Tech N9ne makes a major move that should push him past city limits.

Power Play 

Tech N9ne makes a major move that should push him past city limits.

Tech N9ne has nowhere to hide. He crouches behind a speaker stack, catching his breath after a six-song set in 90-degree heat at St. Louis' UMB Bank Pavilion. This maneuver shields him from the fans still buzzing in front of the stage, but it leaves him in full view of followers who line the diagonal barriers that extend from the stage's corners to the back fence.

"Yo Tech, we down from KC," shouts a trio of white twentysomethings. "Prospect, Independence Avenue, represent!" Tech, still squatting, smiles and flashes the Dio-patented metal horns. Then his manager, Travis O'Guin, appears with a box full of snippet samplers of Tech's new disc, Absolute Power. (He'll hand out 130,000 before the tour ends.) While hip-hop enthusiasts swarm like fish chasing tourist-tossed pellets, Tech gets a moment of respite.

The diminutive rapper moves to his next stop, camouflaged by his burly associates. He takes a seat in Motorola's Hellomoto booth, which Tech's crew has commandeered as its home base. Hip-hop heads who came for Sprite Liquid Mix Tour-headliner Jay-Z join tanned, tattooed skaters who pledge allegiance to second-billed 311 in the slow-moving line. A significant percentage of these patient fans wouldn't wait a hot minute to get almost any other rapper's attention, but Tech, with his drum-roll cadence and guitar-solo virtuosity, is the exception.

"I mostly like hardcore and heavy rock," admits autograph seeker Seth Rollins, who traveled from Columbia to see Tech live for the first time. "But Tech N9ne's harder and faster than anything else in hip-hop."

The differences between Tech and his peers stack up as the day's entertainment continues. On stage, he possesses an electricity that none of the other hip-hop acts equal. During "Stamina," a showstopper in which he matches a machine gun rat-a-tat for rat-a-tat, a spellbound fan points in amazement, then starts shaking his girlfriend to make sure she's paying attention. He plays complete songs, eschewing hip-hop's tradition of unsatisfying medleys. He's constantly on, never stopping to toss out tired roof-raising chants.

By contrast, Nappy Roots' set, a lazy mix of hand-waving and dirty-drawled choruses, does nothing to engage the crowd. Despite the presence of a live band, N.E.R.D.'s show borders on bland. Jay-Z's presence is regal, and his verbal skills are unassailable, but he's never packaged himself as a complete entertainer who can dance and switch up his delivery.

More than any other current hip-hop performer, Tech can convert concertgoers on the spot with his infectious energy and far-out flows. Finally, after a star-crossed career full of shady industry dealings and poisoned partnerships, he's getting the chance. But Tech's biggest selling points -- his high-visibility, accessibility and unique appeal -- can also be a curse. Back in Kansas City, it's hard to imagine Tech N9ne isn't already a star. Last year's AngHellic, a mind-blowing collection of futuristic rap tunes dealing with death, debauchery and deliverance, broke the area's Soundscan record, outpacing every other disc ever released here, with sales exceeding 20,000 copies during the first week. AngHellic's publicity campaign, which featured a prominent billboard, pervasive poster tagging and omnipresent box trucks airbrushed with the album art, was unprecedented in the region. Wherever he goes, Tech gets mobbed, deep. Not that such attention has made him reclusive: At clubs, Tech appears more often than cover charges. He's so ubiquitous that some of his friends are amazed people still pay to see him in concert.

Tech learned the value of gettin' around from the late Tupac Shakur. In 1993, while in Los Angeles working on the soundtrack to the 2Pac film Gang Related, Tech noticed that Shakur appeared at every party. "You'd see him different places the same night," he recalls. "Whenever something hot was goin' off, he'd be there."

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