Tech N9ne has filled the grand, peeling Blue Note to near-capacity for the second time in as many nights. This crowd is a census taker's dream: white, black, young, old, rich, poor, male, female. The would-be thugs with drooping jeans, jerseys and cockeyed hats. The flannel country boys speculating about 'coon huntin' in thick Missouri drawls. Uncomfortable parents wearing Dockers and being towed behind their wide-eyed, FUBU-wearing progeny. The Abercrombie kids and the concert hoochies in tight "Tech N9ne" boob tops and Daisy Dukes.
The man sparks a fierce yet playful loyalty among his legions. A Tech show is an event, an exhilarating example of a hometown performer who is talented and unabashedly proud of his roots in a region infected with the Midwestern inferiority complex.
Tech has chosen not to advertise his upcoming move to California, which will grudgingly but effectively put that hometown pride in the rearview mirror. The fans packed into the Blue Note don't seem to know or care that a big office on the fifteenth floor of the Sunset Towers building in the heart of Hollywood awaits the object of their affection. Instead, they titter with the anticipation.
Just before midnight, a gunshot rings out. Then another. Then silence.
Rumbling bass rattles the darkness as Tech howls his mating call, "Tech Niiiiinnne!" The room explodes. The audience cheers and writhes and pumps its fists in the air before a single verse is uttered. Then a red blur of electricity and porcupine hair comes into focus. His eyes are wild. His tongue flicks like a snake. He snarls with glee. The word "Dark" is etched in white paint on his forehead.
"What's up, Columbia!"
Several half-naked women in cages engage in heavy petting behind Tech as he, Big Krizz Kaliko and Grant Rice launch into "Industry Is Punks," a song that makes up in ferocity what it lacks in grammar. It's a caustic ode to the music business, the anthem for Tech's fierce fuck-the-industry independence.
He rules the stage and reigns over the crowd, shouting "I love you!" whenever he isn't popping off rhymes at an auctioneer's clip. The atmosphere is atypically raucous for a hip-hop show, with Rice leaping off a stack of speakers into the audience and Tech doing a stage dive of his own. Despite the frequent phantom gunplay, the only ominous tone is set by the five large bodyguards positioned around the stage, scanning the crowd with leery eyes.
The congregation is sweaty and delirious by the time Tech launches into his testimonial "I'm a Playa." It's a madhouse. Heads are bobbing from in front of the stage to the last seat in the rafters. The entire roster of performers on Tech's label, Strange Music, crowds onto the stage for the finale, chanting the chorus while plastic bottles and water and who knows what else fly through the air. Tech shouts, "I love you! I'm out!" and disappears into the onstage delirium.
Things have never been better. But no matter what Tech N9ne says, time is getting short. The window of opportunity closes more each year. He's a star here, but he yearns to be a superstar everywhere. Tech has a gun.
Most readers will probably file that little detail under "No Shit." The man is named after an illegal semiautomatic weapon. But few would suspect the rapper with the red Medusa hair and a penchant for color coordination hates being strapped.
"It's horrible," he says. "I never wanted a big Clint Eastwood in my house to protect my babies. I've never had to carry a gun. I hope I never have to use it."
But packing heat is a peculiar caveat to hip-hop success. It's an altogether too-familiar formula. Learn to rhyme. Put in your time. Sign a contract. Make a record. Become popular. Buy a Glock. Have three tons of bodyguard escort you to the grocery store.
"You know you're doing something right when there's people who want to kill you because you're getting too big," Tech says. "And there are evil people out there who used to be my friends that want to kill me."
One of the city's most recognizable and loved musicians says he's been getting death threats and was recently assaulted in a movie theater. Tech and an entourage were watching a screening of Tupac: Resurrection when, he says, a former business partner punched him in the back of the head. (Tech's bodyguards quickly subdued his attacker.)
These are signs that both Tech's future and his past are catching up with him. Subtlety isn't one of his strong suits. If you cross him, you can expect a vitriolic reply on wax. He throws out diss tracks to antagonize the same people he suspects want him pushing up daisies. He's either brilliantly calling their bluffs or brazenly painting his own bull's-eye.
