Tech N9ne’s long-standing relationship with the Twin Cities goes way back to 1993, when he signed his first big record deal with Jimmy Jam’s and Terry Lewis’ Perspective label.
The veteran Kansas City rapper eventually learned, however, he had more in common with another Minneapolis twofer, Atmosphere and Rhymesayers Entertainment, who’ve once again invited Tech to perform at Sunday’s Soundset festival.
“The big labels didn’t know what to do with me,” remembered the real-life Aaron Yates, who eventually started his own Rhymesayers-like company, Strange Music, in 1999 after two more big record deals went nowhere.
“They wanted me to be more of a popcorn, cookie-cutter artist. They wanted me to be more like Wu-Tang Clan, then Jay-Z — and on and on, depending whoever the hot rap artist was at the time. They didn’t know how to let me be the weird, crazy, one-of-kind artist I had to be.”
Two decades later, Tech N9ne unquestionably remains one of the most wild and unique rappers in the game. He’s as well-known for his rapid-fire, tongue-twisting lyrical skills as for his clown-warrior face paint (which has evolved into high-tech stage masks).
His enduring self-made career is similarly unusual by hip-hop industry standards, but not when compared with fellow indie-rap cult heroes Atmosphere and their Minneapolis-based team — whose success is reflected at Soundset. The biggest annual music festival in the Twin Cities and one of the biggest hip-hop fests in the world, its lineup this year includes Lil Wayne, SZA, Run the Jewels, G-Eazy, Lil Uzi Vert, Black Star and Dessa.
Calling from his tour bus last week somewhere between Casper, Wyo., and Colorado Springs, Colo., Tech only had to point to his surroundings to underline one of the main similarities between his career and Atmosphere’s.
“They were the ones who really showed the rest of us how to make it on the road,” he said.
“Like them, we weren’t afraid to get out there and play in cities that weren’t getting a lot of hip-hop. We weren’t afraid to maybe lose money on some of those first tours, because we knew it could pay off in the long run. And it has.”
Tech repeatedly held up Strange Music as “the No. 1 independent hip-hop label in the world,” and there’s decent evidence that claim is more than just good ol’ rapper braggadocio. He and co-founder Travis O’Guin have expanded their Strange empire to include a recording studio, video production company, clothing line and a full-scale record label that’s also home to rappers Krizz Kaliko and Big Scoob and even pop band AboveWaves.
Tech himself has sold more than 2 million albums over 20 releases and attracted ample bigwigs from the corporate music world to guest on them, including Kendrick Lamar, Eminem, Machine Gun Kelly and 2 Chainz. The latter is featured on his biggest hit, 2015’s “Hood Go Crazy.”
The DIY rap mogul even has his own beer now, Bou Lou, a fruity wheat concoction released via Kansas City microbrew pioneer Boulevard and named after his 2006 breakout hit, “Caribou Lou.”
“The venues now know to order it ahead of the shows, and it always sells out,” he boasted.
He’s still cranking out albums, too. His latest, “N9NA,” is something of a return to form, with no fantastical concepts and plenty of personal lyrics.
Several of the new LP’s songs, including “I Caught Crazy! (4Ever)” and “EF U (Easier for You),” have been promoted via a TV series-like collection of music videos that show the rapper being set up on criminal charges and wrongly locked up in a mental ward. While it’s purely a fictional excursion, it’s another example of Tech playing off his and his family’s real-life struggles with mental health, something he has done throughout his career.
“When I started rapping about mental illness, nobody was talking about it,” he said. “Right away, I knew I was connecting with people. I heard from people who were struggling themselves, and they told me how it helped them. So I immediately saw that as my way to help people.”
Another well-known trait that Tech maintains on the new record: He can still rap at a dizzyingly rapid pace. Like a metal singer asked if he can still hit the high notes, the 47-year-old rapper said that so far he has seen no sign of aging slowing him down.
“It’ll happen someday, I’m sure,” he said, “but for now I’m still chopping away, and actually feel like I’m getting younger. It’s a physical thing. I make sure I stay in good physical shape, and eat healthy, organic stuff.”
There has been at least one significant change in his show: Instead of face paint, he uses a collection of silicone masks from the same maskmaker used by his friends in Iowa metal kingpins Slipknot.
“It got to be too unreliable trying to do [the face paint] on the road, and to get it right for every show,” he said, noting that the masks set him back about $3,500 apiece. “That’s pretty damn expensive for a mask, I thought, but it’s made things a lot easier and better.”
The masks aren’t the only thing near and dear to Tech that he’s bringing to Sunday’s gig.
“My daughter in Los Angeles really wanted to come to Soundset, so I said I’d hook her up, and now the whole family is coming,” he said. “So I’ll be up there with my real family, and my hip-hop family.”