Strange Music’s CEO on industry politics, recording emotional songs and crossing over into the mainstream
“I got shit from fans for working with [Lil] Wayne and everything,” says Aaron Dontez Yates, more commonly referred to as Tech N9ne.
His posture is composed, hunched forward free of the eccentric garb he’s often seen in. Regular clothing aside, he still rocks the standard dark shades that conceal his current annoyance as he discusses a certain type of enthusiast: the entitled fan.
This is clearly Aaron talking, not an entertainment persona with a collection of politically correct, filtered responses meant to purify a message for delicate ears.
“I fight, I’m the king of me. I can do whatever the fuck I want to do.”
As a long-time journalist, I often get a sense of when an interview transitions into a conversation, free of the barrier that separates the person from the public image. It’s the type of interview that can extend into industry politics, relationships, motivation or the topic of maturity. As an independent artist, this is the uncensored place in which Tech N9ne lives and breathes.
As an independent artist, this is the uncensored place in which Tech N9ne lives and breathes.
He’s now in a peculiar situation, however, being stretched between two worlds. One is of robust underground status where his name is idolized amongst a cult-like following and the hip-hop elite for his razor-sharp flow, impeccable lyricism and undeniable hustle. The other is where that same name is being elevated by the commercial canon.
One audience wishes to partake in an artist that’s already 15 albums deep in the game, while another wishes to hold onto their underground sire of hip-hop. His resistance to any shackle, whether it is from either party, directly reflects the essence of his label and movement, Strange Music.
Tech N9ne Collabos Strangeulation Vol. II, released this past Friday, is the follow up to the first entry that debuted several artists from the Strange Music label who share Tech N9ne’s same mutinous nature on the mic.
Despite being in the midst of the pre-promotion period for the project when we sit down, Tech N9ne reminds me that he’s never been one to narrow down his thoughts to just that. Even in the midst of speaking about the album, he serves to do more than any routine answer would.
SO STRANGEULATION VOL. II, TELL ME THE THOUGHT PROCESS BEHIND THIS ONE. The fact that we still have artists that people are really interested in hearing, me as well, prompted us to do another one because the first one did so well. Still keeping the industry in a tighter chokehold now because everybody is getting better and more and more polished, so we have to showcase that [and] be proud of what we have as a team at Strange Music. This is a way to show the fans our team is getting stronger and larger at the same time.
SO IS THERE A DIFFERENCE IN STYLE COMPARED TO THE FIRST STRANGEULATION? Yeah. Life keeps changing so the situations change. People get divorces and people fall out or people fall in love. So it’s always going to be different with every project. The style definitely starts off pretty dark because my mom of course. Situations give you the actual feeling of the album, but everyone isn’t going through that. So it’s just my part of it. Everyone ain’t going through their mom just passing from lupus, or fighting with family. By the time it gets to MURS, it could be about him having problems with his wife, or when it gets to [Ubiquitous] it could be the problems with his girlfriend on a song called “Blunt and a Ho” that they have together … When it comes to style, this one is way more polished for everybody. Everybody took it up a notch and if we stay stagnant then it’s not worth doing these.
WITH THE SUCCESS OF YOUR PREVIOUS ALBUMS, THEY SPEAK NOT ONLY TO YOUR CRITICAL SUCCESS, BUT ALSO TO YOUR FINANCIAL SUCCESS. GIVEN THE FACT THAT YOU’VE BEEN [INDEPENDENT], I WANT TO KNOW THE DIFFERENCE IN HOW YOU APPROACH MARKETING COMPARED TO SOMEONE WITH A [MAJOR] LABEL THESE DAYS? Well the traditional labels right now that have been here since you can remember have more money. Universal, they could do whatever the hell they want to do. They could give someone $80 million [if they wanted]. Strange Music, we use our own money and we’re getting there when it comes to money, as Forbes would let you know. But when it comes to marketing me, hard thing to do. Black dude, painted face, wearing scrubs, not dressed like this on stage. Maybe if I dressed like this on stage, people would say, ‘Oh yeah, I want to be like that.’ They look at me like, ‘What the hell is that?’ Luckily the music is beautiful, because if they said that and I was wack, I wouldn’t be here talking to you right now. The fact that all the mainstream artists started to take notice since The Carter IV, then it was 2 Chainz, T.I. and everybody else, for all the other guys to take notice to something so crazy and wicked. That’s validation that you’ve been doing it right the whole time. It feels good to have your peers say, yes.
