When hip-hop live wire Tech N9ne isn't busy co-founding his own record label--the Kansas City-based Strange Music, Inc.--or breaking the SoundScan mark for one-million indie albums sold, or shooting television commercials that lambaste the music industry, or cutting a track for his new LP that features Ice Cube, or inventing his own world-renowned mixed drink (the Caribou Lou), or rockin' shows in out-there villes like Billings, Montana, or surviving near-fatal tour van crashes, or chowing the finest barbecue K.C. has to offer, he's at home hangin' with his three kids. Is this Midwesterner--part Bacardi-addled ladies man, part Disney-style family man--really the next big thing in rap?
Matt Okie: Now I'm of the opinion that hip-hop, like punk rock before it, has given a musical voice to kids whose impoverished public schools don't have the finances to support music education in the classroom. By this, I mean, a kid doesn't need to know how to read music, or have five-octave pipes, or have regular access to a grand piano to be part of the "game." Does this make hip-hop then--as you see it--a democratizing force within pop music?
Tech N9ne: I think it's wonderful--for real--that you don't have to know how to read music. I've never known how to read music. And, you know, I have a lot of fans, man. A lot of these guys you see on television, like R. Kelly--you know what I'm saying--are millionaires, billionaires, and probably didn't even finish school. I would say so. I wouldn't want to know any other way, because it's a way that young people of all creeds can come up out of poverty and do something positive like music. You know what I mean? I think it's a wonderful thing that Kanye [West] can get on there and say, "[I'm a] college dropout," but he's still a millionaire. I think it's wonderful, man.
MO: How has your mother's love of gospel--and groups like Mighty Clouds of Joy--influenced your music?
T9: My mom, my aunties having me in the church and all that--it gave me octaves and harmony. That's why you hear [begins singing]: "He won't play me on radio..." I learned that, like my mom going [sings scales], "Do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do." My mom taught me that, man, and that's from being in the choir. So without that, we wouldn't have the Tech N9ne sound. You know what I'm saying? We wouldn't have "The Industry Is Punks." We wouldn't have [belts dramatically]: "Tech N9ne! Tech N9ne!" We wouldn't have none of that if it wasn't for my mom teaching me octaves and harmonies and playing by ear. That's what Mom taught me. So, us being in the choir...taught me to hold a note.
MO: Did you learn how to sing before you learned how to rap?
T9: Just a little bit...just a little bit--you know what I mean? Not as much as [bandmate] Krizz Kaliko has--he was the choir leader. I was just the one holding the notes. [Sings], "Ahhhh."
MO: So church choirs are really the musical bedrock of the Tech N9ne sound?
T9: Totally, totally.
MO: Tell me how you and rapper Black Walt came up with the moniker "Tech N9ne" as a way to describe your frenetic style and machine-gun flows.
T9: That's exactly what happened, man. Black Walt already had a group by the name of Black Mafia. He heard me rap [on this song] I wrote...[called] "The New Breed," my very first rap...I was the new breed back then. He said, "You have a name?" I'm like, "No." And he picked up a Guns & Ammo book, and he's looking at it, and he's like, "AK-47?" I'm like, "Nah, nah." "Uzi?" I'm like, "Nah, nah." "12-Gauge?" "Nah." And on the back of [the book] was a picture of a Tec-9. He said, "Tech N9ne--because you rap so rapidly...[imitates the sound of machine-gun fire] BRRRAP!" I'm like, "That's cool." And he said, "That's what your name's going to be till we find something else." But it stuck--you know what I'm saying? And as I got older and wiser, I peeped how we spelled Tech N9ne, and it wasn't like the gun. The gun is spelled, T-e-c. We spelled it, T-e-c-h. Nine being the number of completion--nine months completes a pregnancy; a cat has nine lives; the whole nine yards... It's, like, my name turned out to mean exactly what I am: technique number nine--the complete technique of rhyme. It's perfect how that happened, much love to Black Walt for that.
MO: Public Enemy frontman Chuck D. has said that his "flow" arose at least partly from an attempt to mimic the bassy vocal stylings of NBA sportscaster Marv Albert. What are the origins of Tech N9ne's flow?
