Independent Study: Strange Music

Strange Music co-founders Tech N9ne, left, and Travis O'Guin at Strangeland Studios. (Ryan Nicholson)

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Tech N9ne pauses to examine the still-wrapped box of condoms that has just been generously thrown onstage. It’s a sold-out hometown show at the French baroque Arvest Bank Theatre at the Midland in Kansas City, Mo., and the crowd is feverish. Minutes earlier, Tech, born Aaron Dontez Yates, confided to the 3,000 fans in attendance that he’s just beaten a pesky cold and, this being the final stretch of a 50-date tour, fully intends to get some “good pussy” tonight. But it won’t be with the help of the proffered contraceptives.

“This ain’t gonna cut it,” he concludes, in the gruff, theatrical baritone of a professional wrestler. Then he offers the box to a hapless cameraman, stage left, and half sings the punch line: “I only use Magnums!”

Tech N9ne’s fans aren’t the usual poster-and-a-T-shirt sort. More than 7,000—that he knows of, at least, through his official website—have tattooed his name, face or logo on their bodies. Many more spend upwards of $11 a head on flasks, baby onesies and G-strings at his frequent and uniformly rowdy concerts. He says he moved to the outskirts of town in order to stay out of the fray during off-tour stretches at home, but recently two 19-year-old girls managed to track him down and bang on his door at 3:30 in the morning.

That kind of behavior, provoked to only a slightly lesser degree by other artists who fly under the banner of Strange Music, the independent label Tech founded with partner Travis O’Guin in 1999, has begun to convince the 41-year-old rapper that he’s transcended the role of an artist and become something more akin to a cult leader—an issue he addresses on his 2011 song “Cult Leader.”

“What we’ve built is so massive that I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to stop until the world ends or a meteor or asteroid comes and fucks us all up,” says Tech, standing in a corner office at Strange’s 17,500-square-foot main building in Lee’s Summit, Mo. It’s 1:30 in the afternoon the day of the concert, eight hours before showtime. “I’m confined by a responsibility to these people that have my name on them. I’ve got to maintain myself because they believe in me.”

Tech N9ne live at The Midland Theatre in Kansas City, Oct. 30, 2013.(Ryan Nicholson)

Getting people to believe in him used to be Tech’s greatest struggle. A misfit from childhood (“Too white for the black kids and too black for the white kids”), his music has always come from the vantage of an outsider. In 2002—nine years before he had a No. 4 debut on the Billboard 200 with the 2011 album All 6’s and 7’s, which sold 55,000 in its first week, according to Nielsen SoundScan—he put out a street single called “The Industry Is Punks,” on which he lamented his inability to fit in at radio.

“I can’t get wit it,” he rhymed, in a booming, rapid-fire flow somewhere between Chuck D and Twista. “Record labels in the industry are sick wit it/PDs that really don’t know a hit for shit/Kick the bitch, if you diss my hit, you might get pistol-whipped.”

Tech, a self-described Doors fanatic who was involved in drum’n’bass in the late ’90s and known for wild and colorful hairdos (these days his head is clean shaven), was passed around from label to label for much of his early career. In 1998 he had a deal with Kansas City label Midwestside Records that was upstreamed to Quincy Jones’ Qwest Records, itself a joint venture with Warner Music Group. But Warner shut down Qwest in 2000 and Tech was left to languish. That’s when he teamed up with O’Guin.

“When I sat down with him for the first time, I said, ‘OK, what’s going on? What’s next? What are you doing? When is this going to blow up?’” recalls fellow Kansas City native O’Guin, a serial entrepreneur who met Tech at a local fashion show for a clothing brand he helped finance. “That’s what I expected to happen because I thought he was that good.”

O’Guin was a millionaire by the age of 22 thanks to a furniture repair business that he built and expanded to 32 locations in 18 states. The youngest son of a sod farmer, he too had been a misfit—a white kid who went to black schools and a hip-hop fan in a rock household. He expanded from furniture into realty and, with Tech as his secret weapon, decided to try his hand at the music business.

“To be honest, I made enough to retire doing furniture, but it’s not a very glamorous business,” says O’Guin, 41. He’s stout and tan with a crew cut and a voice that’s part Southern congressman, part DJ Khaled. “You’re always dealing with people that are pissed off because their shit is broke. It was refreshing to do something that people actually fell in love with, that people absolutely praised, that people got excited for.”

Strange Music was founded as a 50/50 partnership, with O’Guin serving as CEO and Tech taking the role of VP. The fledgling label struggled to get distribution on its own, so at first it turned to more established partners to do joint-venture deals. In 2000, Tech’s fourth album, Anghellic, was released as a partnership between Strange and JCOR Entertainment, a label run by Jay Faires and distributed by Interscope Records. In 2002, follow-up Absolute Power was released with the help of MSC Entertainment, which was owned by former Priority Records founder Mark Cerami.

But eventually both deals went bad. JCOR went bankrupt, leaving Strange short $400,000, according to O’Guin, and Cerami went AWOL, allegedly losing interest in the label in favor of long trips overseas. By then, however, Tech’s music had begun to find an audience. Fans across the Midwest were connecting with the high-energy live shows and alternative messaging. Between Anghellic and Absolute Power, O’Guin says Strange eventually sold 500,000 albums.

In 2006, the label finally got its own distribution deal with Fontana, then a nascent distribution arm of Universal Music Group and now wholly owned by INgrooves. The arrangement gave Strange both the freedom it craved and big-league access to major retailers.

“That’s when Tech and myself really started to . . .” O’Guin moves his hand skyward, palm down, and whistles. “All of a sudden there wasn’t nobody in the way.”

Just this year, Strange has released 11 albums or EPs, all of which reached the top 15 of Billboard’s Rap Albums chart. Tech N9ne’s 13th studio album, Something Else, released in July and featuring major-label stars Kendrick Lamar, T-Pain, Game and Wiz Khalifa, among others, gave the rapper his biggest sales week ever, debuting at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 with 58,000 copies sold.

“After we saw the live show and how rabid the fans were, we started pounding the table to do the deal and get in business with them,” says Dave Zierler, president of INgrooves and former head of business development at Fontana. “That was one of the first labels we really gave a big advance to. They were so organized and clearly had ambitions that went way beyond what they were already doing.”

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