Tech N9ne is an indie rap giant. For 20 years, the Kansas City rapper has proven his independent hustle, rhyming alongside hip-hop heavyweights like Eminem, Lil Wayne and Kendrick Lamar. On Friday (Dec. 9), he’s set to drop his latest album The Storm (via Strange Music, Inc.) with musical titans from other genres, including Boyz II Men and Korn’s Jonathan Davis.
Ahead of the genre-defying LP, the K.C. MC spoke with Billboard about his multi-dimensional personality, the state of music streaming, and how Alton Sterling’s death personally affected him. He also revealed why he wants to work with Adele, Jay Z, and Metallica next.
What was your goal when you started working on The Storm? How did it evolve through the recording process?
I needed to push myself after Special Effects because that was insane. I knew that if I named this album The Storm after my first album, The Calm Before the Storm, it was gonna push me to make the best music ever because I had to rap against Tech N9ne every time. That’s what I had to do, especially coming off “Speedom” with Eminem and Krizz Kaliko.
So as I got to doing the first song for this record — “Buddha” [with] Boyz II Men — I started out calm, relaxed, zen. The album started taking form after the second song, “Starting to Turn,” with Jonathan Davis of Korn. From Boyz II Men to Korn, I knew that I was already genre-breaking from the start. I knew at that moment that I wanted to do music I felt but at the same time, prayed to God that my producer Seven could push his limits as well, so we could reach all types of genres. I feel like breaking barriers is necessary because man created barriers, which keep us separated as human beings. I feel like music can bring us all together.
You mentioned Boyz II Men and Jonathan Davis. You’ve also got Logic on here. How was working with them similar and how was it different?
I pick artists that I think are beautiful musically. With Boyz II Men, I love what they do. I connected with Wanya [Morris] in Kansas City and got Nathan [Morris] and Shawn [Stockman] to do their [parts] in Las Vegas. I connected with Logic at a show in Kansas City and got to know him. I met Jonathan Davis at a Slipknot show when I was showing Corey Taylor my idea for “Wither” [off Special Effects]. I connected with them. We knew we’d break genres being together but we were just trying to make beautiful music to the hilt, to the pinnacle…
Getting Gary Clark Jr. on “No Gun Control,” we are just artists that love what each other does and the respect is there. We just do music and then we let everybody else put labels on it … It’s all about making beautiful music with each and every last one of [the guests on the album]. The big thing is that they all want to work with my crazy a–.
On “I Get It Now,” you rap about how fans relate to A$AP Rocky, Drake and Kanye West over you because you don’t “look like the average black dude.” How did you deal with that perception growing up and how do you deal about it now?
Since I can remember, being different was always hard around normal people. That’s just how it is, whether you have vitiligo, a deformity, or a different way of thinking or dressing. It’s going to always be weird for normal people. The mjajority of normal people listen to normal shit. I’m kind of abnormal, talking backwards. [Starts talking backwards.] That’s not what n—as is listening to.
I always knew that I didn’t fit in, but one thing I had that was compatible with [past collaborators] Lil Wayne, Andre 3000, B.o.B, T.I., and 2 Chainz, is I’ve got lyrics, man. I know how to do music, no matter how weird I look on stage with the face paint, mask and hospital scrubs. I’m not trying to be all pretty onstage like everybody else, and I know I’m different, but the fact that I am is the reason I’m still here today. I’ve gotten better at accepting that these later years. It was hard along the way because I just wanted to be accepted by my peers. After a while, I stopped giving a f–k and decided to do me. When I did that, I caught the attention of all my peers. People are still scared of me but it’s a part of me that I can’t hide. I’ve learned to deal with it these days.
I get it. I don’t look like the average black dude. They’d rather listen to or dress like Drake, A$AP Rocky, Kanye or whoever else because that’s more attainable for them. They ain’t trying to paint their face every time they go to a concert and look like it’s Halloween 24/7. That just happens to be me, and I’ve grown accustomed to people pointing and laughing, but as soon as I get on the mic, all that laughter turns to “Oh sh-t!” … I realize I won’t fit in because I’m three-dimensional, brother. I’m the king, the clown and the G.
You dig deeper into that by breaking this album into three sections: “The Kingdom,” “Clown Town,” and “G-Zone.” You’ve done similar things before, but why choose that storytelling method for this album specifically?