NOW A LOT OF WORK OBVIOUSLY GOES INTO WHAT YOU DO. WHAT EXACTLY KEEPS DRIVING YOU RIGHT NOW? I’m the latest rabbit, in other words, I’m a hip hopper. I love music man. If you play me a dope beat, I want to write to it. I’m a beat boy; I used to pop, lock and breakdance. Music makes me move. If I’m in a club, I’m cool now because I’m a rapper; I’m at the bar and play the post. But if “Vivrant Thing” comes on, I’m up. I don’t care how old it is, I’ll be up. “Planet Rock” by Afrika Bambaataa and Soul Sonic Force will get me on the floor. And another one called “Looking for the Perfect Beat” (sighs). Those three, or “Welcome to the Terrordome” by Public Enemy will get me on the floor dude. I love music. I did a song with Kendrick back before anyone knew who he was on my All 6’s and 7’s album called “I Love Music” just to let you know.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE WORKING WITH KENDRICK MAN? Man you think I’m Zen? He’s all the way laidback, soft spoken and everything. Loves to laugh, doesn’t drink or smoke. Good kid for real, mad city. Really wonderful human being, and what you see is what you get. When you see him and his passion for music, that’s his whole attitude.
YOU’VE BEEN THROUGH A COUPLE OF LABELS BEFORE DOING THIS INDEPENDENT THING. WHAT DID YOU LEARN FROM THOSE FAILURES IN HOW YOU SHOULD RUN STRANGE MUSIC? They wanted to try to make me do certain things like saying, ‘Method Man is out right now with “Protect Ya Neck”, you need to do that.’ I’m like, ‘no, I’m from the Midwest, I can’t do that, I gotta do me.’ What I learned from the major labels is that they want to put out what’s hot, because [they] have to make money; this is a music business. So I understand that train of thought. But I wanted to take everything they did to me and not do it to my artists … I let them do what they want and that’s what the majors taught me. Major labels want to make you cookie cutter, I wanna be the exact opposite thing than cookie cutter. When you hear “Hood Go Crazy” on the radio, that’s Tech N9ne style baby. Yeah it has 2 Chainz on it because it’s a party, but that’s Tech N9ne music.
IT SEEMS SO BASIC OF A CONCEPT, I PERSONALLY DON’T GET WHY LABELS CONSTANTLY TRY TO CHANGE PEOPLE AND HAVE THEM STICK TO ONE LANE. Because they’re dick riders. It’s just what it is. It’s like, ‘Oooh, Jay Z’s blowing up, we need another one.’ No. Is there another Kenny G? No man, Clive Davis knew. Another Babyface? Come on man. No. It’s just that they have to want to take chances with new music. People who take chances with music usually win.
IS IT THE FACT THAT YOU’RE AN ARTIST, THAT YOU UNDERSTAND THAT? A LOT OF HEADS WHO MAKE DECISIONS AREN’T NECESSARILY ARTISTS. I think that’s why Jay Z is successful because he’s an artist as well. He knows what to do with Kanye and Rihanna. I’m an artist and I know exactly what being unique takes. When you are unique, you have to tap into emotion. Everybody has madness, everybody has sadness, everybody has happiness, confusion. Tap into that because when you’re super weird like I am, those things really count and that’s what I did. When Slaughterhouse first got signed to Shady, we were all on tour together. I told all of them, ‘Everybody know y’all can rap. Please, rap of course, but let the people in. Don’t just master rap on every song.’ I told them to let the people in. People are nosey, that’s the reason why reality TV is so big. Tell people about your love life, Royce, tell them what’s going on, how feel like you’re the best at what you do, but that it’s taking so long for people to get it worldwide … That’s what I tell my artists as well because that’s how you get them forever. Emotion.
We didn’t just wake up one day and say, ‘You know what, we want to go for mainstream.’ Fuck no. It came at us.
