Whether as a face-painted icon of underground rap or as the fun-loving voice of this summer's hit "Hood Go Crazy" or as a man who loves to sing classic rock at karaoke after a few drinks, Kansas City-based rapper Tech N9ne (born Aaron Yates) has made a career out of being unpredictable. He'll play a rock festival in the heartland alongside Judas Priest, Marilyn Manson and Linkin Park, has become a staple at the Gathering of the Juggalos, and has shared the stage with hip-hop royalty at Rock the Bells.
2015 has been a big year for Tech N9ne; his new album, Special Effects, debuted at #4 on the Billboard 200, and took the top spot on the rap and independent charts. His song "Hood Go Crazy," featuring B.o.B. and 2 Chainz, was a hit, and he corralled big names like T.I., Eminem, Lil Wayne and Slipknot's Corey Taylor for guest spots. In the midst of all the madness, we talked to Tech N9ne about his crazy year, the collaborators he hasn't managed to get on board yet, and his classic rock fixation.
AllMusic: This summer you played a bunch of festivals with a wide variety of acts. How does that suit you?
Tech N9ne: It’s validation that what I started almost 16 years ago with Strange Music. I’m a big Doors fan: Strange Days, “People Are Strange.” I named my label Strange Music because I’m such a humongous Doors fan. It’s validation that this rock and rap thing we’ve been doing since we started it is now getting bigger and bigger now, because some of the biggest names in rock have been working with me, after all these years, and the biggest names in rap, as well. When I’m onstage at Rock on the Range and I see everybody gather to see my performance, I feel so wonderful that what I’ve built and this melting pot that we’ve planned, to have people from different walks of life enjoying this music, this hip-hop, this rock, this jazz, this blues, this R&B, everything that we do, people are coming for us far and wide. So when I do these big festivals, like the one I did in Kansas City, my biggest show, for 55,000 people, it’s validation that I did the right thing back then when I started Strange Music.
AllMusic: I was going to ask if you were still happy with the name "Strange Music." It sounds like you are.
Tech N9ne: It's been 15 years-plus since we started Strange Music, and just two and a half weeks ago, I finally got the snake and the bat [logo] on my whole stomach. So the name fits me and it will fit me forever, because I am strange. Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice, I think her name was Lydia in that, and she says, “I am strange and unusual.” I’ve always been that way. So even though I came up in the late nineties or whatever, it’s still me to this day, and I carry that flag high as hell to this day, and will until the end of time.
AllMusic: It's probably affirming to see that you're still comfortable in your skin that way.
Tech N9ne: It’s weird, man, how it happened. I took the snake from the staff for medicine, you’ve seen that in hospitals, the snake around the staff, and the bat wings, the bat is a nocturnal creature, and the weird thing about it is I was trying to say that Tech N9ne is the medicine to navigate through the darkness. Over the years, I’ve been my fans’ psychiatrist, they say, “Thank you so much, you’ve kept me from killing myself, you got me through Afghanistan,” I’m their medicine to navigate through the darkness, so back then when I was thinking about it, putting it together, it came to fruition for my fans. That’s crazy.
AllMusic: Then this summer we had "Hood Go Crazy," which is the opposite of darkness.
Tech N9ne: Totally, I’ve always been the king, the clown and the G. “Hood Go Crazy” is the G doing G shit. When I got that party beat and I put 2 Chainz on it, because he brings the party, and B.o.B. with his wonderful voice, it was unanimous that we should have a party in two places, in Atlanta and L.A., with chicks. It was a wonderful thing, it was a fun video. I’ve always been three-dimensional, and that’s one of my dimensions. I always said, “With this album, we can have ‘Hood Go Crazy’ on urban radio, we can have ‘Wither’ with me and Corey Taylor on rock radio, and we can have ‘Burn it Down’ or ‘Certain Comfort’ on pop radio,” and if there were such a thing as EDM radio, the song I have with Excision, “Roadkill,” I had a dream I had all these songs playing on different stations at once. It just shows you how diverse we are and how we’ve been that way since day one.
AllMusic: Speaking of Corey Taylor, he undergoes a bit of a transformation before he goes onstage with Slipknot. Do you do the same thing?
Tech N9ne: When the face paint is applied, I feel like I’m shielded and I feel like a superhero, something else comes forth, whatever I want to bring forth in a regular person comes forth, when the mask is on. It’s weird, I feel invincible, I get more vulgar, I’m not the gentleman I was as a regular person, the things I say onstage are way more forceful, it’s something that happens. Paired with the Vitamin B12 liquid I put on the front of my tongue for 30 seconds an hour before the show, it all makes me feel like I’m on fire, I’m sizzling. When that mask is applied, there’s nothing that can stop me. It’s so crazy. Ask a man as a regular person something, and he won’t say anything, he’ll lie, but give him a mask and he’ll tell you everything, it’s like you’re bringing forth what’s inside. That’s what I feel like, I feel like a superhero when it comes on for some reason.
AllMusic: How hard is it to come down after a show?
