Against the Grain
Experienced partygoers know that showing up early is a mistake, and hip-hop heads have learned to add a good two hours to any alleged start time for rap attractions. So it’s no surprise that Tech N9ne‘s event, which started at 8 p.m. on September 24, offered no live entertainment until nearly 1 a.m. (Though the doors to Tech’s show opened at the same time Bruce Springsteen started jamming at Kemper Arena, Tech’s act didn’t commence until well after the Boss had ended his gig with “Kansas City” — an encore to his third encore.) But when Tech and his cohorts Kutt Calhoun, Grant Rice and Big Krizz Kaliko finally appeared, clad in white tuxedos and red vests, all was forgiven — at least by those who remained.
Dozens of disappointed fans split early, having made the substantial trek to Grain Valley’s Shooters 21 on a Tuesday evening only to hear the house DJ repeatedly spin Nelly and J-Lo records. Last year’s extravaganza at downtown’s Life (now dead) separated the soiree into three levels: the sweat-soaked first floor (hell), the comparatively comfortable purgatory level and the elusive top-floor heaven for VIPs. At Shooters 21, the wait simulated purgatory, but the soundtrack (remember Paperboy‘s “Ditty”? Unfortunately, this DJ did) downgraded conditions to what Tech might call hellic.
The fact that the throwdown even occurred was a small miracle given that five days before Tech’s Absolute Power was scheduled to drop, the rapper still had no place to celebrate its birth. Venue after venue told the city’s rap savior there was no room at their inns, forcing him to take refuge among Grain Valley’s barns.
But despite the rustic setting, this wasn’t a small-scale gathering. Shooters 21 holds 3,300 people, more than any Kansas City club. Despite a last-minute announcement and minimal advertising, more than 2,500 turned out for the show. The audience spread to all regions of the cavernous confines during the smooth R&B portion of the program, then defied physical limitations by stuffing an intimidating mass of humanity onto a wooden dance floor during Tech’s performance. From behind the stage, it looked like the kind of chaotic crowd chronicled on Tech’s DVD More Power; from the back of the room, it looked like a modest gathering in front of an especially popular act at a battle of the bands in a high-school gym.
Except that strippers writhed in cages next to the stage. Spectators familiar with the venue’s dress code, however, might have thought that the women in G-strings and bikini tops were simply trying to avoid breaking any rules. Baggy clothes, hats, printed T-shirts and sports jerseys were all among the forbidden gear. This could have led to widespread aggravation, with fans having to drive home from Grain Valley to change clothes, but KPRS 103.3, which was broadcasting live, helped spread the word about the restrictions.
Travis O’Guin, Tech’s manager and Strange Music business partner, observed much of the incoming traffic from his post at the guest-list booth. Other than a few dozen hat-heads required to retire their caps to their cars, O’Guin says he witnessed no dress-code-related flare-ups.
What’s more, there weren’t any major incidents or altercations of any kind. That’s a fact he stresses repeatedly because a fear of such occurrences was the reason he couldn’t hook up with a club earlier.
“Kansas City shows usually lack proper planning for events and well-informed security staffs,” O’Guin says (articulating surprisingly well for someone operating on an hour of sleep and en route to a Tech N9ne record-release appearance at a St. Louis Wherehouse Music store). “We want to do things right so rap concerts can stop getting negative press.”
For the Shooters 21 gig, 36 highly visible security guards, including eight of the club’s own, paroled the venue. There were three minor disturbances during the seven-hour span, but all were squashed immediately, with guards swarming to the scene within seconds.
It was an environment that might have comforted rap-show-phobic venue owners — if they’d only waited for O’Guin to finish sketching out the logistics before showing him the door.
“Nobody would have it,” O’Guin says. “Nobody will do a rap concert in Kansas City unless you do something at Starlight that’s a major event. The Beaumont Club won’t have it because of what happened there three years ago. [A shooting incident outside the doors of a Def Comedy Jam show left two dead.] The Uptown Club helped us out with a show, but they won’t do any others. Nobody wants to host ‘that element.’ There’s a lot of stereotyping.”
One tangible reason some venues shy away from hip-hop shows is the performers’ and promoters’ disregard for schedules. “They end up having these rosters with twelve fucking acts, and it never runs smooth and always runs over,” O’Guin says, citing a Lil’ Flip show at the Uptown. The venue pulled the plug at midnight with three acts, national headliner included, left to play.
For this reason, O’Guin didn’t invite other local rappers to fill the sizable gap between the time the party gates opened and the time Tech started his spirited set. He considered abbreviated appearances from Calhoun, Kaliko and Young Gunz (who spit serious gangsta fire on Absolute Power‘s “Gunz Will Bust”) but ultimately decided “this night is about Tech, so let’s keep that focus.”
This evening was also about Tech’s diverse fanbase, members of which sported mullets and picked-out Afros, skimpy skirts and stylish suits, eager suburbanite smiles and street-hardened perma-scowls. Many rappers as hard as Tech attract audiences that won’t tolerate the likes of candy-sweet crooner Mario for long, but there was room for every musical demographic at this show, including pop fans who danced contentedly to the saccharine fare. Also, most urban artists, if they were for some reason exiled to a Grain Valley-like outpost, might not draw the locals even if they did inspire city-folk to make the road trip. Tech, however, plays almost every obscure Missouri train-stop town, from Cameron to Booneville to Excelsior Springs.
“We do raves out in the woods,” O’Guin explains. “We drive down these dirt roads until we find a stage in the forest, and then there’s cars for days. It’s some Blair Witch-type shit.”
At the moment, however, there’s little time for haunting unsuspecting campers. The party’s over, and Tech must return to the campaign trail, schmoozing with radio stations nationwide and attempting to convince programmers to spin his single, “Slacker.” And though there’s cause for sales optimism, especially given that Best Buy is giving Absolute Power prominent placement, O’Guin recognizes the pitfalls of the current climate.
“There’s a dramatic decline in the business,” O’Guin says. “And while we’re a great independent story doing major, major shit, we’re still independents.”
On the road indefinitely for the next few weeks, doing radio station events and spot shows, Tech finds himself in the usual role of the independent artist: opening for established stars, hoping to connect with new listeners and network with upper-tier talent. With his immediate energy, he’s well-suited to be a warm-up act, and he loves playing the part. “I want to go first, get it out the way and fuck it up for everybody else,” Tech says.
As his release party proves, Tech’s not above keeping fans in suspense headliner-style when he goes on first — and last — at solo shows. Still, for those who weathered the quiet storm (earplugs were invaluable), his one-of-a-kind performance — a near-complete run-through of Absolute Power — justified the dreadful delay. For hip-hop fans waiting for events such as this one to take place within Kansas City limits, the wait might be significantly longer.