Walking into the GRAMMYs felt like a seat suddenly opened up for me at the cool kid's table, which was odd because I got there by not caring about the cool kid's table, and I wasn't alone. It was great to see Rapsody, who I'd known for years, walk the red carpet on her own terms, and when I learned Tech N9ne would be attending this year's festivities I couldn't pass up the chance to connect with another outsider on the inside.
I spotted Tech in a lobby swarming with black suits and music industry folks, women already teetering in stilettos in the early afternoon. Was that Irv Gotti? I'm pretty sure that was Irv Gotti. Tech was similarly black-tied but with a twist, beard pouring out from under a fedora and a glass of something fortifying in his hand. I had to delay my approach so a woman could grab a picture with him. For as much fame and money was in the area at the time, Tech was the only person I saw taking pictures with fans, which says something about both his often underestimated own level of fame and his approachability. When we did get to talking the first natural topic of conversation was his own possible GRAMMY future, although it was clear that while he was there to soak in the ambiance (and liquor), he didn't care in the slightest about award validation.
"I might win something next year...or...I don't think it will ever come, I don't know. I just want my music to reach everybody, not just the awards people," he explained. We don't think of that, we just do it - as long as I love it. My music's three dimensional because I am. There is rock, there is gangster shit, there's everything."
It raises a good point, considering Tech's complete disregard for labels, what categories would he be nominated for? "Fragile," his biggest hit to date in terms of mainstream exposure, features he and Kendrick rapping alongside a distinctly rock instrumental and hook. His last album, Special Effects, features both E-40 and Slipknot's Corey Taylor, so that project would have been nominated for what? Best Rap Album? Best Rock Album? The GRAMMYs seem particularly ill equipped to handle an artist like Tech, it's a problem he's been dealing with for literally decades, the entire reason he created Strange Music.
"That's why I could never fit in when I was with the major labels," he explained. "Is it rock? Is it rap? How do you label that shit? It's just fucking music man. I just make music with beautiful people, I don't care who they are. I'm not done yet either."
You might expect the often frustratingly traditional GRAMMYs to be unable to handle Tech's forever morphing music, but interestingly as we continued to talk it became clear that that he faced a lot of similar pressure from his fans who expected him to make exactly the kind of music they wanted him to make.
"When you go on any forum where Tech N9ne is being talked about there's a lot of hate. 'I don't like that bullshit, that ain't the real Tech N9ne.' Whatever the real Tech is you don't know the real Tech, I'm three dimensional," he said. "If you came in on KOD than you think everything's supposed to be dark. That's your fault, not my fault. Go back to Tech in '96 and listen all the way through if you want to be able to claim to know the real Tech."
It was clear that I had touched a nerve, and even in that atmosphere, with some of the world's brightest lights just feet away, the passion Tech has for music was on full display. He wasn't angry, not ranting, not even close, but it was clear that these issues around "realness" in hip-hop had been swirling around his prolific mind for years.
"It's not up to me to say what's real hip-hop, what the fuck is real hip-hop? We all love Lauryn Hill, Tribe Called Quest, but you can't tell me NWA ain't real hip-hop. Are you crazy? They're a part of it. We're all masters of ceremonies, can you move the crowd like Rakim said? I can - everybody can't move the crowd like I can. But if you go to a Drake concert he moves that crowd. So he's not an emcee?
Good music is always going to shine through, no matter if it's brain dead or conscious. I find some good stuff in Young Thug. Not everybody can be a master rapper like me or Eminem or Royce da 5 9 or Slaughterhouse or Chino XL or Logic - it goes on forever. The problem with people in music is they're trying to point the finger at people who arent doing what they're doing."
And really that gets at the core of Tech N9ne and Strange's mission statement. He and his co-founder Travis O'Guin founded the label because they couldn't find a home in the established music industry, but as they attracted those similarly disaffected by the mainstream, those people in turn moved to fortify their own barriers. It's the story of almost every subculture that becomes a more powerful cultural force, including hip-hop, but Tech's determined to not fall into that trap.
"That's the problem with barriers, they're always trying to separate us, and we can't do shit when we're separated," he said. "We're trying to unite people, fuck the barriers. When they see me with Korn they're gonna shit. When they see me with Diplo, they're gonna shit. When they see me with J. Cole they're gonna shit. Just like they shit when they saw me with Eminem. This is real because I'm really about making beautiful music."
On that note I asked Tech what collaborations he had coming up, but while he swore me to secrecy (ha ha), he did acknowledge that he no longer considers any artists outside the realm of possibility. If the song sounds right he's going to hit up Kanye, artists from other genres like Lana Del Ray, he mentioned his respect for Tyler, The Creator and Earl Sweatshirt, any and every option was on the table. After all, would landing a verse from Jay Z really be that much stranger than rapping alongside Eminem? Here he was, an artist from the often overlooked Kansas City, about to enter the GRAMMYs, so was anything truly impossible, including eventually winning a GRAMMY himself?
Tech N9ne doesn't need mainstream validation, he never has, but he's growing so inescapable it may come anyway, and if it does come, hopefully I'll be there to watch him break down some more barriers.