Wipe away his trademark face paint, and Tech N9ne is still one of the most fascinating figures in rap. He's skilled enough to outshine Outkast's Andre 3000 on Lil Wayne's Tha Carter IV, business savvy enough to sell well over a million records without label support, and he's outlandish enough to share stages (and fans) with Insane Clown Posse.
Those pieces combined form one of the most loved and reviled figures in American music: The Kansas City MC's costumed stage show and aggressive rap-rock backing tracks help detractors write off Tech N9ne as gimmick-fueled low art. But Tech's oft-dark, unflinchingly personal lyrics and his lightning-quick delivery—plus a knack for conversing easily with audiences—have endeared him to a fervent and growing fanbase of "Technicians."
So if Tech N9ne (born Aaron Yates, a name he says he hates) is such a big deal, why is he playing Bend, Ore., and Casper, Wyo., on his current tour? "I'm trying to tread every piece of this Earth before I go," Yates says from his tour bus in Southern California. "A couple months ago, we did a tour with 83 shows in 85 days, and you would think, with that many shows, that we wouldn't have any lost cities. But these are all the lost cities, pretty much, that we didn't hit last tour."
This obsessive-compulsive desire to play the sleepier corners of the planet is real. Tech plays Aspen, Colo., regularly ("It's a beautiful little town; all the rich people come out and see Tech N9ne") and will perform for troops in Afghanistan in December. But it's also one of Yates' many personality quirks that dovetail so nicely with social-networking business models that it's hard to tell where the excitable, self-built rapper ends and the cunning businessman begins. Yates uses Twitter to track down collaborators (he's currently angling for Slipknot and Bush's Gavin Rossdale). He meets with fans before every show (but it takes purchasing a $125 gift package to guarantee an hour with the MC). On his new disc, All 6's and 7's—which has sold more than 150,000 copies since its June release—Yates offers something for everyone, from dubstep to heavy metal and bass-heavy beats. "You're not going to like everything I do, but you're going to like something I do," Yates says.
Thus far, the Neapolitan-flavor strategy has worked wonders for Tech N9ne's pocketbook, even if his music rarely touches the radio waves ("We'd rather put our money into other things than payola," he says). In 1999, the MC co-founded Strange Music, a label that allows for that same diversity. The label's roster features a fittingly odd assortment of Kansas City mainstays (Big Scoob, Krizz Kaliko) and nearly forgotten gangster hip-hop veterans (Brotha Lynch Hung, Young Bleed). That's what happens when a self-described schizophrenic is the vice president of an indie hip-hop label.
"I never wanted to be in one bracket," he says. "I never wanted to just do the fast rap or do the sexual music or do the dark rapper, sad-all-the-time thing. I want to be known as a clusterfuck." And if that means an awkward alliance with Insane Clown Posse, Yates says, bring it on.
"People fear what they can't understand, and what they can't understand they try to destroy. A lot of people say, 'Oh, the Juggalos are dirty and they can bring Tech down,'" Yates says, addressing his critics. "But the Juggalos are a part of the human race, and my music is supposed to be for everybody. So why would I alienate anybody? That's like racism, and that's my pet peeve. I don't fuck with racism, it's not my thing."
The diatribe might seem trivial, but it's indicative of what fans love about Tech N9ne's music. Yates has a way of turning the personal—his drug use, family, hang-ups with religion—into the monumental. On songs like the ranting/revealing "Delusional," the listener feels as if even Yates isn't sure where the next verse will take him. There may be some truth to that. If there was ever a distinction between Aaron Yates and Tech N9ne, the MC says, it's disappearing fast. "When I put that face paint on, I just get that growl. I just feel like a superhero."
But is Tech N9ne a superhero or supervillain? Yates laughs at the question: âI think Iâm a superhero with villain tendencies.â
SEE IT: Tech N9ne plays the Roseland Theater on Sunday, Oct. 30. 8 pm. Sold out. All ages.