If record sales are down, somebody forgot to tell Strange Music. It's Thursday night in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, five days before the release of Tech N9ne's biggest album to date, All 6's & 7's , and numbers drive the conversation. Strange Music's four executives have been relaying each other various figures from emails, texts and brief cell phone conversations throughout the day. As StrangeMusicInc.net has taken what-will-become 7,000 album pre-orders, calls are coming in from regional truck stops, where employees called "CD hustlers" have been selling early-albums hand-to-hand in 95 degree heat (one hustler tallied over 70 units this day). It is determined that more t-shirts need to be printed after stock has liquidated, and Tech N9ne will need to sign 1,000 additional album inserts to accommodate a Best Buy pre-order skid - and he may will require a cortisone shot to do it - emcees get Tennis Elbow too.
Despite the busyness of the day, Strange is not stressed. The label's co-founder and CEO, Travis O'Guin sits smiling at the end of a round booth in Jack's Stacks barbecue. He orders an excessive amount of food for the table, explaining the nuances of local favorites like cheese-corn and burnt tips. Without asking for it, the longtime entrepreneur holds court. He greets passersby to the table - not as a local mogul, which he certainly is, but as an upper thirties man who loves his life and everyone in it. Although the low and raspy-speaking O'Guin is jovial, he also admits he cannot sleep more than five hours a night, and frequently works 16 hour-days at Strange's Lee Summit, Missouri headquarters. Like his flagship artist, this CEO hides his responsibilities and focuses all energies on the moment.
Across the table from Travis is Dave Weiner, Strange's VP. In what seems like a lifetime ago, Weiner, a teen-aged mail-room staffer at Priority Records ascended to signing Master P's No Limit Records to the Gangsta Rap stalwart. Although he looks more like a clean-cut biker or ageless surfer, Weiner is an unshakable B-Boy. Like he did for Priority, Weiner's A&R'd several projects for the unconventional Strange. This weekend he's continously championing their newest signee, band Mayday!, as well as veteran emcee Krizz Kaliko, who is proving to be Strange's second biggest star after Tech. Completing the executive dinner is Richie Abbott, Strange's publicist. Another Priority alum, Richie is a constant joke-cracker. Having A&R'd All 6's & 7's, one can feel a man who entered the industry working Westside Connection's Bow Down in 1996, through to somebody who can easily connect with the agendas and music of Yelawolf, Gucci Mane or Murs. Although the trifecta of Travis, Richie and Dave reportedly see each other only a handful of weeks in the year, the outfit (along with Strange's project manager Korey Lloyd) have conquered the charts through low profiles, hard work and '90s marketing and advertising tactics. Along the way, Travis' shiny black Cadillac Escalade passed five All 6's & 7's billboards - putting the King of Darkness' face as high as the local steeples in the Bible belt.
Kansas City Royalty
Tech N9ne isn't expected in Kansas City tonight. The 15-plus-year Rap veteran traveled from Montana this morning to appear at a homecoming concert and promo-filled weekend. The Regime member will need rest to survive what's expected of him, but unbeknownst to anyone, in he walks to Jack's Stacks. For all the misguided perceptions of Tech N9ne from conventional Hip Hop fans, the emcee is as down to earth as any every-man rapper. He's dressed in a simple button down silk shirt and shorts, and aside from a shimmery black diamond watchband, bears no symbols of wealth or grandeur. Still, most of the diners in the restaurant pause their eating to look at the city's brightest star since Joe Montana. All smiles, Tech greets his colleagues and guests with hugs and embraces, and the emcee orders a carefully-selected glass of Pinot Noir and pulls up a chair.
In 24 hours, Tech N9ne will evolve into a monster - a friendly, righteous monster in white makeup with thousands of eyes locked on his every move. Tonight though, Tech N9ne just wants to be Aaron. Besides showing off several recently-acquired tattoos of 6's and 7's from a Seattle tour stop, the youthful 39 year-old does not reference his career, fame or music. He's happy to be with his brethren and comments more on drinks, women and his affinity for the music of Zapp, The Doors and Gap Band than anything of his own songwriting. The only concern he has is his voice, which he puts to work nightly in a reported 109-minute set, more than doubling most of his peer sets.
