Independent Study: Strange Music

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

All Tech N9ne shows are Strange Music showcases, with younger artists on the label serving as the opening acts. Stevie Stone, Krizz Kaliko and Ces Cru are already at the Midland by the time Tech arrives, meeting fans of their own, taking photos and drinking energy drinks care of Monster, a three-year sponsor of Strange Music that helps fund label samplers and tour bus painting among other line items. Tech, who leads A&R for Strange, says the No. 1 thing he looks for in a new artist is the ability to translate his or her music effectively in front of a live audience.

“I have to see them live because that’s how we do this,” he says. “As soon as we sign them, boom, they come on tour with me. I’m still trying to get [Strange rapper] Brotha Lynch Hung on a plane. It don’t make no sense not to. I tell him, ‘Don’t you like money?’”

At 7:30 the van is loaded up again and heads off to the InterContinental Kansas City at the Plaza hotel, where Cannon has just arrived from the airport. During the signing it had rained sporadically, and by now it’s pouring buckets. Mugs, a large but genteel man with freckles who is Tech’s head of security, makes a nervous comment mid-route about this being “tornado alley,” which O’Guin pounces on.

“You see that sideways rain?” he teases. “That’s what it looks like right before the big one hits.”

Cannon, wearing a black hooded jacket, jogging pants and gray baseball cap, flashes a big grin in the parkway of the InterContinental and gives everyone bro hugs. Then he finds a seat in the back of the van along with his towering assistant, Punch. As it turns out, the 12-person entourage includes several members of a rap group that Cannon is developing called Psych Ward Druggies, which he suggests might make a good opening act for Tech N9ne. The Druggies, who Cannon describes as “Wu-Tang meets Odd Future,” tail the van in a black Chevy Suburban.

Back at Strange HQ, the motorcade is greeted by O’Guin’s wife, Dawn; 15-month-old son Travis Jr.; and 14-year-old daughter Mackenzie, a bubbly blonde aspiring singer with glitter on her eyelids. Mackenzie gives everyone full hugs and launches into a story about her recent birthday party—on the roof of the InterContinental—which was a smash hit despite being on the same night as homecoming. “All the seniors came,” she gushes.

In short order O’Guin leads Cannon and Punch on a deluxe tour. A video crew materializes, perhaps from the Druggies car, to document every detail. Throughout the tour, the honored guests seem genuinely in awe of the whole enterprise, especially an all-pink room that Mackenzie designed as a children’s play area when she was 9.

“My wife would love this room!” Cannon says.

The children's area in Strange Music's main building, designed by a 9-year-old Mackenzie O'Guin (now 14).(Ryan Nicholson)


Later, at Strangeland Studios, Tech regales some Druggies in the lounge area with stories about his days starting out in music.

“I was a B-boy at first, but all of my friends left to go dance for MC Hammer,” he recalls.

Having already been given the Strange experience once today, Billboard bows out and talks with singer/rapper Krizz Kaliko, who has been with Strange longer than any other artist besides Tech and often performs with him as a tag team. Kaliko is portly with dark skin and a sharp haircut and has pink speckles around his eyes and lips due to a skin condition.

“When he first brought me out on tour, I used to always try and outdo him. ‘You think you’re crazy? Look at this!’” Kaliko recalls of joining Tech in 2000. “I was a fat guy with vitiligo who suffered from anxiety and depression—I didn’t think that this was an opportunity I was ever going to get. But [O’Guin] and Tech believe in their artists and encourage them to talk about the things that they’re going through. That’s what builds the connection. The fans look at us and think, ‘They’re just like me.’”

On the ride back to the venue Cannon appears to have been converted. He calls what he’s seen of the label “inspiring” and suggests that Strange needs its own reality show.

“I’ve seen Taylor Swift’s operation and y’all are killing her,” he says.

Next steps for Strange include a bigger push for radio play, an avenue O’Guin and Tech wrote off in the early days of the label as being too expensive. Tech recently had his first success at radio with a song called “See Me” from Something Else, thanks in part to high-profile guest verses from Wiz Khalifa and B.o.B. O’Guin says the company is looking for suitable promotional partners to work with on breaking into the format, including radio teams at the major labels.

One goal of radio exposure is to help the label and its video content make the leap from YouTube to broadcast TV, either through music networks or other outlets. O’Guin also says he wants to build still more facilities and “orchestra-style and/or choir-style” studios. On the TV front, at least, he may find help from a new friend.

A few days after Cannon’s visit, O’Guin will receive a text that reads as follows:

“I’m up here at the MTV offices raving about y’alls movement. They love you up here. I think we can do some big things at MTV in a real way, no bullshit. Are you down?”

Tech N9ne dances in face paint on stage at The Midland in Kansas City, Oct. 30. 2013. (Ryan Nicholson)

It’s just 20 minutes before showtime by the time the motorcade from Strangeland reaches the Midland. Tech hurries into his dressing room to get face paint applied, a preperformance ritual he’s maintained for more than a decade in honor of a slain friend. The audience is raucous and well lubricated.

A booming voice comes over the loudspeaker.

“Kaaan-sas Cityyy! Are you ready for Tech Niiine?!” 

Previously on Independent Study: Mexican Summer