In watching the presidential campaign for what feels like forever, the phrase you keep hearing that's supposed to define people called to public service is "personal narrative." Experience, judgment, policies, character, good grooming habits . . . They're nil if you don't have a compelling life story that you can distill in a couple of sentences.
Kansas City hardcore rapper Aaron Yates, a.k.a. Tech N9ne, has such a story, and he was happily able to distill his on the spot — in the third person, no less:
"Started out in Kansas City, where opportunity was none. Nobody liked him, everybody thought he was a weirdo; he had red hair and a painted face. Fish were thrown onstage, everyone was scared of him, even his own people turned against him, thought he was a devil worshipper. But he rose above all of that, went from wanting to die because nobody understood him to having beautiful children, to having his own tours, tour buses and doing what he does in life now. This is a true rags-to-riches story."
Marquee Theatre in Tempe
Tech N9ne is scheduled to perform Thursday, October 23.
Tech N9ne is as voracious a campaigner as any you'll encounter stumping inside the Beltway. Only he's rallying supporters worldwide, raising awareness of Tech N9ne and the artists out of K.C. he's signing to his Strange Music label, like Krizz Kaliko, Kutt Calhoun, Prozak, Skatterman & Snug Brim, and Grave Plott. This phone interview comes at the end of an hour-long grass-roots meet-and-greet for the Oregon fans who purchased a VIP package for his show.
Like candidate Obama, Tech N9ne knows what it's like to be demonized by his detractors. And like candidate McCain, he's fond of saying "my friend." But unlike McCain, it never sounds like a con job or someone stalling until his befuddled mind can shuttle to the next talking point. When Tech N9ne raps, he doesn't use filler words like a livestock auctioneer or lesser rapper, just to keep a rhythm. If you dissect his triple-time raps, even his lone quadruple-time rap "Welcome to the Midwest," you'll hear a man bringing his game to another level.
To be sure, Tech N9ne has talking points, happy ones and bitter ones. They're in his music, and they're tattooed on his body.
"Last one I got, a big 'Sacrifice' across my chest, I got in Las Vegas," he says. "I sacrificed everything for this music. I sacrificed my wife, time with my children, I take care of them but I gave all my time away to this music, so I'm expecting something large out of it because everything I always wanted I lost because I can't do nothing but this." And then there's the one on his right forearm that says "Liberate Me." "That was a long time ago. That was when I wanted to die. It was like, 'Free me from all this evil around me.' It's a weak tattoo, but it's a reminder of how bad it was then and how good it is now."
After some early signings with major-label affiliates, he started Strange Music and began a long climb to achieving a million records sold as an independent artist. His most recent album, Killer, is the one that put him over the top. A double album, it's one that can stand alongside those by The Notorious B.I.G. and OutKast.
"With Everready: The Religion, Absolute Power, and Anghellic, it took a long time to get to 100,000, but we're way past that now," he says. "We're trying to go all the way with this one. That's why we shot a video. It's moving quicker than any other album I've ever had."
The album is also notable for its cover, which parodies Michael Jackson's Thriller — only it's Tech N9ne in a Jheri curl and a straitjacket. Somehow, seeing a Thriller send-up with a parental-advisory sticker seems apropos.
For a guy who made FTI (fuck the industry) his motto and "The Industry Is Punks" his theme in 2003, it must be hard for Tech N9ne not to gloat now that the record industry resembles struggling punks more than anything else.
"We're still gloating. We're reaching for a higher plateau," he says. "This plateau is wonderful, but we have to conquer the world, and if the industry is still stifling that, that means they're still punks. Until you see me on the tube 24/7 or hear a bit of raw talent on the radio from Tech N9ne, the struggle continues. That's why it's still relevant. Now, the struggle ain't as hard as it used to be. We still have to get to the rest of the world. If I can go to Japan and nobody knows me when I walk down the street, that means I'm not doing my job. I got a lot more work to do."
Another source of pride for Tech N9ne is his ability to garner sales without greasing anyone's palm. Even if people are listening to radio in diminished numbers, it's still a hotbed for payola. Tech N9ne isn't sure why there's a lack of love from urban radio.
"I dunno. Maybe I'm a little too different for their format. Maybe it's a money thing. Maybe I have to pay them up the wazoo to play my stuff around the clock. Our fans speak for us, but we don't feel like we have to pay all that money to do that."
The humor factor is something else that some people may have a problem with. Take "The Sexorcist," with its fake infomercial announcers and a hilarious impersonation of what passes for R&B love ballads these days, the kind of musical satire Frank Zappa pulled off with deadly accuracy.
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Then there's the emotionally charged and surprisingly melodic "I Love You But Fuck You," filled with the exacting details that make you feel as if you're standing in the middle of a Tech N9ne domestic dispute.
"Yeah, man, that comes from the heart, and all the people in the song are crushed by it, but they had to do something to be in there. Kutt Kalhoun's girlfriend. She did the wrong thing. She was listening to shit out of San Jose, telling lies about me, what I said about her. She shunned me and I took it personal and I wrote about it. And my wife is the third verse — self-explanatory. Something [I didn't like] happened to me last Christmas with me and my wife, so I had to tell her, 'I love you, but fuck you.'
"Because I give 150 percent of me, I want the world to know my pain," he concludes. "My story is a special one and for everyone not to know, it pisses me the hell off. We give 150 percent, man, so I feel like this is global, my friend. Only a handful of people get it, and I love the people that are getting it. But at the same time, the world needs to have this, man."