. Onstage, Tech sits in a chair during this slow-weaving piece, and fans loft their lighters as he relates the extramarital affairs in which he once engaged. But for at least one listener, its subject matter isn't cause for applause.
"My wife says, 'These people are partying to my pain,'" Tech says. "She asks me why I air our dirty laundry. But I've gotta rap what's real."
It's near dusk, but the rapper clad in garish red remains recognizable. He's constantly interrupted and swarmed by admirers. "Tech ... Niiiiine," "Great show, dude" and "fuck yeah" are the icebreakers of choice. It's a familiar scene, with a few twists -- the rapper isn't Tech N9ne, and the city isn't KC.
After seeing Krizz Kaliko -- the B.I.G.-gie sized crooner whose hooks complement several tracks on Absolute Power -- share the stage with Tech, Grant Rice and Kutt Calhoun, many first-time witnesses assume Tech N9ne is a group name.
"People say, 'If he's Tech N9ne,' who are you?" Kaliko clarifies. "If he's Nelly, we're like the St. Lunatics."
Away from the clamoring crowd, Kaliko demonstrates his solo style, weaving several genres seamlessly into a few stunning verses. The other artists do the same: Calhoun interrupts his rugged flow with smooth vocal hooks, pairing streetwise realism with spiritual soul; Rice describes his plans to croon an altered version of Edie Brickell's "What I Am" over a looped AC/DC riff. Within the year, each will make a solo disc with Strange's full backing, including poster-plastering and mobile promotional units. Like Nelly and Master P, Tech might be able to establish his city's rap as a brand name, opening the door for all his cohorts.
The Liquid Mix tour was a major step, allowing fans to attach a face to the name that's appeared in so many places. As he diagrams on "Keep On Keepin' On" (an Absolute Power track that also appears on the Tupac tribute album), Thug Angel: I'm that rap nigga that you heard with Tupac, Sole/Lench and Bo, Wake-Up Show/with King Tech and Sway/Yukmouth, Thicker Than Water, Gang Related, Eminem/Roger Trout, MC Ren/nigga Spice 1 and them. But as a result of the diverse crowd that such a discography encompasses, many hip-hop heads haven't yet pieced it together that the Tech N9ne who appears on the freestyle showcase The Anthem is the same one who wrecks horrorcore verses with Brotha Lynch Hung.
What's more, Kaliko says, many have written him off because of his name, dismissing him as a Mack 10-style gangsta rapper. Likewise, some gangsta-rap fans, on hearing his unorthodox delivery, have abandoned him, branding his work "white rap."
Tech will open himself up to such criticism on a much wider level on his next album, Everready: The Religion. He describes dream collaborations with Slipknot, Dr. Dre and the Neptunes, projects that could become a reality if Absolute Power breaks on a national scale. The Slipknot tie-in might be the most likely -- the Iowa-based band is familiar with Tech's work and shares a fondness for bar codes and red jumpsuits. If it happens, Slipknot's rabid following would join Tech's own growing cult. On his Web site (www.therealtechn9ne.com), members catalog rare recordings and debate "Tech versus ..." pairings, just as Saturday Night Live's "da Bears" gang did with Mike Ditka.
Most of these hardcore fans have already downloaded Absolute Power from the Internet, but it's likely all of them will buy it as well, because the album comes with an extras-packed DVD filled with concert footage, backstage antics and seven otherwise unavailable songs. (The two-disc package sports a single-album price.) Hundreds have prepaid for their copies, encouraging Strange/MSC to ship 200,000 copies for its September 24 street date, including clean copies for Wal-Mart.
If Absolute Power hits, Tech may also unleash one of the most aesthetically outrageous stage shows in hip-hop history. "I'd be on some other shit, with bar-code crucifixes and burned-out cathedrals," Tech raves.
Such concerts would test the limits of Absolute Power's titular concept. "Absolute power means moving this sea of people and feeling of surge of power," Tech explains. But true absolute power would involve getting millions of people involved in this interaction. Tech has an excellent opportunity, because after "Slacker," potent follow-up singles such as "I'm a Playa" (with a hook set to the chorus of Falco's "Rock Me Amadeus") lurk in the wings. His most important asset, however, is a spirit that seldom sleeps and never hides.