Tonight Kansas City won't let Tech N9ne forget his job though. Over the emcee's shoulder, a man in his thirties, anxiously trembles as he stares at the rapper. Tech, who frequently scans the room, meets the fan's eyes. Pounds are exchanged, as the fan asks the rapper to pose for a picture taken by a cell-phone. Half a dozen pictures are taken, and Tech shows some subtle wear of being removed from his table and its conversation. Although his fading smiles indicate this, the million-selling emcee never buckles, and lets his fan snap away until a suitable photo is captured. Soon, others will say hello and stop by to ask about the new album, tomorrow's show and acknowledge meaningful songs in the rapper's vast catalog. Just witnessing an hour of Tech N9ne's responsibility to his fans, one can easily understand why Lil Wayne found solidarity with Strange's co-founder, and why Hip Hop's long-kept secret actually isn't one.
Boogie Man Productions
On Friday afternoon, Strange Music is in full operational mode. There are at least 40 employees milling around the label's headquarters, and everybody looks purposed. Strange Music's compound is a few years late for MTV Cribs, but just as impressive. In a well-manicured industrial park, Strange sits in a quiet, sprawling Kansas City suburb. At night, the bat-and-snake logo glows red in the darkness. The symbol of success stands apart from the vacant shipping docks and police station a football field away. The parking lot is filled with a fleet of Tech N9ne "runners" and "sprinters" - brand new Chevrolet Suburbans and Chrysler box trucks wrapped with All 6's & 7's artwork. Around the back of the building are a handful 18-wheelers, tour trailers, box vans and other vehicles with various wraps dating back to 2006's Everready. Adjacent, there is a toy-building filled with campers, John Madden-esque tour buses, ATVs, Japanese street bikes, choppers, Harleys and usually, a tricked-out 1957 Chevy Bel-Air. "It's all paid for," reveals Travis O'Guin at one point. He says it not as bragger, but as a man of cautious wealth, who like so many, grows disenchanted with "foreclosure" and "lien" appearing frequently in recent Rap headlines.
Although Tech N9ne is the label's defacto star, each member of the 11 other artists on the Strange roster seems to get the full treatment. Throughout the halls of Strange, there are framed portraits, covers, vinyl and other paraphernalia of artists such as Kutt Calhoun, Brotha Lynch Hung, Big Scoob and Prozak. These names and faces might not be well known in the Hip Hop media, but Strange acknowledges their catalog and significance like proud parents. This is what labels used to look like - Death Row, Rap-A-Lot, No Limit - and you can clearly see who influenced Strange's independent mantra. But this is different. While the label roster includes Crips and Bloods - who, as Tech jokes, "wear 'kill me' suits" on stage, there is no blatant gangsterism here. There are some guns (with permits), but everybody smiles at Strange. Everybody greets each other in the hallway. There's candy everywhere, and Monster energy drinks, and Classic Rock music playing throughout. This looks nothing like the label floors in New York skyscrapers, or the majors in Malibu or Santa Monica. Strange Music is laid out like what record labels were supposed to look like when we imagined them as just fans. And Strange makes it easy to be one.
Tech N9ne, now in a Strange jersey in a Kansas Chiefs color-way, is traveling constantly through the label compound. From Travis O'Guin's 20-something camera monitor, you can watch Tech move and shake as he prepares for a meet-and-greet and later on, a hometown show. When you stop the restless emcee, one can imagine Tupac Shakur fresh outta jail. With a smile amidst the urgency, Tech N9ne has a "let's get this done" attitude about everything. He isn't tweeting or texting - and he's hardly ever on the phone in the hours DX is with him - but one can easily sense that like his business partner, Tech N9 might view sleep as the cousin of death.
People Aren't Strange, When You're A Stranger
The beginning of B.G.'s "Bling Bling" video comes to mind as HipHopDX rides into town with Strange Music. This is not just a trip into Kansas City; this is a Technician convoy. All of Strange's vehicles are outfitted with thumping 15-inch sound-systems. A brand new Chevy Suburban is booming into town playing cuts from Jay Rock's July album, Follow Me Home. Weiner at the wheel and Richie riding shotgun, these two Strange executives nod in unison to Jay's Nickerson Gardens lyrical chest-pumping and accounts of concrete back-flips. Cars pass by, waving and honking their horns - perhaps thinking that Tech is on board, or perhaps just showing support of the movement - and for once in Hip Hop, this really is a movement. When our vehicle arrives at the Midland Theater venue, there is a line of fans stretched out over two blocks. It is a sea of red and black and they cheer at another Strange vehicle joining the dozen or so that line the busy downtown streets. It looks like a sporting event tailgate party, and there is an adrenaline rush just belonging to it for a second.