Because we have so many new fans coming in. I first introduced The King, The Clown, and The G on Everready (The Religion) in 2006, and I wanted to bring it back because these are the characteristics inside of me. I know I’m a king and I know I can be narcissistic at times. I know that I’m the “killer clown” lyrically. I know I’m a G.
I grew up in a Blood neighborhood. When you hear “Kingdom,” “Clown Town,” and “G-Zone,” these are places within me as a human being. This is my way of easing on the newcomers and letting the core fans know that I ain’t went nowhere and that this is still the spirt of Tech N9ne, no matter how big it’s getting because of the success of “Fragile” with Kendrick Lamar and “Hood Go Crazy” with 2 Chainz and B.o.B. If you came in the beginning, you know the sadness, the party, the rock n’ roll with the darkness has always been there. I’ve always been three-dimensional and I’m gonna always be three-dimensional.
You deal with loss and sadness in your music. What first inspired you to do that?
I was taught that by somebody really wise and great. His name is Quincy Jones. When I signed with him in ’97, pops told me, “Rap what you know, and people will forever feel you.” As I got older, I started realizing that though people differ in skin tone, religious beliefs, cultures, and food, one thing we all have in common is emotions, so I tapped into emotions. If I have an emotion about a psycho b-tch trippin’ out on me, how many more million people went through that? If I’m sad because my life or money ain’t right, how many more million people can relate to that? People can relate to those emotions. That’s where I found my fans.
What do you think it does when an artist like Kid Cudi or Kanye West opens up about their troubles with sadness or mental health issues the way they have?
That’s why they’re massive, because they open up. That’s why Eminem is massive. Even Drake do it. I think it’s so wonderful that they open up, because people can relate.
You’ve worked with a lot of massive artists from Eminem to Kendrick Lamar, greats from different eras. Who’s next for you and why?
Jay Z, Metallica, OutKast, if I can… They’re the best at what they do and I feel like I’m the best at what I do. I want to work with Adele and Twenty One Pilots. I want to work with the best, the people that touch so many people — and not because I want their fans, because that shit ain’t written in blood. I did a song with Eminem. That don’t mean all 30 million of his fans came to my side. They didn’t, but I worked with the person I wanted to work with.
To rap alongside Wayne, Andre 3000, Ice Cube, Kendrick Lamar, The Doors, System of a Down — these are people I hold high musically … I can’t wait for Kanye to make me a beat or rap on what I’m rapping on. It’s gonna happen. All we gotta do is stay alive long enough to make it happen, and that’s hard enough to do as a black man.
How has watching what’s gone down this year with current events made you look at the world?
The only difference between now and back then with Emmett Till is that there’s social media and phones where people could be recorded. It’s been happening since the beginning but people are being exposed now because of technology. They caught it on tape with Rodney King. How many lynchings happened before that? The only difference is technology.
On this album, you have “What If It Was Me” with Krizz Kaliko, who addresses police brutality. What made you record the track?
Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge. When he died, he was wearing our gang colors — red T-shirt, khaki shorts like my hood wears in the summertime. That’s the connection I made. I fit that description. I wear that all the time. I sell CDs too. What if it was me? Y’all love me. Y’all wrote him off because they said he had a bad past. What if it was me though? It could be me. Be aware. Don’t write people off because you think they’re bad or because of what they’ve done.
On “Godspeed,” you rap about how streaming hurts musicians. Where do you see that going?
I was totally against it last year. Finally, I had a meeting with Spotify in New York last week and they showed me that it’s going in a positive direction. People are paying for it and they’re going to keep paying for it. The industry is going to flourish for artists. I have [lyrics about it] on this album because everybody was getting that streaming service for free. Now, people are paying and they’re getting more and more subscribers. Next thing you know, it’s not gonna be $10 anymore. It’s gonna be $19, $20, $30, $100. It’s gonna go in the right direction. I’m happy about it now.
I think [streaming services] want to work with us because they know the music we have is valuable to us. They treated us really nice. When I was in the meeting with them, they were playing “Godspeed” where I said, “For Pete’s sake/ Music is gleaming/ But because of all the streaming, we’ll never reach cake.” All the people that worked there looked up. They [asked], “You said that about streaming?” I said, “Yes, I did, but my partner Travis [O’Guin] told me that you guys have been talking about strategies to make me change my mind about that, right?” They were like, “Right.”
Real shit happening right there. Not apologetic. That outcry was me saying that artists need to be compensated for their beautiful works of art, and not with a fraction of a penny. But it’s going in the right direction and I’m thankful that [streaming services] want to make it better, to not f–k us over totally.