All of those close calls, sour deals, broken contracts and dissolved partnerships have left a minefield of mutual distrust behind him. There's no room anymore for taking one step back for every two steps forward. It's all-or-nothing time for a man adored by Kansas City hip-hop heads and metal kids alike thanks to his vigilant pride in the 816. Tech N9ne represents and represents well. But his thirst for success requires him to leave his city behind.
Since the release of Absolute Power last fall, things have ignited for Tech N9ne. Once content with regional stardom and guest appearances on compilations with the likes of Tupac, RZA and Eminem, Tech has spent much of the past year spreading his gospel from New York to New Zealand while performing alongside Jay-Z, Ludacris, Chingy and the Insane Clown Posse. He's on the Beef soundtrack. His single "Imma Tell" has broken into BET rotation. In January, Tech hits the road with crunk kingpins Lil' Jon and the Eastside Boyz.
"It's a beautiful thing to see things jelling so well right now," he says. "So many years in the game, and the rewards are finally coming."
It's amazing what the right haircut can do.
Tech N9ne has talent. He's a tireless promoter who spends half his life either on stage or in the studio. His dues are paid in full. But he's still a loquacious black dude with spiky red hair and a bright-red jumpsuit. If that's not enough to make the Wonderbreads who buy the majority of hip-hop albums do a double take, Tech is also a downed power line onstage, hissing and flailing and completely unpredictable with the pummeling sound of a hardcore rapper and the devilish showmanship of a rock frontman.
That recipe has earned Tech a rabid following of fans and haters. It's taken nearly twenty years for him to build up both constituencies (he wrote his first rhyme in 1985 at age fourteen) in an industry not known for its longevity.
"I'm feeling younger by the day," Tech says. "You keep it young, your song is sung. My time has come."
Indeed it has, and Friday night's Uptown Theater gig will be a farewell show.
"As much as I know we have to expand, I don't really want to go," Tech says. "But accessibility is the key word. You have to be where it's at, and everything's happening out there."
He laughs, then begins singing the theme song of The Jeffersons. "Movin' on up...."
The death threats have Tech excited but wary about his farewell show, which is being billed as "The Nightmare After Christmas."
"I hope it doesn't turn into a real nightmare," Tech says. "There are people who want to kill me over this music. But I think God is not going to let any demons take me away."
No, that's a job for Tech himself. The impending move to Los Angeles makes his outspoken critique of the music industry paradoxical, though he insists the expansion of his Strange Music label is a perfect Trojan horse.
"We have to be in the belly of the beast. Everything is happening out there," Tech says. "I'm going to inject my virus, my music, into the belly of the beast. The Tech N9ne cult has grown so big that the machine has had to take notice. We're expanding. The machine is coming to us, and that's the ultimate fuck you."
But even though Tech has proven his mettle on the mic, it remains to be seen whether the Strange Music roster will be a life preserver or a deadweight in the choppy seas of high-level hip-hop.
Tech has grandiose hopes of erecting a monolithic label with a stable of talent to rival hip-hop heavyweights like Rockafella or Murder Inc. But none of Tech's artists has proven capable of survival without him, and a couple are downright awful, cumbersome cargo that might have to be jettisoned lest they bring down their captain with his ship.
At best, Strange Family artists such as Kaliko, Rice, Kutt Calhoun and Skatterman & Snug are marginal talents right now. At worst, they're Vertigo. That seven-person collective (eight if you count their all-kinds-of-wrong backup dancer) is made up of big, beefy motherfuckers who could tear me apart like a Christmas ham so, um, I'm sure they have a great future ahead of them. But at the Blue Note, the Food-Tang Clan mostly resorted to appropriating verses from the likes of the Wu-Tang Clan -- when they weren't brutalizing the audience into submission with inane chants like "I! Like! Mu-sic!"
That's perhaps not the kind of baggage Tech needs as he leaves behind his enemies in pursuit of a new life and new opportunities. He will likely discover that California represents either the beginning or the end of his legacy. If it's going to happen, it has to happen soon. Tech N9ne only has so many lives.