T9: I would say, Ice Cube. I wanted to be Ice Cube.
MO: So there's a heavy West Coast influence.
T9: Well, not just that...there was BDP [Boogie Down Productions], that's KRS-One. There was Eric B. and Rakim--you know what I'm saying?--with all the words and everything. There was Slick Rick that really did it. Slick Rick really made me want to rap rapping. Like [imitates Slick Rick's rhythmic flows]: "Duh-budda-duh-duh...duh-budda-duh-duh..." Nobody really caught it when Slick Rick was doing it on "Lick The Balls." [Drops some lines from Slick Rick's "The Moment I Feared"] "Don't worry 'bout a thing/Just make sure nobody sees us...we're rich/we're rich we can have whatever will please us." I was like, Whoa. I never heard anything like that other than reggae... So I'd write my raps like "duh-budda-duh-duh," and it turns into "BRRRAP!"
MO: Your flow then is, like, your version of Slick Rick?
T9: Yeah, man. Slick Rick sparked me to really want to bust--you know what I'm saying?--like that. I started hearing reggae artists like [imitates dancehall flows], "Come again/Come again now/what a bye-bye..." Me being in the Midwest: getting it from the East Coast, getting it from the West Coast, getting it from down South--I'm a product of musical overload...you know what I'm shizzlin'? My uncles were really into Lynyrd Skynyrd and Elton John back in the day. Metallica [even]. Everything came: gospel, rock, rap, R&B...and at my shows, it shows.
It's like a melting pot; my music is supposed to be for everybody, and that's why it's irking me a lot that I haven't got to the rest of the world yet. Because that's my goal...true indeed, if I am the complete technique of rhyme: that means I am supposed to belong to everybody. You know what I'm saying? People say, "Oh, these dirty-ass Juggalos [i.e., hardcore Insane Clown Posse fans] come to your shows. Why...?" Juggalos are part of the human body; they're part of everybody. So they've got to find something in me that they love also. So [do] the Technicians [i.e., hardcore Tech N9ne fans], so [do] the Kottonmouth Kings and Queens, so [do] the metalheads...even people who listen to Citizen Cope and Portishead. It's going to be like that...Avenged Sevenfold fans coming to my shows. So it's like...that's my journey, man.
MO: On the video T9X: The Tech N9NE Experience, hip-hop producer QDIII (music legend Quincy Jones's son) says that Qwest Records felt that the Be Warned album "sound[ed] too Kansas City." Now, of course, Qwest meant this as a put-down; however, anyone who's ever spent any time in K.C. knows it's a great city. As a lifelong Kansas Citian who frequently rhymes about the love you have for your hometown, what does "Kansas City" mean to you?
T9: Kansas City means to me: family, my comfort zone--you know what I'm shizzlin'?--where I can go visit my mom, where I can go to family reunions, where I can go eat on Easter or Christmas at my auntie's house. This is where I'm supposed to be. Kansas means…my son is there. My children were born there. Kansas City is what I know--Kansas City is what I know like the back of my hand. It's everything to me. Yes, I have a house in L.A., and I [had] been living there for almost five years. But I [was] never there. I moved back to Kansas City a year ago, but my wife and my two little girls still live out in California, 'cause they love it and my wife goes to school out there. But it's, like, Kansas City is where I'm supposed to be--it means to me: family and love--and that's where I'm going to be until I'm gone.
MO: Speaking of Kansas City, the city is perhaps best known for its barbecue. In your opinion, what is the best place to eat barbecue in Kansas City? Is it, in fact, Gates Bar-B-Q?
T9: [Laughs] I grew up with Gates. Gates is the most popular, and they have the best sauce, and they have the best ribs. But it's this one place called Fiorella's Jack Stack Barbecue that wins against Texas every year in the battle of barbecue. It's between Gates and Fiorella's Jack Stack. I go to both of 'em.