THE RESTRICTION OF BEING UNDERGROUND COMES WITH FANS THAT WANT YOU TO STAY ONE WAY OR ELSE YOU’RE SELLING OUT. HOW DO YOU GO ABOUT INNOVATING YOURSELF WHILE MAINTAINING YOUR IDENTITY? I got shit from fans for working with [Lil] Wayne and everything. But I fight, I’m the king of me, I can do whatever the fuck I wanna do at work or with whoever I want to. It’s like the people want to keep you to themselves because it’s their personal secret. Now it’s bleeding over to the mainstream. Them saying, ‘No, don’t do it, 2 Chainz is not on your level,’ but I have many levels. Do I not have a party level? That’s where 2 Chainz fits. Do I not have an elite level? That’s where Eminem fits. Do I not have a level where it’s super thugged out? Yeah, that’s where T.I. fits. A metal level? Do I not have an EDM level? Yes, many levels, there’s levels to this shit. Good music is always going to shine man and that’s why it’s bleeding over into the mainstream. I want it to, I want it to affect everybody and that’s how it’s been from day one. We didn’t just wake up one day and say, ‘You know what, we want to go for mainstream.’ Fuck no. It came at us. Because we kept moving, kept doing features with people, kept doing all this shit. It was just coming to us because the music just kept getting better and better and it’s always been good. The only difference in [Welcome to] Strangeland is that the mainstream artists were starting to take notice. That’s new to the fans, ‘Dang man, 2 Chainz?’ Yes, 2 Chainz. Even Lil Wayne, I’m on stage and people are booing when I said I had Wayne. [I] had to tell them to hold up, that’s my family. You can have your opinion about Wayne, but don’t do that. Visited him in Rikers and found that out, he’s a good brotha. It might not be what you like, but millions of others motherfuckers do … Hov will be next and then Drake … I do wonderful music with people that I love listening to and again, there’s levels to this shit.
GIVEN THAT YOU’RE HONEST AND ABOUT BEING 100 PER CENT CRITICAL OF YOURSELF, HOW WOULD YOU SAY YOU PROGRESSED SINCE YOU FIRST STARTED TO NOW, IN TERMS OF AS A PERSON AND AN ARTIST? I care more about the music as I go. When I listen to some of my older music, I can hear mistakes in recording. Even in Pac’s music I hear mistakes in recording, because we’re trying to do so much in a short time. Now, I take time with it, even when I don’t have time, I can’t rush the lyrics. I’ve done it so long that even when I have a time crunch, what I write is meaningful. Because I’ve had so much practice, and practice makes perfect. Now I can say what the fuck is practice, but over the years, I had to practise to make perfect and I think I’m way more polished now than I was then and you should be, after writing all these years and all these albums later, you should be at the top of your game and if you’re not, then you need to go away.
I’m trying to block all negativity in my life when I used to invite it. I invited negativity because I wanted to write it … but not anymore. Now I want to rejoice, because I’ve worked so much man.
SO THAT’S YOU AS THE ARTIST, HOW ABOUT YOU AS THE PERSON? I’m trying to grow up. I’ll be 44 Nov. 8 and I feel like I’m 22.
THAT’S A GOOD THING. Yeah, sometimes (laughs). I’m trying to grow up, man. Moved my son in with me almost a year ago; [I’m] trying to make him work. He’s got two jobs now and I’m proud of him. He’ll be 21, Oct. 28. I’m trying to grow up. Finally filed for divorce two weeks ago. Me and my wife are the best of friends, but it has to happen. We’ve been separated for over 10 years, but grown up shit is happening now. I’m progressing. I don’t trip up on too much bullshit anymore. I try not to get angry; when I do get angry it’s really bad because I’m a nice guy. I’m trying to block all negativity in my life when I used to invite it. I invited negativity because I wanted to write it. A lot of my friends would say, ‘you like that crazy shit,’ and yeah I did, but not anymore. Now I want to rejoice, because I’ve worked so much man. I wanna rejoice all the time, but it’s hard to rejoice when the demand for you is greater now. So we have to carve out time to rejoice in this busy schedule, and we rejoice by going to the Caribbean, by going to other shows, I love to go to musical shows – hip-hop, R&B, metal shows. I love to be the fan. That’s how I rejoice. I’m always the man, I wanna be the fan. What I wouldn’t do to see Lauryn Hill live.
SO GIVEN ALL THAT YOU WENT THROUGH, WHAT WOULD YOU TELL YOUR YOUNGER SELF? I would tell my younger self, thank you for being eager to know that what you’re doing right now is going to turn you into the #1 independent rapper later on in life. I would tell myself thank you for taking those small steps back then [and] even bigger steps signing with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis back in ’93, my first record deal. My second record deal with Quincy Jones in ’97, and then my third record deal with JCOR and Interscope Records. I would tell my younger self, thank you for taking me through all that because it made Strange Music. Without all that work there would be no Strange Music. I’ll tell my younger self to go to church every day like you did with your momma. I’d tell him to just go because it’s going to make you into a wonderful human being that people want to follow.
SO YOU DON’T HAVE ANY REGRETS THEN? Nah, man. The only regret I have as a youngster was, why the hell didn’t you pay your taxes back in ’97, and now you just have to pay back from ’97 all the way to 2015. They took all your money. Dumbass, why would you put it into somebody else’s hands? That’s another thing I’d tell my younger self.
Photos By. Isa Ransome (© Urbanology Magazine 2014 Archives)