Mainstream Hip Hop has often misconstrued just what a Tech N9ne fan looks like. At least in the Kansas City faction, these are not stereotypical misfits or kids in clown makeup and wide-legged jeans. Among the crowd who paid $120 to meet tonight's performers are members from a local Blood gang, 18 year-olds enjoying their graduation present, scantily-dressed women with autographs on their tight tank-tops and a congregation of older black women, well into their fifties. Technicians are diverse, and as you watch them, they are some of the most dedicated and friendly fans there are. Even during the show, there are not fights or violent mosh pits, just the kind of energy and crowd support that's found in Hip Hop's glory days. Indicative of their purchasing habits, these fans mean business. Moreover, none of them seem to want to be rappers themselves. During the meet-and-greet, no demos appear passed or Blackberry Messenger pin requests. The stars here are on stage, and the fans simply want to touch their idols.
After the meet-and-greet - a feature found at every Strange tour stop, it's back to work. Mayday! does a soundcheck, Jay Rock jumps into a sprinter for a radio interview, Krizz Kaliko rehearses with a band, and Big Scoob chats about The Warriors with security guards in the venue lobby. Everybody is moving, and it's nearly five hours until the curtain draws.
An hour before the show begins, 15 members of tonight's artists are in Maker's Mark steakhouse a few blocks away in the Power & Light District. The high-end eatery greets Tech N9ne and Travis with familiarity. A blond waiter even suggests to the table, "Perhaps some Caribou Lou?" There is no Lou tonight though - not until much, much later. Hot tea for Tech, iced tea for Travis, and a friendly power-dinner before a milestone concert. There is no nervousness, only preparation. Tech N9ne, seated across from Krizz Kaliko, is quiet but observant. He's trying to go easy on his worn vocal chords and get some peace before becoming a band-leader to thousands. The rapper finishes his salmon, and joined by Krizz and Jay Rock, quietly exits to go ready the show.
A Tech N9ne show is everything you would imagine it has to be - to make a mainstream ignored artist this popular. In an era of entourages taking the stage and weed carrier hype-men waving limp hands back and forth, Tech - and all his artists master their ceremonies. Mayday! jolts across the stage during a breakdown in their song. Jay Rock does an impromptu back-flip after rapping about one, Ozzie Smith style. Kutt Calhoun B-walks throughout a stage-show that is reminiscent of those early '90s Bangin' On Wax videos. Krizz Kaliko's powerful vocals echo through the crowd with his backing band. And Tech, complete with an invocation and evocation, reciting the Technician pledge.
Two of Strange's best sellers and biggest local stars join Tech N9ne as his hype-men. Krizz Kaliko and Kutt Calhoun, both of whom sell more records these days than most perceived Rap names, are still assisting their leader on-stage. Like Memphis Bleek with Jay-Z, this is a sign of both respect and loyalty - and a rare trait in a ego-tender time for the industry.
The sound is loud, the energy is happy and the crowd is engaged, making their every dollar spent count. Not once did Tech or his assistants need to ask the crowd for noise or applause. Three hours into their entertainment, the energy level is still climbing to its peak.
As for the fans, there are so many of them. And they aren't waving cell-phones. It's lighters here. When Tech N9ne speaks about the guests on his new album, the crowd explodes. Names like Kendrick Lamar, Yelawolf and Hopsin grab loud cheers - but not as big as E-40, and Tech brings a host of 816 emcees to the stage to bring the party to a close.
"I'm A Playa" begins over Falco's "Rock Me Amadeus" booming beat and Tech N9ne reminds everybody that after Lil Wayne, MTV, a million sold, he's still true to his Absolute Power core. There is no encore, just a curtain call. And with the kind of theatrics and entertainment that Strange Music delivers, it makes perfect sense.
This emcee can look his hometown dead in the eyes, with or without paint on his face, and know that he kicked down the walls around the Midwest down.
Jake Paine is HipHopDX's Editor-in-Chief. He has over nine years of professional journalism experience, and has written for XXL, The Source, Forbes, and the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. A native of the Steel City, Paine lives in Philadelphia.