Gates is world-renowned--you know what I'm saying? Jack Stack is a bit more ritzy, but the food is wonderful, [and] the meat is wonderful. Even K.C. Masterpiece is wonderful. I don't do Arthur Bryant's. I know a lot of people know about Arthur Bryant's also. But they give you a lot of meat; I think that's why a lot of people go there because they're greedy or whatever. The Presidents [Bill Clinton in 1994, ex-presidential candidate Ted Kennedy in 1982] go to Gates. I'm thinking: it's because Gates is, pretty much, the best, but Fiorella's Jack Stack, man...they're, like, neck and neck.
When you come--you know what I'm saying?--you'll go to both of 'em, and you'll see which one you like most...[but] Fiorella's got these beef ribs, man, that can't be touched --these prime-rib ribs or something--brontosaurus-burger ribs--mutated ribs.
MO: If I'm not mistaken, you were raised by a Christian mother and a Muslim stepfather. And I know that you sometimes perform dressed in gospel-style choir robes and/or with a white cross painted on your forehead. Besides the obvious Christian imagery, what role does religion play in your music?
T9: Everything. I'm a walking Bible [points to the words "Liberate Me" tattooed on his arms--"Liberate" on the underside of his right forearm; "Me" on the underside of his left]. "Liberate Me," that's me talking to God. That's when I wanted to die back then. That's a weak statement, because I couldn't deal with life and nobody understood me. But it reminds me of how bad it was then and how good it's gotten since then... My angel wings [points to a tattoo of angel wings on the underside of his right wrist] right here. The day we almost died, March 23, '05 [points to the inscription 3-23-05 also tattooed on the underside of his right wrist] in the van wreck coming out of Billings, Montana...you know what I'm shizzlin'? I have "sacrifice" across my chest [pulls up his T-shirt to reveal the word "sacrifice" tattooed across his upper chest]--I just got that last year at Hart and Huntington [über-hip Vegas tattoo parlour].
I sacrifice everything for my music. I lost my wife to this music. I lose time from my kids for this music. Everybody I love feels like I stay away on purpose; they don't understand that my role is to be in ten places at one time. I sacrifice all my love for this music, and I expect to get it to the rest of the world, so I can show my loved ones that this is what I've been doing.
I've got the number nine on the back of me [pats the Roman numeral "IX" tattooed on the back of his neck]. I have "love" down here [indicates that the word "love" is tattooed across his crotch beneath his red basketball shorts], but only chicks can see it that get inside my pants. It's "love" backwards, though. It's e-v-o-l. It's evil--you know what I'm saying? I warn 'em; I try to let 'em know it feels like love, but it's evil.
You know...I'm just a walking Bible. I come out with the robe, and people think it's just theatrics or whatever. But I'm an angel-slash-demon, man. What makes me a demon is "lust"--I'm girl-crazy, and that's why I couldn't keep my wife. You know what I'm saying? The lust demon lives within me, but my heart loves big. I know a lot of demons come to my shows, as well as angels [do]...lot of demons...
MO: Which is a concept you employed on your 2001 album Anghellic, right? With the word "hell" built into "angelic"...
T9: Yeah, Ang-hell-ic, you know? Before there was an album, that was me explaining how I am--I'm an angel in hell--my own hell at that. [I mean] I know a lot of devil worshippers come to shows because they feel my darkness...my pain, but never have I ever worshipped Satan. I've always believed there is a God, and I hope for a Higher Power...
I came to Arizona a while back on Halloween, and, uh...the opening act was...I forgot...they had a song called "You Don't Wanna Mess Around With Evil"...I forgot, man, what the name of that group was, but they [were] a big, big group of Satan-worshippers, and they said, "We understand that you're not one of us, but we love your music." And what I do, man, is that I let the demons know [that] I represent "holy" when I first come out [on stage]. Like, if Christ is supposed to be the ultimate good--that's what I am mostly. Lust is my demon; that ain't a big demon...to me. That demon can't conquer what's in my heart--you know what I'm shizzlin'? That demon's in my dick--you know what I'm saying? [Laughs] In my brain--you know what I'm saying? So it's, like, my heart is huge. So when I come out with that robe, man--that's letting the demons know and the angels know--that we've got something in common...that I'm here for "love," for the love of music. This is the ultimate good, so this is what I'm gonna wear, and I'm gonna have two devil-bitches come take [the robe] off before I really start doin' it [performing]. So it has a significance. People think I'm just trying to freak people out. No--that's truly me; I'm ang-hell-ic: an angel in hell.
