Tech N9ne just woke up. Tech N9ne is extraordinarily excited for a man who just woke up. He's on a tour bus, headed to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to play another sold-out show. I picture a scene out of Almost Famous, a bus lumbering past cornfields stretching into the horizon, musicians strewn about the bus in various states of recline, the occasional sing-along breaking out.
I'm sure it's an absurdly naive and idealized vision of life on the road, but crossing the country on a bus to play shows in front of intensely loyal fans while the biggest album of his career sits on store shelves and journalists wake him from well-deserved naps is the complicated, surreal but completely tangible reality of Tech N9ne's life now. And speaking to him, even with sleep not far in the rearview, even with the personal hardships he's endured and are so apparent on Special Effects, it's slap-you-in-the-face apparent just how much he loves his life right now.
"It's been so hard for us to get to this point," Tech said. "Our mind set is not, we made it. It's, we gotta show out to let people know why we have these spots. Do you remember how the doors were closed to us all these years? How hard we had to work? We're walking on sunshine, but now that we have people's attention, we have to show why we deserve that attention."
Even in a genre like hip-hop built on the story of the underdog, it's hard to overstate how vastly, enormously, cosmically unlikely Tech N9ne's success has been. Very few people thought a metal-loving, profoundly intense, completely independent rapper from Kansas City would one day be doing tracks with hip-hop's biggest names, topping charts and selling out world tour after world tour, but that's exactly where he now sits. "I'm a weirdo," Tech said. "I've always been different. I'm a black dude who paints his face, has red spiked hair, comes out in bishop's robes, not the norm. It took a minute for the hip-hop community to take to me. Major mainstream artists like Jay Z, Ludacris, I wondered why was no one was paying attention. Why they wouldn't call me back when I reached out. Now, I've worked up to the status where I don't have to worry about why they're not calling me."
Tech is aware that a statement like that could come across as cocky, especially written on the page, removed from the inherent humbleness of his voice, but it really is fact. Special Effects currently sits on the iTunes front page next to new music from Mumford & Sons and the latest edition of Now That's What I Call Music (Vol. 54 if you've been keeping score at home). He's slated to rock the vaunted Summer Jam stage in just weeks, his name now appears on the Forbes list in the same pages as Diddy and Dr. Dre. By any measure of hip-hop success he's made it, but crucially, he's made it by setting any typical blueprint for hip-hop success ablaze.
In fact, he's often found a more comfortable home with metal and rock artists than hip-hop. While the hard rock crowd can often view him as an outsider too, when he plays festivals like Rock on the Range he reads comments from angry rock fans concerned he's going to bring "gang bangers" to the show, but on the whole, rock artists like the Deftones, like his friend Corey Taylor of the band Slipknot, have been more open to working with him than many of his rap peers.
As Tech said, "It was harder to get Eminem [on the album]. Harder to get any hip-hop artist. It was almost, at the end of the album I was getting frustrated with the hip-hop side. The metal side has always been there for me. My label was started because I was a rock fan, Strange Music, people are strange, strange days. By the grace of God though, through all my work over the years, it's starting to come around, but hip-hop artists have always been the hardest to get."
And so Special Effects is embedded with songs like "Wither," a song that defies any easy categorization so thoroughly it feels like an alien life form, something not of this planet but for the same reason fascinating, impossible to look away from.
In a way though, for as many barriers as a song like "Wither" breaks, for as many barriers as Tech has consistently broken throughout his career, so many more still remain. At the same time some of mainstream hip-hop is looking at him warily, many of his more rock-oriented and underground hip-hop focused fans are appaled when a song like "Hood Go Crazy," featuring 2 Chainz and Yo Gotti, appears on the album just two tracks after "Wither." Perhaphs fittingly, pushing past the closed opinions of people who hate mainstream rappers takes the same attitude as pushing past all the mainstream rappers who attempt to box him out.
"I don't care if you don't listen to party music, when you hear 'Hood Go Crazy' you party," Tech said, his voice rising with passion. "I'm not trying to be master rapper on a party track. Please. The beat said 2 Chainz's name, 2 Chainz is gonna make the hood go crazy, and we were right. I'm doin' what the fuck I want to do. Some dudes just don't want you to make music with mainstream cats when you've been the underground king. But my music just can't be contained, you can't put me in a box. I'm gonna bust out, no ceilings, none. I'm going up. I'm doing music with people I love. That's it."
Over and over again in our conversation, as he explains how Special Effects slowly morphed from an album about displaying technical prowess into a much darker project following the death of his mother from Lupus, as he recounts the journey of knowing Krizz Kaliko only as the kid from his city that looked different, before realizing what an incredible music talent Krizz was, as he says he's still waiting until the time is right to get Jay Z on a track, that's what it keeps coming back to - love. All of this has only been possible because of love. All of the success is because Tech loves making music with the kind of intensity many of us will never love anything, because he loves the people he's made part of his extended Strange family, because he loves his fans, loves bringing people together under the protective embrace of his music.
"Man created barriers, seperation. Music brings people together," he insists. "My concerts, there are gang bangers, college kids. Different people from different walks of life, music brings us together. Why not embrace that? People do not want those barriers broken. I'm going to break them anyway."
So yes, there are a lot of lessons to be drawn from Tech N9ne's continued, deeply unlikely rise to the top of the music industry. Lessons about the power of staying true to yourself, despite the choruses of people and culture pressing you to conform. Lessons about the power of honesty, about how pain can be translated into beauty through music. Lessons about the value of independence, the strength of building your own dream instead of working to build someone else's. All of those lessons are important but they're all ultimately secondary, truths that come after you've realized the one essential truth.
"I love music, that's it," says Tech. And with that we say our goodbyes and he goes back to sleep, bus rumbling onto the next city, the next stage, the next barrier to break.
[Nathan S. is the managing editor of The DJBooth and a hip-hop writer. He also occasionally talks on podcasts/radio/TV. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter.]