Tech N9ne: It’s so hard, I have to calm down. People are coming on the bus and telling me “good show,” and I’m just breathing and shaking, my hands are shaking, and I have to calm down. All that energy being given to you and you’re giving it back, you feel like a superhero, it can go either way. Somebody can piss you off and you can go crazy on them, you can have sex, whatever, either way. After a show you can do 100 burpees or push-ups. If you’re going back to your bus and there’s somebody there who’s not supposed to be there, you’re all the way on them, like a monster. “What are you doing back here?” It’s like taking ecstasy, it can go either people can freak you out and you can get unhappy. This energy can go either way, but mostly with me it’s never upset or never a monster like I’m going to bite somebody’s head off, unless somebody triggers it. That energy can go the wrong way, it’s so weird.
AllMusic: There's a fair amount of footage out there of you singing karaoke versions of classic rock songs.
Tech N9ne: “Free Bird” is my theme song, Lynyrd Skynyrd were talking from my mouth to a woman. If I say here with you, girl, things just wouldn’t be the same. That’s me. I was like, “Wow,” and that song, that song from back then is speaking to me now. When I’m drunk and I’m at karaoke, I’m doing that. It used to be “Cisco Kid” by War, I used to do that one back in the day. People want me to do “Bohemian Rhapsody” all the time because I did that one before on YouTube. It’s usually either “Bohemian Rhapsody” or Lynyrd Skynyrd. That throws people for a loop, that a black dude from a gangbanging neighborhood in the ghetto of Kansas City knows Lynyrd Skynyrd word for word, without looking at the words.
AllMusic: You sing and you rap; which do you do in the shower?
Tech N9ne: I’m in my head a lot in the shower. I have roommates and stuff like that, so I play a lot of music when I’m getting dressed, I play loud music in my room, so I’m listening and daydreaming. I hum a lot, I’ll hum riffs a lot in the shower, but mostly I’m listening to music. Someone gave me the Lana Del Rey CD a few years ago and I’d play that and listen to it while I got dressed, get ideas for what we’d do with a song.
AllMusic: You could probably make something happen there at this point.
Tech N9ne: Yeah, Gary Clark, Jr. is the only one [I want for a guest spot] who I don’t know if he knows me, I know Lana Del Rey does.
AllMusic: Getting all these cameos on your albums probably would have been way more difficult 20 years ago.
Tech N9ne: Technology has it to where if you have a good year and you say, “OK, I want Eminem on 'Worldwide Choppers 2,'” you have to know that it’s going to be top notch enough to send to Eminem. I played it for Corey Taylor backstage at a show and he said, “Whoa, I love it.” You have to have the perfect ear to capture what these people do, but put it in your world with what you do. You have to find the perfect combination, and I am marvelous at it. I choose these beats for these people, and I’m perfect when it comes to it. Before I did the song with Excision, I’d just been to a couple of shows. I didn’t meet them until we shot the video, and we jell like that because I used to be a dancer, I grew up around DJs, I know BPMs and everything, how to put albums together. I think I have a gift for being able to work with these people when you can’t get in the studio at the same time, and thank god for technology, or these wonderful mash-ups would not happen.
AllMusic: You've built a pretty dense discography already, are you always creating, or do you have to isolate yourself and focus?
Tech N9ne: I always have ideas in my head, and I try to capture them. Sometimes I’m in a place where I don’t have my recorder. I actually left my recorder at home on this tour, and I’m like, “Damn,” so I have a lot of ideas in my phone. I have this thing called "just sit down," and if I sit down, it will come out. I want to party so much that sometimes I don’t sit down, but when I do sit down, it comes out. You have to humble yourself or whatever, say a prayer or something, get alone and really be alone, in solitude. I can’t write on tour, there’s too much going on. I know my partners wish I would because it would save us a lot of time and we could meet deadline, like we never do for my albums, and I’m not bragging about that. If I could write on tour, I would. I just wrote a verse for this humongous rapper the other day, and I’m waiting for them to say whether they like it or not. I can record it out here on my off day, and I hope this rapper likes it and uses it.
AllMusic: Do you do any ghostwriting?
Tech N9ne: I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to do that, nobody would ever be able to do that, it would sound like me. Back in the day I used to write for people, but it sounded like me, it was weird. Nobody sounds like me. Who sounds like that? That would be weird. Maybe Nicki Minaj, but that would be weird.
AllMusic: Nicki could probably pull it off.
Tech N9ne: Yeah, she could, I’d love to work with her one day. She can really rap.
AllMusic: Imagine how bonkers that video could be.
Tech N9ne: You’re just saying that because of her body!
AllMusic: She'd do some face paint, she'd get into the whole thing.
Tech N9ne: She’s entertainment, I love it, man. When I heard the first Nicki Minaj song, “The Cypher,” I was sitting next to Royce da 5’9”, they were on tour with us, Slaughterhouse, and she came on and she was so original and different, I said, “Royce, who’s that?” He said, “That’s Nicki Minaj, man, that’s that new shit,” and I said, “Oh yeah?” I didn’t know who she was, but she caught my attention with “The Cypher,” and look at what she’s turned into.
I’m scared to ask her for a verse, because of what people say about her, that she says that if you don’t have this many spins on the radio, she don’t wanna talk. I’ve heard that, I don’t know if that’s true, but I heard it from a close source that tried to work with her before, and she scares me. I don’t want to go to her too early, I’ve got to get my name up before. I wanted her on “Worldwide Choppers 2,” but I was afraid to send it to her. So I gave it to Eminem, and that’s even bigger. I was like, “No, Nicki doesn’t know me…Wayne knows me, Drake knows me, but Nicki doesn’t know me." I’ll wait until I get the courage to ask her for something.