The religion came from my mom. My mom is Jesus Christ, man. I've never met anybody as pleasant as her, and she's been going through hell since she's been on this earth, man. Psychiatric wards. Epilepsy. Lupus. You know what I mean? And she's such a good woman, man. And it's, like, I would really--this is crazy to say--but I would love to see her in another place other than here, earth. I don't think that me or her really belong down here, but the fans make me feel like I belong down here with my music, and [putting] all my pain, and all my pleasures...onto my albums. My fans make me feel like "Liberate Me" [referring again to his forearm tattoos] was the wrong idea--you know what I'm saying?--take me away from here. Because if [God] did, there would be no Tech N9ne.
So it's all spirituality, man.
MO: I want to talk a little about the van crash. What was the date? You've got [the date] tattooed on your wrist, right?
T9: March 23, '05. Yeah, two days before my little girl's birthday.
MO: At the beginning of your 2006 album Everready: The Religion, you do a spoken-word track entitled "Enter Everready" about how you and your crew, while on tour, survived a horrific van crash that resulted from a patch of black ice on a bridge between Billings, MT and Spokane, WA. On that track, you say: "The ambulance--the people that came...said we were all blessed--you know what I'm saying--to still be alive after flipping five times, so ever since then we've been celebrating life...kickin' it hard. Everyday's a party, baby." Is that the Tech N9ne's mantra: everyday's a party? Is that the spirit of this music?
T9: Every interview I do, they ask me: "Is there anything [else] you want to say?" And I always say, "Tell everybody that's listening or reading...that I said, ‘Celebrate life.' Because you never know when the people who run this land that we call home are going to tear it up over money, or blow it up over money."
Tell the people that you love, you love 'em--even if it's family member who did you wrong in the past...you know what I'm saying? Celebrate life like it's your last, 'cause you never know when you're gonna go. Jim Morrison of The Doors said, "I know one thing, man. I'm gonna have my kicks before the whole shit-house goes up in flame." And I always felt that. I don't want to go right now because I have things I want to do for my children. We haven't all the amusement parks yet. I still want to go to Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio. You know what I mean? I perform there all the time, and I pass it, and I'm like, "Damn, I don't have time to go." You know, that's what me and my kids do--we thrill-ride. There are a lot of things I want to do with my children, like take 'em to islands and stuff. They've already been to Jamaica without me--I paid for it--but they go with my wife, while I'm on tour. So they've seen the islands, but I just want to be there with 'em. And that's the reason why I don't want to go now.
But if I happen to have an untimely demise, I can say that I had a fuckin' blast with my children, man...everytime I see 'em. And being out here with my fans, man. You know, recording songs with Tupac, Eminem, KRS-One, Kool G Rap, MC Ren...it just goes on...Yuk Mouth, E-40. You know what I mean? Finally, I wanted to be Ice Cube [as a young rapper]...last week, he gave me a verse for my new album, man. So he's going to be on my new album. My mentor, for real--he don't even know it. Ice Cube don't even know it. You know, 'cause I haven't even talked to him; he just loved the song so much that he did it. And it's me and Brother Jay from X-Clan--I was a big fan of X-Clan back in the day--and we're all on the same song.
I've done so much, man; I'm thirty-six years old. So if I happen to have an untimely demise--and I don't think I ever will. A fortune teller back in the day...told me in Dallas that I was going to die of old age, in bed, asleep. I pretty much believe that, even thought the gang shit follows me. My block is a Blood block, and I can't shake that as a...man. I've been blessed with people who come to the shows, and they don't want to shoot. They can wear blue or whatever and still love my music. But if I happen to have an untimely demise, like, I trip and fall and bust my head open, or I'm in a car wreck...because I know I won't die by the hands of another man, that'll never happen. But, lately, I've been like, "Damn, what if I say I'm never gonna die by the hands of another man, but what if [I die] by the hands of a woman?" Because I'm so into women, and hearts are always involved, and crimes of passion happen.
