Power Play

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 Tech’s new disc, Absolute Power. (He’ll hand out 130,000 before the tour ends.) 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 line. A significant percentage of these patient fans wouldn’t wait a hot minute to get almost any other rapper’s attention, but Tech, with his drum-roll cadence and guitar-solo virtuosity, is the exception.

“I mostly like hardcore and heavy rock,” admits autograph seeker Seth Rollins, who traveled from Columbia to see Tech live for the first time. “But Tech N9ne’s harder and faster than anything else in hip-hop.”

The differences between Tech and his peers stack up as the day’s entertainment continues. On stage, he possesses an electricity that none of the other hip-hop acts equal. During “Stamina,” a showstopper in which he matches a machine gun rat-a-tat for rat-a-tat, a spellbound fan points in amazement, then starts shaking his girlfriend to make sure she’s paying attention. He plays complete songs, eschewing hip-hop’s tradition of unsatisfying medleys. He’s constantly on, never stopping to toss out tired roof-raising chants.

By contrast, Nappy Roots’ set, a lazy mix of hand-waving and dirty-drawled choruses, does nothing to engage the crowd. Despite the presence of a live band, N.E.R.D.’s show borders on bland. Jay-Z’s presence is regal, and his verbal skills are unassailable, but he’s never packaged himself as a complete entertainer who can dance and switch up his delivery.

More than any other current hip-hop performer, Tech can convert concertgoers on the spot with his infectious energy and far-out flows. Finally, after a star-crossed 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 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 here, with sales exceeding 20,000 copies during the first week. AngHellic‘s publicity campaign, which featured a prominent billboard, pervasive poster tagging and omnipresent box trucks airbrushed with the album art, was unprecedented in the region. Wherever he goes, Tech gets mobbed, deep. Not that such attention has made him reclusive: At clubs, Tech appears more often than cover charges. He’s so ubiquitous that some of his friends are amazed 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.”

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Then again, Shakur was an infamous trouble magnet. Though Tech hasn’t become a target for 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 has been 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 related to profits from that disc, 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 might have gone too far with such threats, Tech responds in the chorus: Some say I should worry and watch where I walk/Yada yada yada/That’s just talk.

“I never scare,” Tech says defiantly, but though he won’t back down on wax, he’s essentially harmless outside the studio. Unlike 2Pac, 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. Initial plans to release AngHellic independently changed when 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-‘n’-bass breakdown. It could have been a smash to rival Nelly’s “Country Grammar” or Petey Pablo’s “Raise Up,” other odes to previously ignored hip-hop destinations, 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. He plans to re-release it with three new tracks sometime next year.

Tech’s team took away something else valuable 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 that its entire staff, including fourteen employees in Los Angeles alone, is working full-time to prepare the music world for Absolute Power‘s September 24 release.

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Also involved is the publicity firm Susan Blond Inc., which handles Ozzfest, among other major events and artists. Thanks to SBI’s efforts, MSC’s industry connections and Tech’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 kick-start 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 helped limit AngHellic to less-than-platinum standing. First comes 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. Tech sits in a chair when he performs this slow-weaving piece, and fans loft their lighters as he relates his extramarital affairs. 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 with 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.-gy-size 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 so many places. As he diagrams on “Keep On Keepin’ On,” an Absolute Power track that also appears on the 2Pac tribute album Thug Angel: I’m that rap nigga that you heard with 2Pac, 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 thanks to the diverse crowd that discography encompasses, many hip-hop heads haven’t figured out that the Tech N9ne who appears on the freestyle showcase “The Anthem” is the same one who wrecks horrorcore verses with Brotha Lynch Hung.

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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, upon hearing his unorthodox delivery, have abandoned him, branding him “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 be realized 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 the way 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; the album comes with an extras-packed DVD that includes concert footage, backstage antics and seven otherwise unavailable songs. (The two-disc package sports a single-album price.) Hundreds of fans have prepaid, encouraging Strange/MSC to ship 200,000 discs — including clean copies for Wal-Mart — for the album’s September 24 street date.

If Absolute Power hits, Tech might also unleash one of the most aesthetically outrageous stage shows in hip-hop history. “I’d be on some other shit, with barcode crucifixes and burned-out cathedrals,” Tech raves, describing a Marilyn Manson-style production in a spectacle-starved genre that puts even superstars such as Mystikal and Ludacris onstage with little more than a banner and a DJ.

Such concerts would test the limits of Absolute Power‘s titular concept. “Absolute power means moving this sea of people and feeling a surge of power,” Tech explains. The album’s cover photo illustrates that sensation, with Tech turning his back to a packed Uptown Theater crowd and flashing a maniacal grin at the camera.

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.

Categories: Music