Tech N9ne takes the stairs, but still scores on one of hip-hop’s top floors.
Aaron Dontez Yates, also known as Tech N9ne, represents the collision of two emerging trends: Older artists defying rap’s longstanding ageism and the growth of independent hip-hop collectives with their own branding. At age 42, without so much as a hit single among his 20 albums and EPs, the Kansas City rapper has established his label Strange Music as one of top hip-hop empires in the country.
During the last two years, Yates has clocked an estimated $13.5 million—just behind Pharrell Williams ($16 million), Swizz Beatz ($15.5 million) and 50 Cent ($14.5 million)—and his bank account’s growing like his stature. Recent albums have included wide-ranging collaborations with System of a Down’s Serj Tankian, metal guitarist John 5 (Rob Zombie, Marilyn Manson), Wiz Khalifa, Kendrick Lamar, T-Pain and CeeLo Green. He’s talking about collaborating with Trent Reznor, dubstep artist Excision and Citizen Cope’s Clarence Greenwood.
“I really like that as I get better, the collaborations get more elite,” Yates says. “Next thing you know, I’ll be on a song with Jay Z and Kanye. It’s not that far. Next thing you know I’m going to be on a song by Metallica or Jonathan Davis.” The guy who once wrote “Why You Ain’t Call Me” is certainly singing a different tune. Yates laughs at the suggestion. “I know it’s crazy,” he says, quickly vamping an R&B vocal melody. “‘Won’t you stop calling me?/Why is everybody calling me?/Because I’m the hardest/And I can work with every artist.”
Part of his plan was to become one of the most idiosyncratic rappers in the game. He’s done so by adding his own flavor to old school ‘90s lore. His productions are often thick with samples like the Bomb Squad. His breakneck flow borrows from fellow limber-tongued Midwesterners Twista and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. Guitars frequently find their way into his music, while Yates’ graphic visions evoke Detroit horror-core emcee Esham. Painting his face—an homage to a dead friend—draws love from Insane Clown Posse’s nation of Juggalos.
His whole larger-than-life persona goes back to Yates’ stepfather, who questioned him early on what he had to offer rap. “It always stuck with me that I have to have something different,” he says. “I was always the weird one in the projects. I love music, and I love to dance, but I also love rock n’ roll. I feared clowns as a youngster, and my dead homie Brian Dennis painted my face back in like ‘94, and I became what I feared: the killer clown. Ever since then, I’ve been this different dude. All the way different.”
For much of the ‘90s, Yates was an also-ran. He had major label deals with Perspective, Qwest and JCOR Records with a variety of different groups, but the bands imploded or the pacts faltered. That changed when Yates met Travis O’Guin at a fashion show. O’Guin owned a furniture company and real estate, but was looking for a different kind of investment. He spent over $2 million to extract Yates from his contracts to create Strange Music in 2000. Though there were a number of false starts, the partnership of O’Guin’s business acumen and Yates musical sensibilities has proved very effective.
“Travis took his incredible business sense and applied it to the music industry, soaked up everything and became this monster of ideas of ways to get around the system and not get the shaft,” says Yates. “It’s a blessing to have someone like that on your team.”
They’ve developed a strong line of merchandising and kept up a steady release schedule. In the last seven years, Yates has released 10 LPs, half of which are part of his collaborations series, entirely comprised of guest tracks cross-promoting other members of Strange Music. The fifth and latest collaboration disc, Strangeulation, is due the first week of May. It features two tracks with Strange Music’s newest recruit, Murs, and another with Lamar protégé Jay Rock.
As a longtime lover of golden-age rap, Yates is happy to see the style’s outgrown its youthful obsessions and is starting to mature like its signature artists. “People like me, Jay Z, Nas, Scarface Ice Cube, Too Short, Busta Rhymes, E-40—all these people are vampires. We’re forever,” he remarks.
Not that the fight’s over. Indeed, the struggle up to now seems to have only steeled Yates to climb even further. His biggest battle is for his integrity and authenticity, an artist’s perpetual war. “I have to stay me,” he says, “because people will know if I’m doing something for the love of money instead of the love of the art. It just feels so beautiful that I can still do this art—and money comes.”
Fri., April 25. 9pm. $25. With Freddie Gibbs, Jarren Benton + Psych Ward Druggies. Theatre of Living Arts. 334 South St. 215.922.2599. TLAphilly.com