But my journey is incomplete [if I die an untimely death], because I want my story [to get out] to the whole world, while I'm here. Not when I'm gone--you know what I'm saying? You will never see a funeral with me. I will never let people come see me laying down, because I'm always standing up. So they're gonna burn me, man. I'm not gonna have no funeral service, or they have to do my hair up and paint me and stuff. But--and I'm staying on the subject--if I happen to go, I will say that I had my kicks before the whole shit-house went up in flame. So, yeah, we're gonna celebrate life like it's our last. Everyday...and we do that with these shows. It's like a big party for me; it's a sold-out party tonight. That's a blessing that I get to tell my stories, whether it be about a psycho-bitch, whether it be about this ring [motions to a ring on his hand], whether it be about how we party, or Caribou Lou. It's a party for Paul Wall and Ill Bill, too. I told them at the beginning of the tour, like, just think of it as...people are paying to come party with you. It's a job, but...we do music. We're blessed to "soothe the savage beast." And that's what God gave me, and I'm having my kicks, and the shit-house is going up in flame as we speak, because we've got soldiers over in Iraq still. So here we go, man. But we're gonna party in the midst of the pain like novocaine. You know what I'm saying? They used to shoot with novocaine, so you could suffer peacefully--you know what I'm shizzlin'? So it's that. They over there fighting for us, loving our music. The soldiers come over here; they come up and say, "I was over in Iraq, we was banging your music." I hear it everywhere I go. Let me go over there. My boys be like, "Hell, no--we ain't going over there." I'm like, "I'll go by myself." Celebrate life, man. I mean it.
MO: On the track "Caribou Lou," you rhyme about a pineapple-juice cocktail whose ingredients include Malibu Rum and Bacardi 151. How did "one-fifty-one rum" come to be the unofficial liquor of Tech N9ne?
T9: ...in Kansas City, Missouri...they have Hurricanes, and I think 151 is in that. And a Hurricane is a really nice drink. It's fruity--you know what I'm saying? And my people that I was with at the time brought E-40 in to do a concert, and they were drinking Slurricanes or Hurricanes or whatever they call 'em. And the next day, we were at our club, saying we need to come up with a drink of our own with 151...[because 151] that's a kick. So it's like we were messing around at the bar with my boy Diamond Shields...who put my first record out.
MO: So you guys literally invented the drink Caribou Lou?
T9: Yes--we did, man. We were at the bar and took some 151 and tried to lighten it up with some Malibu, then put pineapple juice in it. So I was like, "We need a name for it." And it was Malibu, so it was...like something you'd drink in the Carribean. And I was, like, "Hold up." I'm a big movie buff and cartoons--you know what I'm saying?--I do that. Me and my boy T Will and Diamond, we were just right there, and I was like: "Caribou Lou." I was like, "Woody Woodpecker, man--it had this pirate. He was really mean. He had a peg leg, and his name was Caribou Lou. And whenever anybody said his name [uttered in a high-pitched, cartoonish voice] ‘Caribou Lou!', everybody would run like [makes a speedy, sound-effect noise]: Pyoo-o-o-o-m! Just like Pepé Le Pew--you know what I'm saying? He was mean, but he was a cartoon. So it was a "soft" drink, but it was hard at the same time. T Will's the only one who knew what I was talking about...like [uttered again in a high-pitch voice] "Caribou Lou! Pyoo-o-o-o-m! That's a mean motherfucker..." It tastes so wonderful, but that 151 and that Malibu will hit you after two. And the next thing you know the chicks are out of their clothes and everybody's loud. I made some last night when I was in Farmington, New Mexico, and after a while, people just started talking louder. It's the Caribou Lou, man.
MO: A beverage to celebrate life.
T9: Yeah, man. All day: it's a party favor, dude. That's my contribution to the world.
