Three days before his 42nd birthday, Tech N9ne sits at the head of an enormous, shiny conference table inside his Strange Music headquarters in Lee's Summit. He's dressed in dark denim, a black button-up, and the snake-and-bat pendant that seems never to leave his body. Without face paint, Tech seems oddly friendly — the brown eyes kind, the smile easy, the handshake warm. He doesn't come off like the man whom Forbes recently named rap's "secret mogul."
It's Tuesday, November 5, and Tech's latest release — the hotly anticipated rap-metal fusion EP Therapy: Sessions With Ross Robinson — is just out. That means he has already had a heavy press day. Now, just outside the meeting room, the three men making up his social-media team are hunched in front of computers, fighting for more Internet attention for the boss.
These days, they may not have to work so hard to get noticed. Across the street from Strange Music headquarters is Strangeland Studios, a four-month-old, $4 million addition to the Tech N9ne empire. After the rapper debuted Something Else earlier this summer, the album spent weeks running against Jay Z's Magna Carta Holy Grail for the top spot on hip-hop charts. Not bad for an artist whom many still consider outside the mainstream.
"I'm not mainstream. If I was, you would see me on television every day, and you would hear me on the radio more than you do," Tech says. "I don't see me on TV at all. You don't see my videos being played. Mainstream — that hasn't happened. But mainstream is going Tech. It will. Because real shit always shines."
On Therapy, Tech gets very real. While he has always been open about his interest in heavy metal — he liked the music as a kid — the rapper dives here into battleworthy, metal-crunching guitars. He yells, he screams, he sings, and he raps over savage beats. This is a Tech N9ne no one has seen before.
Therapy's seven tracks are broken up by three "therapy skits," outtakes from conversations that Tech recorded with Robinson. They provide intimate insight into the mind of an artist eager to explore his own process and push it further.
"It [the EP] has the potential to be something massive," Tech tells producer Ross Robinson (whose credits include SlipKnot and Korn) between songs. "Not just some fucking bullshit-ass EP that we just dropped right after Halloween. I think it's something that'll prompt me to do more of it."
The clips feel private rather than jokey, as though they weren't really intended for consumption.
"It was accidental," Tech says of the skits. "We got to the end of recording, and I was like, 'Oh, man, I wish we had got some of that talking that we were doing in the middle of the recording.' But my VP, Dave Weiner, had been recording video, so we pulled it from that, and I was so glad because that's what I wanted it to be."
And there's other therapy for him on Therapy. On "Public School," he angrily calls out his high school teachers for not delivering the education he wanted.
"I've learned, throughout my life, that with more information, you can talk to more people," he says. "The more information you have, the more opportunity. I have a lot of information up here." He gestures toward his head. "I'm a very smart person, but I could have had so much more if my teachers were there for me, to really give me the classes that I wanted. I think about how much more I could have learned if I wasn't bored with the classes that I had. I'd be so much farther."
Perhaps that's part of why Tech keeps himself approachable to fans. "There's a reason why they feel like they know me — because they do," he says. "The fucked-up thing about Tech N9ne is that I write my life. Everything you hear me write, I've lived it. When fans meet me, I'm that guy that they listen to. What if this was an act? This would be exhausting to me."
So if his music sounds tough — the songs on Therapy could cut through a barbed-wire fence and keep on going — the pain in the songs is something you recognize. At the beginning of "Shame on Me," he recounts overhearing his girlfriend on the phone discussing the unknown paternity of her unborn child.
"That's the story of the first time I got my heart broken to the point where I couldn't walk," Tech says. "I maybe shouldn't have told that story because I had to call that person and be like, 'Hey, I've got this thing coming out, and I kind of told this story, and I hope you're OK with that.'I have to do that because I talk about my life, and people are involved. My music is so serious."
Though he paints his face before every show as though going to war, Tech says he doesn't have an act. Tech thinks of himself as transparent. For him, there is no schism between Tech N9ne the artist and Tech N9ne the brand.
"It might seem that there's a character along with it," he says. "There's an image that doesn't look common in hip-hop, and it might look scary, but I don't give a fuck. I never separated it, and I don't want to.... Quincy Jones told me, when I was signed to him in '97 [on Qwest Records], 'Tech, write what you know, and people will forever feel you.' I found out what I know is myself, so I started writing my life."
Tech's life now is very different from that of his youth spent in Kansas City's rough Wayne Miner projects. Despite all that he has accomplished, he says he's not anywhere near where he wants to be.
"Don't get it wrong — we're far," Tech says. "Me and Travis [O'Guin, Strange Music co-founder] are boastful brainiacs. It's wonderful, where we are, but we're not complacent. We have the goal to shoot beyond the stars, and we're going in that direction still."
Even as he and O'Guin have their eyes on bigger prizes, Tech is grateful for the "normal dude" he says lives inside him, the voice that keeps him grounded while he shops at Wal-Mart — and occasionally gets recognized.
"I guess I'm supposed to be more mindful of being out by myself,"he says. "I just feel like this is me until I die. With a trillion dollars, this'll still be me. The only thing about me that'll change is the amount of people I take care of. I feel like I'm here to help."
This is how Therapy comes full circle for Tech N9ne. It takes him right back to his frustrated youth — even then, he wanted more out of life — and ends on a high note, full of hope, looking on to the next thing.
"I soothe the savage beast," he says. "I do music. That, people say, is therapy for them, but what's therapy for me is to see me helping them through song. That's amazing.
"I got both my wishes: I wanted to be a psychiatrist before I was a rapper, but I never pursued it after my 12th-grade year. Now I end up my fans' therapist and a rapper. That's beautiful."