...right before this tour in Kansas City, I was on my way to finish my new album, Killer. I actually did the last song the day before the tour. And I was sitting with Travis [O'Guin, CEO of Strange Music], and I was like, "Man, do you know my contribution to the world is a drink?" Everybody knows about Caribou Lou. It was in the Alpha Dog movie, so it's spread out even more--you know what I mean? I said, "Damn, my contribution...is a drink that has, like, two liquors in it, and people love it." But that ain't my only contribution. My contribution is actually my life...on these records, and it's pure, and it's not fabricated, and it's not nobody else's life; it's my life, as it progresses--as it gets better. But Caribou Lou is one of those things that I've contributed.
And much love to T Will for coming up with it, with me. And much love to Diamond Shields for having the tools at his bar to come up with it--you know what I'm saying?
MO: What bar was this at? Is it in Kansas City?
T9: Yeah, Diamond owned a bar called The Palace.
MO: Is it still there?
T9: No, no, no, no. No, no, no--one of them things: a girl got shot on Valentine's Day. Somebody was shooting at the club, and she was in the bathroom, and [the bullets] went through the wall and hit her. Her brains blown out. I'm glad I didn't see it; I was in the DJ booth. And the girl lost her life...so after that, the bar went downhill. It was on 25th and Prospect. It was in a bad spot, but we had it for a while. And that's where Caribou Lou was created.
MO: In the song "Slacker," you rhyme that you're "a product of Reaganomics." What does it mean to be a product of Reaganomics in the year 2008?
T9: What I meant is, like, when Reagonomics hit--if you recall--a lot of after-school activities were taken away...so that left a lot of young people on the street. You know what I'm shizzlin'? [Then in] '85, crack hit...so if we were on the streets, instead of in school, that's what we were doing. Also, I found that Reaganomics let a lot of people out of psychiatric wards at the time, which is why you [saw] all the homeless walking around the streets, talking to themselves and shit...
We're the product of drugs...[we're] slackers. That's what I think Reagonomics did, because whenever you take school activities away, street activities are going to take their place. So that's what happened...maybe me and Scooby and Short Nitty and T Will and Doc and all the Rogue Dog Villains would've been in school doing something, rather than being on the street and having those guys from L.A....move onto our block with the Blood gang shit. Maybe if we were in school afterwards, instead of on the block, it wouldn't have hit us.
MO: Your new album, Killer [which arrives in stores July 1, 2008], features you sprawled out à la Michael Jackson [think: Thriller album art] on the cover. Of course, instead of wearing a white suit like Michael, you're wearing a white straitjacket. In what ways is the new album a tribute to Thriller's influence?
T9: The reason I chose Thriller is because they've always called me the Michael Jackson of rap. Like I always do things on this level--I'm talking about stature, not his personal life. I don't go to court; I don't get in trouble (and knock on wood)...I just wanted to say that this music is going to be that stature. Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson--
MO: You've got a Quincy Jones connection, don't you?
T9: Yeah, totally. Quincy Jones actually signed me in '97. So that--even more--pushed me to do it.
MO: Did most of the tracks that were originally slated to appear on Be Warned [unreleased QDIII/Quincy Jones Tech N9ne album] end up on the outtakes/B-sides album Vintage Tech?
T9: Some of 'em did. It's like a lot of that stuff is just still sitting. But [some of it] leaked--a lot of people have "The Virus" and a lot of the cuts that were on Be Warned at the time. It leaked a long time ago, so Be Warned is no more.
Killer is all new stuff, man. Because I didn't want to give my fans stuff from Everready that I didn't use...every album changes for me. This is my life I'm writing, and it's supposed to sound different every time. You know what I'm saying? Anghellic doesn't sound like Absolute Power. Absolute Power doesn't sound like Vintage Tech. Vintage Tech doesn't sound like MLK [Misery Loves Kompany] and Everready. Everready doesn't sound nothing like Killer. Killer is bigger. And I didn't think it could get any bigger than [Everready]. And it did, man. I just wanted to use Michael Jackson's stature then...in the '80s. Killer is going to be the big thing in rap.
MO: Do you think this could be the album that finally propels you into the stratosphere?
T9: I think so; it's happening. All the sold-out shows...it's growing rapidly, man.
"Psychumentary" Photo Courtesy of Joshua Hoffine Marquee Theatre (Tempe, AZ)
Tech N9ne Photo Courtesy of Brian Finck